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

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 rhetoric that has nothing to do with meaning-making, with offering up significations to comprehension" (2005, 192).

In order to explain the importance of attending to this "asignifying" or "non-hermeneutical" dimension of rhetoric, Davis pursues the approach of Emmanuel Levinas in diagnosing the ethical dangers of equating language with signification. For Levinas, as for Davis, these dangers consist in the fact that the signifying enterprise describes an encounter with the other that effectively reduces the other to a version of the same. That is, understanding and comprehension, indeed the entire movement of signification, is fundamentally [End Page 239] appropriative, encountering the other only in order to make it into a version of itself. In Levinas's words, "Thematization and conceptualization . . . are not peace with the other but suppression and possession of the other (1961, 46). The very acts of understanding and interpreting are driven by the appropriative desire to translate the other into recognizable and familiar terms, to establish a "common ground" that is the hallmark of the same.

So while rhetorical theorists such as Steve Mailloux contend that "it is only against a background of commonality that we can perceive radical difference," Davis's analysis points to the important fact that those differences really aren't very radical (quoted in Davis 2005, 196). In other words, if difference must be "perceived" or "recognized," it will look less like "difference" and more like the self-recognition of the same, an integration of the other into the pre-existing economy of the same.4 But Davis does not want to claim that Mailloux's hermeneutical approach is wrong. Indeed she goes out of her way to emphasize that, in terms of language's signifying and communicative dimension, Mailloux's analysis is spot on. Her objective is simply to show that, in addition to communicating, there is another dimension to rhetoric, one that is irreducible to the appropriative movement of signification.

It is important to emphasize here that despite the fact that the terminology may seem abstract or theoretical, the stakes of Davis's engagement are anything but. Her project is committed to developing a practical style of engagement with the other (whoever or whatever that might be) that doesn't simply treat the other as someone to be colonized, appropriated, and translated into something reassuring and comforting for me. Indeed, one rather provocative consequence of such a project is that it raises the possibility that the common contemporary political effort to "recognize difference" or to "acknowledge otherness" might actually be more dangerous than many presume. That is, rather than resisting normalizing, hegemonic discourses, such political work—as important as it may be in particular cases—might very much coincide with them. In this regard, the liberal championing of "difference" may share a deep resonance with multinational capitalism.

So, for instance, Mailloux's commitment to this signifying enterprise manifests itself as a commitment to "successful communication." And this commitment involves what he acknowledges must be an inevitable "ethnocentrism," an inevitable appropriation of the other and its reduction to the same. Against this inevitable appropriation, Davis wants to insist on a dimension of rhetoric that involves the ex-propriating interruption of sameness, an exposure of the "self" to an inassimilable otherness. This other cannot simply be thematized, much less comprehended, because it is irreducible to all acts of determination. [End Page 240]

Again pursuing Levinas's course, Davis articulates the difference between these two dimensions of rhetoric as the difference between "the said" and "the saying." If "the said" describes the entire appropriative signifying enterprise (all efforts to understand, communicate, interpret, etc.), "the saying" designates the performative, asignifying enactment that operates beneath (and as the condition of possibility for) that "said." The "saying" then designates a moment of exposure to radical otherness, exposure to an other that is infinitely excessive in relation to any attempt to thematize or know it. In Davis's terms, "the saying names the site of my encounter with and exposure to the other as other, which, by definition leaves my hermeneutic aspirations in the dust" (2005, 193, emphasis in original). And while so much contemporary scholarship commits itself to "successful communication" and to a rhetoric of "the said," Davis's project insists on the importance of attending to rhetoric as "the saying."

This is an extremely important and timely ethical and political project for rhetoric. And because of its importance, it is also a project shot through with risks, if it is not, speaking precisely, an impossible project. Let me state very plainly here that the purpose of my response is to attend to these risks and to insist on this impossibility. But I also want to make clear up front that what follows does not constitute either a critique or a defense of either Davis's or Levinas's discourse. That is, the risks that I will discuss and the impossibility that I want to highlight are not a result of some failure or shortcoming on anyone's part. Instead, they are risks and impossibilities that their discourses expose, questions that they put to us, rather than objections that we might direct at them.

