New Publication: The Autobituary of David Bowie

Few artists have had as profound an impact on me, in so many ways, as David Bowie—an artist whose unwillingness to conform with the expectations of either his times or even his own history has always inspired me. Way way back in high school, I had the incredibly good fortune of seeing him perform live, in what would turn out to be his final tour; years later, my (soon-to-be) wife and I were able to attend the archival retrospective of his career in at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. When he passed away at the beginning of 2016, I found the best way of mourning/celebrating Bowie was to write about the meaning that I found in his artistry, to dive into his work and respond to its call. In time, I turned those reflections, written in part for myself and in part for a seminar on “Extra-Human Rhetorical Relations” taught by Diane Davis, into a full-blown article, which I am happy to say has finally been published in the online journal Miranda—below is the abstract and a link to the piece:

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Autobituary: the Life and/as Death of David Bowie & the Specters from Mourning

This article addresses the uncanny fascination for specters that long haunted David Bowie’s artistry. Following the hauntological work of Jacques Derrida and a few of his followers, I consider the ways in which the late Bowie came to haunt the late Bowie, how mortality and mourning condition his final output, especially on Blackstar, his last album. In tracing these ghostly traces, I show how his music and videography pursue an alternative form of composition beyond the conventional attempts toward narrative closure of autobiography, a form of spectral rhetoric that I outline as autobituary. Through practices of writing attuned to the mournful structure that conditions signification, Bowie responds to Derrida’s and Michelle Ballif’s call to find ways of ethically addressing the (dead) other’s absolute alterity. In the form of autobituary, I suggest that Bowie provides one avenue for reconceiving the conventional relation between life and death, self and other, addressor and addressee.

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Abstract for “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age” Symposium

So here’s a new thing I thought I’d try: Instead of simply sending off abstracts to conferences and waiting in equal parts silence and anticipation, I might as well share my idea on here first, and see what sort of feedback I get.

CFP for “Digital Rhetoric/Digital Media in the Post-Truth Age”

In an era of visceral partisanship and deepened tribalism within America’s governing institutions—a national dissension concomitant with the emergence of digital media—critics tend to focus on the myriad topics that our citizenry seems increasingly to come to no agreement over; nonetheless, such disagreement often functions to conceal unacknowledged ideological and technological consensus. Presaging the current debate by a decade, Jacques Rancière has coined the term “post-politics,” since taken up by the likes of Slavoj Žižek and Chantal Mouffe, to describe a civil condition wherein properly political debates, about distribution of power and definitions of the common, have been replaced by a broad acceptance of technocratic neoliberalism as the proper ruling order, à la Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. In my proposed presentation—entitled “Post-Truth Politics is the Truth of Post-Politics”—I will contend that the epistemological instability of a post-truth situation is a symptom of the social stagnation within a post-political condition, and that both are fundamentally structured by modernity’s dominant rhetorical order of digital communication. Over the course of my talk, I will build off of the critical vocabulary provided by Rancière to outline what I see as the ideological and rhetorical conjuncture that underlies America’s contemporary institutional breakdown, demonstrating how the public’s inability to agree on basic facts or values is predicated upon our institutions having ideologically agreed to a neoliberal, technocratic complex. In brief, my argument will proceed in three basic turns: First, I will show how the emergence of post-truth politics coincides with the replacement by digital technologies of print media, which had originally laid the rhetorical groundwork for the American ideographic community. Second, I will indicate the constitutive relationship between a post-truth rhetorical landscape and post-political configuration, illustrating how the dissensus of the former social condition relies upon the underlying, if unconscious, consensus of the latter. In a final turn of the screw, I will return to the digital roots of the contemporary ideological configuration in order to demonstrate how, just as print media formerly provided the ground of the national imaginary—what Benedict Anderson called modern “print nationalism”—today the post-truth/post-politics complex is similarly structured by a logic of (online) posting and leads to what I describe as “post nationalism.”

