So it Goes: On the Radical Empiricism of Rhetoric

Look at these three chairs. Don't they all make very different appeals, different arguments, to you? Don't they want different things from you? Reckoning these appeals is what we call rhetoric.

I remember the first time I met my friend, Brian. It was San Francisco 1992, after I'd graduated college but yet to start my graduate rhetoric degree at Berkeley (I was working at Green Apple Books on Clement Street; I actually created their "Cultural Studies" section. Back then, that's what we often called literary theory — Cultural Studies. Go figure). Brian, I knew, had recently stopped dancing ballet (he was a principal in a significant company). When I walked in his apartment — he was the friend of a friend and I was picking something up — he was sitting on the floor looking through a large format book on ballet.

Within minutes, I said, "I never got ballet. I don't know what it wants from me." He replied,  with a hint of defensive hostility to what he perceived as a suggestively hostile query, "What do you mean, what does it want from me?"

I had no clear response for him. Two yappers, we quickly became engrossed in a long, animated, and mutually generous conversation, one that continues to this day (only it's no longer focused on ballet).

What does ballet want from me?
But why did I phrase my question, my confusion, as I did: What does ballet want from me? Well, it just came out of my mouth. But what was clear to me is that ballet — as a concept and a practice — was this thing that stood towards me as if waiting or asking for a response. And I had no fucking idea what to do, no idea how to make sense of it, no idea how and where to find my pleasure (or even my displeasure), like someone asking me pleadingly in another language. I know they want something but, for the life of me, I have no idea what it is. 

What I came to understand is that I was reading the world rhetorically. That is to say, I saw everything — in this case, ballet — as a something addressing me. It enjoyed a posture and a way of standing towards other things — people, history, ideas, music. Ballet, like most if not indeed all things, has a way of going in the world, in the social, of taking up bodies, history, ideas and digesting them before playing it all back like...this.

Punk rock, heavy metal, Muzak, the waltz, EDM, Jethro Tull, this chair I'm sitting in: they all stand in the world in a particular manner. They all address the world in a particular manner. They each consume different things, desire different things, ask different things.

This is rhetorical reckoning: a positional making sense. I stand here, physically and metaphysically (after all, I am more than you can see; I am all the things that have happened to me; I am a teem of moods and thoughts; I have dreams and sensations no one will ever know); ballet comes to me, at me, in a certain tone, doing certain things. What do I do in return? How do I engage this? What kinds of things can I do with it, to it, in it, as it, for it? (For all the criticism laid as its door, rhetoric is essentially ethical — amoral, sure, but thoroughly ethical.)

In one sense, rhetoric is radically materialist. It deals with the world as it happens as part of that same world. I am here doing this; you're doing that — you have a safety pin in your nose, you're wearing a tutu or a business suit or lingerie; you say this or that, gesture just so, emanate a certain smell. We are embodied beings interacting with each other just as any material things might interact with each other — wind with leaves, wind with ocean, wind with my bald head; glass filling with whiskey, glass falling on rocks, glass bent to let me see what's far away. Ballet is an embodied practice; I am an embodied practice. When it leaps and pirouettes, what does it want from me?

Now look at all these modes of dancing. See how they go. Each asks something different of the world, of themselves, of you.

But, for the keen rhetor, materialism is inflected and run through with the immaterial, with ideas, with past experiences, with mood, with affect, with rhythm. Such things might not be able to be measured or quantified but they are still constitutive of experience. This seems so obvious: every thing has an invisible as well as visible state. Rhetorical analysis, then, is not as much radically materialist as it is radically empirical: it makes sense, it reckons, what it encounters, visibly and invisibly.

This insistent positionality is what makes rhetorical analysis democratizing. Philosophy, literature, biology: they all involve knowing certain things, regardless of where or who you are. These things philosophers and other experts know are indifferent to circumstance and position.

But rhetorical analysis begins wherever you are, as whomever you are, doing whatever it is you're doing. You encounter something — another person, a faulty car engine, a Bach concerto, a ballet, a Rauschenberg collage, a big nosed Jew babbling at you. You make sense of it as you do. You don't need anything else. There's no special knowledge required (although you might not fix your engine); there's no key you need to find. Just as wind goes differently with different trees, leaves, objects, you go with what comes as you go.

Everything in the world makes an argument, makes an appeal. It might not want much from you; a tulip is happy for your gaze and returns the favor with elegant poise. But it's just as happy with your looking. A puppy, on the other hand, will not rest until its pet and tended to.

As everything is an argument that comes from a position to another position, there is no final truth to be attained, no absolute or universal to be known. All there are are positions endlessly interacting with other positions. Some respond to a puppy's appeals with treats and pets; others, with a swat and a gripe; and still others don't even hear the furry yelps. There is no right way; there are just different ways with different effects, different results, different positions.

