For many years now I have tried to develop the thesis that “texts aren’t simply about something, but also are something.” In trying to draw attention to the fact that texts, representations, and signs are not just about something, I’ve attempted to highlight the manner in which representations, texts, signs, and signifiers, are real entities in their own right that float about the world such that the enjoy greater and lesser population density, just like species of animals enjoy greater and lesser population densities in different regions of the world. Ideas don’t simply have a content, meaning, or truth-value, but also have a spatio-temporal geography. In other words, some ideas are more common in some places than others. For example, in the humanities, Marxist ideas are very common such that one wouldn’t be making a bad induction if they reasoned that the next academic they meet from the humanities is likely to advocate some Marxist idea or other. By contrast, in the broader American population these ideas are fairly absent. Within a population of people, some ideas are hegemonic in the sense that they dominate the social field or are highly present in the social field, while others are all but invisible. Just like species of animals in aparticular ecosystem where some animals are more numerous and dominant than others, some ideas and texts are more populous than others in the social world.
This is the material dimension of ideas, their status as beings or entities in their own right that more or less populate the world, rather than their being as meanings, representations, or true or false. As I argued in a previous post on Object-Oriented Rhetoric (OOR), considering ideas in their material dimension brings to the fore a different set of considerations than if we consider them in their representational or meaningful dimension. When we approach texts from the standpoint of representation and meaning, we seek to “decode” them, to determine what they signify, to interpret them, to determine whether they’re true or false, to determine what they’re ideological content is. By contrast, when we approach texts as material entities that circulate throughout the world we proceed more as ecologists or epidemiologists than as interpreters. In our materialist approach, we look at ideas as populations or actors in the world, we examine the ecosystems to which they belong, their spread throughout a population, and the mechanisms by which they exclude other ideas, thereby maintaining certain power relations. The point is not to exclude interpretation and the evaluation of truth and falsity, but to recognize the way in which ideas have a reality, a material existence, of their own such that strategies must be developed for both weakening certain ideas and for promoting others and enabling the existence of others. If a critic debunks an ideology in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, it doesn’t do much good. The truth and justice of an idea is not enough to give it reality in a population.
An epidemiological approach to texts, ideas, and representations suggests a new way of understanding Aristotle’s famous rhetorical triangle. Here I’d like to focus on the dimension of ethos. Traditionally we treat ethos as pertaining to the credibility or trust of the speaker. For example, we’re talking about ethos when we talk about whether or not Gore is honest or whether he’s the sort of person we’d like to have a beer with. Part of the persuasive power of Bush was that people saw him as more trustworthy, more like them, as more the sort of person they’d like to have a beer with. I think, however, the concept of ethos should be significantly broadened. Rather than treating ethos as the features of credibility an audience attributes to a speaker, we should instead see ethos as referring to the ecology of ideas or texts within which people live. Ethos has strong etymological relations to both the Greek word for “home”, oikos, from which we get “economy” and “ecology”, but also habit and habitat.
This is significant. For within a rhetorical framework, the ability of a rhetor to persuade an audience will not simply be a function of whether they’re seen as credible by their audience, but rather whether or not their enunciations resonate with the ecology of ideas within which the people dwell. Will the rhetorical act resonate with the ideas of that population or ecology– in which case the act might be successful –or will it not resonate? That’s the question; and it’s a question not about the credibility of the speaker, so much as the ecology of ideas the audience inhabits and whether or not the rhetorical act fits with that framework of that ecology. Of course, our task as radical rhetors is that of how to change that ecology, rather than how to engage in a rhetorical act that leaves the ecology intact.
It is precisely such an ecological approach that Hasana Sharp proposes in her reworking of the concept of ideology in her remarkable book Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization. As Sharp writes, “…I argue that in Spinoza we find an alternative “renaturalization” of ideology whereby social critics and political activists can grasp how ideas grow, survive, and thrive, or shrink and die, like any other natural being” (55). While I don’t share all of Sharp’s Spinozist theses– though Spinoza is one of my six most important thinkers, the others being Lucretius, Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, and Luhmann –her thesis is that 1) ideas have an autonomous reality of their own, and 2) that we are in and among ideas (among other things, such as material bodies), rather than ideas being in us.
