There Is no Such Thing as a Rhetorical Relationship

Chris Lundberg NCA presentation “There Is no Such Thing as a Rhetorical Relationship” I. Opening Remarks- A Brief Sketch of Rhetoric’s Lack, and the...
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Chris Lundberg NCA presentation

“There Is no Such Thing as a Rhetorical Relationship” I.

Opening Remarks- A Brief Sketch of Rhetoric’s Lack, and the object that covers it over

“There is no such thing as a sexual relationship.” Obviously, this counterintuitive claim does not deny the naked reality of sex. This declaration signals that for Lacan, sexual relationships, love relationships, and even communicative relationships, are constituted by the lack of a principle of transparent reciprocal exchange or of simple bilateral mediation. In each of these “relationships” the Other is necessarily reduced to an object, alienated from “relationship” by phallic jouissance. Rhetorical studies, at least within speech communication, might be usefully theorized as a discipline seeking a grounding relationship. Our version of rhetoric, as a discipline, is endlessly bemoaned as a discipline defined by its lacks. Lacking a firm conceptual home, Rhetoric is often theorized as a nomad; one day setting up camp on the ground broken by Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintillian, the next pegging its methods to those of the modern social sciences.1 Lacking a firm disciplinary or institutional identity, it is characterized as an itinerant drifter, constantly moving between Communication Studies, the Philosophy Department, the English Department and back. Lacking substantive content of its own, and reliant on speech artifacts produced in fora outside its ambit (politics, literature, etc.) it is sometimes read as mere supplement to other more primary


See Edwin Black, 1993, pp. 99-116. “The Practice of Rhetorical Criticism” in Landmark Essays on American Public Address, edited by Martin J. Medhurst. Davis: Hermagoras Press.

fields in the humanities (Political Science, English, etc.).2 Lacking a consensus regarding its ultimate purpose, it wavers between the multiple fragmentary ends of textual criticism, oratorical pedagogy, and broader accounts of rhetoric as an epistemic discourse. These criticisms of rhetoric’s attempt to define itself as an insular field, in one form or another, reach as far back as Plato’s Gorgias. What then gives rhetorical studies an identity as a field of inquiry, presuming one is interested in the business of ascribing identity? Friends of the rhetorical tradition have proffered answers such as a concern with persuasion, a set of interpretive methods, or a common history. Each of these possibilities offers the seductive promise of constituting a distinct identity for rhetorical studies, but each also seems insufficient on their own terms. Rhetoric clearly has an abiding interest in persuasion, but as many argue, a field of inquiry aimed at persuasion generally would define itself in such a way that its scope was infinite. If persuasion is defined as the ability to induce action trough the manipulation of symbols, then rhetoric, as the study of anything persuasive, would swallow whole all of sociology, psychology, economics, and any other field concerned with the ways that human action is symbolically mediated.3 Defining rhetoric as a set of interpretive methods also promises a delimited field of study. Upon closer inspection this promise is, to a certain extent, empty. As Gaonkar has pointed out, one still has to ask the question, “to what discursive artifacts does one apply the method?” Argumentative tropes, rhetorical figures, and various other critical methods can be applied to virtually any symbolic phenomena, given sufficient skill by the


See Dilip Gaonkar 1990, “Rhetoric and Its Double: Reflections on the Rhetorical Turn in the Human Sciences.” In The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry, edited by Herbert Simons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

critic. Gaonkar claims that the question of method cannot provide rhetoric with an identity because: “What is rhetorical in any given case is invariably an effect of one’s reading rather than a quality intrinsic to the object being read…. if what rhetorical is an effect of one’s reading, than a master reader can produce such an effect in relation to virtually any object. Hence the range of rhetoric is potentially universal.”4 Shared history offers a refuge for many in the rhetorical tradition, but this history can, of course, be told in many different ways. Some read rhetoric’s history as one of continual displacement by the rationalistic bent enlightenment, others as read it as a relatively stable set of historical norms for the proper ornamentation of speech. Such appropriations of history are strategic, and as such, founding rhetoric’s identities in historical commonalities usually belies another underlying agenda relating to questions of method, ideology, etc. The diversity of competing narratives regarding rhetoric imply that history is shaky ground indeed if one wishes to define an identity. Still, history might be instructive in some regards because it foregrounds significant disciplinary anxieties, providing a context (albeit strategic) for interpreting the vicissitudes of rhetoric. One moment that many highlight as a definitive historical moment in the modern American incarnation of rhetorical studies under the rubric of speech communication was Herbert Wichelns’s 1925 essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory.” Widely credited with creating the institutional impetus for the study of speech as a literary artifact worthy of its own discipline5, Wichelns argued that speech’s status a unique object, differentiated from other forms of literature by virtue of being spoken, 4

