Thursday, July 28, 2011

Text and Method: A discussion of Reed Way Dasenbrock’s Truth and Consequences

Reed Dasenbrock’s Truth and Consequences has given me much to think about. It is a relief to read a text so devoted to argument and evidence rather than unsupported claims. Admittedly, my own work and others seems to sometimes do this. In this text, Dasenbrock connects early analytic philosophy with some contemporary literary theory under the rubric of ‘conventionalism’, critiques this tradition, but then offers an alternative to conventionalism: an interpretive method based primarily on Donald Davidson.

Dasenbrock presents an array of philosophers, but rather than gloss his opponents with ready-made summaries, he attends to their texts with care and respect. These positions are not only put forward and critiqued with care, but are evaluated in terms of what Dasenbrock conceives as their pragmatic value. Unlike much contemporary “theory,” Dasenbrock retains the use of evaluation, including evaluating current theoretical positions currently taken as self-evident; theories needing no further argumentation than a citation of a theoretical authority (i.e. “As Foucault says, knowledge is a product of the will to power). Dasenbrock’s supports his interpretation--even of his opponents-- with evidence and arguments. I would argue that he is often more true to the philosopher/critic’s text than many disciples.

Take Dasenbrock’s Derrida for instance. Dasenbrock derives Derrida’s position (“anti-intentionalism) from Limited Inc. and then contrasts this position with Derrida’s practice in his defense of Paul de Man. Dasenbrock argues that Derrida refutes his  anti-intentionalism when he consider’s de Man’s intentions in writing for a Nazi supported journal. According to Dasenbrock, Derrida treats de Man and himself as individual authors, but people he disagrees with as “texts” to deconstruct.   Dasenbrock argues quite convincingly that we must treat other people as people and not merely as texts: “We can treat texts deconstructively as long as we can consider them as texts, but if they are works for us, products of a person we recognize as a person, we read in a rather different manner” (104). Moving from his defense of De Man back to Limited Inc, Dasenbrock argues that we can see Derrida critiquing Searle’s argument for intentions of an author, but Derrida himself retains his sense of authorship in practice. In other words, Dasenbrock shows that deconstruction’s anti-intentionalism cannot always be put into practice consistently.

I found Dasenbrock’s critique of Derrida convincing—not because I want to abandon my reading of Derrida, but rather because it forced me to go back to Derrida and ask WWDD (What would Derrida do?). In an interview in Positions, Derrida says

No more than I have dealt with Sausurre’s text, or Freud’s, or any other as homogenous volumes [. . .] I do not find the texts of Marx, Engels, or Lenin homogenous critiques (63-64).

This raises an interesting question: Must we derive a homogenous position from Derrida’s text that we can assign as authoritative? If Derrida does not read texts as homogenous, feeling the need to work through them, then can we really critique Derrida for his inconsistency in his work? Text here seems to replace the idea that we have to argue a position—this may frustrate the hell out of Dasenbrock and I think that it should on ethical grounds. Dasenbrock’s attentiveness to the different rhetoric of Derrida in the de Man piece, the Searle piece, and then Derrida’s own defense of his own text shows that Derrida thinks he can consider some others as texts and some (people he knows and himself) as people. Perhaps this reveals an inconsistency in Derrida’s methods, but Derrida himself has critiqued the idea that ‘deconstruction’ is really a method at all. Indeed, Derrida’s relationship to a text seems an encounter between a powerful reader and powerful writers. Also, as Dasenbrock does admit, Derrida’s later work contains a kind of ethical turn inspired by Levinas, where he is a bit more attentive to the personal dimension (but not necessarily reviving the humanist subject).

Furthermore, I still maintain that it is difficult to present Derrida’s work in terms of a definitive position. In The Future of Invention John Muckelbauer argues that discussions of foundationalism vs. anti-foundationalism is ultimately useless because both positions do the same thing—repeat. Although Muckelbauer seems concerned with methodology, his methodology is nomadic and cannot really be “represented.” Clearly, Muckelbauer would argue against Dasenbrock’s reading of Derrida’s work as a “position.” Indeed, one of the admirable things about Muckelbauer’s own text is he struggles against the tendency to cite the theorists that inspire his own readings, because it would defeat his own argument for fighting appropriative repetition: “this appropriative repetition necessarily follows once deconstruction becomes subject to a logic of identity, once it becomes a signifying content” (Muckelabauer 32).

Rather than orient toward intentions (as Dasenbrock does), Muckelbauer tries to attend to the “singular rhythms” (a rather obscure Deleuzian inspired neologism) of the text, asking what the text “can do.” However, we are never really quite sure what “singular rhythms” ‘are’ because they cannot be represented. This is not to say that Muckelbauer does not attempt to represent them,

"I am not so much interested, for example, in getting Plato right (in discovering his intentions). I am more interested in orienting toward the singular rhythms that circulate through his writing (what it does and what it can do), though, and this is just as important, I am also concerned with doing so in a fashion that can’t simply be dismissed as wrong (singular experimentation is not the same thing as subjective play"

Muckelbauer attends to his texts (or at least as I perceive it) just as carefully as Dasenbrock and indeed, seems to come to pedagogical conclusions that Dasenbrock would probably agree with. For instance, Muckelbauer wants readings of texts that seem to transform ourselves in light of that engagement. The difference is that Muckelbauer thinks the methodology we use to get there is besides the point. Many methodologies—with the right ‘orientation’—can achieve these same goals:

"The practices of a generalized methodology can be neither necessary nor privileged [. . .] Instead we must inhabit them differently in order to actualize the singular and inventive responsiveness by provoking permeability"

What does it mean to “inhabit a text differently?” Well, Muckelbauer cannot really tell us—just show us through his readings. In direct contrast to Dasenbrock (and his main source for his argument, Davidson), Muckelbauer does not put the focus on “understanding” but on style. Muckelbauer’s work has less to do with “simply accepting or rejecting the content of any particular proposition and more to do with altering the style through which we engage in everyday practices of reading, writing, and responding” (Muckelbauer xi). We have to understand what ‘style’ can be opposed to.

