Booth: the Company We Keep

What is the point of writing? Moreover, what is the point of writing about what others have written? Even more over, what is the point of reading these metatexts?

There are a number of answers to these questions, and most of them begin with the words “it depends”. It depends on the text, why it is read/written, and what result is expected to be gained from going through the motions. There is no one mode of writing, or reading, or metareading; there are as many as there are writers and readers, and it all depends.

This makes for awkward discussions with regard to why writing or reading happens – for any one answer that comes along, there are any number of other possible answers that are equally legitimate for other circumstances, different or similar. Trying to agree on one singular answer or – more dramatically – settle the issue once and for all would most likely only end in dissent or conflict. As one answer comes along, another equally good answer accompanies it, and choosing one over the other becomes a matter of circumstance.

It becomes very much akin to choosing which book to read during a non-hurried moment: a question of taste and what readings happen to be at hand. Or, phrased another way: which company we keep.

Booth uses the metaphor of company throughout the Company We Keep. Books are friends, which we keep around because they make for good company whenever we want or need them. In the act of reading, we are in the company of the text and the motions it performs during its course. In the act of writing, we provide company for someone else as they (eventually, maybe) read our words and take in what we have to say. The point of writing thus, at some level, becomes to provide good company, and the point of writing about what others have written is to become a part of this company of friends. And, perhaps, to shed light on what it is these texts do that make them such good company.

Being in someone’s company is to be in relation to them. Your presence affects the other, and their presence affect you. What you say and how you act has consequences, and the same goes the other way around. There is an ethical dimension to being in someone’s company, and Booth reiterates this ethical dimension again and again. Reading certain books will affect you in some way, and writing certain books will affect your readers in some similar way. You are in the company, and you are the company; thus is the dual nature of reading and writing.

Booth stresses that this ethical dimension has significance for the act and art of criticism. Indeed, the quality of company a particular piece of writing brings is one of the main aspects to critically evaluate. Not merely if the text depicts its subject matter accurately (although that is an important part of it), or if it provides all the facts needed to properly understand said subject (which is important too), or even if it is well written in a technical sense (which, again, is also important). These qualities can be either excellent or lacking, and a proper critique will have to take them into account, but they are secondary to the overall quality of the company the text provides. A critic asks: what manner of friend is this text I describe?

Somewhat counterintuitively, this is more important when it comes to writing a positive critique than a negative one. The purpose of a positive critique is to provide the knowledge needed to appreciate the good parts of something (and to draw attention to these same parts). To do this, it is necessary to convey why and how the good parts do what they do, and to gently introduce the context at hand. It is akin to standing next to a statue or a monument and pointing to different parts, explaining what they are and why they matter. The point of the extended expounding is to, when all is said and done, have a shared understanding of the present situation. A critic is not merely providing a technical description, but also the patient company of a knowing party who wants you to know, too.

A negative critique may or may not share this same ambition. If it is well written, it does. But, in this day and age, it might also just want to point out and emphasize that something is bad, in general. This is an easier task, which requires less attention to detail and nuance. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, but we are willing to trust the opinions of our present company when they proclaim something to be bad; the fact that they proclaim it with such emphasis and pathos means there must be something to it.

For this reason, it is more common to see critics tear things down than bring praise. It is an easier thing to do, and listening to someone go on about something with confidence lets us borrow from this sentiment and feel confident as well. In uncertain times, being in the company of someone who can proclaim which things are bad is a comfort, and more than one critic has made their name by virtue of projected confidence alone.

Booth does not object to giving negative critiques, or of tearing something down should it be necessary. But he asks us to consider what manner of company we provide when we are doing what we do, and what insights our discoursing brings to our readers. If the only thing we are able to bring to the table are reasons why everything sucks, it might very well be that we are not being a positive influence on our peers, who enrich their understanding of what they see, read and feel. We might not be as good or constructive company as we think we are.

This extends to the topics we choose to write about. Every text is an introduction of the thing it depicts, and as good companions it behooves us to make good introductions to our friends. If, on reflection, we discover that we have only written about bad things and why they are bad, then those who have partaken of our company have been introduced to many a bad thing, and the company we have kept have been exclusively with these bad things. Whether or not it was our intention, the result is that our readers are now more familiar with the bad than the good. Our friends listen to what we have to say, and if all we have to say is to expound endlessly on the evil things in this world –

Why, we might not be the company we want to be. Or company worth keeping. Or reading.

