Rhetoric


This evening, while grading piles of essay quizzes and logic exams– with many more yet to go –I happened to catch a documentary on spree killers. Spree killers, of course, are people that go on killing sprees, killing a large number of people. As the show attempted to explain this phenomenon, it made reference to a psychological study done at a university (sadly the name and researcher escapes me), on this very phenomenon. The thesis– not a particularly elaborate or well developed one –is that people who have suffered continuous and constant rejection are especially prone to spree killing. In order to test this hypothesis (without producing the same result!), the psychologists called for groups of students to participate in an experiment. As usual, the students were not told what the experiment was for or were given a different account of what the experiment was about. First they would tell the students that they were going to work in groups to do a particular task. They then spoke to each of the participants in private, telling them either 1) that everyone else in the group had requested to work with them, or 2) no one wanted to work with them.

In order to determine the effects of this rejection, they had the students do word games on a computer, filling in the missing letters of words that would appear on screen. Thus, for example, a word such as “m r” or “s b” would appear on the screen and the student would be asked to fill in the first letters that came to mind. Not surprisingly, those students who had been rejected were more likely to turn the words into violent words like “murder” or “stab”, rather than say “slab”. As an additional level of this experiment, groups of two students would then do sound testing together, where they had the ability to raise the volume of their partner’s earphones to painful levels. Again, not surprisingly, those students who had been told they were rejected by everyone often raised the volume to the highest possible levels. The conclusion of the experiment, of course, is the rather obvious point that rejection generates violent and murderous thoughts that actively seek to negate the supposed “rejecters”.

What I find interesting in this experiment is not the light it sheds on spree killers, but on certain rhetorical encounters. Those familiar with Lacan will readily recognize the conflictual nature of the dimension of the Imaginary at work in this experiment, where two people enter into a struggle for recognition that can spiral out of control. Of course, Lacan’s imaginary is more sophisticated than what the experiment assumes, as the Lacanian would point out that in order for rejection to produce this sort of effect there must be a prior identification with the rejecter. That is, I must already recognize myself as either being like the person rejecting me or as desiring the recognition of the person rejecting me for these results to ensue. I do not, for instance, find myself upset if I’m rejected by members of the Ku Klux Klan or members of the Hal Bop cult. It is only those I already identify with who instill these violent impulses in me. Perhaps this is what Freud had in mind when referring to the “narcissism of minor differences” in Civilization and its Discontents, where the two groups are very much alike (Simpsons fans will think of the rivalry between Shelbyville and Springfield), yet find some minor difference to fight over that seems blown out of all proportions.

When I am rejected by those with whom I consciously or unconsciously identify at some level, my ego or specular identity is itself cut to the core, as like an onion I have constructed this identity or ego from out of my identification, thereby rendering it dependent on those who reflect me, such that my very being is endangered when it is rejected. I seek to strike back to destroy the gaze from which I see myself as myself, thereby hoping to re-establish or re-ground my identity. However, as Lacan points out, this dialectic is doomed to failure for if I am successful in destroying the other through whom I reflect myself I am not longer reflected and thereby cease to exist as well. It is a catch-22. In being rejected I cease to exist. In destroying my rejector, I cease to exist. Yet, I am dependent on my other in order to exist. (Here I am making a highly condensed allusion to Lacan’s dialectic of the forced choice between being and thinking in his account of alienation and separation. This, of course, would only refer to the alienation portion of that dialectic).

It seems that we encounter these rhetorical situations primarily in discussions about politics, academic debates about theoretical positions, interpretations, ownership of master-theoreticians, etc., and religion. In these cases, both groups involved seem to experience themselves as being marginalized and rejected, and then strike out to destroy their opponents. It is at this point that we get the cascade of rhetorical effects, where the opponent’s being is severely simplified and they are reduced to a malignant, evil other without any other possible merit, where ad hominems come into play, and where we strike out to completely obliterate the person we’re engaged in debate with. For the most part, I do not think the abusive rhetorical fallacies result from a conscious desire to willfully deceive, but rather they are almost like computer programs that are activated when certain conditions in the imaginary are ripe. Just as a strong gravitational field around a massive celestial object like the sun will produce an aberration in [Newtonian] bodies for closely orbiting planets (the famous shift in the planet Mercury), so too will these distortions of thought ineluctably emerge under certain ripe conditions in the imaginary. Similarly, a number of the other psychological fallacies will emerge when dealing with issues around which our libido, our desire, is tightly bound, leading us to either ignore certain things, turn other things into strawmen, be overly optimistic, etc.

I do not know what, if anything, can be done about this. It seems to me that there is a bit of an antinomy at work here at the place of sites of contestation. Politics, religion, and theory are all sites of struggle and conflict. They require taking positions and rejecting other positions. Yet by the same token, they are sites of dialogue. For me, the question is how these two things can be thought together in such a way as to minimize the antagonism that so commonly emerges around them. I suppose there’s a parallax here. I do not at all have the answers, though I continuously find this phenomenon frustrating, mystifying, and exceedingly painful.

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I came across this little gem of an exchange on a prominent conservative blog where United States Congressmen regularly post.