Dasenbrock makes a clear distinction between style and method, claiming New Historicism is a style: “a styles shows others what can be done; a method suggests how things ought to be done” (Dasenbrock 192). Muckelbauer may agree witht his distinction, but whereas he wants to find those styles, Dasenbrock wants to find a method. This idea of “what can be done” with something is attractive, but ultimately may lead into useless juxtapositions of ideas. The Deleuzian logic of rhizomatic linkage has its issues.

But what are the consequences if we lack a consistent method? Are they ethical or philosophical? Dasenbrock thinks so and I agree wholeheartedly with Dasenbrock’s critique of conventionalism and believe, along with him, that ‘truth’ as a regulative idea (or, as he puts it, “limit-concept”) is necessary, particularly if we believe that we need evidence for our claims and arguments. Indeed, as Dasenbrock points out several times in the book, that I am even writing this blog and evaluating Dasenbrock’s argument adds force to the point. Ultimately, Dasenbrock thinks that it is this loss of ‘truth-talk’ (as Rorty would put it) has resulted in a lack of funding and support of what we do. Truth should not be considered a being but a limit-concept and ideal—something to shoot for. Indeed, I think I have made a similar argument: Was it was this pursuit for truth that pushed philosopher’s to do their work? True, the great system philosophies have been challenged, but is it not their rigorous search that we admire, respect, and that keeps us reading and re-reading them?

The institutional and disciplinary effect is one pragmatic consequences of our conventionalist paradigm and our lack of method. As literary critics, rhetoric and composition scholars, philosophers, and teachers, we want our work to have consequences. Frequently, I have described my own profession as self-indulgent masturbating with our pen(is)s (forgive the masculine emphasis). We use buzz words like praxis and action, but these seem to be empty words.  We can also take a theory and apply it to something, confirming that the theory has value because we can see it in texts or in culture. Or, alternately, we can come up with new metaphors or tropes for understanding culture, the classroom, etc.

This is all well and good but I have a hunger.  I want my texts to hold sway over me and I want to be able to evaluate them based on criteria that can make these texts are worthwhile—and to argue why they are or are not. I want the text to talk back to theory as well as the theory talking to the text. Furthermore, along with Dasenbrock, I do not believe that we can abandon aesthetic and ethical criteria in the formation of a new canon because we still have to decide what individuals in any given social group we should include or write about. In an earlier post, I complained that writing about Twilight preserves it as a text to write about.

But this brings me to the textual status of Theory. A lot of theories seem less to make “arguments” in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they engage more in a Rortyian change of vocabulary (or ‘re-description’)  in order to look at something from a given perspective. In this sense, a lot of theory seems to differ in style rather than propositional content or any sort of ‘position’ we derive from it. The use of these theoretical texts may be in what Muckelbauer calls the “style of engagement” just as we can look at formal and stylistic properties of texts and ask what they do for our understanding.  For example, to reduce Baudrillard’s text to the claim about hypperreality (and to endlessly cite this point over and over again) is to deny its other dimensions. Baudrillard’s “argument,” which really shouldn’t be called an ‘argument’ but a ‘claim’, is used as support in literary theory or critical works—it is part of a theoretical authority that we as academics all understand as legitimate descriptions of the world (whereas, many people who are not academics steeped in high theory may disagree). Baudrillard’s style polemically makes claims such as ‘ we are now in an age of the ecstatic—the  “more ___ than ____.” While this may be useful to fill pages of academic work (a recent work of my own included) is this ever argued for? And if not, should we be able to use this as “evidence” in our own arguments that engage in a different discussion? The question, then, is the status of theorists like Baudrillard’s texts. Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies for instance, re-describes rather than argues the world, but can we merely take these as ‘evidence’ and ‘fact’? Is not Baudrillard’s (and others) closer to a “work of art” because of its style? Can we accept citations of theoretical texts as accurate descriptions of the human world? If so, should we not evaluate the consequences of where that leaves us? (as Dasenbrock does so brilliantly?)

In an analysis of a poem or novel, I make a claim and then cite the poem for evidence for that claim. What we call “reading” connects this argument and evidence in order to make the reader of an academic article see the critics interpretation of the text. Along with the text, I may refer to the context of its production or the author’s life or perhaps another text by the same author. I am basically seeking what the text implicitly ‘argues’ about human life. By analogy, in critics interpretations and use of “theory”, the theoretical text takes not the place of a claim (this thinker has already made that claim and, presumably, ‘argued’ for it) or argument, but in the position of “evidence” that supports my claim. But is this taken in the same way that “evidence” is taken in a reading of a poem or a novel?

Do poems, novels, and theoretical texts (particularly of the French variety) re-describe the world in the same ways? Are they implicit arguments about how the world should be (and therefore are primarily prescriptive)? Are theories like narratives and narratives like theories? Can we evaluate a given theory like we can evaluate a work of art (or should be evaluating works of art?) Are there ‘good’ theories and bad theories? Are there ‘right’ theories, or theories that are “closer to the truth”? So there are really two questions here:

1.)  Can we evaluate theories based on their arguments, descriptions and whether or not this corresponds to our experience?

2.) Should we not have to evaluate these theories (in some way) before we can then use them in our own arguments? Do these texts have a responsibility to be consistent or us to be able to use them in our methodology?  

These are all questions I cannot, for the moment, answer or even begin to address in full. However, this blog’s purpose to elaborate questions for further debate and discussion not to answer them.

If Dasenbrock is right that the aesthetic and ethical elements of art still need to explained and considered when forming a canon, or even when engaging in criticism, do such matters concern Theory’s ‘descriptions’ too? Dasenbrock clearly shows the consequences of some contemporary theoretical positions (as well as points to their inconsistencies), but is there still value in reading these texts? If so, how should we read them? Are they worth reading? Do they stand the test of time (and will they?) because people are still interested in them and constantly re-reading them?

