Archive for the 'Rhetoric' Category

Book Review: Men and Manners: Essays, Advice and Considerations by David Coggins

men and mannersI came across David Coggins when I happened to see his new book called called Men and Style: Essays, Interviews and Considerations. A quick search pointed me to a few of his articles in various journals, magazines and websites. I wanted to take a little break from menswear books, and a book about manners by someone who looked like a traditionalist seemed interesting. The other thing that drew me to the book was Coggins’s prose style. He favours short and straightforward sentences and brief texts that include anecdotes and interviews. In other words, it’s light and pleasant reading. I bought the ebook, which I now regret, because the physical book looks very nice. Perhaps I will get a physical copy of his book on style a bit later.

Men and Manners is divided into eight sections, only one of which concerns dressing up. It has advice on very basic things from how to behave during public occasions to suggestions for more intimate situations. Advice on how to tip, for example, is useful for those of us who live in countries where we don’t really tip. How to attend and leave parties I found useful, because sometimes slightly less formal public occasions can be difficult to negotiate. Reminders to keep plans are welcomed by anyone who finds it annoying when people cancel plans at the last minute. The English teacher in me was glad to see a chapter on punctuation. And it’s always good to hear someone saying that looking at your phone in company is distracting. Coggins’s tone is not too normative on this last point, and he appeals to friendship instead:

When we’re together, let’s make it count. Bring your good material, open that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving, ask questions and, since you’ve gone through all that, for goodness’ sake, man, pay attention!

Despite what I said earlier, the bits about dress were the ones that I was drawn to when I started reading. Coggins has a take on formality that somewhat echoes what Bruce Boyer has said before. It involves the strange idea that dressing in a more casual manner makes you more authentic. Coggins writes:

There’s been a proliferation of the unwelcome view that if you dress in a sloppy way then you are somehow more authentic. This exists the closer you get to Silicon Valley and is meant to convey that you have more important matters to think about than dressing well. All it implies, in fact, is that you are authentically sloppy. Does not having good table manners make you more authentic? Does not bathing make you most authentic of all? Of course not.

This authenticity could be formulated in another way. It’s actually very calculated. People dress down to identify with a certain class of people and to indicate their preferred peer group. Casual clothing is thus a kind of uniform, perhaps even more so than formal dress. People who dress casually like to say that they don’t really think about clothes, but they usually do. Sometimes they think about them more than people who wear suits. Suits are easy and require little thought once you have them and know how to wear them. Finding the right band T-shirt for the right occasion is much harder and overdressing or underdressing becomes quite complicated when the line between the two is blurry.

Because Coggins is a professional writer who wears many hats, he likes to think about dress and manners in terms of editing. By way of an analogy, he maintains that the signs of a well-edited mind show in our outward appearance and actions. Like I said, the book is light reading, but it did teach me a lot about writing. Reading the book, I was horrified by my previous reviews on this blog, and a few other texts as well. Convoluted sentences, like clothing and accessories, can seem garish and peacocky. After reading Men and Manners, I will try harder to edit myself in the hope that in trying harder, my writing on the blog will look more like an effortless exercise in casual (but not too casual) thought.

Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude  that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.

Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:

The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.

In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.

What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.

The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.

However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:

Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.

What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.

Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.

In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.

Passion’s Trumping of Reason

Every time I make a political comment online, it feels like a mistake. Stupidly raging against faceless mechanisms of power and the people who manage them may be satisfying for a few minutes, but afterwards you feel bad and that resentment slowly builds and grows into chronic angst. On the Internet, no one can hear you scream. And nobody really cares anyway. There are a few people who make change happen online as well, but mostly the Internet is just a playground for bullies whose mission in life is to make others feel bad.

Hulk_aQUINASI prefer comics and heavy metal to politics. You very often learn much more from them than from professional politicians or political reporting. They have simple moral lessons that can help you in all sorts of ways. They are rarely like the over-emotional and manipulative news stories we are subjected to these days. There really is very little in the news for someone who wants an objective version of current events with which they could assess the political situation of their country. You are better off with the funny papers. Luckily, we also have a fairly good library at home filled with books that can do the job.

