My attention shuttles back and forth between a concern for the rhetoricity of form, and the rhetoricity of discourse. In the case of form, my tendency is to insist on the allegorical implications of what can appear to be simply formal, abstract or optical. While in the case of language, I fear and condemn the eclipse of rhetoric, as language becomes image. But it is not that I am against image and in favor of language.
The rhetoric I am for is not simply that rhetoric that finds its definition in an instrumentalized deployment of language in the interest of persuasion. But persuasion is a key term and a term that contrasts with a word like sophistry. In both cases there is an intention to move the belief of the other closer to that of the self, but in sophistry the method is a trick, a dishonesty, a lie, while in persuasion, there is the attempt to externalize belief in order that in offering it, it might be taken up by the other.
In externalizing belief, one alienates an interiority by seeing it as if from the position of the other. Only from that perspective can one dissect the elements of belief so as to articulate them as argument. Only from that perspective can one imagine and address objections, inconsistencies, incoherencies. This sort of rhetorical utterance is based on an empathetic acknowledgment of the other - even as it is based on a phantasmatic replacement of the actual other in the moment of composition and speech.
The attitude towards the other is important: the words are a gift. And in the moment of exchange, the ghost other of the self's creation dissolves, and the self becomes other to the other, whose subjectivity is restored in a response. Rhetoric admits the agency of the other, the necessity of interpretation, and the incompleteness of argument, not only at the point of utterance, but also through the reception and the response. Rhetoric invites its own refutation. It is open to contestation. Rhetoric is spoken with a humility in regard to truth. It is productive of subjective response, preserving of the agency of the other.
Sophistry is a sentence uttered as a fait accompli: a simple transmission, unilaterally, from self to other, a decree. This message is imprinted on the passivity of the other; it requires and enforces that submission. It depends on the assumption of cleverness in the self, and stupidity in the other who will not be able to discover the counterfeit in the communication. It requires from the other only an acknowledgement of equivalence, of identity.
That is why I call this speech iconic: the icon depends on the quality of likeness, on resemblance, on identity. It is that sign that is equivalent to its referent. It does not mean; rather, it refers. The icon is not something that is debated or agued with, or analyzed or interpreted. It is uncomplicatedly self-similar. There is no question of whether it will be accepted or contested. It does not even admit of a relation to truth, for its ground is ontological: it simply is.
In contrast to the icon, art never simply is. Even aside from, or perhaps because of, the various discursive contextualizations that enfold art practice within constructed worlds of meaning making, of history, and of culture, I would like to think that there is also an empathetic relation possible in the beholding of an abstract work. The limit of its communicative possibility is not reached at the facticity of its form – the “what you see is what you see” of it. Rather, the formal presence of the artifact is an invitation to both interpretation and rebuttal. The thing is emphatically not simply what it is. It is always other than what it is, always more or less or different than what it was intended to be. And the agency of decision is with the beholder. Art demands interpretation.
But in the image economy that dominates our contemporary space of visuality, the icon does play a crucial role. The logo and the whole corporate apparatus of brand are the new face of the icon. Logos refer to the ensemble of brand characteristics constituted not by the constellation of products marketed under its banner, but by the corporate identity (the fleshing out of the virtual/juridical personhood of the corporation) crafted in image, motion, and sound, within its purchase on mediated attention. The logo embodies that complex of ideas that are chosen by the corporation to promote its popularity and appeal. It refers to the constructed corpus of the corporate entity, giving its virtuality an identity and a marker that can navigate materially. Each placement of the logo is a designation, an equivalence drawn between the product and the corporate identity. To consume the labeled product, is to accept ones identification with the corporate identity through the iconic mechanism of the logo.
The epithet is the exemplary case of the iconic utterance: faggot! nigger! whore! terrorist! There is no rebuttal possible. The utterance fixes the equivalence. It is a designation. It is a hermetic decree. It is the disqualification of defensive speech. The challenge of the republican insults “girly-man” and “flip-flopper” paralyzed their opponents in the 2004 elections. Iconic speech admits no reply. The epithet is the ground of exclusion from judicial consideration that acts as the basis for rendering the accused stateless and devoid of all rights of citizenship or humanity. To be designated an “enemy combatant” or a “terrorist” subjects one to rendition, prison, and torture without trial. The only tolerated speech from the accused is confession – the ultimate submission to designation, its confirmation: the definitive violence of iconic identification.