Postmodern rhetoric is a set of discursive and critical practices that diverge from persuasion by means of ethos, pathos, and logos. Where classical rhetoric addresses a known and identifiable audience, postmodern rhetoric puts into question the identities of the speaker, the audience, and the messages that pass between them, interrupting and displacing senders, receivers, and messages by realigning the networks through which they pass.
Precursors Of Postmodern Rhetoric
The most important precursors to postmodern rhetoric are Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Nietzsche proposed that language is the result of a series of transformations, where bodily mechanisms are transformed into sensations and feelings that we express in sounds. Sounds become words when they designate things that are similar in certain respects, and they communicate the perspective of a community as if they referred to an independently existing reality. Logical categories are the result of equivocation and synecdoche, since they posit identities where there are only similarities, and they take as universal what is only a partial view. “Language is rhetoric,” says Nietzsche, “because it desires to convey only a doxa [opinion] not an epistêmê [knowledge]” (Nietzsche 1989, 23).
Heidegger, by contrast, takes rhetoric to be a matter of discourse rather than language, and discourse is rooted in shared moods (pathe), practices, and institutions. For him, rhetoric is originally an art of listening because speaking is a response to what has already moved us, and, as the capacity for being moved, pathos plays the leading role (Heidegger 2002). Furthermore, Heidegger (2002) says pathos is ontological, for it reveals the being of beings in their totality. In Being and time, he declares Aristotle’s rhetoric to be “the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of Being with one another” (1962, 178), and he emphasizes the pathos of anxiety in the ontology of human experience. In developing this ontology, Heidegger introduces many neologisms and unusually literal interpretations of keywords (e.g., Dasein as “being there”), because, he says, when it comes to grasping being “we lack not only most of the words, but, above all, the ‘grammar’” (1962, 63). Traditional grammar, which privileges declarative statements about entities, cannot disclose being itself because being is articulated in the totality of relations entities have with one another, particularly in relation to the human being. Hence, there is an inherent strangeness to his discourse, which attempts to disclose relational totalities rather than to objectify entities as subjects and predicates in grammatical propositions.
Jean-François Lyotard develops an explicitly postmodern account of language and discourse in The postmodern condition (1984). Although influenced by Heidegger, Lyotard stresses the heterogeneity and multiplicity of discourses. For him, the relational totalities within which statements or phrases occur are not subject to any overriding unity or ontological reference. The pathos of this condition is not anxiety but something akin to the sublime described by Immanuel Kant, where the imagination is overwhelmed with intuitions that cannot be presented as a whole. The postmodern sublime is the sense that discourse is irreducibly and unpresentably multiple. Taking concepts from speech act theory and from the later Wittgenstein (see Wittgenstein 1958), Lyotard portrays language as a plurality of genres, where senders, addressees, and referents shift as we move from one genre to another. Since all statements are acts, however, genres are types of linguistic performance specified by differences in their pragmatic rules. However, since there is no rule for linguistic performance per se, it is always possible to invent new messages and new genres of discourse, as is evident in the new codes and statements at the leading edge of science and technology. Lyotard valorizes this inventiveness as paralogy, which he advocates as a strategy of resistance against the demand for communicative totality animating the flow of capital (information) in the postmodern age.
In The differend (1988), Lyotard addresses the absence of a common idiom for settling disputes between genres and phrases. A “differend” occurs when there is no rule according to which such disputes can be settled. While the situation may seem to call for persuasion tailored to each particular case, a differend demands something else. Here, the disputants are not human subjects but phrases and genres of discourse, which, says Lyotard, “are strategies – of no-one” (1988, 137). On this account, a phrase “happens” and must be linked onto by another phrase, even if in silence. Lyotard bears witness to differends by finding idioms for them, but these idioms keep open the question of linkage so that any final phrase is infinitely deferred. To bear witness to the differend is not to communicate a message, but to evoke the feeling that something incommunicable (the multiplicity of phrases) demands to be said (1988, xvi, 13).
Michel Foucault also focuses upon discourse as a set of concepts and practices that are not reducible to systems of signs or rules of grammar. In The archeology of knowledge (1972), Foucault notes that discourse neither expresses the intentions of a subject nor extends the contents of a concept nor designates objects already given. Instead, discourse consists of statements, and “a statement is always an event that neither the language (langue) nor the meaning can exhaust” (1972, 28). Furthermore, the unity of discourse is historical rather than logical, rhetorical, or conceptual, and its history is marked by breaks and discontinuities, as illustrated in the History of madness (2006).
In his studies of discursive formations, Foucault uses a genealogical method modeled after Nietzsche. “What is found at the historical beginning of things,” he declares, “is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity” (1977, 142). In the History of madness, he shows that the concept of madness as mental illness can be traced back to the transitional period between the Middle Ages and modernity, where the mad were first allowed to roam free, then deported aboard ships, and finally confined in lazar houses after leprosy disappeared from Europe. By showing current concepts and practices to be the result of historical accidents and contingencies, Foucault reveals their lack of necessity or inevitability, and shows that we do not have to accept their objectionable consequences. This critical function of genealogy and archeology opens the way for new possibilities for “subjectivation,” as he remarks in The history of sexuality (1985). Here, he studies “the games of truth in the relationship of self with self and the forming of oneself as a subject” (1985, 6). In this respect, he valorizes a freedom of invention similar to that in Lyotard, although for Foucault it is a freedom to constitute and empower ourselves as subjects rather than to invent new discourses in which subjects are shifted, dissolved, and displaced. Nevertheless, both find a precedent in Nietzsche, who saw subjectivity as a grammatical-social construction and as a dimension of transformative power.