With the awful state of the emotional press and the subconscious ways in which I find myself imitating it, I began to think about Thomas Aquinas. Christopher Tilmouth describes Aquinas’ thinking about the passions, reason and will in his book Passion’s Triumph Over Reason very well:

Reason need only present what it deems to be good directly to the imagination as pleasant, and what it deems to be evil as painful. By thus influencing the ‘forms’ of the imagination, the very basis of the sensitive appetite, it can redirect the latter to produce passions which favour reason and the will’s own rational courses. […] One especially important manifestation of this mechanism is man’s ability to set one kind of sensitive passion alongside or against another as the will dictates. According to Aquinas, man has within him ‘not only a bent towards what is beneficial and away from what is harmful’ — this is the realm of the sensitive appetite’s ‘concupiscible’ passions — but also a power of ‘resistance to contrary and destructive forces’ which ‘block’ his aspirations or otherwise ‘menace’ him — this, the province of his ‘irascible’ passions. The irascibles, especially when driven on by the will, may act as ‘champions and defenders’ or the concupiscibles, attacking those ‘obstacles’ and ‘threats’ which stand between man and his desires; but equally irascible passions may be invoked by the will specifically to counteract the sensitive appetite’s initial, concupiscible inclinations, and even to make the soul ‘submit to pain’ when reason judges this the right thing to do.

Hulk_1_coverIn Aquinas’ famous conception of the mind, at least according to Tilmouth, emotions, the will and reason come together to form a web of interaction where we have some form of control of all the faculties relationally. If someone tells you they cannot help the way they feel, you can point to Aquinas. You actually can help the way you feel and make yourself do things accordingly — unless, of course, there is something pathological going on. That is not to say Aquinas got everything right, but to note that you are in charge of your emotions even, and perhaps especially, when you decide to give them power over your rational faculty.

Why is this, then, relevant to political reporting or anything else for that matter? The reporters’ job today is to serve up feelings for readers. Those of us who are into the arts gaze in wonder at their lamentable offerings. Anyone can get a more meaningful emotional experience from reading the Hulk or listening to a Cannibal Corpse song, I promise. Even if you don’t like them you will see and hear something you have never seen or heard before. Because of this, you will feel things you have not felt before and you will have to cope with those feelings using something like the mechanisms outlined by Aquinas. Experiencing art, in this sense, is like going to the gym. Your emotional gains will help you cope with difficulties in your life. They also help you to call bullshit when you need to and, finally, to shut up when it is wise to do so.

Ferrigno_as_HulkDoes this mean I support the notion that art has an instrumental use only and without it art would be just pretty figures and ornaments? Yes and no. Dogmatic approaches to something so central to all of us sound ridiculous. Tilmouth can tell you that a lot happened after Aquinas: Hume and the sentimentalists showed that feelings and moods affect everything we do, Kant tried to systematize how this happens, and so on. If someone accuses me of thinking about art only in terms of instrumental value, I can point to that tradition. Everything we do and everything we sense around us is informed by and filtered through our emotional makeup. If poets and artists are able to influence that in profound ways, they can control the ways the world shows itself to us. That is instrumentality, but it is very different from what is typically referred to as instrumentality. It is one thing to use art to cope with your emotions and the surrounding world, but when you realize you are really coping with how you are in the world and that this howness just is you, things take a more serious turn.

The Stagnated Rhetoric of Political Extremism

m_90621Helsingin Sanomat published an odd story about a Finnish neonazi group this Sunday. Apparently, the reporters infiltrated an online forum where members, several whom were doxxed and had their names printed in Finland’s largest newspaper, discussed the group’s planned propaganda campaigns. The London Review of Books published Slavoj Zizek’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo attacks where he concludes that “we have to abandon the idea that there is something emancipatory in extreme experiences, that they enable us to open our eyes to the ultimate truth of a situation.” He calls this perhaps the “the most depressive lesson of terror.” Tariq Ali has been promoting his new book The Extreme Centre: A Warning where he seems to go Russell Brand on readers who have become totally apathetic with politics. Prince Charles expressed his concerns about the radicalization of young people on the BBC.

Warnings about political extremism have become a tool for established politicians and media personalities to promote their stale ways of thinking and to maintain their hold on power. An unthinking person might jump to the conclusion that to refuse to participate in this circus is a suggestion to join an extremist group, but this would be missing the point. Politicians have recruited radicalism and extremism to serve their own ends. Anyone who embraces extremism, it seems, will only be a useful idiot to those already in power. The discourse has been appropriated into the system and resistance seems futile. What, then, is to be done when the possibility of a revolutionary vanguard has been pre-emptively neutered by the clammy hands that guide the media?

