Comparing Rhetorical Domains
and the Neo-Stalinoids 1
by James Como (August 2020)
Comparative Literature has been around a very long time. It routinely takes into account differences in cultures, epochs and genres, and it is supple enough—these days trendy enough—to adjust to theories of Gender, Queerness, Feminist, Critical and the like. The same, however, is hardly true of Comparative Rhetoric, even though we compare rhetorics compulsively: this pope compared to that, this prime minister v. that president, CNN now contrasted with CNN pre-Trump, Lucrezia Borgia and Hillary Clinton (I couldn’t resist). Though philosophical and longtudinal surveys of world-wide rhetorics exist, they are few and highly abstract.
This, even though rhetorical criticism per se has a long history, along with its critical paradigms: Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic structure, Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelianism analysis, Formalist, Structuralist, Frankfurt-Marxist, and good old Freudian—among others. But none is explicitly useful comparatively and is often welded to an ideological agenda.
That is owing, I believe, to a certain crudeness of those critical instruments. In his “The Rhetorical Situation” Lloyd Bitzer has taught that such a situation has an ‘imperfection marked by urgency’—the itch needing a scratch. That exigency is satisfiable only by rhetoric. Marshall McLuhan tells us that rhetoric arises when a figure stands against the ground, without which interplay “no art or knowledge is possible . . . It is the essence of formal causality.”
So, if the lack of a useful paradigm for comparative rhetorical criticism is our exigency, then the response must be the discovery (beyond the usual speech-setting analysis) of some hermeneutically powerful ground, versatile but delimited. I propose 1. to describe that useful paradigm, then in light of it 2. informally to look at some rhetorics: distantly past, proximately past, and current, and—full disclosure— 3. to fulminate.
More than an agglomeration of words, rhetoric is a set of tools (‘proofs’) marshaled tactically for a specific persuasive purpose, directed at a particular audience, under specific circumstances. The range of particularity and specificity vary enormously, from a single family to a whole civilization, from a single utterance to a body of variegated discourse occurring over decades, even centuries (e.g. ‘medieval rhetoric’). Rhetorical criticism must take these variations into account.
My proposal of a Domain with three axes might do that, allowing the comparison of domains—the ground—rather than merely of this or that bit of discourse. The x-axis is time. Along this axis, from minutes on up to historical periods, we can stretch, contract, or designate intervals (including intervals of varying lengths), as long as we are specific and consistent. Given our clocks, calendars and chronological lexicons we should be untroubled.
The y-axis is more demanding. It is a segmented column describing spheres of human interaction. It consists (from the bottom up) of culture, nation, society, state, and government. We should not be fooled by the language. Not just nation-states but all organized human activity (e.g. a family) exhibits this structure, even if the vocabulary is foreign to conventional usage. Each of these strata evince widely varying expectations, conventions, and other elements of an often-unwritten social contract which a rhetor satisfies, violates, or sometimes bypasses. They arise, flourish, fade, and finally (in some cases) disappear entirely. In fact, whole sets come, go and overlap each other. (Think of the changes in our lifetime of permissible and impermissible language.)
This formulation assumes that each stratum of the y-axis is an information system which ought to allow newness or is otherwise marked by noise and therefore entropic—a closed reality (e.g. North Korea, Cuba, some Old World families, our Cancel Culture). The flexibility of the elements of the social contract determines the receptivity of the stratum to information (by definition something new). Moreover, all strata have ‘incorrigibles,’ those conventions so utterly embedded in common practice and belief (and for so long) that they have the force of nature. These elements (resembling algorithms, incorrigible or not) wind their up and down the entire pillar. They permute our behavior.
Challenging these is bold indeed, and for a critic the task is daunting. Each stratum, with its assortment of elements within its own social contract, together form a hypothetical reality, a quotidian consciousness that takes itself for granted (at least until challenged). For example, from the bottom up, Americans are largely a freedom-valuing people. (The mere language of ‘quarantine,’ ‘lock-down,’ and ‘sequester’ gives most of us a rash.)
The z-axis, like the conventional model deriving from the Ancients, has three types of rhetoric. But here my thinking departs significantly from that typology. There we have these types: epideictic (ceremonial, ascribing praise or blame and thus heavily dependent upon value judgments), forensic (factual, formulating arguments for or against a proposition), and deliberative (explanatory, usually devoted to policy and most often combining the other two forms). Alternatively, my taxonomy of discourse is: confirmational (keep smoking but change brands), utilitarian (stop smoking), syntactical (get others to stop smoking and get rid of cigarettes).
The first changes no norms, the second reverses a pre-existing norm, the third changes the very structure—the syntax—of the region: new norms for old, or none. Farewell incorrigible. It compels newness, i.e. information, starting at the bottom and working up. In short, having a strong dysenropic tendency, it attacks the hypothetical reality, replacing it with a new one. And so there we have a Domain: a period of time, a segment of organized human interaction, a type of discourse. If we care to compare discourses, let us first describe the whole domain within which we are comparing, apples to apples.