On a personal level, we seem to evaluate theory (if we are to be honest) based on premises of works of art rather than the ‘truth’ of their argument. I tend to like Baudrillard, Derrida, Heidegger, Gadamer, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Sometimes I get frustrated with the later Heidegger because it sounds almost mystical, but at the same time there is an aesthetic attraction there. I like Baudrillard, but less his main points about the hypperreal and more his rhetoric and writing (which is, by the way, why I do not like his earlier ‘System of Objects’ as much). To rip a quote from Baudrillard and present it as evidence is problematic, since he tends to (at least to me) exaggerate his claims; or, if not that far, he tends to make claims without arguing for them. If Baudrillard does not argue for his positions and I use him as evidence, then the credibility of my argument is based on the authority of Baudrillard’s reputation rather than the usefulness of the statement.

As I write that last sentence, though, I come to another possibility. Perhaps Baudrillard himself does not argue for his aphorisms—that is the job of others. If I take a claim from Baudrillard and say—hey look—this idea that Baudrillard has works in this text and this text with Baudrillard gets us these consequences, then we may find it useful. Perhaps we just have to make sure that we draw out the consequences through argument and evidence.

But if we take a claim from Baudrillard (or any other theorist) apply it to the text (rather than use it to develop our methodology. In this case, we would have to agree with Dasenbrock that the methodology should be consistent) then we are not prepared to not have control over the text—to let it transform us. For Dasenbrock, the encounter with literature (and the classroom) is a scene of learning. Drawing on Donald Davidson, Dasenbrock argues that we assume an interpretive charity (that x is like us) until it is proven otherwise and then we have to create a “passing theory” to connect the two. Starting from a theorist and pointing to where in the text that exists (thus validating the theory) does not get us very far in understanding the claim the text makes on us. This may be where the force of the aesthetic comes in. Why do I feel personally like Cormac McCarthy’s texts make a larger claim on me than Harry Potter? Why do I feel like I learn more from such literature? Why do I feel like forcing students to encounter an essay of Swift or Montaigne is more useful (if they choose to engage it) than showing them a youtube video?

And yet, as I work through the purpose of my own teaching, particularly in technical communication, I find that I have framed my own impact like so. If I can just get my students to look at the everyday objects, texts, and websites that communicate to them a little bit different—to show them different ways that they can engage with everyday life that make it more fun and challenging—than I will have done my job. In the case of technical communication, my purpose is to make everyday objects and documents into things that resist our understanding; rather than seeing a tax form as something I do, I see it as something I read, a document that has a purpose, which has consequences and assumptions that I rarely critique. Rather than thinking that I have leveling great works of art down to any other text, I prefer to think that I am elevating everyday texts to aesthetic (literary?) and rhetorical analysis.

But the fact remains that these texts do not tend to jar our understandings (although, the W-4 form might). I truly believe that it is my working through heavy philosophical and literary texts that allows me to look at these objects in a certain way; perhaps more importantly, I believe that it is this training that has allowed me to enjoy looking that these texts in this way and learn something from doing so.

Perhaps we still read high theory that redescribes rather than argues because it challenges us to make sense of non-sense—or, to make sense of something that is not necessarily trying to make sense. Perhaps the challenging encounter of these texts has allowed us to work usefully on other texts. This is why I find it so important to read “primary” texts rather than summaries of someone’s “argument.” This is why I feel like theoretical soundbites do not get us very far. Trying to make sense out of nonsense is fun and challenging. What we may call nonsense makes us stop and think: at its best it spurs dialogue and debate. It also pushes the boundaries of language, which is what some of the best literary fiction and poetry has always done. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

De Man, Jameson, and Derrida

Let us look at Paul de Man, who Jameson will engage in Postmodernism as well as a bit in his discussion of Irony in Archaeologies of the Future (although I feel like I never understand Jameson’s point—except perhaps in Archaeologies). De Man takes a kind of “tragic” view of the relationship between what we will call ‘fiction’ and the ‘world.’ Jameson, in one of the more lucid passages from Postmodernism, critiques De Man’s use of these rather antiquated categories in such an age of post-modern discourse. James writes, “If narrative theory today has accomplished anything substantial, it is to have powerfully displaced the old category of the ‘fictive’. For the moment, however, it is enough to signal the operative presence in DeMan’s texts of older categories like ‘fiction’ or ‘irony’ which the Derridan text does not seem particularly to respect or acknowledge” (226). Jameson doesn’t really offer any justification for this, but just claims that it is so. In my opinion, at least De Man is charitable enough to offer such distinctions and evaluations rather than to move through texts without any attempt at argument (which is, I believe, the kind of thing Jameson constantly engages in and the very thing that frustrates the living hell out of me).

What’s interesting to me is the contrast between Derrida and De Man comes up as a sort of ‘implied’ reading of Derrida that Jameson does not really develop much. Perhaps he develops it more in Postmodernism, but I honestly just stopped reading. De Man himself has already admitted in an interview that he does not pretend to come at problems in such a “philosophical manner” as Derrida. It’s a relief to read De Man’s humble words:

The difference is that Derrida’s text is so brilliant, so incisive, so strong that whatever happens in Derrida, it happens between him and his own text. He doesn’t need Rousseau, he doesn’t need anybody else; I do need them very badly because I never had an idea of my own, it was always through a text, through the critical examination of a text. . . I am a philologist and not a philosopher” (“An Interview” 118).

And so, I believe, Jameson creates these false problems and false distinctions. Although, to his credit, part of Jameson’s purpose seems to refute the position that De Man and Derrida are similiarly engaging in deconstruction. I do admit that when Jameson was writing Postmodernism, such assumption in American Criticism were rampant. So to say it is a “false problem” is a bit presumptuous of me, as Jameson wrote Postmodernism when I was 3.

