This podcast will be published on April 1st, which just happens to be my birthday. Yes, in fact, I was born on April Fool’s. And believe me, at this point in my life, I have heard all the jokes.
I am well into my 40s at this point, respectably middle-aged, so I’m a little bit beyond childhood pranks. But I recognize that the day, for many, is a day of levity. I enjoy the joke headlines that circulate on the day and like seeing how the public enjoys itself. It’s like people choose to have a good time on my birthday. My day is a day to let your hair down. It’s a day to laugh and be okay with being laughed at. And that’s fun for my day. I feel like we’re all enjoying it together.
That’s not to say I’ve always liked it. Like I say, I’ve heard all the jokes. For most of my life I thought it was a terrible day to be born on. Like, look at me, I’m a cosmic joke! But even then, maybe that’s okay, too. Every court needs a jester.
So in honor of April Fool’s Day, and my continuing revolution around the sun, we’re doing something lighthearted this week. We talk about a lot of serious things on this podcast. It’s sort of intrinsic to the subject. My friends and I used to joke that if you went to a conference, you could kind of tell who studied what based on their personalities. Interpersonal folks were happy and chipper and were great at networking and making sure everybody felt welcome and good about themselves. They were the group cheerleaders. Org people were the corporate, business folk. They were the most well-dressed and business like. They were professional, except for the boy’s club org folks, and even then, that’s a different kind of professional. The health comm were the activists and the hippies. They had campaigns and ideas and goals. They wanted to make a difference and it came across in how they related to people. And then there were the rhetoricians. We were in dark colors in either old-fashioned stereotypical prof clothes (often rumpled) or something edgy, standing in the corner, drink in hand, talking theory or politics. We were grumpy (or angry) about something and generally pessimistic. We’re the emo kids of comm studies.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to laugh. On the contrary, we laugh all the time. It might be dark humor, but we find ourselves very amusing. Obviously, this is all nonsensical generalizing. But the fact that we joked about it indicates that we had some thoughts about what kind of person was drawn to what kind of studies. And rhetoricians were supposedly the curmudgeons.
But even curmudgeons get a little joy out of being silly sometimes. So this week I present to you not any insight into politics, or application of theory to current events, but a list of the rhetoricians I find most amusing or that make me happy for some reason. There’s no rhyme or reason to this list. It isn’t in any way formulaic or systematic. It’s literally just a list of past thinkers that make laugh or smile for one reason or another. This probably says something unfortunate about my sense of humor – but that’s what I get for a lifetime of April 1st birthdays.
First, we have to talk about Gorgias.
Gorgias was a Sophist. Gorgias was the Sophist. Now, the Sophists were kind of an amusing lot to begin with. First, you could recognize a Sophist because of the way they dressed. They were flamboyant and loud. And given their reputation as scholars that amuses me. They seemed to have no problem drawing attention to themselves, and why should they? They were looking to get paid for their services. And you don’t get paid if you don’t attract a little attention.
The Sophists taught whoever could pay them to be persuasive. And they were good at it. A bit too good, by some people’s estimation. The Sophists didn’t put a lot of stock in the stories of the gods and goddesses of the classical era – they believed truth was what you could convince somebody of. And they basically wandered from town-to-town teaching people how persuade at that level. But the question is, did they leave town of their own accord? Or were they eventually chased out? They were this kind of itinerant speech teacher, but why did they stay on the move?
Gorgias was born circa 483 BC in Leontinoi It is not known whether Gorgias married or had children.
He was well known for delivering orations at Panhellenic Festivals and is described as having been “conspicuous” at Olympia. There is no surviving record of any role he might have played in organizing the festivals themselves.
Gorgias’s primary occupation was as a teacher of rhetoric. According to Aristotle, his students included Isocrates. Additionally, although they are not described as his students, Gorgias is widely thought to have influenced the styles of the historian Thucydides, the tragic playwright Agathon, the doctor Hippocrates, the rhetorician Alcidamas, and the poet and commentator Lycophron.
He was known for being so masterfully persuasive it was like magic. He described his own art in terms of acting like a drug or a spell. Rhetoric, he claimed, was so powerful that it thwarted the free will of the listeners. A powerful speaker could convince just about anybody of anything. And Gorgias was supposedly that speaker.
Gorgias is reputed to have lived to be one hundred and eight years old He accumulated considerable wealth; enough to commission a gold statue of himself for a public temple. Just think of the attitude and cockiness that takes. Who has the unmitigated gumption to commission a gold statue of themselves? Gorgias, that’s who. He was proud of himself. No doubt. After his Pythian Oration, the Greeks installed a solid gold statue of him in the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
And I find all of this terribly amusing. I mean, honestly, who was this guy? Where does he get off? Who has this much swagger?