Drawing on Spinoza’s theory of conatus, whereby all beings have an endeavor to persist in their being, Sharp argues that this is true of ideas as well. In other words, ideas, texts, signifiers, and signs, independent of us, can be understood as striving to persevere in their being. Here we should think of the way in which ideas strive to persevere in their being in the same way in which viruses or microbes strive to persevere in their being. There need not be any conscious intentionality involved, just a set of aggregate results. Such a claim amounts to claiming that ideas, texts, representations, signs, and signifiers, develop strategies for both getting themselves copied or replicated throughout a population and defending against other ideas by insuring that they remain marginal and scarcely present within the socius. Ideas defend against critique and the development of new ideas.
A materialist rhetoric and critique of ideology examines these strategies of replication and defense and develops techniques for diminishing these powers so as to introduce other ideas. Just as we examine the epidemiology of a strain of bacteria or a virus, materialist critiques of ideology– in part (it’s still necessary to investigate the machinic assemblage or how bodies or objects relate) –radical materialist rhetoric and ideology critique examines the epidemiology of ideas, texts, representations, signs, and signifiers to devise strategies for diminishing the power of oppressive hegemonic ideas or ideologies. What it aims at is something like “terraforming” or wilderness renewal, where the conatus of corrosive ideas is destroyed and the ideational field is seeded with new ideas. Strategies for cultivating, replicating, and defending these new ideas must be developed, of course. Indeed, this is a central problem with most traditional ideology critique. Critics seem to believe that it is enough to debunk the ideology, without attending to the conditions of possibility for that critique and its alternative to proliferate throughout the social system.
Since these ideas are rather abstract, Sharp gives a nice example of what she has in mind.
In the Danish film The Celebration (Festen), a family gathers to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of its patriarch (plot spoiler ahead). It is tradition for the eldest son to give a toast that honors the father. Prompted by the recent suicide of his sister, the son’s speech begins to echo the ritual and praise his father but includes the shocking revelation that the great man being celebrated raped him and his sister as children. The many guests and family all laugh and treat it as a provocative joke, which prompts another to join in and tell an audacious story. The son must try again and again to communicate his true idea, an idea that correctly explains a series of causes. The family and the constellation of ideas that compose it, however, form a resilient composition that absorbs these assertions and retains its structure initially. In the face of threats, the family continuously recomposes itself, remembers itself, by resisting and reconsistuting the corrosive force that threatens its coherence. The true idea cannot take hold within the minds of the guests and fellow family members before a great deal more counterforce is gathered to oppose the family’s self-conception, upheld by tradition, ritual, habit, and a complicated set of psychic attachments. The son must reorganize the local environment, a wide range of ideas and affects, before being able to render his idea thinkable let alone adequate in others. (73)
In this example, the ideas of the family and the patriarch have an autonomous reality of its own that defends against alternative conceptions and ideas. When the family hears the son’s speech they transform it into a joke, thereby diffusing what he’s said and defending against it. This is an “immune” response on the part of the ecology of ideas pertaining to this family. For the son’s remarks to enter into the family network, additional acts are needed that are affective in nature and that aren’t simply a matter of truth and falsity. The son has to restructure the semiotic universe of the family so that the family might change and justice might become possible. This requires working on an entire system of signs, diminishing the strength of some of these signs and rituals (the celebration of the patriarch as well as his high regard in the family), and introducing other ideas.
And this task, at the micro-level of the family, is part of the work of materialist ideology critique. It is never enough simply to debunk ideas. On the one hand, we must have an eye turned towards the “machinic assemblage” (relations between material bodies like the role rice plays in a social system), and another eye turned toward the arrangement of ideas and how they live within a social system. One question is the question of how to restructure that material system of ideas, that ecology, allowing other ideas to show through and become potent. Critique is not enough. There also has to be the public work of diminishing ideas, speaking to populations, and enhancing the power of other ideas.