Gaonkar, Dilip, “The Idea of Rhetoric in the Rhetoric of the Sciences,” p. 21 Martin Medhurst. “The Academic Tradition in Public Address; A Tradition in Transition” , in Landmark Essays on American Public Address, p. 4. 5

warranted a flight from English Departments to Departments of Speech. I would like to meditate on the impulse behind Wichelns’s work as a touchstone because it reveals the question I see as central for those who are interested in the nagging question of rhetoric’s identity: the question of rhetoric’s proper object. Persuasion, method, and history. Attempts to figure rhetoric’s identity around persuasion, method, and history all ultimately hinge on the underlying question of “what is the object proper to rhetorical inquiry?” Each of these attempts to ground rhetoric can only succeed if one makes a set of presuppositions about the proper object of rhetorical study. Persuasion can only be limited as a grounding concept if one presupposes that rhetorical study engages the persuasiveness of particular classes of objects defined as rhetorical objects. Method can only be constrained by reference to a proper category of objects for whom the application of the method is appropriate. History can only be rendered as an intelligible grounds for a common rhetorical practice when it is a history of the treatment of a defined category of objects, of a continuous object able to be traced throughout time. Rhetorical studies is obsessed with its object, an object which, given the preceding disciplinary sketch, has never been (nor can it be, one might suggest) fully brought to presence. Thus, the lack which defines rhetoric might be usefully treated as a constitutive lack. Much of the debate between Gaonkar and his interlocutors focuses on his claim that the selection of an object prefigures rhetorical method versus his critics’ claims to define a proper object for rhetorical study. Perhaps, I suggest here, there may be a prior question that has been left unasked. One of the larger questions implied by this paper is: to what extent have students of rhetoric naturalized the idea of the object itself as the

primary mode of relation to their texts? To what extent has the idea of the object become a purportedly content neutral kind of conceptual furniture that underwrites the process of rhetorical interpretation? This question does not conceal a call for eliminating the object relation, instead it highlights the necessity of thinking the rhetoricity, the enlightening and blinding constitutive power of framing hermeneutic inquiry along the lines of the object relation. One way to begin such a task is to situate the advent object relation historically, to track the contingent moment when a once innovative intervention into a scholarly field came to be taken for granted as a natural practice, part and parcel of a disciplinary identity. When, and under what conditions did the question of the object become significant? Most histories of contemporary speech communication begin with Wichelns, but perhaps we might also reflect here on the set of disciplinary concerns that set the background conditions for Wichelns’s essay. In early essays in the field, (taken here from 1915-1924, the period between the foundation of the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking, and the publication of Wichelns’s essay) there is common concern with articulating speech as a science that would enable participation in a democratic society. One exemplar of this trend is found in Giles Wilkison Grey’s essay “How Much are we Dependent on the Ancient Greeks and Romans.” On Grey’s account, the “clear expression of ideational content is the driving concern.” Such a concern was significant because of the potential for a technology of public speaking and a theory of speech improvement to serve as an educational force is in modern development (Gray, 264) The overriding purpose of Grey’s work is the selfrealization of a scientific and democratic citizen subject: “the vast majority of the young men of today are finding their life work in other fields than the political arena or the law

court; they are finding that the realization of their individuality is not in devotion to the state to the exclusion of personal interests, but rather in the self realization of which Adams speaks: ‘ the true theory of self realization (the cry of the age) carries us beyond the more or less mechanical and now discredited theory of pact to the higher notion of an organism” (gray 265) One notable correlate of this movement toward the scientific realization of the citizen subject, and the study of this subject’s transmission of ideas as an object of study is the suppression of tropology (insert cites for gray, etc) an idea to which I will return in a moment Charles Woolbert is one of the systematic and consistent voices in this development. Here I will briefly describe the tone and general movement of three of his essays, in the hopes of providing the context for Wichelns’s intervention. Woolbert struggles with disciplinary pressures from two primary sources. On one hand, he is trying to articulate an identity for rhetorical study that would carve out space for the study of speech outside the umbrella of English. On the other hand, Woolbert is attempting to address concerns, largely foisted on him by a prevalent behaviorism of the time, that rhetoric articulate itself as a scientifically valid discipline. He poses the question this way in “Theories of Expression; Some Criticisms”: Is there any hope for an ultimate ‘school’ that will in reality be, not a school at all but a science?” Woolbert’s solution relies on the articulation of rhetorical study as oriented around the production of rhetorical “effect” as the privileged object domain. Woolbert’s 1915 essay argues for standardizing the science of speech around a theory of the foundation of “oral expression.” He continues by arguing for a set of presuppositions that all rhetoricians in the field can agree on, be they adherents to the

elocutionist “Rush system,”6 Dr. Curry’s system of “imitation,” the “think the thought system,”7 the “paraphrase school” or members of a school which emphasizes tonality. Woolbert’s six presuppositions are that: “1. oral expression is and aims to be a matter of carrying thought from one mind to another by means of the voice”…”of carrying though by means of sound” (128) “2.sounds that the speaker makes are intended to excite the apprehensive function of the listener…they are not for the benefit of the speaker primarily; these sounds are uttered in order to influence the thinking, feeling, or conduct of the man who hears them.” (128) “expression to this extent is fundamentally an objective matter… it is an enterprise that aims at a target outside the self” 128 3.”the sensation of sound [has the function of]…stirring thought [in the listener] (128) 4. selection of thoughts stir thought properly- a kind of reference to inventional processes, though Woolbert does not phrase it as such. 5. the key pedagogical concern is how to theorize the relationship between selection of sounds and the resulting relationship of understanding. Finally Woolbert’s sixth presupposition accounts for the diversity in the field by arguing that differences in the theorization of presupposition number five (this relation between the selection of sounds and the production of understanding) results in the different “systems.” In the end, argues Woolbert’s 1915 essay, a science of expression is an integrative science, where the transmission of ideas is the primary object of concern, and where one can must see the functioning of trope as an accommodation to a “non-ideal” audience.