 It is important that we recognize that De Man was a contemporary of Jameson at Yale.  As Lindsay Water writes, De Man created “a situation that allowed for the training under the cooperative tutelage of de Man, Hartman, Bloom, Miller, Derrida, Jameson, and Felman of a number of doctoral students” (liii).  But De Man doesn’t seem to want to engage in philosophical problems. Jameson (I suppose) rightly criticizes him for verbal techniques in his text that try and restore a sense of immanence of reading bypassing the intrusion of history, but one can easily point to Jameson’s own rhetoric as trying to side-step actually making an argument or an evaluation. Jameson has a tendency to use eulogistic (to use Burke’s appropriation of Bentham’s terminology) terminology to refer to other’s readings only to mark them as insufficient. There’s a kind of bad faith going on Jameson where he looks favorably upon someone’s position only to pretend to take a position transcending the works he mentions. Whereas De Man relinquishes the authoritative voice he adopts in his own writing in an interview to praise Derrida, Jameson will offer the praise, but takes a bird’s eye view without, to my mind, justifying it. Jameson asserts without arguing—his is an implicit critique of the texts he works with, or, if you prefer (to use a Jamesonian rhetorical device) an appropriation of figures and texts to serve his own agenda. I find that I am closer to De Man in the authority I give a text over me as an interpreter: I like the text to hold sway over my thoughts and over what I am able to do with it. I think Derrida’s most successful deconstructions operate in this way. 

De Man, Jameson, Burke: Irony


An old teacher of mine, ironically, hammered in his definition of irony and made us repeat it several times: “A statement or event in which the opposite is said or the unexpected happens.” As I reflect on the meaning of irony as a nascent literary critic and academic, I find that this definition really doesn’t nail irony. A statement in which the opposite is said, perhaps, but the opposite is said but really means the opposite of the opposite (to put it pseudo-dialectically). “the opposite is said”—the opposite of what one intended? In this case, would the well-worn joke about Freudian slips constitute irony? “I mean to say please pass the peas, but I really said ‘you fuckin bitch you ruined my life”?

The definition give by Mr. T. (not the Mr. T. you are thinking of) seems to distinguish between two types of irony: verbal and actual. Of course, this is inadequate considering what we call “dramatic irony,” which is concerned with the relative position of an observer of a play or action. We seem to want to describe irony or the situation, but is not the criteria of irony a kind of feeling? Before you rise up in arms against me, I am not trying to equate irony with some sort of Cartesian (or, in this age, Bergsonian) idea of “intuition.” But, we will say to something “isn’t that ironic?” Or, Alanis Morissette will claim that it is ironic when “its like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.” Morissette tells the story of a man who “played it safe” took a flight (which he was petrified of) and the plane ends up crashing. So—is irony a sort of cruelness of fate? We say sometimes that is “cruelly ironic.” Is this what irony consists in? My god, perhaps Socrates should have asked Euthyphro to define irony rather than Piety does this statement involve itself in ‘irony’ because Socrates is sometimes considered a great ‘ironist’ himself? I do not know and without a clear definition I cannot decide for or against.

In the literary world, irony is one of those concepts that keeps coming up again and again—people deride it and praise it equally. Irony—is it the lack of sincerity? Of aesthetic authenticity? Let us look at some ‘definitions’ (although I hesitate to call these definitions—perhaps, “characterizations” is in order?).

Fredric Jameson characterizes Irony in terms of a Greimasian rectangle in his essay “Synthesis, Irony, Neutralization and the Moment of Truth.” Irony in terms of the G. rectangle is the “complex term,” the “ideal synthesis” rather than the neutral term (which Jameson tries to pinpoint). Irony,

Which promises if not to reconcile the fundamental opposition in question (Art and Life, Private and Public, City and Country, Mind and Body) then at least to allow us to think and practice both at the same time. Irony is thus also a way of unifying opposites. (179)

I have always described the effect of irony as a “stopping” of the mind. . .its like when the dialectic stalls and a pleasureful ‘ironic’ feeling passes over one and action never takes place. Irony is characteristic of the Modernist spirit for Jameson, which is principled on “the modernist value of reflexivity” (178). This reflexivity, for Jameson, exemplifies a state of inaction because it’s a fiction of having one’s cake and eating it too. In political terms, “you can at one and the same time believe in the importance of politics and embrace everything we might lose if we indulged in political practice” (179). Thus, Irony is, for Jameson, a moment of indecision. . .but a moment of indecision that is pleasureful and fulfilling.

In contrast, Jameson wants to offer a vision of the “neutral” term which, rather than “both and” is “neither/nor” and that stays in the realm of the negative. The neutral term, it seems, can only be figured rather than concretely realized. . it is the realm of possibility. This is the space of utopian possibility.

 Its interesting to me that the neither/nor, the negative, gets figured as such a utopian space. The neither/nor –the negative moment—seems similar to what Ernst Bloch calls “the not-yet-conscious.” A sort of objective real possibility, which, though it takes work and effort to realize, is still a possibility. Bloch strives toward hope rather than fear and despair. Bloch is a hopeful Heidegger, which is no Heidegger at all (I'm far from saying that one has to be a Heidegger)

Anyway, I have gotten further away from my first subject: irony. Jameson seems to believe we need to—if you’ll excuse the word—transcend irony. Actually, the better way to frame this is that we need to go in the opposite direction, toward the negative.

But is Irony really a synthesis--the both/and term? That we hope for such terms to break out of fiction into the empirical world and as such transform it? Gerald Raunig in his recent book A Thousand Machines argues that Soviet Theater created such tension without catharsis in order for the catharsis to occur in the streets (his own work, while acknowledging this historical precedent, does not engage this question).  I always thought this hope of a new world order was kind of silly; not because it could not be achieved, but because our writing about it seems a bit like we hope and we hope and we hope for this one thing to happen, for this world to usher in, but then to cover our ass, realize its inevitable failure.  We make this failure an impetus to more hoping, hope for change, hope for a recognition and transformation of the System of Systems, which Jameson would name Global Capitalism.

