Rhetoric


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This week we began Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my intro philosophy courses. I am extremely excited to teach this text. Not only is it beautifully written, but Lucretius’ brilliance glows on every page in both the ethical concerns that animate the text and his precise and careful observations of various natural phenomena to support his arguments. In my view, a good philosophical thesis problematizes the world and creates research projects. Where before certain things seemed to be obvious features of the world, these hitherto familiar things now become bathed in the light of problems, demanding explanation in terms of the overarching thesis. Thus, for example, Lucretius’ atomism now turns the growth of a tree or water oozing from cave walls into problems or questions to be explained in terms of atoms. Stunning philosophical claims suddenly burst forth like lightening, such as the the claim that “all things are porous”.

Increasingly it looks like Lucretius was mistaken in his conception of atoms as the smallest units of indestructable matter– quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there are no smallest units of matter, only various rhythms and intensities of energy defined more as relations or fields that perpetually reconstitute themselves as dynamic processes in relation to other point-fields, than individual points –but nonetheless Lucretius’ thesis remains one that bathed the world in clarity, making possible questions and explanations that were not otherwise possible. This, too, is a virtue of a good thesis: It becomes lively towards its own material, such that the conditions are created where it can encounter the limits of what it is able to explain, allowing new theses to emerge. When thought is a patchwork quilt with no convictions, such liveliness does not occur as the most heterogeneous elements sit side by side in the patchwork making no claim on the matter.

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A Disclosure

One of Heidegger’s central contributions to philosophy was his concept of truth as aletheia. Ordinarily truth is understood as a correspondence between a proposition and a state-of-affairs. For instance, the proposition “the sun is shining” is true if, in fact, the sun is shining. A key feature of this conception of truth is that the state-of-affairs to which the proposition refers is transcendent to the proposition, independent of the proposition, and exists in its own right regardless of whether or not the proposition is enunciated. The proposition in no way effects the thing itself. Another theory of truth treats truth as coherence. A proposition here is true if it coheres with a body or web of propositions as in the case, perhaps, of Hegel’s system.

For Heidegger, by contrast, truth is aletheia or the disclosedness or revealing of being. Lest I earn the condemnation of the Heideggarians, I will say upfront that I will not here do Heidegger’s conception of truth as aletheia justice, nor is it my intention to give a careful analysis of his claims. Rather, I wish to indicate how it might be of use in thinking certain rhetorical phenomena.

To claim that truth is aletheia or disclosedness is to claim that an entity must first disclose or reveal itself as a particular sort of entity prior any statements we might make about it. Perhaps this idea can best be elucidated by way of the human body. In encountering the body as a seat of action, an object of medical intervention, a sexual object, and so on, is the body disclosed or revealed in the same way? In living my body, there’s a way in which its physicality, its nature as a volume, flesh, a surface, disappears. Far from being an object like other objects in the world, there’s an invisibility about my lived body, a specific bodily intentionality, such that it is not my body that is the focus of engagement, but rather the destinations towards which I move and the objects with which I am engaged. My hand is not this geometry of flesh, bone, and sinew, but rather is a grasping that is entirely exhausted in this act of typing or this grasping of my coffee cup. To say that my lived body is “exhausted” in this act of typing or in taking hold of the coffee cup and drinking is not to say that it is fatigued, but rather that it disappears in these acts by virtue of the very activity of revealing the world that it is engaged in. It is the coffee cup that is disclosed, the words on the screen, the destination towards which I am moving, not the lived body itself. As such, the lived body is more a collection of vectors, trajectories, directions, illuminating the world independent of it, rather than a geometrical shape and configuration of flesh, bone, and sinew.

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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?

One of the things I will never understand are those who complain privately to one another, yet never speak to those in charge about what vexes them. It seems to me that there are those who believe that they can effect change in the world around them and those who do not. Nor is this an issue of being a realist. Rather, there is a very real sense in when these respective subjective positions are existential structures, perhaps “existentiales” in Heidegger’s sense of the word, or are fundamental ways of relating to the world or “shapes of consciousness” similar to what Hegel describes in the Phenomenology.
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The last few days I’ve been rather amiss in blogging. I’ve been heavily immersed in research and just haven’t had much time to write. Happily, however, I received a call for an on-campus interview today. Hopefully it won’t be the last such call.

