An Anecdotal Digression on Knowing, God, Rhetoric, and CHAT

If you’ll pardon the digression: in order to begin looking at the framework of CHAT as a useful metric for exploring the “real-world” modeling of discourse, we absolutely must first have an answer to the question of whether or not “rhetoric” is “real.”  I think this is, of course, an impossible task, but it’s one I nonetheless embrace as a necessary implementation in the face of any theory that argues to revise the canon of either theories or texts in order to better align interpretation of discourses with the reality of discourses.

I once argued with Dr. Daniel Richards (within the context of Technical Communication’s place within the English Studies disciplines) that the value of studying rhetoric in society is the same as studying God in society – my position being that although neither are most likely real, and there is no evidence for the realness of either, the ways in which both lay members and experts of the community categorize, select, exclude, and support according to the belief in each illuminates their social function.

Needless to say, a devout Baptist like Dr. Richards – who is also a devout intellectual progressive with a love of theories which highlight the contingencies of truth and focus – was consternated by the overt implications of such an argument.  For Dr. Richards, the challenge of viewing rhetoric as “unreal” in the same sense as God functions as “unreal” in spiritual and social contexts proved sixfold:

1) As a Christian, his default tendency is to view statements about the irreality of God to be value judgments.  By extension, he admitted to a gut-shot reaction of assuming that similar statements about rhetoric must be equally judgmental.

2) He felt the argument positioned rhetoric as an item of faith rather than fact, which is constructed by readings of texts rather than presumptions of truth. As a corollary of this, one is (horrifically enough in the Digital Humanities) able to simply reject the value of rhetoric based on this belief – to argue that it contributes nothing that does not already exist without it.

3) The argument tends towards inferences that rhetoric is about a personal relationship with truth, as spirituality has generally been accepted to be in the late 20th and 21st centuries (especially in western contexts).  The interpretive nature of the act, then, implies that what rhetorical/religious genres do exist are the products of interpretation rather than revelation.

4) As a corollary, the personal is inherently microcosmic in the realm of “reality”.  In religion, the microcosm of personal faith is established (and is tied in most spiritualties to a greater, cosmic whole).  In rhetoric, we have not yet developed a model for viewing personal rhetoric as connected to the greater whole in a way which allows rhetoric to be “cosmic” in applicable scope.

5) The challenge of empiricism weakens the pursuit of knowledge of God, reducing God’s domain to the margins of what is not empirically demonstrable.  Similarly, rhetoric exists at the skirt of positivist claims – being purely personal and interpretive, rhetorical concerns are rarely touched upon in RAD scholarship.

6) Finally, there is the implication that rhetoric, like religion, might recall the Marxian categorization of “opium of the people.”  The attached weight of this claim (today) is often viewed as denigrating towards the spiritual – as most readers (today) infer Marx to be arguing that religion distorts reality and makes us complacent.  Of course, in the 19th century opium was viewed to be largely a social boon which had saved many lives and prevented untold pain.  As McKinnon argued in Critical Sociology, in the 21st century we might well translate the idiom as “penicillin of the people” (2) – or, as Marx himself argued “the soul of a soulless culture.”

I don’t bring up this discussion between Dr. Richards and myself to be contrary, nor simply to play at words.  In the end, Richards conceded that such an interpretation was pragmatic, provided a new perspective for “reading” rhetoric as a field, and allowed for a more compassionate reading of the social contexts of rhetorical meaning.  He also argued that such a position had severely limited use in the field, and would likely not be adopted by anybody doing rhetorical study.  I can’t help but agree with his final assessment.

I bring this up because I think it is important to understand why even brilliant rhetoricians struggle against the notion that rhetoric is not inherently real, nor the study of it inherently productive – even though at their core rhetoricians understand that the contrast between contingency of meaning and efficacy of mechanisms cannot be reconciled.  At the very least, this question will drive my argument for the remainder of this analysis, and so must be addressed.

When Dr. Richards argued against my position, he found it challenging, I believe for three reasons – first, rhetorical study has tended not to permit the rejection of rhetoric as an inherently valuable object of study (for obvious reasons); this means most rhetoricians, even the most brilliant, have never developed a defense of rhetoric as an object of study in the way most other disciplines, both within the humanities and without, have been expected to.  They simply have been trained out of the habit of position defense by the tradition of contingent truth.  Second, it is deeply personal; rhetoric, like religion, is a subject which Dr. Richards is expert in and has invested thousands of hours into refining his understanding of.  To equate the two is to challenge their segregation in a dissonant fashion.

Third, it is a doggedly pragmatic argument.  Rhetoric, like religion, manifests only in mechanism and effect.  Since there is no prime mover which can be defined, the challenge of rhetoric always returns to that absence.  For the theorist, this creates a fertile landscape for intellectual play.  For the pragmatist, it presents a void which must always be addressed before the “real work” can begin in the field – for both religion and academic study of rhetoric.

For the pragmatist, rhetoric (and God) tell us not about themselves, but ourselves, and serve as a mirror to reflect the processes, desires, and structures which created our own need to know ourselves.

I would argue that CHAT is a first step in an attempt to address the void of prime mover, though certainly not to fill it, and to recognize the inherent “unrealness” of discourse, genre, and rhetoric in general as a construct of our own desire to know our own selves.

That alone is reason enough to study it.  But I think it offers more than that.

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