Perhaps the first thing we could do is to recognize the stagnated rhetoric of political extremism and the even more foul-smelling use of the rhetoric of extremism by those already in power. Politicians who claim to be the only bulwark of reasonableness between us and extremism are not there to keep us safe and spotless. Their job is to get into office and their rhetoric does not essentially differ from the propaganda of extremist groups. Extremist groups, on the other hand, are hardly an option for most people who like to think themselves sane.

We should remember that great old William James quote: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” We should recognize that what is being presented to us instead of thinking are thinky toys© which we are then expected to play with, preferably in the privacy of our own heads. Their use in journalism and the media to sell papers and books should be made more obvious to everyone. Eventually, the media might do it all by itself just by producing more lazy journalism and spouting tired rhetoric as news. If the ruse becomes grotesquely obvious, people will notice, get bored with them and finally resist them. That’s a big “if”, but where there is banality, there is hope.

Stephen Toulmin’s Rules

Sometimes one comes across a book that seems to reveal rules that previously seemed indiscoverable. Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) was one of those books for me. I had previously read a (sadly) lesser-known Cambridge philosopher called John Wisdom and grown very fond of his Paradox and Discovery (1965) and Proof and Explanation (1991), and upon reading that Toulmin was a former student of his it was clear that his book, a legend in its own right, should be on my reading list. Even before going through it, however, I came across the famous Toulmin-model of argument. The simplicity and flexibility of the model was quite simply astonishing. It really is a thing of beauty, never mind the fact that the book is not strictly about this single model. Here it is:

It looks way too simple to be a powerful tool of analysis, but there is no denying that it goes a long way in any argumentative affair. (D) stands for data or datum; the horizontal line, the inference, leads us to (C), a claim that is put forth by using the argument; (Q) stands for qualifier, it might be a word like “probably” or “presumably”, but it can also be something more elaborate; (R) means rebuttal and it is characterized by the word “unless”, ie. it explains why the contingency expressed in the qualifier might come in handy; the warrant (W) supports the inference and it explains why it is possible, or warranted, to make the inference. Warrants, in turn, can be backed up (B for backing) with further arguments when, for instance, someone challenges the acceptability of a given warrant. That, in turn, can develop into a whole new discussion that needs new arguments. The model can therefore branch out in multiples and be used again to describe what goes on under (B). It’s scalable in this sense.

The model is so simple that one can gain a lot just by learning its vocabulary. These are pretty much everyday words: warrant, claim, data, qualifier, etc. Therefore, there is little need to screw around with fancy terminology on this level. Just picking up stuff in the papers or daily conversations and naming the constituent parts of argument one finds in them can help one to make a habit of picking apart simple, everyday argumentation. Most arguments come to us unlabelled, and thankfully so, and most are not constructed carefully enough to have backings for their warrants or qualifiers or much else, but in order to be argumentative they have to have at least a claim.

One can speak of argumentative rigor only after a claim has been made. After that, one can ask for instance: “What do you have to go on and what warrants your inference?” Assuming you are on friendly terms with your interlocutor and don’t get punched in the face for asking that, this questioning will lead you to think the matter through with more precision and, who knows, even construct a more solid argument to support the claim through constructive criticism. In any case, the model is one of those things that will have a lasting effect on your thinking when you get it.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Quick Summary of Analogy, Metaphor, and Allegory

There has been some really great work done on metaphor and similar figures in cognitive theory and related fields recently. I don’t have enough knowledge of this stuff to critique it, but it seems like lots of it is directed at trying to figure out the way brains manipulate concepts, or elements similar to postulated conceptual units, and that neglects a whole bunch of philosophical questions many people are still struggling with. I do not know about brains, nor do I know what concepts qua brain excretions would be like unless they are simply electrical bursts connected by and shot through synaptic nerves, but even if it is the case that the patterns created by the dance of electricity and neurotransmitters direct our nerves and correspond to the use of language — a simplistic idea, surely — the brain is so flexible an organ that it would be a great surprise if we would ever be able to map out consciousness against language using this paradigm. Then again, what do I know. It might be the case that it is merely our philosophical notions that need adjusting.