Jameson may be correct that irony resolves conflicts without action—that it allows for some sort of stagnation; indeed, as I characterized above, it seems that irony results in what can only be called an intellectual and perverse satisfaction in a situation that has occurred. Perhaps I am a bit too modernist and perhaps I am too satisfied with aesthetic satisfaction. However, I do want to be cautious of my use of the word “aesthetic,” since De Man’s Literary Theory comes into being

when the approach to literary texts is no longer based on non-linguistic, that is to say historical and aesthetic, considerations or, to put it somewhat less crudely, when the object of discussion is no longer the meaning or the value but the modalities of production and of reception of meaning and of value prior to their establishment. (7)

Rather than aesthetic criteria, De Man argues that we should look at the rhetorical effects: “It is a rhetorical rather than an aesthetic function of language, an identifiable trope that operates on the level of the signifier and contains no responsible pronouncement on the nature of the world” (10). I have been trying to grasp how this relates to Burke’s notion of rhetorical language and his analysis of the rhetorical moments in poetry. De Man writes that language has an ‘autonomous potential’ which “can no longer be said to be determined by consideration of truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or pleasure and pain” (10). I’m not sure what to make of this passage in light of Burke’s ideas about the motives of language. Is De Man saying that language forces us to feel the illusion of the word’s connection to these abstract ideas? In that sense, De Man would follow Burke in divorcing the symbolic world from the non-verbal. Furthermore, De Man’s sense of the negative is in line with Burke. As Burke says, “man must spontaneously recognize that his word for a thing is not that thing” (Burke, “Dramatistic View” 461). As Jameson would say, ‘we shall see’ that it is no coincidence that De Man hoped to write on Burke before his death when we reach our discussion of irony. Furthermore, we can understand Jameson's understanding of irony as the ideal unifying of opposites, since metaphor/trope is both the thing and not the thing. The interesting part to me is to work on how these two things are different--how the negative functions--rather than dismiss this as a fruitless task. This is, I believe, what Burke does so damn well. 

But let us return to De Man. In her introduction to De Man’s work and life, Lindsay Waters argues that although De  Man’s had a radical turn in thought involving the place of rhetoric, he remained committed to the problems of interiority. According to Waters, De Man disliked what he say as the Modernist emphasis on connecting the subject and the object through finding a symbolic objective correlative that reconciles art and fiction, which was also the kind of resolution sought by the New Critics. For De Man, “the separation of subject from object was absolute” (Waters xliv). Waters  makes a distinction between Eliot’s modernism and De Man’s work. De Man’s ‘interiority’ or ‘inwardness’ is not about psychology—it has nothing to do with the ego. Rather, De Man follows Hegel (particularly through Kojeve, under the influence of Heidegger):

This abstract consciousness is exactly what the heterodox tradition de Man emulated would focus upon, even though the difficulties of keeping clear the distinction between the ontological self and personal self and keeping the notion of consciousness strictly impersonal would prove difficult given the pathos inherent in phrases like ‘unhappy consciousness and the use of the idea of death. (xxxvi)

Perhaps we can say that the Modernists attempted to make their personal fiction, which was always contaminated by the specific ego’s choice of objective correlatives, the criteria for the world. This is close to the position of Kenneth Burke, who sees poets implicitly arguing for their way of looking at the world—to make the world personal. The world becomes a means of expressing one’s own interior ego, but not consciousness as a self-reflective process. It is this self-reflexivity that Jameson argues is characteristic of modernism. But is this Eliot’s Modernism? To me, it seems that by sucking the consciousness out of the poem, Eliot makes the world a reflection of the personal whereas De Man’s reading of the Romantics argues that in some sense they are trying to empty the consciousness of the personal ego to explore, in a Hegelian manner, the movement of consciousness itself.

We need have this background for De Man’s understanding of irony in “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” For De Man, irony reveals a fundamental distance:

The act of irony [. . .] reveals the existence of a temporality that is definitely not organic, in that it relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality [. . .] It can only restate and repeat it on a n increasingly conscious level, but it remains endlessly caught in the impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world.

Indeed, if we know anything about Jameson, we can see how a passage like this would be a bit prickly, because it cuts off fiction from making any real change in the outside world; it denies ‘totality’ and it denies the possibility of fiction leading to (or figuring) utopia.

Jameson’s project involves ridding us of a sort of decadent self-reflexivity of the nature of language. De Man is fine with living that contradiction, maintaining even in “Resistance to Theory” a separation between language and reality:

Literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge ‘reality,’ but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source about anything but its own language

Theory for De Man is different than Theory for Jameson (who says in Postmodernism that this ‘resistance’ to theory is De Man’s theory). Theory for De Man involves not only a “reading” of a text, but that theory concerns the act of reading itself. Whereas Jameson wants to move past the reading toward the neutral term, the utopia, the new world order, I get the sense that De Man wants to stay within the reading. Whereas Jameson gets from narrative theory a kind of justification to transcode, De Man still puts (admittedly, perhaps a metaphysical) faith in a distinction between the realm of language and the empirical world.

 Let us see if Burke’s view of irony jives with De Man’s. Burke argues, “Irony is the most obvious specific example of the implied feeling for the negative” (461). The negative, for Burke, is also the condition of the possibility for metaphor: “For we could not properly use a metaphor unless, as with the closely related trope, irony, we spontaneously knew that things are not as we literally say they are” (462). We are seduced and persuaded by our metaphors so that “if we find that, over a long stretch of time, a given person’s metaphors all seem to be pointing the same direction, we can legitimately suspect that there is a compulsion within the freedom” (462). Thus, we can understand De Man as making a similar move when he argues that this tropic element of language is its resistance to the world, revealing the rift between the “symbol using, abusing, and making” animal (man) and the surrounding world.

I am not sure which side I am on, but I am attracted to De Man’s willingness to read.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Heidegger and Burke on Communication and Rhetoric

Both Heidegger and Kenneth Burke get talked about a lot in a particular group of scholars in rhetoric and composition (Thomas Rickert, Byron Hawk, Victor Vitanza, just to name a few). I have just introduced myself to Burke intensely in the past few weeks and its making me think about whether Heidegger’s thought is useful for my current work. Both Burke and the (early) Heidegger seem to be ‘humanists’ in a certain sense of the word and both of them believe that language sets man apart from animals (after all, if logos is associated with reason, logos meaning “word,” then man is the animal who uses words), but both of them look at language in a different way, Burke eventually arguing for “symbol-using, mis-using, and making” creature and Heidegger eventually posits language as a kind of metaphysical entity primordially linked to Being. Let us begin with Heidegger.