6 7

An elocutionary system based on tonality a system whose whole basis was helping the student to clearly and sincerely express their thought.

The goal of the science of speech must then become the empirical study of the effects of different ways of pairing thought to sounds as embodied in speech, including considerations of paraphrase and tonality. As Woolbert’s January1917 “Suggestions as to Methods in Research” makes clear, this science of speech ought not simply aim for the collection of data, but at the rationalization of democratic speech itself as a way of accounting for the dynamics of speech, through scientific research in English, history, theology, sociology, and political science. Perhaps the most interesting essay of Woolbert’s (at least for my purposes) is his July 1917 article “Conviction and Persuasion: Some Considerations of Theory.” In the process of attempting to rationalize speech as a science, Woolbert had implicitly entered the fray on one of the most significant disciplinary conversations of the time: influenced by advances in psychology (particularly drawing on the work of James) theorists of speech had begun to question the difference between conviction and persuasion. The conventional wisdom in the field, perhaps influenced by a long held distinction between Aristotle’s logos and pathos, held that conviction (assent to an argument based on its rational merits) ought be considered as different from persuasion, which relied on an emotive component to generate action (action read here as the production of an affect). (109) Woolbert argues that this distinction cannot be founded, since one should conceive of conviction as a kind of action, or rather, or rhetorical study ought to fold conviction and persuasion into the unitary category of response or effect. Thus, disconnects between rational assent toward an argument and action as a result of an argument could only be explained by making reference to psychology as a master discourse which would explain

a dilemma which could not be fully theorized from within the bounds of rhetoric. Why is this significant? In a stunning concluding passage, Woolbert argues that such an integration of scientific psychology and rhetorical study requires a new conceptual apparatus: “As a matter of the theory of public address and appeal, all dualistic attitudes separating response into action and non-action are untenable and misleading…. The dichotomy between perceived movement and movement, to which rhetorical theory is committed…is not a difference of major character….The whole theory of argumentation, conviction, and persuasion, the rhetoric of public address, must be rewritten to fit the facts of mind as accepted today; which will be tantamount to restating them in terms of …object-subject.” (264) So, two significant themes emerge here for the subsequent study of the American speech communication tradition. One, the “restatement” of all rhetorical theorizing along the lines of the object was critical to give rhetorical study coherence as a discrete and scientific discipline. Second, such a rationalization of rhetorical study required the suppression of tropology as a category of rhetorical inquiry. This suppression happens both at the site of evaluating particular speeches, and on a more significant “meta”-level. Since, in the particular speech, it is response to properly framed ideational content that was the most significant indicator of effect, considerations of tropology risked muddling the transmission of otherwise clear and distinct ideas. On the meta-level, the redescription of rhetoric as scientific inquiry about an object made relation to an object a naturalized horizon for rhetorical theorizing; application of scientific method ceased to be a metaphor for rhetorical practice, and became the privileged site of inquiry into speech in terms of

the production of effect. Here one might ask if this production of an object, carried through to the present day, can ever sufficiently cover over the lack at the heart of rhetorical theorizing. Can the metaphoric status of a narrative about the scientific relation between subject and object as the savior of rhetoric be fully forgotten, and unreflexively taken as a natural description of the messy task of reading texts? It is at this aporia of object, lack, and trope that one might fruitfully bring to bear the tradition of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Thus, this paper will proceed as follows: limiting myself to Seminar XX, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, I would like to read rhetoric’s constitutive lack through the lens of Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Specifically, I would like to argue that the obsession with the question of the object, and the concomitant tendency to either disparage Rhetoric as incomplete or to circle the disciplinary wagons around a vehemently held supreme object is naïve, and perhaps even a little dangerous. Either of these two complimentary moves (melancholic obsession with the lack- one reading of Gaonkar, or becoming a disciplinary zealot for one view of the object- one reading of Leff) are naïve in that they presume the possibility of having full access to objects within language in the first place. Each of these moves ignore significant gaps between the subject and knowledge, and between knowledge and its presumed object. Both moves are dangerous in that they ignore the dynamics of jouissance and lack that productively constitute the relation to the objet petit a. To provide a theoretical background for this claim, section two of this paper will provide a brief sketch of Lacan’s theories of language. In section three of this paper, I will attempt to concretize these theories by framing them in the context of Lacan’s schema of the four discourses, focusing on the

