It All Depends: Thoughts on Rhetoric & Philosophy

Rhetoric is the art of living and hence is the art of participating with circumstance. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. It always depends. Except when it doesn't.

These days, rhetoric gets a bad rap. People assume rhetoric is just so much fluff, a charming veneer at best, fatuous and vapid at worst. "It's just empty rhetoric," they'll say. Or the ultimate condemnation: "It's just rhetoric" — as if that were enough! (I remember my rabbi telling us in Sunday school that when people call you a dirty Jew, it's not the greatest but at least they felt the need to qualify Jew; when they just call you a Jew with venom, you know you're in trouble. This has sat with me all these years.)

Now, I'm no historian, but I believe for centuries rhetoric was actually a ubiquitous thing people studied: how to address the world. In any case, I got a freakin' PhD in it. Usually, when someone has a doctorate in rhetoric, it means they've studied modes of teaching composition; they'll probably seek a job running composition courses and curricula at a university. Sometimes, what academics call rhetoric refers to forms of argument — syllogisms, fallacies, and such. Other times, rhetoric is bundled with something called "communications." That's an odd one for me.

Even in my own department at UC Berkeley, most grad students don't study rhetoric per se. In fact, this is what's on the department website now: "The Rhetoric PhD program is best suited for students who wish to approach a specific area of academic inquiry, research objects or archive while working critically within and between academic disciplines in order to pose questions that transcend disciplinary divisions." There's no mention of rhetoric per se.

To be fair, when I applied to the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department in 1991— the only place I applied — I had no concept of rhetoric. It was not a word I used. And it certainly was not a discipline I was familiar with (when I applied, I wouldn't have ended a sentence with a preposition; after studying rhetoric, I now unabashedly shed arbitrary grammatical rules. This is the luxury of what we call an advanced degree: I can casually ignore grammar rules. This makes for interesting discussions for me professionally as copywriters tend to love grammar. Grammar lets them feel in control, feel smart, and judge others. I shed that shit like a...I was gonna say like a snake sloughs skin, a common TC Boyle figure, but I shed faster than snakes slough and with more vim. I love parenthetical asides. Burroughs wondered how anyone could write without them. I know just how he feels). I was interested in what we tend to call Continental Philosophy (as distinct from Analytic Philosophy which is usually Anglo-American, or so the story goes) or maybe what we call Critical Theory or what is really 20th Century French and German philosophy. In my application, I claimed I was interested in exploring a "genealogy of addiction." In fact, I took up smoking as I was curious if I could feel a longing that exceeded my will (all my other dalliances had failed to do so). Anyway, my point is this: I began studying rhetoric without knowing, or even thinking about, what the heck rhetoric is.

But that all changed. In my dissertation, I offer a theory of rhetoric and explore its implications. This killed me academically as what I called rhetoric and what the academy calls rhetoric are so different. Other things killed my academic career, most notably, my love of teaching. Academic powerhouses who ruled my department — I'll let you figure out their well known names — have great disdain for teaching. And for passion in general. But that's not interesting as it's just another story of terrible people in power, a truth that pervades all fields. So back to rhetoric.

Rhetoric, I always said, is the theory and practice of circumstantial propriety — a heady mouthful for sure. But what I've come to understand I mean by that is that rhetoric is an everyday practice. Philosophy is not; philosophy is a rarefied skill. It involves being learned in philosophic texts, knowing forms of argument, and being able to construct such arguments. Rhetoric is everywhere, always. It is the odd logic and practice of making sense within circumstances as part of said circumstances — knowing what to eat, when you've eaten too much, when to lean in for a kiss, what to say to a sweetie, a client, a parent, a child.

Anyone and everyone can perform rhetorical analysis, too. How does this or that thing — a book, booze, lover, stranger, chair — approach you? How does it appeal to you? What does it want from you? How can you go with it? Philosophical analysis demands that you know philosophy. Rhetorical analysis only asks that you be you wherever you are doing whatever you do.

And that you be present. Rhetoric is akin to yoga, in this sense: it is the art — that is to say, the practice — of being present to circumstance without letting ego dictate all the terms. When ego takes over, it tries to force circumstances into a pre-determined mold of what should be happening; a keen rhetor, like a keen yogi, participates with circumstances rather than dictating circumstances. Of course, this participation may involve dictating. It all depends.

This, alas, is the mantra of the rhetor: it depends. There are no absolutes here. There are no hard and fast rules except that there are no hard and fast rules except, sometimes, there are in fact hard and fast rules. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. How do you feel? How will you feel later? How does it feel good to be you? What sorts of things happen if you drink the whiskey or don't drink the whiskey? Rhetoric begins with minimal assumptions about the good. But it's temporally and contextually sensitive, aware, present.

None of this is to poo poo philosophy. I love philosophy. But I read it rhetorically. I ask: What is its tone? Its structure? What world does it inhabit? What is it asking of me? I do not read it looking for truth or meaning per se (although I may find some of each). I read philosophy as I read fiction or art or people: is this a world I enjoy? A world that fuels my health, my vitality, my vim?

Many people get annoyed with rhetoricians for our casual yet insistent refusal to state a position. Rhetoric, after all, is the position of positions — including the absolute position that effaces the position of positions. This is a contradiction to a philosopher. But it's not to a rhetorician. Why? Because rhetoric is a fundamentally temporal practice. Philosophy finds contradiction because it wants mutually exclusive positions to occupy the same space. But to a rhetorician, there is always flow and change. There is always shifting circumstances. What's true? What's the right thing to do? Well, it all depends.


Jim H. said...

I left philosophy after my Masters not just because of the lousy job market but because philosophers don't know how to write. They master a jargon—a rhetoric, if you will—that is impenetrable to the uninitiated. The challenge is to make their ideas clear, to clarify their meanings, to the impatient.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey Jim. Thanks again for reading; great to see you here. Here's a fact many find surprising: I have never taken a philosophy class. And I was in school a long time. I was in a seminar once with some philosophy doctorate students and, well, it was plain old weird. I couldn't tell if they were stupid or just looking for something that I just couldn't recognize. In either case, it was odd.

Jim H. said...

sounds like every grad seminar I ever took. LOL.