Rhetoric


A great deal of the anguish I feel over the BP oil catastrophe lies not only in the ecological damage it has wrought, but in what a missed opportunity this is turning out to be. As I remarked in a previous post on the disaster, this is a prime moment to enact a progressive version of what Naomi Klein calls “the shock doctrine“. The Obama Glee Club has focused on how he’s doing everything he possibly can to stop the link and ensure that clean up proceeds apace. However, this misses the point. Discontent with Obama’s handling of the oil spill revolves not so much with how he’s dealing with the spill itself– though there’s plenty to be discontent with there as well –but with his failure to seize this opportunity.

One of my central reasons for voting for Obama was his profound rhetorical ability. It is my view that we exist at a point in history where it is of crucial importance to shift the reigning commonplaces underlying American politics. For thirty years our airwaves have been filled with neoliberal propoganda, convincing us that the primary function of government is to create an optimal business environment and that the best way to achieve this goal is through the privatization of government functions and through the deregulation of all markets and industries. On the one hand, the thesis runs, the private sector knows best how to run things and government botches everything it puts its hands on. As Reagan famously said, “government is not the solution, it’s the problem.” And indeed, in the late 70s when neoliberalism began to ascend from a wacky fringe position defended by only a few cranks to a hegemonic ideology constituting the common sense of the American public, there was good reason for being suspicious of the government. On the other hand, the argument runs, where business flourishes money will trickle down to average people, improving their standard of living. As the old saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

The BP oil disaster is not simply an ecological and economic catastrophe, but is a symptom or a symbol of all the failures of neoliberal ideology. And this is precisely what has been largely missing in Obama’s handling of the issue. What we need right now is not someone who seeks bipartisan legislation, nor someone who works quietly and competently behind the scenes. No, what we need right now is a Lacanian master.

Perhaps the best way to understand Lacan’s discourse of the master is in terms of the moment of kairos in rhetoric. In Greek, kairos means the “right or opportune moment.” The rhetor is the person who is adept at taking advantage of the opportune moment to generate action that leads in the right direction. Situated in terms of Lacan’s discourse of the master depicted above, we see the top portion of the graph pointing from S1 to S2. S1 refers to the master-signifier, whereas S2 refers to the battery or collection of free floating signifiers. The function of the master, the kairotic act of the master, lies in unifying the chaotic and free floating battery of signifiers (S2’s) under a master-signifier that renders them structured and intelligible.

And this has been precisely what is missing in Obama’s presidency so far. If Obama has failed to step up to the plate, this is not because he is dealing with a recalcitrant congress or an obstructive opposition party, but because he has failed to step up to the plate and perform the kairotic act. Here we have an event that is going to have massive economic and ecological impact that will reverberate for years, an event is a direct outcome of deregulation and corporate greed, an event that will, in one way or another effect all Americans, and we have an administration that refuses to quilt this event into a whole series of events that have buffeted both the country and the world. In Difference and Repetition Deleuze speaks of repetition in terms of resonances, echoes, and reflections of the past. In repetition the present actuality somehow is haunted by all sorts of other past events.

It is precisely something like this that is the case with the BP oil catastrophe. The oil catastrophe echoes and resonates not only with past oil catastrophes, but with the financial collapse, the West Virginia mining disaster, the exploitation of American tax payer dollars by contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the exploitation of American citizens by insurance companies, and on and on. If there were ever a moment to quilt together our economic woes, the impending environmental apocalypse, and rampant corruption among the corporations and government as a result of neoliberal ideology, this is that moment. Obama needs to step up to the plate and take advantage of this moment, performing a Kennedyesque moment not unlike that of persuading the American people to go to the moon.

The point isn’t that Obama will necessarily be successful in all that he asks for, but that asking for it plays an important function in structuring the dialogue and changing popular consensus as to what the function of government is and whether or not corporations truly are the best at running things. Now is the time to ask for big things. While I am aware that he has put more money into funding public transportation, why is he not linking the use of public transportation to patriotism? Here he would have a way of quilting the use of public transportation to the war in the Middle East, the death of soldiers and innocent civilians, massive expenditures on that war, and the environment. And here, also, he could make a call for boosting public transportation in the suburbs, encouraging us to take the bus or a train to work, rather than drive our cars. And while he’s at it, he could address highschool kids, who are much more environmentally minded than the older generations, and encourage them to take the bus to school rather than driving their car. He could work to make this a “cool” or “hip” thing to do for the environment.

