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.


Unknown said...

I've thought about that question many times over the years, Daniel. And you're right, your impudence did make me bristle a bit. Mainly because my initial thought was, "Why should you think ballet wanted anything from YOU?" But, obviously, I was intrigued, and I've had different thoughts on the subject over time. In a nutshell, Ballet (capital B) is an assertion or a set of assertions that want amazement, wonder, and admiration, if not love (ultimately, a kind of self-love in the viewer of, in general terms, the human machine, its perfection and kinetic calculus). Ballets (small b), on the other hand, are stories and arguments that, beyond a requisite amount of pleasure, want any number of different things, most of them not that interesting (or new, anyway), but some, beguilingly elusive. For example:

Adam said...

What does it want from me... I never really thought of it this way, but I like that as an active and inviting take; one that asks us to engage (even if the 'asking' is totally imagined). Usually I think of these things as passive and random; things (maybe ballet) make an unsolicited offering; they are just there and maybe you have put yourself in their domain or proximity. From there, it doesn't seem like it wants anything at all; its message or whatever is just dispersed, like a seed, and it's argument in the form of beauty or whatever it has to offer (which depends entirely on the configuration of the recipients) just goes out into the world. And if the ground is fertile (paying attention to it in some form) that seed will take root and grow into... I don't know, not clones of itself, but some kind of offspring blended from whatever parts of it the recipient finds dominant and the recipient's own chemistry. That 'offspring' can be a mild appreciation, a mocking joke, a total 'misinterpretation', a profound life-long love of ballet, the basis of a conversation that connects two people and then means nothing else to them ever again, or some combination of these things. It is maybe like the concept of a drug binding with a specific receptor and a question of how sensitive or developed or whatever that particular receptor is, how open the recipient is, how timely and potent the dose with respect to whatever else the recipient is embroiled or enmeshed in?

I don't really know, but after reading this I do like this invitational aspect of trying to answer that question of what the thing wants.
(And thank you - I really do appreciate that this blog exists.)

Behold This Non-Fungible Vagina (NFV), or The Multiple Event of Emergent Particularity in the Digital Age

 Check out this nutty essay on this NFT/NFV that I wrote on Medium