A Teaching Philosophy Draft

This is an initial draft of my teaching philosophy statement, which will be part of my applications when I go on the job market in just a few weeks. The aim here is lay out, without jargon or jokes—my typical approach—the beliefs, values, and practices that underlie my pedagogy. Because today was my first time returning to the front of a class in a few years, I figured that it was as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on what teaching means to me.

When I was an undergraduate there, St. Edward’s University had a slogan that the school used in its marketing materials at the time, promising that in their classrooms, students would “learn to think.” This motto, simple though it may be, ingrained itself in my mind at the time, and continues to impact how I understand the role of higher education today and shapes how I approach teaching rhetoric, writing, and theory at large. As opposed to believing education to be a practice of knowledge transfer, imagining students as empty heads that need filling with novel jargon and scrupulous facts—forgotten as quickly as they were learned, a hollow mind being a rather porous thing, after all—my pedagogy aims instead to teach students not what to think but what it means to think. What matters to me as a teacher and theoretician of rhetoric is to stoke an enthusiasm for critical thinking skills and a celebration of cerebration, encouraging students to look anew at their everyday symbolic practices and communicative environments, learning to better articulate, and in due course reevaluate, their unique assumptions, beliefs, and convictions.

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This process necessarily entails understanding students to be so much more than vacant vessels eagerly awaiting their teachers to impart new knowledge; rather, my pedagogy is grounded on the recognition that the names on my roster are people first and students second, coming to the classroom with their own personal histories, singular sets of experiences and expectations, individual dreams and desires. First generation students without familial support either emotionally or financially, legacy students who come unawares from places of profound privilege, foreign exchange students struggling to get the hang of American norms and standard English: Even in my short time teaching so far, I have encountered students from a wide variety of backgrounds, challenging me to constantly adapt my own pedagogical practices and aspirations to meet these students where they academically already are, and not where a predesigned lesson plan or codified syllabus assumed they were. When I discovered one semester that not a single student in my first-year writing and argumentation course could (or felt confident enough in their own schooling to) name the three branches of American government, I immediately tabled whatever lesson plan I had devised for the day to address the needs of the class in that moment, letting their questions and uncertainties dictate the direction of our discussion.

At all turns, my pedagogy is driven by an ethic of listening and a belief that students are often much brighter, genuinely more creative, and more receptive than they are given credit for by traditional top-down didactic methods centered on a teacher’s expertise. Rather than end up limiting the curiosity of my students by confining classroom conversation to a strict script or by assigning them rubrics where they only would need to mirror back a set of tasks for a passing grade, it is frequently my goal as the instructor of record to sit back and let the students lead, to follow their diverse interests and concerns. In this sort of classroom free association, I conceive my job not as attempting to curb their enthusiasm or keep their inquisitiveness in check, but to assume the responsibility of tying the threads of their digression back to wider rhetorical themes while fostering their speaking and writing freely and openly. Hence when giving writing homework, I will urge students to approach the prompt creatively, to try and surprise me in a way that will set their work apart from their peers, often by using digital tools we have explored in class. Embracing this all too rare freedom, some students in the past have used animated reaction GIFs to provide peer review feedback, while others have used Twitter for discussion threads instead of platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.

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In asking students to take ownership of their educational experience by reconsidering the course as an opportunity for creativity, for thinking differently, for finding ways to make the shared material matter to their personal interests, one further pedagogical goal that I am trying to achieve is to break students from the habit of unconsciously presuming that learning is reserved for a formal classroom environment. Like much of what I have already said above, this is a lesson I have learned in large part from research in psychoanalysis, which I believe has profound yet untapped insights into the processes by which minds (which is to say, psyches) are molded and changed, whether in the classroom or in the clinic. All too often, and rarely aware of it, students have been conditioned to assume that the work of critical deliberation and symbolic imagination occur only in the rarefied space and time of the class—which is tantamount to thinking thinking likewise only takes place when dealing with official academic business, while doing homework or while in class, but not at the bar over the weekend.