In short, I do not want this response to simply take sides in another round of intellectual debate. But just as importantly, I am not trying to offer a different, third approach (one that is somehow distinct from Davis's and Mailloux's or tries to indicate a compromise). It seems to me that, for reasons that are crucial to the ethical issues under consideration, it is precisely the style of scholarly engagement that I'm schematically characterizing as "debate" (as relatively distinct positions contending in dialogue) that needs to be put into question here. Indeed, if there is any lesson to what I have to offer, I hope that it has more to do with the "indistinct" style of engagement it attempts to offer rather than with any particular claim that I make.

So as a first risk, consider the familiar tension that inhabits any discourse committed to thematizing something that is irreducible to understanding or knowledge. If the other is to be absolutely other then it cannot be thematized by the appropriative movement of signification. It must be absolutely other to knowledge. Hence, the first gamble for such projects is that, in order to orient themselves toward this unthematizable otherness, they take on the terminology [End Page 241] of the un-knowable or the non-rational (often, these days, under the sign of "the body" or "affect"). When Davis claims that one cannot know the other, she contends that "cognition itself is eclipsed" in the encounter with the other, that "my conceptual grids are disabled" and that "knowledge" is interrupted (199–200). In such instances, the terms "eclipse," "disablement," and "interruption" must be negotiated carefully or they risk indicating that this other is simply outside the bounds of knowledge, that it simply exceeds our ability to thematize it.

But if the other cannot be known, that means that it cannot even be known as "unknowable." To articulate the other under the sign of the unthematizable is nevertheless to make the other into a theme, a "said."5 As a result, one commits the very appropriative reduction of the other that the project is attempting to avoid, and this "other" dimension of rhetoric is quickly re-integrated into its hermeneutic counterpart. As Levinas explains, "the not-known and the unknowable would still refer to a present, would form a structure in it, would belong to an order" (1988, 154). While the other must be irreducible to knowledge, it cannot simply be unknowable. The practical risk here is that the very discourse that wants to attend to the irreducible other ends up sounding like a proponent of the same.

A second, related risk for such discourses is that, in their desire to emphasize that the encounter with the other cannot simply be thematized, they risk rendering such an encounter as something that, while irreducible to knowledge, can be subjectively experienced. For instance, Davis describes "an experience of depropriation and alteration" (2005, 199, my emphasis) or, in the counter-reading of Mailloux's "Star Trek" episode, she notes that, "Picard appears, maybe, to experience this nonappropriative relation" (201, my emphasis). That is, the very desire for separation from the appropriative movement of understanding risks offering only a counter-appropriation in the form of subjective experience. While the content (or "the said") of that experience may be interruptive (I lose my sense of self within it), and even if I can never understand what happened, it is still easily and immediately re-integrated into the same as my experience. This is why, for instance, Levinas writes that, "all the passivity of saying cannot be reduced to an experience that a subject would have of it, even if it makes possible such an experience" (1988, 54). Or why Davis explains that the encounter with the other only occurs to "an 'I' without a 'me'" (2005, 200). If this "experience" were merely a subject's experience, it would be nothing more than another symptom of the very appropriative reduction that it is attempting to avoid. So when Davis writes that we cannot account for the other, and that we "can only undergo it, suffer it as an interruption" (208), this "undergoing" and "suffering" are not simply things that a person feels or experiences. [End Page 242]

