What are topoi?
Classical teachers of argument knew that writers needed a set of strategies close at hand for initiating and entering into disagreements. These strategies were compiled into lists that the ancients called topoi (the plural form of topos) which literally means “place.” A description of each topos occupied a place on a papyrus scroll. To learn about a particular topos, a reader unrolled the scroll to a certain section where that topos was described. You may be familiar with commonly-used topoi such as greater/lesser, better/worse, or compare/contrast, three topoi that might be useful if you were asked to compose a discourse focusing on two phenomena. Because the topoi are commonly used, the kind of analysis they engender is familiar to readers, who recognize their uses across a great variety of arguments.
Academic writing produced both by professionals and students relies on more specific topoi than those mentioned above. As modes of analysis that give you something to say about your object of study, you can turn to these in situations where you are asked to produce arguments in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Consider the following from the introductory section of a student’s essay about free speech on campus:
Many U.S. colleges and universities are experiencing a rise in tensions between those students advocating for free speech and students who urge their administrators to curtail free speech, especially when it is offensive to particular groups. When many Americans think of free speech on campus, they envision an unfettered public arena, open to accommodating any forms of discourse, an arena necessary to carrying out robust intellectual inquiry. But, as many legal and political theorists remind us, public speech is never absolutely free. Instead, the degree of freedom is weighed against speech’s ability to harm and constrain others, a calculation that is specific to the context of a speech’s delivery.
Here, the writer launches her argument by contrasting two ways of thinking: one mistaken, the other preferred. As she continues her discourse, she will begin the body of her essay by demonstrating the prevalence of the “mistaken belief” about ideal free speech, and will reveal the costs and consequences of holding that mistaken view. The heart of her discourse will show readers why the notion of constrained free speech is a better position, bolstered by scholarly support and real-world evidence. The approach of contrasting a mistaken view with a correct view is a version of the appearance/reality topos, which comes in a variety of forms. In their essay on “The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism,” rhetoric scholars Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor describe several commonly-used topoi in this way:
The writer points out a perception of two entities: one more immediate, the other latent; one on the surface, the other deep; one obvious, the other the object of a search; one explicit, the other implicit; one the result of a passing glance, the other the result of a careful inspection, etc.
The writer locates flaws or errors in a scholar’s work, points out the costs of the flaws, and goes on to offer a correction, better analysis, or improved way of understanding the phenomena under consideration. This topos is also used to indicate a misreading, misinterpretation, or skewed analysis of some text, data, or other evidence.
The writer situates the work under consideration within a larger social, historical, political, or ideological context. The writer may demonstrate how a theory or idea framed within a particular discourse may be applied to historical circumstances, or to a contemporary issue, or may be figured against the ground of some political, social, economic, aesthetic, cultural, religious, or ethical phenomenon or set of ideas. The use of the worldly context topos gives new or larger relevance to the discourse under consideration.
In her book Rhetorical Strategies and Genre Conventions in Literary Studies (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2012), Laura Wilder offers examples of a student using some of these topoi. The student is responding to William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily”:
The story “A Rose for Emily” is about Miss Emily Grierson, who is reluctant to accept change. Her impervious mind is like steel, and no words of change can penetrate it. Beneath the obvious, though, this story represents the South’s unwillingness to give up a tarnished way of life that should have fallen into ruin after being defeated in the Civil War. Many images in the story are suggestive of the past. Some of the images represent slavery, and others just suggest decay, as if something is old. The story also illustrates desires to prevent progress. These desires are illustrated through images of holding onto the past. […] By showing the reader Miss Emily has an invisible watch in the beginning of the story, he shows that time will be hard to see throughout the story. Furthermore, by placing the invisible watch in Miss Emily’s pocket, who is a southern lady, he is representing the South’s inability to discern the chronology of real life. Consequently, they are left in the past and unaware of passing time.
Many words and phrases in this story suggest that the past still lingers. Miss Emily is referred to as a “fallen monument” (2017), a representation of the past that has fallen—but still lingers. Her house, which is in “decay” (2017), shelters leather furniture that has “cracked” (2017). The condition of these objects suggests that they are old and from the past. The story reveals that Miss Emily writes a letter in “faded” ink (2017), on “paper of an ‘archaic’ shape” (2017). The ink represents a past that has faded with time, and her paper represents a way of life that is seldom now used. These objects signify the South’s old way of life that remains, despite being faded and cracked by time.
