2.25.2020

Making Sense in the Age of the Argument, or Rhetoric Saves the Day!


The amount of information means to persuade us to buy these or those eggs is absurd.

Are you seduced by the font? By the claims? Do you think it's all a ruse and choose the cheapest eggs? Is any one of those decisions more or less rational? More or less "right"?

When I was much younger and buying eggs, there were pretty much two choices — white and brown. I always chose brown because, well, brown is the color of the natural. Duh. The white ones, I assumed, are somehow turned white by some unseemly source. How do I know this? Well, I don't know it. I don't know anything about eggs — except how to cook with them, at least a bit.

And yet when faced with this decision, I came to a ready conclusion. Based on what? Well, I suppose based on nothing other than some trickle down branding in which the natural — a vacuous modifier, at best — is brown — you know, like dirt and tree bark. But for all I know, the "natural" lobby turned the white eggs brown!

Today, buying eggs has become vastly more complex. At my local store, there is a robust chart with brands down one side and a list of qualifications down the other along with telling dots where the two intersect.


I have to tell you, this chart clarifies nothing for me. On the contrary, it introduces all kinds of terms that confound me. I assume I'm supposed to want those eggs that have all the dots filled in. But how do I know the value of those categories? To wit, this chart seems to imply that I want my eggs to be fertile. But when I think about that, I'm not so sure. In fact, it sounds kind of icky. As for beak trimming, that sure seems like a bad thing. I, for one, don't want anyone trimming my beak! But for chickens on a farm? How do I know? Maybe it makes life on the egg laying factory — oh, farm — much more pleasant: no cranky sharp beak pokes! 

Besides the questions of significance, what is the perspective of this chart? Is it solely representing the interests of the chickens? I get that, for the most part: why inflict any unnecessary pain on chickens who are already imprisoned to serve my needs for a tasty breakfast, fluffy turkey burger, moist muffin, or frothy whiskey sour. 

Which makes me wonder: Do any of these categories and qualifiers qualify taste? After all, I'm the one buying the damn eggs! You'd think they'd give me a chart that helped my find the tastiest for my needs! At the least, I'd love to see this chart — presumably corresponding to the pain of chickens — mapped to the taste or use of eggs by those of us buying them.

Meanwhile. it seems the farmer has been left out of these considerations all together. How does beak cutting affect the farmer's life and livelihood? I assume it drives up their costs. Of all the interests in this equation, how'd we end up choosing only the chickens'?

Don't get me wrong. I'll all for chicken rights, I think. But how do I know what chickens want? And how and when do I consider the farmer in all this? Not to mention my own taste: I want delicious eggs! (Are there certain eggs that are better for this or that — some for baking, some for scrambling, some for whiskey sours? Where's that chart?)

Such are the times in which we live: so much information, so many perspectives. And I'm only talking about buying fucking eggs from the market! Throw in literally everything else from toothpaste to gender to medicine. Nothing these days is given. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is busy proffering a position — be this, eat that, do this! It's as beautiful as it is maddening.

When I was a kid, I trusted the pediatrician my mother had selected. He told me to do something so I did it. Why? Because he was the doctor. Today, I trust very little of what comes out of my doctor's mouth; it seems like she's just following the same decision tree I can find on WebMD. Most of the time, I go to a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor for herbs and some acupuncture. A friend of mine was recently taken with Ayurvedic herbs and diagnostic tools; I love the idea of Western herbs as they're local; another friend practices Reiki; and on and on.

So many options, so many ways to consider the body and its disease. Is disease, as Western medicine maintains, a pugilistic affair — viruses and such that attack along with cells and medicines that defend? Or perhaps my sickness is immanent to me. Maybe it's trauma or, rather, how I've handled trauma. Or how I sit on my chair: if only my buttocks were thrust the proper way? Is my disease a mist over my liver (as an acupuncturist once diagnosed me)?

It seems to me none of these and all of these are right. Each one offers more than a remedy: each one offers an entire world view, an architecture of the body in space and time. How do I choose which practitioner to visit? For me, Traditional Chinese Medicine with its talk of qi and flow feels right; it gels with how I understand matter. But sometimes I just want some good ol' penicillin to kill my bloody sinus infection (bloody, in this case, is used in its British sense) or Xanax to quell my angst. Fortunately for me, I can choose (within certain limits; it drives me apeshit that I need a doctor's prescription to get medicine to heal myself; this paternalism gives socialism a bad name).

Such is life in the Age of the Argument. Sure, there's a lot of talk these days about "fake news" and fabricated facts. But that's a red herring, I believe, as there have always been liars, people who fabricate facts from scratch. They may not always be easy to discern but they have a clear status within decision making.

No, what makes this the Age of the Argument — and hence makes things more complicated — is not that people are lying but that they're operating with different world views, different distributions of forces, facts, bodies, and ideas. In the Age of the Argument, everything is perspectival, everything a position, everything an argument. Gone are the days when there were institutions we simply trusted as the master term — medicine, the government, "The New York Times." Today, all we have are arguments trying to persuade us to do, believe, or buy this or that.

To a rhetorician like me, this is all there's ever been: arguments to infinity. Uncertainty is where we thrive. It's the very conditions of life — and it's beautiful! All these swirling views and possibilities nudging each other, forging surprising harmonies, dissonances, even melodies. (I might call this "the postmodern" but that word seems to've taken on all kinds of associations — such as with identity politics which, it seems to me, is a conservative movement opposed to postmodernism. So I'll refrain from using that word and, as these conditions are familiar to those rhetoricians among us, I'll stick to the Age of the Argument.)

