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

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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.