09 October 2006

Interventionist Rhetoric

Responding to my post entitled "Philosophy as Rhetoric", Lynn from State Street remarks that,
Maybe, the project as you have outlined it is not possible in the way you have framed it. A philosophy/rhetoric that tries to renegotiate the possible versus the impossible depends on the underlying social conditions. In particular, when the prevailing ideological assumptions conflict with material social conditions, the way is open to imagine and communicate new possibilities. Without sufficient motivation for changing the prevailing social conditions, the task of developing new possibilities seems too arduous and risky. A causal chain might go like this: social conditions generate the recognition of social problems and inherent conflicts with prevailing ideology; social problems enlist the imaginative resources of thinkers to solve the problem; imaginative resources generate the kinds of philosophy and rhetoric that elucidates new possibilities and new methods used to persuade.

Taking the time to formulate new possibilities, is not so much seeking new coordinates to measure a prevailing system, but rather discovering new axioms that have a better claim to truth. If the prevailing social axioms are not materially in conflict with perceived social reality, those who espouse new possibilities will not find an audience suitably motivated to listen to appeals and arguments about new possibilities. Opinions will remain the same, that is, unless one can break the deadly embrace between misperceived social reality and ideology; and that is, if, indeed, social reality is misperceived.

An audience yet to be is an audience who will be partially determined by future social conditions. Predicting the state of both to lay foundations for their conversion or receptiveness to new possibilities seems very difficult to do. Without good predictions about these states, ones having a high degree of confidence, there seems no point in seeking new possibilities before the fact.

Maybe, all I am saying is that seeking new possibilities within the horizon of predictability is better than seeking possibilities that seem outside the horizon of predictability.
I think Lynn is exactly right. What I am trying to get at in my discussion of the rhetorical dimension of philosophy is the underlying social conditions governing speech acts at any given point in time. In this regard, I take it that the ancient concept of doxa is incredibly relevant. Often doxa is taken to refer to unsupported beliefs; however, I think doxa can also be profitably understood as something akin to a web of beliefs shared by a community or group of people in a particular place and at a particular point in history. When I refer to the "available arguments" characterizing a community, I am, in part referring to the doxa of a time. Everyone more or less knows the arguments for and against abortion. Everyone more or less knows the arguments for and against evolution. Everyone more or less knows the arguments for and against the war and Iraq. It now goes without saying that the Earth revolves around the sun and that gravity causes objects to fall. Yet evolution remains debatable. These are arguments that float about the social sphere, and are available to anyone who might care to pick them up. They constitute a sort of "common sense" of a time.

In addition to this aspect of doxa, there is also doxa as a collective set of unspoken assumptions about the nature of the world, social relations, values, and so on. This aspect of doxa pertains to hegemony, or those premises that "go without saying". For instance, in the sphere of discourse characterizing the United States, it goes without saying that all questions of policy and job prospects are to be answered and proposed in a manner consistent with capitalism. This leaves wide room for disagreement as to what specific policies and ways of life should be proposed, yet for the most part it goes without saying that any policies that desire to be taken seriously must be consistent with this form of economic organization. This does not mean that there aren't people out there who do not question this hegemonic framework and seek to propose alternatives. However, these voices have a very low degree of intensity, they are nearly invisible, and they are generally unheard and unpersuasive to their audience.

Now a couple of points before proceeding:
  • In presenting certain examples, I am not interested in whether these examples are true or false, whether they represent the world, whether they are desirable as options, etc. I am simply looking at situations where something that was before implausable suddenly became persausive and plausible to its audience. That is, I'm looking at these instances of change entirely from a rhetorical perspective, and am bracketing (after the fashion of Husserl with his phenomenological reduction) all questions of truth and representation.