Or a third risk: in order to describe this encounter with irreducible otherness, discourses such as Davis's and Levinas's frequently have recourse to the metaphorics of excess. For instance, when attempting to describe the distinctiveness of "the saying," Davis writes, "When you address me you present yourself as an interpretable phenomenon from which you are always already busting loose, as a theme or concept that cannot contain you . . . you communicate more than I can comprehend, a 'surplus' of alterity" (192, my emphases). The metaphorics of excess are a common and understandable resource to use when searching for a vocabulary that can render something that is irreducible to signification and determination. The concept of a necessary "excess" seems to offer the prospect of a non-totalizing or non-unified system, and the possibility that some aspect of otherness defies any attempt to appropriate it by somehow exceeding those attempts. But again, these metaphorics must be carefully negotiated insofar as the discourse of excess is coterminous with the discourse of signification itself. That is, the very notion of indeterminate signification that I mentioned earlier is premised on the point that the signifier is excessive in relation to any particular signified (to any particular attempt to determine it). Again, the attempt to render a sense of otherness that is irreducible to signification risks simply reinscribing that same appropriative, signifying dynamic. This is why Davis insists that "We're not talking about 'the play of the signifier' here" (193). Or why Levinas explains that "the implication of the one in the one-for-the-other in responsibility goes beyond the representable unity of the identical, but not by a surplus or lack of presence" (1988, 136). While the encounter with the irreducible other does not describe a unity or totalized appropriation, it does not do so because the other is excessive (or lacking).

Each of these three rhetorical risks (the metaphorics of non-knowledge, of experience, and of excess) points to the stakes of a fourth risk that discourses such as Davis's and Levinas's venture. This gamble involves translating the desire to attend to the irreducibility of the other into a desire to attend to "the other as other" or to attend to the other "on its own terms." That is, such discourses risk indicating that the other somehow has its own terms or that it has its own self-identical attributes (the other as other) that might allow for some kind of proper response. The risk here is the implication that there might somehow be some pure sense of otherness that is in some way "separate from" or "prior to" the appropriative movement of the same (even if it is only separated as a different dimension of rhetoric, and even if that dimension is only the condition of possibility for a hermeneutic dimension). In order for there to be an "other as other," in order for there to be an other that would permit some kind of proper response, this other would have to have already been subject to the signifying [End Page 243] appropriation of the same. It would have to have been rendered as a self-identical thing with particular attributes (even if those attributes are indeterminate or unknowable). Hence, the desire for this kind of proper attentiveness to the "other as other" risks simply reintegrating the other into the familiar appropriative economy of the same.

One crucial consequence of this translation is that attending to the ethical encounter with an irreducible other can quickly become yet another moralism, providing a ready-made category for a new style of judgment and a new brand of denunciation. That is, while the whole direction of such projects would seem to want to interrupt this tendency, it is not far from attentiveness to irreducible otherness to a discourse that wants to distinguish the right way of attending to this irreducible other (through such familiar terms as welcoming, generosity, and openness) from the wrong way (closing down, violence, appropriation). Through such a movement, the irreducible other is reduced to the new terrain for judgment, offering little more than a heady new ground for re-distributing propriety.6 In short, the risk here is that the other is yet again comfortably and unproblematically integrated into the economy of the same as a moralism.

But if my brief enumeration of the risks of such discourses shows anything it should be that it is impossible to simply pick sides here. Even within the performative movement of "the saying" itself, it is impossible to advocate openness to the irreducible other without a necessarily violent closure.7 That is, while the other must not be reduced to the appropriative movement of the same, it cannot be separated from that movement either. There can be no question of some kind of proper encounter with the irreducible other, no "other as other," and no other "on its own terms." Or, more precisely, the desire for this proper encounter indicates one particular style of impropriety, one means for reducing and appropriating the other. This is why, for instance, Levinas will describe the encounter with the other as a compulsory impropriety and a necessary betrayal: "everything shows itself at the price of this betrayal . . ." (1988, 7).8

Yes, the other must be irreducible to knowledge, comprehension, and recognition, but it cannot simply be unknowable, incomprehensible, or unrecognizable. Or more precisely, articulating the other as unrecognizable indicates one particular style of recognition, one style of "betrayal." And the encounter with the other cannot simply be experienced, since experience indicates nothing other than a style of subjective appropriation. In short, the encounter with the irreducible other is and must be impossible. While this encounter is both necessary and irreducible, it cannot simply take place.

