Response 2 – Gorgias Revisited

by Kristi McDuffie

In a public media environment where the term “rhetoric” continues to insinuate flowery, misleading strategies put forth by politicians, rather than indicate the way that we make meaning and build knowledge put forth by rhetoric scholars, revisiting Plato’s Gorgias seems quite timely. In Gorgias, the philosopher Socrates argues with the rhetor Gorgias and other companions that “rhetoric” is unworthy because it can be used for ill purposes; Socrates, on the other hand, favors philosophy because it is concerned with truth and morality.

In Gorgias Revisited in this issue of JUMP, Will Ferell and John Reilly play Socrates and Gorgias, respectively, to show how the philosopher and the rhetor might have felt during their debate about the merits of rhetoric. In this way, Gorgias Revisited functions as an entertaining companion piece to Gorgias. The author of this piece remixes movie clips of the two actors to animate various moments in the text, from posturing to frustration. To viewers unacquainted with Gorgias, this piece would be difficult to understand as commentary, rather than a celebration of the actors. The clips include broad statements, vague accusations, and ambiguous defenses. But when viewed as an illustration of a debate over rhetoric, the clips take on more meaning. The strong (if farcical) emotions demonstrated in the clips bring Gorgias to life and into the twenty-first century.

In a form potentially unfamiliar to contemporary readers, Gorgias debates rhetoric as unethical flattery while simultaneously demonstrating the affordances of rhetoric; that is, the character Socrates exhibits his own rhetorical skill while critiquing rhetoric. Although the fact that the debate is about rhetoric is not overt, Gorgias Revisited shows the rhetorical skill of the debaters; Socrates (via Ferrell) is bombastic in his claims and bullying in his attacks; Gorgias (via Reilly) is inarticulate in his claims and bumbling in his defenses. To that end, the strongest moments in the piece are when Reilly becomes flustered and Ferrell continues his attacks. In contrast to Plato’s Gorgias, which shows Socrates as the more cunning, capable rhetor who is “right” in his search for truth, Gorgias Revisited presents both rhetors as outrageous and hyperbolic (as is the nature of the comedy movies that the piece draws on). In this way, the remix seems to challenge Plato’s original message. Given the way that postmodern rhetoricians challenge conventional understandings of singular truths, this challenge is, in my opinion, right on target.

Moving forward, I am hoping to see pieces that offer complicated definitions of rhetoric, in addition to remixing stated debates. Gorgias Revisited is entertaining, gets the juices flowing, and demonstrates the absurdity of jargon for jargon’s sake. Now, I am looking for presentations with multiple truths, in a way that may or may not use “scholars, respectable scholars, who have made the argument based on ethnographic research.” Well said, Gorgias.