In his deconstructive writings, Jacques Derrida dismantles the notion that communication is primarily a transmission of meaning between speaking subjects, particularly as conceived in speech act theory. In Limited Inc. (1988), for example, Derrida challenges J. L. Austin’s assumption that speech acts are fully determinable by context, and that nonconventional speech is parasitical upon conventional norms (Austin 1975). Derrida protests that “a context is never absolutely determinable” (1988, 3) due to the structure of the sign, which characterizes all language. By virtue of its iterability, says Derrida, every sign presupposes a certain absence, since it functions in the absence of senders and addressees. In writing, for example, a mark is infinitely repeatable beyond the moment of its inscription; it is a “machine” functioning independently of the author (1988, 18). The context of such marks is a text without specifiable boundaries, for signs function only in relation to one another and generate their own difference (différance), which shifts them out of any limited context, e.g., through self-reference, or citation.
Derrida notes that Austin’s distinction between serious and non-serious speech cannot be finalized because speech acts asserting this distinction are subject to citational doubling, which interrupts and displaces their intentional aim and opens them to “nonserious” uses they would presume to exclude. For Derrida, any theorizing about language or communication must itself be stated in language, and therefore cannot perform the theoretical gesture of a science, since the theory itself would be part of the field it investigates. In The philosophical discourse of modernity (1987), Jürgen Habermas accuses Derrida of reducing critical discourse to (mere) rhetoric by denying its contextual limits. However, Derrida replies that he is not making such a reduction, a position he criticizes as “rhetoricism” (1988, 156), but is demonstrating a structural necessity of signs, which defers final separation between the rhetorical and nonrhetorical functions of language.
Vattimo And Perniola
In contrast to their French counterparts, Italian postmodernists emphasize aesthetic, rhetorical, and historical continuity in their work. Gianni Vattimo and Mario Perniola, for example, characterize the postmodern as a dissolution of progressive history, where past and present are contemporaneous as simulacra produced and reproduced by the media. As a result, advanced cultures experience a dissolution of their identity and foundations, in which their differences with what is “other” are suspended in a repetitive passage of “the same.” For Vattimo, interpreting this experience requires a narrative in which Nietzsche’s overturning of foundations is joined to Heidegger’s destruction of the history of ontology (Vattimo 1988). Such a narrative distorts or twists the tradition back upon itself, so that being becomes a moment in which all of its interpretations are present at once. This marks the end of the concept of progress, since technological advancement has created conditions in which only “further progress” is possible, much like the state of contemporary art (1988, 101). Perniola, on the other hand, stresses the absence of a message in the communication of networks and contacts the new technology is spreading around the globe. For him, postmodern experience is best interpreted in terms of the Italian baroque, or the enigma of a passage into a realm between life and death, spirit and body, subject and object (Perniola 1995). He takes this movement as a kind of persuasion (peitho), which he interprets to mean trust in the present, without anticipating a future that will give it meaning and without reference to an origin in the past. Persuasion, then, has nothing to do with convincing someone of something, but is a way of living completely in the present, a passage through the intermediary spaces of communicative networks, where identities and differences are suspended in the passage itself.
Hence, where French postmodernists tend to characterize these networks as spaces of difference and alterity, the Italians, by contrast, characterize them as spaces of “sameness” and continuity in both the spatial and temporal senses. However, sameness is not identity, but a passage between identity and difference, and in this respect there is agreement on both sides as to the active non-identity at work in postmodern discourse. Rhetorically, this requires strategies of displacement, interruption, and delay in the transmission of messages between speaking subjects. Such strategies, both would agree, are afforded by the technological and linguistic mechanisms already at work in the postmodern world.
- Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words, 2nd edn. (eds. J. O. Urmson & M. Sbisà). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. (ed. G. Graff). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
- Derrida, J. (1997). Of grammatology, corr. edn. (trans. G. C. Spivak). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge (trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith). New York: Harper and Row.
- Foucault, M. (1977). Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In D. F. Bouchard (ed.), Language, countermemory, practice: Selected essays and interviews. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 139– 164.
- Foucault, M. (1985). The history of sexuality (trans. R. Hurley), vol. 2. New York: Random House.
- Foucault, M. (2006). History of madness (trans. J. Murphy & J. Khalfa; ed. J. Khalfa). London: Routledge.
- Habermas, J. (1987). The philosophical discourse of modernity (trans. R. Hurley). New York: Random House.
- Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (trans. J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson). San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins.
- Heidegger, M. (2002). Grundbegriffe der aristotelischen Philosophie: Marburger Vorlesung Sommer Semester 1924 (ed. M. Michalski), GA vol. 18. Frankfurt: Klostermann.
- Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition (trans. G. Bennington & B. Massumi). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The differend: Phrases in dispute (trans. G. Van Den Abbeele). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Nietzsche, F. (1989). Friedrich Nietzsche on rhetoric and language (ed. S. L. Gilman, C. Blair, & D. J. Parent). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Perniola, M. (1995). Enigmas of Italian sensibility. In Enigmas: The Egyptian moment in society and art (trans. C. Woodall). London: Verso, pp. 141–153.
- Vattimo, G. (1988). The end of modernity (trans. J. R. Snyder). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (ed. G. E. M. Anscombe). London: Blackwell.