concepts of the master and the university discourses. In framing the contemporary practice rhetoric ultimately as a kind of “university discourse” I intend to demonstrate the ways in which the obsession with the object in rhetoric comes at the cost of evaluating the structures of enjoyment that invest this obsession with a kind of jouissance . Finally, I would like to conclude by suggesting a few implications of this bracketing of jouissance and obsession with the object for rhetorical theory, returning to the question of persuasion as a central rhetorical concern. Unfortunately, space does not permit a treatment of the other claims to disciplinary identity- method or history. This will, however be part of a broader prospectus and dissertation project. II. Linguistricks from Aristotle to Bentham Borrowing from a diverse set of influences, including Saussure, Levi-Strauss and Jakobson, Lacan’s psychoanalytic system is permeated by theories of signification and its relationship to the subject. At a basic level, Lacan upsets the traditional relationship between subject and signification. Conventional linguistics frame the subject’s relation to language as instrumental; the subject expresses itself through the medium of language. This model, in its most simple from, figures the subject as a pre-given entity (usually defined as a Cartesian consciousness) who uses language as an instrument to communicate- to signal intentions, to convey truth claims, etc. On this view, the interesting thing in a speech act is the manifest content of an utterance, or as speech act theorists would have it, the constative claims embodied in signification. Lacan inverts this relationship, arguing for the primacy of signification in producing the speaking

subject as an effect. This sentiment is captured in the famous Lacanian dictum “a signifier represents a subject to another signifier.”8 The implications of this simple inversion are profound. As a way of drawing out these implications I would like turn to Seminar XX. Lacan’s Encore9 seeks to explain the limits (both constraining and enabling) of love and knowledge, centering on the dynamics of signification that underpin the subject’s demand for love and the articulation of knowledge. Lacan frames the impossibility of the signifier’s consummation with the signified through an elaborate analogy to male/female sexuality. His guiding mantras for this analogy are that “Jouissance of the Other…of the body of the Other who symbolizes the Other is not the sign of love”10 and that “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship.” 11 How should one read these enigmatic aphorisms? The opening gambit of seminar XX is an exploration of the tension between the law and sex. Lacan responds to a hypothetical jurist who asks him about the subject of his discourse that “I felt I could respond…that language is not the speaking being.” 12 Lacan tells the imaginary lawyer that language is based on a system of rules, of codes that govern its proper operation, but that the speaking being was an altogether different thing that could only be understood by assuming that one was “in bed, a bed employed to the fullest, there being two of you in 8

Lacan, 1975, On Feminine Sexuality; the limits of love and knowledge 1972-1973. Encore: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX. Translated by Bruce Fink. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton. p.142 9 The use of encore as a title for the seminar is rich in playful meaning. Encore means “still” or “again,” signaling an attentiveness to the ways in which the subject is constituted through a kind of repetition within language. Encore also invokes the idea of “en-corps” the gap the body of the other from which is the cause of repetitive demands for love. 10 Lacan, 1975, p. 4 11 Lacan, 1975, p. 144 12 Lacan, 1975, p. 2.This explanation foreshadows much of the later work of the Seminar- for example, the distinction between language and lalanguage (the linguist’s representation of linguistic codes, and the stupid mother tongue of the speaking subject)

it.”13 To truly understand signification one must think it through the bedroom, and not through recourse to legal/linguistic rules whose goal is to produce utility by ensuring the “usefulness” of all enjoyment/ signification. The law’s essence is captured for Lacan in reference to the Roman legal tradition of Usufruct, which guaranteed the right of enjoying the property of another party to the fullest extent, as long as one did not damage it. Put differently, the function of the law is to limit excess, to discipline surplus enjoyment so that it is channeled toward a productive end. The law serves to “divide up, distribute, or reattribute everything that counts as jouissance.”14 Opposed to the law is jouissance.15 In this formulation jouissance is defined negatively, as a “negative instance,”16 which can be rendered in English as instance (as Fink’s translation does) or, more pointedly, as an agency. Rendering jouissance as a negative agency helps give it some theoretical substance.17 Jouissance is an agent. It is not a characteristic of a subject, which deterministically responds to the subject’s drives or intentions; rather is an enjoyment which underwrites even the act of subjectivization through language.18 Jouissance is, in one sense, prior to subjectivity (or the constitution of the subject via a lack in signification). It is not ontologically prior, as in the Aristotelian formulation of predicateless being, but it can be meaningfully read as the enabling condition for the subject; as the senseless non-useful enjoyment of subjectivity. But jouissance should also be theorized as a kind of excess. An analogy to clinical


