On Bullshit

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Notes on the Art of Rhetoric

Sink every impulse like a bolt. Secure The bastion of sensation. Do not waver Into language. Do not waver in it.         —Seamus Heaney, “Lightenings” 1. For most of us, rhetoric boils down to what you learned in high school when the teacher drew a triangle on the chalkboard and wrote logos, ethos, pathos. “These are the three appeals to the audience,” the teacher said. Reason, character, emotion. “A composition will try to include all three of these for best effect,” you may’ve heard. But these three alone aren’t rhetoric. Instead, consider adding Kenneth Burke’s idea of “identification” from A Rhetoric of Motives, that states “[y]ou persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Prince Hamlet is a prime rhetorician in the Burkean sense. (Actually, William Shakespeare was the rhetorician, but I’m being generous.) After speaking to his father’s ghost, Hamlet confides to Horatio: “I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on;” antic, as in, grotesque; meaning, Hamlet’s fixing his words and actions to fit the ass-backwards scene in his home. Because “time is out of joint” in Elsinore. And Hamlet, too, will be out of joint if he doesn’t persuade those around him he’s mad. Oddly, Hamlet will persuade everyone he’s nuts, but it will be against their common sense, against his prior character, and against what passes for royal emotion among his kin. That is a type of persuasion. What Hamlet reminds us of in his “antic disposition” is the strong ability to forget what we identify with; that we overlook or push away the strange or skewed because we’re worried it will remind us of a slice of ourselves. So we approach unlikeness with curiosity like nattering Polonius. Or we approach unlikeness with parental concern like cautious Claudius and Gertrude. But there are few who approach Hamlet fully identifying as Burke suggests. If anyone, it’s the players who arrive mid-way through. With respect to rhetoric, the question to ask isn’t: “What does it say about Hamlet that he acts mad?” Rather, the question should be: “What does it say about everyone else such that Hamlet thinks he’ll identify with and persuade others by acting mad?” Rhetoric, then, is for uncertain situations, where there is no known outcome. (Who knows about King Hamlet’s murder? Why are people ignoring it if they do? What should Hamlet do when he finds out who’s guilty?) Which is why rhetoric is frequently (and classically) broken down into judicial (parents deciding punishment, judges, lawyers, etc.), epideictic (entertainments, best man speeches, TED talks), and deliberative (in short: most political situations). None are cleanly removed from the others. Almost all of these combine at particular moments in life, especially as Hamlet (surely a student of classical rhetoric at the University of Wittenberg) felt played by his one-time turncoat pals, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. HAMLET: …why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil? GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly. HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe? GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot. HAMLET: I pray you. GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot. HAMLET: I do beseech you. GUILDENSTERN: I know no touch of it, my lord. HAMLET: ‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops. GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill. HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me. They engage in deliberation, they entertain with metaphor, imagery, and jokes (epideictic), and finally Hamlet passes judgment (“Call me what instrument you will…you cannot play upon me”). The idea here is that we are inherently suspicious of those who may try to charm us with honeyed words when we’re not sure of their intentions. (Or, in Hamlet’s case, even when we are very sure of their intentions.) But that’s exactly how the art of rhetoric can be useful—when there is indecision and a way forward needs to be born. And despite what you read and hear, rhetoric isn’t one thing. It’s both the art of persuasive language, and it’s also the whole set of tropes, schemes, and figures that make up how and what we write and speak. So, for example, Hamlet’s use of anaphora, the repetition of “you would,” prodding Guildenstern and his intentions—it is just a basic rhetorical device. But, how do rhetorical devices do what they do? Why do they do what they do? Rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has addressed how figures and tropes work as lines of argument in her book Rhetorical Figures in Science. Fahnestock says that it may seem unusual, but readers can identify certain rhetorical figures with “forms of argument or reasons” that traditionally were the “topics”--or topoi--of classical rhetorical education. Moreover, Fahnestock’s point is that this action, i.e. the use of argumentative lines, still exists, but that we may not be fully aware of it. In fact, we may even shun it. 2. Rhetoric is complicated. Say you’ve read a CNN article about Donald Trump’s use of a rhetorical device known as paralipsis, also known as apophasis. Or say you read James Fallows’s “When Trump Meets Hillary” in The Atlantic. In it, Fallows anticipated the first debate at Hofstra with all the rhetorical elements a viewer should look out for in the then-Republican nominee’s language (simplicity, ignorance, dominance). Or perhaps you meanderingly googled “Trump” over lunch, or you just happen to see that nasty, nasty word—rhetoric—pop up all over your news feed during this Season of Political Discontent. The word itself—rhetoric—has a long pejorative tail that wags the dog. When we read “X’s negative rhetoric” or “Y’s demogogic rhetoric” or anyone’s being “merely rhetorical,” the implicit disgust in those claims is far from