"Voice" and "Address" in Literary Theory
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One of Walter Ong's major interests has been the history of the rhetorical tradition in the West and its impact on literary forms. In recent years that interest has faced a powerful challenge from the theoretical advances of deconstruction. On the face of it, no approach to rhetoric or literature could be more different from Walter Ong's than that of deconstruction. In juxtaposing these contrary approaches, I wish to look at both from within, to examine their concerns, to understand their usefulness. Jacques Derrida describes the deconstructive approach as one that is free from method: "The first gesture of this departure and this deconstruction, although subject to a certain historical necessity, cannot be given methodological or logical intraorbitary assurances" (Derrida 1976:162). Deconstruction nonetheless partakes of method and systematic discovery. In the words of one of its foremost literary theorists, Paul de Man, it teaches that "truth is the recognition of the systematic character of a certain kind of error" (1979:17). Walter Ong's own studies have focused on methods and systems of thought, and many have explored the particular rhetorical system of Petrus Ramus and his followers. In this essay I will argue that the rhetorical assumptions of deconstruction share one of the central weaknesses of Ramus' system. The weakness is to reduce the rhetorical presence of voice and address to an emotional affect, to subordinate it to the suppositious materiality of a figure or trope.
Oral Tradition, 2/1 (1987): 214-30.
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