2.23.2011

Being and Unions

Whew! Spent a couple days in Madison, protesting Walker's proposal to strip collective bargaining from public employees and presenting at the NCTEAR conference. By the time my presentation was scheduled on Sunday, thundersnow and sleet had started, sending participants scurrying to their phones and computers to rearrange flights or just outright leave. Nonetheless, I still got some helpful feedback, even some in the form of perplexed looks on why I separate "being" from "identity."

My paper laid out a small critique of Jim Gee's definition of literacy as "ways of being in the world," a definition followed by Colin Lankshear, Michelle Knobel and others. While these folks start with "ways of being," that phrase is quickly shifted to "identity" and take the difference to be something ontological vs. something presenced through representation. Now, I admit that even a representation might have its own ontological status, but that status is certainly different from the ontic of the human that uses that identity for various purposes, some of which humans are not entirely aware. By focusing on identity, research is tilted toward epistemology and discovering how we know and differentiate between identities. This is certainly fruitful research and any theory of being, in my mind, has to grapple with this at some point. However, as folks like Graham Harman and Levi Bryant point out, it has its limits: everything is so radically politicized and subjected to endless hermeneutics that it is often more intractable than it opens up any new horizons.

My main claim is that for literacy, composition studies, and rhetoric, an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach may be in order. This isn't entirely new. In fact, as Victor Vitanza has argued, this extends the project of a Third Sophistic, notably the work of "nonpositive affirmation" that might shift the history of “negative essentializing” especially with respect “to physis and nomos” (Vitanza 12). If physis is the world (nature, material reality) and nomos is the word (law, custom), how do we move from one to the other in such a way that we retain some measure of correspondence or fidelity? If nomos is decoupled from physis and the relations are only arbitrary, how do we manage our effects on and from our spatial and material environments? For Vitanza, this is one of the fundamental discussions that runs throughout and constitutes the history of rhetoric and, I would add, the history of Western thought's attempt to theorize the connection between "the word and the world."

As I claim, identity is not sufficient to account for such a connection. Instead, we might look to being (or Being) as a basis. This won't disregard epistemological work by any means, but would extend the conversation in different ways. As Vitanza has pointed out, and as more recent work has detailed, Gorgias is one of the key rhetorical theorists to look to in formulating such a project. For Gorgias, in a precoursory refutation to Descartes, thought and being are certainly not the same, since not everything that is thought comes into being. Rather than posit a kind of nihilism, however, Gorgias' other extant writings detail the ways in which logos (word, language, discourse) operates not as content, but as variable maneuvers within social situations. Thus, according to Scott Cosigny, he "anticipates Wittgenstein's characterization of language as a family of games; that his construal of inquiry as rhetorical debate within socially sanctioned agons anticipates an array of contemporary hermeneutic theorists such as Gadamer, Rorty, and Fish" (210).

Interpreted this way, Cosigny does not account for the social sanctions themselves. Nor does he go as far as Vitanza in following the implications of the split in logos that Gorgias recognizes (the split between physis and nomos, which always produces a paradox and a "dispersion/ scattering of the antitheses that leads to 'something new, irrational'" Vitanza 243). For Vitanza, Gorgias' On Non-Being can be read more as pastiche than parody since a parody always implies an original whereas "One of he primary conventions of pastiche is that there is no origin, original, that is, no No" (261). Through the double-bind of kairos-logos, something else is produced from the available materials. Such new things, however, are not entirely present, but always part of the "will to power as falsehood." Through the mixing of kairos and logos, a being becomes something new, though still unified as a subject -- still affirmative in its Being as a being. Here, Vitanza follows Deleuze's follow-up to Nietzsche that "the living world is the will to power, will to falsehood, which is actualised in many different [forces]. To actualise the will to falsehood under any power, to actualise the will to power under any quality whatever, is always to evaluate, to lie, to interpret, to measure]" (279). Logos can only distort, evaluate, and lie. Kairos, however, is ambient in the environment and inserts its own operations within any situation of logos, dispersing them, opening the way onto the lie.

Within such kairotic moments, thought, we have a lot going on. In a follow up post, I will draft how I see current ontological debates informing this process with a special eye to differences (if any) between Process-Relational Theorists (PRT) and Object-Oriented Ontologists (OOO). But for this kairotic moment, I am tired and need to attend a meeting...

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..