Booth: the Company We Keep

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Being in the world is a counterintuitive process. On the one hand, all the parts are already in place, and the only thing to do is to react to them. On the other hand, merely reacting to things as they are is no way to be. To be sure, most of life is navigating the tension between these two poles, with the focus shifting from one time period to another. At some times, life is 100% crisis management mode, where making sure that the situation is under control is of paramount importance. At other times, life happens at a more indirect pace, where the task at hand is to – if you’ll pardon the wordplay – build a life for yourself.

This second part is no less dramatic for being indirect. More often than not, the only difference in terms of drama is that it takes more effort to appraise the situation. The paradigmatic example being someone’s school performance. From a direct point of view, it may appear that everything is going fine and according to plan; arriving on time, doing the work, getting the grades. From an indirect point of view, though, the feat of going through the motions may lay the groundwork for unhealthy or unsustainable habits later in life. This may or may not be readily apparent at the time, and may or may not be possible to alleviate if given proper attention, but in terms of building a life, it is hard to say whether the one is more important than the other.

Hyde is a rhetorician, and as such focused on the strategic aspects of intentional communication. In the introduction to the anthology The Ethos of Rhetoric, he naturally discusses the nature of the concept of ethos. Ethos in the context of rhetoric, as you might be aware, relates to a person’s character: their presentation, their force of personality, the personal aspects of them in particular that makes them persuasive. Just as communication in general is always tied to someone doing the communicating, ethos is always tied to the person holding the mic or the pen. Ethos is personal – it relates to the qualities of the person and the aspects of their discourse affected by these qualities. In a sense, ethos is a being in the world.

Hyde takes hold of this sense, and expands on it. For Hyde, ethos is not just a quality of some immediate discourse (a direct quality), but also a feature visible in more indirect ways. While a person’s character is undoubtedly visible in their immediate communication, it is also visible in other ways: the topics they choose to discuss, the manner in which these discussions take form, the recurring tropes therein, etc. Moreover, it is visible in such indirect aspects as architecture, decoration and aesthetics. Ethos, for Hyde, is not just a one-off affair: it encompasses all the things.

Attentive readers will note the use of the words “being in the world” and their Heideggerian connotations. This is no accident; Hyde is very explicitly taking off from Heidegger in his discussion of ethos. Ethos is a way of dwelling in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the ways in which we carve a piece of the world for ourselves and in our image. As humans, we may find ourselves thrown unbidden into the world and forced to confront it head on as is, but while we are here, we might as well leave an imprint on the parts we have control over. Our imprint.

This is, to be sure, a very general notion of ethos, more akin to its modern day incarnation of branding than its Aristotelian guise of arête. Which is both a point and the point. As a point, it serves as a reminder not to get stuck in the technicalities of neo-Aristotelian terminology, and to be open for other ways of looking at discourse in general. (This point is especially addressed to practitioners of rhetorical criticism, a group who gets their own chapter in the anthology.) As the point, however, it strikes closer to home, even to non-rhetoricians: we have it in our limited power the capability to affect our being in the world, and upon becoming aware of this, an imperative to do so in a responsible and reflected manner.

This, then, returns us to the starting point of the counterintuitive nature of building a life for oneself. On the one hand, we are faced with a myriad of choices every day: what to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to interact with, what to say. The immediate tactical tactility of everyday life. But we are also faced with the indirect choices of how to shape the way we live, the spaces we inhabit and the possibilities of our future selves. The one begets the other, both ways, and it becomes an ethical imperative to ensure that they work in tandem to take us where we want to be. Moreover: it becomes a responsibility to help others find ways to harmonize the two, and find a sustainable way of being in the world.

Hyde, being a rhetorician, mainly discusses the ways we do this in discourse. By discussing some things and not others, and by discussing them in some particular way rather than some other way, we give our readers and fellow humans a way of looking at the world. When they read our words, they are dwelling in a particular viewpoint, and get to try it on for size. Here, again, the ethical imperative returns: to provide others with the means they need to successfully navigate the tension between what is, what could be, and what should be. Our words are not ethically neutral, and upon being aware of this, we are compelled to ethical action. To do good and, if possible, better.

The point of writing is to give others words to live by. It is, at once, a comforting and terrifying thought.

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric