Coherence and Clarity

At this point it would be easy to confuse clarity with coherence. Neither of the two is inherent to a piece of writing. Each is an effect created by a piece of writing on an audience. With clarity, the effect is that the reader knows the author’s mind. In a sense, it is the illusory dissolution of the rhetorical triangle. Author, reader, and text disappear, leaving only a meaning that we all already agree on. Strangely, clarity seems antirhetorical. If we already agree, there is no exigence. If we can be clear, then why speak? The reader already knows what you’re going to say. Clarity covers over a true exigence (in which parties disagree) with a false one (in which not only do they now agree, but they always have—the supposed disagreement was just a misunderstanding). Clarity is the covering up of a differend.

Coherence, on the other hand, is the illusion that an argument holds together, that it is all of one piece. Coherence belies the fiction that the writer is a whole subject, in complete control of his or her writing: the habit of saying I. Whereas clarity is the illusion that all subjects are the same (which is not far from saying that there are no subjects), coherence is the illusion that the subject is in control.

What does that mean for scholarly and student writing? For one thing, it means that there is no difference between them (or that the difference is one of specificity). When we teach writing, we teach it as generally as possible. In a typical first year composition (FYC) course, our students might have preprofessional majors like premed or prelaw, science majors like engineering or chemistry, fine arts majors, liberal arts majors, and no major at all. Depending on the school, most classes will have a mix of many of these. The exceptions (colleges that for various reasons do not have majors) lead us to teach an even more generalized conception of writing. On the other side of the spectrum, even the specificity of writing In the disciplines (WID) courses allows a fair degree of generality, because all disciplines require multiple genres. Suffice it to say, when we teach writing, we teach it broadly. The major distinction, then, between student and scholarly writing is one of specificity. Scholars are writing for a specific audience. Of course, so are students (at least that is what they are preparing to do), but in the classroom we often engage in hypothetical writing for hypothetical audiences—generalized writing.

Coherence and clarity are effects whose desirability depends on context. This question disappears in the FYC classroom because context is so often neglected or denied. In scholarly arguments, clarity is a wonderful ruse in the service of identification. Clarity works as a tent pole if I agree with the author—gathering all of us together to actively agree with a clear point—or a straw man if I disagree—a clear point we can oppose. In either case, clarity is serving to create community. But this is not a kumbaya community of good feelings: this is the perversion of community that Kenneth Burke warns us of in the beginning of A Rhetoric of Motives: “You will understand war much better if you think of it, not simply as strife come to a head, but rather as a disease, or perversion of community” (22). Against such a disease, Burke prescribes a healthy dose of rhetoric, hidden in the epigraph to A Grammar of Motives: ad bellum purificandum, to the purification of war.

Lyotard's differend is an attempt out of just such a double bind. The groundwork for The Differend is laid in Discourse, Figure. In his commentary on Discourse, Figure in Lyotard: Writing the Event, Geoffrey Bennington writes, “Secondary revision can produce elements of apparent clarity and coherence, but these are misleading” (87). They are misleading because this is the effect of discourse upon figure: to make it make sense. Secondary revision reveals the role that discourse takes on to cover up figure. Much work in the composition classroom could be seen as a kind of secondary (or even tertiary) revision of the work of rhetoric. Ironically, there is a view of rhetoric that sees it as this kind of cover-up work. But this is philosophy’s view of rhetoric and need not be rhetoric’s view of itself.

Just as secondary revision covers up (rather than eliminates) the dream work to achieve clarity and coherence, so too the “rhetorical” effects of clarity and coherence are achieved by covering up (not eliminating) rhetoric. In other words, we can map out certain similarities between the dream work and rhetoric. As we map these out, it becomes clear that Lyotard is depending on these similarities. The dream work operates through figuration. Rhetoric similarly operates through figuration. It is no mistake that Lyotard centers this early book on figure’s relationship to discourse. The same figuration, the same transgression of order, is at work in both rhetoric and psychoanalysis. And in each, this figuration is presymbolic. Preoriginary rhetoric is figuration.

Bennington calls our attention to a possible contradiction at work within Lyotard. He calls it a lapse in rigor. In the first half of Discourse, Figure Lyotard carefully set up the relationship between opposition and difference as one of difference. That is to say, the two are not opposed in a simple, symmetrical binary. Rather, difference is different from opposition, in an asymmetrical way. Bennington argues that Lyotard simplifies this relationship in the second half of the book:

Against his best intentions, Lyotard ends up by transforming the relationship between difference and opposition, which the logic of the book so far requires to be a relationship of difference, back into one of opposition (and possibly this determination is already implicit in the earlier recourse to the distinction between “ordinary” and “poetic” language). (79)

With the second half’s insistence on a Freudian system of eros and thanatos, Bennington sees Lyotard as resorting to simple opposition rather than difference: life against death. Bennington further argues that if Lyotard would drop some of this Freudian baggage, he would see that he has much more in common with Derrida than he would like to think. However, I think this is a misreading. While Bennington may be right in terms of Freudian baggage (and I’m not certain he is), I think Lyotard and Derrida differ more than he would have us believe.

Lyotard repeatedly stresses the difference between line and letter. For simplicity’s sake (an admittedly dubious motivation), we might say that Lyotard favors the line and Derrida the letter. Bennington responds to Lyotard’s statement that “When J. Derrida talks of the trace, and . . . when he talks of archi-writing, the error, I think, is that of not dissociating what is letter and what is [l]ine. It’s obvious that the line does not function like the letter” (Dérive 228-29, Bennington’s translation and bracketed correction) with “Derrida would of course reply that the difference between line and letter is itself a trace” (102). So the question returns to which came first, the line or the letter. While Lyotard continues to insist on a presymbolic figural, his position softens slightly over the years, or at least becomes more complex.

Lyotard begins his 1983 essay on Valerio Adami with “It’s as if a line were a sentence pursued by other means” (“It’s as If” 457), and ends the same essay by calling the line “that trace of a passage, imperceptible to the eye” (482). The line is also a trace. The question is not whether there are similarities—as Bennington’s response implies—but what the differences might be. Lyotard falls again on the side of difference, and it is a sensuous, thick, material difference. Both line and letter trace imperceptibilities, but the line does so by other means. These other means concern Lyotard immensely; for it is in them that individuation arises.

Bennington reads Lyotard as confusing the critical with the clinical, but I do not see Lyotard’s project as particularly therapeutic. Lyotard has no interest in an analysand on the couch. His interests are political. And it is in difference misunderstood as opposition that the political arises as individuation: the differend.

when we teach writing, we teach it broadly

Consider taking a short aside to further investigate Burke's motto and the space between motion and action. You can return here at the end of the aside.

If you skipped it above, consider taking a short aside to further investigate Burke's motto and the space between motion and action. You can return here at the end of the aside.