4.28.2009

Controlled Folly, or, The Rhetorician's Predicament

From time to time I have people with advanced degrees in Rhetoric lurk around here... Wrangler, Enthyalias, etc. And Mxrk took a class once I think.

So I've had a question lately: once you understand and really believe that everything is rhetorical and "subjective" (I know that's a messy term, but don't get snagged on it) and without an everlasting foundation in the Truth, how do you participate?

In "final" terms: how do you decide, for example, who to vote for? Do you just position yourself as the audience and justify it in those terms: "Well, whichever argument appeals to me more deftly is the one I follow."

But isn't that a kind of tautology? Or doesn't it beg the question? Something like that -- what I'm asking is, suppose I identify two compelling arguments about the way one should live... let's say one is as an ascetic in a monastery and the other is as a married person with kids and a job. For the rhetorician, neither is intrinsically "correct," and so I'm asking: what is the cause of the rhetorician's decision? More explicitly: what is the cause of personal preference?

For the record: I wish we were all in 215. You'd be able to tell from my tone that this isn't a set-up... I "came around" a couple of years ago, and I agree with almost everything I used to disagree with. Nevertheless, the "itch" I used to feel about Truth (which was to me a question of metaphysics/ontology) has been replaced by an "itch" to understand what motivates (an epistemological/psychological question). In other words, I'm a convert. I'm willing to listen. But I am sort of politely demanding an answer, or else I will come to the disappointing conclusion that the discipline of rhetoric is a rather mundane (if well-branded) version of "common sense."

Any takers?

Possibly relevant observation: In Carlos Castaneda's book, A Separate Reality (the one little Ben gave to Sayid), the guru-mentor Don Juan suggests that every path in life is equal, and therefore every next move is equal... he is stubborn in maintaining that there is no rational basis for action. And yet he goes on, day after day, in a kind of unjustified dance: "controlled folly," he calls it. But... once or twice Don Juan suggests that, although no path is better than any other, it's important that the chooser choose a path "with heart."

7 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I'll come back to this later, promise (we are running out for a dinner with the American Cancer Center of Tampa).

But I wanted to say quickly, that the attitude you lay out in your second paragraph describes "postmodern" more than it does "rhetoric." There are many rhetoricians that see Truth and seek ways to better communicate it. And, as you point out some times, there's plenty of postmodernists who tend to do the same.

The answer to the "postmodern paradox" you point to is... just because there can be no absolute epistemological answer does not mean all alternatives are equally valid. We still make choices--in fact we have to make choices, since we cannot rely on any "factual" decision. Rhetoric, understood more as inventive procedures for examining a problem or exploring change than as persuasion, style, arrangment, becomes more important--since I can only come to understand an issue through the language I use to engage it.

So, and this is a Derrida thing (again, whether you consider him a rhetorician is up to you), you make a decision aware of your limitations.

Got to go enjoy some good food with good people (my wife gave me the option of going or staying home... I chose to go...).

Casey said...

That's a clear distinction I haven't heard very much in the past, Wrangler ... I like it. I always wondered if the careful study of rhetoric was a "symptom" (or "manifestation," if you think of it in positive terms) of the postmodern mindset. If rhetoricians continue their discipline as we move past/beyond/away-from (whatever) postmodernity, that'll be really awesome, in my view. It would involve "closed-circuit" communities sharing axioms so thoroughly that they stop talking about the axiomatic foundations of what they're talking about...

For example, it might involve Christians talking about the best rhetorical strategies for converting the savages without necessarily considering whether converting the savages was an ethical act.

---

But I'm asking about ends: even given the constraints (which Wishydig & I are wishy-washy about) suggesting that language mediates all thinking... how do we decide whether to convert the savages or not? Or whether, for example, to vote democrat or not? Wouldn't you guess (with me) that the vast majority of academic rhetoricians voted for Obama last year? Why was that? Was it solely rhetorical positioning... or was it also the shared "sense-of-life?"

I guess what I'm wondering is whether we might say that the conviction about what-is-Truth precedes rhetoric, and determines how one will respond to what is pronounced. But I'm not sure about that.

Fuck cancer!

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Hmm... I'm not sure how I want to respond to this one, so here goes (and I'm kind of thinking out loud here).

The development of postmodern theory (and ideology, culture, its proliferation throughout the academy and elsewhere in the late 20th century) and the resurgence of rhetoric are certainly related. Perhaps Wittgenstein would be a player to start with here--as would Burke, Rorty, any of those pre-Frenchies. Once you start accepting that language is not a clear, transparent medium--that it is interpretive, active, and (at some of the most critical times) illusive, you open up a path to dealing with the probable rather than the True. That's what Gorgias suggests to Socrates in the dialogue. And a few of us have taken it and run with it, in hopefully creative and productive directions.

Now, I've tried to frame both postmodern theory and rhetoric as primarily concerned with ethical relations--so the first question, for both, is the question of WHETHER to convert the savages. Which is not the same question as whether I want to vote democrat. Now, if I want you to vote democrat, that's different. Two very, very different questions.

As to why many academics vote democrat, well I would say here that our institutional positions certainly suggest particular ideologies--but whether we inhabit those institutions because we already held those ideologies or we learned those ideologies on the scene is one of those "chicken and the egg" kind of questions. Its about causality and origins--and, frankly, I find those questions unanswerable. Usually, such discussions interest me only because, in watching how other's answer the question, you can often locate their foundation, their meta-physical assumption.

Here's another thought in motion: the decision about what-Truth-is is not solely a conscious decision, I don't make that decision. "I" am certainly a part of that decision, but numerous other factors--location, history, time of day, whether I have eaten lunch, etc. factor in to such a decision. For centuries, we've accepted that human decision making is never entirely rational (I'm thinking back to Swift and Hamann, and then Freud and friends), but I think contemporary neuroscience has shown just how many other affective influences underlie (undermine) conscious decision making. And, the choice of underlie or undermine probably insinuates how much one desires the conscious I to be in control.

K, back to grading, thanks for the break. Hey, have you read Edmundson's dismissal of reading through theory in the Chronicle? It sounds up your alley.


Wouldn't you guess (with me) that the vast majority of academic rhetoricians voted for Obama last year? Why was that? Was it solely rhetorical positioning... or was it also the shared "sense-of-life?"

Casey said...

I hear that...

Doe said...

I'm new to the site however I was ready your blog. I don't know where you come from but I really enjoy the way you write...also the song you "love the best" was beautiful and the pictures were breath taking....Thank you for posting them. Peace,Doe

Doe said...

So sorry I meant reading and spelt it wrong...........Peace,Doe

Casey said...

Thanks, Doe. I come from Michigan!