I am pointing a gub at you. Abt naturally.

The confusion over Virgil’s bank-robbing note in Take the Money and Run points at the necessity of interpretation as a pragmatic part of communication. He failed to rob the bank, because nobody could understand his handwriting. The primary flaw I see in Lanham’s reduction of things to levels of transmission (At / Through) is that it doesn’t begin to touch the problem of interpretation. This is a mistake that Ricoeur addresses. I’ll wander my way back there sometime soon. I’ve been dancing toward this stuff for a while. Turbulent Velvet posed a question in a comment:

When someone insists on “sincerity,” is this always a formal-stylistic-epistemological demand?

I think so. I’ve come to that conclusion because of my thinking about linking. Another way to view links (linguistically) is to think of them as deictic structures, or in philosophical language, indexical expressions. Conversationally, they are among the most problematic building blocks. For example, this is a sentence steeped in deixis:

I will be back in an hour.

An hour from when? Without face-to-face interaction, we must speculate on the “now” that the writer is referring to. The “now” must have some relative referent to be meaningful. In the case of a blog entry, if the post has a time-stamp, it is indeed meaningful in the time context. But what about space? When I say “back” it implies a “here” which the return will be consummated in. Does the writer mean he will write more in his blog, or merely be connected to the web, waiting for replies? What if a writer says:

I will be back soon.

Soon, for a rock, might be a thousand years. For a human, well, the entire concept is socially constructed and conditioned by appropriateness behaviors. The problematic nature of identity in writing often amplified by the web exists because the presence of an I implied in all statements constitutes a deictic expression. When someone links something, even with only an implied intention, an I is present as the epistemic, indexical context for the utterance:

[I think this is] Hilarious

It seems easy to index some qualities of intention behind my act of pointing— I must be interested in writing, or at least be in possession of a dirty mind, to find it funny. There is an inferred I at the core of all statements. Thus, the insistence on “sincerity” is an epistemic demand for clarification of the position of the speaker in relation to the utterance. Links are always deictic. They come from somewhere and they go somewhere, which can only be defined relatively. As Jill has noted, they are signs of value. Links are currently being “mined” in a relatively simplistic way creating a power dynamic that, though tangential to what I’ve been on about, is relevant. Identity, at least in most Western cultures, has its own sort of value, its own currency. And the “mining methods” surrounding identity are similarly flawed.

Questioning online identity is similar to questioning link economics because identity also involves a complex exchange between differing consensual levels of access. I blame Alex for getting me started on this. Questions of linking and questions of identity are not usually connected because the convergence of the deictic functions in electronic discourse is seldom noticed: what we point at and who we are have received attention separately, but not together. Expressions of identity, whether in the form of abstract links or expressive revelations, index the relative position of the speaker to the hearer, and are largely inferred rather than overtly stated. To request clarification of either (context around a pointer, sincerity from a writer) is indeed a formal-stylistic-epistemological demand. Indexical expressions are evaluated for “truth value” on the basis of both ends of the relation. However, conversational deixis is not conveniently reducible to pure semantic, truth-conditional analysis. This, perhaps, —as Frank Zappa would say— is the crux of the biscuit [‘].

There’s a lot more to think about in that fat comment. I don’t see the problem of emotion or “emotional scripts” as an “orthogonal vector” to conventional rhetorical theory, but instead a central cause for the vibrations. The oscillation between expressivist and social-constructivist praxis is a large case in point. I’ve got a paper on that subject I’m still working on. But I’ve already babbled on too long. Perhaps later.

1 thought on “Deixis”

  1. Jeff,

    The emotional vector is a problem because there’s no theory for it. That is, classical rhetoric has enormous, elaborate taxonomies for all the stylistic doodads. But there’s no correspondingly elaborate taxonomy of these emotions which you say are the causes of rhetoric, nor is there a lot of thought about the complex-deceptive way that the emotional causes might relate to the styles. As a result, the stylistic forms and the emotions which precede them tend to become theoretically conflated. People begin to think that in describing the formal, stylistic maneuvers they’re also describing or taxonomizing the emotions which are related to the forms (and this is problematic because it oversimplifies and ignores the zones where there is slippage or complexity between the two fields, or where emotion has some kind of “autonomous” effect which can’t be reduced to or identified with a stylistic maneuver). Then, once this conflation occurs, theory begins to let language take over the slots of both cause and effect. People begin to say that language “constructs” emotion.

