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  • Rhetoric, Asignification, and the Other:A Response to Diane Davis
  • John Muckelbauer

The other cannot be absolutely exterior to the same without ceasing to be the other; and consequently, the same is not a totality closed in upon itself, an identity playing with itself, having only the appearance of alterity.

—Jacques Derrida, Violence and Metaphysics (126)

I have to confess that I often find it curious that many scholars align the study of rhetoric with the so-called linguistic turn in the human and social sciences. Indeed, rhetorical scholars frequently refer to a supposed "rhetorical turn" in scholarship that they treat as more or less synonymous with the "linguistic turn" of the last thirty years. For many, this "linguistic turn" indicates an intellectual trajectory wherein the signifying movement of language becomes the paradigm for analyzing a whole host of diverse phenomena. If this is the case, it's not clear to me that this paradigm is necessarily identical with rhetoric.1

Many scholars locate the kindred spirit of this linguistic turn in its emphasis on the primacy of language. But there are many different ways of prioritizing language, and for the discourses usually associated with the linguistic turn, this emphasis is on language as a signifying operation. That is, the linguistic turn's commitment to language is a commitment to the primacy of a system that is directed toward meaning, to either the production of meaning or to the attempt to understand or interpret meaning/s.

Of course, some of the more provocative versions of this "signifying" approach demonstrate language's inability to finally mean, its structural incapacity for meaning to become self-present. Hence, one of the conclusions that sometimes issues from this approach is that any interpretation will always be incomplete, will always have to be deferred to the next indeterminate articulation. But whether one is concerned with producing a meaning, understanding a meaning, or demonstrating the indeterminacy of meaning, it's not self-evident that any of this has anything to do with rhetoric.2 [End Page 238]

In other words, rhetoric might very well indicate a dimension of language that is irreducible to the entire apparatus of signification. Indeed, what originally attracted me to the study of rhetoric was that, at least in its classical incarnation, rhetoric seems largely indifferent to signification and to the processes of either producing or interpreting a meaning. While signifying versions of language might ask questions about how language means, how we can come to understand it, or whether or not we can finally ever approach meaning (or a signified), even the most instrumental, traditional versions of rhetoric seem to pose different questions. They ask, for instance, what force does language have? How can it impact actions? What effects does it produce (one of which may be "meaning")? If I want to persuade the polis of something, I'm not necessarily trying to get them to comprehend my meaning or even trying to get them to understand anything at all; I'm just trying to get them to do something.

Of course, these two dimensions of language aren't mutually exclusive (I most likely want my audience to understand what it is that I want them to do, though not necessarily). It may even be the case that these two dimensions of language actually require each other (certainly, much traditional rhetoric assumes that I should understand what I am trying to accomplish). But the fact that these two dimensions exist in close proximity does not indicate that they are the same.

If signification seems inclined toward meaning, understanding, and indeterminacy, rhetoric seems inclined toward what we might call an "asignifying" dimension of language, focusing on forces, actions, and effects. And while this asignifying orientation of rhetoric may not be the prevalent orientation of many rhetorical scholars today, we might at least note that, for certain strains of the rhetorical tradition, this asignifying dimension of language is central to rhetoric's distinctiveness.3

Hence the profound importance of projects such as Diane Davis's recent work in that it attempts to revitalize this overlooked rhetorical orientation. For instance, her recent article, "Addressing Alterity" contends that there is "a non-hermeneutical dimension to...


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