In addition to public transportation, he could call for a radical shift in the trucking industry. In the United States alone trucks travel trillions of miles a year. Now is the time to call for a shift from diesel to natural gas in trucks, or, ideally, some environmentally friendly, biodegradable fuel. It is also the time to call upon congress to give large tax cuts to families that buy hybrid cars and who do things to make their homes more energy efficient.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Once again, the point is not that Obama will get all that we want. We won’t. The point is that things have to be put out there to get anything. As a result of all that’s taken place in recent years, I believe Americans are gradually waking up to the devastation wrought by neoliberalism economically, environmentally, in terms of political instability throughout the world and so on. However, we need a kairotic act that links these things together and that registers them for the big Other as a sort of force field in the symbolic order. Nor can we drag our feet at this time in history. We are not living in times of business as usual where incrementalism and political pragmatism is an acceptable way of proceeding. As the environmental apocalypse continues to intensify we will witness massive economic instability as the result of food shortages and the scarcity of water and fossil fuels, more pandemics unleashed as a result of the world heating up, and political instability and war as a result of the scarcity of these resources. Perhaps Obama will find the courage to engage in such kairotic acts if he is lucky enough to be elected for a second term, but it’s increasingly difficult to see him getting re-elected. There is nothing pragmatic or realistic about proceeding in such a wishy washy manner where winning the support of the electorate is concerned. The damage is largely done in the Gulf, but perhaps something good can nonetheless come of this catastrophe.

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Over at An Un-Canny Ontology Nate weighs in on our recent discussion of Life After People. Nate writes:

In his response to Tim and to my problem with the TV show Life After People, Levi over at Larval Subjects remarked:

I think narrative is a way in which these things take place, but is not the way. This is what I referred to in a prior post (over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, I think) as an occupational hazard. The rhetorician spends his or her time analyzing narratives and thus naturally sees narratives and signifiers in everything.

And then a little later:

The whole thing that set off my original post was Nate’s rather snide remark that all the object-oriented ontologist can say is “objects act”. Hell no. We’re interested in how objects act and celebrate those modes of analysis that show how objects act and what differences they contribute.

I’ve made bold this last sentence because it draws out a larger question. What, if we are not creating narratives, does Levi mean when he makes this last statement? A narrative is story set up in an sometimes enlightening but often constructive format. It can take shape in variety of forms (novels, short stories, poems, TV shows, movies, anecdotes, even grocery lists, etc, etc.). The first order observation that Levi fails to see when watching Life After People is that he is watching a narrative – I am in no way adding this narrative, as Levi claimed, since as a TV show Life After People is automatically a structured way of relaying a story – and if the title and the obvious fact that it is a TV show want to be ignored, one can always point out the second glaring reason – Life After People has a NARRATOR. The show, the story of a world without people still needs to be narrated, significance needs to be given to the objects of this specific (and post-human) world. BUT, this significance is not placed onto the show by an outside viewer as a first-order observation. No. It is inherent in the show itself, which brings me back to the original problem I had with it. When stripped of all of its narrative aspects, what are we left with? I would argue, that what we are left with is something far more boring than the job of a rhetorician.

There’s more there so check out his post. A couple of points are in order. First, nowhere have I denied that narrative is at work in the show. I just argued that I don’t think this is what is crucial or interesting in the show (I provide a narrative analysis I would find interesting later in this post). This is the point, in my recent post, of the garlic example. Just as I wouldn’t deny that the garlic plays a role in the pasta, I would not deny that narrative plays a role. What I am thus objecting to is the manner in which Nate and Tim are treating narrative as a God-term that is the only important difference at work in the show, or the only element that plays a role.

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For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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image004Responding to Paul Ennis’ Blogpost on Humanism, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliteration remarks that,

My first reaction was, “Well, we *caused* the technological debasement and ecological catastrophe! We could use a little slapdown as far as our importance in the universe is concerned.”

But I think that OOO doesn’t really amount to a slapdown. It’s more of a change in perspective.

If we accept that our thoughts, concepts, drives, etc. are inextricably embedded and embodied in the world; if we accept that our mathematics and formal systems are based on how the body and mind work, and have no separate existence or special, “pure” access to the way things really are; then we start to develop a perspective that lets us solve problems like technological debasement and ecological catastrophe.

Quite right. While all of those working within the framework of speculative realist thought would certain argue that they are not simply attempting to shift perspectives but are making genuine ontological claims, it is nonetheless the case that speculative realism will have done a service to philosophy if it manages to draw attention to dimensions of the world largely ignored by contemporary philosophy. Speculative realism can be usefully articulated in terms of Lacanian discourse theory. Depending on what it is engaging, speculative realist thought occupies each of Lacan’s four discourses. When speculative realism critiques correlationism or philosophies of access, it occupies the discourse of the hysteric, occupying the position of a split subject declaring that the emperor has no clothes. When it formulates an ontology it occupies the discourse of the master, introducing new signifiers that organize the buzzing confusion of the world. When research is undertaken employing these concepts, it occupies the discourse of the university, situating the unknown in terms of these categories and concepts.