For Heidegger, Dasein is separated from other animals because “being is an issue for it” (Being and Time 32). But this is not to just say that being strives to persist in its own being (Spinoza’s conatus) or that we are motivated merely by self-preservation, but rather that “Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein’s Being” (32). Heidegger argues that this makes Dasein the only ‘ontic’ being that is  ‘ontological’. We question our own being, our own acts, etc.  Heidegger’s task is to question the “meaning of being.”  In order to discover this, Heidegger uses Dasein (the inquirer) as a paradigm—what is the meaning of our being—our human being: “Therefore, fundamental ontology, from which alone all other ontologies can take their rise, must be sought in the existential analytic of Dasein” (Being and Time 34). Since Dasein uses language, Heidegger takes our language as a starting point. This is one of the strengths of Heidegger’s work—he literally asks what the meaning of the copula “is” is: When we say that something “is” this, what do we mean? The scientific ‘state-of-mind’, which is also the way philosophers have thought about this forever is that the ‘is’ is a substance. The world is a space which contains substances and objects. This thinking of “is” reduces the object (or the person) to what Heidegger calls “presence-at-hand,” which is a certain way we can look at objects. However, for Heidegger, and for Burke, the world is not just ‘there’, we are engaged in it and indeed see things in terms of its use. It is this kind of pragmatic view of Heidegger that a lot of rhetoric and composition people focus on—that and his concept of the world (something we may return to in another post).

Burke too believes that the ‘is’ covers up a mode of being (an act) rather than revealing a substance in itself. Burke asks in the Rhetoric, “)—“is [Plato] not here seeking for the verb, “to be a house,” as the universal in which every particular “being-a-house” would participate?” (Rhetoric 153). This is why Heidegger asks the question of being, because for him, the primary act is being. This is Heidegger’s task from the get-go. For Burke, however, we cannot look into the ‘to be’ in order to find the ‘meaning’ of Being as such. But by going from the idea of “this is this” to “to be a ____”, which is an act and attempt to put it back into a meaning for Burke is somewhat pointless. This is because Burke is primarily interested in actions, which are related to ethics, something with which we all know Heidegger had his issues. This is because, I think, Heidegger tries to place the emphasis on the side of Being rather than the side of action. In other words, whereas pragmatic thinkers like Burke and Dewey want to infuse instrumentality with a sense, (late) Heidegger wants to argue that ‘thinking’ itself is an act that somehow transcends practice and action. As if thinking was something different than acting! (is it?) This is the power of Burke and, I think, Dewey: thinking/acting may be instrumental, but not merely instrumental (see Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy). Heidegger wants thinking to be the primary activity (also seemingly obvious in his metaphors of ‘dwelling’, ‘house of being’, etc.). In his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger writes, “The answer is that thinking is neither theoretical nor practical. It comes before this distinction,” which seems all well and good until he says “such thinking has no result. It has no effect. It satisfies its essence in that it is” (259).
For Heidegger, especially in his later work, language reveals the world in ways (again, we have to look at the Heideggerian language of ‘alethiea’—this is present even in Being and Time)—for Burke? It argues the world (strange way of putting it, I know). Language only uses us insofar as each word is infused with moral content regarding our actions. But let us return to Heidegger’s Being in Time and see if we locate where this difference comes from.

Dasein (we) understand ourselves in terms “of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself” (33). This implies a kind of freedom for human beings (a term that will be made much of by later existentialists, like Sartre).This does not mean that we are unconditioned—this is a mis-reading of much existentialism. However, this does seem to imply that our actions are most related to what we are—our authentic being—rather than acting on the world. We will see what Heidegger thinks as most “authentic.”  My question, as I delve into one of the most useful and complicated sections of the first part of Being in Time, Ch. 5 “Being-in as such,” is: how is Heidegger’s ‘fallenness’ and Burke’s several characterizations of ‘original sin’ different? What are the rhetorical and ethical implications in Heidegger’s articulation of understanding, assertion, discourse, idle talk, and curiosity, and, most importantly, communication?

For Heidegger, we are most authentic when we are most concerned with our own being—when we are reflecting on our possibilities. The state-of-mind (or ‘mood’) of Fear/anxiety/dread (pick your translation of the German) calls us to consider our freedom of possibilities—it takes us away from our ‘involvement’ in the world and lets us reflect on our state in the world. But this is only one side of Dasein, the other being understanding. Richard Polt’s Heidegger, an Introduction explain’s Heidegger’s sense of understanding

But consider our everyday experience of getting to know someone by asking what she does. She answers ‘I am a sculptor’…The statement ‘I am a sculptor’ means (if it is a truly revealing statement) that the possibility of sculpting is an important possibility for her. She understands herself and her world largely in terms of  it…her very identity is formed by her ability to sculpt. In general, our Being is an “ability to be” or “can be. (Polt, 69)

Thus, although this makes a lot of sense, it formulates our being-in ‘as such’ as a process of identity formation—what we want to be. We might also want to look at this in terms of Burke's "occupational psychosis" that he discusses in Permanence and Change. Before we move into Heidegger’s treatment of our interaction with others, let us look at Heidegger’s articulation of Interpretation, which is related to our primordial understanding. I am directly copying from a précis I wrote on Heidegger’s chapter in college:

The as-structure

“That which has been circumspectively taken apart with regard to its “in-order-to”, and taken apart as such—that which is explicitly understood—has the structure of something as something” (Heidegger, 189). For example, we see the hammer as something to hit nails with. The hammer is already interpreted and understood before we perceive it as “ready-to-hand.” Heidegger wants to make sure we understand that this means that an interpretation is not something “added” onto a present-at-hand, but that anything we encounter in the world is already interpreted as something with which we concern ourselves.

