ASHR Interview: Martin Camper on Rhetoric and Textual Interpretation

Jordan Loveridge: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Martin. I’m familiar with your work on Augustine and also your recent work on textual interpretation, which led me to wonder how you formed connections between those topics. Can you tell me about how you became interested in the history of rhetoric?

Martin Camper: My interest in the history of rhetoric is partly motivated by my interest in religious rhetoric, specifically, Christian rhetoric. In the West, the history of the rhetorical tradition intersects quite frequently with the history of Christianity, and I find those intersections fascinating. My first published article, which appeared in Advances in the History of Rhetoric in 2013 and was a version of a paper I wrote my first semester of graduate school, looks at Augustine’s discussion of the stylistic qualities of clarity and obscurity in De doctrina Christiana. Responding to previous scholarship that often claims that Augustine is largely parroting Cicero, I show how Augustine innovates ancient style theory in the context of the interpretation and preaching of the Bible. That was the beginning of my journey studying the history of rhetoric and its intersections with Christianity.

I am also interested in the history of rhetoric as a source of methods for conducting rhetorical analysis. Classical rhetoric in particular offers robust tools for analysis that have really not been superseded by subsequent ages. I am particularly enamored with stasis theory, which identifies the types of issues or questions that can be at the center of a disagreement. I am impressed by its explanatory power, universality, and precision. In particular, I use stasis theory to examine the argumentative processes inherent in all acts of textual interpretation. Stasis theory and other parts of classical rhetorical theory are also really helpful to students, who need flexible principles for generating persuasive discourse, and I always ground my writing classes in classical rhetoric.

JL: I’m also a big fan of teaching stasis theory in my writing classes–I always tell my students not to argue on the internet without it. In a way, this leads me to my next question: in your view, why is the history of rhetoric an important area of study for rhetorical theory, communication, rhetoric and composition, etc. more broadly? Why does the history of rhetoric matter today?

MC: I believe that the history of rhetoric offers the contemporary scholar and teacher of rhetoric rich and generative ways of thinking about language and persuasion. In the Western tradition, these tools for language analysis and production have been used and refined for millennia. And contemporary language research tends to confirm the observations of classical rhetorical. In some ways, earlier views of language are much richer than our own—think about the hundreds of figures and tropes identified by classical to Early Modern rhetoricians. Rather than constantly re-inventing the wheel, why not take advantage of and build on this vibrant tradition?

JL: I can certainly see some of these ideas in your book. Can you tell us a bit about it? How does it relate to your work more broadly, and are there any other projects you have in the works?

MC: I just published a book with Oxford University Press in fall 2017: Arguing over Texts: The Rhetoric of Interpretation. This book recovers a neglected part of classical stasis theory: what I call the interpretive stases. The interpretive stases classify the types of issues that arise when people interpret texts and argue for particular readings of those texts. Ancient rhetoricians like Cicero, Quintilian, and Hermogenes also identified common lines of argument employed in each stasis. The book presents the interpretive stasis system, updated with insights from contemporary language research, as a general rhetorical method for analyzing debates over the meaning of any type of text, whether literary, historical, religious, legal, or political, and the book illustrates this wide applicability with examples from these various fields.

My next book project, tentatively titled How the Bible’s Meaning Changes: Argument and Controversy in the Christian Church, takes the interpretive stases and applies them to five controversies in the history of the church, from the sixteenth century to the present day, where a denomination has reversed its official position on a biblical issue. The five debates are over usury (charging interest on loans), heliocentricity, women’s preaching, racial segregation, and homosexuality. The interpretive stases allow me to map how the issues and arguments that comprise these disputes changed over time. I can then see how these changes shaped the meaning of key biblical passages such that their meaning incrementally evolved until one day you have a complete reversal on an issue. I am hoping to discover patterns in the evolution of interpretive argument and meaning, which may be applicable to all sorts of texts, religious and secular.

JL: Looking forward to it! Shifting gears a bit, what advice would you give to a graduate student beginning work in the history of rhetoric?

MC: Read the texts of your period in their entirety. I discovered the interpretive stases because, evidently, people had not read the works of Cicero and other ancient rhetoricians closely enough! It also helps to get formal training in the languages. Not everything is translated. And translations, as much as they can illuminate, can also sometimes obscure. Context is important too, so the student of rhetorical history is also a student of history more broadly. It helps to understand the motivations behind the rhetorical treatises and discourses that people produced and to understand how their ideas connect to larger intellectual movements or how their rhetorical choices fit larger cultural patterns.

Also have fun, and be prepared to unearth something new! The history of rhetoric is rich, with many treasures still undiscovered. Sometimes you can find something by going over well-trodden ground, but there are also many figures, groups, and texts that scholars have overlooked. And finally, don’t let anyone tell you that studying the history of rhetoric is antiquarian or irrelevant. Past rhetors and rhetoricians have a lot to teach us, if we only take the time to read.

JL: What do you like best about ASHR? Why should someone become involved with the organization?

MC: I have been a member of ASHR for a few years, I believe, but I’m going to my first ASHR symposium this year at RSA. I’m very excited about it, as I’ve gotten to know several other ASHR members at conferences and through social media. It’s a great group of scholars—brilliant, generous, collegial. It’s important to have an academic community where people have similar research interests, concerns, and methods. RSA and CCCC are great, but they’re huge. You learn so much by interacting with and reading the work of scholars in your sub-discipline. And those interactions can lead to great opportunities, like a collaboration on a research project. It’s important to have those connections and to be part of an intellectual community of like-minded scholars.

JL: Agreed! Finally, last question: who is one of your favorite figures from the history of rhetoric?

MC: There are so many good ones to choose from, but Augustine is certainly at or near the top of my list. He really was a genius, although by no means a perfect human being. He had such a deep and nuanced understanding of language that was informed both by his formal rhetorical training but also by his work as an interpreter and preacher of the Bible. I don’t want to overstate the point, but he was very instrumental in ensuring that the classical rhetorical tradition continued into the Middle Ages when the church could have easily rejected it on the grounds of its “pagan” origins and destroyed the texts. So students of Western rhetorical history owe him quite a bit of gratitude for helping preserve the tradition. I also think Augustine is interesting because he’s African, but most scholars don’t consider this fact when examining his rhetoric and rhetorical theory. The Western rhetorical tradition is more diverse than we think.


Dr. Martin Camper is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Loyola University Maryland.

Dr. Jordan Loveridge is an Assistant Professor of Communication and English at Mount St. Mary’s University.