When I taught a grad class in rhetorical theory I would often ask the oh-so-insightful-and-provocative question: would you hang out with this person? And Gorgias was divisive.
There were some who said, no, because you absolutely could not trust him. And some who said, yes, because you absolutely could not trust him, and they’d rather have a guy like that on their side than against them. Some said yes, because they’d rather be friends with him than have him try to sell them something. Some said no, because they’d be afraid he would constantly be talking them into doing something they’d regret. But they all agreed this was somebody to keep a close eye on.
And this just amuses me to no end. Gorgias is everything people fear about rhetoric. And what does he get for it? A freaking gold statue. At Delphi, of all places. Even if you don’t like his philosophy this guy deserves your respect. A nod of the head. But don’t give him your wallet. He’s going to try and take it and then he’s just going to use it to make himself look good.
Another person important to the history of rhetoric that makes me smile is Rene Descartes. Now, most people probably don’t think of Descartes as particularly amusing. He was a very serious guy. He was, after all, trying to prove the existence of God, and that is no laughing matter. He was a devout Catholic and didn’t have time for things like rhetoric or literature because for him everything had to be objective, scientific, and proveable. Doesn’t sound like a fun guy to have at a party, right?
René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist who invented analytic geometry, linking the previously separate fields of geometry and algebra. Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy and algebraic geometry.
Descartes has often been called the father of modern philosophy, and is largely seen as responsible for the increased attention given to epistemology in the 17th century. He laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism. It was the 17th-century arch-rationalists like Descartes who have given the “Age of Reason” its name and place in history.
In his Discourse on the Method, he attempts to arrive at a fundamental set of principles that one can know as true without any doubt. To achieve this, he employs a method called hyperbolical/metaphysical doubt, also sometimes referred to as methodological skepticism or Cartesian doubt: he rejects any ideas that can be doubted and then re-establishes them in order to acquire a firm foundation for genuine knowledge.
Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single first principle that he thinks. Descartes concluded, if he doubted, then something or someone must be doing the doubting; therefore, the very fact that he doubted proved his existence These two first principles—I think and I exist—were later confirmed by Descartes’ clear and distinct perception: as he clearly and distinctly perceives these two principles, Descartes reasoned, ensures their inescapability.
Descartes concludes that he can be certain that he exists because he thinks. But in what form? He perceives the body through the use of the senses; however, these have previously been unreliable. So Descartes determines that the only indubitable knowledge is that he is a thinking thing. Thinking is what he does, and his power must come from his essence.
In this manner, Descartes proceeds to construct a system of knowledge, discarding perception as unreliable and, instead, admitting only deduction as a method.
None of this sounds very funny. In fact, it all sounds very intellectual and philosophical and like something you really have to sit and think through and work on.
But a grad student once that something that will forever make Descartes a source of amusement for me.
We were talking about how Descartes came up with his “I think, therefore I am” principle by doubting his senses. And one of my grad students said, “I think Descartes was just sitting around stoned.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve heard all this before from some of my buddies. Some guy gets high as a kite and starts staring at his fingers and says, ‘Whoa. Like, is this my hand? Can I really feel anything? What if, like, it’s not even connected to me at all? What if, like, it’s just something I imagine, man?” Descartes was just another stoner, he just happened to make a philosophy out of it that stuck.
And I laughed out loud. I had no idea how to respond to that.
So, now, every time I think of Descartes, I think of him sitting in front of the fire, wrapped up in a shawl, in a high-backed wooden chair, stoned out of his gourd and staring at his hands while he accidentally establishes the premises for science and basically the coming Enlightenment. And it brings me great joy.
Another surprising rhetorician who makes me happy is Nietzsche.
Nietzsche made the radical argument that there is no such thing as truth as we understand it. He argued that truth is just a social arrangement and is only needed because of our capacity to lie. Lying, however, has to be understood in terms of metaphor. Lying is when a person misrepresents something. But truth has to be understood discursively. Things like circumstances and acts can’t accurately be converted into language. What is “real” is not the same as the words used to represent them. The words are just metaphors. Language is our impression of things – it is where we negotiate meaning. In this sense it is reality building! But that is also a problem – because it is metaphorical. All we have are metaphors with which to build our reality, and metaphors are inherently interpretive. So metaphors are fundamental to the human experience, but they also can disrupt any notions we have of “truth.” So these metaphors are both essential but also really problematic. They are the only way we have to communicate subjective ideas. Truth is just the effective arrangement of metaphors. So basically, there is no truth, this is just the creative organization of lies and metaphors.
