Thursday, May 4, 2017

Rhetoric and the Constitution of Social Relations by Michael Herzfeld

The core of social poetics [generally: ‘the creative presentation of the individual self’] is to treat essentialism as a social strategy. This deliberately reverses the goal of most essentializing, which is to turn happenstance into the permanent and the inevitable.  .  . [with respect to the analysis of social poetics] the concept of rhetoric, in particular, conjures up a hostof misunderstandings. Its use implies that there is a clear demarcation between the rhetorical and the real: figurative devices are in some ontological sense less real than literal language. Yet we can see that this is misleading, especially from the perspective of social context. The notion of literality is a truth claim; it is made in order to persuade. It is itself rhetorical. Literality is a claim to represent – indeed, to be – the unmediated truth.

The success of literalizing strategies is all around us, resulting in a devaluation of the very phenomena that makes it possible: rhetoric. Calling another’s performance rhetorical is a denial of its truthfulness. As such, it carries a strongly pejorative moral tone- further evidence of its strategic character (and its capacity to essentialize an implicit reality) if we still need to be convinced. In ordinary usage, the term implies pretension, bombast, even deliberate dishonesty. As a result, the social sciences have generally treated rhetoric as epiphenomenal to a real world to which it blocks access. Yet the the consequent refusal to take rhetoric seriously is symptomatic of precisely what rhetoric does best: it backgrounds its own rhetoricity. Thus, all claims that social science should be free of rhetoric, that it should make modesty its watchword, may be as rhetorical and immodest as anything they oppose. They suffer from the ultimate  epistemological self-deception, the illusion of pure, direct, unmediated knowledge.

A social poetics treats all social interaction, not only as employing rhetoric, but also as rhetorical in its own right. That verbal rhetoric plays an important part in channeling and shaping social relations has long been recognized. But I want to argue something more radical: that the entirety of social interaction – not just the linguistic and quasi-linguistic aspects – is rhetorical.

[Rhetoric is the agency of all social relations- termed by the author ‘ poetics’; as the ‘literal’ ‘unmediated truth’ is simply another rhetorical strategy)

The issue is not usefully approached through some new subfield of ‘the anthropology of rhetoric” First, that label still carries heavily  verbocentric assumptions. Second, rhetoric is not an inert, cultural phenomena, but the source of social continuity and change in all areas of social life. Third, and consequently, it is important not to separate rhetoric from the material world to which, as a causative agent, it belongs. A rhetorical perspective on social life can plausibly be claimed as more attentive to the traditional concerns of materialists with causation than approaches that insist on (literalistically) separating physical objects and economic relations from expressive forms.

Thus, I prefer the term “social poetics”. The very name poetics conjures up an automatic series of misunderstandings,. These, I suggest, can somewhat mischievously be turned to analytic advantages. A reviewer for the New York Times Review of Books, noting a sudden vogue for the term poetics in the titles of works in the social sciences (including my own The Poetics of Manhood), was moved to observe that, while this development was no doubt well and good in its own way, social life was full of nastiness as well, so that we should not insist on its ‘poetry to the exclusion of all else:

The passion for poetics sounds like a welcoming of feelings, especially irrational ones – something therapists have taught us to desire . . . We want analytic books about our lives to be romantic, sensitive, soulful. We should like to live with a poet’s license,. While there is no harm in this, we do have to be careful. As Roland Barthes said, it is not enough to misname things in order to poeticize them.                   [Broyard 1986:15]

Indeed not. But Broyard did just that, by confusing the technical category of poetics with a romantic version of poetry – the best-known realization of poetic principles, perhaps, but by no means the only one.