The fore-structure

Richard Polt says that the explanation of the 3 main terms here (fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception) is rather vague in Heidegger: “but the main point is that, in various ways, we must already have a ‘take’ on something, as we say, before we can interpret it” (Polt, 71). (If the reader wishes to delve into an attempt at distinguishing these terms and an excellent concrete example, see Gelven’s Commentary pgs 94-96).


Meaning is not another way to understand interpretation, but rather it is the term for both the as-structure and the fore-structure together: “When entities within-the-world are discovered along with the Being of Dasein—that is, when they have come to be understood—we say that they have meaning” (Heidegger, 192). Only Dasein is meaningful (Heidegger, 193) because meaning is not a property attached to something present-at-hand, but is inherently related to Dasein’s being. Because Dasein is the only being that can have meaning, it is the only thing that can be meaningless (this is different from “unmeaning,” which characterizes present-at-hand things as “essentially devoid of any meaning at all” (Heidegger, 193).

Michael Gelven points out explicitly how different this is from traditional conceptions of meaning: “For such a rendition of meaning places the focal point of meaning not in the words, but in Dasein” (Gelven, 96). In this next section Heidegger will tell how assertion (statements in words) are derivative of this sort of meaning of Dasein.

Michael Gelven makes a good point. For Heidegger, meaning (and Interpretation) is not in ‘words’ but in Dasein. Words form assertions. Assertions are derivative from Interpretation. Communication can only happen in the realm of assertion, but look at how Heidegger claims assertion mainly describes:

Heidegger defines assertion as “a pointing-out which gives something a definite character and which communicates” (Heidegger, 199). Heidegger explains that the reason assertion is derivative of interpretation is that there is a change in the as-structure: “In its function of appropriating what is understood, the ‘as’ no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements. As regards its possibilities for Articulating reference-relations, it has been cut off from that significance which, as such, constitutes environmentality. The ‘as’ gets pushed back into the uniform plane of that which is merely present-at-hand” (Heidegger, 201). Assertion thus covers up the readiness-to-hand of an object and reveals it merely as a presence-at-hand with a certain “property” rather than involved in a totality.

Somehow, once we put things into ‘words’ and sentences, Heidegger argues that the as “no longer reaches out into a totality of involvements” (199). Somehow, assertions are cut off from the non-verbal world of experience and the assertion transforms Interpretation into presence-at-hand. On one level, I think Burke would agree with this. Indeed, his project is to restore the actions and moral implications (and really ‘force) in words and sentences—but Heidegger does not consider this aspect. Sure, the ‘as’ structure or the ‘action’ of a hammer is covered up by asserting something about the hammer: ‘the hammer is steel,” but assertion (and communication) is not merely descriptive and it is not always signifying. For Burke, assertions (language,words) are tied up with the non-verbal in a forceful way rather than as a kind of ‘derivation’. Heidegger’s “assertion” contains no force. John Muckelbauer argues in The Future of Invention that rhetoric as persuasion is a “constellation of forces,” and is not “primarily concerned with understanding or even with the effort to prevent misunderstanding” but as a consideration of its effects (Muckelbauer 18). If we remember, late Heidegger in Letter on Humanism privileges thinking as something which participates in being rather than acting in the world. Thus, Heidegger leaves no room for a consideration of effects of thinking (this is different from considering the consequences of an act).

In order to really get at the problem with Heidegger putting aside persuasion, we have to move into his discussion of communication. I quote an extensive passage from Being and Time:

‘Communication’ in which one makes assertions—giving information, for instance--is a special case of that communication which is grasped in principle existentially. In this more general kind of communication, the Articulation of Being with one another understandingly is constituted. Through it a co-state-of-mind gets ‘shared’, and so does the understanding of Being-with. Communication is never anything like a conveying of experiences, such as opinions or wishes, from the interior of one subject into the interior of another. Dasein-with is already essentially manifest in a co-state-of-mind and a co-understanding. In discourse Being-with becomes ‘explicitly’ shared; that is to say, it is already, but it is unshared as something that has not been taken hold of an appropriated. (205)

This is a hard passage. But what I think Heidegger is getting at is how communication involves a primordial sharing among Da-sein. But the funny thing about this mit-sein, this publicness of Dasein in the world, is that Heidegger characterizes this as a fallenness and inauthenticity. Heidegger writes, “Thus Dasein’s understanding in the ‘they’ is constantly going wrong in its projects, as regards the genuine possibilities of Being. Dasein is always ambiguously ‘there’—that is to say in that public disclosedness of Being-with-one-another where the loudest idle talk and the most ingenious curiosity [my italics] keep ‘things moving’” (Heidegger 218-219). Heidegger is quick to add that this ‘fallenness’ isn’t ‘bad’ but is just part of how the world is. However, one senses his reservations for this public being-with-one-another. It seems that Burke describes this ‘fallenness’ in detail, which is the rhetorical situation. For Heidegger this ‘being-with’ actually masks other intentions: “Being-with-one-another in the “they” is by no means an indifferent side-by-sideness in which everything has been settled, but rather an intent, ambiguous watching of one another, a secret and reciprocal listening-in. Under the mask of ‘for-one-another’ and ‘against-one-another’ is in play” (219). Even though Heidegger says that this is the pre-condition for care and the possibility for understanding, it still seems as though Heidegger does not think this is the goal/purpose of Dasein. The they-self is where people are at odds and yet, at the same time, ‘with’ one another.
For Heidegger, as I’ve already pointed out, the point of communication and understanding  is to reveal the world so as to genuinely understand things. This comes out in his understanding of ‘ambiguity’ as part of the ‘they’ self:

“Ambiguity deals with the impossibility to tell what is genuine understanding and what is not: “When, in our everyday Being-with-one-another, we encounter the sort of thing which is accessible to everyone, and about which anyone can say anything, it soon becomes impossible to decide what is disclosed in a genuine understanding and what is not” (Heidegger, 217)

            For Burke, language is not primarily related to meaning, understanding, and being, but to actions. Heidegger points us in the right direction, arguing that we must move away from our everyday understanding, but makes the mistake that the criteria of judgment should somehow be ‘understanding’ or meaning. What Burke makes clear, is that language is used and has force and related to moral acts. Later Heidegger moves more and more into an understanding of language as such, which he finds in poetry.  Michael Gelven writes, “We understand language as language only as poetry.” Language is primarily understood as something that we “use” to express ourselves, but, it is only when someone speaks well that we recognize language as language and not as a “tool.”     