In a rather pointed post, Kenneth Rufo responds to one of my queries as to how it is possible to be influenced. Kenneth quotes me from my Forcing the Event entry, where I write,

I think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: “What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced.” I’ve seen some work done among the systems theory that’s promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there’s a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn’t simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either.

To this Kenneth responds,

You know, there is a field that actually spends a fair amount of time on this exact question: rhetoric. It’s got a long tradition, it precedes philosophy, and there’s a subfield that deals with social movements, though I can’t speak to the quality of that scholarship. For particular people you might enjoy, I suppose I’m obligated to suggest Kenneth Burke, though he’s hardly my cup of tea. I’d also recommend a few contemporary scholars: Celeste Condit (she’s done some ideographic studies of abortion, genetics, and a few other topics), Barb Biesecker (articles more than book, though her Addressing Postmodernity is pretty good), Michael Hyde (more of an ethical, Levinas/Heidegger influenced version of rhetoric), John Durham Peters (his Speaking Into the Air is masterful), and Christine Harold (who’s book OurSpace comes out in April). I can be more specific if you have a particular example of symbolic structuration you’re grappling with, or if you can clarify what such a structuration might be in practice. Not that rhetoricians have any particularly final answer, but it might be useful to look at the stuff. As for the dialectical arrangement you’re alluding to, I’d at least advocate some engagement with Bourdieu, since his theory of structuration is predicated on a conception of agency as a dialectic between habitus and agent.

I think, perhaps, Kenneth here misses the focus of my original question and elides two distinct concepts: The concept of influence and the concept of persuasion. While these two concepts are interrelated, they are nonetheless distinct and respond to different issues. It is impossible for me to be persuaded without being influenced, however, I can quite easily be influenced without it being a matter of persuasion. What is at issue here are questions about the selective openness of organizations to the world. That is, an organization, whether it be a biological organism, a subject, a social system, etc., is only selectively open to the world and thus can only be selectively influenced. For instance, I am unable to perceive ultra-violet light.

As I see it, one of the central assumptions of vulger historicist approaches is the idea that we are unilaterially conditioned by an environment. That is, the idea is that we’re born in an environment and somehow this environment makes us what we are. This view is common, for instance, to both Foucault and Bourdieu. What this account of individuation misses is the way in which subjects are only selectively open to an environment such that there’s a way in which we always choose our cultural and historical influences. Zizek expresses this point brilliantly in Tarrying With the Negative through the lense of Hegel’s “doctrine of essence” in the science of logic. There Zizek writes that,

Another way to exemplify this logic of ‘positing the presuppositions’ is the spontaneous ideological narrativization of our experience and activity: whatever we do, we always situate it in a larger symbolic context which is charged with conferring meaning upon our acts. A Serbian fighting Muslim Albanians and Bosnians in today’s ex-Yugoslavia conceives of his fight as the last act in the centuries-old defense of Christian Europe against Turkish penetration; the Bolsheviks conceived of the October Revolution as the continuation and successful conclusion of all previous radical popular uprisings, from Sparticus in ancient Rome to Jacobins in the French Revolution (this narrativization is tacitly assumed even by some critics of Bolshevism who, for example, speak of the ‘Stalinist Thermidor’); the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea or the Sendero Luminoso in Perud conceive of their movement as a return to the old glory of an ancient empire (Inca’s empire in Peru, the old Khmer kingdom in Cambodia); etc. The Hegelian point to be made is that such narratives are always retroactive reconstructions for which we are in a way responsible; they are never simple given facts: we can never refer to them as a found condition, context, or presupposition of our activity. Precisely as presuppositions, such narratives are always-already ‘posited’ by us. Tradition is tradition insofar as we constitute it as such. (126-7)

The point here is subtle but important: The subject is never simply a product of history or the result of conditioning, but rather posits those conditions through which it might be influenced and constitute itself. Or, where the writing of history is concerned, there is always an invisible subject– invisible insofar as there is no signifier for the subject –that posits x as history. Along these lines, my dear friend Melanie enjoys poking fun at me for my psychoanalytic narratives here on Larval Subjects, as she sees something false or contrived in the way I narrate myself. Here she is absolutely correct in that I often portray myself as a product of the events I narrate, as a sort of emergence, rather than as positing these events myself as a way of producing my presents. Indeed, my narratives are a sort of buffoonery. Sadly I haven’t yet developed the literary talent of Lars in his narrative conventions. Whatever the case may be, the Lacanian subject is a void, a lack, that animates the signifying chain. In short, the Lacano-Hegelian subject is– unlike the historicists –never simply a product of conditioning individuation such that it could be reduced to being a historically determined subject position. The question is one of how this lack, this nothingness, this absence of any successful identification, is handled and lived.