understood and what’s been old and useful is turned sour for lack of reflection. This is because while “rhetoric” can generally mean “the way one uses words” or a particular set of syntactical moves one can make with language, it definitely doesn’t mean, especially to those of us who study it, “inherently deceitful language.” Sure, fine, you may say. But why care about it? Rhetoric is persuasion, and persuasion is seduction. And seduction, in human language, is syntactical. If you find yourself agreeing with that, and you don’t like it, then you’re standing next to Plato and his famous distrust of rhetoric. In the dialogue Gorgias (named after the Greek sophist), Plato has his mentor and mouthpiece Socrates grill Gorgias for details about just what it is that Gorgias could be said to do. If Gorgias is a successful orator, what does that entail? SOCRATES: …What is it that oratory is the knowledge of? GORGIAS: Speech. SOCRATES: What sort of speech, Gorgias? The kind which tells the sick how they must live in order to get well? GORGIAS: No. SOCRATES: Then oratory is not concerned with every kind of speech? GORGIAS: Certainly not. SOCRATES: But you would say that it makes men good at speaking? GORGIAS: Yes. SOCRATES: And presumably good at thinking about the subjects on which it teaches them to speak? GORGIAS: Of course. Plato has Socrates corner his interlocutor into a conundrum. Gorgias obviously can’t admit to teaching people to be doctors if he himself has no knowledge of medicine. So how can a student of Gorgias be “good at thinking” about it? Just because a person may have the vocabulary of a discipline doesn’t mean she automatically can claim the know-how. If this is Plato’s definition of rhetoric—the conflating of knowing-that-something-is-the-case with knowing-how-something-is-the-case—then we’re shading into the realm of philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s bullshit. From his Frankfurt’s 2006 monograph On Bullshit: Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. It may be used for rhetorical purposes, it may even use rhetorical tropes and schemes, but still—bullshit just isn’t rhetoric. Famously, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric was “an ability, in each case, to see the available means of persuasion.” A pretty sanguine take on the concept, the one most readily to generate agreement from those who study it. What it seems was most important for Aristotle was the acknowledgement and understanding of the persuasive technique used; to see and recognize the means and choosing of the rhetorical device for the situation. So one aim is to know that Hamlet uses anacoluthon in his dealings with Polonius because the irruption of one disconnected thought after another will mimic madness. Or when Herman Melville writes in Moby-Dick: “There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness” he’s using anadiplosis, and exploiting the repetition of “woe” at the end of the first phrase and the beginning of the second because woe is the strange relation yoking wisdom and madness. The syntax of the sentence creates the conditions for possibility. Because rhetorical devices are lines of argument. 3. Rhetoric isn’t going anywhere. It’s us who’re going away. Ideally, then, we would all have a Pauline in our brains. Pauline is the name of “a qube,” an implanted quantum computer in the head of Swan, the main character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312. Besides being designed for informative conversation, Pauline studies rhetoric, and she points out her owner’s patterns in language and argument, or lack thereof. Pauline finds rhetoric “a useful analytic tool.” Yet she finds anaphora “one of the weakest rhetorical devices, really nothing more than redundancy.” And later, when Pauline starts to riff too far on tropes, she declares: “One could also argue that the classical system of rhetoric is a false taxonomy, a kind of fetishism…” Later in the novel, she points out anacoenesis, synchoresis, and her owner’s use of sarcasm and aporia. All of these instances are used to try and explain and make plain Swan’s attempts at poor persuasion. If we had a Pauline in our noggins, maybe we’d be better off. Maybe we’d just be constantly irritated by the recognition of all the ways we talk to each other and try to persuade and move one another. The point, it seems, is to know how you’re doing the persuading. Or with what means. From all I can tell, Aristotle wanted to stop people ignorantly persuading each other and unwitting groping within language and push them toward a knowing body of information. And this is what decidedly makes someone like Donald Trump—or, really, anyone like him—not a good rhetorician. He’s an illusion of an orator. A two-dimensional man. He’s a pilaster, not a column. Not an oracle, but a mountebank. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that “no man can speak well who is not good himself.” How outdated that might seem to us now, but how badly we should want it. Shouting down an opponent isn’t rhetoric, it’s bullying and stupidity. Responding with comments just to trip up a debate isn’t a rhetorical strategy, it’s a plan built on exhaustion. It’s argument for argument’s sake, also known as eristic. We do a disservice to the art of rhetoric and those who can actually debate and discuss and persuade in the public sphere and among intimates with an attention to the warp and woof of language when we prize the word “rhetoric” from its moorings and set it loose into a sea of bullshit. So yes, rhetoric is old. But it’s also current. And according to science fiction, it’s still with us 300 years into our future. If we pay attention to rhetoric and the lines of argument in its tropes, we can avoid misnaming it. Instead of knowing that language persuades, we can know how language persuades. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Staff Picks: Morrison, Marcom, Lethem, Frankfurt, Binelli, Seidel