But this is precisely what Burke is arguing against: even poetry contains motives that relate to the realm of acts and morality. Poetic language is weighted language: no words are ‘neutral’.

Wheras for Heidegger, we are the “preservers” of being, we watch over language, we attempt to preserve its mystery, Burke de-mystifies. Heidegger dreams of poeisis: “And art was called simply techne. It was a single, manifold revealing. It was pious, promos, i.e. yielding to the holding sway and the safekeeping of truth” (339). Perhaps it is this ‘pious’ attitude that Burke seeks to de-mystify. Its not that piety in itself is bad—on the contrary--but rather than adhering to the piety of a kind of destined and unified truth/Being, Burke seeks to break these pieties by “perspective of incongruity” (see Permanence and Change). There are many pieties: “Piety is the sense of what properly goes with what” (74). And a new piety involves the displacement of an old piety, which involves exhortation. This is why for Burke, assertion really is an ‘assertion’—it exhorts someone to see something a certain way. I love these lines by Burke:

Morals, shaped by the forms and needs of action, become man’s most natural implement when exhorting to action. As implicit in censorial words, they are the linguistic projection of our bodily tools and weapons. Morals are fists [my italics]. . .From this point of view, the moral elements in our vocabulary are symbolic warfare. (P&C 192)

Our ‘fallnness’ for Burke, our ‘categorical guilt’, is not inauthenticity, or impiety towards the revealing of truth, but rather in our material (though non-verbal) relations to one another. Indeed, language as such has an implicit hierarchy. It is this hierarchy that Burke calls the ‘social mystery,’ which, though not the only mystery, “gains in depth, persuasiveness, allusiveness and illusiveness precisely by reason of the fact that it becomes inextricably interwoven with mysteries of these other sorts” (Rhetoric f277). It’s in classification and the motives for each class (not necessarily economic class) that creates a hierarchy. Burke writes in the Rhetoric, “The ‘invidious’ aspects of class arise from the nature of man not as a ‘class animal’ but as a ‘classifying animal’” (282). Thus, persuasion, conflict, and appeal in language would still exist in a ‘communist’ society (as indeed, we have seen by historical example). This is because, so long as we use language, there will be a principle of hierarchy. Language is not descriptive or revealing of reality, but “hortatory.” Language, in its essence, is not to describe, but  to convert to a certain point of view or orientation: “Spontaneous speech is not a naming at all, but a system of attitudes, of implicit exhortations” (P&C 177).

If this is true, then the ‘state-of-mind’ that Heidegger finds within Dasein is transferred to language itself. Language itself, as a creation by man (and woman), has prejudices and motives. As such, language is always ethical and concerned with actions.  

At this point, I’d like to look at two later essays of Burke: “The Definition of Man” and, especially, the brilliant and dense, “A Dramatistic View of the Origin of Language.”

Here are the 5 statements Burke makes about man:

1. Man is the symbol using animal
2. Man is the inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative!)
3. Man is separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
4. Man is goaded by the spirit of hierarchy
5. Man is rotten with perfection

(See Language as Symbolic Action pg 16 for a summary)

To me, this is a powerful definition. Burke elaborates on most of these, but particularly the use of the ‘negative’ in the penultimate essay of Language as Symbolic Action. In this essay, Burke traces the negative “as such” back to its possible origins. For Burke, the use of the negative is the essential distinction between the verbal and the non-verbal (LSA 420). Although he allows that, following Bergson, there is no negative in nature (everything is positive), Burke locates the importance of the negative in morality:

a Dramatistic approach would look for the ‘essential’ instance of an admonitory of pedagogical negative—and it would find this to perfection in the negatives of the Ten Commandments. Hence we would ‘start’ in the thought of the negative command” (422).

We can understand how this might be problematic for someone like Victor Vitanza. The mention of “pedagogical negative” and the Christian connotations of Burke’s work (whereas Vitanza draws on Lyotard’s ‘pagan’ philosophy). But I think Burke makes a very convincing case for the negative as a useful aspect of language. As Raul Sanchez pointed out to me the other day, there are a lot of thinkers who are trying to get passed dialectic, which also means getting past the negative. But can we get passed the negative—and—if the negative really is the ‘genius’ of language, do we want that? Burke writes at the end of “A Dramatistic View of the Origins of Language,” “In their positive,  material nature as powers, our many might new technological devices cal for a corresponding set of admonitory controls, or negatives, which are best sanctioned how?” (LSA 479).

Burke explains the negative as an idea as opposed to an image. Why? Because Bergson’s argues that we cannot picture nothing—we have to picture something that ‘means’ nothing. This leads Burke to argue that ideas do not have to be “things,” rather, ideas are in “the realm of action” (430). This is not to say that once a negative is expressed, it does not also include an image: “ ‘Thou shall not kill’ is in essence an idea, in its role as imagery it can but strike the resonant gong: ‘Kill’” (431). This gives me an interesting take on Hegel’s determinate negation: not-kill contains the image of kill, but the idea of a command. This is why not-A, when expressed in words, is something completely different than the ‘opposite’ of A, or ‘nothing’.

Heidegger does not consider ‘ideas’ in this way. In Being and Time, he argues that “even a command is given about something, a wish is about something” (205). Rather than emphasize the ‘something’ (which is the ‘image’), Burke emphasizes the command (and thus the rhetorical, persuasive aspects).

I will probably return to Burke, Kant, Bergson, and Deleuze in my next post, but I think this is enough for now. I think I can also see how this later essay of Burke’s could lead many rhet/comp people into an exploration of Levinas (see Diane Davis). 

Works Consulted/Cited (abridged because of laziness)

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives

Burke, Kenneth Language as Symbolic Action

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 

Heidegger, Martin. "Letter on Humanism." Basic Writings

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention.