In Thomas Cromwell’s time, rhetoric felt itself to be a new tool that could be waged against those in power and those subservient to it. William Tyndale’s newest translation invited those who understood the vernacular to join in on interpretation, which I suppose is another word for rhetoric, since it lays a claim to subjectivity based upon observation. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall invites us to imagine, with Cromwell, a Bible that bears no mention of Limbo or Purgatory and — to the benefit of all humankind — it is an invitation we can carry out today. Of course, the centuries of theological investigation does contain within itself, along with the philosophy that arose from it, a kind of rhetoric. But in the beginning of the end for the Holy Roman Empire, another kind of rhetoric emerged. One that we still debate, thankfully and regretfully, to this day.
When I went to graduate school in the United States, most every other student in the classes I took claimed they were interested in rhetoric. More than at any other time, this to me signaled the death of something or other when it came to literary theory and the English Master of Arts. In the 20th century, the country had seen its share, from the New Criticism all the way through Reader Response and to a kind of Neo-Pragmatism, of literary theory that represented every form and flavor of reader. And these readers could approach any text and “lemon squeeze” it according to a rubric they found fitting. But here, in this classroom, I could see in the wishes of my colleagues the desire to speak, or write, and be heard, simply because they were alive. In those early classes, I had taken to saying I was interested in “Happiness Studies,” because it was the closest field I could find that grappled with the big questions of what it means to live a good life? I think I was laughed at outside of our sessions. With rhetoric, everyone seemed to be writing, reams and reams of paper, and nobody was reading.
The astute readers here might find, already in the words I have written, a loophole. Is this essay also a contribution to the field of rhetoric? Point taken. If we expand the limits of what rhetoric is designed to do, we may like to start here by asking ourselves at what point rhetoric stops being itself and becomes something else? For instance, what is the difference between rhetoric and literature? Could we claim that Toni Morrison had no thesis in mind as she wrote her novels? Hardly. Yet there clearly is a difference between something like The Bluest Eye and an advertisement for Coca-Cola. In literature and art, the ambiguity of the message is designed to allow multiple readers, across generations, to approach its construction in ways that cater to cultural shifts we may never fathom. Could Melville have predicted that we might once again destroy the whale, not with explicit hunting with harpoons, but with the acidification of everything it swims in? Would Jane Austen or Balzac have been surprised to find that, after hundreds of years, we would return to a world where marriage and inheritance matter more than love or romance? I will come back to the purpose of art in the age of rhetoric, but it seems important to mention that, yes, all can be rhetoric, but sometimes rhetoric exists in a masquerade for the purpose of assisting the reader, not the writer.
We might say that advertisement is rhetoric par excellence, or, if you take a negative view of commercials, (pardon my French) the rock fucking bottom. Advertisements feel like a negative space, an antimatter, more so in our generation than in any other, for the reason that we have financial models and institutions that seem so far past what advertisements were designed to do that they have become, as one erudite writer put it, a “tax on our perception.” The rhetoric of advertisements is not just why smoke, it is “why smoke Lucky Strike” as Don Draper put it. It means that rhetoric must pull double duty and come up with the most inane arguments for purchasing a product. Some of these promise that your life before the birth of this product they are selling was gray and bare, but now with a new Subaru vehicle, you can claim to be a dog lover, as well as travel to all the state parks in the United States with the highest safety rating. You can be the rugged adventurer you always dreamed of being.
The reason I bring up rhetoric in advertising is I believe that it immediately does plenty of work in describing the poor aspects of rhetoric without moving the ink and quill one inch more. We used to have a whole strategy for avoiding advertising in the way of “channel surfing.” Now we pay more money to keep it out of our lives. But there will come a time when we realize that our outcomes are predicated on whether the rhetoric argues in our favor or in someone else’s. In times of plenty, this is hardly noticeable. But in times of want, such as ours, suddenly rhetoric takes on not only a kind of heavenly aura, so too does it simultaneously occupy the other kind, the profane.
I believe that adulthood is bewildering. As a child, I might have used the word “frustrating” to describe what it was like to be involved in the world without any agency. That still holds true as an adult, but it is made somewhat worse by being less ignorant. Exacerbating this bewilderment is the rapid changing of society in the doubled lifespan of an adult compared to the past. Yuval Noah Harrari spends a great deal of time discussing what this means in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. One good example might be that, in the 1990s, every child was told to learn programming, as it would be the language that would matter as we embarked on a new century. Now, artificial intelligence like GPT-3 are putting that advice into question 30 years later. In a similar way to language translation or paralegals, artificial intelligence is rotting away professions from the inside by promising to take that introductory labor from white collar positions. The rhetoric surrounding what a child should learn in school now is harrowing. How can we guarantee a future for our child? Engineering seems a safe bet until you consider, for example, the idea that petroleum engineering is not exactly the largest expanding industry, and hopefully will in fact dwindle over the next twenty years.
Rhetoric exists, therefore, in a context. 100 years ago, it was normal behavior to claim that measuring skull size indicated accurately the intelligence of the owner of that head. 100 years ago, Freudian explanations were in vogue.
In the time of Henry VIII, rhetoric was not only on the rise, but it became unspeakably important. With the vacuum left by the Church, and with Tyndale’s translation, the rise of absolutism and the beginnings of the nation-state, there was plenty to argue for. That energy reigns today, but with the downside that rhetoric exists as its own self-replicating virus. Watch any 24-hour news coverage and attention is drawn to the most insipid subjects in order for rhetoric to be fed.
The easiest example to point to over the past year is in regards to essential workers and the minimum wage. Those advertisements we all received thanking essential workers turned out to be hot air when, with a new president, and a majority democratic Congress, a policy to raise the minimum wage was not passed. Rhetoric claimed that it cared about the lives of black Americans, but when it came time to “put their money where their mouth was” quite literally, it turned its back on the American people. Many black Americans rely on the minimum wage, yet to not receive that financial leverage to make their lives better was a moment of intense mental devastation for me. What was the point, I thought, of all this talk, when we could not even give benefits to the poor with a democratic majority? This was during a global health crisis, a pandemic, of the kind not seen in 100 years. If not now, when?
And Donald Trump. What, rhetorically, in 2016, was he advocating for? To be unsure, and still be elected president, is the bell tolling for rhetoric in ways plenty others have written extensively about.
This is the environment of rhetoric as it stands today. In order for rhetoric to stand on its own, and turn away from the greasy fingers of that second definition of “style over substance,” there has to be a foundation of trust between the two arguing parties. It is very difficult to imagine that taking place today.
In the past couple of weeks, and in the weeks ahead, I will be interviewing for teaching jobs. These to me seem like a farcical endeavor. In the span of forty-five minutes, I am expected to discuss why I might be an excellent candidate for teaching. This interview comes into an educational context that most people would suggest is totally broken. Lacking resources, lacking proper attention to each student in classes higher than thirty, with each teacher working under a caseload of 180 students or more. The United States loves stories like Ron Clark, stories like Freedom Writers, because it allows them to avoid answering the question of why the conflict exists in the first place. What rhetoric exists, I wonder, that could possibly convince an administrator that one teacher may make so dramatic a difference as to negate poverty, hunger, and social mobility?
In these moments, it is easy to see how rhetoric falls far short. Teachers lecture students on rhetorical strategies like “ethos, pathos, and logos,” hardly realizing that, in giving the tools to use in their writing, they also provide the means for a larger skepticism. If all is in fact rhetoric, what is genuine? Steven Pinker is coming out with his new book in the fall, Rationality, which I am excited to read. Yet I carry with me a twinge of doubt that his thesis will work in all places. The world that we live in, the world of every day citizenry, does not live in a rational one. It may seem obvious to Ivy League schools, and professors like Steven Pinker, that rationalism is the only path to creating an egalitarian society. But it is a chicken and egg problem. Public schools in my state of Texas build enormous football stadiums, sometimes with poor foundations, and commit to the further brain damage of of our players, which is as close to the opposite of a goal of education as we could ever find, not because it desires to destroy its children, but because it makes money. The poor and the rich do not live in the same worlds, nor do they agree to the same rhetorical standards. Rhetoric, even when coming from the best living non-fiction writers today, like Steven Pinker, cannot reconcile the living conditions we find ourselves in.
As I see it, rhetoric is a poor supplement for actual love and kindness. Generosity in payment, attention to our children, is an argument so obvious to our species that it transcends typical debate and becomes something like a genetic axiom. What Ben Shapiro gains for advocating against minimum wage, I will never understand. On a similar plane, why would we not desire to take care of the Earth we were born on, regardless if climate change existed or not? What rhetoric exists to turn on single mothers? Far more powerful than rhetoric is the realization that we know so little of what it is like to live inside the heads of those around us. We are so profoundly and ideologically centered into our own Self that, we must admit, that the best rhetoric is of the kind that starts with the most basic of life experiences. Alleviate suffering. Eliminate pain.
In conclusion, the power of art and literature under these conditions is the best rhetoric. As Jesus gave parables, and so do our narratives from religions bring about profound insight, so too must our literature today. If we are committed, since Henry VIII, to the realm of secular rhetoric, to subjective experience, we had better come to terms with creativity in the face of inevitable death. Of the degeneration of our bodies. Of those fundamental pains that come from loving and hating, which literature discusses so well. Sure, call these works simply another form of rhetoric. In these works is something categorically different than advertisement: Indifference. Melville cared little for how I would perceive his novel. He wanted to discover a way to interpret the world for himself. And my interpretation cannot be confirmed by him to be a “correct” one. He is dead, after all. In that way, Melville’s work is literature because he trusts me to find a reading of my own. Unlike advertising, which is painfully obvious in its thesis, Melville’s book, especially Melville’s, is democratic in its construction.
I am weary of rhetoric. The purpose of it, as I go further into adulthood, eludes me.