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The "staff picks" shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own "Staff Picks" in a feature appearing irregularly.A Mercy by Toni Morrison recommended by EdanNow, Toni Morrison doesn't need my staff pick (I'm sure it pales in comparison to her Nobel Prize in Literature), but I thought it appropriate since she's a contender for this year's Tournament of Books. Also, one time I tried to hand-sell A Mercy at the bookstore where I work, and the customer said, "Oh I hated her other book, you know, that Caged Bird Singing one?" So, let me set the record straight: Toni Morrison is not Maya Angelou. Got that? Also, I must say this: Toni Morrison has written an incredible and mesmerizing new novel. The prose in A Mercy blew me away, it was so strange and beautiful. From start to finish this book's language put a charge through me - I actually felt the prose in my body, as a tingling in my wrists and up my arms. The language itself transported me to this historical era (the 1680s), and my mind had to shift to accommodate the language, and thus, this particular, brutal, past.The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom recommended by AnneLike a wanton lover, Micheline Aharonian Marcom's Mirror in the Well leads you sensuously and breathlessly into the throes of an affair between "she," the unnamed adulteress, and "you," the beloved. Lust yields to ecstasy that seesaws into despair as the married mother of two's web of trysts, lies, and longing grows larger. The blazing physicality of Marcom's language is like a feminine countersignature to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer; the trapped wife's ennui and awakening shares its soul with Louis Malle's The Lovers.The Wall of the Sky, The Wall of the Eye by Jonathan Lethem recommended by AndrewJonathan Lethem pushes the unsuspecting reader into one troubling, convoluted short story after another, then, when he's good and ready, spits the reader out into the real world, leaving him twitching and scratching his head, barely able to catch his breath before luring him back into his alternate universe where futuristic horror butts heads with mystery and suspense.The genres aren't new to him - his novels Amnesia Moon and Motherless Brooklyn ventured into futuristic sci-fi and mystery, albeit taking routes into these genres that I hadn't taken before - but it's a different experience to get these flights of fancy and fear in seven short bursts. I was exhausted and sometimes unsettled after each, but I couldn't wait to get back into Jonathan Lethem's crazy world.On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt recommended by EmilyA rare treat awaits those who missed On Bullshit when it came out in 2005. Professor Harry Frankfurt's unassuming little volume (four by six inches and a mere 67 pages long - somewhat physically reminiscent of the original binding of Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup With Rice) is not only, to use its own words, a "crisp and perspicuous" account of what bullshit is, but also a lesson in clean, graceful prose and logical, orderly thought.And what is bullshit, you ask? Quoting a bit of Longfellow that Ludwig Wittgenstein considered a personal motto:In the elder days of artBuilders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part,For the Gods are everywhere.Frankfurt explains the mentality that these lines express: "The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit." And so beings an excellent explanation of the carelessly made and shoddy product we know as bullshit.For its clarity, gentle humor, conversational tone, and intelligence, On Bullshit is a delight. So charming is Frankfurt's book, that even those traumatized by encounters with philosophy's mind-wrecking titans (Hegel or Kant, say), might find themselves taken in.Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die by Mark Binelli recommended by MaxI'm not sure I have much fortitude for the mini-genre that has been termed "ahistorical fantasia" (coined by Matthew Sharpe author of Jamestown, perhaps the most widely recognized example of the form), but I do know that Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die, is undoubtedly ahistorical fantasia and undoubtedly a thoroughly entertaining book. Here's the ahistoria: Mark Binelli reimagines Sacco and Vanzetti not as suspected anarchist bombers but as a slapstick comedy duo from the golden age of cinema. And here's the fantasia: the pie and seltzer plot of Binelli's pair slowly melds with the death-row fate of their real-life counterparts. The book is incredibly inventive and manages a rare feat: It is both challenging and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes simultaneously.Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel recommended by GarthGertrude Stein aside, Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga is the most excitingly strange book of poems I have ever read. In this case, the oddity lies not in the syntax, but in the author's peculiar persona, at once cool and fevered. The collision of the "debonair" voice, the hallucinatory imagery, and a prosody keenly (even innocently) interested in rhyme and wordplay shouldn't work, but it does: "And the old excellence one used to know / Of the chased-down fox bleeding its stink across the snow." Consumed steadily over the course of a couple of weeks, Ooga-Booga reveals itself as a cohesive, almost novelistic statement about death, sex, wealth, motorcycles, and geopolitics. (And doesn't that about sum it up?) I'm torn between the trenchant short poems and the long, visionary ones, like "Barbados" and "The Bush Administration." Against the latter, one might say that elegy gets done to death these days. But when has it ever been so savage, or so full of joy?
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