Anyway, strangely enough, I was drawn to re-post this passage from the Moot when I read (on a tweeted tip from David Golumbia) Nathan Hensley's recent recounting of the crisis in the late nineties of the star-spangled English Department at Duke helmed by Stanley Fish. At the time, the influential hermeneutic and political (feminist, queer, postcolonial, etc.) critical approaches to the reading of literature emerging from the department were caught up in the theory wars symptomized by the stupid Sokal affair and accusations that theory represented hostility to literature or an effort to "master" literature (in which I always heard the still-lingering whine of earlier multicultural battles over the canon, a rage at the dislodging via capacious criticism of the hegemonic mastery of western literature).
Needless to say, this critique implies that political engagement with literature violates it, and acceptance of the critique paved the way for essentially a-political anti-political forms of description amounting at their worst to promotional literature. Now, a generation later, in the epoch of the neoliberal informercial academy in which the humanities are treated as a fossil in a field slated to become a parking lot, it is not hard to see that millennial clash among academics as precedent for current clashes of precarious indentured academics with robotic administrators and managers ready to burn the academy down for the insurance money. As Hensley nicely puts the point, the debate seemed to depend on a facile distinction between criticism and fetishism of literature, a denial that criticism of literature could be a thinking-otherwise than philosophizing arising out of aesthetic experience and expressing a kind of love for the texts it engages. Eve Sedgwick -- one of the stars of Duke and an enormously beloved and formative influence for me -- becomes the exemplary figure of such an understanding of criticism in Hensley's account.
I received my PhD. from the Rhetoric Department at Berkeley in 2005 after a decade of study there, and I experienced the episode recounted by Hensley as a partisan who felt very much under attack, and who warned about the connections between anti-critical attacks and neoliberal ambitions (there were, of course, many many folks who knew what was going on). In my program I learned to read texts logically, tropologically, and topically (that is to say, as texts constituted by entailments, figurations, and citations), texts offered up by and released into the hearing of struggling situated subjects. This was a mode of reading that was deeply influenced by hermeneutics and was readily politicized in ways then under attack at Duke (and it felt like everywhere else), and for me at any rate it was connected to a teaching of critical theory in which I am still engaged to this day, critical theory as a post-philosophical discourse inaugurated by the anti-fetishistic critiques of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud (commodity, ressentimentality, sexuality) and culminating in Spivak's planetarity (also, from 1999). Since so many of these strands comport with Hensley's it is no surprise his piece resonated for me. I realize that after all this preamble the actual snippet from the Moot will inevitably seem a bit anti-climactic, but at its heart is rhetoric as a mode of critical/political reading that is an expression of love for the text -- that in discerning an event as a text is already to be caught up in a responsiveness/responsibility between subjects mediated by the text that is a form that love takes -- and that expresses that deeper love to which my whole practice is dedicated (and after which this blog, originating in my last years in the program at Rhetoric), a love of the world/love of public worldliness, Arendtian amor mundi.
As someone trained in rhetoric, who teaches rhetoric, who is actually -- weird as this may sound -- devoted to rhetoric as a critical practice, it is very commonplace for me to see arguments as pitched in occasions that resonate in them after they have passed, as citing frames and conceits that render them apparently plausible and truly forceful, as dependent on figures that feel transparent or evidentiary when they strictly speaking are not, that indulge formal fallacies that bedevil them even while making them persuasive, and so on.
When one exposes a logical entailment, a topical citation, a pesky metaphorization one is rarely accusing its author of hypocrisy or laziness or stupidity or anything like that. One is trying to understand how an argument generates its persuasive force the better to understand the hopes and history out of which it emerged and to which it responds. No argument escapes such stratifications, they are far better understood as the way into an argument than as an excuse to dismiss it. They are my chief point of connection with the author as a fellow sufferer in struggling to make sense of the world and overcome its terrible demands. In arriving at my critique of anarchism both left and right I have actually found the resources with which to understand democratization in a more mature way, and also to recognize the work of democratization in the best anarchists in their best moments.
If I had a dime for every time a person told me I use rhetoric to "play games" when I pointed out logical, topical, tropological connections that an interlocutor found inconvenient I could pay off my student loans.