Against this attitude, my pedagogy works to help students realize that critical thought and rhetoric writ large are practices vital to both public and private life, that the time for deliberation happens not only when sequestered in a classroom, but that the wider world around them is ripe for rethinking, too. This posture is reflected in some of the assignments I give, which regularly prompt students to investigate their own ambient rhetorical situations, such as when my students must put together a scrupulous rhetorical analysis of their own social media presence based on the personalized advertisements in their digital feeds. The point here is that rhetoric, thinking, and learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, but above all, learning comes about when we least expect it or when we stop paying attention—just as, when trying to remember a word on the tip of the tongue, if we give up the effort of memory, the word often seems to magically appear—that is to say, when the defensive assumptions of the ego lay dormant and the symbolic imagination of the psyche is vulnerable.

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Essential to the pedagogical comportment outlined above is the practice of composition, in all its diverse forms across different technologies and genres, which I attempt to make into an everyday exercise for students otherwise accustomed to seeing writing as stiflingly scholastic and reserved for official classroom activities. Whether my students are composing traditional argumentative essays, multimodal digital texts, or more plastic works of creative artistry like sound or visual collages—all assignments I have given to my classes at one point or another, to illustrate this point or that—my teaching positions the process of writing as part and parcel with the act of thinking. What I am trying to suggest in my pedagogy is that when we take up a habit of writing as something simultaneously commonplace and strange, when writing becomes not rarefied and resisted but rather routine, writing can become revolutionary for students, opening up themselves and the world to novel ways of knowing. By thinking through composition, by understanding writing as a process of invention and imagination rather than a polished or procedural product, by encouraging students to treat the blank page as a space for critical experimentation, play, and blameless failure, I always hope to help students cultivate their own idiosyncratic structures of thought and new rhetorical worlds.

Dissertation Progress Update

Last week, after attending to the feedback from my chair, I finally finished editing my first two dissertation chapters to a point where I felt comfortable sending them off to the rest of my committee. As part of that process, I took a step back and tried to give my readers a brief overview of how I see the project shaping up—a prefatory synopsis which I thought it would be good to share here, too:

In the first chapter, “Burke and Lacan on the Symbolic Mechanisms of the Unconscious”—sexy title, I know—I investigate a parallel between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Burkean rhetoric, in that both, at roughly the same midcentury moment, developed a “symbolic” theory of the unconscious/an unconscious theory of the “symbolic”. At the same time, I show that both Lacan and Burke, in these same texts on the unconscious, make acute reference to the emerging field of cybernetics—the former using cybernetics to explain the unconscious, an inhuman machinery at the heart of the human, while the latter denigrated “thinking machines” over and against the human as a privileged subject. Rhetoric might therefore look to Lacanian psychoanalysis as a way of rethinking those concepts Burke introduced to rhetoric as a way of moving beyond the discipline’s traditional humanist leanings toward a posthumanist frame of distributed ontology, nonhuman agency, and decentered signification.

My second chapter, “Purloined Messaging Between Rhetoric, Psychoanalysis, and Cybernetics”—really killing it with these clever chapter titles—further refines and develops Lacan’s cybernetic reconceptualization of the Freudian unconscious as a way to rethink our field’s historic reliance on traditional ontological frameworks, as especially exemplified in the humanist figure of the “letter.” Having identified some of the issues with how Burke incorporated psychoanalytic terminology into modern rhetorical theory, I expand here on the Lacanian alternative through a careful elucidation of the analyst’s reading of Poe’s “the Purloined Letter.” Contrasting the post-Poe letter with rhetoric’s more conventional epistolary practices—exemplified especially by reflective pedagogies that aim to foreground consciousness and human agency—I attempt to show how Lacan’s rethinking of the letter (as a signifier) provides rhetoric with a theory of communication that aims toward a posthuman compositional praxis of distributed and nonhuman agency, foregrounding a rhetor’s envelopment in material ecologies and autonomous signifying networks.

Like Lawrence and his match, or Moon Watcher and his nuclear warhead, we have Lacan and his letters: With a conceptual flash cut, my third chapter—tentatively titled “Freudian Typos and Rhetorical Para-Praxis”—will continue along the path of the letter, shifting ever so slightly toward the graphemic, alphabetical material that makes up any given written word. This section of the dissertation will outline a theory of “Freudian typos,” a form of computerized parapraxis that reveals what I call our emerging “digital unconscious.” Again, this will develop the idea first set out in my discussion of Burke that Lacan’s reimagining of the Freudian unconscious, misread by our foremost twentieth century rhetorician, can help push rhetorical theory beyond humanist conventions toward a posthuman praxis better suited to contemporary communicative media. Toward this end, my final chapter will follow Lacan’s own trajectory toward what he called the “sinthome”—a compositional praxis that revels in its own breakdowns, interruptions, and ambiguities; that is to say, a form of writing based on decentered human subjectivity, one which enjoys its material embeddedness not as a limitation, but as an inventional possibility.

Ambient Time [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was invited to deliver a paper at the 18th Biennial Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America in Minneapolis. The topic of my panel was the rhetorical term “kairos” and its pedagogical potentials. Below is a copy of my presentation—unusually, I wrote it as a series of points, not as a set of paragraphs—which I hope to clean up and return to as an article at some point in the future, when the time is more kairotic:


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At one time or another, I expect that everyone here has experienced something like the following: Aware that the end of a class period is quickly approaching, the hour nigh, the bell about to toll, you look up to check the mood of the room, to gauge the level of engagement in your students, only to see some gazing blankly a thousand yards beyond you, some staring at the screens before them, and some—the most telling—at the clock counting down on the wall behind you

What provokes a pupil’s pupils to wander is, I want to suggest, an awareness, unconscious or not, of their temporal situation, an ambient anticipation that the hour is passing and coming to a close

Like watching grass dry or paint grow, people become affectively aware of time’s slow crawl because they know that the promised end will eventually come, yet remain always incapable of making it come sooner—it takes time

More to the point: In a classroom situation where students are as aware of the time as they are of the teacher, like dullards ticking away the moments that make up their dull day, our pedagogical efforts in effect become for naught

Because learning requires a subjective openness and uncertainty, while temporality is typically experienced as objectively conclusive and precise

When we act like we are certain of the end, we cannot begin to begin—if we already presume the answer, as Lacan puts it, we can never really ask the question

Instead, we become closed to learning, looking toward the exit door to open up once more at the regularly scheduled time, waiting to be (as the nostalgic theme goes) saved by the bell

As teachers, then, in an instance like this, our pedagogies become hindered through a struggle against time

To not struggle against time, on the other hand, to use time, to treat time properly, to make time one’s own—that is a matter of kairos

In particular, what I am interested in here is a sense of kairos as articulated by Thomas Rickert: A time for new signifying possibilities that emerges without conscious awareness, the moment for meaning making materializing, in Rickert’s language, ambiently

In terms of ambience, rhetorical possibilities arrive via the mutually dynamic interrelationship between a rhetor and her embedded, nonhuman environs, such that with kairos, the time for new significations appears in the ineluctable, insentient exchange between a subject and her world

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In a condition of ambience, Rickert explains, “we do not simply avail ourselves of kairotic opportunities; rather, our words and actions emerge as willed by kairos” (91), time making up our discursive designs as we make time for the development of new positions, attuning ourselves and our discourse to the world around us

This conceptualization of ambience describes well what happens in the classroom when students, not necessarily counting down the minutes, are nonetheless unconsciously aware of their measured crawl, affectively anticipating the impending bell, trained to expect its regular coming like Pavlov’s dog, even without consciously thinking about it

In question here is how to effectively approach pedagogical time in such a way as to not make of time an enemy to learning, but instead to comport our teaching methods so that ti-i-i-ime is on your side, yes it is

