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Philosophy and Rhetoric 39.1 (2006) 72-84

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"The Limbo of Ethical Simulacra":

A Reply to Ron Greene

Department of Communication Studies
University of Texas, Austin
Department of Speech Communication
North Central College
Department of Communication
Texas A&M University

In two recent articles, "Another Materialist Rhetoric," and "Rhetoric and Capitalism" (1998, 2004), Ronald Walter Greene pays considerable attention to Marxist rhetorical theory, especially the work of Dana L. Cloud (1994, 2001a, 2001b, 2002) and James Arnt Aune (1994, 2001). These essays usefully point up what is at stake in the debate between poststructuralist theory and Marxism: whether an instrumental, class-based, socialist critical and political project is still feasible and necessary in today's world. Rejecting both Aune's Marxist-humanist approach and Cloud's more economic vision of agency, Greene claims that the changing character of global capitalism and recognition of the "constitutive power" of discourse render rhetorical criticism and practical politics on a Marxist basis untenable. Although we appreciate Greene's engagement with Marxism, we contend that the arguments sketched out in his essays are theoretically and politically flawed.

First, Greene's criticisms are directed against a crude caricature of Marxist epistemology that obscures the complexity of theories of representation and ideology in the historical materialist tradition. Second, underwriting Greene's entire project are confused, and in some cases demonstrably false, assessments of the nature and historical trajectory of world capitalism and of the current prospects for class-based social movements. Finally, Greene endorses something like a democratic project but offers no normative criteria for such a project beyond the immanence of always-already present communicative agency and the excesses of joy afforded (to some) by the capitalist system. We will examine each of these shortcomings in turn. [End Page 72]

Real Lies: The Complexity of Marxist Epistemology

Greene and other poststructuralists charge Marxist theorists in the field of rhetorical studies with holding a dubious representational theory of truth.1 In contrast, Greene embraces a critical approach that examines "how rhetorical practices create the conditions of possibility for a governing apparatus to judge and program reality" and that views "what is in the true" as rhetorically produced (1998, 22). At odds with Greene's approach, Marxists claim that, in a range of ways, ideological discourses reflect, distort, and/or negotiate with the objective social realities, interests, and lived experiences of contending classes in capitalist society. Moreover, we believe that—by means of interpretive, historical, and empirical research—Marxist scholars and activists may develop fuller and more accurate theoretical "representations" of such realities and interests and of the various ways they shape our lives and our political struggles.2

This is not to say, however, that the process is simple or mechanistic. Marxist critical practice retains the evaluative power of realism without laying claim to absolute or unmediated empirical knowledge; moreover, we do not believe that ideas are mechanistically generated epiphenomena of economic motive. Discourses, as any communication scholar would agree and as Greene points out, do have effects or "effectivities." Yet anyone interested in a normative political project (which Greene wishes to escape, a point to which we shall return) must recognize the possibility of falsehood. However, as Raymond Geuss (1981) argues, falsehood is not only a matter of empirical misrepresentation. In addition to epistemic falsehood, ideological discourses may exhibit both functional falsehood (referring to how even plausible ideas can bolster oppressive power) and genetic falsehood (ideas promulgated by those with ulterior motives, or intentional mystification).

Similarly, analytic Marxist Jon Elster (1985) offers a view of ideology that regards discourses as more than simple epiphenomena of economic situations and struggles.3 Elster describes three overlapping forms of ideological production: the interest-based dissemination of distorted ideas, the failure of social imagination associated with widespread support for the capitalist system and U.S. imperialism, and the psychological comfort of palliative discourses such as religion and patriotism.4 Understanding how widespread adherence to common-sense ideas is accomplished is a project central to...


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