An Unspoken Poverty [essay]

The question of an unspoken poverty

 Language does not appear to lack for employment. If this seems a curious thing to say, it is worth remembering the myriad ways in which we are surrounded, inspired, stymied, and provoked by words. It is also worth remembering that political, social, and cultural life depends heavily on our individual and collective capacity for expression, a power that begins to whither the moment it is taken for granted.

 While words are in rich supply, the actual wealth of language feels increasingly unsatisfying. Quantity has not assured quality. Opportunities to speak are not distributed equitably. More and more, it seems that our words are not getting the job done. The effort needed to make them work seems less and less worth the dividend.

 Are the important things being said? Are we saying them in a productive manner? Who has the power to speak in ways that matter? Who does not? Are words being used to enforce silence? What does the constitution’s promise of free expression mean if no one is listening? Why do so many arguments and so many debates strike us as violent?

 These are questions that speak to the promise of democracy. And, at the risk of saying something that very few want to hear, these questions are rhetorical questions. This does not mean that they are unimportant or that they arrive without an expectation of reply. It does mean that they will lack for a coherent answer until such a time as we are willing to think about the meaning, power, and value of rhetoric.

 It’s easy not to know much about rhetoric and more than acceptable not to trust it. In fact, we ignore this ancient art and its role in human affairs with great vigor. Conditioned by schools of philosophy that reduce language to a tool whose proper purpose is to insert my idea into your head, we are taught to be deeply suspicious of rhetoric, along with the empty fine sounding words and obfuscating jargon that it is thought to sponsor.

 The media’s opinion-makers encourage and deepen this presumption. Almost daily, we hear and read that someone somewhere is being rhetorical. The claim is a code, a signal that we should take a particular pronouncement for what it “really” is – irrelevant, duplicitous, or embellished at the cost of substance. What’s interesting though is that we ourselves never fall victim to rhetoric’s temptation – it’s always the “other guy”.  The deflection is a comfortable habit, one that governments exploit when they establish their bona fides by chastising their predecessors and opponents for pulling the rhetorical wool over the eyes of citizens.

 Rooted in a set of trite caricatures, the popular and deeply entrenched aversion to rhetoric serves to impoverish language and weaken the human condition. As Theodor Adorno put it, a disavowal of rhetoric sets society in league with barbarism – it literally renders society mute and strips us of the capacity to understand and imagine the creative possibilities of spoken and written expression. All the more remarkable is that Adorno held this view in the wake of the holocaust, an event that is frequently held up as definitive proof of rhetoric’s capacity to engender evil.

 The risk that our words will perform and legitimize violence is not overcome by standardizing and enforcing rules of “proper expression”. It is not overcome with the fantasy that language is simply ours to master. It is not overcome with a refusal to recognize that language remains an open question, a mysterious power into which we are thrown and that works in better and worse ways.

 Indeed, rhetoric is a call to reflect on and cultivate the relationship between language, power, and ethical life. Both theoretical and practical, as Aristotle observed in his often overlooked treatise on the matter, rhetoric is an art of beginning. It is a way of inventing and discovering words that speak to those elements of human life that are “in the main contingent”. Put differently, rhetoric begins as we struggle to find our voice and address issues that have more than one side and which provoke deep disagreement about what is true and what is good.

 Consider just a few of the recent headlines: the textbook fiasco in Limpopo, the controversy over who can say what and still belong to the ANC, the deafening silence of Parliament, recurring and escalating service delivery protests, the storm around Brett Murray’s Spear, the various campaigns to revitalize citizenship and promote social cohesion, the debate over whether and how to keep government’s secrets and regulate the media, and wonder over whether the TRC’s lessons have fallen by the wayside.

 These issues are linked. Each leads us into an uncomfortable experience of language, a protracted rhetorical moment in which we do not have the comforts of a stable vocabulary or the banister of certain truth. The words with which we learn may go missing (or up in smoke). Some forms of expression are fleeting distractions. Others perform actions that have profound and lasting consequences. Others still provoke wonder about whether we can really understand one another and what it takes to convert serial monologues into meaningful interaction.

 The Social Cohesion Summit, for instance, was roundly criticized as an attempt to define and enforce a “unifying” consensus. In part, this objection found traction in the fact that the event gave little apparent thought to the question of how to differentiate productive from unproductive disagreement. More damning, however, is that it neglected to provide the country with a way to counter the charge that it was just one more “talk shop.”

 The notion of a talk shop is as ubiquitous as it is unhelpful. It allows us to dismiss the rhetorical question of how language works and what it does – to us and for us. It deters us from taking an interest in language or advocating for its development. It encourages us to forget that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx maintained that the distribution and redistribution of finite material resources rests on exchanging words in ways that allow us to define the conditions of exchange under which we are willing and able to live.

 Human beings spend far too much time waffling, stuck between the belief that no one has the authority to tell us that our words are falling short and a deep worry that social and political discourse has become counterproductive. If life in such a bind is a form of poverty, which it is, the way out may require that we strive to address what remains unspeakable – the rhetorical questions and the questions of rhetoric that shed light on the work of words.

-Cape Town, 5 August 2012