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The Art of Forgetting: John W. Draper and the Rhetorical Dimensions of History Bradford Vivian Philosopher Michel de Certeau posits that history is not a mimetic representation of the past, but is instead a selective process that actively creates the past. "The past" and "history," then, must be distinguished: the past occurred and was real, but that past is not contained by or equated with history; history, to the contrary , is a reconstruction of the past—a creation of the past that takes place in the present. A willed forgetting thus occurs—according to de Certeau it must occur— in order to make the past lucid and uniform. What is forgotten, however, does not disappear. Rather, the forgotten elements constitute "resistances" or "survivals" that confound any effort to make history a linear and univocal phenomenon.1 Such "resistances" render history a contested field, comprised of competing interpretations . Every interpretation, moreover, is shaped by its own historicity—that is, by the exigencies, conventions, and resistances of the time in which it is carried out. The contested and situated nature of historical interpretation reveals the rhetorical nature of history in general. To the extent that history concerns "understanding " and "forgetting," history is a way of knowing—a way of knowing about the past that is not to be confused with the past event itself.2 To the extent that history is a public, dialogic construct that enables different audiences to know the world in contrasting ways, history is also a rhetorical form. The association of rhetoric and history is hardly new to rhetorical studies. At one time, the rhetorical dimensions of history within such scholarship were reducible to discrete elements such as style, argument, trope, or "other devices of language."3 Recent work in rhetorical studies, however, has begun to explore the notion that history is rhetorical not simply because it relies upon style and language, nor because it is somehow addressed to particular audiences, but because it creates a public way of knowing. In Kathleen Turner's words, this conception of the relationship between history and rhetoric views "the rhetorical process as the central epistemic function by which societies constitute themselves."4 In short, if history Bradford Vivian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Speech Communication at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 2, No. 4, 1999, pp. 551-572 ISSN 1094-8392 552 Rhetoric & Public Affairs functions rhetorically, and rhetoric may be said to operate epistemically, then history rhetorically creates ways of knowing. In what follows I pursue this premise through a particularly successful instance of history's power as a rhetorical form. John W. Draper's History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science was the most widely read and influential work within a massive American "forgetting" that took place in the nineteenth century. First published in 1876, History of the Conflict was the most successful text of a polemical nineteenth-century genre that chronicled the history of science and heralded science's triumph over religion. Draper's biographer, Donald Fleming, writes, "probably no American writer in this tradition was more read in the nineteenth century, in more parts of the world—at home, across Europe, and even in Asia and Latin America."5 History of the Conflict went through 50 American printings in 50 years, 21 printings in the United Kingdom over 15 years, and was translated into dozens of languages throughout the world, thereby achieving an exceptional international popularity.6 Draper's text was a chief culprit in propagating the familiar flat earth/round earth narrative, which is arguably the most pervasive and enduring case of history's power as a rhetorical form.7 Despite the ubiquity of contemporary scholarly and Schoolbook narratives that credit Christopher Columbus with proving the earth is round, this "historical event" never actually occurred.8 During the medieval period, scientists and theologians expressed little doubt as to the spherical nature of the earth.9 Columbus, moreover, never had to convince church officials, King Ferdinand, or Queen Isabella that his ships would not sail over the edge of a flat earth.10 In the words of Stephen Jay Gould, "There never was a period of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 551-572
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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