Yesterday, as I was imagining what I would say to close this class, kairos happened. Originally, I thought I might return to our opening class and attempt to redefine rhetoric. But then Brittney Cooper’s ““It’s the Blackness that scares everybody”: Why white people favor “African-Americans”” came across my Facebook feed. In the article, Cooper cites a recent study confirming that white people significantly prefer the term “African American” to “black,” conferring on the latter term more sophistication and status. “African Americans” are managers, “blacks” are not.
Cooper responds with an anecdote about how her mother taught her to use the term black. She muses:
To this day, if I’m not being really deliberate, or really formal, I refer to myself and other African Americans as “Black.” Blackness rolls off the tongue in just that certain way when I say it loud and proud. I sometimes notice white eyebrows raising when I dare to say the word “Black,” sitting around a boardroom table. It is disruptive. And disarming. And political.
It is to that last sentence and the fragments that follow it that I want to draw our attention. Because I want to argue that Cooper’s concise explication of the power of the word “black” reveals to us three reasons we need to study rhetoric–particularly rhetoric as I want to define it.
First, Cooper’s essay as a whole recalls Kenneth Burke’s essay on “Terministic Screens,” particularly, Burke’s idea that terms often capture “attitudes.” Terms can think for us–since in many cases I suspect the difference between African-American and black is registered not in the conscious mind, but in the subconscious one. To attend to rhetoric is to bring these subconscious elements to the surface, to call attention to the ways in which language thinks for us, affects us, even when we might not be aware of it. That is, rhetoric disrupts our normal communicative economy by asking questions about exchange rates.
Second, again recalling Burke, Cooper reminds us that language does more than simply convey information. Language acts. Language is symbolic action. As Burke writes in Permanence and Change, “words are fists.” Or, at least, they can be. They can strike us. They can disarm us. But they can do more than that. The point to remember here is that language is never simply transmitting knowledge (logos). Language always hits a target–again, it is affective, or pathetic. There is no utterance that does not touch upon our emotions. Philosophy, in the tradition of Plato, has long defined itself as a discipline that filters emotion out. Emotion is noise that gets in the way of the Truth (logos). Rhetoric thinks emotion (pathos) otherwise.
Third, rhetoric approaches all language as political, in the sophistic sense of the term we traced out via Gorgias, Isocrates, Jarratt, McComiskey, and especially Lanham earlier in the course, whether you call it nomos, social construction, or the strong defense. Words are fists, and, as the theorists Francois Lyotard reminds us, “to speak is to fight.” All those hits pile up. There is no utterance that does not hit upon another and, at the very least, make a demand of her time and attention. Such demands are taxing, and part of any rhetoric dedicated to the political (in either the broader sense of the social I have traced here or even its more common everyday sense of civic deliberation and government) has to account for the difficulty we face just trying to pay attention.
Part of this difficulty is amplified by our innate allergy to alterity, to difference. This, I believe, is the incredibly important conclusion articulated by Corder. Victor Vitanza, in his attempt to fuse ancient sophistry with contemporary philosophy (particularly Nietzsche and Derrida), writes:
My position is […] that we are not at home in our world/whirl of language. Any and every attempt to assume that we are has or will have created for human beings dangerous situations. (Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, 157).
The desire to end the whirl, to find ourselves standing on solid, unquestionable ground, explains for me why people will often ignore research and evidence that contradicts an ideological narrative. It explains why pizza owners in Indiana won’t serve LGBTQ weddings, and why Americans will donate nearly a million dollar to said owners in support. In the social sciences, such a tendency is termed “confirmation bias.” To anticipate my conclusion, I want to suggest that addressing confirmation bias requires more than addressing means of interpretation. It requires we craft a subject with the emotional capacity requisite to develop “a will to interpret otherwise.”
And this, for me, marks off the province of 21st century rhetoric. We are aware of all these things: language’s ability to subconsciously strike at any notion of difference or otherness, and our human–all too human–desire for Perfection. Simplicity. Unity. Certainty. Truth. These terms are not innocent. We must learn to hear them. In the age of digital cacophony, rhetoric is the discipline that cultivates civic subjects willing to listen. To attend to difference. To eschew the safe and the simple for something more messy, complicated, and–ultimately–ethical.
Scholarship isn’t always about solving a problem. Often it is about exploring a problem, recognizing it. More often, it is simply about getting others to see your problem, to pull them to it. To give your problem gravity. Bruno Latour argues something is real only in so much that it impacts others–that we can trace connections and effects. Scholarship, then, can be seen as the attempt to collect and assemble more actants in your problem’s network.
This semester, then, has been my attempt to recruit you to my cause–even if temporarily. To the question of how, or if, but certainly why, we need to learn to practice listening as I have worked to describe it. Listening, not in terms of waiting to speak, waiting to persuade, respond, counter-argument. Not in the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition of agonism and dialectic. Rather listening in terms of what Corder prioritizes–as taking the time to reflect inwardly before lashing outwardly.
In short, we must learn to hear our own desire for perfection, simplicity, unity, certainty, truth. And we must educate ourselves such that we don’t allow these desires to dominate the way we interact with others. Rhetoric is particularly suited to such a task, since its historical mission has been to conceptualize and predict the ways in which different audiences might interpret a particular message.
I am not an Idealist here. Conceptualizing rhetoric as listening isn’t a utopian proposal. It is not a means to ending the interminable wrangle of the marketplace. This does not mean we live in a world without argument or debate. This doesn’t mean we cannot criticize others. But it does mean that we must take the time to listen to other positions, to resist the immediate impulse to attack and tear down, to try to identify possible starting places for cooperation. There will be times when there are none. There will be times when our opponents steadfastly refuse to extend us an ear. We will be tempted to stop listening.
I will not pretend that I offer a solution for how to “fix” these impasses. But I will say, quite frankly, that I worry for the future of our government, our fragile democracy, when I see a generation of politicians, and Americans, who seem so disinclined to attend to other opinions. Other narratives. Other possibilities. It is our task, as rhetoricians, to open this problem, to broadcast it, to insist upon better media, better politicians, better schools, that acknowledge the necessity of listening, of encountering difference, rather than obfuscating, synthesizing, silencing, or ignoring it.
My dedication to thinking rhetoric as listening, and to think of listening in terms of ethics stems from my firm belief in the failure of the Enlightenment ideal (particularly the one introduced to us by Kant): the commitment that knowledge, and the gradual progression of knowledge, is sufficient to solve our human (and, of course, non-human) problems. I do not believe this to be so. For it does not address the most obvious question: how do we persuade someone to listen to knowledge? How do we cultivate a citizen, a self, willing to listen, to consider, to change? Those are not rhetorical questions, but rather the questions that drive my dedication to rhetoric.
We will watch the manifesto projects in Thursday’s class. Furthermore, I will ask those working on the final paper to prepare a one-page handout that highlights your research. Here is a link to a (boring) sample handout I made for a presentation last year on Rhetoric, Ethics, and Listening. Here is another handout I made for a presentation on Postpedagogy and Web Writing with Dr. Leahy.
Finally, before you put your handouts together, I want to stress the importance of writing relevant, informative, and intriguing titles. In academia, titles come in two general flavors, MLA (humanities) and APA (science). MLA titles tend to have two parts, the gag line followed by a colon and description of the project. APA titles, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more conservative and usually forgo the gag line. For instance, here’s a journal in Rhetoric and Composition that uses MLA format, CCC. And here’s a list of the top downloaded articles at a journal that uses APA format, TCQ. The point here: put more time into thinking about the title of an essay.