  • This entails that language must be examined at the level of its surface-effects or purely as a surface, with no referential depth. If, for example, I look at Bill Clinton as an example of such and such a rhetorical shift, I am not suggesting that Bill Clinton is giving an accurate representation of reality, that he is making good proposals, that he is a radical, etc. The only thing that interests me in this context is why a particular set of concepts, discursive constructions, and arguments suddenly became persuasive to an audience where before they were not, or how a certain discursive entity suddenly became a reality for a group of people where before it was not. In this regard, it is notable that persuasion need have nothing to do with truth. People can be persuaded by things that are markedly untrue. What is interesting to me is that something can be present in the social field yet go unheard (like the dominionist or Christian Nationalist movement in the United States during the 70's) and can suddenly become persuasive and omnipresent at a later point (like this movement in the present historical circumstances in the United States). A Lacanian psychoanalyst does not evaluate the truth of her analysands discourse. She is unconcerned with whether her patient is really being persecuted by others, whether he is really plagiarizing, or whether he is really in love with his partner, or whether he is really speaking to God. The Lacanian approaches the analysand's discourse purely at the level of its immanence to itself, bracketing any referential dimension, and is instead interested in the desire present in that discourse. How is desire organized such that the analyzand is convinced that they are unconsciously plagiarizing? How is desire organized such that the person has a phobia of weasels? Those are the questions. Similarly, I am approaching discourse analytically in this sense. I find that this point needs to be emphasized as I often find myself getting in needless arguments about the truth or falsity of particular claims, or whether such claims are good or bad, when the point I'm making with the examples I suggest is really quite different.

The example of Dominionist or Nationalist forms of Christianity is an excellent example of what I'm trying to get at. These movements began during the 70's, at which time they had a very low degree of intensity in the discursive field characterizing the American situation. At that time, these groups were seen as fringe groups, one step removed from being cults, if not outrightly classified as cults. Today, by contrast, they have a very high degree of intensity. These groups are now seen as expressing legitimate and mainstream systems of belief that a person can advocate. In pointing this out, I am not suggesting that everyone agrees with these beliefs or shares these beliefs. Clearly there are atheists. Clearly there are other Christians that see this system of belief as a perversion of Christianity. What I am saying is that today, even if one fundamentally and vehemently disagrees with these bodies of belief, they are nonetheless required to take them seriously and treat them respectfully. In the 70's, when this body of belief first emerged in its current form, one could safely mock these groups in their classroom in a way similar to how many today mock Scientology, or simply ignore them altogether as one might ignore a cult. People possessing these beliefs would be unfit for higher public offices or jobs. Yet today one can respectfully advocate such beliefs and hold a high level office (as in the case of Aschcroft). Something here changed in the audience viewing these speakers.

For me, the question here is "how did this shift take place?" I am not asking whether or not it is a good shift. I am not asking whether or not it is an accurate representation of Christianity. I am not examining its positive or negative effects on public discourse. I am simply asking what allowed something that was before so implausable to suddenly become a legitimate position. Take another example. Forty years ago it would have been nearly impossible for a woman to suggest that her husband should stay home and take care of the children, or that he should do the dishes and cook dinner. I am not suggesting that this didn't occur. I am, however, arguing that such speech-events were rare or improbable, and that when they did occur it was likely that they would be met with a good deal of hostility and surprise in all but the most unusual of circumstances. A husband mind respond, for example, by saying "don't be silly" or "you must be joking", indicating that such proposals did not even need to be dignified with argument or seriously entertained.

Yet not only are such enunciations entirely possible and commonplace today, when confronted with these enunciations the husband perceives them as reasonable claims that are either to be agreed to or which require some sort of argument to be contested. That is, even in the event that the partner doesn't agree, the claims are to be contested, where before these things would "go without saying". Even those men who find such suggestions to be entirely absurd find themselves in a position where they must defend their inegalitarian attitude. That is, their positions have now become suspect. Once again, the question here isn't whether these differing stances are right or wrong, just or unjust, but rather that of what has changed in audiences encountering these speech-acts. What has rendered these speech-acts plausable sites of contention today?

Similar points can be made with regard to objects of knowledge. At the beginning of the 20th century it becomes plausible to see accidents and mistakes as bearers of meaning. If I leave my cell phone in a woman's car (as in a recent Verizon wireless commercial), this isn't simply an innocent accident, but rather indicative of my desire for her. If I say "I had my analyst today", this unusual phrasing already suggests sexual connotations. The Freudian language of repression, slips of the tongue, etc., thoroughly pervades our culture regardless of whether people actually believe it, such that popular B-comedies often organize humerous scenes around some character making all sorts of revealing slips of the tongue. Everyone understands that the accidental potentially has some significant meaning, everyone gets the joke. Once again, this isn't a question of whether Freud's theory of the unconscious is true or false, right or wrong. Rather, the question is that of how a perfectly ordinary event could take on this conceptual signification, where before it was simply seen as a random accident. Similarly, how does inner city violence or workplace theft come to be seen as a symptom of class struggle (a view that is extremely rare in the United States), rather than as simply a moral failing of those who commit acts of violence or those who steal office supplies? When I begin perceiving these events not as character flaws, but as acts of revolt, something has changed in how I conceptually understand the world about me. Or, to take a particularly troubling example, how did we reach a point where torture became "legitimately" debatable in the public sphere. Again, this is a question of the surface of discourse, not its depths.

