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.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Transhuman Condition

Pruchnic, Jeff. Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Although contemporary dystopic fictions—say, any given episode of Black Mirror—largely suggest a symbolic sociality captured by dehumanizing technology of calculation a la Heidegger, Pruchnic reminds us that the information superhighway is a two-way street, undergirded by a cybernetic logic that broadly mirrors human diversification in the constitutive flexibility of the digital realm. Said otherwise, “the most pervasive impact of the age of information technology beginning with cybernetics is not the increasing ubiquity of these material technologies themselves, but the ways in which politics, culture, and economics has increasingly found its operating principles in those processes that find only their most obvious manifestation in physical technology” (9). Contemporary culture, for all its heterogeneity and fracturing, is accordingly grounded by a singular techno-logic wherein media function to suture persuasive ontologies and various epistemologies (mind you, Pruchnic stops just short of such an aporia, but his analysis lends itself to a more homogenous conclusion). Rhetoric thus can be said to be a “particularly salient domain for analyzing contemporary culture because it, like the dominant processes of culture today, is less concerned with representation, epistemology, or ideology than it is with a spectrum of directly motivational or persuasive forces” (17). Such a transhuman condition, wherein technological and human networks bleed into one another at the bleeding edge, leaves little room for resistance as traditionally conceived in critical theory, says Pruchnic; rather, “the fundamental challenge of the present is not so much to discover some radical alternative to contemporary conditions…but to figure out how these same techniques already immensely immanent in contemporary capitalism can be made to produce different outcomes, to somehow ameliorate the immense inequalities or material damages that largely remain common to the system, despite its vast mutations in other areas” (38)—and such invention is what rhetoric can deliver, particularly in the field’s recent interest in the asignifying and nonrational import of affect in communication, “a matrix for the formation of psychic associations and dispositions” as well as a “mechanism through which they might be altered” (43).

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: The Scandal of the Speaking Body

Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Translated by Catherine Porter. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003.

Interrogating the intersection between psychoanalysis, speech act theory, and Molière’s Don Juan, Felman attempts to articulate “the scandal (which is at once theoretical and empirical, historical) of the incongruous but indissoluble relation between language and the body; the scandal of the seduction of the human body insofar as it speaks” (5). Such a seductive situation posits “a desire that desires itself and that desires its own language,” turning speech an sich into “the true realm of eroticism, and not simply a means of access to this realm” (15). Yet there is no alternative, for “the referent cannot be attained directly; it can only be approached or aimed at through the intermediary of language” (50)—so much so that “the referent is itself produced by language as its own effect” (51). Taking the instance of Don Juan’s promising without any intent to keep his word as “the performative utterance par excellence,” Felman perversely claims that “the seducer, strictly speaking [!], does not lie,” for a “trap of seduction [] consists in producing a referential illusion through an utterance that is by its very nature self-referential” (17). That is to say, the play stages a conflict between those who insist on the constative closure of language and those, like Don Juan, whose performative speech acts accomplish a (diabolical) reflexive force, a “referential residue of meaning” (52) which amounts to “a performative excess” (55). For Felman, “[t]he act, an enigmatic and problematic production of the speaking body, destroys from its inception the metaphysical dichotomy between the domain of the ‘mental’ and the domain of the ‘physical,’ breaks down the opposition between body and spirit, between matter and language” (65), just as it did “the alternative, the opposition, between referentiality and self-referentiality” (53). Insofar as this act of radical negativity, necessarily either comic or tragic—evoking laughter or imposing fate—“cannot know what it is doing” as it “subverts both consciousness and knowledge (of language),” one can say “[t]he speaking body is scandalous” (67). In that case, any “utterance of knowledge, no longer constative but performative, is no longer so much the object of contemplation, but of enjoyment” (72), becoming “an event—a ritual—of desire” (76); but “the scandal lies less in sex than in language…through which the body’s doing always fails to speak itself, whereas the speaking never fails to do” (78), so that “matter…without being reducible to language, is no longer entirely separable from it, either” (108). “This scandal of the outside of the alternative, of a negativity that is neither negative nor positive,” a Deleuzian nonpositive affirmation (104), names what is trivial and comical and so inassimilable by ideological history, yet it is “the things that have no history” that “make history” (106).

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: Language as Symbolic Action

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1966.

