Neil Bernstein's Ethics, Identity and Community in Later Roman Declamation

Ethics, Identity, and Community in Later Roman DeclamationEthics, Identity, and Community in Later Roman Declamation by Neil W Bernstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enjoyable and thorough scholarly treatment of the Major Declamations of Quintilian (or whoever you think it might be who wrote them) with really astute and insightful commentary on the variations we get through time in Rome, late Rome, and the Early Modern period. What makes the book so interesting from the perspective of both rhetoric and criticism is how the author is able to make a very convincing case as to how extant declamatory speeches are pretty good evidence as to the way that Romans felt about their community, laws, society, children, and marriages. There's a lot here for the historian of culture as well as the rhetorician. The postscript on the modern pedagogical value of declamations was really good - I would like to see more of this sort of writing from this author!

The book is divided into types of values or practices that we can inductively get from studying declamations. Most interesting to me was the chapter on creating visual scenes for audiences since Roman courts regularly allowed the display of victim's bodies, bloody clothing, and the like declamations did not permit such evidence (and we think modern crime shows are too graphic). Declaimers had to visually construct the scene for the audience and it took great skill and practice to compete with an audience that quite possibly worked in and around the courts for most of their lives.

Great book, worth reading if you want a glimpse into Roman values and see some pretty incredible evidence as to how they viewed law and friendship, as well as family relations. Fantastic book!

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Modernism in the Streets: A Life and Times in EssaysModernism in the Streets: A Life and Times in Essays by Marshall Berman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Really wonderful collection of bits of Berman's work from his entire scope of writing. It really struck me how amazingly accessible and interesting his writing was, even though he had a position as a professor. Academic writing has really collapsed in on itself since the time Berman was working - even since his death in 2013 it feels less and less accessible. Berman is a great example of how one can write acute, telling criticism for public audiences - a wonderful performance of his major argument, that the public, conceptions of the public, and the people who make up the public are really the entirety of the target of social theory, thought, and work. Improving our lives seems to be the aim of all of these essays, and there are no bad ones in the whole book.

Most notably is Chapter 21 "Justice/Just Us" which is his take on the value of rap music. Writing this in the early 21st century, it seems almost impossible today for a Jewish professor from Manhattan to be able to write seriously about hip-hop or rap music in an intellectual way. Today we bristle at such an idea as being appropriative or wrong. But Berman does it masterfully. He is a good example of how to communicate across the attractions of so-called identity politics (or oversimplistic politics of ontology that have capture the minds of so many college students today) with a very thoughtful, cogent, and just call for modernism taken seriously.

Berman's take on other Marxist cultural critics is also amazing, especially his review of the life and work of Lukacs and Benjamin. He takes these titanic figures and speaks about them as if we could chat with them on the Subway. He makes their desires and thoughts very close to our own. This is really the sign of a fantastic writer and thinker as well as teacher.

I think the book is a great collection, fun to read, and I suggest it for anyone who wants to perform cultural criticism at a high level, is interested in the trajectory of Marxist public intellectualism in New York from the postwar years to the start of this century, or if you would like to read some really great takes on issues of urban space, planning, public parks, or things of that nature. He has a great perspective on all of it.

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