Such condescending reactions, moreover, cultivate and exploit popular positivism, which would assume that anything redolent of “poetry” must be ultimately trivial or at least epiphenomenal. But that is an ignorance stance. Poetics, a term derived from the Greek word for action (poieo), is an analytic approach to the uses of rhetorical form. It is not a romantic term at all, nor is its usefulness restricted to language (and even then it is not confined to verse). The ease with which a distinguished literary critic fell (or jumped) into the semantic trap of confusing poetics with poetry nevertheless serves an extremely useful purpose here: it suggests the evasiveness of the phenomena itself. What I am describing ass the poetics of social life has an extraordinary capacity to recede from our awareness. Skilled social performers are not necessarily dramatic or even particularly impressive; on the contrary, some of the most effective performances are among the least  palpable. The evocation of a grand model  works best when it is not considered too obvious, except, of course in cultures where dramatic self-presentation  is normatively inflected with an unambiguously high moral tone.

Poetics means action, and restoring that etymological awareness would also more effectively integrate the study of language into an understanding of the role of rhetoric in shaping and creating social relations.

Cultural Intimacy; Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions by Michael Herzfeld, Routledge, Third Edition, 2016


  1. Cultural intimacy is, above all, familiarity with perceived social flaws that offer culturally persuasive explanations of apparent deviations from the public interest.

    Nationalism is directly predicated on resemblance, whether biogenetic or cultural. The pivotal idea is that all citizens are, in some unarguable sense, alike; this is what Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community” implies. Most nationalists fear variant cultural readings –minority self-determination, youth non-conformism, cultural dissidence –that might undermine their universalist claims. In fact, not only do alternative readings coexist with the dominant interpretations, but most nationalisms would have a hard time keeping popular support without such disruptive familarities. National embarrassment can become the ironic basis of intimacy and affection, a fellowship of the flawed, within the private spaces of the national culture.

  2. The essentializing strategies of state legislators and ordinary citizens alike depend upon semiotic illusions: by making sure that all the outward signs of identity are as consistent as possible, they literally create or constitute, homogeneity. They produce iconicities of both national culture and national law, the latter exemplified by the kind of fundamentalist ethic that in the United States is called strict constructionism and appeals to certain “truths” as so “self-evident” as to be beyond semantic or political analysis- to be, in a word, sacrosanct.

    Professions, religions, and sports teams all have their essentialism, as well as the collective intimacies that contradict those essentialisms.

  3. What happens behind the walls of official self-representation?

    We should maintain in all its simplicity the basic idea of a zone of intimate culture, conceived in opposition to powerful images of an idealized West (or some other political and cultural pole), and affording a refuge from such imposing formalities.

    Cultural intimacy is a heuristic model and describes a negotiable process rather than a fixed condition; its purpose is to reveal a multiplicity of forms of action, all fundamentally expressing the same basic principle but in an enormous range of contexts . . .Regimes change, and so do the boundaries of propriety; but the basic possibility of negotiating those boundaries never disappears.

    State officials may themselves subvert the official order in much the same way; civil servants, working to the rule, can bring a nation to its knees remarkably quickly. For them, such actions represent one of several choices of how to exercise their agency; the more familiar case, perhaps, is that of the individual officials self-serving interpretations of the law at the expense of some helpless citizen rather at that of the state really skillful officials, however, can have it both ways. When bureaucrats contest local interpretations of legal language or history, for example, they often profess themselves to be “scandalized”, but thy equally often participate in these subversive readings –sometimes in ways that lead to their being labeled “corrupt.”

    Citizens may not like a particular state directive, but finding that objecting to it leads nowhere and that accepting violates their sense of comfort. So they simply play along with the discourse, let the state have its fun as it were, without substantially either endorsing or rejecting the directive. Officials and citizens alike are aware of this complaisance; it is a significant components of their shared cultural intimacy.

  4. The dustbin of history is precisely where we should look for the comforting debris that constitutes the material basis of cultural intimacy and reveals points of origins that might not sit well with the purveyors of the official ethnic purism.

