Mostly Harmless

Michael Bérubé has some interesting things to say about discourse and power following dust-ups in various comments sections across the interblogowebs. I’m a longtime lurker at Bérubé’s and consistently enjoy his writing, and I felt uncomfortable reading his account of his engagement with Et Alia: Et Alia, in a previous internets identity of his, offered me a great deal of extremely insightful commentary on my blogged struggles with the dissertation, and in fact led me to an insight that profoundly shaped my chapters 4 and 5. And I’m familiar with the rhetorical bombast Bérubé indicts and Et Alia exhibits, having often seen and engaged in it here and at Wealth Bondage and elsewhere: after all, there’s a reason for this place’s Latin name and its translation. But Et Alia’s over-the-topness in that first comment Bérubé cites goes way beyond anything I’m comfortable with, even inasmuch as I get how he’s trying to push the boundaries of the discussion with his polemic. And, of course, polemic is useful in that it gets people’s attention, but it also puts its author in the position of having various audiences wonder how serious one might be. I figure any scholarly colleagues of mine who read here know I’m mostly harmless, despite the occasional ill-considered rant or fit of bombast — but these days, as a brand-new professor at a rather unique institution, I also watch what I say in a manner substantially different from when I was blogging as a graduate student.

And on that topic, Bérubé has much to say: the following portion of his post, where he engages Turbulent Velvet, takes some dark and interesting turns in reflecting on the interactions among power, rhetoric, position, and persona. Certainly, it seems self-evident to say that who you are determines how you speak, how your words are received, and how you interpret what others have to say — until one considers the concrete situation of, say, Caesar listening to Cicero’s oration on behalf of Ligarius, where Caesar was essentially both plaintiff and judge, and Cicero’s explicit invocation of Pharsalus and the fact that he, like Ligarius, had sided against Caesar backs Caesar into a rhetorical corner wherein he can adopt only one role: the merciful and indulgent imperator rather than the severe and just iudex. But in that situation, even Cicero’s position was predetermined for him: given the public perception of his identity and position, he could adopt no persona other than the scandalously oppositional orator in relation to Caesar. In much the same way, I think, oppositional discourse in weblog comments is performance and play, largely based upon the perception of one’s self-image; both who one wants to be and who one feels one must be. Which is what all that business about “celebrities” and conduct and identity seems to be. Certainly, Turbulent Velvet comes across as petulant and obnoxious, but he’s making an important point: someone with Bérubé’s position and status is pretty much (can I do the sous rature thing here and use a term while simultaneously acknowledging its problematic nature?) interpellated — like Caesar — into being open, indulgent, and engaging, while entrants to the conversation, those with less established status, are free (and, in fact, expected) to say outrageous things and toss rhetorical Molotov cocktails.

Think about Pliny and the way he has to bend over backward to even seem sincere in his praise of Trajan in the Panegyricus, because of the way that power relations shape discourse. If you’re someone who’s not recognized as carrying significant status in a conversation, and you praise those who are, there’s no way you’re going to be seen as anything other than fawning and obsequious.

Mostly Harmless
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6 thoughts on “Mostly Harmless

  • October 4, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    Wealth Bondage – “rhetorical bombast”? Has it come to this, Mike after all these years? I feel like Falstaff watching Prince Hal pass, now as King Henry, snubbing his old friend. You are a serious man now Mike. I have seen it happen to others, once the PhD is granted, particularly if a promising position is obtained in a reputable institution of higher learning. Ah, the times we had, though, when bombast and fustian and flyting vied with the sound of a beggar beating his stick upon an empty drum. Yes, indeed WB is bombast, blame it on the Author Function. Don’t blame me. I am just reading the script.

  • October 4, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    I’ve performed the bombast as much as I’ve seen it, certainly, but part of my point here is that yes, I’m a little more tentative about the fustian and flyting these days, not quite having a sense of where I stand in The Profession. Is that a snub of the Tutor’s ghost and the dumpster? No, no snub at all. More than anything, perhaps, it’s an indictment of my own spinelessness in the face of The Company, The Machine, The Military-Industrial Complex. And no blame, either, to be laid upon the Author Function: like him, I’m mostly harmless.

    And, in fact, what are those of us who enjoyed life in the Dumpster to do, now that the Tutor has conveniently shuffled off this mortal coil for the sake of respectability? I wonder: am I in fact being indicted for following a Tutor’s example? The student who learns too readily will quickly feel the belt?