For learning must happen in time, learning can only occur with time

Which rarely happens on time in the classroom

What we as rhetoricians must think through, then, is how to most effectively approach time as a means of persuasion in the classroom

We must reconceive temporality not as a pedagogical constraint to struggle against, but as an inventional possibility for new significations

That is to say, we must include time into our pedagogies, treat temporality not as a ninevitable threat that must be warded off or ignored, but as a dimension essential to the learning process itself

Jacques Lacan faced a very similar crisis of temporality in the psychoanalytic clinic, and his provocative praxis offers one avenue for reimagining the function of time in the classroom

The psychoanalytic importance and practical treatment of temporality was crucial for Lacan, “a cornerstone” (to use his own words) in his theoretical edifice (Guéguen)

The most well-known and controversial of Lacan’s ideas about time, of course, was his advocacy for variable-length or “short” analytic sessions, a proposal which Lacan would never abandon throughout his career despite it being the grounds for his so-called “excommunication” from the IPA in 1953

In short, the short session differs from the standard appointments with a psychoanalyst in that, rather than lasting for the entirety of a preset 50-minute hour, the length of the meeting is treated dynamically, flexibly by the analyst, ending at her discretion rather than the institution’s direction

While in principle such a session might last beyond the accustomed hour, in practice the appointment typically ends well before the 50-minute mark, when the analyst determines that some important aporia or unconscious truth or, to use Lacan’s terms, an unacknowledged Master Signifier in the subject’s discourse, has been reached

If after, say, only half an hour the analysand makes some pregnant parapraxis, a suggestive Freudian slip, the analyst might end the session on the spot, informing the patient that time is up, encouraging them to think through what was just said on their own time

In Lacanian circles, there is a well-known anecdote about the analyst himself in this regard: When a patient arrived at the usual time bearing a small curio for Lacan, some token of appreciation, the good doctor abruptly, without a word of thanks, took the analysand’s gift, took their payment, and took them back to the door from whence they came (from LacanOnline.com)

Importantly, the analysand offers no interpretation of the subject’s discourse, provides no summation of what has been covered, gives no concluding remarks

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Rather, the analysand is met with a telling silence from the analyst, a disruptive refusal to explain, thereby provoking the patient to ask themself what it is they just said that led the analyst, seen as a parental figure via transference, to cut short the session then and there

In effect, the lesson here is twofold:

On one level, the subject is invited to invent new significations for their discourse, to unearth unimagined rhetorical possibilities and associations already hinted at within their Symbolic structure

At the same time, and more importantly, like the proverbially man who hasn’t just been given lunch but has been taught to cast a wider net, the subject is encouraged, impelled unconsciously, to stop looking toward authority figures for the right answer, instead assuming responsibility for establishing meaning on their own

This is an ethics of response-ability and critical listening in line with much of contemporary rhetorical theory; as one Lacanian analyst suggests: “the question of the duration of the session isn’t a technical question, it’s an ethical question” (Vinciguerra) one that aims to listen more fully (and so respond more truly) to the full speech of the subject

Lacan developed this praxis of short sessions because he found that a fixed-length session, as regulated by the IPA, as we can see in our own teaching spaces, could regularly act as an impediment to treatment, the inflexible block of time functioning as a learning block for analysands

“The indifference,” says Lacan “with which ending a session after a fixed number of minutes has elapsed…can be fatal to the conclusion toward which [the subject’s] discourse was rushing headlong, and can even set a misunderstanding in stone, if not furnish a pretext for a retaliatory ruse” (É 258)

What is most nettlesome here is how Lacan found that, in clinical experience—which I think is uncannily mirrored in our own classrooms—the analysand’s foreknowledge of the session’s temporal limit, its impending end, often “induces the subject to manœuvre with the time” (Vinciguerra)

Like the student who ticks off the tocks of the clock awaiting what liberty the bell brings, the analysand will unconsciously commandeer the close of the session as a defense against opening up

