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  • Addressing Alterity:Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation
  • Diane Davis

Teaching is not reducible to maieutics; it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I contain.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity

There is always the matter of a surplus that comes from an elsewhere and that can no more be assimilated by me, than it can domesticate itself in me. A teaching that may part ways with Heidegger's motif of our being able to learn only what we already understand—when does learning take place? what do we already understand?—the Conversation belongs, as ethical relation, to the effort of thinking the infinite, the transcendent, the Stranger. None of this amounts to thinking an object.

—Avital Ronell, Dictations

From Rhetorical Power to Reception Histories Steven Mailloux has brilliantly performed and explicated a "rhetorical hermeneutics" that demonstrates the "practical inseparability of interpretation and language use and thus of the discourses that theorize those practices, hermeneutics and rhetoric" (1998, 3). Many rhetoricians have challenged the specifics of Mailloux's various arguments and have more generally objected that "rhetorical hermeneutics" leans too far toward the hermeneutical, reducing rhetoric to an analytic or critical art and giving its productive (political) function the squeeze.1 Yet within these lively debates, very few have challenged his basic premise that rhetoric and hermeneutics are inextricably intertwined: the question has not been whether they are indissociable but which side of the production-reception coin rhetorical studies ought to emphasize.2 Michael Leff, for example, flipped Mailloux's adjective-noun relation to spotlight production, promoting a "hermeneutical rhetoric" that focuses more on political than literary texts; nonetheless, he agrees that "all interpretive work involves participation in a rhetorical exchange, and that every rhetorical exchange involves some interpretive work" (1997, 197-98). [End Page 191] Rosa Eberly goes further in Citizen Critics, offering a hermeneutical rhetoric that is less interested in "already-written discourses" than in spotlighting "rhetoric's power as an art productive of discourses and subjectivities for the present and the future" (2000, 34). Yet Eberly, too, affirms Mailloux's basic premise, which was nudged in the direction of conflation in the introduction to the 1997 collection Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time, in which the editors, Walter Jost and Michael Hyde note in passing that their title can "be understood as virtually tautological."

And there is of course no doubt that rhetoric has a hermeneutic dimension; or, more carefully, that rhetoric constitutes the hermeneutic dimension. If "hermeneutics" indicates "the art of understanding," as Friedrich Schleirmacher wanted, then interpretation clearly depends upon production.3 "Rhetoric not only has its place within the sphere of objects surveyed by hermeneutics," as Werner Hamacher puts it, "but also constitutes an integral component of every hermeneutic operation. Every step in an interpretation corresponds to a rhetorical—or grammatical—figure" (1996, 70). Put more bluntly: intelligibility, including self-intelligibility, is a tropological product; cognition itself is a trope that can in no way be secured. Hermeneutics—as it's being used here—is completely dependent on, even absorbed by, rhetoric.4 I have no problem with this. Nor with Mailloux's suggestion that the reverse is also true:

In some ways rhetoric and interpretation are practical forms of the same extended human activity: Rhetoric is based on interpretation; interpretation is communicated through rhetoric. Furthermore, as a reflection on practice, hermeneutics and rhetorical theory are mutually defining fields: hermeneutics is the rhetoric of establishing meaning, and rhetoric the hermeneutics of problematic linguistic situations.

(Mailloux 1998, 4)

I don't disagree: As the production and appropriation of meaning, rhetoric and hermeneutics are an indissociable team; together, they complete understanding's circle. I take this as a given.

However, I want to suggest that there is also a non-hermeneutical dimension of rhetoric that has nothing to do with meaning-making, with offering up significations to comprehension. This dimension is reducible neither to figuration nor to what typically goes by the name persuasion; it is devoted to a certain reception, but not to the appropriation of meaning. Preceding and exceeding all hermeneutic interpretation, it deals not in signified meaning but in the address itself, in the exposure to the other; it deals not...


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