Lacan, 1975, p. 12. Lacan, 1975, p. 3. This disciplining is not necessarily always through direct repression. In fact, the law serves the function of reassigning jouissance; its ultimate function is to cause the subject to misrecognize the subject’s frustrated desire for access to the other, or for self-identity S(barred A) as the little a object 15 Jouissance is also paradoxically enabled by the law through negation of the law. 16 Lacan, 1975, p. 3. 17 There are, of course, dangers to this. 18 Lacan writes that there is a gap “between this One (of phallic jouissance) and something that is related to being, and behind being, to jouissance.” Lacan, 1975, p. 6. 14

practice may be helpful here though perhaps a little anachronistic in the context of Seminar XX. A hysteric might constantly complain about a particular somatic symptom “I am constantly overwhelmed by pain in my neck, in my back, in my head…”. Viewed from the common sense perspective of utility, this complaint is read as a plea to reduce the perceived pain. Yet, claims the analyst, the important question is not necessarily the alleviation of the hysteric’s pain per se. Instead, an analyst might ask why it is that the hysteric is so invested in the act of complaining about the pain. There is, in the case of the hysteric, a surplus enjoyment in the symptom itself, and a pleasure in talking about the symptom. In uttering a complaint the hysteric does not actually aim at the reduction of the pain: it is the presumption that this complaint aims at the alleviation of the pain that hides a useless excess pleasure for the hysteric in figuring his or herself as the one who is subjected to pain. Put much more succinctly: “Jouissance is what serves no purpose.”19 Where law aims ultimately at the organization and production of the dynamics of pleasure in terms of utility, jouissance is defined as a kind of pleasure that does not specifically aim at the production of anything. Now we are able to turn to the question of love. It is this view of jouissance that underlies the “impossibility of the sexual relationship,” and the fact that “enjoyment of the other is not the sign of love.” Love is often figured as a gift, and a desire for unity with and edification of the other in their irreducible uniqueness. Why are we invested in these claims about love? Lacan figures love as a kind of demand that is placed on the other, a demand that is fundamentally narcissistic. Love is narcissistic demand in that it participates in phallic jouissance and reducing the Other to an object for the sake of achieving a subjective “one-ness,” of rendering a subject who is divided by lack and 19


language as a unified subject. The reduction of the other to a little a object helps to clarify the dynamics of jouissance present in the demand for one-ness in the instance of love. Love, in one sense is related to the law. Seminar XX invokes a word play between l’amour and what Lacan calls in Seminar XIX l’amur which invokes the notion of the wall (mur) and resonates with amure, which is a an old term for a sailor’s rope.20 Love is a demand for the other to function in a way that prescribes (walls in, ropes off) the identity of the other along the lines of an ideal image21, as an object of affection. To love in this sense is to identify with the beloved on one’s own terms, or rather, to identify with an the One’s image of the other, an objectal reduction of the other. To love is to render little a. What is significant here for Lacan is that the enjoyment that is derived from love is not an enjoyment of the Other on the Other’s terms (as if those terms were ever accessible) but rather the jouissance that the demand on the Other (or at least the image of the) other produces. This “remainder” in desire of the other (the enjoyment that the demand and frustration of the demand create) is the enabling condition in maintaining of the image of the other, and ultimately in sustaining desire for the little a object, paradoxically “through the lack of satisfaction.”22 Ultimately, it is this dynamic of desire for the little a that underwrites the subject’s enjoyment of self, and thus creates the illusion of the individual’s subjective unity. This is the condition that necessitates the disassociation of a from A, of the imaginary little other from the symbolic “big O” other.23


See the fink translation of seminar XX, footnote 15, p. 4 One could also say that this move figures position in the realm of the imaginary. 22 Lacan, 1975, p. 6 23 “ The aim of my teaching, insofar as it pursues what can be said and enunciated on the basis of analytic discourse, is to dissociate a and A by reducing the first to the realm of the imaginary and the other to what is related to the symbolic.” Lacan, 1975, p. 83 21

In investigating the relationship of the law to jouissance, of love as demand to the little a object, one comes to what Lacan hails as a “turning point investigated by analytic discourse.”24 The turning point lies in the idea that law, love, and language are all systems founded on lack, sustained by jouissance in the object a. Here the analogy to love and law meets language most directly. Lacan frames his treatment of language by arguing that thinking about the subject, and ultimately language had avoided the question of surplus enjoyment, slipping between the ontological worldview of Aristotle and the utilitarian worldview of Bentham’s “Theory of Fictions.”25 The Aristotelian worldview, at least as characterized by Seminar XX, was founded on a particular conception of being. In this system being is conceived of as a “sovereign good” and real description of “what exists.”26 Lacan describes Aristotle’s view of being as a predicateless pure existence, a kind of substantial ontological foundation. In this conception of being, language is figured through a principle of reference, where the signifier has truth value if it accurately represents reality. The role of language here is to meaningfully predicate qualities to existent entities. In this model the relationship between the sign and the signified, though vulnerable to misrepresentation, is essentially unproblematic.27 Being functions as a master signifier which guarantees truth value of knowledge. (see the chart below on the master’s discourse) Lacan critiques the Aristotelian conception of a predicateless being which underwrites all predication by


Ibid “Analysis does not allow us to remain at the level of…Aristotle’s ethics. A kind of slippage occurred in the course of time that did not constitute progress but rather a skirting of the problem, slipping from Aristotle’s view to Bentham’s utilitarianism, in other words, to the theory of fictions.” Lacan, 1975, p. 3 25


