Short Schrift

(For The Happy Tutor.)

Is it belaboring the obvious to acknowledge that blogspace is theatricality, networked? What if we add to that acknowledgment the observation that under theatricality, no rhetorical act is merely self-evident; that every assertion, by its existence, calls attention to its rhetorical exigency and demand that the careful reader ask: does the fact that this needed to be said indicate that there is a countervailing perception? Does Pliny’s praise of the emperor Trajan send the message that the emperor Trajan is somehow in need of praise; that there is a common perception that the emperor Trajan is somehow not worthy of praise? (This question is one of the core foci of Shadi Bartsch’s argument in Actors in the Audience.) Under theatricality, should the act of posing a question qua question indicate to us that it’s actually an assertion wearing a mask?

Consider another example from imperial Rome (again, via Bartsch’s Actors in the Audience): Nero made a regular habit of disguising himself as an ordinary citizen and wandering out into the city at night and engaging in robbery, assault, rape, and murder. Reports of the effectiveness of his disguise vary, but there is agreement among historians that Nero occasionally encountered resistance, whether his subjects recognized him or not. In one instance, Nero assaulted a senator, who recognized him but did not initially acknowledge that recognition, and fought back forcefully, giving Nero a black eye. Weeks passed with Nero remaining out of public view until the eye healed. When he returned to public life, the senator apologized to Nero for fighting back, and here the reports diverge: the senator either realized that he had violated imperial theatricality’s illusion and put himself to death, or he was encouraged by Nero’s court to put himself to death. In either case, the senator violated the rules of imperial theatricality by removing his own mask of being deceived by Nero’s disguise. The lesson from Nero’s time seems clear: under the regime of theatricality, there will always be some who wear masks, thereby leading to environment in which all wear masks, and must be treated in accordance with their masked personae, rather than being treated as who we might feel them to truly be.

The ongoing carnival at Wealth Bondage is perhaps the ideal blogspace instance of the regime of wholly masked theatricality — and yet The Happy Tutor, in his cussedness, continues to confuse matters and blur those lines even after his apparent retirement and the death of The Author Function.

In such a context, the known knowns are as follows.

  1. As the Deputy Editor notes, “the Author Function died hacked to death in his cell, an apparent suicide, while under the protection of the Forces of Homeland Freedom Optimization.”
  2. The Happy Tutor as apparently disembodied rhetorical process — a sort of satirical floating signifier, perhaps — continues “beating his stick upon an empty drum,” shaping debate by pointing to the debate and making the case for his own superfluity in that debate, and thereby offering a peerless and unprecedented lesson in fashioning authorial ethos wholly out of rhetorical praeteritio. Debate over the possibility of argument under hegemonic regime, the Tutor suggests, is impossible, and even were it possible, he could not add to it, since his function as fetish action figure authorial persona was to engage that debate. In so suggesting, the Tutor simultaneously forecloses and initiates the debate over its own possibility.
  3. Under the regime of academic theatricality, forthrightness is only possible when all parties concerned agree to engaging in similar and concerted mask- or non-mask behavior as a component of the generic conventions of the festschrift. In other words: forthrightness in praise here is (and must be) a function of genre.

But don’t 2 and 3 contradict one another? Isn’t avoidance of that contradiction what all those masks and fetish action figures are about? And, once more: under theatricality, should the act of posing a question qua question indicate to us that it’s actually an assertion wearing a mask? As is his habit, the Tutor in his self-conscious act of semi-retirement leaves us with more questions than conclusions. He’d likely blacken my eye for saying so, but it seems to me the highest praise possible to propose that the Tutor’s rhetorical performance of identity has itself become a literary trope in process: the act of placing himself and his interlocutors sous rature.

It may here be needlessly and painfully earnest — it may, in fact, violate the conventions of theatricality and perform the rhetorical equivalent of breaking the fourth wall — to point out that even in the apparent earnestness of encomium, we ought to attend to the masks, the inversions, the play. I share the Deputy Editor’s observation: the Tutor isn’t one to rest long. He’ll soon return to the play.

Short Schrift

5 thoughts on “Short Schrift

  • October 8, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    I am in earnest, as was Wilde, well before Derrida. Thank you for the Tribute to my favorite character in Wealth Bondage. As with Nero, I appreciate your not unmasking me. Singature, Event, Context. I as Author Function died many deaths prior to the Tutor’s. What lives on? In real life, I hope I do. A good text today stands to it author as does crime to perpetrator or Commander in Chief to Constitution. No one can expect the accused to allocute without a plea bargain. Whether I am alive or dead depends who is asking, and what they have to offer. Tell your students in uniform that rhetoric, treachery, diplomacy, propaganda, and war craft are not so dissimilar. The Text defeats the reader, and plants the flag in his or her behind.


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