Today’s ensemble: the turn from rhetoric

a kierkegaardian moment

Yesterday morning attended a panel presentation (and this is what I wore) at The Algonquin (!) (old New York!) (swanky!) as part of a conference put on by the School Of Visual Arts. The panel theme was on teaching creative writing in visual arts schools and it was moderated by Hugh Behm-Steinberg. All of the panelists were interesting, but I was of course especially interested in Mairead Byrne’s and Christine Wertheim’s sections, because I knew and liked and admired these two in advance. Mairead addressed such fundamental questions as the SPACES students write in and the SURFACES they write on. Fundamental? Absolutely. Obvious? No! Quite inspiring.

Christine’s presentation intrigued me, too. She said that in her time teaching at Cal Arts she had come to realize that there are two separate worlds of creative writing, one that aims for publication in the New Yorker, and then the other, which is, of course, our world. She said that (and I believe she attributed some of what follows to Ranciere. please insert accent) in the ancien regime, writing was employed exclusively for rhetorical purposes, but that in the mid-nineteenth century, writing broke off into realism a la Balzac and Flaubert, in which representation was still referential, but was no longer motivated by argumentation. She instead posited other modes for writing, saying that essentially “New Yorker” writing was still stuck at the point in the 19th century before the turn to realism. Some of these modes included:


collapse of representation: language as subject rather than the world

language subjected to external force, pressure, constraint, or form to reveal what is unconscious or latent in culture or society

language literally as object, as in zaum

language as a medium of self analysis as in Rothenberg’s shamanism

language as a medium of witness: “framing the namelessness”

writing as a medium as speculative possibilities for society & social relationships


My rhetorical questions in response to this division into “rhetorical/ non-rhetorical” are these:

Are not these other modes rhetorical as well?

Can it not be said that the location of the argument moves in them from message to form?

Is it ridiculous to say that even “writing-as-speculation” or “writing-as-analysis” or “writing as witness” is itself a kind of rhetoric arguing for the value of speculation or analysis or witness as such?

Are all forms of writing that are obviously argumentative necessarily passe?


I suppose I am sensing some flaws in this taxonomy. What do we do with works of literature that emerged before the mid-nineteenth century that are not argumentative?

What about Don Quixote?

What about The Pillow Book? Or Rabelais?

What about William Blake’s works?

This list could grow and grow.

Anyway… I’m wondering about this. Certainly the mid nineteenth century was a turning point into something (although clearly you wouldn’t know it from today’s outfit :-)). I have noted that Moby Dick emerged in 1851: to me, it is a profoundly proto-modernist work. But I think there’s something else to notice about the time rather than the turn from rhetoric. I haven’t read Ranciere, and I’m curious to, but I wonder if anyone has the same questions…

Here’s so you can see the footwear:

how to layer a poem with textures the way this enemble does?

The velvet “wench” blouse is Anthropologie bought 2ndhand on eBay: I mentioned that trick to you, yes? I love the princess lines of the bodice, and the little peplum. And under that, my favorite UniQlo “heat technology” undershirt, fitted and cozy! Compexly tiered lace and taffeta skirt bought recently at Daffy’s for under $30; it’s Italian (whatever that means). Maroon tights of a satisfyingly thick denier. The burgundy suede clodhopper maryjanes are actually Earth shoes, oddly enough. I think of them as a sort of variation of a “Henry the VIII shoe.” You know? My look has got so casual lately, I mean relatively speaking, I really felt it was time to bust out the ruffles and velvet again…because you know what? Life is short.

9 thoughts on “Today’s ensemble: the turn from rhetoric

  1. Brilliant deduction Nada!

    Since we are all “abstracted”
    in the like 3rd sense, but actually
    really in the first as well, in the sense of absolutely epiphenomenal,
    everything, absolutely every single thing in the human world can be viewed as a form of rhetoric, mainly because we organize reality according to externalized or prosthetized language or narratologisms of substance.

    We don't usually get up
    and think,

    All day long
    I will stay within

    6 inches of vertical surfaces.

    We could,
    And maybe some do,
    but human flows
    have beeen

    institutionally rhetoricized,
    or whatever.

    cool post!
    great outfit.

  2. Nice post, Nada. Rhetoric was the basis of education in Europe and America into the nineteenth c. The rise of literature as the guiding force of English departments at this time (think of Arnold's “the best that's been thought and said” etc) I think contributes to this weird split betweeen rhetoric and aesthetics, though the root of it probably goes to Kant, romanticism's insistence on “genius” etc. But you're right: it's difficult to escape rhetoric. Poems in the new yorker reinforce certain cultural attitudes and values while the work “we” do argues about the nature of language, cultural values, and many other issues. Anyway, I'm intruding here because I just endured six years of training in rhetorical studies and find it all very interesting.

  3. Hi Dale! Thank you for the friendly and clarifying comment! That makes me happy, and I mean that totally without irony. So, not an intrusion. I'm interested in that “we”: i.e. the non-New-Yorker world that Christine sees as one despite its endless (to us) Balkanizations. You know.

  4. Nada, the Word Rhetoric
    is from the Greek feminine form
    of Rhetorikos, and the scilicet
    the OED gives it


    τέχνη (I am an χ-texan)
    and it simply means


    And as we all know art
    is simply the leavings
    of the entrained verb of is
    or a kin of lattice or construction of isness in context,
    ie the verb of being become
    a noun, so to speak, tho
    nothing ever is really
    a noun, but somehow plays
    a noun, so we can have a lovely game, a lovely rhetorikos.

    A dog is never really being just a dog, but is doggedly and doge-like
    being a doggone doggy dodging frisbees etc or sleeping, or yapping. etc. ie doing its own oddity.

    People don't want to swallow it, but making this simple detail transparent is the only way to usher in a human golden age, without, the golden age of

    human contention

    will continue.


    Our own waste products
    will continue to rule us
    instead of the inverse,

    making of a select
    group of plumbers
    and toilet fashioners

    or at leasts


  5. I agree Matt. There were some Joseph Ceravolo poems in there a few weeks back that were good to see. And the articles rock.

    Fantastic outfit Nada. And I like that chest-'o-drawers thing to the side.

  6. Rhetoric isn't necessarily argumentative. It isn't hyperbole either. And if you investigate an issue, there is a real need to understand what rhetoric means to the discussion.

    Rhetoric isn't standard in most classrooms and has been replaced to a large degree by the scientific method as a mode of transmitting knowledge. If you apply this to the system of rhetoric itself you find that although the human mind and heart cannot have predictable outcomes, linguistics demands that they do and hence, the scientific method is over legitimized and has become a misleading construct in the practice/methodology of literature and rhetorics itself.

    In some sense, experimental poetry and literature enjoy a certain amount of success because anything that becomes too rigid (by definition) produces an equal amount of joy in freedom from the construct. This is demonstrated by the instant of Flarf and it's second phase of denying its own existence in order to free the practitioner from those nasty definitions that are hung around the neck of anyone doing anything with even a smidge of similarity to someone else or sheesh, some other thing (like the computer).
    Programs are born and die much quicker than they used to.

    I guess the question is always the same….does something (in this case nostalgia) represent a revisitation of those values for old time's sake and frivolity or does it represent an actual return to those values wholesale?

    One of the problems of course is the speed of communication and knowledge in modernity. As that increases, our ability to gauge where we actually stand on the spinning wheel is less detectable. Afterall, we instantaneously produce our own nostalgia within minutes of the original event that is being lamented as lost, glorified as great or parodied with contempt.

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