The other day I wrote the following on Facebook:

The job of a president or presidential candidate is not that of an administrator or manager. It is not to provide a detailed policy platform or function as a bureaucrat. The job of a president or candidate is to be a rhetor or orator; to provide a vision and constitutive a people or group in solidarity. I’m not sure why democrats endlessly fail to understand this: Gore, Kerry, Clinton. Managers, each. Candidates that all failed to understand the audience they were competing for and their duties. Political malpractice. Read my book? Check out my website? I have the most detailed policy platform in American history? Are you fucking kidding me? You chose an ethos/logos based campaign after the financial downturn? What’s wrong with these people? We have 2500 years of outstanding rhetorical theory. Drop the consultants and start talking to the rhetoricians. One thing has been true my entire life: the better rhetor always wins in presidential elections. The “qualifications” argument is complete nonsense and a rationalization. This qualification is not optional: ethos, pathos, logos.

In response, a good friend of mine– a cultural anthropologist or ethnographer, no less –responded,

Not convincing. The day after the election everything changes. That day mere rhetoric will fail. Surely vision helps. But you have to know how to move money, people and other sorts of tangible material or what you’ve proposed is exactly what we see now. No offense meant, I hope none taken.
What I find so striking in this remark is the description of rhetoric as something that is merely something.  Early in my intellectual education I was fortunate to encounter two rhetoricians:  Timothy Richardson and Carlton Clark.  I met Tim in graduate school and he was interesting in that he desired to be a philosopher whereas I wished to be a rhetorician.  Our discussions endlessly revolved around the intersection of rhetoric and philosophy.  When I landed my position here at Collin, I met Carl, another rhetorician, and we quickly became fast friends; though our friendship, as in the case of all friendships, has often been fraught with debate.  My first year here– it’s 14 years, now, this year –we had an epic, and sometimes painful, discussion about the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric.
read on!

In retrospect, I think, we were trying to disentangle the persuasive dimension of language from the truth dimension seeking dimension of language (I was all lit up about Badiou and his truths and truth-procedures at the time).  I suspect that Carl feels pretty frustrated by the outcome of that discussion.  It was heated in passionate.  He kept reminding me that even where you’re speaking of logical entailments, there’s still a rhetorical dimension.  Were I to translate Carl’s statements today, over a decade later, I would say that he was arguing that language– even in the intimacy of internal dialogue –was saying that language is tied up in a reference to the other.  I remember dropping by his office and him gleefully showing me a text he was teaching for his intro courses:  Everything is an Argument.  Oh how I was offended by that title.  “No!”, I exclaimed, “not everything is an argument!”  The rhetorician and the philosopher were using the term “argument” in different senses.  He was using it in the sense of “persuasion”, whereas I was using it in the sense of “demonstrating a truth”.  I suspect that Carl doesn’t think he won our arguments that year or two, but he did.  I eventually realized that he was right, that philosophy and rhetoric, that truth and persuasion, that argument and persuasion, can’t be disentangled.  They differ while always being entangled.
This brings me back to my other friend, the ethnographer.  It is the word “mere” in the expression “mere rhetoric” that strikes me above.  So often, rhetoric is treating me as something that is merely something.  Derrida even wrote an article on it, though in a different context:  rhetoric is treated as parergon, ornamentation.  What I would like to know is where the “mere” of “mere rhetoric” comes from?  How does rhetoric come to receive, across centuries, such approbation and distrust?  How does it come to be treated as mere ornamentation.  In my view, rhetoric is the essence of the social relation.  Nothing can be done if we don’t persuade and form collectives of people.  The good rhetor is someone who performs solidarity in their speech (and sometimes division) so as to constitute a set that didn’t before exist.  So why is it, I ask whatever readers I have, that we have such a distrust of rhetoric?  I readily recognize that rhetoric can be used for evil and manipulative purposes.  So can a scalpel.  Yet nothing can happen unless we have speech that forms groups and generates consensus.  Where does this hostility come from?  In many respects, with Derrida, I’ve come to think this is a fundamental philosophical question that isn’t simply about persuasive language, but something far deeper.
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