Ceci n’est pas un rhetorical situation

Here is a soundtrack for your reading of this blog post:

Bob Dylan sings about the human tendency to search for comfort, answers, stability, love, in an embodied and unified entity — a person, a lover — and announces that he cannot be that: “it ain’t me, babe, that you’re looking for.” Foucault would argue that not only is it not Bob, it’s not anyone, for that idea of document, something concrete, something embodied with a distinctive meaning, a representation that has a meaning or a role is one that doesn’t fully exist, or at least exist over time. It isn’t about the artist. It isn’t about the meaning s/he intended or the meaning you ascribe. In other words,

Magritte's Pipe

It’s not a pipe. It’s not even a picture of a pipe. It’s not an oeuvre. It’s not Henri Magritte. It’s not a representation of Henri Magritte’s mind. It doesn’t mean “pipe” or “painting” or “art” or “webpage.” It is a set of rules and protocols that we use to call it so. The rules create the event, which creates the thing, which creates the meaning. It’s a monument — a visible marker of a moment in time, a form and manifestation of a concept demarcated in the chaos by discourse.

“Behind the visible facade of the system [the systematic ordering created by language], one posits the rich uncertainty of disorder; and beneath the thin surface of discourse, the whole mass of a largely silent development (devenir): a ‘presystematic’ that is not of the order of the system; a ‘prediscursive’ that belongs to an essential silence. Discourse and system produce each other –” (76).

In this quote, Foucault seems to be saying that discourse does not equal a symbolic system to encapsulate and systematize thought, nor a representation of some purity of thought or original meaning or essence . Discourse, rather, is a set of rules that creates (or attempts to create) a sense of order from a state of “devenir”  or  the potentialities — the possibilities of becoming, of what something might develop into, become or mean. The WORD gives rise to the situation; the discourse creates, becomes, and perpetuates the system that evokes it. So, to Foucault, a “rhetorical situation” seems to happen because someone speaks and the language creates it.  Before, all the parts were there, but the situation is constituted (the parts gathered together) through the act of using language.

He continues this thread with: “Archaeology … does not treat discourse as document, as a sign of something else, as an element that ought to be transparent, but whose unfortunate opacity must often be pierced if one is to reach at last the depth of the essential in the place in which it is held in reserve; it is concerned with discourse in its own volume, as a monument. ” (138-139). This process of archaeology that Foucault narrates is not for the purpose of discovering the meaning behind or the truth within; a document does not signify something else. It is. It exists. It is a monument — a marker that something has happened, been created, left its mark.

And, “archaeology does not try to restore what has been thought, wished, aimed at, experienced, desired by mean in the very moment at which they expressed it in discourse; it does not set out to recapture that elusive nucleus in which the author and the oeuvre exchange identities; in which thought still remains nearest to onself, in the as yet unaltered form of the same, and in which language (langage) has not yet been deployed in the spatial successive dispersion of discourse” (139).  And “The authority of the creative subject, as the raison d’etre of an oeuvre and the principle of its unity, is quite alien to it [archaeology]” (139).  Alors, the premise that language bastardizes or corrupts otherwise pure thought or truth is bogus to Foucault, as is the idea of original intent and authorial purpose.  Rather, a text is  the result of a “network of causalities” (139) that bring it into being (and as quickly tear it apart).

It reminds me of my favorite passage from Jack Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity: ““Everything’s alright, form is emptiness and emptiness is form, and we’re here forever, in one form or another, which is empty. Everything’s alright, we’re not here, there, or anywhere. Everything’s alright, cats sleep.” 

Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge seems to be him narrating (often in dialogue with himself, as his own co-creative discursive partner) a process for reading the world. In it, he advocates deconstructing a situation, identifying its constituent variables, isolating them, and then manipulating them into various iterations, each time searching for new ways of seeing and knowing (sight and insight). The original and temporal unity is reconstituted again and again, into new temporary unities, not looking for an original truth or a primal Truth, but for variance and relationships among the constituent parts. He suggests a sort of iterative regression analysis being performed on various combinations of enunciative formations, which I see as delimited strings of meaning, much like an algorithm breaks text into strings or an image into pixels, and each further into a series of zeroes and ones which are then reassembled. This iterative exploration of potentialities and probabilities is  now infinitely more doable with Big Data and powerful computing. We have the capability to break something into smaller and smaller components, and to combine every more variables, and to manipulate in more ways. Our ability to see is technologically enhanced — no longer is this discourse between human and language, but with the mitigation by and enhancement from technology. We see with cyborgian eyes.

Foucault’s notions relate to my Object of Study because live-action role-playing exists in this sort of realm of delimited concepts and enunciative formations. A gamemaster sets up a situation and characters are created. Meaning is derived through the play and interplay in the game. Meaning is constituted temporally and contingently, depending on the discursive practices (and all the relationships, constructs, prior knowledge, etc.) of the characters. It is constructed relationally, not individually. And then it is over, and if one looks to the documents left behind (character sheets, rules, scenarios) one can never recreate or even understand the discourse that was the game. It is a true “you had to be there” situation.  An outcome is an outcome, and that is not to be judged as “good” or “bad” or “real” or “unreal.” It is what it is. It is a set of contingencies enacted.

I leave you with an excerpt form Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet gets Foucault. Foucault gets Hamlet. The two share an idea, but have given it new form:

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind.

HAMLET: O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

GUILDENSTERN: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

HAMLET: A dream itself is but a shadow.

ROSENCRANTZ: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.

HAMLET: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and
outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows. Shall we
to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.

And neither, any more, can I.*

*Though there is a whole other entry on savoir and connaitre that I must write. Those words must attempt to form from chaos on another day.


Dylan, Bob and the Hawks. “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Live at the Hollywood Bowl. 1965. Video. Posted by colonslappy, YouTube User. 27 January 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_y9FB3O7j0

Foucault, Michel, Alan Sheridan, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity: Pocket Poets Number 51. Vol. 51. City Lights Books, 1960. Google Scholar. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Magritte, Henri. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” 1948. Web. 27 January 2014. http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/rene-magritte/the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.2.2.html Web. 27 January 2014.

2 Responses to Ceci n’est pas un rhetorical situation

  1. Thanks for the musical intro. This was a good post that really demonstrated how you were thinking through the material and connecting it up examples of cultural objects that seem to have allowed you some clarity. It was a fun read.

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