A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Listening for Phoné, a Film

Sean M. Conrey, Syracuse University

(June 1, 2016)

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This film explores how a recovery of the Greek concept of phoné (“voice”) can play a significant role in developing a more ecological, environment-centered rhetoric. The ancient Greeks generally, but Aristotle in particular, made a distinction between phoné (“voice”) and échos (“sound”); phoné comes only from that which has a soul and breathes air as well as that which is accompanied by an act of imagination and is thus meaningful; everything else makes sound (échos). In this distinction, inanimate things, plants and even many animals are understood as voiceless, a radical departure from nonliterate cultures that are more likely to ascribe voice to most, if not all, things, beings and places. Drawing from Walter Ong’s argument in The Presence of the Word, the film claims that the movement away from a voiced, living universe to a human voice-centered universe correlates to the advent of, and subsequent long-term exposure to, literacy. Thus the connotative gap between phoné and échos provides a site to explore ways that we can remediate phoné as a literate concept. Building out of recent scholarship on choric invention (Arroyo, Rickert, Hawk, Santos, et al), the film makes three assumptions: 1) that rhetoric is prior, or is at least woven into something prior, to any symbol system it participates in, 2) rhetoric is the bond between things, people and places as they respond to each other, and 3) rhetoric has a voice within the environment, even when we are not speaking of it. The central claim is made that “phoné is what invites us to participate in this rhetorical priority.” With this claim, the theories of Diane Davis, George Kennedy, and Thomas Rickert are read as three different ways that this priority can be remediated to include phoné as a way of “hearing” what we already respond to (Davis), are energetically involved with (Kennedy), and suppose as the ambience of a given rhetorical situation (Rickert). In line with choric metaphors that imply that the compositional process involves nascent labor (which may provide a new way of thinking about rhetorical delivery as well as invention), the act of caring for how phoné participates in this priority is framed as a kind of rhetorical parturition, with phoné itself serving as a theoretical umbilicus responsively and responsibly connecting us with that of which, and those of whom, we speak and write.