Having been well and truly thought-provoked by the comments left by a certain overlyconscious in response to my last-but-one entry, I resolved to reflect at great length upon the issues he raised, and to write a detailed record of my musings. Over the course of the following days and nights I permitted myself to modify the project I had set for myself, so that instead of spending time preparing a cogent argument, I would instead watch re-runs of CSI and eat pizza and get drunk. What follows is the fruit of my labours.
overlyconscious, you might remember, pulled me up on certain self-indulgent stylistic glitches in my writing that he saw as markers of the 'postmodern' register of which he disapproved (all in good humour, it must be said). I countered (rather disingenuously, I do admit) that those glitches were perfectly in tune with pre-Cartesian modes of self-representation. He countered... oh, go and read it for yourself, it's only two posts down.
Anyway, I wanted to make the point that all those tells and tics that seem to be the preserve of the 'postmodern' discourse - hesitation, parenthetical remarks intended to undermine the speaker's position, ellipsis, points de suspension...all of these have their counterparts in the tropes and figures of classical rhetoric: aposiopesis, anacoluthon, dubitatio, correctio -- but what use is a list of obsolete Greek and Latin words (or as the Loeb library translators would no doubt put it: 'what boots it to list...')?
Instead I'll draft in Cicero to make my point for me. That's right folks, I'm playing the 'appeal to authority' card. I was unable to find an English translation of the De Oratore on the internet, so I've furnished my own translations below. Naturally, I have tailored my translations to fit with the point I'm making. This from book 3 chapter LIII:
et huic contraria saepe percursio est et plus ad intellegendum, quam dixeris, significatio et distincte concisa brevitas et extenuatio et huic adiuncta inlusio [a praeceptis Caesaris non abhorrens]; et ab re digressio
And contrary to this [dwelling on the point] is the technique of skimming over the subject and meaning the audience to understand more than you have said, pared-down brevity, and self-depreciation and also mockery [...] and digression from the point...
tum augendi minuendive causa veritatis supralatio atque traiectio; et rogatio atque huic finitima quasi percontatio expositioque sententiae suae; tum illa, quae maxime quasi inrepit in hominum mentis, alia dicentis ac significantis dissimulatio; quae est periucunda, cum orationis non contentione, sed sermone tractatur; deinde dubitatio, tum distributio, tum correctio vel ante vel postquam dixeris vel cum aliquid a te ipso reicias
Then there is hyperbole or exaggeration of the truth either for emphasis or de-emphasis; and the rhetorical question, and - very similar to this - the technique of self-interrogation and making a narrative of your opinion; then that device which best insinuates itself into the minds of your audience, the trickery of saying one thing and meaning another [i.e. irony]; which is very pleasant when used in a chatty way and not competitively. Next there is the technique of pretending to be in doubt and making distinctions and correcting yourself either before you say something or after, or when you want to distance yourself from something.
erroris inductio, ad hilaritatem impulsio, anteoccupatio; [tum duo illa, quae maxime movent, similitudo et exemplum; digestio,] interpellatio, contentio, reticentia, [commendatio]; vox quaedam libera atque etiam effrenatio augendi causa; iracundia, obiurgatio, [promissio, deprecatio, obsecratio, declinatio brevis a proposito, non ut superior illa digressio,] purgatio, conciliatio, laesio, optatio atque exsecratio. His fere luminibus inlustrant orationem sententiae.
...deliberately misleading your audience, provoking laughter, anticipating responses; [...] interrupting yourself, contradicting yourself, pausing suddenly [...] speaking freely or even rather unrestrainedly to emphasise a point; getting angry, haranguing [...] justifying yourself, gaining the audience's favour, ranting [...]. It is through these techniques that ideas illuminate speech.
Now, the general opinion of the 'language arts' is that they require no especial expertise - after all, everyone uses language. It is acknowledged that language must be taught in schools, but only insofar as it can be used as an instrument, a means of communication. The common conception of the language arts is hopelessly mixed up with the concept of basic language training. Aristotle recognized this: rhetoric and dialectic are different from the other arts in that they are things people naturally do ('either at random or through practice and from acquired habit') without thinking of them in terms of an art or a skill (technê). Where, then is the place of classical rhetoric today - as a dry formal exercise of interest only to the historian of ideas? Eloquence comes naturally and rhetoric is its enemy: prescriptive, limiting natural speech?
