This semester I had a Logic course thrown at me at the very last minute. Having taught Logic a number of times in the past, I’ve come to feel that focusing on categorical and symbolic logic is of very limited value to the students. Unless the student is going to go into computer science, Anglo-American philosophy, or focus on Badiou, will they really benefit from Venn diagrams (okay, I occasionally find these useful philosophically), Aristotlean syllogisms, and the intricacies of existential quantifiers? Probably not.
For this reason I chose to instead teach the course as a critical thinking course, focusing on informal reasoning and rhetorical analysis. As we’ve begun entering the chapters on rhetoric and psychological fallacies, I’ve been horrified by the reading abilities of my students. To be sure, my students can all read; yet reading does not simply consist in being able to read the words on the page. Rather, it requires a sort of gap, distance, reflection. The idea that words act on us, that words do something, that they don’t simply represent something or refer to something, seems entirely foreign to them. Thus, for example, when asked to 1) identify a particular rhetorical turn being used in a sentence, and 2) to explain what impression the speaker or writer is attempting to produce in the reader or listener, the students are incapable of articulating a response to the second question. They seem to be constitutively incapable of recognizing the way in which connotations of the expression act on us to produce sentiments and beliefs. For instance, they are unable to explain why a politician might talk about a “war on drugs” (or terror, for that matter), rather than simply saying “we must pursue and prosecute those that sell drugs”.
I suppose this is why rhetoric is so effective. We can think of the analysis of rhetoric as being a bit like analyzing a window frame. Most of the time we simply look through the window towards whatever is outside. In this respect, the frame itself becomes invisible, falling into the background. As a result of the way in which the frame covers and veils itself, we thus miss the way in which it selects images for us by creating a distinction between what can be seen and what can’t be seen. Similarly, we look through language to the object spoken about, missing the way in which language frames our apprehension of what is apprehended. There is an entire Heideggerian, alethetic theory of rhetoric and language to be written here. To analyze language and rhetoric requires a step back or a sort of transcendental methodology similar to how Hume and Kant investigated not the objects of knowledge, but the faculties through which the object is apprehended. The analyst of language must renounce the depths (the referents) and instead remain at the surface, forgetting the object and instead attending to the speech and its connotations alone.
Yet the question is, how is this shift in perspective, this shift from focusing on what appears in the window to investigating the frame effected? How is it possible for us to become aware of the frames that enact a morphogenesis of our thoughts and sentiments. The discoveries I am making about cognition in my Logic course terrify me. Politicians and corporations globally spend billions of dollars each year for the formation of frames alone. Due to educational reforms in the United States, we now have an educational system that focuses on rote memorization and schematic rule following (mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc). As a result of this sort of educational strategy, we get entirely passive, docile subjects that are merely stimulus-response machines, reacting to whatever images and words come their way in an entirely unreflective fashion, rather than actively engaging these words and images, determining how those words and images work us over like passive clay in the hands of a potter. Can it be said that such subjects, myself included, are even human? To what degree do we possess autonomy and to what degree are we simple coded stimulus-response machines.
Aren’t we rather highly sophisticated mechanisms that can be easily directed through a few well chosen, potent images and words? The other night I watched a documentary on the story of Carol Smith and Cameron Hooker. The story of Carol Smith underlines this point beautifully. Carol Smith was kidnapped and kept as a sex slave by the sadistic Cameron Hooker for seven years. For much of this time she enjoyed a high degree of freedom, moving freely about the house and yard, doing a variety of things around the house. At one point he let her call her family and even took her to visit. She even wrote him love letters. At no time during these seven years did she try to escape. He had convinced her that there was a ring of people throughout the United States called “The Company” that kept sex slaves. We’re she to escape, he said, The Company would come after her and kill her and her family. That’s all it took to create a perfectly docile subject, a subject that perhaps even grew to see aspects of her captivity as normal. The story of Carol Smith is really just a microcosm of all socialization or subjectification. Power need not function through bars and guns. It can do its job simply through words and images. Why else would people, again and again, submit to forms of social organization that are profoundly against their own interests and flourishing?
But again, this is precisely why rhetoric works. The question is, what form of engagement, what kind of pedagogy, can produce active subjects. Deleuze often argued that thought is not a natural disposition, but requires a disruptive encounter that engenders thinking within thought. The rest of the time, according to him, we’re simply stimulus-response machines governed by the model of recognition or the familiar (his polemics against phenomenology largely issue from the way in which it valorizes recognition or the everyday lifeworld). Lacan argued that thought requires a trauma, an encounter with something missing from its place, the failure for something to be where one expects it. Russell said that he was lucky to think for a single minute of a day each year. Badiou argues that thought requires an event, the emergence of something that nothing in the Encyclopedia allows for. For Heidegger, the present-at-hand only becomes illuminated as present-at-hand when the ready-to-hand fails or breaks down. When my hammer breaks, I suddenly discover the world in its brute facticity, divested of my various concernful engagements, alien and over against me. I can see why Logic professors focus on categorical and symbolic logic. Everyone is happy. There are simple rules to follow such that the automatons can come to the right answer in much the same way a calculator calculates a solution. But what would be a pedagogy of the encounter that departed from the production of the endless stimulus-response machine?