Somewhere or other Lacan remarks that the love of truth is the love of castration. By this, of course, Lacan is remarking that truth is the real or the bar characterizing the existence of the Other. Yet it could also be taken more literally to refer to the divide between rhetoric and truth. The commitment to truth seems to undermine rhetorical efficacy and thereby undermines political power. Effective rhetoric seems slavish by nature as it seems to require attending to one’s audience in a way that pays homage to their illusions so as to persuade them and gain their endorsement. Could we imagine, for example, an American politician who spoke the truth of American history and the American political situation? All too often, I think, I’ve conflated philosophy with rhetoric. That is, I’ve conflated the necessity of speaking efficaciously with the question of truth. I was horrified, for example, to find that it was Kucinich who brought articles of impeachment against Bush not because his claims were false but because he couldn’t possibly be an effective rhetor due to who he is and the lack of credibility he possesses.
In this reaction, I was willing to sacrifice truth for the sake of effective rhetoric. Someone like Kucinich couldn’t be an effective rhetor because he lacks credibility and would therefore make it more difficult to propagate the truth in the public sphere (his lack of credibility would infect, in viral fashion, the nature of his claims, imbuing these claims themselves with a lack of credibility). What was needed was another rhetor who had the credibility to speak the same claims. In short, my problem wasn’t with what Kucinich was charging, but with who was making these charges. If, as I reasoned, the speaker hadn’t achieved the status of a “Statesman” whose words therefore had power, the speaker couldn’t but undermine the credibility of the charges themselves. Kucinich, in my view, has done much to undermine his credibility as a speaker through his actions and therefore could only do a disservice to the credibility of these charges. Having Kucinich speak these charges couldn’t but be a strategic blunder, regardless of whether he thereby “got them on the record” (a rationalization and convenient consolation no matter how you cut it). I could not see how this particular speaker could use words in a way that was powerful enough to create congressional consensus or public consensus to accomplish anything through the truth of his speech, and felt that his speech could even work to the detriment of the truth of that speech (Incidentally, I think this is a common failing of the left: it trusts in truth and ignores the necessity of creating consensus. This tendency to ignore the rhetorical dimension except in its capacity as critique is logically entailed by the love of truth insofar as the rhetorical dimension often involves a great deal of untruth, irrationalism, and injustice). Those who defended Kucinich ignored how the claims were spoken and who spoke, treating these things as irrelevant and secondary, instead focusing entirely on what was spoken. This denigration of the “how” and the “who” seems to be a constant misstep in leftist politics, as if it believes that these dimensions have no material efficacy. But if truth if what is loved, the speaker and the manner of speech should be irrelevant to the claim. I’m ashamed of this gut reaction on my part.
It seems that it’s no mistake that the Greeks simultaneously discovered political theory, rhetorical theory, and philosophy. The divide between rhetoric and philosophy seems to speak to an originary split at the heart of language between language as reference and language as persuasion or addressed to the other. The rhetor recognizes that dimension of language that must speak to local customs, the credibility of the speaker, the poetic power of language, etc., in order to produce persuasion. The effective rhetor cannot ignore these dimensions of language if they are to be successful in their rhetorical act. The philosopher, by contrast, attends only to relations of entailment, inference, and reference within language, without regard for an addressee. Clearly the two dimensions can never be separated as speech always presupposes an addressee, yet also contains internal relations of entailment independent of any relation to an addressee. Perhaps philosophy is this very tension or gap between the two dimensions. Forever more the two dimensions of language find themselves in tension and at odds with one another. Perhaps the question would be whether there is a form of rhetorical practice that is not slavish, that does not betray the truth, but that simultaneously respects the other while striving to speak the truth.