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On Meta-Talon today, please enjoy the full text of the presentation given by Carl Peters at the Modern Languages Association convention in New York City on January 7, 2018. This talk, “Argument is to me the air I breathe,” responds to the question posed in the MLA convention session Rhetoric in Post-Factual Times: how to perform textual analysis in a time when facts are no longer the marker of good argumentation. Peters’s talk is also related to his work on Stein; Peters is recently the author of Studies in Description: Reading Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.
“Argument is to me the air I breathe”1
The problem in an age of mass media, advertisement for consumer goods, the way news is used, the need to control news and package news, is that no one is innocent of using facts to claim truth.
Does the form of a work determine the analysis?
“You are the task. No pupil far and wide.”2
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”—Werner Heisenberg
In this case Heisenberg is expressing a “radical doubt” about the ‘objectivity’ of scientific discourse. One can have radical doubt about objectivity and the reasoning that goes into the objectifying of nature through principles or theory, but that would not mean that exposing nature to our method is only about our method, because there may be other “methods” that produce different ways to look at “nature.” That’s what ‘science’ is testing: the methods against bias.3
“After a fight tooth-and-nail for forty years, Cézanne did succeed in knowing an apple, fully; [that] was all he achieved. It seems little, and he died embittered. But it is the first step that counts, and Cézanne’s apple is a great deal, more than Plato’s Idea.”4
Radical doubt is the heart of creative process, which includes doubt about how to see the present (discovering the present). Radical doubt is questioning the very root of a problem and that the dichotomies or oppositions may not be really the problem. Radical doubt can be described as a method of reasoning that questions the very concept of reason. I think Camus and Kafka are good examples.
The rational-progressive bias in the Enlightenment which made ‘reason’ the god of historical progress becomes the excuse for injustice and domination: “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” It’s useless to question the validity of Trump and a president’s violence if one doesn’t have a radical doubt about the electoral process itself and the systemic violence in the culture. How is it that the violence remains uncanny and not visible?
Here’s a “fact.” There are more African-Americans or Hispanics in prison now than there were slaves in the Civil War and more than ever were in Stalin’s gulags. Is that a fact that counts? Does counting prove anything? “Post-fact” means that deep down no one would want to know the facts. “In a world which is really topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.”5
“Since the world drives to a delirious state of things, we must drive to a delirious point of view.”6 Since the world is on a delusional course, we must adopt an anti-delusional standpoint towards the world. And since the world is what you imagine it to be.
Delirium as a standpoint is fine in literature and art because that is formative, a way of seeing, but we risk falling apart, and then ‘radical doubt’ doesn’t work. At some point there can be no “alibi of being”; one has to engage the language and discourse of being.
Meursault in The Stranger experiences “radical doubt” and more or less sees himself outside of the ‘alien state of being’ that he is in. In my thinking radical doubt is the ab-surd. The use of it for example in Pascal also influenced Sartre. For me it is more an aesthetic – the art work that is genuine goes to the heart of the artist’s own work and is both experiencing and communicating ‘radical doubt.’ It’s both a mode of understanding and a mode of communicating through expression, figuration, which ‘performs’ the doubt. It doesn’t have to explain itself beyond its expression. I think The Stranger is the book that makes it work.
Kafka’s Gregor experiences it too, but he doesn’t know it; Kafka the writer/author knows it, and Gregor is not conscious of it until later in the story, when the sight of the picture on the wall gets to him. The curtains, the apple, the maid, the window, and his sister are “figurations” that carry the consciousness in the story, which illuminates the nature of the underlying ‘radical doubt’ toward everything outside of Gregor. That explains our empathy about and toward the beetle, and our own “beetleness” comes alive, and that hurts. The art object constructs the observer.
How does one do textual analysis in a post-factual age? One finds a place where people are prepared to listen and discuss and stop using their “devices” or trusting their devices. That’s one place to start.7 Language is never more than an extension of reality, but more – a surplus of reality.
Languages have become, in their current, populist, digitally driven minimalization, the twitters and tweets of the twenty-five-words-or-less vernacular. While some have argued that this is the end of public discourse as we know it, I would argue, on the contrary, that the (building) stones of the polis have been shattered and strewn about in a world that is rapidly becoming transnational.
We find ourselves settling for a smaller world when we give in to the qualities encouraged by rationalization, when communication is abstracted and mediated through digital communication technologies. When this happens, we quantify communication – the number of likes, re-blogs, retweets, etc. becomes an indicator of “value”: I want to say …
We only discover what we feel, mean, and want to say in the process of writing – an open-ended process for the writer who assembles – I wanted to say – “Expository writing needs to be balanced by non-expository writing.”
I want to say
A society that produces an abundance of communications and information also produces mass-minded people who lack critical skills, and it reduces opportunities for individuals like us to find the time to learn how to engage in meaningful communication and personal expression. For better or worse we live in an age of technology and mass communications. Text messaging and email are just two examples of how we develop shortcuts to communicate and to relate to others. We cannot live by text messaging alone.
We always exaggerate technology, and Paul Virilio (and how many others) show how it has finally had an effect on the psyche of identification with the victimizer-apparatus: the desire to predict and forecast behaviour in a consumer-driven market where facts are commodities and can be bought and sold and exchanged and substituted for people who are surplus commodities.
I’m not actually sure what “the marker of good argumentation” means. Does “the marker” refer to the standard, or to the basis, or merely to an indication of good argumentation? Use of the definite article suggests a more sweeping use than indication. In non-scientific, human-centered discourse, I think ‘a standard’ or ‘a basis’ – which is compatible with saying ‘an indispensable basis or standard’ – would be better, as non-scientific discourse includes both statements of fact and of value.
