Different Readings of Gorgias on (not) Being

Previously, I posted a rough sketch of my argument about Jim Gee's definition of literacy as "ways of being in the world." Below are a few more paragraphs that spell out the argument in more detail.

In short what I want to ask is “What does it mean to Be literate?” a question which entails a shift from epistemic questions to ontological ones. We might productively shift our attention to how we understand Gee’s statement about literacy as a way of Being in the world and inquire into how literacy shapes, influences, and perhaps even constitutes some part of our Being. This has been rather prohibited from the standpoint of social construction and cultural studies, which understand the world and Being (physis) as separate from any discursive representation or identity. Strong versions of social construction reduce everything to nomos, to matters of convention or law, denying that we can ever have access to physis itself. However, recent scholars in philosophy and rhetoric have begun theorizing Being and ontology in ways that admit the arbitrariness of the sign, to its function within social systems such as language and literacy. These discussions are not completely compatible nor are they yet fully worked out. One debate, between object-oriented ontologists (OOO) and process-relational theorists (PRT), occurs via weblogs of scholars advocating for their understanding of being. Because these are ongoing scholarly approaches to Being, I am not going to advocate for any one “correct” version of understanding Being or Being literate. However, I do want to outline some of these discussions and relate them to Gee’s description.

Such a project can explore an area described by Victor Vitanza (1991) as a Third Sophistic. For Vitanza, this is not a chronological movement stemming from an originary “first sophistic” of ancient Athenian rhetors and following the subsequent Roman “second sophistic” of the second century CE. Rather, a third sophistic, as Vitanza describes it “is not necessarily sequential” (emphasis in original), but inclusive of Gorgias, Nietzsche, Lyotard, de Man, Foucault and Lacan (117). A third sophistic counts to “many things” rather than simply one or two, a move that breaks up monist and binarist patterns of thinking. Such thinkers “theorize about the impossibility/Resistance of the Logos (reason, logic, law, argumentation, history) to Theory/Totalization, because of the Gorgian Kairos and the Lacanian Real — both of which enter the Logos and break up the cycle of the antitheses,” thereby breaking with the given patterns of difference and creating something new (117). Elsewhere, Vitanza argues that the history of rhetoric has been founded on negation or lack and a Third Sophistic can re-think the writing of rhetoric’s history with careful concern for the “negative essentializing” done within monistic or binaristic ways of thinking (1997, 12). While Vitanza critiques how logos has been used for such negative essentializing, he takes this one step further by pointing out this has often been done “to varying degrees in respect to physis and nomos” (12). Vitanza, then, offers clues as to how we might look at and understand Gee’s definition of literacy as something that encompasses more than just representation.

Gorgias and Classical Rhetoric on Being

Scott Cosigny argues a point similar to Vitanza, noting how “several scholars argue that Gorgias’ remarks on language, knowledge, and truth anticipate the views of such twentieth century thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Rorty, and Fish” (1-2). For Cosigny, Gorgias presents us with an antifoundational account, one which coherently posits reality as the effect of various language games. Cosigny argues that as a result, “the most fundamental element of discourse is the maneuver, or trope; and discourse as a whole is composed of various maneuvers that may be used in various games” (77, emphasis in original). This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle who “sees tropes such as metaphors and puns as ‘deviations’ from the proper function of language, that of naming essential features of the world itself” (77).

We can see similarity here not only to Vitanza, but to Gee’s descriptions of Discourse and semiotic domains. For Gee, Discourse and semiotic domains are always a social network of practices and ways of making meaning from within a specific situation rather than from an abstract, decontextualized one. Gee describes semiotic domain as “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language, images, equations, symbols. Sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (18). Like Gorgias, Gee downplays the specific content of the communication in favor of the maneuver involved, a maneuver that is not completely arbitrary but potentially given within the semiotic domain.

Just how these maneuvers work, though, is something not always clear given either Cosigny’s or Gee’s arguments. While Cosigny admits his reading “underwrites Vitanza’s assertion that Gorgias is the principal precourser to our own Third Sophistic” (210), his articulation and defense of how Gorgias viewed nomos appears at odds with Vitanza’s critique of negative essentializing. Much of this critique proceeds from disenabling qualities of negation, diaeresis, negative dialectic and the like. But rather than fight against or negate that which does the negating, Vitanza embarks upon a theory of “denegation,” or affirming the negative. For Vitanza, “It is not just a matter of doing away with physis, some universal notion of it, and accepting nomos, our differences, but of perpetually denegating both physisneg. and nomos” (15). Thus, even those things which will necessarily be excluded from logos and by virtue of the imperfections of language, are still present and affirming that present absence is not only a strategy common to members of a third sophistic, but required to address the problems inherent to the hierarchies and domination of monistic and binaristic thinking.

Cosigny, however, while admitting Gorgias does not hold the views of Plato’s Callicles “in which the ‘weak’ members of a community agree to adopt various conventions such as morality and law in order to prevent the ‘strong’ individuals from overpowering them,” nonetheless argues that Gorgias sees nomos as the exclusive realm of being and change (130). As Cosigny reads Gorgias, nomos shapes identity, though this does not mean Gorgias argues for the status quo. Rather, Gorgias “promotes the institution of the agon, an institution in which people advocate opposed viewpoints and which is therefore an institution of change that encourages people to challenge established beliefs” (131, emphasis in original). Moreover, Cosigny points out that the agon is not in need of any justification from Gorgias with regards to its ethics or political foundation since to do so would admit to foundationalism, a first principle, or a counting to one. Tellingly, Cosigny supports his argument by citing John Rawls’ concept of “reflective equilibrium,” which is seen as “an ongoing hermeneutic project” about what seems the most reasonable belief about the world. In other words, by theorizing the agon as a hermeneutic project of opposed viewpoints, Cosigny emphasizes nomos and leaves little room for physis.


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