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.