Thoughts on the End of Term

Looking back as the academic year winds down, it seems as if the past twelve months have been particularly hard on a lot of people. Everyone in higher ed is always a little wiped out at this time of year, of course; and here in Ontario a record cold month (ice storms in April!) certainly didn’t help. But there’s more than that this time.

(NB: If this post seems a little vague at times, it’s because I can’t and won’t breach the confidential information of people I know and know about.)

Without getting into details, I know or know of a fair number of people — significantly more than usual — who have really struggled personally and emotionally this year. The politics of backlash that are swirling around us, the frustrations and disappointments of Canada’s reconciliation process, an increasingly difficult economy, all these and more seem to be conspiring against the ability of people to teach and learn in relative quiet. What makes matters worse is the attitude of far too many discourse-influencers towards young people, especially students: that they should not expect to be able to do so. Our campuses, we are increasingly told, are the only workplaces that should be regularly disrupted by hostile outsiders, whether they be political opportunists, technological interlopers, or merely troublemakers. And those who work and study on campuses are the only people, we are regularly told, whose work should be disrupted by regular challenges to their identities.

Even if, like me, your identity is one of the few that don’t get regularly challenged, it can all get pretty wearying. If not, I can only imagine the exhaustion that could set in.

Compound all that with the usual work overload that comes this time of year as a result of the way we schedule things, and it’s no wonder that a larger number of people this year seem to be struggling.

An important part of teaching and learning, and a crucial but increasingly embattled part of life, it seems to me, is kindness. In difficult times, it’s an ethical duty to hold each other up, to give ground and grant leeway when we can, whether it comes to giving extensions on assignments or making other forms of allowances where we can. This isn’t a matter of abandoning standards, but of recognizing that, as my old supervisor once put it, sometimes life gets in the way. When we’re facing difficulties, it’s important to at least try to give people the chance to work to their potential, so that external, non-academic factors don’t end up hampering their work too much.

Again, this has all been unspecific on my part, but I’m sure that many academics can recognize the general lines of what I’m saying here. So, in brief conclusion, be kind to each other this spring, and may this summer treat us better.

On Fish’s Winning Arguments

The arguments and perspectives of Stanley Fish’s book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper, 2016) will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Fish’s more formal academic work. Here, he takes his longstanding antifoundationalism in literary, legal, and cultural interpretation to a popular audience, in a companion piece to his previous How to Write a Sentence. Between them, the two books constitute an engaging introductory rhetoric for contemporary non-academic readers.

This book also represents a kind of popular summation of many of the positions and arguments, both published and pedagogical, of much of the past half-century’s rhetorical scholarship. The ideas of Burke, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Toulmin all appear herein, as does the by now familiar figure of Rhetorica from the 15th-century Mantegna Tarot — interpreted in a way that will appear familiar to pretty much any teacher of rhetoric in higher education. Similarly, such popular textbooks as Lunsford and Ruszkiewitz’s Everything’s an Argument appear, along with such familiar literary and classroom texts as Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, numerous passages from Milton (certainly no surprise in a book by Fish), and Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” And of course Fish brings in much of his own past work, such as his concept of “Interpretive Communities.”

To say that there is nothing particularly original in the book’s central ideas is not a critique of it, however: the point of Winning Arguments is not to blaze new scholarly ground but to operate as popular communication of a kind that the humanities could, frankly, use more of. It brings much of the conventional practice and theory of rhetoric as it is currently taught into the public realm, and does so with an eye to helping move the public conversation forward. If the book has a purpose, it is to persuade its nonacademic readers that “argument is the medium we swim in” (2) and that in “a world bereft of transcendence, argument cannot achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion” (12). Contra Orwell and Habermas, two thinkers with whom Fish takes specific issue, we cannot achieve pure truth in our thinking either by simplifying our language or purifying our intentions; all we can do is keep arguing, keep negotiating, keep moving, keep muddling through.

This perspective allows Fish to mount some salient and interesting critiques, for example of the erroneous logic of denialism, whether of the harms of tobacco, climate change, or acid rain. The structure of denialism, Fish argues, goes like this: first, note that science’s conclusions are always provisional; second, note that scientific consensus is always just consensus among people; third, claim that action should only be taken when all the evidence is in; and fourth, conclude that therefore nothing should be done at present. The error in this sequence, Fish notes, comes in the fact that step three not only does not follow from but actually contradicts step one: for if it is the case that science is always provisional (and it is), then there is no such thing as all the evidence being in. Step three, which looks as if it is recommending caution, is actually asking for an impossibility in principle. Worse, it is a logical violation of the premises that the denialist himself started out by accepting.

