The Hatred of Poetry; The Hatred of Rhetoric?

Just finished reading Ben Lerner's short but good The Hatred of Poetry in which he attempts in great Burkean fashion to "create gain out of loss" by claiming poetry exists in order to show us the critical lack between Poetry, the abstract hope of transcendence and poems, those sometimes great and sometimes rancid attempts to get there. Lerner tries to transmute what he calls "hate" of poetry into an opportunity of love for being human, the condition of humanity being a recognition that Poetry is possible, and poems aren't quite up to the task. This is proven mostly through analysis of critiques or doubts about modern poetry where the critic longs for a time where poetry united us, and poets were not afraid to invoke universals. Long story short, it's a good read if you have ever thought about why people like really old poetry that doesn't really "sing" to us, and nobody really picks up and reads contemporary poetry.

Lerner's argument is very similar to the "Iron Ball" of Zen - You've swallowed a hot iron ball, you can't keep it in you, and you can't spit it out - both will cause you great pain. Neither is a solution, but something has to be done. It has a lot in common with Herbert Marcuse's discussion of the role of the museum and of art - they create places we would rather be every day, but can't be, and hence stoke the embers of revolution. Slavoj Zizek's discussion of contemporary art is also very present - that contemporary art is successful, and will be exhibited if it calls into question the existence of a space for the existence of art in toto. But Lerner roots his argument in Platonism - he argues the hatred of poetry stems from Plato, who through a great ironic mode of writing, has caused us all to doubt the value of poetry. This doubt is carefully connected to the basic function of poetry: to indicate a transcendent realm of understanding and meaning that by virtue of this crafting of words, we can never reach. Poems through their pointing can only be disappointing. 

Lerner's case is predicated strongly on Plato's dismissal of poets from the Republic, but he leaves out, or elides, or perhaps derides rhetoric. Lerner writes that Plato, "concluded that there was no place for poetry in the Republic because poets are rhetoricians who pass off imaginative projections as the truth and risk corrupting the citizens of the city." Notice here that poets are accused of being rhetoricians, not lumped in with them, not equal to them, but charged as being rhetoricians. Poetry might be defensible, but being a rhetorician is not. There is no further discussion of rhetoric or rhetoricians in Lerner's book.

I wonder if this was a good idea - he could have talked about what all groups of people who were banned in Republic had in common - the painters, the rhetors, the poets - they were charged with the crime of "seeming" - something that Lerner goes to great lengths to establish as both the reason people hate poetry and the reason that it should be loved. We hate poems because they are an affront to the transcendent idea of Poetry that we all have some sense is out there. Perhaps the same is true for rhetoric?

But the more I think about it, the more I feel that rhetoric is not hated in the way that Lerner describes the hate for poetry. His argument is good, and I feel like his book could be longer. But the evidence he marshals - plane and doctor office conversations - doesn't square with my experience talking about rhetoric in those same situations. Being a poet is considered something a bit base or a bit difficult (or as Gadamer said, impossible to be a poet, but fine to write poems due to the deep and complex relationship of art and undestanding). Often it is seen as silly, as poets today can't be what they once were. But rhetoric is in a different space.

Instead of hated, I'd say rhetoric is muted. It's silenced. When a great convention speech is given, journalists discuss it. When a presidential debate happens, political scientists talk about it. And most people I talk to about my work and profession see it as, well, quite silly. Because we don't need rhetoric anymore - we have more and better access to facts than we ever have. All you need is the information, information from good sources, and you'll know. And that will be that. 

Rhetoric is muted since we live in the Cult of the Fact - nobody needs to hear from a rhetorical scholar about how one speech or another persuaded. We imagine ourselves to live in a post-persuasion era. If someone is persuaded, it is represented as trickery. We can decide what we want, what our country needs to be, and all sorts of things without it. We just have facts, information, statistics, and the like. Words are the vehicle for these important goods. 

The same is true in debate, the place where I would expect to find many allies on the rhetoric side of things. But here especially, everyone would rather imagine themselves sifting through innumerable grains of speech in order to locate the best reasoning. Reasoning, rationality, and logic are the goal. Rhetoric, focused on studying how meaning comes to mean (just one definition, there are many if you don't like that one), would seem to be what debate practitioners would embrace, or hate, due to it's overwhelming lack (as Lerner's argument might be put). But instead, they see themselves as students of international relations, of law, of economics, of electoral statistics, and other such comfortable places to be. Things that appear factual, appear to be valid, are more stable. There's little chance of stepping right through the floor when you come to your intellectual home in such disciplines. Not so in rhetoric. Debate and rhetoric are instruments by which one discovers or reveals the power of the real disciplines. One practices how to convey the great information they have for us.

Perhaps rhetoric is mute because people can't imagine the need for an art that turns most everything into a question, into association, culture, historical trajectory, values, and other sites of meaning in a world where certainty appears to be the thing that would save us from the political morass facing the globe. But it might be precisely because of rhetoric's loss of voice that we find ourselves in this situation: Everyone knows just what to do, and is perplexed that everyone else doesn't see it. What more to do than to shout them down? What more to do than to put tape over your mouth at a political convention? Such moves might be considered persuasive by rhetoricians, but they were certainly not constituted as such by those doing it. These were expressions of what is "just true," or another view of the facts, the facts that those who are in disagreement must just not have access to.

Lerner writes, "What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, encourages it?" Well, professional wrestling might be an art. But more seriously, I think most rhetoricians can ask this question. This would be those among us who actually enjoy teaching public speaking, argumentation, debate, and other such courses where we work on and work over the production of student texts. But also critics and theorists are associating themselves with something that is so far beyond hate, beyond recognition in the Cult of the Fact, that it barely registers as a subject. As I have heard, "They still teach that?" or "What could you possibly read and write about?" It seems that information accessibility combined with the imagined superiority of scientific reasoning have rendered rhetoric's function of working out meaning, how it means, and how to make people believe something are no longer necessary. Rhetoric is not hated, but forgotten. Or thought of as something passed or past. Lerner works this out in his argument by trying to prove that people dislike poems, but love poetry. People dislike political speeches, but people do like words. Maybe that's a way in, a way to be heard and properly hated again.

If rhetoric is muted, and if it turns allies away due to our obsession with the fact, what is the answer? How do we get the sort of negative attention that our allies, the poets have? For at least it seems they have been able to get asylum if not a visa to enter the Republic and play a part, however minimal Lerner might think that is. But his short book has been the subject of much conversation in many major press book sections, if not the full on topic of many major book reviews. I don't see that happening for any rhetoric book, no matter how good it is. The rhetoricians will share it, we will discuss it, and nod about it together, as we wonder about where our influence is in the Republic just on the other side of that border.