5.11.2009

Emerson & Lanham -- Perception & Rhetoric

From Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 essay, "Self-Reliance":
Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions, or rather much more readily; for, they do not distinguish between perception and notion. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. But perception is not whimsical, but fatal. If I see a trait, my children will see it after me, and in course of time, all mankind, — although it may chance that no one has seen it before me. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun.
From Richard Lanham, pointed out by Noise-in-Formation (some time after 1841):
...truth is determined by social dramas, some more formal than others but all man-made. Rhetoric in such a world is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative. Truth once created in this way becomes referential, as in legal precedent. The Strong Defense implies a figure/ground shift between philosophy and rhetoric-in fact, as we shall see, a continued series of shifts.
It seems to me that Lanham is not distinguishing between perception and notion. Any comments? Either that, or I'm missing where he makes the distinction. Try to fill in the blank:
  • Perception : notion :: Rhetoric : _______
Plagiarism issues aside, Lanham seems to be collapsing an important distinction... I certainly won't call him a "thoughtless person," but I would be interested in hearing how and when this collapse toook place, and I will further ask who wasn't looking? Wrangler you've said recently that there is no consciousness without language." Wishydig and I and Emerson disagree.

I do think we might say:
  • Perception : notion :: Consciousness : Language
But you seem to be arguing for collapsing that distinction. You believe, for example, that a mosquito (a being without language) perceives, but that human perception can never be like a mosquito's, which is to say unmediated by language. I'm saying it can be. And I'm also saying that as Rhetoric tries to replace metaphysics at the foundation place in Western thought (once again?), it will have to articulate a clear and persuasive rationale for this collapse.

[As I'm starting to understand this argument, feel free to point out any unfair summaries or my use of any "skewed" definitions. This whole conversation seems WILDLY important to me. Here's how I feel: like I'm fourteen years old and I just walked into the kitchen and my mom and dad were talking and saying, "I think we should leave tomorrow." "No, I think we should leave Wednesday." And I ask, "What's this about leaving?" And they say, "Oh, yeah... we've been talking about it and we've decided to move to Hawaii and we're either leaving Tuesday or Wednesday," and then they try to get back to the debate about whether the departure is going to be Tuesday or Wednesday. Naturally, I'm about to say, "Wait a fucking minute. Nobody's going anywhere until Casey gets convinced this is a necessary and proper move." And that may just be a perfect explanation of how I feel, especially if it ends up being Rhetoric that makes the final decision: "Because I said so, that's why."]

6 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I keep meaning to come back to this discussion, but work has been overwhelming. Frankly, I just cannot follow the perception-notion-rhetoric analogy. I can only say, again, that what you (and this is the you of consciousness) perceives through language. But, perhaps it is better for me here to use the Burkian term: cognition of perception is overdetermined by the symbolic. This would distinguish us from the mosquito--since we, unlike animals, create symbols not only for functional means, but to theorize the possibility of creating symbols for functional means. It is this meta-symbolic activity, for Burke, that is unique to humans. This is not to say that there isn't a mosquito in you--only that the mosquito cannot speak--even to you--without the mediation of a language. Once language has you, there is no going back, and language has all of us, functionally, since infancy. Hence, I find the question of whether language precedes experience or vice versa quite confusing.

Another Burkian concept underwriting my thoughts on the subject comes from his essay "Terministic Screens" in which Burke essentially argues that any act of expression relies on the selection of terms, and that these terms (to interject a little Derrida) are always, already inadequate to their task. Here's the line that gets quoted all the time: "Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality." This leads to another famous Burkism: "a way of seeing is a way of not seeing" (from Permanence and Change.

In essence, I would use Burke to critique the foundational security of Emerson's "seeing," and the surety that children will see exactly as the father--that we see universally.

And, again, I am open to how the human mind and body "think" outside of consciousness. But I will interject that we do not have access to the meaning of these thinkings outside of consciousness and language.

Along these Burkian lines, I think its productive to read Lanham's introduction to The Economics of Attention:

"Rhetoric" has not always been a dirty word, the opposite of sincerity, truth, and good intentions. For most of its life it meant the training in expression, spoken and written, that you need to play a useful role in human society. It became a dirty word in the seventeenth century, when science, trying to describe the world of stuff, wanted to abolish the distortions of human attention structures. Human communication ought to be like the United Parcel Service, an efficient mover of information between boxes from one destination to the other. This model for human communication gains its power from its narrowness, but we need a wider model for an attention economy. Information does not come in simple neutral boxes and its distribution is a more complex matter altogether.

Lanham identifies this as a conspicuous attention to language. Thinking of the strong defense, this equates to approaching language as the imperfect foundation for all human endeavor (including, of course, the development of language). The ambiguities surrounding language, rather than viewed suspiciously as noise crowding up the joint, are the music that brings us together to join in the band (of America, academia, humanity--whatever, as long as we are jointed around disjunction). All the plays between seeing and hearing are probably here intentional.

Now I have to finish letting my Levinas show (a bit). Self-reliance, for Levinas, would be a disgusting concept. For Levinas ethics translate into the other interrupting my joyous possession of the world. Ontology, hermeneutics, epistemology--the primary concerns of classical philosophy and Modern science (and, I would argue, traditional literary study) betray such an interruption--they are focused on the self and the universal (so that the other becomes reduced in an economy of the same). These are approaches to writing at their most instrumental.

But such betrayal is for Levinas unavoidable--since language, and its externalizing, reductive power [see Burke], is the price of manifestation. Nothing can Be without this betrayal.I don't have the texts in front of me, so sorry no quote here. His ethics, aligning themselves with radical Judaic tradition, one which impossibly tries to position reading, writing, thinking as a radically individual activity (my idiosyncratic possession of the text) responsible to others (social) and the Other (theological-transcendent). I (mis)read this "faulty" writing (as Derrida calls it) through Burke as a writing rotten with its own unavoidable imperfections. In my diss, I playful put this as: Levinas approaches writing as riting (an invitation to the other) rather than righting.

