Love that Dirty Water

Having lunch the other day reminded me of an internal conference I went to at another University where I saw a paper on rhetoric about John Locke.

The argument was that John Locke's writings were influenced by his own personal judgements, beliefs and attitudes, and these were readily available via letters, journals, personal reflections of contemporaries, etc. The argument is basically an inductive rhetorical argument, in the sense that inductively we can draw conclusions about the real John Locke by looking at his rhetorical remains and adding them up.

The paper presenter was very proud of his Holmes-like detective work and afterwards I made a joke that the speaker had really "Locked down" his subject. After that, I sort of realized that rather accidentally I stumbled upon a pretty good representative anecdote about two major views of the "subject" that we have in rhetorical studies.

The first is this "Locked Down" version, which is inductive and proceedes from the assumption that traces of expression in the public and private rhetorical artifacts of a person are a direct link to the mind of that person.

There's a way of doing this sort of work that isn't so simplistic, it would be more the social historian's approach of race, class, gender as larger tectonic discourses that are always beneath your feet. This approach is not what I'm describing. The approach I'm calling "locked down" is one where the subject appears through the collage of rhetorical dust as a static form, fully aware of his or her own motives, and can easily and freely express such motives from the mind to the page without interruption or complication. They are so still and so clear they must be locked in place, like our dear friend John who, at least in that paper, lived up to his name.

The alternative approach involves a bad pun - the Loch Ness Monster isn't "Locked" so much as "Loched."

Loch Ness is the perfect place for a monster story. It's deep, dark, and murky. It is dangerous to dive in due to unexpected fast and dangerous currents. The bottom is miles down. Even in shallow areas you cannot see your hand before your face.

The Loch Ness Monster only exists in narrative tales, chance encounters, and grainy photographs. The best evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is the worst kind of evidence - unverifiable, unclear and unrepeatable chance encounters.

However, the Loching down of this subject is much better - here we have a subject, the monster, which is about as fluid as they come. In fact, whenever a comprehensive search is made for the monster, it literally becomes water -it cannot be found at all.

This fluidity leads to a vibrant conception of what the monster is, it's intentions, and why it is unclear. It keeps people telling and listening to the stories. It keeps people interested and curious. The fluidity is non-static; it defies capture even in one clear still image. It raises skepticism, but at the same time, it never fully allows for closure.

It keeps people thinking and imagining. This is the most important part. Loching John Locke keeps the attention to the text and to the possibilities. Locking John Locke keeps the attention on the real, the discovered, and the conlcusion. It ends the discussion, whereas the Loch enables the discussion.

So should we be Locking down subjects? Or Loching them down? I'd prefer to hear a paper or two that plummet me down into the dark murk of the Loch than present me with the stuffed and well dressed mannequin of the subject, expressive of clear motives and capable of none.