Interview: Kathleen Lamp on the History of Rhetoric

In the first of a series of interviews profiling ASHR members, I speak with Dr. Kathleen Lamp about her research, her experiences with the organization, the relationship between rhetoric and architecture, and why the Roman Emperor Augustus should be considered an important figure in the history of rhetoric. Dr. Lamp, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Arizona State University, is the immediate past president of ASHR. She is also the author of A City of Marble: The Rhetoric of Augustan Rome.

Jordan Loveridge: First off, thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview. To start, could you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric? What initially drew you to the field, and how would you describe your main research areas?

Kathleen Lamp: The short answer is a liberal arts education.  I went to college thinking I would major in journalism.  The Communication Department at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College was very small so it was impossible to take only journalism classes—I took a lot of rhetoric classes with great faculty.  At the same time, I was taking things like Latin and Ancient Art and Archaeology to fulfill my general education requirements. I ended up in archaeological field school in Tunisia and then on the Duke ICCS program in Rome.  While I was in Rome, there seemed to be this huge disconnect between what I had been taught about classical rhetorical theory and what I was seeing about daily life through art and archaeology from ancient Rome. I wanted to fix that—that’s pretty much still what I do.

JL: Interesting. It sounds like your experience with other fields informed how you approached the history of rhetoric. Keeping that in mind, why does the history of rhetoric matter today (for rhetoric/communication/composition, or more broadly)?

KL: I think we have to be careful how we define “the history of rhetoric.” For me, I think too often that means a history of public speaking following Aristotle or an examination of the theory (related to pedagogy) that sprung up along democracy in ancient Athens and Rome.  While democracy is certainly what made rhetorical education marketable, it is not what makes rhetoric. I am more interested in how civic practices were taught, defined, and negotiated.  In that way, I align my view of the history of rhetoric with a sophistic perspective. That said, I do study ancient rhetorical theory and practice.  I think classical rhetorical history matters for so many reasons, but I’ll give you two.  First, we see the four basic relationships between belief/knowledge and communication practice established by the fourth century BCE—in my opinion, there’s very little new there and it really helps most people, particularly composition students connect what they believe with a system of ethics in their own communication practices.  Second, we see so many classical references in the history of the United States particularly related to Western expansion and also in terms of city planning and the monumental landscape, which I would argue define who we are and what we value as a nation.  Foucault said, we are very little like the ancients, but we are also quite hemmed in by our reading of their ideals and often verbatim use of their iconography—all one has to do is take a walk through the National Mall in DC to see that we filter our ideals of citizenship through a neoclassical vocabulary.

JL: Having read your book, I’m seeing some continuity with your discussion of the American monumental landscape and some of your earlier work. Could you talk a bit about your current research projects? Do they relate to or build from your previous work?

KL: I’m currently working on a book and podcast on the American monumental landscape focusing on the City Beautiful Movement of the twentieth century that art and architectural historians often trace back to beginning with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The same architects responsible for the “White City” went on to tour Europe and then form the McMillian Plan that shaped the National Mall in DC.  At the same time, the City Beautiful movement ramped up.  It relied heavily on a neoclassical allegorical vocabulary to define civic ideals in public art, but even more interestingly there was this idea that morality—particularly in overcrowded cities—could be improved through city beautification.  Sometimes that was tied to city services, but more often it was really about instilling middle class ideals on everyone through art and architecture. A great deal of the way the urban landscape looks today is from this period—especially monuments.  In many respects, City Beautiful still shapes our civic landscape.  While I had a hard time seeing it for a while, this project directly ties to my work on Augustus and his changes to the city to Rome—another direct attempt to define citizenship and control morality through city planning, art, and architecture. Unsurprisingly, his transformation of Rome is often mentioned in literature from the City Beautiful movement.

JL: Shifting gears a bit, I wanted to ask you what you like best about ASHR, especially given your recent experience as President? Why should someone become involved with the organization?

KL: I’ve been involved with ASHR for almost ten years now and it has been by far the best professional experience I’ve had.  I see ASHR as really pushing the edge of scholarship in the history of rhetoric.  If you want to do philological work of classical texts, there are better associations for that. If you want to study the range of the history of ideas surrounding communication and culture, come to ASHR. Additionally, ASHR is a phenomenally supportive environment for graduate students and junior scholars.  I’ve connected with senior scholars, who have turned into incredibly supportive mentors through ASHR venues. And let’s not forget, participation in ASHR venues is accessible in terms of costs in large part because we really are a grassroots organization run by volunteers.

JL: Building off of what you are saying here about support for junior scholars, what advice would you give to a graduate student who wants to specialize in the history of rhetoric?

KL: Specifically, for students tackling classical rhetoric for the first time, I would say don’t be intimidated. I think there’s a perception that there’s a lot of snobbery or elitism around classical rhetoric.  In my experience, that’s really not true.  There are a lot of really complex ideas in classical rhetoric though.  I somewhat joke to my students that if they get 10% the first time through something like De Oratore, they are doing great. And beyond that, don’t be intimidated by the languages/pronunciation.  If students decide classical rhetoric is their thing, great, learn the languages; if not, get the basic ideas and do your own thing (hopefully still in the history of rhetoric) if for no other reason than one can decide if they really want to teach Aristotle in their composition classes. I see scholars reinventing the wheel all the time with rhetorical theory and I always think a little more foundation in the classics would save us that.

JL: I feel like I already know the answer to this one, but who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric?

KL: Augustus.  I’ve tried to quit him and just can’t.  What he did with rhetorical theory in terms of shaping the built environment was really just phenomenal.  I think he gets a bad rep (for some very deserved reasons—sorry, Cicero), but ultimately, he broke the power hold of the Roman aristocracy and needed to communicate what it meant to be a Roman citizen in a new and ideologically foreign government.  He also needed a class of (rhetorically) educated bureaucrats to run his administration.  I think what we see are a lot of models of Roman citizenship that would have once only been accessible to the elite, made available to the populace for the sake of training citizens to participate in their government.

JL: I knew it!


About the Interviewer:

Jordan Loveridge is an Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He earned a PhD in Rhetoric from Arizona State University, focusing specifically on medieval rhetorics. His work appears in venues such as Philosophy and Rhetoric, Community Literacy Journal, and Advances in the History of Rhetoric.