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I have received a few outraged emails from folks I will not name as I don’t think this should be an issue about them, expressing ire over the fact that I have either not posted some of their comments or that I responded to them in a particular way that they believed to be over the top (apparently ignoring that this person and I have a long history that has not been happy). One of these emails was even vaguely threatening, digging up stuff on me on the internet as if to say “I know who you are!” This, of course, reminded me of tactics I’ve seen on rightwing blogs where people go after the personal lives of their opponents when they do not like what they’re saying and posting it on their blog inviting others to go after them at home or in their place of work. At any rate, I think a very basic point is being missed in these exchanges: civility, or, according to Merriam-Webster, a: civilized conduct, especially: COURTESY, POLITENESS, b: a polite act or expression.

I don’t know why this point is so difficult to grasp: Rudeness, mocking behavior, sarcasms, insults, etc., simply do not translate well in this medium and cause discussions to spiral out of control, becoming like a Cold War arms race, where each side begins to respond to the other side in a more heated manner, hurling uglier and uglier insults at one another. I admit it, I have a thin skin about these things. I don’t like them. I don’t feel I need them in my life. I don’t think a person’s intellectual contribution outweighs whether or not they contribute it in a way that they are civil. That is, given the choice of enduring a really obnoxious person that is brilliant and not enduring that person at all, I’ll choose the latter. I do not associate with mean and rude people in real life and have no desire to do so here. There’s plenty of other stimulating engagement to be had, so why bother with those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves in a civil way?

If Hegel taught us one thing, it is that social relations are, in part, based on mutual recognition and can only proceed on the basis of mutual recognition. Where that recognition is lacking or absent you only get endless struggle and conflict. Recognition and respect does not mean agreement, but it does entail relating to others with a modicum of politeness and respect. When I have occasionally pointed out incivility in another person’s comments or mode of address, I have either been told that I can’t take criticism and just want a bunch of people who agree with me milling about, or have been rewarded with the ever popular “but you do it to!” With regard to the former charge, I’m more than happy to entertain criticisms. What I can’t stand is obnoxious rudeness, not criticism or disagreement. Moreover, this way of responding is itself rude. When someone says to you “look, I really don’t like or enjoy how you’re addressing me!” you should say “sorry, my bad!”, not compound the problem by further attacking the person who feels they’ve been wrongly treated… At least, that’s the way a rational person who’s genuinely interested in discussion and the issues at hand, and who cares about others would respond. With regard to the latter charge, this is the whole problem with incivility: once it starts it spirals out of control and you get both sides hurling their shit at one another without being able to determine who hurled shit first or why. In the mean time, the discussion gets entirely side tracked as people air their hurt feelings about being wronged in this or that way. In light of recent events, I’ve concluded that my only recourse is to delete those comments that I find to be lacking in civility, or to be rude, obnoxious, or combative without contributing anything to the discussion. There’s no reason I should make my blog a place for the graffiti of those who seem only to desire pot stirring or generating conflict. My blood pressure doesn’t need it and it doesn’t look to me that those who conduct themselves in this way are really interested in discussion. A little civility goes a long way. A little respect in how one comports oneself goes a long way.

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.

In response to my recent diary on the public, Shahar of Perverse Egalitarianism writes:

the “pedagogic” comments are all too irritating, but then again, the hazard of the public is of course, nothing less than the perverse egalitarianism of the internet.

Recently, in an argument or line of reasoning that makes me suspicious or somewhat uncomfortable, I’ve been thinking that democracy is the one “true” form of the political. This line of reasoning arises in response to Socrates’ question in the Euthyphro where it is asked “is piety pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?” Under the first option, we get the logic of sovereignity, where the sovereign is the first term (whether that sovereign be the gods, God, the emperor, the priest, or the leader) such that the sovereign makes the good what it is. That is, under this first option there is nothing intrinsic to the nature of the good, but rather it is the will of the sovereign that makes the good what it is. Thus, for example, it is impossible to claim that the actions of Caligula or Nero are wrong in themselves, for Caligula and Nero, as sovereigns, are those who decree and create the law. By contrast, under the second option– moral realism –there are transcendent standards by which sovereignity itself can be evaluated. If the actions of the Greek gods or the Christian God can be said to be wrong, if it is possible to claim that the caesar is a bad emperor, then this is because there is some standard that transcends the gods, God, and the caesar. All of this is bound up intimately with previous diaries I have written on Lacan’s graphs of sexuation and, in particular, the masculine side of the graph of sexuation.

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