As thorough an introduction to Burke’s philosophy of Dramatism as one might hope for, the diverse essays collected in this volume develop “the standpoint of ‘symbolicity’ in general…the four primary linguistic dimensions,” which are “logic, or grammar; rhetoric, the hortatory use of language, to induce cooperation by persuasion and dissuasion;” dialogical ethics; and “poetics pure and simple…the sheer exercise of ‘symbolicity’…for its own sake” (28f.). The five essays of the first section loosely define his procedure, beginning with a Dramatist definition of man as: the symbol-using, -making, -misusing animal; inventor of (and moralized by) the negative; separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making; goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (a sense of order); and rotten with perfection (16). The final clause points to “a kind of ‘terministic compulsion’ to carry out the implications of one’s terminology” (19), which, for the critic, becomes in the following essay an injunction “to formulate [subsequently] the critical precepts implicit in the poet’s practices” (32); while, more generally, describes the way that “all members of our species conceive of reality somewhat roundabout, through various media of symbolism” (52), through nomenclatures that Burke calls terministic screens. Specifically, “[a] Dramatistic terminology…must steer midway between the computer on one side (when taken as a model of the mind) and the neurotic on the other” (63); the former because a computer is “a thing” that “merely moves whereas [a person] acts” (53), while the latter “is identified solely with the process of repression in the Unconscious,” too narrow a focus for the Dramatistic identification of general “symbol systems” (66). After these first few chapters, Burke proceeds to illustrate the method of Dramatism through close analyses of literary texts, from an exhaustive indexing of keywords in the Oresteia to bodily excretion and catharsis in Wagner, and further elaborations of general rhetoric, from a theory of entitlement that suggests “things would be the signs of words” (379) to thoughts on McLuhan’s maxims. In said chapter, Burke, while conceding that McLuhan is “often incidentally incisive and delightful,” takes his subject to task for “giv[ing] us a lineal theory of the steps into the mechanical age and through it into the electric age…a somewhat obsolescent way of heralding the anti-Gutenberg future” (418).

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: Inessential Solidarity

Davis, Diane. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.

Drawing on the ethical turn of Levinas and late Derrida, Inessential Solidarity aims “to expose an originary (or preoriginary) rhetoricity—an affectability or persuadability—that is the condition for symbolic action…[a] foreign(er) relation irreducible to symbolic prereqs” (2), laying a groundwork for the claim that rhetoric “is first philosophy” (15). Within “the space of shattered egos” that is a community (10), the place of “a common but dissymmetrical unworking of ‘identity’” that is a conversation (13), this “solidarity is at least the rhetoricity of the affect as such, the ‘individual’s’ irreparable openness to affection/alteration” (4). Reading across Burke’s notion of rhetorical identification, of “symbolic representation…the production and intervention of meaningful figures” (21) as the process through which we come to say I—a process which Davis notes nonetheless necessitates an individual before the I—she, through a close reappraisal of Burke’s own Freud, submits that “ego is formed ‘directly and immediately’ through a [pace the mirror-stage] blind identification in which a not-yet-I-swallows the not-yet-other alive” (27). As such, “dissociation is productive of the exteriority that sociality implies, that it is through disidentification, dislocation, depropriation that social feeling emerges and (so) something like society becomes possible” (35). Turning then to Levinas and de Man, Davis proposes “that the relation with the other is not a function of symbolic exchange but of an extra-symbolic ‘No’ that is aimed directly at rhetoric’s intralinguistic function: figuration” (37); that is to say, “[y]ou are born into presence precisely inasmuch as you are reduced to the status of a figure” (41). In Levinasian terms, this is the face that names “the eruption of an enigma in the phenomenon, which names an interruption in narcissitic appropriation (identification) and therefore the opening of ethics” (50). “To encounter a face is to receive a rhetorical imperative that drops me into response-only mode, subjecting me to the scandal of obligation, to a responsibility that I can neither comprehend nor ignore” (60)—thus the extra-symbolic No becomes an originary Yes to “the infinite obligation to receive and respond” (119), a response-ability “grounded in the passivity of the host-age and not in the freedom of a spontaneous of self-determining agent capable of resolute choice” (87). In line, perhaps, with McLuhan, Davis argues that rhetoricians today must “approach speaking and writing, any form of the address, not simply or firstly as the means of communication…but as communication itself, as modes of the saying” (113).

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: Cross-talk in Comp Theory

Villanueva, Victor and Kristin L. Arola. Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011.

This hefty anthology — which aims not at being “comprehensive, but is, rather, fuel with which to prime the pump: some talk and some cross-talk, the utopic and the dystopic” (xiv) — charts six major themes within composition studies that have emerged over the past half-century. The initial section traces the development of pedagogies that teach writing as a process not product, while the following focuses on discourse-centered rhetorical theory; attention shifts in the third section to cognitive approaches, as well as their subsequent critiques; anthropological, multicultural, and antifoundationalist approaches inform the fourth section; questions of race, gender, and class — as they inform voice broadly construed — are posed in the fifth; a final section, added for this edition, explores the intersection of new media and composition. A specific thread the ties together the sixth part, “Virtual Talk,” is the way that the rhetoric surrounding technology homogenizes while the technology itself reinforces cemented divisions, a tone which is set by a prescient 1985 text by Richard Ohmann, “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital,” and carried through Adam J. Banks’ piece, “Oakland, the World, and the Divide: How We All Missed the Moment.” For Ohmann, “questions of literacy and technology are inextricable from political questions of domination and equality” (699): Because “computers are an evolving technology like any other,” they are inexorably “shaped within particular social relations, and responsive to the needs of those with the power to direct that evolution” (704) — that is, to the managers of late capitalism who are characterized by its “powerful drive toward planning” of the instrumental and Taylorist type (702). “Technology, one might say,” pace accounts that suggest media simply arise from the ether sans politics, “is itself a social process, saturated with the power relations around it” (705); thus, “the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset” (707) and which are signified by terms of (il)literacy. Yet teaching literacy still has liberatory potential, and technology can help achieve that aim, but only insofar as it is recognized that “[t]echnique is less important than context and purpose in the teaching of literacy; and the effects of literacy cannot be isolated from the social relations and processes within which people become literate” (711).

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.