Rhetoric, History, and Totalizing Abstractions

As has become my habit here, this post is not going to form a whole that is entirely cohesive. I have some thoughts to work through and it may be a bit rough going.

I take rhetoric very seriously, and so when a communications theorist I follow promoted Make America Meme Again as a work by two of the top scholars in the field, I thought this was a chance to put my money where my mouth was and really engage with contemporary rhetorical analysis.

What a vast wasteland that field is, if this work is indeed representative. An enormous amount of space is dedicated to theory review, from Deleuze and Guattari to Guy Debord. Meanwhile, the source material receives far less attention. A single alt right meme will be used as an example for a lengthy discussion of détournement, when the concept of ironic detachment is perfectly serviceable though less academically sexy.

Had I written the book, I would have filled most of the pages with source material, and included an extremely long online appendix for further reference. After describing a basic concept or model, such as the use of ironic detachment to create a veil of plausible deniability, I would go over dozens of specific examples of how it played out. The authors of the book did not convince me that they had done much beyond reading some articles about their subject matter, as well as consulting sources like KnowYourMeme.com.

More valuable but in a way more frustrating is Jeffrey Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. It is more valuable because Stewart really has done the work of going through Locke’s archives, all relevant paintings and novels and poetry, and even works of philosophy. He covers segments of societies and places that I knew next to nothing about, and thanks to that I was able to learn a great deal. But he has that terrible habit of biographers of going too far beyond his material—in his case, positively leaping. It’s not even necessary; Locke’s relationship with his mom is weird enough on its own and his homosexuality difficult enough for the time period to provide a great deal to unpack. But rather than unpacking, Stewart inevitably overextends himself, going on for pages of analysis when a few suggestive examples would do the trick. Without such heavy-handed forays into abstraction, the book may have had some hopes of being merely 500, rather than 900 pages long.

The next three books I read came as a welcome relief after all that. Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is in many ways the perfect antidote to the kind of overwraught left-theory of the books mentioned above. I’ve meant to read it for years after reading an essay covering the basic argument. In essence, the theory behind the counterculture movement ends up feeding into consumer culture; “counterculture” becomes a source of differentiation and status games expressed primarily through what you buy.

One part on homogenization that stuck out to me:

As we have seen, the tendency toward homogenization (…) is the product of a very complex set of forces. Some of it is a reflection of consumer preference, some of it is due to economies of scale, some of it is caused by distortions in the market and some of it is caused by timeless, universal human tendencies. In many cases, it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious we should do anything about it. The most important point, however, is that there is no single “system” at work producing this effect. There is simply a bundle of different, sometimes contradictory forces.

This hooks up nicely with an argument I made about the use of “capitalism” and “imperialism” in left thought. I can sum up the argument as follows:

  • “Capitalism” as a theoretical system is devised to operate a specific way according to logical necessity, and applied to a diverse set of specific institutional environments.
  • The actual form of commerce is logically contingent on the institutional, technological, cultural, and even individual specifics of time and place.
  • We are better off using a plurality of less ambitious models to make sense of concrete phenomena, than a single totalizing abstraction that subsumes all particulars.

Even since writing that post almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been exposed to enough additional left theory to say that this is a general problem. The way that terms like “neoliberalism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, and “white supremacy” get used are similarly totalizing and overwrought. From the perspective of the hermeneutic circle, we could say that these theorists, like the authors of the first two books mentioned above, spend far too much time attempting to project the whole without allowing sufficient feedback from the concrete parts we have access to.

The other two book, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age and Civilization were genuine pleasures to read, and quite consistent with my goal of sticking closely to history this year. One of my biggest goals is to elucidate an understanding of liberalism that puts the relationship between commerce and art front and center. Tyler Cowen’s two books on this subject, along with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and the aforementioned Nation of Rebels, are all excellent material for that. But Holland in the Dutch Golden Age is of particular interest to me, because they really embodied it. Renaissance Florence did too, of course, but the Dutch had an urban middle class of historically unusual proportion who provided a base of art purchasers that was also unusual in how broad it was. I cannot read enough about this period right now and was delighted to get to the section of Civilization which discussed it.

Michael North, the author of Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, gets into the real nitty gritty details. This is helpful for moving beyond generalizations about markets and art at any time or place. In the case of Holland, the shift in demand towards older works had the consequence of reducing the demand for contemporary art, causing a contraction in the number of painters who could make a living. Big talk about how markets are good for art is not helpful; supporting contemporary artists who you believe are doing good work, and urging others to do so, is an important part of enabling a vibrant creative culture. This is basically what Alain Locke did himself, in fact, with the Harlem Renaissance.

This is a similar level of detail that Cowen gives you in In Praise of Commercial Culture in discussing, for example, how the market for sheet music influenced the kinds of compositions that were created in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the level of detail that is actually meaningful, and which I have waited far too long to seriously invest in my knowledge of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Until the next thought-dump.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.