CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics

The tension between more “objective” knowing and more “subjective” knowing has often followed me around. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of filter bubbles, as this post explores, but I think it also has more general connections, including to the task of comparative rhetoric from the readings.

Before diving into the readings, though, I wanted to start a bit where I generally come from: essentially, Kant and the question of metaphysics. With Kant, I’m always preoccupied with his argument that most knowledge is “synthetic” and therefore arrived at through experience, and furthermore, we experience things as phenomena through the “synthetic a priori”of our experience, not as the noumena of the “thing-in-itself.” I think this basic framework–that we never experience “Reality” except in a subjective sense–is productive beyond Kant, as one can layer up more lenses between the thing-in-itself and our experience of it. Language, culture, our prior experiences, cognitive biases, our senses, etc., color our perception, making the sort of transcendental knowledge of the Rationalists impossible. As Nietzsche put it, in Kaufmann’s translation, there is no “immaculate perception.”

And as someone who is trying to think about the world and “produce knowledge” (though the phrase knowledge production has always felt off to me), I am constantly faced with the ethics of knowledge. A certain hubris can come from a transcendent view of knowledge, as well as a potential violence. Even if one isn’t actually trying to produce a totalizing model for stuff or a transcendent theory, the deductive and inductive dance of explaining and knowing in most Western models still has a certain tendency to want to stretch beyond individual contexts.

And I think that’s where the readings come in: trying to find ways to ethically and responsibly theorize across different contexts, particularly different cultural and rhetorical ones.

LuMing Mao’s “Thinking Beyond Aristotle” examines comparative rhetoric and how looking at usages and nonusages can help us bridge contexts more effectively than asking what something is. Drawing from Edward Schiappa, Mao describes that when someone is trying to define something, they could be asking for “facts of essence” or “facts of usage,” though we often ignore this distinction. While facts of essence are looking at what something is in more ontological sense, usage refers more to how something gets used in a particular context.

Mao argues that facts of usage should guide comparative rhetoric, arguing, “For comparative rhetoricians, the central question to ask then is not ‘What is rhetoric in/for these other cultures?’ but ‘What does the other do in/with rhetoric, and how does the other do it'” (450). Moreover, this work should also look for “nonusages,” which are “behaviors or experiences” ignored by rhetorical study (449). As such, when comparing rhetoric from different contexts, one should pay particular attention to the social, historical, linguistic, and cultural ecology that contextualize rhetorical practices, even as the practices change across time and space. A particular practice or idea, the Dao in his example, may change usages as it changes contexts, presenting a “thicker” and more dynamic practice and concept. If I may coin a term, one is always following practice-concepts and not concepts in themselves.

With Mary Garrett’s “Tied to a Tree” I got a more general reminder about the role of subjectivity. Noting the central role that the “interpreter” has in interpretive work, she argues that scholars doing this work must be sensitive to their experience, as it shapes their subjectivity. In particular, I found her focus on experience most helpful. As she puts it, “self-reflexivity about shared elements of identity should be founded on similarity or dissimilarity of experience rather than on an identity category (in this case gender)” (249). Being sensitive to different subject positions isn’t often enough, as a breadth of variety may exist among those different positions. Garrett discusses other possible differences, but the role of experience seems particularly valuable as it keeps interpretation grounded in the subjective, as an identity category could still be abstracted.

Last, Scott Stroud looks at a pragmatic approach to comparative rhetoric. In particular, he also hits upon a more contextual and instrumental approach to rhetoric, like Mao, and like Garrett, he also discusses the role of the researcher’s individual approach, framing it in terms of “orientation.” Stroud argues that most comparative rhetoric has tended to be more “descriptive,” trying to describe something as it is (largely in a singular sense). He argues that comparative rhetoric should also include a “constructive” or “reconstructive” approach, essentially trying to “change some aspect of the world (including us)” and not just “accurately describe it” (360).  As I read this, constructive or reconstructive work would involve using other rhetorics to challenge current approaches, asking questions like, “How might Daoism challenge the tradition of topoi?”

Collectively, I feel a bit better about comparative rhetoric after this set of readings, but I still think that questions remain, particularly where limitations may take place–who can’t do certain work or how certain contexts may shape this work. But I think this is a case-by-case basis.

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