Prediscursive Rhetoricality

Implied in the format of this project is a claim about multimodal scholarship, one I’ve built throughout its pages. However, as Lyotard also noted about his own book (Discourse, Figure), the theoretical work can seemingly undermine some of this claim. In other words, what I seem to be talking about is in many ways no longer multimodality but rhetoricality as such. Multimodality might seem to be one form of rhetoricality, but print could be another and orality still another. From this point of view, all modes would be roughly equivalent, each with particular advantages and disadvantages in particular situations.

I want to oppose this point clearly now.

My argument is not that various media don’t have advantages or disadvantages over each other depending on their contexts (they certainly do) but that multimodality is not one medium or format among a host of others but rather a somehow more originary format. In the service of this argument, I’ll need to dip into Diane Davis’s purely textual arguments.

Just like Shipka, Davis feels the need defend the textual form of her book Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Davis has an audacious thesis: there is rhetoric prior to symbolicity, and that has ethical implications. She bases her thesis on a close and careful reading of Emmanuel Levinas. But if rhetoric is prior to symbolicity, we might wonder why she resorts to symbolic means. At the end of her introduction, Davis includes a methodology section in which she writes,

The task here—to expose a solidarity that precedes symbolicity—cannot be accomplished through representation (alone); through tireless exegesis, the constative work of describing and explicating; there is also, of course, no way to skip that work. The performative event of the saying takes place at (or as) the limit, the “unexposable in,” but the saying by necessity gives a said that offers itself up once again to thematization and appropriation. Perhaps the most I can hope for here is that this text will testify to the saying’s tortured rapport with the said, in which it barely hangs on. Heidegger claims that this sort of testimony is what poets are for, and I don’t disagree; but I don’t have the gift, and in any case I’m not sure that poetry alone would reach you, the ones for whom I write. Literature more broadly or even literary criticism would have been other ways to go, especially given fiction’s remarkable powers of exposition. . . . A strictly philosophical or psychoanalytic frame might also have panned out. And if I were Avital Ronell, I might offer all of the above, and toss in some street theater, as well. But given my specific limitations and capabilities, I will hold on to a specifically rhetorical perspective. I’ll attempt to use rhetorical leverage to expose a preoriginary rhetoricity. (15-16; italics in original)

What I think Davis means with this last bit is that she will write toward the unwriteable. Unfortunately, it also contains what I consider an unproductive tension: in order to express a presymbolic rhetoric she resorts to symbolicity; Davis seems to imply that words are what she does best. Lyotard instead encourages us to create critical art. What happens when the philosopher learns to paint?

As long as the philosopher doesn’t also become a painter, she or he will remain prisoner of the sphere of language [langue], of structuralist unconscious. But what speech can still accomplish is to carry out, upon its own language [langage], this transgression of the spacings, this mobility and this depth that characterize the reference of discourse and that structuralism neglects. It is not even a question of drawing or painting, but rather of painting and drawing with and in words, what Merleau-Ponty called hyper-reflection [surréflexion]. (Discourse, Figure 51)

In other words, we can become critical artists without having to learn to paint. This is exactly Davis’s position in using her “rhetorical leverage to expose a preoriginary rhetoricity” (Inessential 16). In other words, she is not at all resorting to mere symbolic means but exposing the presymbolic within the symbolic.

But we can also learn to paint. I've done this throughout most of the nexūs in this book. In this one, however, I follow Davis in exposing the figure within discourse. In either case, the key is to mobilize discourse through transgression, that is to say, through figure. This is incredibly dangerous for academics (we are already accused of a lack of clarity). However, it is also an ethical imperative.

Figuration is ethical because it is in figuration that the listener sees the speaker’s face (my metaphor is deliberately mixed-media here, more synaesthesia than error). Clear writing—writing that attempts to eliminate the spacing of figuration, the thickness that resides within discourse—eliminates the (marked) human behind the words.

We might sum it up this way. You say something. I can paraphrase it in such a way that the original argument, the said, is detached from how you said it, the saying. Such a (heretical) paraphrase would do you an injustice. This is not to say that what we need to get at is content, what you were really saying. But content is exactly what’s wrong. To suppose a content is to believe in a distinction between the saying and the said. The way you say something is inseparable from what you are saying, and attempts to separate the two are a kind of conversational murder: “Ethical speech—conversation—is a discourse in which the said is not permitted to detach from the saying” (Davis, Inessential 64). So we might guess that ethical speech would presume a stable subject whose speech should not be paraphrased, but this is not necessarily so.

Davis marks out a unique version of agency—one in which subjects are neither stable nor all that separate: “Rhetorical agency, before it can involve symbolic action, requires an extra-symbolic signification, a saying, and the responsibility to respond” (113). According to Davis, Kenneth Burke thinks that to be human is to be fundamentally separate and rhetoric bridges this gap between people. Davis corrects that by saying that there is a presymbolic solidarity before that separation (Levinas’s face or Lyotard’s figure). Burke presumes heterogeneity that must be overcome. Davis presumes an inessential solidarity that makes possible still more heterogeneity (difference over identity).

For more on Burke's privileging of verbal over nonverbal, see Rickert 183-4.

Don Kraemer argues, contra Davis, that Burkean identification is not only compensatory for division but also for unity (150). That is to say, according to Kraemer, Davis is wrong not for proposing an originary unity but for arguing that Burke did not already propose such a unity. This allows him to articulate a complicated relationship between identification and pure persuasion. The two are not necessarily all that different. Then again, they are not entirely the same. They are, instead, consubstantial.

The consubstantiality of abstract terms is, I think, a unique and creative argument. While I am only aware of Burke using consubstantiality to talk about people, I certainly do not know of any prohibition against using it for terms. However, consubstantiality itself seems a bit difficult to extend in this way. Could we then make consubstantiality itself consubstantial with identification? If so, the term seems to be getting thinner as it is stretched.

Kraemer reads Davis’s argument as “at most an account of norms—norms of affectability and persuadability. What we want to know and to realize, however, is the normative” (157). Of course, Davis interrogates just such issues of normativity throughout Inessential Solidarity, in which the article from which Kraemer quotes appears as a chapter. But Kraemer does not quote from Inessential Solidarity. Which, perhaps, is why he cares so much about norms and normativity. As Davis writes,

An inessential and thoroughly rhetorical solidarity, which is not in itself limited or limitable, is the condition for any “truth process” as well as any political instantiation of social structure. This infinite responsibility is a “nuisance” in deliberative, juridical, and ceremonial discourses—wherever it is necessary to advocate for social justice—precisely because, being what calls for justice in the first place, infinitely, it is where all our moral and political problems begin. It is also where all our hope lies (a provocative double entendre that I may as well let stand). (119; italics in original)

Normativity is precisely what is at issue and what the presymbolic unity of Freud’s primary identification and Levinas’s ethics problematize. So, although Kraemer ends his article with an investigation of rhetoric and justice, his is an ethics based on identity and not difference. By contrast, Davis bases her ethics in inessential solidarity, a concept wholly in line with Deleuzian difference.

Whereas Levinas typically puts rhetoric at odds with ethics (Inessential 65), Lyotard basis his ethics in rhetoric (the differend). It is tempting to map Levinas directly onto Lyotard, but this would be a disservice to each (one thing the two share is their insistence on irreducibility). In fact, Lyotard goes to great lengths to distinguish his project from Levinas’s work in the introduction to Discourse, Figure. Having likened Levinas’s ethics to a listening ear on a nonsensory face, Lyotard responds, “This book takes the side of the eye” (5).

However, just as we would be skeptical if two eyewitness accounts were identical, we would also be surprised if they shared nothing in common, and there are certain similarities between Lyotard and Levinas as well. Both articulate an outside to symbolicity. For each of them, this outside is presymbolic, both existing before symbolicity and making symbolicity possible. For Lyotard, the presymbolic is the figural. For Levinas, it is the face. Strangely, for each of them the presymbolic points in the direction of death. For Levinas it is death of the other against which the face interdicts. For Lyotard it is the death drive that powers figuration. This is probably their most important difference. For Lyotard, following Freud, death is the impetus for figuration; for Levinas death is the temptation of figuration, forbidden in the face. For each of them, this connection between the originary presymbolic realm and death carries ethical import (though for Lyotard, these ethical implications will get spelled out only in later works).

The distinction between the two hinges on diametrically opposed understandings of figuration.

