Topos made me cry. Topos is content, topos is form, and everything in between as long as it’s generic. Topos is also Topos Koinos, which translates to commonplace – which can be private at the same time. Topos was introduced by someone who was not even clear about the term himself (yes, Aristotle, I’m looking at you).
I am neither rhetorician nor philosopher and I should have known better than trying to deal with topos as it was developed by the ancient Greeks. I really tried, and, as I said, it made me cry. I also could have known better, because the word has haunted me since secondary school. I was eight years old and so disappointed with my 60% grade on a topography test that I locked myself in the shed and refused to come out. Later, in primary school, the repetitive exercise of learning the geographical topoi – meaning places in Greek – bored me to such an extent that I tried to avoid it as much as possible, and compensated my bad grades with written exams.
Currently, Topos haunts me with its multiplicity. In rhetoric, it was most notably introduced by Aristotle in his Topics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it as, generally speaking,“an argumentative scheme that enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion.” In his Topics, Aristotle drew up a list of these schemes that fell into different categories, one of which the topoi koine (commonplaces). These were based on generally accepted premises, which could add to the strength of an argument by appealing to a shared knowledge between speaker and audience. However, over time, the topoi changed meaning and do not only denote a place in an argument, but also the contents of that place. When they were put in writing, various topoi were further engraved into western culture, and their meaning increasingly conflated with that of topic, as the subject of an argument rather than the form.
I am neither rhetorician nor philosopher. I do keep notebooks in which I sometimes write things that interest me, just like many Early Modern Europeans. They kept commonplace books which they filled with neatly organized quotes and proverbs Sometimes they were used to organize quotes concerning a specific topic; other times to expand knowledge of specific topics, such as morality or justice. They became widely popular and were also published as reference books, but most were private documents even when some used same structure as the multicopy versions. These books were places to structure – put in place – knowledge in aid of an argument. At the same time, their content also consists of commonplace knowledge, and so: topoi again. Do you see where my frustration with topos comes from? At least it’s fun to imagine people like Isaac Newton and John Locke happily working on their bullet journal.
Topos also exists as a literary term that was popularised in the 1990s by Ernst Robert Curtis. The structural aspect was mostly left aside as topos quickly became related to literary terms such as motif and trope, and sometimes entered the domain of the cliché: there we go, another cleansing flood or enchanted forest, in which happens what we expect of those places. At the same time, these cultural patterns can be used as a starting point for variation and experimentation. In this way, topos in the literary sense can be a cliché point of departure.
This piece can be used as a basis, similarly: it is a small overview of the history of topos, and an attempt to overcome my own pattern of struggle with the term. I am neither rhetorician nor philosopher, but that does not mean that I cannot further discover topos, and maybe make amends with it. Especially this summer, when topos can slowly start to mean more than my own house or a conceptual place on a map, and travel becomes possible again. Maybe it is time to reconsider what place means after being stuck in the same one for nearly two years, and how we can use our own topos as departing point for new adventures.
How will you (re)define topos? Compile your own commonplace book, dive into antiquity, experiment with clichés, or take up an atlas and explore the places outside of it? Has your idea of place changed in the past sixteen months? We will publish pieces that relate to topos in July and August, and will be very happy to receive your contributions. You can ask us any questions about submitting or directly send us your work by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.