I’m not really that interested in all that stuff. Or rather, I’m more interested in what we actually do with languages, because that is the way we communicate and make our common world. Sure, there are other things as well, but what else comes even close to their broadness and precision as forms of expression? Interpretive dance? Mathematics? Both interpretive dance and mathematics are great (especially mathematics like the one that makes it possible for me to be writing this right now), but they come in second to Latin, Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, German, English, French, and the like. Furthermore, you can train your thinking through your knowledge of languages, so knowledge of the use of these languages and others like them is not simply a case of translating innate ideas into the media of language. That’s where analytical treatment of languages, grammar, becomes important. And not only the sort of grammar we all know from school (parts of speech, conjugations, declinations, etc.), but the manipulation of larger entities like analogies, metaphors, and even allegories. These things make you understood in ways which are somewhat similar to our usual notion of grammatical manipulations, but there does not appear to be much grammar written about them anymore.

There is of course some, but it’s too late in the evening to start indicating sources. Besides, I had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner and thus I’m not all that sharp right now. What could be useful is a brief index of the stuff I wrote the last couple of days. Like so:

(1) Analogy
(2) Metaphor
(3) Allegory
(4) Rudimentary Diagramming
(5) Metaphorical Morals
(6) Is the Three-Term Analogy an Analogy?
(7) Why Study Literature?

All these are based on analogy. That is, the unified scheme of these tropes and figures is based on the simple view that we can elaborate on an analogical way of thinking through resemblances, the way one thing is like another, when talking about their use. It’s not necessarily the case that this sort of thing always happens in practice, but it’s a good place to begin the task of schematization and analysis.

A Series of Rhetorical Devices: Why Study Literature?

I’ve been pretty busy for the last few days and haven’t had the opportunity to figure out things for the blog, but now, after a strenuous workout, when I’ve found that the blundering builders who are doing work on our building have cut off our water supply, I can use this time, which would otherwise be spent having a refreshing shower, to ponder on something that often troubles those of us who study literature.

There are of course many reasons to study literature and I can offer but one more here. The typical attitude of many who are in the business of attending to the more serious things in life is reflected in an utterance reported to me by a friend of mine. Someone asked him something like this: “Isn’t literature merely emoting? Why waste your time on it?” This business with emoting is supposed to make it of secondary importance. Apparently collecting yet more corpora or thinking of new ways to sell mobile phones is a more worthy enterprise. At least it’s easier to write apologies for those things.

Let’s try out an apology for literature that relies on the models of analogy, metaphor, and allegory we’ve outlined below. If we think of analogy as a basis for systematic thought, we can say that we make sense of new things by relating them to the things we already know. This is either vague or banal without any elaboration, so let’s elaborate. We come into contact with metaphor every day and most of the time we more or less grasp what metaphoric tropes wish to convey, that is unless we are autistic or dealing with a language that is still strange to us. These metaphors are rarely if ever spelled out as analogies and show their superior terms only, their tenor and vehicle. Or it might be the case that only the vehicle is shown, but you should be able to adduce some tenor level of meaning.The ambiguity of metaphor can be said to stem from the unaddressed terms (B and D) which, you guessed it, you have to address somehow in order to resolve the meaning of the metaphor in some way. As you read a metaphor, a whole wave of analogies come to mind, different possibilities make themselves known and you have to figure out which ones are relevant. You must also decide what information is relevant for choosing the best explanation to make sense of the situation.

This is not to say that once you’ve nailed the one pair of inferior terms you will have figured out what the metaphor is actually saying. Far from it. The more options you can think of, the better off you are and the more competence you have in choosing among possible meanings with the help of additional information of the particular situation, your interlocutor, textual conventions, and so on. Precision is not necessarily the key here and hence we don’t become catatonic when we fill our heads with literature — although there are certainly enough stories to warn us about that. Broadness of understanding is the best term I can come up with for now, and that’s what can be gained from literature and fiction.

Of course, if you read rubbish this broadness cannot be reached. Because we are talking about things that happen in our common languages in our common world, there is very little room for the argument that because the pleasures of fiction are subjective we should just read whatever pleases us most. Some stuff makes your understanding grow while other stuff does not. Neither is it the case that now that high and low culture are valued more or less alike, it really should not matter from which source we go a-foraging our daily sustenance. Nor is it the case that all high culture is fantastic and popular culture rubbish. Things are a bit more complicated than that and that is why there are literature departments in universities. I suggest you take advantage of them and their productions while they are still around.