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.