The sophists of old knew this. It's not that these sophists believed there's no truth. It's that they knew there are many truths. And — and! — that there are factors other that truth that might matter more such as, say, health, vitality, beauty, humor (see: Nietzsche, the great sophist, the teacher of rhetoric long before anyone called him a philosopher). Truth is one possibility among possibilities — and, frankly, is rarely the most appealing criterion for my judgements.

And this is what interests me at the moment: amid all these competing arguments, all these possible ways to go, how do I — how do you — choose what to do, what to believe? No doubt, many people refuse this Age of the Argument by summoning positions and beliefs that they insist are true. If you have a penis, you're a man! (Why such things irk some so remains a puzzle to me. Who cares what anyone wants to be? Sure, when it comes to certain sports, there are complicated decisions to be made. But is that really enough for someone to reject the very idea that one may have a penis and be a woman? Jeez.)

Such gestures are a call to rational certainty: there are clear facts that establish the way things are such as penises! But what's odd about this, among other things, is it's often the same people who refuse to believe that climate change is caused by humans. Where's the absolute proof, they say? Rationality is funny that way: follow it and it recedes to infinity. This is why Leibniz just short circuited the whole thing with God.

Of course, god is seductive for those who seek certainty. It's so because God says so! Of course, such a will has been rather disastrous for many over millennia. And, of course, invoking god-as-certainty is an absurd position to maintain within the public sphere. (Unless we all ascribed to Leibniz's god who is supremely generous.) No, neither god nor rationality offers respite from the relentless teem of arguments that is life.

So how do we make decisions? Why do we buy these eggs but not those? And how are we to stand towards our decisions when certainty will never come if, for no other reason, it's impossible? What of our convictions? What of our passions?

Needless to say, these questions exceed this blog post. Which is why I'm writing a book on precisely this: these questions need room to sit, to move, to breathe. But I will proffer some things I've been thinking.

The rubric in which we often imagine decision making is misleading. We think: I am a rational person; the world is filled with information; I will gather this information then make an informed decision. But this very flow begins with the premise that we, as decision makers, are not constitutive of the world. That is, we imagine ourselves to somehow sit at a remove and hence are able to survey all the mechanics of life and come to a rational conclusion.

Alas, this is not the case. We are the world (wait, that came out wrong!). We are constitutive of the world — which means we don't sit at a remove and make decisions. Rather, we inflect all sorts of forces that flow through us. We don't make decisions rationally; we make decisions metabolically. We process a wealth of information in a breadth of ways — we are moved by certain logics, desires, and drives that work in an ever shifting calculus that is the action we take and the things we believe.

We buy eggs — or choose a candidate, a philosophy, a lover — according to the same mechanisms. Information flows through us — information of a wide variety that includes facts but also the pain in the our side, memory of that girlfriend's nape, the time your father slapped you — and is then processed according to so many different forces, drives, and desires.

Logic and rationality are no doubt possible, and often influential, components of decision making. But one person's rationality is another person's madness. Consider the OJ Simpson verdict. To much of the world, which turned out to be a predominantly white world, OJ was obviously, rationally, guilty. But to African Americans, there was a different rationality, a different logic, at work — one in which police corruption is the dominant factor. Both positions are therefore rational!

Every argument is first and foremost a selection of evidence that it deems relevant — one's desire to be rich, one's experience, the things one's read. How could it be otherwise? Arguments are first and foremost a cutting out, a forgetting: not that, not that, not that. To wit, a predominantly white America never considered everyday police violence against African Americas in their presumed rational consideration of OJ's guilt. A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, or some such thing.

And, as everyone who's taken an intro to rhetoric course knows, arguments are made of up logic (logos), sure, but also emotion (pathos) and what we consider the argument's authority (ethos). All fo these things differ person to person, culture to culture. There's no such thing as an argument that considers everything — every data point, every desire, every cultural position. That would be Leibniz's God. No, as we rhetoricians have always known, positions and their truths are local and circumstantial (I called my introduction to rhetoric class at Berkeley, "Circumstantial Propriety", a title meant as a pedagogy unto itself.) While we imagine rationality and truth to be a fixed standard, they are in fact protean: what's rational and true one day, in one place, is madness another. Life is flux.

In the face of such flux, one instinct is to try and exile emotion and to be exhaustive: let's be really thorough and rational! But that's a red herring as it's as impossible as it is absurd. The world, mercifully, isn't rational: it's exquisitely complex and driven by so many factors including attraction, desire, love, hate, smell, hunger, that annoying itch in the back of my throat, gluten allergies, the powerful music of Led Zeppelin, the angle of the sun (don't we talk about seasonal affect disorder?), the movement of clouds, the stress of an asshole landlord, boss, or lover, and on and on and so it goes. There is logic; there is mood; there are cosmic forces; there are desires and drives.

We make decisions, we act, without certainty. And I am saying that rather than seeing this as problem and desperately seeking certainty, we gladly embrace our uncertainty — or, better, our a-certainty. We don't need it! Which is lucky as we can't possibly have it! Don't seek it.

Seek a more local criterion: yourself, your vitality, your health, your well being, your desires. Rather than quoting some blog post you read (uh oh!), some Jane Brody article, something your nutritionist told you, try reckoning your decisions as an embodied being. This embodied being of course considers all those articles and anecdotes. But such external data will never suffice, will never be a final authority. You, methinks, are the final authority.

We make these decisions and take actions as embodied beings inflecting flows — of data and forces — that exceed us. We don't need any proof or certainty: we need to act as empowered and embodied inflections of the world. So when I'm standing before the eggs dumbfounded by the incoherence of the chart stuck in the refrigerator glass, I reach for this or that box based on factors that will never be certain or final or rational — I like the font; I don't want to be duped by the "organic" ruse; I'm broke this month — and I buy myself some freakin' eggs.

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