For Levinas, figuration is prosopopoeia, the giving of a face, a kind of amplification through simplification but with a more ominous tone. It is the heretical paraphrase of the other, the stereotyping we all do every day to everyone around us. The face of the Other (I retain Davis’s distinction in capitalization) is what is left over in such prosopopoeia. This background can help us understand Davis’s puzzling statement that “if le visage d’autre is the effect of figuration, le visage d’Autrui effects a disfiguration” (Inessential 52). Figuration, prosopopoeia, gives us a face as a reference point. Dis-figuration cuts the linkage of prosopopoeia, retaining a kind of respect for the face of the Other that cannot ever adequately be represented.

Lyotard’s figural corresponds surprisingly closely with Levinas’s dis-figuration. It is the un of un-working, un-play: “Now we understand that the principle of figurality that is also the principle of unbinding (the baffle) is the death drive: ‘the absolute of anti-synthesis’: Utopia” (Discourse, Figure 355). Earlier in the book, Lyotard has told us what he means by utopia: “Utopia is the fact that truth never appears where it is expected” (12). Utopia is the noncorrespondence of truth.

In other words, utopia, which Lyotard has called the principle of figurality, corresponds very closely to what Levinas calls dis-figuration. Levinas’s figuration actually corresponds much more closely to Lyotard’s discourse. This can help us to understand why the two fail so spectacularly to line up with each other when they are speaking so similarly about the same topics. But we can take Lyotard at his word when he distinguishes his own project from Levinas’s: it is the difference between eye and ear.

But we are not yet done with Lyotard’s coupling of figurality and utopia as “the absolute of anti-synthesis.” In explicating this baffling passage, D. N. Rodowick writes that, as opposed to “textual analyses organized through terms of system and identity,” a critical reading

would watch and listen, with the floating attention of the analyst, for silences, equivocations, evasions, denials, and contradictions. It would understand the recurrences of form not as a desire fulfilled in signs, but as the dream of unfulfilled desire; repetition not as a drive toward ending, but towards new beginnings. Rather than understanding the text as completing itself in the spectator, the encounter between text and reader would be understood as a historical dice-throw, a contingent event, the possibility for renewing terms of meaning, identity, and desire. What is needed, then, is not a theory of spectatorship based on identification; rather, we must imagine the activity of reading as difference. ( 94)

While Rodowick does not explicitly cite The Differend, his reading extends Lyotard’s theory of critical art toward his advocacy for the creation of new idioms that bear witness to differends. Whereas Levinas is perpetually perturbed by the perversion of paraphrase, Lyotard answers not by trying (and failing) to get it “right” but by composing something new that still remembers things never lined up exactly.



Rhetoric is prior to discourse. In other words, words are just one of the many possible (per)versions of [pure] persuasion. Rhetoric begins as multimodal and then becomes differentiated, often toward discourse. We might stop at various points along that track of differentiation: at the face that persuades us not to kill, with a critical art that self-deconstructs discourse in images and/or text, in a purely verbal display of rhetoricality, or even in an attempt to write degree zero—in no style but nonstyle. Rhetoric undergirds each of these positions and even lurks in supposed arhetoricality. The figural pervades communication in the materiality of its mediation. In insisting on the figural’s materiality, I may be differing slightly from Davis’s position. As I make clear elsewhere, her preoriginary rhetoricity is not simply immaterial but actually somewhere between materiality and immateriality.

The question, however, might remain: have I done Diane an injustice in my paraphrase of her work? I use the first name here to remind us of her face. I know Diane; I’ve seen her face many times. I don’t want to offend her, to construct a straw (wo)man* that I can more easily defeat, or even to typify our conversation as in any way adversarial. But academic conversations have that tendency. “She says, I say.” In that comma—just as in Lyotard’s titular comma—lies a potential injustice. I must balance professionalism with ethics, and it is somewhat shocking that the two should ever be in conflict. But academic discourse is discourse after all, and it carries with it assumptions of zero-sum games and antagonistic language. Diane I can talk to; Davis I can paraphrase (thereby murdering Diane). Instead, I wonder how we might respond to academic differends. Perhaps by creating new idioms that bear witness to those differends. This project, with its drawings, animations, stylistic excess (which some might call self-indulgent), is just such an attempt.

* * *

*On the one hand, I’m really uncomfortable with the gendering inherent in this phrase, and, on the other, it provides a wonderful example of the kind of figuration, prosopopoeia, that Levinas and Davis warn us against and that provides the root of my discomfort. Rather than erase it to make things more clear, I’ve left it in to bear witness to that particular differend.