Mind you, this rhetorical reckoning riles many people up as it doesn't try to ground itself or its going in anything outside itself — in a truth or axiom or universal claim. It is indifferent to such things except in as much as such things are arguments, things to reckon. And so rather than ever being tethered or even seeking a tether, the rhetorician begins to enjoy all the different ways different things can go. It reads multiple ways to reckon a puppy or ballet or chair. Rather than stake a single claim, she — our rhetorician — takes delight in the going of things, in the possible ways of things. Which can be infuriating to someone who's adamant in a single belief. This is what ballet is!

Rhetorical analysis is finally, although there is no finally, interested in going with things and the different ways things go and can go and might go. A rhetorician might simply enjoy its own way of going — without adamance, mind you. Like Pooh, our rhetor simply prefer honey but will never get imperial in demanding it.

Or, unlike Pooh, our rhetor might find joy in the multiplicity of modes the world assumes, its many appeals, its varied terms of distribution, the kinds of arguments it makes. Such a rhetorician is less interested in the stability of what per se and more keen on the flux of how.

And so the rhetor takes up the world as it comes, as it happens, feeling no particular need to explain, know, or define it once and for all. It may explain one way now, another way later, or not at all. So it goes.


Towards a Philosophy of Rhetoric

 From the brilliant, charming "Clueless," an all too rare depiction of rhetoric praised rather than vilified.

Rhetoric is concerned with the everyday, with the ways things stand towards other things or, rather, with the way this stands towards that — how I stand in the crowded subway car, what I say to my son when his rapidly elongating body extends into my couch space, how much to beat the eggs before pouring it in my broth for egg drop soup. That is to say, rhetoric is less interested in a general theory of ethics than in the particularity of an encounter. 

These ethics — these interactions — need not be human. Trees and wind, for instance, have a complicated relationship, rhetorically speaking. Trees shape wind and wind shapes trees. I love the way the trees along the Pacific coast grow as if the wind were always blowing, the wind winding through the very structure of the tree. Those are some complex arguments they make to each other, elaboroate conversations, negotiations, jokes. (The funniest tree I ever met was a ginkgo in West Philadelphia.)

With its attention on the particular, even if this particular extends temporally backwards (the past is always present) and forwards (so is the future), rhetoric enjoys a resounding indifference to what we usually call truth. Its focus has never been universal claims or moral dicta (that's a word I bet you rarely use!) or what actually happened. It cares about this body and that body and the different ways they can and do go together.

This indifference has been the source of its criticism. Besides Socrates' ambivalent anti-rhetoric rhetoric, see any Hollywood movie about the law. Lawyers — who've come to stand in for the classical sophist, those who use arguments to get results rather than the truth — are inherently sleazy because they're only concerned with the outcome for their client, not the truth. And then the good lawyer has a crisis of conscience and leaves the law to follow Truth and Justice. Oy vey! The same old moralistic crap. In fact, all of our depictions of a good lawyer are those who believe in a moral cause that exceeds the law ("To Kill a Mockingbird," for instance, or "A Civil Action"). But a lawyer who's great precisely because he's indifferent to the truth? I can only think of one instance: that brilliant exchange in "Clueless."

This critique of rhetoric assumes that sophists manipulate the truth to get what they want. But what if there never was any truth? This is what makes rhetoric interesting and, dare I say, beautiful: it begins somewhere else entirely, somewhere outside the search for certainty, outside the need for universal claims, outside the desire to speak for others: to reference a great professor of rhetoric whom I only met through his books, rhetoric is beyond good and evil (yes, Nietzsche was a professor of rhetoric). It proffers a world view that feels no need to affirm, deny, or undermine the truth. Rhetoric isn't punk rock; it's not rebellious (except when it is): it's more like an aesthete, indifferent to silly bourgeois propriety.

Thinking about what rhetoric is and how it operates  brings me great pleasure. Talking about it begins to sound like philosophy — there are some concepts (kairos) and functions (appeals) and ways of operating. But unlike most philosophy, it doesn't seek a common answer to a question or a universal.  In fact, might rhetoric be non-philosophy à la Laruelle? You tell me.

In any case, rhetoric neither offers nor rejects such postulates. Rhetoric is not a position that rejects anything (unless it does). It takes (or doesn't) whatever comes. In this sense, rhetoric is akin to science in that both are empirical: the rhetor, like the scientist, perceives. But, unlike the scientist, the rhetor doesn't seek a formula for reproducing the same results over and over. The rhetor doesn't want to confirm anything. No, the rhetor just wants to get that kiss, feel that stretch, enjoy that cilantro pesto without too much garlic. Yum!

