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Response to H.23 Remixing Delivery: Circulating Rhetorics and Rhetorical Circulations

by ridolfo on March 19, 2010, no comments

I’d like to thank the panelists (Kristen Seas, Laurie Gries, Scott Gage) for allowing me to respond to their engaging and exciting presentations on rhetorical circulation. I’d like to indirectly respond to the issues raised with two brief historical examples. I argue that each raises significant issues for present-day delivery studies, specifically issues of methodology and temporality.

Example #1: Samaritan Epistles

In 1583 Joseph Scaliger published De Emendatione Temporium and “rediscovered” for Europe the Samaritans of Shechem (present day Nabulus), Ottoman Palestine and their unique Samaritan Pentateuch (Montgomery, 3). Scaliger’s publication then set in motion a 250-year exchange of epistles between individual scholars in Europe and the Samaritan communities in Cairo and Shechem. The publication of Scalinger’s work influenced European scholars to continue the work on the Samaritans, and additional epistles were sent to Palestine. Almost a century later in 1671, British scholar Robert Huntington visited Palestine and tricked the Samaritans into believing that he represented their “long lost brethren” from Europe. This deceit then set in motion another wave of epistles, this time addressed to their brothers in England (5). When the epistles arrived in England, they were not immediately delivered to Huntington:

      The first epistle came into the hands of Thomas Marshall of Oxford… who in 1675 addressed a Hebrew epistle to the Samaritans, which informed them that the writers were of the race of Kapheth; its substance was a pious attempt to proselytize the sect for the Christian Messiah. Huntington forwarded this letter, accompanied by one from himself. (6)

Samaritan letter of response
Translated from the Samaritan by Jim Ridolfo 3.15.2010

        In the name of Y-H-V-H, our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, we begin (this letter) with the reminder of his name in our hands. May peace be upon you, my dear brother, with love close to my heart: May G-d protect you and may you have many more days! I give you notice that your letter reached us, and that there has been from us much joy, and what you said was already in our hearts. In this letter, you proposed to us questions in Arabic about the Hebrew language. This language, the Hebrew language, is known to my brothers and we believe in the Law of Moses and what it prescribes. You say, my brother, that he is among you anyone of us brothers who keep the Law of Moses, our prophet is the one thing that we do not believe, consequently we have sent to you a Torah (to your country). You are to us our brothers. ….

Huntington’s deceit in pretending to be one of their long lost Brethren is propagated long after his death. After the exchanges of 1675, the exchange of epistles continues with other scholars from Paris and England well into the 19th century. Because of Huntingtons deceit, these 19th century epistles continued to reflect the belief that the Samaritans had long lost brothers in Paris and England. Consequently, the 150 years after Huntington’s lie the Samaritans continued to address their epistles to the Samaritans of Paris, England, etc.

Example #2: The Nofet Zufim, 1475 CE

A little known fact in the history of rhetoric is that in 1475 Mantua, Italy the first Hebrew book of rhetoric, the Nofet Zufim or the Book of Honeycomb’s Flow, is also one of the first three books ever published on the Hebrew printing press. Of the two other books, the Nofet Zufim is the only book published during the lifetime of its author, Italian Rabbi and Philosopher Judah Messer Leon. According to Rhetoric and Jewish Studies scholars Arthur Lesley, Robert Bonfil, and Isaac Rabinowitz, Messer Leon is the first scholar to engage the work of Averros, Cicero, and Quintilian in a Hebraic context. While Avraham Conat published Messer Leon’s rhetoric, Messer Leon was embroiled in political controversy within the Jewish community of Mantua. In the same year his book of rhetoric was published, he was expelled from Mantua, Italy and died a few years later. In addition, Messer Leon has the dubious distinction of issuing the first rabbinic decree banning the publication of a text on the Hebrew printing press, Gersonides’ Commentary on the Pentateuch (Bonfil, VII).

Consequently, there has been 35-year-old debate in Jewish Studies and Rhetoric as to whether or not Messer Leon had a direct hand in the publication of his manuscript, and if so, did Messer Leon see the publication of his book as a strategic political advantage. This debate has significant importance for rhetorical delivery, perhaps all the more so because Messer Leon’s book of rhetoric references only an oral understanding of delivery. In other words, Messer Leon’s own practice allude to an understanding of delivery that sharply diverges from Greek and Roman rhetoric.

Jewish Studies scholar Robert Bonfil posits that Messer Leon’s censorship decree shows that he is, “conscious of the possibilities that printing offered of spreading new ideas and influencing people” (“Nofet Zufim,” VII). Isaaz Rabinowitz disagrees, arguing that Messer Leon had no role in the production because Avraham Conat, the owner of the press, published an inferior, error-laden version of the Nofet Zufim:

        Comparison… shows clearly that Conat, in the course of printing the volume, made many errors both of omission and of commission, errors that JML would never have overlooked or allowed to stand had he anything to do with seeing the work through the press. (Rabinowitz, xxx-xxxi)

However, Jewish Studies scholar Hava Tirosh-Samuelson argues that Rabinowitzs’ analysis does not fully consider Messer Leon’s political activities in relationship to the publication of the manuscript:

        No mention is made, for example, of the tension within the Italian Jewish community, of Messer Leon’s leaning towards the Ashkenazic legal system, especially rabbinic ordination, or of the impact of the newly-invented printing press on Jewish learning, all of which are relevant to his decision to publish Nophet Suphim. (“The book of the Honeycomb’s,” 237-238).

In the end, Jewish Studies and Rhetorical Studies scholar Arthur Lesley may have the most definitive conclusion to date on the subject, when he says that, “There is, of course, need for additional evidence on the subject,” and that, consequently, ”the scarcity of the documents indicates caution” (“Sefer,” 314) (“Review,” 106).

So what exactly do these two 500 hundred plus year old examples have to do with a panel focused on the circulation of (mostly) digital texts? I’d argue that the problem of nonlinearity and delivery is not new, but as I hope these examples show, extremely old. Furthermore, what these two stories overwhelmingly lack, and what we need most today, are stories of practitioner knowledge. We don’t really know what Messer Leon thought about the publication of his manuscript on the printing press (or, at the time, a thousand magical pens), what Messer Leon learned from this activity, or the rhetorical outcome of the Nofet Zufim.

For the Samaritan epistles, we can theorize how the temporality, geographic distance, and non-linear delivery of the epistles had an impact on the rhetorical situations. However we don’t know much about the exact moment Huntington chose to deceive the Samaritians. We also don’t know much about the specific moments of delivery. What was it like for a messenger to walk the streets of 19th century Paris with a message for the Samaritans of France? How did scholars take delivery of these manuscripts? How did they rhetorically understand this process of delayed, non-linear communication? Conversely, we know very little about how the Samaritans collectively authored their responses to European scholars, or how they understood this long distance, long term exchange of texts.

I would argue that these two examples can help us to explain just how extremely difficult it can be to locate and articulate practitioner knowledge in present-day instances of circulation. The knowledge these rhetoricians had about these rhetorical moments, activities, and processes is largely lost or, at the very least, extremely difficult for archival scholars to utilize; they also remind us that the knowledge of circulation isn’t simply in the movement, transmission, or reformation of the text, but in the unique relationship the rhetoricians have with their delivered text, the ability to watch how their rhetorical dominoes cascade, learn from watching how these processes of delivery unfold, and then use the results of this practitioner knowledge in future cycles of delivery.