Consider this broad, brief example: American and French revolutionary rhetoric, from 1765 (The Stamp Act in the American colonies) to 1799 (the accession of Napoleon). The designation ‘revolutionary’ makes them sound the same, and we know the period as ‘revolutionary’.
In fact, though both revolutions and their discourse were varyingly syntactical (nothing is more syntactical than “we the people”), ours was not aimed at culture, as was the French (and the Russian, and our Woke revolution). We did not re-name months and close churches, nor did we export our revolution to change any other pyramid (even if many others looked to copy ours). Thus did Jefferson, but not Burke, mistake the French Revolution. Moreover, insofar as we already were a separate people (from the top down) we had already had our ‘revolution’, actually an evolution over a very long period of time. Bernard Bailyn wrote that “the primary goal of the American Revolution . . . was not the overthrow or even the alteration of the existing social order but the preservation of political liberty.” Our war really can be better labeled a War of Independence.
More proximately we can look, again briefly, at Ronald Reagan, say from the early seventies to the end of the eighties. His radio addresses (In His Own Hand) reveal the consistency of his dysentropic thinking, from his emphasis on religious motifs (unorthodox in postmodern political discourse), to his aggressive optimism (a world apart from Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ imagery), on to his triumphalist faith in individual enterprise and Western values of freedom and democracy (which many on both sides of the Atlantic saw as morally equivalent to the values and practices of the totalitarian Soviet Union).
In Reagan’s case, such syntactical rhetoric was largely national and cultural. Moreover, Reagan understood that the deeper the hyper-orthodoxies being attacked, the more unambiguous his rhetoric must be—unambiguous, not rude. Typical of that understanding are his two most famous speeches, “Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Evangelicals (March 8, 1983, the “evil empire” speech, so-called) and “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate (June 12, 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) —both regarded at the time by large swathes of the commentariat as absurdly, irresponsibly provocative—recklessly dysentropic—in their detachment from reality, but now artifacts of an entirely new reality Reagan helped create.
Two other globally important rhetors took approaches almost identical to Reagan’s. The first was Margaret Thatcher, who upended business-as-usual in her island kingdom (with special reference to labor unions) and joined Reagan in his un-euphemistic assault on the Soviet Union. The second, though, was more important even than the Iron Lady; that was Pope John Paul II. In his Harvard address (“A World Split Apart”) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tore Western values to pieces dysentropically—on the basis of religious premises. Though he was most courteous in his tone, he was nevertheless patronized, scolded, dismissed or demonized by large sections of the intelligentsia presumably for not respecting a deeply-embedded value: the secular nature of American society.
The pope went him several better, but philosophically. He entreated (e.g. Crossing the Threshold) people to ‘ex-sistare’, that is, to stand out from the State and Society into the non-conformity of moral conviction—to “be not afraid” —thus becoming perpetually new figures who show that politics and economies are not the engines of history, an astonishingly syntactical admonition. All three rhetors address Nation and Culture, variously. Each was seeking to pump information into the system, information that would radically upset the hyper-orthodoxies—the ‘incorrigibles’ —of the day. Each succeeded.
Can that be said of President Trump who, in his own way, is attempting the same sort of dysentropic achievement? None of the prior three radicals was his or her own worst enemy, picking unnecessary fights from behind a wall of very thin skin, recklessly free-associating aloud (and inarticulately so), and wearing a ring that must be kissed. Reagan once said (perhaps unoriginally, but I’d never heard it before he said it), “there’s no telling what a man can accomplish if he’s willing to forgo the credit.” Is there any credit, real or imagined, that President Trump will not merely forgo but not claim for himself? (By the way, Obama was almost as bad.)
When descriptive (“Chinese virus,” which, really, would be better as “Chinese Communist virus”) and not merely insulting (“shithole countries”) his dysentropic sorties have sometimes been refreshing—we just never know what’s coming, and so his rhetoric becomes a zero-sum game, at best. From hyperbole unrecognized as such, to falsehoods that are hyperbolic, to unexplained hypotheses which, though not lies, are presented as fact, on to much unrelenting exhibitionism, chip-on-the-shoulder aggressiveness (often compelling him to punch down) —all this and more make him, I think, the worst communicator ever to occupy the presidency: he is a stranger to distinctions and nuance and has shown no inclination or ability to explain them when he sees them. As such, he (with his thuggish sparring partners in the Mainstream Media) damages every level of the pyramid, so that a voter must ask: has Donald Trump reached the point of diminishing returns?
Actually, most of the president’s remarks (i.e. not from a prepared text) are best seen as “social gestures” (or, better, “socio-cultural gestures”), what I. A. Richards has called “phatic communion,” little more than grunts. His big problem is that only a minority of people (his base) see them as such: after all, presidents do not grunt! The bigger problem is the infectiousness of such communication—and that it conduces to meta-talk. So pundits and their ilk talk about Trump’s talk, phatically, calling and raising his grunts with mega-grunts, and so forth (and, with an excess of zeal, continue to build strawmen).
Few exchanges are prudential, and the action becomes symbolic action, the “dancing of an attitude” (to cite Kenneth Burke citing Richards). However, since humans, though symbol-users, are not themselves symbols, rhetorical habits become ubiquitously toxic, “diseased speech,” from the bottom up. Parties to the fray forget a very basic law of effective human communication, which our three heroes never forgot: “It’s not about me.”
As he seeks to drain a swamp sorely in need of draining and make great again a Nation whose destiny is very, very far from done, he should look to the ‘incorrigibles’ of State and Government and do what for him, apparently, is utterly impossible, submit to them, becoming ‘presidential’, an aspect of ‘professional’. Two rules of communication apply: intent never equals impact, and you get what you give. Or as the teachers of fiction-writing put it, show rather than tell, stopping the self-talk, invective, and frequently random tweets.
A last word on this. If the election is a referendum on the president, make it a two-way street. (One-way streets are a very big problem: you want reparations? Then let’s do a bit of double-column bookkeeping) —a referendum not on a person or persons but between the Weltanschauungs of the Moderate Center and wanton, riotous progressivism, because the mind-set of moderation is the core of the Nation and of its Culture. Then if people do not want to vote Trump, they can at least, by pulling the lever next to the name, vote for the Center. Most voters would make the confirmational, rather than the syntactic, choice (the S.O.B.s: Sanders-Ocasio-Biden). Yes, yes: the fly in this particular ointment (think both versions of the classic horror film) is Trump himself, and we can hold our noses only so long and so tightly. His withdrawal, like LBJ’s on March 31, 1968, would solve the problem and serve the higher good. But can he discern any beyond a slogan?
Self-aggrandizement only seems to be the opposite of finger-pointing, any pointer trying hard to make it about someone else. The motive, though, is the same: to promote the self (the pointing displacing blame). This seems especially true of our Current Normal, the Rhetoric of Riot, indulged by the neo-Stalinoids—from the social justice warriors to the cancel culturists to Antifa and on to the greatest con group going, Black Lives Matter. (I recall Malcolm X warning against the con man, the “greatest threat to America.”) First let me acknowledge the genius of the latter: the title per se is something no one can disagree with, can say with a clear—even a cleansing—conscience and at the same time seem to be endorsing the organization: rather like tissues being called un kleenex in many South American countries. Blow gunk our of your nose or out of your guilty conscience and you have an advertisement.
The topoi of the Rhetoric of Riot are old : guilt, victimhood, rotten at the root (the Man, the Establishment, White Privilege, Jews, of course), righteous rage, and absolutism (“burn it down”). Tactics require a flag issue (e.g. George Floyd’s murder); mass gatherings of any kind (including attacks on respected symbols, from the flag to statues to the OK finger gesture); accusations (‘appropriation’); slogans of course (preferably chantable); fellow-traveling appeasement; secrecy (funding, organization chart: very important—we need floodlights and names!); the usual tools of propaganda (e.g. repetition of lies, such as “hands up don’t shoot”; simple-and-immediately-recognizable symbols (e.g. the raised clenched fist); non-defined and unprovable accusations designed to inculcate guilt (‘systemic racism’); cluster attacks on individuals; and always demands (the satisfaction of which are never sufficient).
Finally you need a fetish: wealth, race, gender, the amorphous ‘social justice’, toxic masculinity, dead white males. (Or you can fetishize a combination; that way you have achieve intersectionality.) As for “philosophy”: well, read Chomsky, Alinsky, Fannon; Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler. Read Orwell, again: there you find the status of truth. For example, recently and act of violence was described by its perpetrator as ‘speech’, while a snippet of actual oratory was called ‘violence’. (This was Tony Morrison’s argument in her commencement address at Middlebury College.) We are reminded that truth, let alone reason (aka ‘male hegemony’ or Western Imperialism), are social constructs, so by all means tear down any statue, even that of an Abolitionist.
Note that the assault is at all levels of the pyramid and are all dysentropic. Moreover, none of this is new. The identical morphology was there at Chicago in 1968, at Columbia University in the seventies, in Seattle when the WTO met.
In fact by now the Revolution is old news, and that’s part of the problem: we want new news, which the players of this very long con know we need. That’s why new flag issues are adopted. What’s next? What’s the difference? We can spin a dart board, wear a blindfold, and hit just about anything. The self, its expression, therapies to make it whole (since nothing less than absolute wellness is acceptable), and, of course, feelings, now rule: easily manipulated and transferable. That way, Utopia is surely attainable, for as it is with individual health so it is with the commonweal: no toleration for any ills.
In the event, we face a force with that deadly combination of will + purpose + design + means. We used to hear, “it’s not the Sixties anymore,” to which I say, it doesn’t have to be. “Most people are basically good,” said a social-worker friend, which right now seems to be what Biden stands for and what people want to believe: pure bunk, of course, psychologically and theologically. But even if true, “most” is not enough. Our mixed domains now require domination by moderation. Confirmational rhetoric would help.
James Como is the author of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015). His most recent books are C. S. Lewis: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2019) and The Folk Tales of Brusco and Giovanni, in three books (KDP, 2020)
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