My thesis is, first of all, that it doesn't exist if it isn't articulated. I do not intend this as a skeptical thesis or an affirmation of linguistic idealism. It could possibly be the case that the unconscious functions exactly as Freud says it does and that Freud just brought our attention to this fact. However, had our attention not been brought to this fact, it might not ever have been noticed and would never have transformed our social relations and communicative acts. An interpretation of a book might very well be there in the text itself, but if no one ever bothers to make it explicit, it will never function as an interpretation that others must now take into account, arguing for it or offering other interpretations in contrast to it.

What I tried to suggest in my previous post, is that there is a form of rhetorical praxis that changes the space of possible arguments. There are all sorts of explanations we can give to account for the rise of Christian nationalism or how it became possible for a woman to argue that her husband should take care of the children. We can refer to economic factors. We can refer to significant events (such as 9/11 in the case of how terrorism came to organize public discourse and the field of contemporary doxa). Yet these are things that we, as theorists, have little control over. One sort of rhetoric strives to make use of arguments that are already available in the doxatic field at any given point in history. Another type of rhetoric strives to intervene in the very organization of that doxatic field, calling into question "what goes without saying" by making other arguments and lenses available. That is, if Christian nationalism was able to become the "legitimate" and "respectable" position that it is today in the United States, then this is because they did the arduous work of making their discourse familiar or readily recognizable by articulating it in the social or doxatic field. As a result, a Charismatic Christian is no longer seen as an unusual or idiosyncratic phenomenon. They made their arguments available to the prevailing common sense, shifting the meaning of that field. Similarly in the case of feminist struggles.

The concept I am discussing is thus similar to what Badiou seems to have in mind by a "truth-procedure". Badiou argues that the subject of a truth-procedure busies himself by re-evaluating all the elements of a situation in terms of the axioms of that truth to determine whether it is consistent with that truth, gradually changing the meanings of those elements and the organization of the situation as a whole. Where before men not doing the dishes would have been seen as an entirely ordinary phenomenon, this activity came to be transformed into a site (among many) of injustice and feminist struggle, or as having political content. Where before a measurement could be seen as irrelevant to understanding the nature of things (for Aristotle numerical difference was accidental difference, and true knowledge was only to be found in the essence of a thing), after Galileo measurement comes to be seen as going straight to the heart of nature. Galileo and his followers faced an arduous struggle against the Aristotleans and church-fathers, overturning one paradigm of knowledge in terms of qualitative differences and relations of coming-to-be and passing-away (the Aristotlean paradigm) and replacing it with a paradigm where mathematical difference is the heart of nature. This struggle took hundreds of years and didn't happen overnight. Nothing was obvious about this move, yet now it seems obvious that nature is mathematical... It "goes without saying".

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel talks about the cunning of Spirit, that silently weaves its way through the social sphere, gradually transforming concepts and forms of life, until, at some abrupt point everything is seen differently. The prior understanding doesn't aim at this transformation as it still comprehends the world in terms of its own categories, values, and aims, but the field is gradually transformed as in the case of Protestantism in Weber, where Protestantism didn't aim at producing capitalism, but produced it as a result of its ethical system. This silent weaving produces an audience capable of seeing a set of assumptions that would otherwise be unthinkable as "what goes without saying", as what doesn't even need to be said or argued for. I am certainly not advocating Hegel's silent cunning of reason, but I do believe that through our rhetorical engagement with the world beyond theory it is possible to weave new truisms and commonplaces that gradually transform the reigning doxa of the social field, and transform what is unthinkable into what is thinkable. This is a long labor that requires strategic interventions at all levels of the social sphere-- thus requiring a departure from the walls of the Ivory Tower --but what was hitherto impossible to even articulate can become articulable. What would it take, for instance, to collectively dislodge the hegemonic status of capitalism, undermining its status as what "goes without saying", transforming it into a site where serious arguments might begin to take place in the public sphere? What would it require to make the "proletariat" a genuine category in collective political discourse (or some other term, I don't care, the example is irrelevant)? To accomplish this, arguments, slogans, and concepts must be made readily available in the social field as a whole. It is my view that making these arguments available for an audience yet to come is the genuine revolutionary work, such that revolution itself is just dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's" with respect to a transformation that has already taken place.


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