The World's Worst Rhetor

I fancy myself a keen reader of this and that — booze, circumstance, desire, David Lynch. But when it comes to the presumed heart of the rhetorical endeavor, I fail miserably: reading an audience.

Now, I will admit that I think I'm pretty good at sizing up a room, taking its affective temperature, making sense of its mood. And, from time to time, I can make a comment or two that stirs the stew just like I like it. But, more often than not, shit goes terribly wrong: I piss people off, I'm thoroughly misunderstood, taken as a know-it-all prick (which I am) when all I want to come off as is an easy going guy with some ideas.

There are several reasons for this, I believe.

One is I am a narcissist: I care more about myself than about the audience and so I speak to myself, not to them.

Two is I never know when to begin. That is, I have no idea what people have thought about and at what point my own diatribe meets things they've thought. Inevitably, I begin too far down the path: to wit, this very evening, speaking to a room of about a dozen 20-something hipsters, I launched into a rant about "affective resonance," as if they would have any fucking idea what I was talking about. I think I mentioned invisible asteroid fields of affect — which, to me, is an excellent figure but which I fear, to them, was insane. Doh!

Deleuze does it so well, always beginning his books mid-stride. When I do it, I lose my audience from the get go and am met with an alarming composite of boredom, loathing, and disdain. But, in all honesty, I don't do it to be provocative: I live in such solitude that I just don't know what people know and think about.

Three is my tone of voice and mode of delivery: NY hebes — read: I — deliver uncertainty with a tone of absolute certainty. I feel like I take irony for granted — of course we're all just making it up, throwing shit against the wall to see what sticks. And in order to know for sure, you have to throw with conviction! So I speak and write with a certain emphatic umph and always with the understanding — held by me alone, it seems — that all of this might very well turn out to be nonsense.

But my audience, especially in this absurd city of San Francisco, think me an asshole. Which I may be, but not for the reasons they think. And I want people to know why, precisely, I'm an asshole.

And so, despite years of rhetorical training, I am a terrible rhetor, perhaps the world's worst. Fortunately, I enjoy my solitude and, for the most part, I understand myself quite well.


jemtallon said...

Of course! Aren't we all assholes? Different kinds of assholes, sure, but never *just* assholes.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading your life is because of the types of asshole you are and the environments you perform in. Narcissism works in your favor. When you speak to the smartest, aren't you just speaking to yourself and letting us come along for the ride?

Why can't rhetoric be art? Good art is rarely accommodating. Instead it challenges the audience to get out of their heads and steal a glimpse of the world from the artist. And if all they see is blurs, well fuck em - maybe they'll have better luck with the still life down the hall.

Remember that for every author whose words have latched on to you, there were thousands more whose slid off. Deleuze, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard spoke to an audience you were in. Neither of you knew that for certain before the performance. How could you know? I imagine, like you, they spoke to themselves and let you listen. And for you it made a difference.

Chad Lott said...

I always thought a good De-Cal class at Berkeley would've been "Rhetoric for Salesmen" where you learn Dale Carnegie style social engineering.

69959e5a-57e2-11e0-a3a5-000bcdcb2996 said...

"I live in such solitude that I just don't know what people know and think about"..this is precisely how I feel when I get the 'u are a fucking asshole' retort. It's not that I don't care about other peoples feelings, I'm just not around them enough to pick up on positive/negative social cues. However, you should analyze that narcissist character trait before you become a rhetorical pariah like female rhetorician Sarah Palin.

dustygravel said...

I appreciate the honesty but, really, don't take it so hard.
What I get from these blogs isn't that youre a narcissistic ass hole, on the contrary your blogs are a celebration of other people, thats why there good.

I mean the whole speak to the smartest thing was a little hard to swallow because I don't think I'm the smartest, but hell I always get what youre saying so why should it bother me, thats probably the factor that makes it all come together, who knows. When I listen to the other guys (european graduate school) talkin' about all this continental stuff I don't get the impression that their philosophies are eliminating their family life, that they taste it and that it is in their limbs....that its in the body. (They do look like their having fun though, especially zizek)

The truth is that people that want to see the world in all its glory are a minority, and will be persecuted for their enthusiasm. Their persecutors will call them any name they can think of. I't the way it works.

But its all good,stay open thats what its all about.

Erik said...

you're a genius and you know it. too bad everyone else isn't catching on.

drwatson said...

Well from my attempting Deleuze again, I'm not always sure he performs this amazingly well. But I do think both Camus and Nietzsche do. Camus never comes off harsh, but of course Nietzche does. However, the both come off thoughtful. It's weird, when I talk about rhetoric to my class I'm always talking about audience, but I know that they know that at the end of the day I'm their real audience because I give them a grade. And when I think about them as an audience, what I usually realize is that I'm really speaking to about four people.

I also seem to remember Kurt Vonnegut saying he wrote every book thinking of his sister, but somehow I also was a perfect audience for him. And David Foster Wallace, who is my absolute favorite writer talked about how his audience was as smart as he was. And when questioned, he admitted that a lot of people wouldn't put the work in to finish some of his books, particularly Infinite Jest, but the ones who did would be the ones who would get it.

Now, obviously that is different than speaking in front of a real audience. But I seem to remember you mentioning Nicholson Baker in one of your lectures and how minds change later. So maybe some, you know, the 4 who are with it and not just hipsters, which is completely unhip now I think, will be affected later. I think that is the issue with teaching in general, you rarely see if you made any difference.

Anyhow, I do feel your frustration. I think audience would be an interesting topic to take up at more length.

drwatson said...

I think I want to take back the idea that Camus is starting from the middle. I do think he's starting from a position that's different than most though, basically because I find his ability to think as good as anybody I've ever ran across.

His got these really great phrases like "blood of the spirit" that if yo don't reduce it to some thoughtless metaphor, it can open an interesting space to think in. Flesh and spirit intertwined, one's not metaphysically behind the other and so forth.

Douglas Lain said...

I believe you and I may have this failure to meet our audience half-way in common, although I would not claim to be as far down the path of my idiosyncratic understanding as you appear to be with your own radical subjectivity.

In any case, if your approach represents a failure then perhaps this quote from Mao will be of some use to you: Fail again. Fail better!

I produced another podcast on Deleuze this week...a listener responded to our conversation on the subject. You might be interested in that. And if you'd like to fail with me again on the podcast I'd be glad to have you back. In fact it would be fun to have you on for the 104th episode which will mark year two of the Diet Soap podcast. This week is episode 98.

Daniel Coffeen said...

In case I haven't made it obvious, I take a certain pleasure in my rhetorical failures. I make them, perhaps erroneously, a point of pride (the pride is erroneous, not the "failures"). I relish the ways I am misunderstood and found much of my identity in such.

So my use of "failure" in this post is, well, ambivalent.

And, Mr. Lain, I would be honored — as always — to partake. Let's find something juicy to discuss.

Chrispian said...

"invisible asteroid fields of affect" IS an excellent figure.

I may steal it... I mean, 'reinflect' it.