Roaming Rhetoric

Roaming Rhetoric

I was a bit bored, so I took a look at the Daypop and Blogdex indexes to see what people were looking at. It seems like paranoia is perhaps the biggest cash-crop of the new millennium. Blaming it on the shrub-in-charge [sic] is grand sport. I don’t want to join in beating around the Bush, the sic makes me sick. I stay away from politics. I don’t understand how Nixon, Reagan, or any of the latest bumper-crop of idiots got elected. I don’t really have that much interest in it, because I’m far more interested in deeper human concerns. Besides, to steal Protagoras’ argument: “there is much to prevent one’s knowing: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of man’s life.”

The shifting nature of the massive community of online writers around the globe is of deeper abiding interest to me. But it’s been frustrating to figure out how to comment on it without resorting to epideictic. Praise or blame? Are these the only two options? In the grand scheme, no. However, when it comes to debate in a public forum this genre of discourse is the most natural. Thinking about the “pilgrims progress” on the Internet, I think this is just a healthy growth stage.

The branches of Roman rhetoric (stolen from Aristotle, of course) are marked with attention to kairos, the proper time and place for constructing an effective argument. Dr. Kleine suggested that it is helpful to connect the branches with places and times. In the case of epideictic, the place is the public square, and it is primarily concerned with the past. This notion seems to be played out in the obsessions with his and her stories of both blogging and the personalities to be found on the Internet, and it couldn’t be closer (at least for now) to the concept of a world-wide public square filled with hundreds of thousands of voices.

But the “branch” analogy is also useful in terms of thinking of it as a tree. Epideictic is the lowest row of branches on the tree. Just above the roots, it’s where the flowers bloom. The next set of branches, for the Romans, was the forensic. This type of rhetoric is most often connected with the courtroom, but its primary concern is justice vs. injustice. Its mode of persuasion is sometimes praise and blame, but not always. And its goal is a disposition in the present. Is it right or wrong? Though it looks to the past for its evidence, the mode of action moves firmly into the present. The venue is of a much more limited nature, and in the US system at least, includes a jury of peers rather than a mob. I would suggest that the growth of blogging circles, and group blogs like metafilter, are a move up the tree of discourse into the forensic.

At the top of the tree is deliberative discourse. Of course, the branches get thinner and shorter near the top of the tree. There isn’t much of this going on at this stage of development, I think. However, damn it all, I’ve landed myself back in politics. The domain of the deliberative is the legislature. Its mode of action is based in the present, but looking to the future. I don’t think “blogging about blogging” counts as deliberative discourse, it’s largely metacognitive epideictic. The point of deliberative discourse is to suggest a course of action for the future, to make plans and projections for a better future. The future, in that respect, looks pretty bleak. But the Internet is young, and it’s forcing a crisis due to the proliferation of epideictic discourse.

Daniel posted a terrifying narrative about a blogger who was fired from her job for expressing her opinion on her blog. A recent Wired story about defamation lawsuits that I found cruising blogdex was also scary. I’ve been enjoying the festival of voices, though most do little beyond praise or blame. The idea that we may be headed for a time where we have to look out for what we say in public places points out the failure of deliberative discourse in our time. It seems like a huge cluster-fuck to me.

I was watching Heartbreak Ridge on TNT this morning. Each time Clint Eastwood uttered the words “cluster-fuck” they were neatly changed to “cluster-flop” in a voiceover. It scares me most that one day the Internet might become like that, and that the utopian dreams of the metabloggers might be reduced to some arbitrary code of conduct bent on self-protection. Only if this “cluster-flop” is stopped can the real voices be heard. Time and time again, the majority of citizens have stood against censorship. I can only hope that this trend continues. But somewhere around half of my country voted for a president [sic] that seems hell bent on silencing dissenting voices both in this country, and around the globe. It’s too bad there isn’t more deliberation going on. I’m hoping this all won’t be a cluster-flop.