Many critics have suggested different analyses regarding the chronology of the story. However, many critics overlook the symbolic meaning of time and the chronological order of events. They tend to focus closer to the surface by attempting to figure out things such as Miss Emily’s age at certain points in her life, and exactly when hyer father died. They put forth ideas like “Miss Emily could not have been ‘about forty’ at the time, but would instead have been about 50” (Moore 5), and “the chronology deliberately manipulates and delays the reader’s final judgment of Emily Grierson by alerting the evidence” (Getty 1). Though possibly important to understanding the story, these pieces of information seem useless to show the symbolism that time is used for. The chronology, without closely examining Emily’s age or her father’s death, still shows an important illustration of time. It suggests that the South’s inhabitants had time mixed up; that they did not realize the times had changed after the Union won the Civil War many years prior. Since they had difficulty discerning the chronology of actual life, they continued to live in the past and refused to make progress towards a new way of living.
Faulkner is no stranger to sympathizing with the southern blacks. He had more than likely seen many blacks mistreated, because he grew up in the heart of the South—Oxford, Mississippi (Martin 608). Moreover, Faulkner also sympathizes with blacks in his other works. In The Unvanquished, he retells the horrifying events of the Civil War. Interestingly though, he retells the story partly through the eyes of blacks (Glicksburg 153). In addition, Faulkner shows that white people live about the same kind of life as African-Americans in Mississippi did in his book Absalom! Absalom! (Glicksburg 154). This information increases the probability that Faulkner would be using the chronology of “A Rose for Emily” to sympathize with the black inhabitants of the South by depicting the white inhabitants as individuals who could not discern the chronology of time in real life.
Can You Locate the Topoi Used?
Here are several excerpts from the introductory sections of scholarly arguments. Can you identify which topos is being deployed? Can you predict how the argument will unfold following this opening move?
The extraordinary interest in social theory and the law that has recently emerged in literary studies has seemed to many to constitute an important redirection of the field toward political themes and active political investments in justice, freedom, and equality. Whereas some argue that literature should remain cordoned off from social science and social theory, others are relieved that literary studies has moved toward a more active engagement with social issues, with race studies, practices of gender and sexuality, colonial space and its aftermath, the interstitial cultural spaces of globalization. It may be that literary scholars make poor social theorists, as Richard Rorty has argued, but it seems more likely that literary scholars bring insightful forms of reading to bear upon social and political texts that have great relevance for the course of our collective lives.
Judith Butler et al., What’s Left of Theory? New Work on the Politics of Literary Theory (New York: Routledge), 1991: xi.
More than our colleagues in other departments, English department faculty members need to know what, how, and why students read. Most composition programs are grounded in reading, and, of course, so are English majors’ curricula. We need to know how students are learning to read before they come to college, how to continue to foster close, critical reading throughout the college years, and how our students develop reading abilities that they will continue to inhabit and improve after college. An array of national surveys suggests that neither high school nor college students spend much time preparing for class, the central activity of which we presume to be reading assignment articles, chapters, and books.
Similiar studies argue that college students spend little to no time reading for pleasure and that adults in the United States are devoting less and less of their free time to reading fiction, poetry, and drama. Books lamenting the decline in the reading of great literature in our culture find an eager and ardent audience. The water-cooler conversation in English departments and indeed throughout the university seems to confirm the reports and corroborate the end-of-reading treatises: legions of students apparently come to class ill prepared, not having done the assigned reading at all or having given it only cursory attention. Professors admit that students can actually pass exams if they come to the lectures and take good notes, whether or not they have read the assigned material. In short, careful reading seems to have become a smaller blip on the higher educational radar screen or dropped off it altogether.
Despite the attention paid to student reading in national surveys, relatively little scholarship has examined empirically what, how, and whether college students actually do read and how reading thus figures in the transition from high school to college. We set out to address this knowledge gap in a local way during a recent fall semester at our institution. We studied the reading practices of twenty-one first-year students taking college composition at their sixth, seventh, and fifteenth weeks of the semester. Our study offers insights into the reading environments of first-year college students that neither the national surveys nor the status quo chatter hints at. We found students who were actively involved in their own programs of reading aimed at values clarification, personal enrichment, and career preparation. In short, we discovered students who were extremely engaged with their reading, but not with the reading that their classes required.
David A. Jolliffe and Alison Harl, “Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College”