Monday, January 16, 2006

Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Mailloux's Rhetorical Power

In the first chapter of his book "Rhetorical Power," Steven Mailloux takes up the discussion of hermeneutics (interpretation). He separates approaches into two camps: textual realism and readerly idealism. The former situates textual meaning outside of interpretation, either in the text (formalism), in the author (intentionalism), or in language itself (structuralism) and argues that "meanings are discovered, not created" (Mailloux 5). The latter situates textual meaning inside interpretation, either in the individual reader (reader-response) or in intersubjective conventions (a host of approaches fit into this realm) and argues that "interpretation always creates the signifying text, that meaning is made, not found" (Mailloux 5).

Mailloux goes on to discuss the logical and theoretical problems that encompass both of these approaches and subsequent approaches that try and marry or harmonize the two. The realist approach is clearly foundational in nature and holds to an essentialist epistemology that would hold that some basic inherent features inhere hermeneutics. The idealist approach is indeterminate, but maintains certain arbitrary, but functional deliniations. The middling positions, according to Mailloux, fluctuate between the other positions depending on where their arguments run into complications.

The discussion of context and meaning is perhaps where both positions ultimately run into similar problems. For the realist, the issue of context is obvious, for interpretation requires a bounded arena for meaning to be discovered whereas for the idealist interpretation is unbounded. However, the idealist needs contexts in order to have individual intepretations (subjectivity is not autonomous, but is still situated in a world of cause/effect influences) and intersubjective conventions.

Ultimately, it seems that the problem of meaning is the problem of knowledge--the incomplete nature of human cognition that is incapable of accounting for all possible and all actual causes, effects, and their relationships requires that gaps, guesses, and presuppositional boundaries be accepted. The result is that presuppositions are either unstated or incompletely addressed (since comprehensive explanation would require all possible and actual relationships to be explicated). Thus, both positions run into the problem of the absolute--i.e. without an absolute account of all actual and possible relations, there is always the possibility that the argument is alterable and therefore mistaken.

The idealist position argues that meaning is bound by contexts, but that contexts are boundless (i.e.--they are not absolutely known or knowable and are thus subject to expansion, reduction; in short, change). All conclusions are thus provisional. Contrary to what Mailloux seems to indicate as the realist position, I do not think that realism must deny provisionality insofar as they accept the presuppositional nature of human intellection. Mailloux rejects a Hermeneutic Theory, and by capitalizing the "T" I can only assume that he is rejecting theory that considers itself the final and unassailable (i.e.--free from counter-argument) word on how interpretation proceeds, exists, and ought to be approached.

That is where rhetoric comes in, for rhetoric is that discipline and practice that concerns itself with the probable rather than the absolute. He disavows a rhetorical hermeneutics that would attempt to construct a new generalized account of interpretation, but rather that it should be "therapeutic," which I can assume would mean that it would be persuasive toward whatever audience it is directed. He argues that rhetorical hermeneutics would focus on the history of interpretive practices: "Any thick rhetorical analysis of interpretation must therefore describe this tradition of discursive practices in which acts of interpretive persuasion are embedded" (Mailloux 17).

The problem I see, if indeed it is a problem, is that by historicisng the critical apparatus (hermeneutics now focuses on methods of interpretation in historical "contexts" as part of the method of understanding meaning) one does not eliminate the problem of context, but simply adds an additional element that requires argumentative boundaries and presuppositions. Let's say I may an argument about a discursive practice of 19th century literary academics. There is no way that I can avoid the problem of the absolute here, since I cannot possibly gather all necessary elements for what literary academics were doing "discursively" or even that all of them could be lumped into a singular "discursive practice." If I argue for several, then how many? And how do I reconcile inconsistencies in those several? The same problems that occur in defining contexts regarding the works themselves occurs in attempting to define the methods by which people have approached those works in order to understand them.

Rhetorical Hermeneutics in Mailloux's expression does not reconcile or avoid the troublesome issues that he brings up with regard to realist and idealist positions. Rather, it seems to add an additional element of consideration for the ongoing argument between the two positions. Both sides are now invited to engage the historiographical problems that arise from arguing about discursive pratices over time. But as I see it, to deny ANY foundation or essential position is to destroy the possibility of rhetoric and exchange, since the absence of foundations means that talking past one another is the norm rather than the exception. Why? The lack of common theoretical presuppositions means that positions become incommensurale.

I do not think that foundationalism or essentialism must necessarily deny the provisionality of Theory or rest outside of probability (or what I would call "good faith" conclusions). The problem with idealist positions that argue for "boundless" context or meaning is that they are just as incapable of making an absolute accounting (what they say realists always run into) of all actualities and possibilities in order to conclude that context really is "boundless." The best they can do is argue that contexts are most-nearly-boundless or almost-entirely-arbitrary, which is to make a probability claim, the same as the foundationalist.

Thus, if Mailloux is trying to stir the pot to be more sensitive toward rhetorical influences upon realist and idealist formulations of hermeneutics, then I can side with such concern and agree that some kind of historicizing hermeneutics is a must. Context, however ethereal theoretically, is a practical necessity. Including historical context of rhetorical practices and understandings is also indispensible for those who would attempt to understand the meaning of a message.

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