Monday, September 28, 2015

If rhetoric is wrong, I don't wanna be right

When I say I've studied rhetoric, I'm frequently asked this question:

What is rhetoric?

Which is a fair question. In fact, it is the yardstick of fair questions - it's straight to the point, no beating around the bush, no hidden assumptions. Especially since I've just claimed something, and am ever so directly being asked to clarify this claim.

Answers to this question differ.

When I'm in memetic mode, I answer along the lines of this here enormous picture you've no doubt seen long before you actually got to reading this part. It's point and click, basically - you point at something, say something related to it, then point at another thing, say something related to that, and so on.

I rarely use this answer, though, since the notion that such things as "truth" and "justice" and "a proper taste in culture" are pointable is hard to convey in everyday settings. Which is the opposite of effective, given the everyday setting I've recently pointed at. Thus, another answer is called upon:

Rhetoric is the art of making things up.

This is both easy to understand, and fun to demonstrate. It's easy to understand since it's what most people already think anyway, and thus comes as no surprise. It's fun to demonstrate, because it's true: as a rhetor, you are good at making things up. And since the most recent pointage happened to be at this very fact, you now have a proper and sufficient kairos to simply make anything up. Anything at all.

Even if these things are totally wrong. Especially if they are totally wrong.

Some think rhetoric is all about finding the proper thing to say. This is true to a point. In the process of finding this right thing, you have to discard many improper things. And most of these things are unexpectedly funny, seeing as they are both improper and wrong.

This, too, builds on preexisting doxa: most people have an intuitive sense of propriety and genre, and know what to expect from people in general. Public officials speak a certain way, doctors another, presidents a third, and so on. This is known. Thus, it can be worked with. Like, say, pointing out that it would be funny if Obama began a speech with the immortal words:

Dear fellow anime lovers of America!

This gives ample opportunity to goof around, and to get to the point: that your rhetorical superpowers consist mostly of making things up until you find something that sticks. Most of these things will never see the light of day, but those that do will be better because you've seen how much worse they could be. There is gold in them hills, among all the mud and lost irrelevant relics and animes.

It's all about making things up. And it's all about speeding up the process in such a way that it can be done on the fly.

...and about making sure you don't make too much an ass out of yourself whilst doing it.

Most of the time, it works. Then you fall in love, and all bets, definitions and pointers are off. -

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Tendency

Virilio has a very important concept, that of the 'tendency'. Much like the accident, it is one that is hard not to think about once it has made its appearance. It introduces itself, and then it reintroduces the world.

The gist of it is to take what is given and extrapolate it three steps ahead. Take it from where we're at, and go to where it's logically going. Without doing the proper philosophical move of explicating every step of the way in expounded detail.

I encountered my favorite example of this in an episode of This American Life. It went something like this:

"I had noodles for breakfast"
"Oh yeah. Cheap ones, or expensive good ones?"
"Dunno, my girlfriend bought them."
"Do you love her?"

As you can see, there are intermediary conversational steps that are brutally bypassed in this example. It also makes for an interesting conversation - rather than focusing on the minutiae of noodles, it went straight to a point. Not the point, mind, as conversations rarely have one singular predetermined point, but a point nevertheless.

In writing, this takes the form of applied enthymemes. A paragraph begins with an opening statement, some expansions of this statement, and then ends by moving everything along. Without remorse, it moves from the present to what could be, should we but think about it. It harnesses the tendency and displays it before our electronically weary eyes. It is but a step on our way to becoming immortal cyborg heads.

This, to be sure, is one of the reasons many who attempt to read Virilio give up after a while. Either because they haven't been clued in to this, and are thus confused by the sudden leaps, or they see what the deal is, and rejects it as lazy writing. Either way, the tendency is real.

In life, you can apply this in any way you want. I would suggest poetry. -

Friday, September 18, 2015

Social structures made simple

Social structures might seem abstract and hard to grasp. But really, they are not. They are simply what happens when nothing in particular is happening.

For instance: unless society malfunctions on a massive scale, you are likely to pay taxes. You don't have to figure out how or why, or negotiate the specific percentages. It is not a personal endeavor, as you simply do what is expected of you. It's not personal, it's structural.

It happens when nothing in particular is happening.

If you can get your head around this, you can get your head around the notion of structural sexism. It's not personal, and it's not something the individual actors actively think about doing. It's just what's happening when nothing in particular is disturbing the ordinary. Such as when women get the same patronizing questions over and over and over again from random people they've never met before. It's not personal - it's just that the combined tendency of everyone to do the same thing have effects above and beyond any one particular instance

How do you affect these things, you ask?

Why, that follows from the definition! If these things are what happens when nothing in particular happens, we have to make something particular happen. Perturb the status quo and unnerve those who simply follow the path of least structural resistance. It's easy to simply do as expected; it's hard to do so when there are things abound that makes the default mode seem highly inappropriate.

Make people uncomfortable. Make them question what they are doing. Point out that they are not determined by the structures they find themselves in, and that they are quite capable of being autonomous subjects with agency.

It's not personal. Until it is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Metasocial by the numbers

I recently realized that I didn't have someone's phone number. Which, as I pondered the realization, made me think about the interplay of change and inertia. Of how as things change, they yet somehow remain themselves.

On the one hand, it would be a trivial thing to simply conjure it up using search engines. I have enough circumstantial information to narrow down the results enough to glean the signal from the noise (probably to such an accuracy that there will only be one search result). This, however, would be slightly stalky, and should I proceed along this course and send a text down the line, it might well be perceived as such.

On the other hand, simply asking them (or any of our mutual friends) about it might be construed and misconstrued in any number of ways. As you might well imagine.