So what emerges from these series of risks and proliferating impossibilities is the crucial point that the risks assumed by Davis's and Levinas's discourses are essential risks. As I stated earlier, it is not the case that their discourses have [End Page 244] gone astray or somehow failed in their efforts to thematize the encounter with irreducible otherness. The risks that their discourses take are entirely necessary, meaning that they are not empirical accidents that, for instance, a more precise or more attuned discourse could avoid. The impossibilities that they confront are those assumed not only by any discourse oriented to irreducible otherness, but by all discourse, and even by all so-called experience.

Simply put, one cannot avoid reduction, appropriation, signification, and the return of the same. In order to attend to the irreducible, one must reduce (if not just "betray" in Levinas's terms). One can only welcome the irreducible other in the discourse and in the dimension of the same. This is the prime directive, the impure law of an impossible ethics, which, it must be added, is the only possible ethics.

But if a discourse oriented toward irreducible otherness cannot avoid reduction, appropriation, and the return of the same, this is perhaps because it doesn't need to. If the irreducible other is not exterior to the same, then what follows is that the same is not simply a closed circle that returns to itself in a movement of self-identity. That is, perhaps one doesn't need to avoid appropriation because the opening to the irreducible other may happen only with and through the very movement of appropriation. The movement of the same may not be something that needs to be refused, or even something that requires an "other" dimension; while appropriation may block access to the other, it might simultaneously enable that encounter as well. If this is the case, then knowledge, recognition, interpretation, all the tools in the arsenal of the same would necessarily harbor both appropriating and expropriating forces. But again, one could never know that this is the case, much less choose to separate one force from the other. As Levinas insists time and again, "the one-for-the-other is not a commitment" (136); it is not a choice that you or I can or should make.

This amounts to saying that, in a certain sense, in the realm of discourse, appropriation is the only choice even if one is committed to the irreducibility of the other.9 While the other must remain irreducible to the appropriative movement of the same, it cannot simply be distinct from this movement either.

The other: neither the same, nor different (nor both): impossible. But I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this impossibility would also be the defining characteristic of the movement of same. In other words, another way of saying that appropriation is the only choice would be to say that expropriation is the only selection.10

So while we must, perhaps, "refuse to reduce the saying to the said" (208), the style of this refusal is necessarily reductive, necessarily "said." But again, this does not mean that all reduction is the same or that all reduction simply reproduces the same. There are more or less complacent, more or less [End Page 245] anxious, and more or less demanding styles for encountering this reduction. In other words, there are certainly differences between a discourse of successful conversation, with its sometimes pious commitment, sometimes helpless consent to such reduction, and Davis's discourse of excessive otherness, which wants to emphasize the "devastating difficulty" of administering justice between incomparable others (208). As yet another possibility, one could imagine a discourse that attempts to orient itself toward the irreducible other within the very movement of the same (neither outside nor prior), to the expropriative selection within the necessary movement of appropriative choice.11 While each of these discourses risks becoming a discourse of judgment (rather than justice), they are also pedagogies of very different styles.

But regardless of which of these three discourses you or I choose, or which one resonates with you more, no one of them is more or less appropriative than the others. In other words, and this may be the crucial point for the ethical and political work that has characterized so much rhetorical scholarship in recent years, one can never simply point to any of these discourses as being somehow ethically or politically superior because it is more attentive to difference or more concerned with the other. Indeed, it is this very desire for judgment or even for a more just orientation within judgment that could prove a fruitful target for rhetorical engagements. That is, one of the crucial lessons of Levinas's and Davis's work may well be that, rather than being the telos of rhetoric, judgment may simply be the residue of asignifying, rhetorical processes. But none of these discourses would have any heightened purchase on those processes, as each of them is nothing more (or less) than a different orientation into the impossible wager of discourse, some of which are driven by the desire to criticize or advocate, and some of which are driven by the desire to immanently interrupt the operations of critique and advocacy. In the end, perhaps the best that one can hope for is an impossible encounter with the other on the necessarily impure terrain of the same. Of course, this hope cannot tell you what to do. It cannot tell you what to denounce and it cannot tell you what to endorse. Then again, perhaps it can.