No: if we are to take up Rousseau - no dry formalist, he - on the idea that all words originated as tropes, that the figurative meaning precedes the literal, then rhetoric and poetics are not corollaries to the understanding of language, literary or otherwise - they do not 'come after' - they are the basis of all language brought to fruition in art.
Lately I've been re-reading Brian Vickers's In Defence of Rhetoric. Vickers does an excellent job of demolishing the misconceptions that have become attached to rhetoric, of giving the lie to the attenuated notion of rhetoric that has survived, reduced to one or two mere tropes in modern formalist and deconstructionist criticism. Deconstructionist criticism has tried to catch up rhetoric itself in the snare of its beloved 'aporia' - incidentally in rhetoric aporia is a technique, not an end in itself. Rhetoric stands for dynamism not stasis, copia not stymied paralysis.
On a barely related point, some time ago I read an interview with Slavoj Zizek in which he said a few things about role-playing in internet communication. I make no apology here for twisting Zizek's comments out of their proper context (for which betake thyself to Google, wretch).
Today you still have on the one hand this negative utopian image of the collective mind, while on the other hand you have this positive New Age image. There are two opposite versions, but what I'm tempted to disagree with is their common presupposition, which is that cyberspace means, to put it very simply, the end of individuality, the end of Cartesian subjectivity. All positive properties are externalized in the sense that everything you are in a positive sense, all your features can be manipulated. When one plays in virtual space I can for example be a homosexual man who pretends to be a heterosexual woman, or whatever: either I can build a new identity for myself or in a more paranoiac way, I am somehow already controlled, manipulated by the digital space. What you are deprived of are only your positive properties, your personality in the sense of your personal features, your psychological properties. But only when you are deprived of all your positive content, can one truly see what remains, namely the Cartesian subject.
Only in Cyberspace do we approach what Cartesian subjectivity is all about. You remember when Descartes elaborates the process of universal doubt. One doubts that anything really exists in order to arrive at one's "ego cogito". Descartes develops this idea saying: Let's imagine an evil god, an evil spirit who just tricks us into believing…. But isn't cyberspace, virtual space, the materialisation of this evil spirit? And it's crucial to go through this universal doubt: What if everything is just digitally constructed, what if there is no reality to begin with? It's only when you go through this moment of universal doubt that you arrive at what Descartes means by "cogito ergo sum". For this reason I absolutely do not think that Cartesian subjectivity is threatened. Instead I think, it's only today that we are arriving at it.
Now this is quite a surprising turn of thought. The fragmentation of the construct of a coherent self-identity in internet communication is not the performance of selfhood's obsequies; it heralds a triumph. But it makes sense, doesn't it? After all, don't the conditions we're living now recreate in some sense the conditions of that last great age of rhetoric, which was precisely the culture from which the Cartesian subject emerged? Letter writing was central to the age of humanist rhetoric. Letter writing became an art of the self: for the first time men were publishing volumes of their correspondence - not just because their civic actions were a matter of public record, but simply because they wanted to be read, and people wanted to read them. Not only that, they were writing their 'familiar' letters with an eye to publication; re-writing them, even, for an audience other than their addressee. They were constantly fashioning and re-fashioning personas, counterfeiting (a word whose connotations were not yet wholly negative) the lineaments of a self. If this was not a source of anxiety to Petrarch, it was to Montaigne - hyper-aware, of course, of the problematical relation between selves lived and selves remembered (if not yet between 'public' and 'private' selves); but within that poetics of fleeting selves he somehow discerned a 'forme maitresse'... The Cartesian revolution came a generation later.
To do what we're doing right now, 'turning out' our innermost selves, conspicuously externalizing all of the features of our self-experience that we view as essential, we must also operate at another level of awareness, move through the fictions of the self to arrive at...what? A 'forme maitresse'? A nature? A second nature?
Finally, I humbly beseech the generous reader to indulge cum grano salis the mock-bombast of the title I gave to this in-the-event all-too-slight post on a subject I cannot pretend to master. Then again, if he, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, should choose to withhold his indulgence then it's all the same to me.