    Esra Ozyurek deftly traces the reversals in the fortunes of Turkish patriarchy [Off Stage/On Display: Intimacy and Ethnography in the Age of Public Culture, 2004], showing how what had formerly been the dominant form of personal and social morality is now in embarrassed retreat. What has changed is not the fact of official desire to defend spaces of cultural intimacy, but the kind of intimacy that now serves as an acceptable metaphor for the ideal domestic space – no longer a place of patriarchal hierarchy, but a determinedly modernist and “European” space of open and egalitarian affect. Neither model has in its time been a perfectly accurate representation of contemporaneous social experience; affectionate family relations disrupted the ideal-typical patriarchy as persistently then, as aggressively domineering masculinity disrupts the equally ideal-typical; modernity projected by the ideologues of today’s Turkish state nationalism. What persists is the circumstance that there is always something to defend: a surreptitious pleasure, essential to maintaining a sense of cultural commonality precisely because it defies the inadequate and utopian generalizations of the state.

  5. Ethnic identity is a highly relative concept that the political morality of nationalism seeks to transform into an absolute one. Identity as a ‘style”, something that “assumes choice and allows for change” is transmuted into a presumed national character. The terms for cultural identity thus assume a certainty hitherto denied them by the exigencies of social life. Nationalistic reification of these terms reverses the contextual sensitivity appropriate and necessary to their use as terms of personal, moral evaluation; they become instead the technical vocabulary of a fixed political order. . . but even in tightly controlled societies most people know how to adopt the rhetoric of normativity to achieve non-normative ends.

  6. It is often difficult to pin down the meaning of terms of moral evaluation. Gilsenan [Lying, Honor, and Contradiction, 1976] explores the way in which a “liar” can reveal “truth” by exposing another’s failure to read the signs of a liar’s own “lying”. Such terms do not make sense in the abstract; indeed, to attempt a de-contexualized definition of them violates their semantics. Yet definition is precisely what the state (which benefits from the semiotic illusion that there exists an absolute or correct understanding) imposes on morality in general.

  7. The boundaries of the state are (more and less) fixed. Those of the moral community of co-villagers ( he’s talking about Crete), on the other hand, belong to a shifting and fragmentary social world and are therefore necessarily subject to continual readjustment and reevaluation. . . All moral terminology conflates moral disapprobation with group exclusion; when the definition of ‘the’ group is itself ambiguous or variable, the relevance of moral prescriptions becomes negotiable in a way that directly contradicts the codified perspective of bureaucratic law.

    It is when knowledge is invested with absolute authority – when a scholarly account, which is itself rooted in a particular social and historical context, claims definitive status – that we can agree with Buttitta [ Ideologie e folklore, 1971] in declaring that “to know is to deform.” Just as the concept of social poetics may help us comprehend how norms come to be understood in a particular society through their creative deformation of social performance, this appraisal shows that authoritative knowledge can perhaps most critically be seen as a performance in the Austinian sense: as the creation of factuality by the creative and culturally effective use of discourse. Peirce’s call for “destructive distillation” recognizes this aspect of knowledge, the intellectual aridity of a closed taxonomy. Any re-cognition of historical events must entail some sort of taxonomic straightjacket, or we could not know at all. Equally, however, knowing about that knowing works against the tendency for taxonomy to become a hypostatized datum in its own right.

  8. The burden of anthropological thinking in the 19th century did not suggest the importance of making clear distinctions at every turn between the racial and the cultural; the horrendous consequences of conflating the two became obvious only in the next century. Not surprisingly, non-specialist discourse remains relatively slow to incorporate this change of perspective. In addition, the desire for clear definition is often so great that people are willing to accept anything that produces that effect. When evidence from two domains seem to converge, finally, the taxonomic impetrative is such that acceptance often appears the most reasonable attitude to take… through the conventions of taxonomy the contingent character of the data is thus rendered invisible.

  9. Whether as scholarship or as administrative practice, an eternally valid rationality is a dream that evaporates in the crucible of practical experience, with its constant reminders not only of mortality but also of its unpredictability – such being the inner face of what might be called epistemological intimacy. The outer, public face is precisely that area of enormous power where administration and science join forces to deny the relevance of contingency in the dominance of the West and to claim a timeless ethics, a timeless aesthetics, and, ultimately, eternal domination over the world. If those in power cannot effectively prevent their citizens from thinking rebellious thoughts, they can at least attack those academic disciplines that reveal the soft underbelly of their authority.