Lacan, 1975, p. 31 For a further treatment of Lacan’s take on Aristotle and language see Bryant, L. (2003). The Politics of the Virtual. Pulsion (Online Journal) accessed 12/3/03. 27

highlighting the gaps between the signifier and the signified, and between the sign and being.28 29 In a way similar to the law and to love, these gaps reveal a jouissance, an impossible gap which the subject/signifier demands to cross. In the Aristotelian view of being and language, the excess is disavowed; the essential fracture is glossed over: “Everything that has been said about being assumes that one can refuse the predicate and say “man is,” for example, without saying what. The status of being is closely related to this lopping off of the predicate. Thus nothing can be said of it except through dead-end detours and demonstrations of logical impossibility, whereby no predicate suffices. As for being, a being that would be posited as absolute is never anything but the fracture.”30

This fracture is fundamental, a generative trauma in some sense. Language functions to reproduce this presumption of a being as a master signified through the use of the copula, a linguistic unit that links the subject to a quality through a relationship of predication. Thus the problem for the Aristotelian worldview is not just the impossibility of posing being as a fractureless entity, or as a stable substance, nor is the problem simply with the presumption of the unity of the speaking subject. The problem is irreducibly one of language employment, of a enjoyment that is generated by producing “dimensions of being” as an effect (as opposed to an underlying, enabling ontological condition) of the master’s discourse. Lacan connects the master discourse of ontology with a totalizing notion of worldview, and explains the significance of predication (the copula) within this framework:


See also footnote 16 on this point. Lacan implies that Aristotle’s work is different from the received Aristotelian tradition, and that there are traces of attention to enjoyment in Aristotle’s work. See Lacan, 1975, p. 71. 30 Lacan, 1975, p. 11 29

World view “has a more moderate and precise name: ontology” “Ontology is what is highlighted in language in the use of the copula…Every dimension of being is produced in the wake of the master’s discourse- the discourse of he who, proffering the signifier, expects therefrom one of its link effects that must not be neglected, which is related to the fact that the signifier commands.” (Lacan, 1975, p. 32)

The critique of the copula as a linguistic unit beautifully ties sex (copulation) with language. The lover is barred from crossing the gap that lies between the other and himself; he is barred by phallic jouissance. So it is with the signifier, which by its own signifying jouissance is barred from crossing the gap that lies between itself and the signified.31 This sentiment is rendered in classic Lacanian prose in the chapter on Love and the Signified. In addressing the bar between the signifier and the signified, he writes: “The function of the bar is not unrelated to the phallus”32

The other side of Lacan’s formula for slippage is Bentham’s “Theory of Fictions.”33 As a utilitarian par excellance, Bentham was faced with a dilemma in explaining what he referred to as “fictitious terms.” For a staunch utilitarian, words have use value in reference to concrete things and language was essentially a process of naming. This theory holds up well in naming particular objects or actions, but becomes less and less tenable as it attempts to theorize fictitious terms that refer to subjective states such as pleasure, or abstract concepts such as desire. Bentham theorized that these fictive words could be made to have use value through a process of periphrasis, or of


Lacan represents this gap as large S sitting on a bar over a small s. Lacan, 1975, p. 39 33 This account of the Theory of Fictions is drawn from Ammon Goldworth’s “Bentham’s Concept of Pleasure: Its Relation to Fictitious Terms.” Published in Ethics, Volume 82, July 1972, pp. 334-343. 32

relating the fictive words to words that had a grounding in “reality;” by talking around the fictive until the fictive signifier was invested with a use value for subsequent exchange. Thus, fictional terms are tied to more stable terms which name objects. Lacan’s critique of this utilitarian view of language argues that a theory of fictions assumes much of the baggage inherent in the Aristotelian view, in that it presumes that with enough work, the signifier can be centered upon the signified. In this view, the bar between the two is eliminated. The utilitarian view still relies on a relationship of copulative predication, the only difference is that the word is grounded in useful representation as opposed to truthful representation. The critique that the signifier misses the referent still holds in this case: Meaning effects seem to bear no relation to what causes them…references or things the signifiers serve to approach remain approximate…what characterizes the relationship between the signified and what serves as an indispensable third party, namely the referent, is precisely that the signified misses the referent. The joiner doesn’t work. What really takes the cake is that we nevertheless manage to use it by employing other devices (trucs, also trick effects). To characterize the function of the signifier, to collectivize it in a way that resembles a predication… that is what allows me to put forward my stupidity in order to show that perhaps stupidity is not, as people think, a semantic category, but rather a way of collectivizing the signifier.34

The notions of stupidity and the collectivization of the signifier help provide concrete proof that the Benthamite “revolution” in language was not all that revolutionary. To say that a particular fictive word had value, or that any word has value, one must collectivize it. For instance, if the word “desire” is to have a fictive use value, 34