    Meh. Methinks the Tutor doth protest too much. Or, as we might hope, is he not so dead as we’ve heard? 😉

  • October 5, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    The Author dies, his characters live on, then die off. It is the Nature of Things. There is a season for flyting and bombast and there is a season to sow and reap a paycheck. I try to visualize you at the lecturn. In a uniform? Coat and tie? Certainly not Fetish Action Wear. After all you are not a Trainer for the CIA, as far as I know. What is the dress code for state sanctioned torture? I wonder if that info is top secret or whether we will read about it in People or TV Guide. Going back to et., J. Alva, T.V., and Berube, I wonder if the matter isn’t one of deportment. How are we to compose our faces, our classes, our compositions, our public persona under the new regime in which more is at stake than salary or tenure or intellectual celebrity. What will your students learn that will help them as they interrogate enemy noncombatants, serve on military tribunals, or later perhaps in Congress? What do we model under these circumstances? Loquacity? Chain of command ethics? What do our classics say to you, to Berube? To your students? et and company, Mike, are modeling insurbordination to what they take to be growing injustance and authoritarianism. What is Berube modeling? I don’t know his work well enough to say, but what I read struck me as pretty well adjusted.

  • October 7, 2006 at 4:12 am

    I wasn’t trying to push the boundaries of anything. I was just thoughtlessly venting in what I thought was an obscure corner of the web. You could have knocked me over with a TCP/IP packet when I saw that, yes, Michael Bérubé took notice.

    What I have against Bérubé is his horrible attitude towards people who have given up on the Dems. He misreads, misrepresents, and just flat out lies about them; for example, Medea Benjamin—who gets plaudits from me for the demolision job she did on Richard Perle on PBS—said in The Nation that she’d wouldn’t be pulling for the Dems nationally, but working in the Bay Area for local 3rd party candidates. Bérubé did a hachet job on her.

    There are other examples, but I’m too tired and too disgusted to mention them now.

    I think that what Mr. Scruggs calls the “thanksralphers”–pundits and bloggers invested in dumping on any politics beyond the Dems, e.g., Eric Alterman, Brad deLong, Tim Burke–are a real problem. While it’s probably too late for a 3rd party to make a meaningful difference in our current, extremely bad situation, continuing to dump on them and encouraging others to do the same is going to put all of us at a disadvantage when we will be in a position to make change for the better, because all that will be ready-to-hand will be the positions, policies, and habits of thought that got us into this mess.

    There’s my beef in a more reasoned form. As for what I wrote, it’s gone now, and my LJ locked down except for some silly stuff. My bad for saying that Bérubé should come to physical harm some place where other people could see it.

  • October 7, 2006 at 12:12 pm

    Glad to see et alia’s scaled it back a few notches. I do appreciate it. But just for the record, I have never lied about Medea Benjamin. I have simply expressed exasperation and disbelief that she said, in 2003, “I’m stunned by how extremist the Bush presidency has become on foreign policy. We never could have predicted this” (my reply amounts to what did you think Cheney was there for?), and in a blog post of December 14, 2004, I criticized Benjamin for saying “many of us in the Green Party made a tremendous compromise by campaigning in swing states for such a miserable standard-bearer for the progressive movement as John Kerry” and then following this with “let’s stop the infighting, though.” I honestly found that to be disingenuous. And calling my response a “hatchet job” isn’t quite fair, either. My response, and et alia’s response to my response, amounts to just one more disagreement among left-liberal-progressive-whatevers about what the hell to do with our despair.

    But et alia is entirely right about this much: Benjamin’s takedown of Perle, Prince of Darkness, was a thing of exquisite beauty. I don’t know whether et alia gets more upset when I agree with him than when I disagree (because I know the agon is part of the point here), but there you have it, fwiw.

    The larger point at issue here remains an fascinating one — and while we’re toning things down, I think it’s clear that I was wrong to vent at John Pistelli two months ago. As the interpellation sous rature in Mike’s post suggests, hailing only works 90 percent of the time, as Althusser himself admits. So I should have taken the position-and-status differential into consideration more carefully on that one, absolutely. But do I really have to be open, indulgent, and engaging, no matter what the nature of the provocation? (And while we’re on the subject, how does one determine the position and status of one’s interlocutors when they are anonymous?) Does the principle hold more generally, so that I can take out after far more distinguished people like Stephen Greenblatt and Gayatri Spivak with rhetorical Molotov cocktails — or, for that matter, at any tenured professor who teaches at a university more prestigious than mine? (That widens the field considerably, woo hoo!) I mean these questions seriously, and I do think they’re important to blog exchanges, which characteristically don’t abide by the usual protocols of ordinary scholarly debate — for better and worse.

    One ancillary point on this score:

    If you’re someone who’s not recognized as carrying significant status in a conversation, and you praise those who are, there’s no way you’re going to be seen as anything other than fawning and obsequious.

    I’m pleased to report that’s not necessarily true. There’s a world of difference between hearing ordinary, sincere praise like “I thought your essay in X was really engaging” or “I think you were right about Y, and have you considered Z,” and fawning, obsequious crap like “I thought you might like to know that I cited you approvingly/ reverently/ sycophantically in the most recent Journal of Eggplant Parmesan.” I’ve heard both, and I know the difference. Everybody does — except Lee Siegel.

    Last but not least, kudos to Mike for invoking flyting. You may or may not know that my wife has written an extraordinary book on the history of the manifesto, and, to answer The Author Function’s question, she and I have arguments all the time about the political value of rhetorical modes that are more invested in denunciation than in persuasion. She prefers bombast, and I prefer snark.

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