Zizek makes this point well apropos Hegel’s discussion of identity in the science of logic. Quoting Hegel, Zizek writes,

Father is the other of son, and son the other of father, and each only is as this other of the other; and at the same time, the one determination only is, in relation to the other… The father also has an existence of his own apart from the son-relationship; but then he is not father but simply man… Opposites, therefore, contain contradiction in so far as they are, in the same respect, negatively related to one another or sublate each other and are indifferent to one another. (SL 441)

The inattentive reader may easily miss the key accent of this passage, the feature which belies the standard notion of the ‘Hegelian Contradiction’: ‘contradition’ does not take place between ‘father’ and ‘son’ (here, we have a case of simple opposition between two codependent terms); it also does not turn on the fact that in one relation (to my son) I am ‘father’ and in another (to my own father) I am myself ‘son,’ i.e., I am ‘simultaneously father and son.’ If this were the Hegelian ‘contradiction,’ Hegel would effectively be guilty of logical confusion, since it is clear that I am not both in the same respect. The last phrase in the quoted passage from Hegel’s Logic locates the contradiction clearly inside ‘father’ himself: ‘contradiction’ designates the antagonistic relationship between what I am ‘for the others’– my symbolic determination –and what I am ‘in myself,’ abstractedly from my relations to others. It is the contradiction between the void of the subject’s pure ‘being-for-himself’ and the signifying feature which represents him for the others, in Lacanian terms: between $ and S1. More precisely, ‘contradiction’ means that it is my very ‘alienation’ in the symbolic mandate, in S1, which retoractively makes $– the void which eludes the hold of the mandate– out of my brute reality: I am not only ‘father,’ not only this particular determination, yet beyond these symbolic mandates I am nothing but the void which eludes them (and, as such their own retroactive product). (130-1)

This, then, is one of the meanings of Lacan’s discourse of the master:

S1—>S2

$

When Lacan remarks that “the signifier represents the subject for another signifier” it must be understood that the subject as such never appears in the signifier or that the subject is always effaced by the signifier. That is, when the subject falls under the signifier it suffers an aphanisis or disappearance, which is why Lacan will claim, in “Position of the Unconscious” that the subject is a temporal pulsation that disappears the moment that it appears and that can only be tracked through the traces it leaves (traces in symptoms, bungled actions, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc). These formations of the unconscious, in effect, are attempts to fill the void that is the subject, to produce a signifier that would be adequate to that void once and for all or that would be capable of naming it. However, this void is ineradicable (i.e., it’s a constitutive result of the individual’s subordination to the signifier). As Lacan will write, “For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with the real– a real that may well not be determined” (Seminar XI, 22). There is always one signifier too few and it is for this reason that there is no subject without a symptom (Seminar 22: RSI).

It is here that Lacan differs most radically from the postmoderns. Where the general trend of theory today is to reduce the subject to power, history, language, subject-positions, etc., Lacan demonstrates that between symbolic identity and the subject there is always a gap. The “cash-value” of this move is immense– On the one hand, Lacan is able to answer the question of why the subject is led to identify in the first place. As Freud had already argued well before Lacan, the ego dimension of the subject (which is always a misrecognition) is the precipitate of identifications. But what is it that motivates these identifications? Lacan’s answer is that my flight to the Other, to the signifiers of the Other, is the attempt to fill my “want-to-be” through identification. I look to the Other to tell me what I am. However, just as the central hole in a torus can never be filled, every identification is ultimately a failed identification (which is yet another reason that the formation of symptoms such as the symptom of the “Jew” for the German nationalist) as the hole insists and subverts the identification. As a result, there is always a kernal of resistance to any field of identification. The aim of the cultural critic should therefore be to lay bare these tensions, these antagonisms, so as effect a change in the symptom and how the symptom is organized. From the historicist standpoint this would be impossible as historicism is essentially Leibnizian: “Everything has a reason!” What it is unable to think is the kernal of contingency, of non-being, at the heart of any positive formation. The question here becomes one of devising technologies to shift the symbolic coordinates of narrative fields of identification so that antagonism as such might become thinkable.