Lacan, 1975, p.20

one must presume that it can meaningfully refer to all the disparate instances of the thing called desire. This collectivization inevitably misses the referent, if only for the fact that the collective word glosses over the immense difference that might be contained under the totalizing sign “desire.” In this instance, the collectivized signifier is stupid, or rather mute in that it does not convey a message; rather it instantiates a impossible gap between the sign and the thing to which it intends to refer. Both Aristotelian and Benthamite theories of language miss the surplus enjoyment that is produced by the signifier’s attempt to cross the gap between itself and referent. This slippage is ultimately a bracketing of jouissance by assuming that all acts of communication are reducible to referentiality, and it is this bracketing that underwrites the project of linguistics. This is why Lacan opposes Language to Lalanguage,35 the stupid babble of one’s own mother tongue as opposed to a formal system of rules about reference and signification: communication implies reference…Language is merely what scientific discourse elaborates to account for what I call lalanguage…language is knowledge’s (S2) harebrained lubrication about lalanguage.”36 This general slippage between Language and Lalanguage, between reference and enjoyment can be rendered more concretely in the context of the four discourses. III. Lacan’s Four Discourses- Rhetoric as a Master Discourse and as a University Discourse In order to apply this theoretical framework to concrete discursive situations, it is useful to draw on and explicate the following schema37 that Lacan offered for discourse:


The LaLa is reminiscent of mindless singing or babbling, indicating that language as spoken does not, and cannot conform to the law of linguistics. It is stupid. 36 Lacan 1975, p. 139 37 Lacan, 1975, p. 28

I have already alluded to the fact that Aristotle’s discourse was that of the master, where the barred subject underwrites, supplements, and is simultaneously concealed (or in shorthand is barred) beneath the master signifier, in this case the master signifier is ontology, though one could imagine other master signifiers. In this formation, the main goal of the S1 is to assimilate knowledge to itself, but this is of course an impossibility because S2 inevitably produces an excess, based on its barring of the object petit a.38 The Lacanian diagram presents this version of the slippage in ontological language quite nicely. But how does one account for the slippage in language in discourses that are not as explicitly ontological as the Aristotelian one? I find strong resonance between the utilitarian view of language and the university discourse. In the university discourse the agent is knowledge. Knowledge (S2) attempts to address the surplus embodied in the little a object by rendering little a commensurable with itself through attempting to 38

This move foreshadows the university discourse, where knowledge imaginatively prefigures the a

integrate the little a into pre-existing corpus of knowledge practices. So, for example, many of our colleagues delight in showing how a specific speech can be usefully explained by integrating the speech object (here the little a) into a pre-exisitng corpus of knowledge (burke’s pentad, fantasy theme analysis, etc.) many rhetoricians will say Thus, the discourse of the university is any discourse that seeks to explain variety the things it posits as objects by accounting for their position in a systematic framework. Social sciences, for example, function as a typical university discourse, asking the question “how can we account for a behavior by applying the method and substantive precepts of sociology, psychology, etc.?” The primacy of knowledge in university discourse is underwritten, supplemented, and barred by the master signifier (S1). I interpret this relationship in that diagram as a statement that knowledge is able to claim the qualities that it does in the university (objectivity, authority) because it is intimately dependent on the founding authority of S1, the master signifier.39 At the same time, knowledge must suppress the fact that it is dependent on the master signifier, because to admit this dependency would frame a knowledge only as valid when supported by its own master signifier. In other words, we would have to read all disciplines as mere subsets of philosophy. Substitute another S1, or admit fundamental lack in master signifiers generally, and S2 loses its claim to objective knowledge. S2 takes the a as the Other in the university discourse, but in this case, the Other is rendered through surplus, in the little a object. This little a is the surplus of the subject ($) which underpins and is barred from the subject, as described earlier in relation to love. Knowledge in the university discourse brings a relation to bear that is not dissimilar to love. Knowledge


This move mirrors utilitarianism’s dependence on ontological modes of predication, as is the case in the slippage between Aristotle and Bentham.

claims to illuminate truth, to bring to bear a form of objectivity. Knowledge’s framing of the object as the little a reveals that (S2) produces the truth of its object as a phallic effect. In the case of rhetorical studies, the little a object is produced by concealing the fact that what counts as a rhetircal object is itself not a pre-existent category, but is one that is produced nothing more than the application of rhetorical S2. If I may be allowed to pay homage to Lacan with a word play of my own: Objectivity is intimately tied to, object-ivity. Rhetoric as a discipline has two predominant modes that can be, at least initially, loosely laid over the Aristotelian master’s discourse and Bentham’s university discourse. The object of rhetoric is usually treated as either an icon or as a fragment that can only be understood by its effect. 40 In the iconic tradition the text is viewed as an artful production, one which demands a close reading, that is fragile, and is liable to be damaged by heavy-handed theoretical apparatuses. The iconic reader reads the great artifacts in rhetorical history as a way of appreciating the “text in itself.” The iconic rhetorician has affinities with the master discourse, such as the belief that some texts are inherently formally beautiful. To read and reflect on the beauty of the great text is the summum bonum of the iconic rhetorician. The iconic rhetorician does not remain in the master discourse for long. One must simply pose the question “what makes a text an icon” and the iconic rhetorician is forced into the realm of the university discourse: “this text (the a object) is/is not an iconic text because it does/does not fit into the class of things figured as iconic (S2)” Conversely, proclaiming that a text is iconic also does a kind of violence to it, in that S2 prefigures the meaning of the little a, in the same way 40