This is interesting, as it shows that information is not socially neutral. Moreover, the way information is acquired is anything but socially neutral. It never was, to be sure, but it is even less so now. Even though information wants to be free, acting on it is not.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In thinking about this, I also realized that this line of inquiry is more interesting than actually, you know, getting a hold of that number. Which only goes to show that attention is socially awkward. -

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Writing as selfgenerating competence

Reading and writing are central skills in our society. Our school systems spend an almost worryingly large portion of its resources (and of the pupils' time) on making sure these skills are acquired. When the metamorphosis from pupil to student takes place, the most common realization is that it takes even more reading and writing to get along in the world of the university. Not to mention worklife with its more or less sensical demands. If you're a broken human being should you not have a cell phone, you've almost broken your bond to the human species should you not be able to read and write.

Learning to handle the text medium - both as a consumer and a producer - is therefore of central importance. While it might not be necessary to turn everyone into a Marcel Proust, who successfully wrote 600 interesting pages of fiction where the protagonist doesn't really do anything but lie on their bed wondering whether they should do something interesting or not, some level of proficiency is required in this society of ours. Achieving minimal levels of literacy doesn't take too many years, admittedly, and some would say that this level is usually achieved at around ten years of age, but the fact that there is a minimal level says more than the contingent fact of where it happens to be.

Reading and writing are linked, but not identical. It is possible to be a phenomenal reader whilst at the same time a terrible writer; and, conversely, it is possible to not be able to read the backside of a milk carton whilst being able to formulate the most delicate of poetry. (Blame postmodernism.) In general, though, it goes that the more one reads, the more proficient one becomes in both reading and writing. And the same goes for writing, mutatis mutandis. Practice is skill in this case too.

One thing that separates reading/writing from other skills, such as cooking, biking or gardening, is that it's hard to argue that there's an upper limit to it. Cooking might be a difficult art, but you will eventually learn the perfect ways to cook a noodle. The perfect way of making a text, however, is forever out of reach. James Joyce was on to something in his more peculiar works, but just as there are just about as many interpretations of Finnegans Wake as there are readers, there are no doubts that it could have been written better. Not better as in more comprehensible - Joyce's texts are not to be understood, as it were - but rather more interesting. The fact that you can parse a ridiculous amount from the shifts and interplays between the mutually exclusive yet juxtapositionally present interpretations is one thing, but that does not say that any of that is as interesting as it could be.

For those of you who haven't read Joyce (and who have the good notion of not doing it any time soon), it helps to know that good ol' James systematically used misspelling, puns, convoluted sentencing, unclear subjects, annoying moves and at times pure busywork (such as, say, not doing punctuation for fifty pages or so) to create literary effects. Rules for good languaging and virtuous habits in text production are seen as helpful suggestions, to be ignored at will. It's not that he didn't know what he was doing - he knew exactly what he was doing, and did it anyway.

Fortunately enough, we don't always have to know what we are doing when we do writing. Most of the time, all we need to know is how things are usually done, and then do this until it becomes a habit. Many good authors claim to not know what they do when they do what they do, yet are still able to continue doing good texts with the same goodness that made them good authors. Those writing shorter texts - such as, say, filling out requisition forms in their workplace capacities - don't even have to know they are doing writing. They are filling out a form, after all, which is a whole other thing than performing a text, and all the pretension that goes with it.

Likewise, we don't really need to know what we're doing when we're reading. Most of the time, we don't even need to remember the names of the protagonists to get something out of reading - even when we're not reading Joyce. It's not necessary to consciously note that this particular text does thing other texts don't do, and you can usually get away with doing a standard reading. They are words on a page - why making things harder than it needs to be by noting all these tiny details?

If you only remember one thing from reading this, I hope it's something along the lines that texts - and their reading and writing - are far more complicated than they seem. Not to mention the relationship between reading and writing. One could of course, learn the basics and declare oneself done with it, just as there are many who learn arithmetic and declare themselves done with mathematics. It cannot be denied, however, that there are many exciting things one can do with the more elaborate forms of algebra. As soon as one's relationship to texts reach a sufficiently complex point, everything changes - literally everything.

The basics of any notion of text production is that there is something to be said, and that this is to be said in an effective way. There are - evidently - certain ways of doing a text that are more effective than others at performing that which is to be performed (and said). The more artful you become at this, the more intuitive and immediate it becomes to find the how that goes with each what. How should this particular text behave in order to do what I want it to do?

This something that ought to be said is sometimes also something that must be said. When transcending the basics, we stumble upon the realization that what must be said is not always congruous with that which can be said, and that we cannot say some things we must say due to things we are forced to say that exclude these things from the realms of possibility. To be brutal about it: in conditions where it is mandatory to prefix everything with "heil Hitler", it is a hard sell to proceed with the words "thus the democratic revolution begins, comrades!". The one excludes the other, and that which must be said has precedence over that which can be said; when the former has been uttered, it has brought along a whole arsenal of thoughts and ideological positions from which it is hard to backtrack. Which goes without saying.

This critical perspective (any perspective that can see that things do not have to be the way they are is automatically critical) eventually leads to the realization that this exclusion of certain possible utterances in practice amounts to the exclusion of certain possible subjects - possible ways of thinking and being. When that which has to be said includes certain fundamental assumptions about the world, it becomes that much harder to be someone who does not share there assumptions. And somewhere about here, the title of this post starts to make sense: writing as selfgenerating competence.

Text is not only about that which is said, or how it is said, or if it is allowed to be said, but also about who is saying that which is said. The text generates the subject, with words, and being able to write becomes (literally) a self-generating process. Being able to write is not only about writing a text that works in the specific context one happens to find oneself in, but also about constructing a subject in general. Mainly one's own, but also, increasingly, the reader's.

You of course see where this is headed. -

Originally published February 26, 2010