Rhetorical Theory and Ethics Course Description

Though he was a masterful rhetorician himself, Plato famously ranted against sophistic rhetoric because it, unlike the “true dialectic,” was not an ethical use of language: it aimed at seduction rather than truth. Centuries later in the Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard M. Weaver argues, in Plato’s footsteps, that rhetoric is ethical only when it urges commitment to dialectically secured principles, e.g. truths. The notion that rhetoric is ethical (good) only when it operates in the service of previously established truths continues to dominate our ethico-political scene. However, once such metaphysical prejudices dissolve, once both “the good” and “the true” are understood—even to the tiniest degree—as effects of language, this clean, supplemental relation between rhetoric and ethics gets complicated. How are we to understand an ethics that is dependent upon language? How are we to understand this relation between rhetoric and ethics once the iffiness of doxa comes to replace the certitudes of episteme? What is left of ethics once its traditional “grounds” become a function of the interplay of rhetorical principles (audience, exigence, context, tone, arrangement, delivery, timing, etc.) and the structure of address? Does this leave the ethical imperative impotent? Purely relative? In Postmodern Ethics, Zygmunt Bauman (RIP, Jan 9, 2017) attempts to counter this putative relativity by proposing that ethics today, after the “fall,” takes place when I choose to be responsible, in the instant that “I assign the right to make me responsible” (86). This position, however, presumes to answer all the questions we will try to hold open in this course: it presumes a knowable other and a self who has both the freedom to choose and the knowledge of what it means to be responsible.

In this course, we will begin with the presumption that ethics and language are indissociably linked in the question of responsibility, which, etymologically speaking, comes from the Latin répondre (to respond, to answer to) and suggests the obligation to respond to the call of the other. However, we will not presume to understand ahead of time either the origin or the effects of this “call.” In Altérités, Jacques Derrida admits that what leaves him “reticent” about all current discourses on ethics is that they operate on the presumption that the “other” is necessarily another “myself”—a(nother) rational subject, a(nother) speaking consciousness, even another Dasein, just like me—that they fail to attend to the question of the “other,” to the otherness of the other, proceeding instead on the basis of an unquestioned appropriation. Emmanuel Levinas proposes, further, that responding to the other is not a choice I get to make but an imperative that gives me to be: the priority of the other, according to him, is not a function of my generosity; it is my existential predicament. And yet, responding to the other’s call, as Avital Ronell has repeatedly shown, consists simultaneously in a deracinating experience of being-called that interrupts the presumption of spontaneity and in an experience of undecidability, as you can never be sure the call is a call or that it’s meant for you: “How, precisely, can we know?” (Stupidity). The question that remains for the infinitely obligated addressee, as Lyotard puts it in The Differend, is whether what is coming through as a call really is a call–rather than, for example, a “fantasy.”

In this seminar, we will hold ourselves within the complex intersections of rhetoric and ethics, where decisions are necessary but the “grounds” for making them cannot be secured, where the trial of decision involves an encounter with the undecidable.

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