See Dilip Gaonkar Object and Method in Rhetorical Criticism: From Wichelns to Leff and McGee. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 2000, #54, pp. 290-316.

that the phallic jouissance blocks the enjoyment of the other. I will take this movement up briefly in the final section. The other side of rhetorical studies resides squarely under the tutelage of Bentham, and in the ambit of the university discourse. Here Gaonkar takes prominent contemporary rhetorician Michael Calvin McGee as an exemplar of rhetoric as the useful fragment. McGee argued that the traditional conception of the rhetorical text was dissolving, that what he called “idealism” (iconicity for our purposes) was collapsing due to the paucity of its theoretical underpinnings. McGee argued that instead of idealizing great rhetorical texts, rhetoricians should recognize that the text of rhetoric was in the multiple fragmentary moments of meaning embodied in every communicative relationship. This announcement of the fragmentary nature of the rhetorical “text” emphasized the persuasive materiality of utterances, subsequently moving rhetoric from an insular textual critical process to a globalized interpretive mechanism. If one looked for the materiality of persuasion in every communicative interaction, one would find rhetoric: “But the whole rhetoric is ‘material’ by measure of human experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is ‘object’ because of it’s pragmatic presence, our inability to safely ignore it at the moment of impact”


It is the pragmatic presence, the utility-effect, of a speech act that renders it rhetorical. As in the case of Bentham, the utilitarian explanation always requires a reference to a presence, the connection of the signifier to a referent, and ultimately a bracketing of the jouissance that is produced in the disconnect between the signifier and its referent. 41

Gaonkar, 2000, p. 305.

Rhetoric is predominantly a university discourse, since even iconic rhetoricians rely on the discourse of the university. But at what cost? What is lost in centering rhetoric around an obsession with the self-possessed Aristotelian object or the fragmentary utilitarian Object? The slippage Lacan identifies between the two neglects the ways in which both theories are animated by a jouissance that they must disavow. What is the problem with this disavowal of jouissance specifically in the field of rhetorical studies?

IV. A Problem with bracketing jouissance in rhetoric To return to an opening motif, the problem is the problem of persuasion. Rhetoricians are heavily reliant on persuasion as a disciplinary trope. To ignore jouissance is to ignore a significant portion of persuasion, construed in the broadest sense as that which woos or entices. I have two instincts in this regard, which I can only allude to briefly. The first relates to the reduction of the big “O” other to the a object as a tropological relation. Transposing this dynamic into rhetorically friendly terms one might say that the a stands in a as synecdoche for the big “O” other. This reduction is not a simple reduction in which a unproblematically stands in for the big other, or as a relation for the part to the whole. As explained earlier, there is surplus generated in the gap between a and A which sustains the investment in the imaginary position of the little a. This little a can only continue to function as the object of desire when it stands in for the desire of absent the big “O” other. When one evaluates persuasion solely as the effectiveness of the manifest content of an intentionally produced discourse, one must bracket the surplus enjoyment that is brought to bear in the very act of speaking.

Persuasion could be broadened to account for enjoyment in speaking and in perpetuating the illusion of communication. For rhetoric to be attentive to persuasion, it must attend to the manifest content of a speech act as a symptom of an underlying process of enjoyment. Perhaps this project could start by claiming that just as there is no sexual relationship, there is no rhetorical relationship. The lack of a sexual relationship does not eliminate sex, nor does the lack of a rhetorical relationship exclude persuasion. This move simply requires a broadening of persuasion as a concept to account for its surplus. Such an account of speech as speech would help thicken the account of significant rhetorical functions in regard to persuasion, like the concept of persuasion as a kind of identification. Evaluating this surplus can also…. Publicity, etc.. Second, rhetoricians might rethink their relationship towards their object, and its attendant implications on persuasion. As a university discourse, rhetoric tends to imaginatively prefigure its object as something that can be seamlessly assimilated to S2, the pre-existing sets of norms, theories that function as rhetorical knowledge. This prefiguration of the object is disingenuous, in that it claims to illuminate the object through the lens of rhetorical S2, but tends to re-produce and reinforce the object’s status in the imaginary order. The texts are read in advance. To read rhetorically is to read with a degree of violence. This is not a backhanded plea for access to a pristine object. Rather, such a realization reveals that rhetorical knowledge is not objective, and the ways that rhetoricians figure the object of rhetoric are in and of themselves persuasive processes. To claim the primacy of one object as a privileged site of investigation is to bracket the persuasive process in that it takes S2 as an objective given. It is the gaps in these givens that promises an opening up of rhetoric as a field that attends to persuasion, and to the

idea that we are constantly speaking our relation to the world as an object and as a world of objects..


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