Whoah there, Gamecock, you just went from 0 to Howard Dean in about five seconds there. Back up a second. I didn’t say I agreed with all the comments Galeano made. It was an extremely one-sided piece that failed to credit Columbus for his legitimate accomplishments as a navigator and explorer. It also portrayed the Spanish conquests only from the perspective of the brutality of the Spaniards, without discussing the brutality of native civilizations. In the case of Mexico, Cortez defeated the Aztecs largely because he had thousands of Indian allies who joined him because they were fed up with abuses on the part of the Aztec overlords.

On the other hand, none of this has anything to do with the United States. Columbus neither discovered nor settled the area that became the continental United States. Nor is it true that without his discovery there would have been no United States (as you claim). The fact is that by 1492 improvements in European navigation made discovery and settlement of North and South America a dead certainty. Indeed, the Vikings (as we know now) had already discovered Greenland and Newfoundland sometime in the late 10th century. Moreover, Northern European fishermen from England, France, and Holland were already fishing the waters around present-day New England at about the same time the Spanish were conquering Mexico and Peru. So there is no reason to think that the colonization of those areas depended on Columbus’s exploits.

As far as Columbus day being an American holiday, who cares? The Knights of Columbus and the Italian-American community, that’s who. In 1892, as waves of Italian immigrants began pouring into this country, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation asking Americans to recognize Columbus’s achievement in some way. He didn’t specify how, nor did he make it an official holiday. But over the following decades the Knights of Columbus, an Italian-Catholic civic organization, became lobbying to have it recognized as a holiday throughout the country. Several states, including New York, obliged them, but it didn’t become an official U.S. holiday until 1971 (cough, Nixon had an election to win the following year, cough, cough). In all seriousness, it makes about as much sense for Americans to celebrate Columbus day as it does for us to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa, or Valentine’s Day (or even, dare I say it, MLK day?). And we have those noxious holidays for the same two reasons that we have Columbus Day. First, there are certain vocal communities within our society that insist, loudly and angrily, that the rest of spend time recognizing their achievements and heritage. Second, American retailers make a whole boatload of cash from these holidays.

So in conclusion, you can celebrate Columbus Day if you want (although I doubt you actually do celebrate it in any meaningful way). If you’re Italian, I don’t begrudge you the chance to connect with your inner Tony Soprano. Heck, if you just need a day off, any excuse will do. But don’t try to pretend it’s a patriotic thing, because that’s a load of crap.

A precedent embalms a principle.
– Disraeli

Gamecock responds:

Your claim is not logical. Columbus represents our tie to western civilization and how its virtues, including the discovery and conquest of our land that led to our founding
and our becoming the Beacon of Liberty, all of which the author is trashing by a historical fiction that lables Columbus a savage and the natives gentle.

He is suggesting it would have been better if Columbus had not come. To beleive that one has to believe that the world would have been better off.

That is insane, ie leftist world view. The view that hates America.

The thread continues in this vein for approximately fifty posts, becoming increasingly heated, denying anything negative from the historical record. A number of the posters even go so far as to claim that it is because of the United States that any country in the world has freedom. The position seems to be that either everything about Western history is good, or everything about Western history is bad. This argument wasn’t simply between two people, but a number expressed Gamecock’s sentiments. Incidentally, Gamecock is apparently an editorialist for his local newspaper. The first poster, apparently a highschool history teacher, provides all sorts of historical references to back up his claims throughout this fifty post exchange, yet is simply rejected for being critical of Gamecock. My question is this: In what possible universe would it be possible to have productive dialogue with such people? What is it that is going on here? What generates these sorts of beliefs? It is incredibly difficult for me to understand such people, yet they’re also extremely common here in the States. Is this something unique to our historical moment?

I will not link to the original site where this discussion took place. Having witnessed how members of these groups sometimes go after people personally, it’s best not to engage them at all. Free Republic, for instance, today posted the home address of the mentally disabled 12 year old boy used in the SCHIP commercials. Nice folk. I’d be happy to send the link through email to anyone curious to read the entire bizarre thread. It’s an excellent example of a certain structure of ideology. I tend to think that such texts are often more valuable than the work of ideological critics such as Althusser or Zizek… Or rather, that the work of ideological critics does not amount to much if you’re not familiar with these sorts of non-academic discourses.

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In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari write,

…[P]hilosophers have very little time for discussion. Every philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussions are fine for roundtable talks, but philosophy throws its numbered dice on another table. The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther, since the participants never talk about the same thing. Of what concern is it to philosophy that someone has such a view, and thinks this or that, if the problems at stake are not stated? And when they are stated, it is no longer a matter of discussing but rather one of creating concepts for the undiscussible problem posed. Communication always comes too early or too late, and when it comes to creating, conversation is always superfluous. Sometimes philosophy is turned into the idea of a perpetual discussion, as ‘communicative rationality,’ or as ‘universal democratic conversation.’ Nothing is less exact, and when philosophers criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs and that melt down the old concepts in the way a cannon can be melted down to make new weapons. It never takes place on the same plane. To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it. But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of philosophy. All of these debaters and communicators are inspired by ressentiment (Deleuze’s emphasis). They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another. Philosophy has a horror of discussions. (28-29)

Deleuze and Guattari must have been thinking of exchanges like this one with the lawyer Daniel, when writing the passage above. It is too much to even refer to such events as exchanges because nothing is exchanged. Those who participate appear to be talking to one another and to be talking about the same things, but are in fact talking about entirely different things. If this is the case, then it is because meaning is not in words, but is always the result of the relations a word shares with those other signifiers that are not present.

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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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