The expectation, conscious or not, that the session and its ambient expectations, its pressures, have a predetermined termination, provides the subject the relief of release, the promise that this will all end soon enough so I only need to grin and bear it rather than bare it all, allowing the analysand to shut up and shut out the efforts of the analyst until the lights shut off

“We know how,” says Lacan, the analysand “calculates the moment of [the ending’s] arrival in order to tie it to his own timetable, or even to his evasive maneuvers, and how he anticipates it by weighing it like a weapon and watching out for it as he would for a place of shelter” (É 258)

When Lacan then would cut short his sessions—and note that in Greek, according to Doro Levi, kairos shares an etymological link with “to cut,” “to kill,” and “death”—his aim was to rigorously transform the function of temporality within the analytic situation, rebelling against the rigid tyranny of the clock to make of time not a clinical constraint to struggle against, but rather an inventive possibility for establishing new significations through working with time

For Lacan, the whole point is that, as even his colleagues in the IPA would agree, “the unconscious [or meaning] needs time to reveal itself,” but a further question must be asked: “How is this time to be measured?” (É 257)

Abandoning the clock—the precision of which produces more discontent than it does liberation—the short session redefines the hour not by the number of minutes it contains but by the potential meaning of its signifiers

Hence, whether a session lasts for 5 or 50 minutes, patients will pay the same fee, and will leave, in theory at least, with a similar potential for a post-break breakthrough, and realization of their own meaning

In the Lacanian clinic or classroom, temporality is hence no longer a chronological measure of learning processes, but is itself measured kairotically, through the subject’s words and teacher’s punctuation

What Lacan’s clinical development and conceptualization of time amounts to, as Rose-Paule Vinciguerra points out, is a praxis of kairos, a treatment predicated on what Protagoras coined “dunamis tou kairou, the power of the opportune moment”

Meant here not in the sense the IPA typically accused him of: That Lacan was a mere opportunist in search of an easy, profitable out, short changing his patients (who had to pay more than chump change, whatever the change in session length or themselves)

Rather, the short session relies on kairos as “a resource of time defined by the presentation of a meaning and made concrete by an act or event of resolution or comprehension,” as Vinciguerra defines it

In its Lacanian turn, kairos comes to name the time of signification, of realization, of punctuation: Like one of the tortuous, page-long sentences found in Joyce or Kafka, in the rhetorical situation of analysis, meaning does not emerge or crystalize until discourse comes to a full……stop

In cutting the hour short, stopping before time is up, the analyst unfixes temporality from the tyranny of its clockwork precision to make of time a means of persuasion, something not to struggle against, but to wield in the rhetorical struggle for making meaning

No longer approached warily as a constraint, Lacan embraces time as interior to the rhetorical situation of analytic praxis, its kairotic function emerging from within the subject’s discourse

The analyst must then wait “for something from the analysand’s words, a speech event that will produce kairos, an occasion. He makes himself the locus of reception,” says Vinciguerra

That is to say: In the pedagogical setting of the clinic, and likewise of the rhetoric classroom, a praxis of kairos requires of us an ethic of listening

The punctuation of signification cannot be predicted or fixed ahead of time, it adheres to no predetermined schedule; instead, the time for understanding must wait upon the words, so that the words can weigh upon time, the script of kairos being you and me, rhetor and audience, teacher and students

When we approach praxis in terms of kairos, especially in this Lacanian sense, the temporal dimension of our pedagogy is no longer something we need to struggle against in the classroom, the hour’s end is no longer a looming threat but becomes a kairotic promise of new signifying possibilities

Hence, instead of frittering and wasting time in an offhand way, as happens in the fixed session when the subject has closed themself off by already assuming the ending in advance, we can begin to make time for learning, growing, undoing assumptions, when we end things ahead of time

But the question of the hour remains: How might we, as composition teachers and not clinical psychoanalysts, put this Lacanian sense of kairos and the praxis of the short session to use in our own teaching spaces?