Fish’s logic in such moments is both elegant and, one would hope, useful: if you want to know clearly just why denialism doesn’t make sense, this is why. Similarly cogent is Fish’s explanation of why fringe theories such as Holocaust denial and Oxfordianism don’t wash in the academy: because they are just procedurally and in principle at odds with what the academy does and how it conducts its work. Also impressive is Fish’s thinking on what Nyhan and Reifler call the backfire effect: the way in which contrary evidence can actually reinforce instead of weaken a strongly-held belief. This happens, Fish says, because the evidence always comes in for evaluation in terms of those already-existing beliefs; so that “Rather than listening to and weighing what your opponent says, you hear his words as the surface issue of deep ideological commitments you fear and despise.” (61) The problem, for Fish, always comes down to the uncomfortable reality that there is no objective, godlike neutral ground from which to evaluate evidence or counterclaims. By the time those claims arrive, you can already predict how they will be received if you know the predisposition of the receiver. In an amusing aside, he also points out that this is why alleged revolutions in academic thinking, such as the postmodern project, ended up leaving departmental structures largely unchanged half a century later: if the academy’s institutions are conservative, that is because its ideological predisposition is centred upon self-legitimation, and there is little that can be done about that.

This, however, is also where some of the limitations of Fish’s public communications project come in. Having made his theoretical positions clear early, he then reiterates them in separate chapters on specific areas of argument such as law, academic criticism, and, oddly, marriage. After a while, although it is a short book, repetition does begin to be an issue, which can be a problem for public communication. More problematic can be the way in which Fish downplays or undermines the very utility of his own project. When, for example, he notes correctly that hate speech is a real phenomenon, and that words “can eviscerate you” (23) and should therefore be taken seriously, he offers little in the way of understanding what, if anything, we can do about that. If it is really the case that we are always merely going to be muddling through, and that in a highly ideological and mostly conservative social reality, then what exactly are the public, now given understanding of these rhetorical matters, supposed to do with them? His major piece of advice here is, in essence, hang in there and give yourself a break:

[I]f there is any lesson in this book, it is the lesson that the hope of rationality — the hope that we can master the contingencies of our lives by assessing and cataloging the dangers we would like to avoid — is unlikely to be realized….chances are that the next time you stumble into a crisis…you will perform no better than you did when you were eighteen years old. And if you do perform better (as I hope to do) it will not be because you have mastered an art by reading about it or theorizing it or taking a course in it, but because you’ve been around the track a few times and are finally beginning to get the hang of it. (128)

In a much earlier book, Self-Consuming Artifacts (U of California P, 1972), Fish gives a reading of Augustine’s De doctrina christiana which argues that, in telling the Christian speaker to rely on God for inspiration, Augustine effectively erases the very basis for writing a Christian rhetoric, submitting himself to divine guidance to the point that “the subject — the art of preaching — has been shown not to exist” (Self-Consuming 34). There is an odd way in which Fish’s perspective in this new book mirrors the charge that Fish once levelled against Augustine; for if it is really the case that reading a book about rhetoric won’t help you much with it, then what in the end is the point of Winning Arguments? Fish is well known for his belief (repeated in this book as well) that academic arguments have no point beyond themselves; but surely a popular book such as this is not supposed to function according to that protocol.

Fortunately, Fish’s book is in fact more useful than that (and incidentally, he was wrong about Augustine, who constantly emphasizes the importance of work, not merely prayer, in the mastering of rhetoric). Although his argument is in some danger of itself becoming a self-consuming artifact, eaten by its own insistence on provisionality and the inevitability of ideology, its overall perspective and cogent analyses of contemporary cultural situations from a rhetorical point of view provide a fine and even admirable example of public humanities communication. It should at the least provide a model for more such books by more such scholars.

Social Media, Claims, and Invitations

A while ago I was reading James Crosswhite’s The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. In this book, Crosswhite argues for an understanding of argument and discourse that begins not with the content or logical connections of statements, but rather on the social fact of the argument itself. Before there are arguments, he says, there are arguers, and before they become arguers, they are people; it’s with people in their lived realities that an understanding of argument should begin.

At one point, Crosswhite is thinking about the nature of claims that people make in their daily lives, and states that in many cases those claims simply happen without forming into full-fledged arguments:

Although claims are calls for response, they are not in the first place calls for criticism… If someone says, “Look at how red this apple is!” we look…. Ordinarily, this invitation is enough. We argue when simple invitations and entreaties are not enough — when the conflict between one way of noticing things and another way is too strong and overrides the usual deference we pay to one another. (62-63)

The reason, according to Crosswhite, that we don’t immediately start arguments when someone says something like “Look at how red this apple is!” has to do with our existence as social animals. In order to exist together, we show “really quite remarkable deference…to each other in daily life.” According to Crosswhite, when somebody says “I’m tired,” that person is not asking for an argument, but rather to be treated like someone who is, well, tired. This, he says, is “one of the ways we achieve social solidarity in our understanding of the world.” Rather than arguing at every point, we defer to each other’s experiences in order to complete our own (62).

The distinction Crosswhite is making is between seeing claims as part of social life, and seeing claims as disembodied propositions. This distinction has important implications for how we should properly react to claims. If a claim is simply a disembodied proposition, then the most appropriate response, if any, will be critical. To the claim “This apple is very red,” such a response might be to query the definition of “red” or the degree meant by “very.” One might ask whether the claim has implications for other apples or indeed other objects of various kinds; and one might also ask any number of other critical questions about it. On the other hand, if a claim is part of social life, then the first reaction is to take note of the claimant and to understand their motivation for making the claim. Perhaps they are expressing delight, or perhaps they are being critical. Perhaps they want someone else to verify that they, too, think the apple is very red. Or, perhaps, they simply want to share their perception with us. Only once we have (1) understood the claimant’s motivation should we (2) move on, if we move on, to critical analysis of the claim, keeping in mind that this step is not always and not necessarily called for depending on the social situation.

Crosswhite published this book in 1996, and one can’t help but wonder how he might have thought differently about this particular topic had he published it a decade or so later, in the age of Twitter and Facebook. For one of the most salient features of so-called social media is how argumentative it can be. Contrary to Crosswhite’s statements, social media can be astoundingly non-social; rather than beginning with the reasonable understanding that claims are always made by human beings and rarely for the purpose of inviting argument, a common practice on social media is to treat claims as utterly disembodied and existent for the sole purpose of refutation.

Anyone who has spent time on social media has seen this, I suspect: someone will recount personal experiences and reactions, sharing them with followers and, more broadly, to the users of the platform at large. Often, people in subaltern positions will do so in order to show resistance to oppressive structures and to recount oppressive experiences; often, also, other people will amplify the original posts in order to show solidarity with them. In some cases, people will recount micro-aggressions they experienced at work or on the street, in order to highlight their occurrence and the discomfort they can cause.

Now, according to Crosswhite’s reasoning, these would seem to be non-argumentative claims, albeit with political implications. If, for example, a person is recounting experiences of being harassed, she is not recounting her experiences and reactions in order that her rationality may be questioned. Rather, she is most likely first inviting people to, in Crosswhite’s terms, “share a perception,” in this case, the perception of what it might be like in her place. And yet, almost immediately and entirely predictably, she will begin receiving responses that are not social but abstractly argumentative in nature: demanding that she clarify her terms (but was that really harassment?), modify the scope of her statement (but #NotAllMen are like that), and so on. In other words, responses on social media often begin with step 2, critical analysis, while skipping over step 1, recognizing the motivation of the claimant. Such responses are critical, but not at all social in focus. It is not surprising, therefore, that social media commentary often takes the form, sometimes apt and sometimes not, of fallacy-naming, the most basic and in some ways most facile form of critical discourse.

What such responses amount to is a failure or refusal to acknowledge the social situation or lived reality of a person making a claim; instead, they leap instantly to the not-always-called-for stage of critical analysis of the claim itself as disembodied proposition. That such critical analysis is not always well conducted is not really the problem, either; the problem is that such analysis is not always what is being called for, any more than it would be in the case of a person saying “I’m tired” or “This music is not to my taste.” In innocuous situations like that, uncalled-for critical analysis would most likely come across as odd or annoying. In the kind of situations one often sees on line, however, it can come across as callous and dehumanizing. When, for example, someone is talking about being objectified or subject to harassment or violence — when the treatment of their physical self is precisely the topic at hand — then the move of critically disembodying their claims is more than merely annoying; it is an exacerbation of the exact problem they are describing.

Crosswhite argues, following Levinas and Cavell, that when we make claims, we do not merely state content; rather, we make claims on each other (64). The ease of refusal, of affirmatively rejecting the claims of others on “social” media, suggests that, contrary to Crosswhite’s relatively optimistic vision of two decades ago, we have entered a media environment in which personal, non-argumentative claims are not subject to automatic or remarkable deference, but rather one in which they find great difficulty in being heard, and one in which, rather than focusing on the actual person making the claim, we often inappropriately focus on the claim itself as if it could and should always be abstracted from its claimant and her social context. A follow-up on the rhetoric of reason in the age of social media would seem to be urgently called for, to help us understand and negotiate this oddly dehumanized new reality.

Burke, Identification, and Sherlock

I was recently looking at this presentation from a few years ago by my friend and colleague Siobhan O’Flynn on the transmedia aspects of the BBC’s Sherlock, and naturally it made me start thinking about rhetoric. The following are a few fragmented thoughts on the topic.

I’m a fan of the show (or was, at least in its early seasons) and have been a frequenter of some of the web sites that Dr O’Flynn notes, especially Sherlockology, the show’s outstanding fan site. On that site, among other things, one can see detailed descriptions of the various items that the characters carry and wear, along with information (where available) on how to acquire them for oneself. So, if you’d like to own, say, Sherlock’s magnifier or John’s shoes, the site lets you know where you can find them. It’s geared primarily to a UK audience, but some of the information at least would be usable from anywhere.

Out of curiosity, I checked the listing for the magnifier; sure enough, there it was, and beneath it was Amazon’s usual list, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” Not all but several items on the list (when I checked, anyhow) had something to do with the show: DVD/Blu-Ray sets, Sherlock’s multitool, the Union Jack cushion seen in Sherlock and John’s flat, Sherlock’s flashlight, Sherlock’s pen and notebook. It’s not just small-ticket items, either: Sherlock’s coat, which retails at £1350 (that’s over $2000, US and Canadian), came into demand following the show’s initial broadcast, even though the manufacturer had recently taken it out of production. Clearly, people are willing to spend money, sometimes quite a bit of it, to acquire items like those in the show.

Now, Dr O’Flynn’s presentation focuses on the television and internet, i.e. the non-physical transmedia aspects of the show, and does so superbly. Nevertheless, I think (as a raw novice in transmedia thinking) it is interesting to note these material objects, which, in Henry Jenkins’s terms, surely add to that “performative dimension” which “provides a set of roles and goals which readers can assume as they enact aspects of the story through their everyday life.” Unlike, say, action figures based on superheroes, however, and other items created specifically for these performative reasons, the items in question here were pre-existing. Moleskine notebooks, for example, or Leatherman multitools, or Lamy pens, were all popular high-quality utilitarian items before they became Sherlocked. Insofar as they have become part of a transmedia experience, it seems to me, it is through fan repurposing rather than direct creation or marketing.

(This is also, it seems to me, slightly different from the phenomenon of cosplay, in which one dresses up in the costume of a favourite character from comics, video gaming, film, or television. One could, for example, carry around a version of Sherlock’s pen in part because it is Sherlock’s pen, and yet not be imitating Sherlock’s look otherwise. Additionally, the pen is still a useful daily item, whereas most cosplay items are useful only for performance.)

That is where, it seems to me, that Burke and identification may come in to shed some light on the proceedings. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke famously describes the process of rhetorical identification as an attempt to gain consubstantiality, or, more precisely, to remind oneself of consubstantiality in the face of alienation. In Burke’s terms,

A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so.

Here are the ambiguities of substance. In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.

In this passage and elsewhere, Burke is primarily concerned with people’s identification to other real people. Yet there is no reason why the same process should not be seen to operate with fictional characters; as we know, it often does. Is not the assembly and repurposing of these items a kind of attempt to identify oneself with Sherlock? More, is this process not also an attempt to redefine the physical world, which after all has such items in it, as a place that might also have Sherlock in it?

(These questions saw some vivid illustration a few years ago, following the last episode of the second series, “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Sherlock apparently died and the on-line world within the show’s frame became engaged in a fierce debate over his reputation, with some background characters identifying themselves as believing in Sherlock and others vehemently denouncing them.)

Burke imagines human beings as perpetually both together and apart. We are aware of our oneness but unable fully to achieve or act upon it; hence our need for communities, societies, and persuasive communication, at the bottom of which is the rhetorical act of identification. He was imagining this in the wake of the Second World War, during the childhood of modern communications technology and before the innovations that made transmedia possible, specifically the internet.

Of course, the internet is often said to be deeply interconnective; its boosters sometimes seem to proclaim it as the solution to the alienation that Burke was talking about. It’s interesting, and often puzzling, to see how these ideas and phenomena play themselves out in material culture, and in the modern world.