I think I'd say rhetoric is closer to what I might call taoism. I qualify that as I don't know much about taoism other than reading the hilarious Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (I highly recommend both). I was going to say yoga but I feel like yoga has some element of prescribed practices — the poses. But if you take out the poses, rhetoric is indeed yoga: it's the practice of reckoning the now. In both cases, there's just a going with.

And, like toaism's wu wei (the do nothing way), rhetoric is neither active nor passive, neither creative nor consumptive. It flourishes in the spaces in between, in the relations between and among things (even the spaces within a me that will never have been a me). Taoism and rhetoric have no expectations, no oughts; they both play it as it lays. That said, rhetoric strikes me as having a bit more, uh, umph, a greater will to will. To wit, there are a lot of very quiet taoists but I've never met a quiet sophist.

I see rhetoric as a branch of phenomenology. Or vice versa (in a world of flux, genus and species often realign position). In my version of phenomenology, which comes from Merleau-Ponty not Husserl, the world is fundamentally phenomena, not idea. Ideas exist but they are events rather than determinative figures per se: they are part of the flux, wound up with material, rather than being an external thing that tells material what to do.

Anyway, I've spent decades thinking about rhetoric, fleshing out its logic — creating a kind of philosophy of rhetoric. Here are some postulates of rhetoric, a field free of postulates:

  • All is flux. Life is fundamentally temporal. Some things are slower (mountains, my grandfather) or faster (humming birds, light). The great French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that most philosophy operates with bad questions because it assumes time is added to space rather than being constitutive of it. Once we begin with (at least) four dimensions — time being the fourth — our foci and questions shift. Bergson follows this into philosophy; I follow it into rhetoric which, alas, has no in into which I can go. It's just this. Anyway.

  • Everything is emergent. Everything is always already in motion, always changing. We don't know beforehand what'll happen, what'll be (even if we can often make pretty good guesses about many things).

  • We are always already enmeshed in the social. There is no outside the fray, no position from which to assess so as to act. You're always already in the shit, as it were. Aristotle said something like this, I believe.

  • The inherent selfishness of rhetoric is undone by the fact that the very premise of rhetoric undoes the I at its core. There is no I because everything is relational: I am constantly being nudged by a bevy of forces — human, natural, cosmic, alien, affective. There's no moment in which I'm ME; I'm always changing with the forces and bodies around me. I am in flux and so am no I at all.

  • All words, all actions, all feelings are collaborative: they emerge from a conspiracy of forces — my body, my mood, my history, the culture that exceeds me, the things around me and their histories, affective flows, ways of going. The emergent moment is a joint effort.

  • The terms of this collaboration are never pre-set but are usually aparallel and in flux. We might think about this as the terms of power.

  • As everything is in flux and nothing is outside the fray, there are no hard and fast rules dictating behavior. But this doesn't create chaos. On the contrary, it births relentless limits and criteria. What's best for my health is quite different than what's right for your health. Trust me: you don't want to hang out with me after we've eaten ice cream. Our modern concept of diet is not rhetorical; it assumes all bodies are the same hence no one should eat carbs or everyone should eat kale or you should drink a quart of bone broth a day (which I, for one, recommend — but only if it's right for you. How do you know if it's right for you? Well, that's what makes the rhetorical life so damn interesting! There's never any certainty! All you have to go on is your going and your going has nothing to go on but more going. You make decisions and act according to an impossibly complex calculus that emerges so can't be programmed or known beforehand. The next time you're eating, pay attention to when you start and stop: what factors entered into play? How did you make those decisions? Such is the mystery of rhetoric — and life). Diet in its old sense is something else all together: diet is what you eat. A good diet is what serves your vitality and health. You can have other criteria. But I'm sticking with vitality and health (which is distinct from longevity).

  • As there's no outside the fray of it all, no position that's not part of the flux, we always stand in some position in relation to other positions. This is what we call perspective: we always enjoy a vantage on the world based on our bodies, our place, our position, our way of going. One thing I love about San Francisco is the way the city constantly juxtaposes itself with itself. There is not one or two big hills that overlook this or that. There are hills everywhere, like a crumpled piece of paper. One's perspective is constantly different.

  • And yet, to be clear, perspective is not subjectivity — as in I see red but maybe you see green. That's silly. I am in the world; you are in the world; that chair is in the world. We both see it — from different perspectives which include our physical point of view but also the things we believe, know, have experienced, desire, and such. The interior world, as Bataille calls it, need not be subjective — only opaque to others.
I used bullet points because it's funny. And makes my argument look organized. Which it is — but according to an emergent logic.


What is Rhetoric? (Take 1): A Podcast

Sometimes, I enjoy talking rather than writing. This is me rambling on about what rhetoric is and what the theory and practice of making sense of life as part of life means. Yep


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.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...