I'm running on empty, so that's all I have for now. I'll try to come back and write more about Lanham's strong defense later--especially as it relates to Grassi's seminal Rhetoric and Philosophy.

Casey said...

That was one of the best comments I've ever received. Well spoken.

I'm going to do a post pretty soon about the connotations of "Rhetoric" (the dirty-word-ness of it). I'll title the post "Rhetoric: an Outsider's View" or something.

I'm also going to do a post on "authority," and what we do when we disagree about the authority of a speaker (that is, you think quoting Burke helps; I think countering with Jung helps... round we go!).

One other thing: you and Kristen have made clear to me a pretty interesting idea... namely, that you're not exactly saying that the ineffable doesn't exist, only that we can't "access it" except by way of language. What if I offered this refinement as a caveat: we cannot communicate it except by way of language -- but we can experience it raw, and unnamed, so long as we are okay keeping it to ourselves. Now, obviously, I'm begging the question: "if it's really unnameable, why are you trying to talk about it all the time, Casey?" Hmm... more on that in the forthcoming Wallace Stevens post.

Also, incidentally: what do you think of the title of that textbook, "Everything's an Argument?" I think I've heard you say stuff like that before...

I know that I've been treading on the thin ice of egoist/fascist language lately -- but it often feels as though the ever-increasing claims staked out by Rhetoric are the looming threat. It's not that you want to eliminate literature altogether, for example -- you just want it to fall under you expertise. Is that right? I'll wait to hear back from you before I do my post on Gorgias and the outsider's view of Rhetoric.

Then I'll address your Levinasian critique of Emerson in a later post.

(Wow -- lots of material... I swear, some day we should just publish a dialogue and be the Socrates and Gorgias of our day. Now we just need to find an unbiased recorder like Plato to write it all down... unbiased like that, right? )

Insignificant Wrangler said...

On Emerson--and this is a quickie (promise)--I've always found "Self-Reliance" annoying, sophomoric, and boorish. But--and I think this is true since I was very young--I find any "thinking" that absolutely rejects sociality--that marks the social as imposition upon our otherwise grand natures--worthless. The young boy needs a spanking.

I find the Emerson of "Circles" far more complex, rich, and flat out difficult. But, whenever someone mentions Emerson, this is the text (a later work) to which I am drawn.

My response to Emerson would be that the Hodiernal poet is still within the Circle-there is no need to equate his perspective with a granduer, or to simultaneously embed him within yet distance him from time (so that the poet sees more of his own day by "speaking" less of it).

"Therefore we value the poet. All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopaedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petrarch or Ariosto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities. He claps wings to the sides of all the solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice."

Only the poet? Or rather the Dionysian spirit pervading other forms, expectations. Or call it differance. Or sophistry. Or the strong defense.

What it calls for, I want to argue, is an approach to writing that interrupts assurance without falling back into the ipseity of the subject as Subject. I am not interested in solipsism--rather, I'm working toward a notion of meaning in tension with the "social."

Hmm... not sure I'm making sense here.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Oh--in case it is not clear. There's no "keeping it to yourself" since even "you" cannot have it outside of language. To possess it--possess that which has taken possession of you--you have to take you and it back to you (to convert this other experience into something recognizable to the same--or, following Levinas, to reduce the other's "saying" to a "said"--to but the experience of becoming into the language of Being--to speak it, to make it "to be" etc. etc. etc. Don't miss the 2:00 show).

Put simply to keep "it," "it" has to appear to you "to be" kept. Contamed in language. Which, given your outlook, might be more contained or more contaminated.

Casey said...

I'll take all of this into account as I write my Gorgias treatise.

I actually agree with you -- "Circles" is one of my favorite Emerson essays, and like you, I prefer it to "Self-Reliance." But in Emerson's defense, he was almost certainly drawing from the Hindu scriptures when he used the word "Self," a term that is scattered all over the Upanishads and means, very clearly, "Big Self," which is to say, "the One." I also have long marveled at how "able" (not that you're doing this unthoughtfully or too-quickly) you are to dismiss someone like Emerson (or Plato) as "boorish and sophomoric." Frankly, I find it stunning and incomprehensible. It makes me feel absolutely incompetent to the task of explaining myself to you: after all, I really am a mosquito compared to thinkers like that, or compared to thinkers like Gorgias and Kenneth Burke.

Again, I'm not sure how this feels to you, but to me it ultimately feels like we agree: sociality is a HUGE part of being human... Like you, I agree that all is social. I only insist on differing at that point about language being the only means of sociality. I see "orgasm," for example, as something may precede language and be social... and strangely, I'm even talking about masturbatory orgasm.

[Abandon hope ye who enter here]

For example, the first time I had an orgasm I was about 8 or 9 years old. If I had heard the word, I had no idea what it referred to. When I achieved my first genital victory (ahem), I had that experience in the company of all those who had had a similar experience by themselves before they knew the word. That is a kind of communion to me, but it is located in raw experience, and is not rooted in language -- I might say that we are social before we speak to each other.

Indeed, I hope you'll admit that there's something not-rhetorical about orgasm (and that there's more to it even after we have the word for it... perhaps like the name of G-d, Orgasm's true name is unspeakable). If you won't, it will have become clear to me that you're just using the word "Rhetoric" as a synonym for "the Universe" -- a clever trick, but not worth much more of my time.

Casey said...

P.S., Wrangler: did you watch that Ken Wilber video? It strikes me as being very nearly quantitative proof that a person can experience without using language... and even without using reason... or "mind."