What this false news business is all about, aside from the idea that facts are neutral, is how to define propaganda. Value statements tend to be much harder to justify. Sophists and manipulative arguers who want to play fast and loose with the facts would be better advised to offer alternative value statements than alternative facts.9
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” The nature of nature is also human nature and the method of questioning does not rule out that there are matters we can’t control with our ‘methods’ of inquiry.10
1 Gertrude Stein.
3 Radical doubt; improvisation.
4 D.H. Lawrence.
5 Guy Debord.
6 Jean Baudrillard.
7 My lectures are what I call verbal-dialogical interventions or improvisations (see the film Derrida) which are what Russians like Bakhtin do and what I do, constructing a listening addressee. The dialectical part comes in another way. This is discussed in Bakhtin’s way of thinking in his Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, but the “dialectic” aspect is something else (closer to image-thought) – what I call radical contextual-conceptualist readings of the relationship of author-in-the-work to the work as experience. I think if you look at Bakhtin’s Speech Genres and Other Essays you will see a difference. My notion of improvisation, which is Derrida’s, is closer to what Bakhtin calls the dialogic. (Derrida practices it his way.)
The ‘dialogic’ in Bakhtin is the speech in the genres and bodies that evolve with every writer who enters the world of language and image, intended to counter the dominant delivery system (or systems) of the authorities at the gate; Bakhtin’s is the unfinished speech of other forms of language and figuration that only the artist who works in the image of language, not just deconstruction of language, can do. Anyone who encounters the authentic work of art produces what Marcel Duchamp called the personal art coefficient – “an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed” – a difference (or differences) the artist nor reader-viewer are fully aware of, “at least on the aesthetic plane,” even though it is the reader, as Duchamp asserts, who “makes all the difference in the long run.” Bakhtin’s thought is paradigmatic-contextual thinking or a type of phenomenology that answers to the alibi of being. This idea of the ‘alibi of being’ is in his essays in Art and Answerability and Speech Genres and other Essays.
In Bakhtin it’s not so much ‘authorities at the gate,’ because for him there is no gate, and he bypasses all authorities as if they are not there; but he’s interested in how humans receive, learn, and recreate speech, the image of speech in writing, the visual nature of speech – but we also lose it and we fall into what I call frozen speech. Personally I marvel that we have language at all … Where did it come from? That is the most amazing aspect of human life; but we keep speaking against “the alibi of being” and know what it is we are saying.
“At some point there can be no ‘alibi of being,’ one has to engage the language and discourse of being.” See i-Minds by Mari K. Swingle – “Cell phones, computers, and other devices are now completely embedded in global culture. Engaging and entertaining yet scientifically rigorous, i-Minds demonstrates how constant connectivity is rapidly changing our brains, what the dangers are, and what positive steps we can all take to embrace new technology while protecting our well-being and steering our future in a much more human direction.” Paul Virilio in Art and Fear writes, “At the end of the millennium, what abstraction once tried to pull off is in fact being accomplished before our very eyes: the end of REPRESENTATIVE art and the substitution of a counter-culture, of a PRESENTATIVE art. A situation that reinforces the dreadful decline of representative democracy in favour of a democracy based on the rule of opinion, in anticipation of the imminent arrival of virtual democracy, some kind of ‘direct democracy’ or, more precisely, a presentative multi-media democracy based on automatic polling” (19).
It’s a form of fascism that we are most comfortable with – that everything we do we believe is made for us and that everyone will believe that everyone thinks like us. We forget everything as soon as it happens, which is why when they accuse Trump of “lying” (which he does), they forget it is not normal lying but that he is only doing what comes naturally to him and to the people who are like him. This is a form of collective, mechanical, technological narcissism, or in its worse forms “malignant narcissism,” which keeps us talking while we forget everything that happens to us that might affect other people. The psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall calls these people “normopaths.”
8 Charles Bernstein.
9 Truth value is not to be confused with value statement, which expresses a value, as opposed to an empirical statement, which expresses an observation or extrapolation thereof.
10 “Twin Peaks: The Return. Let’s call it an 18-hour movie (David Lynch does), or endless [feels like], in which reality, such as it is, finally caught up with whatever the fuck Lynch and partner Mark Frost [Trump & Goebbels-Bannon] started channeling 25 years ago. Drenched in sadness [“sad”] and displacement [dreamers] and still haunting viewers weeks after it wrapped up [polled], nothing captured the queasy [that’s the right word], unknown currents of its time like this thing” (Emphasis added; Adrian Mack in the Georgia Straight, December 21–28, 2017, page 35). Logos, Pathos, Ethos – Kairos – (a propitious moment for decision or action) – we need distance (as with the work of art) – a distance that invites depth and leads toward greater decency, per Jeff Flake’s retirement speech. Who wrote it? Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman – Ginsberg wrote it! Consider Camus’s responses in “The Artist and His Time” (in The Myth of Sisyphus). Chomsky too. “And if we are not artists in our language first of all, what sort of artists are we” (Camus in The Artist and His Times, 150). My own way of interpreting the meaning of the ‘situation’ of Kairos is close to “the contemporaneity of the non-contemporary,” as Ernst Bloch puts it; it is the un-past coming to roost in the contemporary. That is the way the moderns thought about it, and the post-moderns try to eliminate it. I also think that language and writing require an ‘image of writing’ in which one tries to understand the situation of writing.