    A narrative of error: First the integrity of the stylistic taxonomy was preserved by saying that emotions– standing outside of the stylistic maneuvers–were their cause. Emotion does its thing, rhetoric does its thing, and there’s a lovely dance between. But because no way has been developed to talk about the emotions apart from the rhetorical taxonomy, rhetorical form is allowed to stand in for the missing theory of emotion–and then in the end emotion is triumphantly conceived as the result of language, “constructed” by it. Poststructuralism and cognitive theory tend to eliminate emotion as anything but an epiphenomenon of language in just this way.

    The only theory we’ve really had that attempts richly to put linguistic form and emotional dynamics together is psychoanalysis. So if you don’t believe in psychoanalysis, where do you go theoretically to think about emotion and rhetoric in a really rich and complex way? I think most critics and rhetoricians, faced with this problem, have retreated to stylistic form and hoped that it can somehow redouble itself and stand in for the emotion question. And I see this as a source of many theoretical dead ends.

    At the same time, I have a hard time getting people to see the problem I see here, so I tend to stop them on the road like the Ancient Mariner and harp on this point over and over.

    Please accept this albatross.

    Also, my comments are not “fat.” I prefer to think of them as portly in a dignified sort of way, like Mr. French in A Family Affair.

    Yours as ever,



    T.V., that is a horribly skewed version of classical rhetoric. Aristotle, in Book 1 of Rhetoric says (before he says much of anything else):

    The modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the art: everything else is merely accessory.

    Pathos, or appeal to the emotions, is fundamental to Greek epidictic rhetoric. While Aristotle spent more time on the enthymeme (disproportionately privileging logos) his competitors, the Sophists, did not. Gorgias, perhaps the most successful of the old school, promoted a view of language as a drug, which certainly has emotional overtones. Prodicus, working with the nuances of synonyms, also targeted the emotional appeals and was after a sort of general theory of emotional excitation.

    With the fading importance of epidictic in the Roman World (coincident with the rise of the lawyer), the taxonomies began. However, Augustine effectively revived the epidictic (praise or blame) genre as a mode of preaching, thus placing importance back into the emotional field of play. The “wound” in rhetorical theory you’re speaking of happened in the 16th and 17th century, with Erasmus and Ramus. Erasmus’s Copia is the taxonomy to end all taxonomies (stylistically). These things really took hold not in classical rhetoric, but modern rhetoric. It’s just that the popular perception of classical rhetoric is filtered through these guys, thus privileging the logical pole of the appeals. That pretty much ends with Burke and McKeon in the 20th century, as rhetoric reverts back to its emotional roots. Surely Burke’s consubstantiality and Jim Corder’s Rhetoric is Love are attempts to put the importance of a theory of emotion in Rhetoric back in play? I suspect that there is more of a surfeit of emotional theories in both classical and postmodern rhetoric, rather than a lack. It’s just the dark ages (the age of reason) which minimized emotion in any way.


    Oh, and one more thing— a deep engagement of emotional issues is incorporated in a sort of marginalized sub-field in rhetoric, Writing and Healing, wrapped tightly around the “vector” you propose. Check out “Teaching Emotional Literacy” by Jerome Bump from UT Austin, anthologized in Writing and Healing: Towards an Informed Practice.

    “Expressivism” (popularized by Peter Elbow and others in the 70s) became a straw dog to flog upon for social-constructivists, due to its engagement with emotional rhetoric (constituting a supposed power-imbalance, where disclosure became a prerequisite for successful writing), and now the flight into psychoanalytic support for the inclusion of emotion in rhetorical theory is raging full steam (again) as we speak(write).

    Lack of fallacious “taxonomies” does not constitute an avoidance of theorizing the emotions in rhetoric, it merely confirms that emotion was ignored during the “age of reason” when most of the “logical” taxonomies were constructed!

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