John Muckelbauer
Department of English Language and Literature
University of South Carolina


1. Let me be clear that I am not trying to distinguish proper from improper uses of the term. As should become apparent below, I do not think that signifying appropriations of rhetoric are wrong or misguided; I merely want to point out that the link between the two is not necessary; and further, that rhetoric has and can offer other, "asignifying" orientations into language. [End Page 246]

2. What is at issue here is a distinction that is different from the usual debates between production and consumption or heuristics and hermeneutics. Despite all that these debates may imply for the scope of rhetoric and the practice of pedagogy, I follow Davis here in claiming that they elide an important, fundamental issue.

3. This description of the relationship between signifying language and rhetorical or "asignifying" language is regrettably too schematic. While, in a certain sense, the reminder of this paper addresses some of the dynamics of this relation (as a non-relation), I do so by focusing on "non-hermeneutic rhetoric" in the ethical register of "the same" and "the other"—the metaphorics that Davis employs. However, I discuss these issues in more detail in terms of signification and rhetoric in my book-in-progress, Invention and the Future: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change.

4. Here again, Davis’s analysis follows an important tradition in European thought that is committed to what many call a "philosophy of difference," often against the appropriative, colonizing force of the Hegelian dialectic. For scholars such as Adorno, Blanchot, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and Nietzsche, in order for difference to be difference, it must notbe understood on the basis of sameness (wherein the term "difference" refers only to the distinction between two or more identities). That is, difference must be irreducible to identity and to the appropriative operations of identification.

5. In Davis’s essay, this risk is most apparent in her allegorical counter-reading of Mailloux’s "Star Trek" episode, wherein the "non-hermeneutical encounter with the other" becomes a meaning that she interprets from the text and that she opposes to Mailloux’s interpretation.

6. Through the term "judgment," I am thinking of Levinas’s distinction between judgment and justice in Otherwise Than Being. While, as Davis points out, justice involves the comparison of "incomparables," judgment involves "the subsuming of particular cases under a general rule" (Levinas 1988, 159).

7. It is important to emphasize here that this impossibility exists within "the saying" itself, and not just as a product of the "the saying’s" necessary relationship to "the said."

8. For me, the crucial point here would be that this necessary betrayal cannot therefore be a "betrayal" at all, as there would be no proper relation to the other that could be betrayed. I think the stakes of this distinction are extremely significant, including not only Levinas’s claim that the encounter with the other is somehow temporally prior to Being’s disclosure (as the condition of possibility for this disclosure), but also the very project of articulating "ethics as first philosophy." This may be why, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas insists on the an-archic nature of this ethical "origin." The forceful recurrence of these "prior" metaphorics in Levinas’s work, despite his attempts to complicate them, may at least begin to explain why his work often lends itself to the kind of moralistic appropriations I mentioned above.

9. It is important to distinguish this claim (that appropriation is the only choice) from Mailloux’s comment that interpretation relies on a necessary ethnocentrism or his claim that one can only recognize radical difference through sameness. For the movement of appropriation that I am articulating, recognition is not the simple telos of discourse, meaning that the question of the encounter with the irreducible other is not just a question of recognizing difference.

10. For a discussion of the irreducibility of expropriative selection, and the implications of this, see Deleuze’s discussion of the eternal return in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983).

11. I want to be clear that this third alternative is not something that I think my response accomplishes or even attempts. If anything, I think this description would be a reasonable gloss of Derridean deconstruction as well as, in a very different idiom, the work of Gilles Deleuze.

Works Cited

Davis, Diane. 2005. "Adressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation." Philosophy and Rhetoric 38(3):191–212.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1983. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Tran Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Columbia UP.
Derrida, Jacques. 1978. "Violence and Metaphysics." In Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1961. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans Alphonso: Lingis. Pittsburgh Duquesne UP.
_____. 1988. Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence. Trans ALphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP. [End Page 247]

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