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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.4 (2002) 297-327

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Liberal Irony A Program for Rhetoric

James P. McDaniel


Seeing like a state

Perhaps these famous yet simple pictures display not so much the virtuosity of photography or photographers as they statically represent fragments of Mahatma Gandhi's theosophical and political dynamism, his uncanny blend of calm and charisma, thought and play. The compositions are technically simple yet thematically rich. The great leader being led by a boy, the public figure reflecting quietly in private over news reports: these modest representations key awareness of the place of overturning in Gandhi's thought, words, and deeds. A man who encouraged non-violent resistance (ahimsa) to British Imperialists, Gandhi submitted his body to great harshness (himsa). A witness to incredible atrocities committed against his people, Gandhi exhorted his followers to present their bodies before armed imperialist soldiers with full knowledge that they would be brutalized, many killed. Legally prohibited from doing so, Gandhi made salt. Exhausted and hungry, Gandhi walked hundreds of kilometers without rest and fasted for long stretches of time. Hated and feared, Gandhi loved. Perpetually reversing the "logic" of the world he knew, overturning its values to find and clarify truer values, insisting that choices be made between the received and the [End Page 297] promised, the "is" and the "ought," the actual and the possible, Gandhi was an ironist.

Each picture can also be seen as an allegory, or taken together as an allegorical complex of mutually illuminating signs, and Gandhi as a political allegorist of human relations for early twentieth-century India and the globe. Allegory's signature inscriptions are everywhere about these simple photos. Personification of virtue, a stock technique of allegorical composition, abounds: Humility becomes Gandhi. Each photograph personifies humility uniquely: sparseness of setting, simplicity of garb, and other visual cues for self-abasement adorn the one; richness of natural setting, playfulness, childlikeness, and such ornament the other. Both images suggest the presence of the eternal in the temporal, but in different ways, another key fixture of allegorical design: Gandhi's stillness sitting near his spinning wheel, itself an image of eternal circuitousness, in the one, and his vigorous exertion against a vast, seemingly static, natural landscape, both "frozen" in time thanks to the technology of photography, in the other. Likewise, time's flow seems in a sense reversed in a manner that mirrors symmetrical ontological reversals: the older follows the younger, the man the boy, and the wise follow the inexperienced. Further allegorical decoding could be endeavored, for instance rearticulating the two texts on four tiers of signification: literal, figural, historical, and anagogical—the "four-level" allegorical hermeneutic initially developed for application to sacred texts and later ascendant as a critical method from the Middle Ages to some versions of poststructuralism in recent years (e.g., Fredric Jameson's Political Unconscious, Frederick Dolan's Allegories of America,Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading). Each tier reveals a unique dimension of discourse: its textual surface (literal), its embedded significations (figural), its reflexive display of placement in time and society (historical), and its alignment with archetypal or ultimate patterns of existence (anagogical).

As two approaches to the same texts, irony and allegory are more complementary than exclusive. Neither renders the other invalid or uninteresting, nor do they deplete their common rhetorical resources, yet each features distinctive fixations. The first perspective fixates on a single strategy reflected in the texts and explores the ramifications of that strategy: dialectical reversal. The second fastens on and traverses across myriad textures and patterns of discursive technique displayed in the texts: allegorical personification (e.g., Gandhi as humility), temporality (e.g., fusing of public, private, and eternal time), paratactic association of images (i.e., interplay between visual signs not necessarily regulated by a single code [End Page 298] of meaning), and cosmic ornamentation (e.g., the spinning wheel that, by the way, is not spinning; like Gandhi, it is sitting still in a world of tumult, as if mirroring a moment of individual and universal arrest). Ironic strategizing and inventorying, in this light...


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