None of this, of course, is to deny Kenneth’s observations about the importance of rhetoric. I work closely with rhetoric and with rhetoricians– at my school they’re my primary interlocutors. In my view, the central insight of the rhetoric tradition is that the subject is inherently intersubjective… Which is to say, the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. Even if poorly executed, this is part of Zizek’s own brilliance. On the one hand, Zizek has recognized the central importance of Lacan in giving us a truly rigorous intersubjective conception of the subject that thoroughly breaks with the tradition of seeing the questions of philosophy posed strictly in terms of subject-object relations. The minimal dyad is a triad: not subject-object, but rather subject-Other-object. No one has gone further than Lacan in thinking through the manner in which the subject’s desire, all its object relations, it’s very being in the world is thoroughly caught up in relations to the Other. This insight was glimpsed in philosophy beginning with the progressive shift towards language, history, and power in philosophy– all of which led to a philosophical crisis surrounding questions of presence –but it is with Lacan that this topology is thoroughly elaborated. On the other hand, Zizek has clearly seen that only something like Hegelian dialectic– beginning with the lord/bondsman dialectic in the genesis of self-consciousness –is successful in escaping the metaphysics of presence insofar as it conceives the subject’s relation to the world and the Other in terms of self-relating negativity capable of discerning itself in difference itself. This is a project that needs to be worked out far more thoroughly and rigorously. It is to the credit of the rhetoricians that they recognized from the beginning that questions of epistemology, ontology, metaphysics, ethics, etc., were questions of intersubjectivity and relations to the Other, such that any posing of these questions in restricted subject-object terms were bound to be truncated and mutilated.

However, where Kenneth’s remarks seem to suggest an opposition between rhetoric and philosophy, I would prefer to see something like a Lacanian real or parallax. As Zizek describes it,

The key problem here is that the basic ‘law’ of dialectical materialism, the struggle of opposites, was colonized/obfuscated by the New Age notion of the polarity of opposites (ying-yang, and so on). The first critical move is to replace this topic of the polarity of opposites with the concept of the inherent ‘tension,’ gap, noncoincidence, of the One with itself. This… is based on a strategic politico-philosophical decision to designate this gap which separates the One from itself with the term parallax. [already extensively thematized in the brilliant For They Know Not What They Do…, that no one bothers to read]. There is an entire series of the modes of parallax in different domains of modern theory: quantum physics (the wave-particle duality); the parallax of neurobiology (the realization that, when we look behind the face into the skull, we find nothing: ‘there’s no one at home’ there, just piles of gray matter– it is difficult to tarry with this gap between meaning and the pure Real); the parallax of ontological difference, of the discord between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological (we cannot reduce the ontological horizon to its ontic ‘roots,’ but neither can we deduce the ontic domain from the ontological horizon; that is to say, transcendental constitution is not creation); the parallax of the Real (the Lacanian real has no positive-substantial consistency, it is just the gap between the multitude of perspectives on it)… (7)

And so on. And to this I add the parallax of language between rhetoric and philosophy, or language in its address to an-Other where I can use the truth to tell a lie– WIFE: “Were you out with that redhead at the bar lastnight?” HUSBAND: [Sarcastically] “Of course darling, and after we rented a hotel room and had sex that’s illegal in 42 states all night long.” WIFE: “Sorry, I just thought I smelled perfume on you and my imagination got away with me.” –and language in its demonstrative and referential function to the world. The key point, of course, is that we are not to choose one or the other horns of the parallax but are rather to think them in their very gap, in their very heterogenoues irreducibility to one another. My rhetorician colleagues always express a sort of bitterness and hostility towards philosophy (no doubt they’re still angry over Plato banishing them from the Republic), and philosophers, of course, express a disdain for rhetoric, as can be witnessed in the solipsistic rigor of texts such as Descartes’ Meditations, Hegel’s Logic, or Husserl’s Ideas, where a palpable negation of the Other (as reader) seems to take place in the deductive meditations. Likewise, the rhetor often seems to reject questions of Truth. Indeed, today it increasingly seems that the most audacious and unforgivable thing one can do is proclaim a Truth. There is a veritable prohibition against Truth. Yet if the subject is constituted in the field of the Other, if the subject is an effect of the signifier in the real of the biological body, then there can be no question of choosing between rhetoric or philosophy. Rather, there can be no worldly statement that doesn’t already make reference to both the Other and the other, no demonstrative statement that is a solipsistic intellectual reverie. Rather, it’s high time that the parallax gap, the central antagonism motivating this inaugural division of disciplines and practices, be thought in its own right.

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