While our methods will never quite approach the technique of free association, the psychoanalytic clinic and the rhetoric classroom nevertheless share a great deal, including the fundamentally pedagogical goal of molding the minds of analysands and students alike

Foregoing the Freudian method, we all the same routinely invite students to have free discussion during class time, often freewheeling and unwieldy conversations

Just as perpetually interpreting (and reinterpreting) classroom discourse is one standard pedagogic method for managing discussions, so too might we take a cue from Lacan and, rather than directing the conversation to a conceptual goal, instead end the period early, at the first hint their gears are turning, the first sign the ball is rolling, allowing students to guide themselves to their own conclusions without our offering any final word

As a pedagogical technique, I think that introducing variable-length sessions into our educational practice could productively upset student expectations and classroom power dynamics, an echo of its therapeutic effect

Whether we finish early or late, the point is to keep these subjects on edge, unaware when time will be up, which only happens when our pedagogies heed the cut of kairos

In the end, all that my suggestion of short class periods calls for is a renewed commitment to an ethic of listening to students on (and in) their own terms, supporting in an oblique and ambient way their ability to take responsibility for new significations

Even though such a proposal inevitably relinquishes the sort of blow-out walk-off conclusions that people by-and-large crave, the point is that it is sometimes more persuasive, at least pedagogically and kairotically, to forgo any neat bon mot or tidy bow that wrap-ups a session or summarizes a lesson in favor of simply and silently, if suddenly, bowing out when the time, though neither up nor out, is ripe

Annotated Bookshelf: Demagoguery & Democracy

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. NY: The Experiment LLC, 2017.

A small book about people with small minds and even smaller hands, but with a big question behind it: What is (and what isn’t) demagoguery? and how do we fight it? In straightforward, conversational prose—speaking more to the hoi polloi than scholars—Roberts-Miller contends, first of all, that our common understanding of demagogues is wrong, and often reproduces the structure of demagoguery. Rather than conceive demagoguery as “about passion, emotionalism, populism, and pandering to the crowds” (7), R-M argues that it at bottom “is about identity” (8), about reducing politics to who is with us versus they who are against us. Her definition is succinct: “Demagoguery is discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric by framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and the means by which (not whether) the out-group should be scapegoated for the current problems of the in-group” (33); more often than not, demagoguery functions fetishistically or totemically when “people give power to a leader because they believe he or she has almost supernatural powers (or supernatural powers have chosen this leader)” (57). That is to say, demagoguery comes first, and demagogues second; cultures can be demagogic, and can “create an environment of more and more demagoguery” (79), particularly “when a culture imagines all political argument…as exclusively compliance-gaining, expressive, or bargaining” (84)—a problem exacerbated by “thoroughly factionalized” media (91). So what to do? Here, R-M offers some suggestions—limit media consumption, don’t feed the trolls, raise rhetorical consciousness, and support democratic deliberation—though these ultimately seem more like general guidelines for public discourse than specifically tailored to the political mayhem we face today.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Addressing Postmodernity

Biesecker, Barbara A. Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

In her brief yet comprehensive monograph, Biesecker employs a deconstructive reading of Burke’s principle trilogy—his singular Grammar and his two Rhetorics; or better yet, his two Motives and his singular Religion—in order to show how, “by insisting on the constitutive role of rhetoric in the formation of individual and collective subjects, Burke’s work productively supplements contemporary understandings of the relations of structure and subject” (9). Tracing the development of human agency and sociality across these texts, Biesecker argues that A Grammar of Motives offers a theory of human individuation and dialectical subjectivity that opens up to or develops into a theory of identification and collectivity in A Rhetoric of Motives—a transformation that The Rhetoric of Religion interrogates at the level of becoming via the negative. According to Biesecker, the Burkean subject is constituted by a split between purposive action and unconscious (and inhuman) motion; hence, this structural division acts for the earlier Burke as “an irreconcilable relation between the passive and the active in the human being that is the condition of possibility for being human,” so that “[i]t is precisely this relation between action and motion, itself structured in and by an irreducible distance, that constitutes the economy of the subject” (28f.). In the more expansive account of A Rhetoric of Motives, however, “motion is redefined as the principle of individuation and action is redefined as the principle of sociality” (47)—which is to say that human individuation and subjectivity become the condition of possibility for the social whatsoever. Put otherwise, “[t]he social, which is to say the ‘we,’ is what might be called in contemporary parlance a textual chain, a ‘reality’ woven of discontinuities and constitutive differences” (49), and ultimately, “it is in language and rhetoric that the social takes place: language and rhetoric are the way of being of the social; language and rhetoric are the very mode of existence of the social” (50), that aspect of the human being beyond its biological individuality. For Biesecker, and for Burke, “our very being-with is predicated upon our always already being other: a vital sensus communis is sustained by resolute difference and division or, to put it a bit differently, a vivacious ‘we’ exists only insofar as its actualization is a to-come. Finally, then, Burke’s work…invites us to question the wisdom of positioning or fashioning ‘consensus’ as an ideal” (100).