Nietzsche argues that the driving force behind human action and the way we organize ourselves is the will to power. This sounds really big and scary, but all it means is that desire to control chaos and is necessary for ethical action. It leads to self-control. He acknowledges things like obvious displays of power, like one group trying to subjugate another, but he argues that things like art and philosophy are also examples of the will to power because in each of these the creator is just trying to control their circumstances. The will to power is not good or bad – it is simply motivation. Nietzsche’s ubermensch was a person who successfully mastered the chaos. They behaved ethically and were in control of their surroundings.
Think about truth. I know – it seems depressing at first because Nietzsche says there IS no truth. But at the same time he says that truth is something we construct through our creative organization of metaphors.
Just think about that for a second. – You’re a truth builder!
You have the power to create worlds and realities. Your creativity and your ideas can construct whole worlds and truths based on the words you use and the metaphors you organize. How powerful are you? How much potential do you have? What worlds do you want to see come into being?
So Nietzsche gives me the big ol’ boost! He’s so empowering! How can you not smile knowing that you are a world-builder? You make truth! Gorgias made himself a freaking gold statue for that. What do you deserve? At least a pat on the back! I know it’s not the lesson people would tell me I’m SUPPOSED to get from him, but Nietzsche tells me I’ve got this. I matter. And that’s a pretty cool thing to think about on my birthday.
And let’s round this list off with Jacques Derrida.
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction, which he analyzed in numerous texts, and developed in the context of phenomenology. He is one of the major figures associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy.
Derrida referred to himself as a historian. He questioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition and also more broadly Western culture. By questioning the dominant discourses, and trying to modify them, he attempted to democratize the university scene and to politicize it. Derrida called his challenge to the assumptions of Western culture “deconstruction”. On some occasions, Derrida referred to deconstruction as a radicalization of a certain spirit of Marxism.
Derrida approaches texts as constructed around binary oppositions which all speech has to articulate if it intends to make any sense whatsoever.
Perhaps Derrida’s most quoted and famous assertion, is the statement that “there is no out-of-context.” Derrida once explained that this assertion “which for some has become a sort of slogan, in general so badly understood, of deconstruction … means nothing else: there is nothing outside context. In this form, which says exactly the same thing, the formula would doubtless have been less shocking.”
Derrida is, without a doubt, super complicated. But he brings me joy for two disparate reasons:
One of his metaphors that he uses in his theory is that of play, and I like that. Sam Gill says, “Play, for Derrida, is a ‘disruption of presence,’ ‘an interplay of absence and presence,’ conceived even before the alternative of presence and absence.” I am honestly not even entirely sure what that means. But I love that Derrida calls is play. What is a disruption is supposed to be joyful or possibly whimsical. When absence and presence interplay it is like a game – and the fact that he put it that way makes me inordinately happy.
But the biggest reason Derrida makes me smile is because of the connection he has to my husband. We met while we were both taking English grad classes. We never had a class together but being in the same program we, knew the same people and had the same professors. We ran in the same circles.
And we always used to make fun of the grad students who loved to name-drop Derrida. And Foucault, but mostly Derrida.
Look, we hadn’t read a whole lot of Derrida, but what we knew of him was that he was pretty much indecipherable. And these 20-something year olds in the first or second year of their PhD programs dropped his name like it was Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. “Well, according to Derrida…” “Derrida’s work would indicate that…” “Derrida’s insights would be very pertinent here…” And we became convinced that it was all nonsense. There was no way these punk kids had read and understood Derrida and could just drop him into conversation. We became convinced that people were just making things up. We developed the “purplemonkeydishwasher” theory of theory. I don’t know where that phrase came from. Maybe The Simpsons or something. But we hypothesized that you could say ANYTHING, and if you attributed it to the right theorist, people would just nod and agree, because nobody would know any better. So, “According to Derrida, purplemonkeydishwasher.” “As Foucault pointed out, purplemonkeydishwasher.”
This little inside joke sustained me throughout all of grad school. Every pretentious know-it-all who felt the need to show off what they knew got relegated to the purplemonkeydishwasher category of student in my brain and it kept me laughing instead of infuriated.
And it was a connection between my husband and I that we share even to this day. I’ll come home from a conference, and he’ll ask me how it was and if I tell him there was a lot of purplemonkeydishwasher and he knows exactly what I mean.
Derrida didn’t mean to, but he gifted me that. He and all those pretentious grad students. And that, to this day, makes me laugh a little.
There are other rhetoricians who are amusing in their own right, but these are the ones who never fail to bring a smile to my face. So I wanted to share them with you on this, my birthday, a day of silliness.
I hope you find something to bring you some joy and share it with the world, too.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.