a few final quotes:

“Burke’s work puts us on the track of an alternative theorization of the relations of structure and subject that, in taking rhetoric seriously into account, can admit the role of human agency in the making and unmaking of social structures and history without resurrecting the sovereign subject of Enlightenment philosophy.” (9)

“Burke’s thought is constantly on the move, perpetually on the make, chronically undoing itself.” (15)

“the [action/movement] difference that obtains between the human and the nonhuman, and that indeed structures their relation, also obtains within the human being itself.…human acts are composites whose congealed form is the outcome of the finessing of or subtle negotiation with both an irreducible action or ‘purpose’ component and an irreducible motion component.” (27)

“motive proper is for Burke a principle of structuration rather than a positive presence; an irreconcilable relation between the passive and the active in the human being that is the condition of possibility for being human” (28f.)

“Burke’s concept of motion as it applies to the human being signifies all those things, biological or otherwise, that constrain or place limits on the free play of the action differential. Hence, subsumed under the motion differential are ‘instincts,’ ‘drives,’ and ‘natural forces.’ Also subsumed under the motion differential (and this is the critical point) is the context within which the human being operates” (31)

“motion is a term that signifies a chronic condition of the human being, its nonidentity with and its estrangement from all other members of the species. Motion is Burke’s name for a certain alterity, an alterity that definitely prohibits a perfect conjuncture between man and man…contrary to Marx and to Freud, Burke claims the human being is always and already estranged.” (46)

“Taken together, the action and motion loci of motives constitute the zero ground of the social…in the predication of the human being per se is the possibility of the social.” (47)

“the symbolic (and its concomitant logic) is itself the form in which the social, indeed history itself, approaches sense. Put differently, it is in language and rhetoric that the social takes place: language and rhetoric are the way of being of the social; language and rhetoric are the very mode of existence of the social.” (50)

“today, in ‘our’ day, a day in which the anxiety of influence seems to have given way to the psychoneuroses of insularity.” (75)

“the ‘Idea of No’ puts us on the track of the radical critique of [Habermasian] universal pragmatics by inverting its resident hierarchy, by repositioning the hortatory gesture or perlocutionary speech act as that which is temporally prior and, hence, holds the superior position. If, as Burke suggests, the very essence of language is to be derived from the principle of the negative or the ‘Idea of No’…there there is no communicative praxis that is not always and already rhetorical praxis or a derivation thereof.” (93)

“While it is certainly true that rhetorical or suasory speech taken in the narrow sense often hits its mark and moves and audience to a particular action or incites in them a particular attitude, the rhetorical or suasory in the general sense is neither engendered nor sustained by a restricted and pragmatic economy of means-end or need-satisfaction but, to the contrary, is animated by a desire that in principle is insatiable.” (97)

“It is precisely this definition of rhetoric—rhetoric understood as a mode of discourse whose continued ‘existence’ is predicated upon its own perpetual failure or its irreducible inability to achieve its end—that Burke claims underwrites all communicative exchange, all symbolic action.” (99)

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.