- Letters to Power: Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals by Samuel McCormick
Complex, though succinct, scholarship often yields succinct, though complex, lessons. Put succinctly, Samuel McCormick’s Letters to Power teaches that to contend with power one must live and endure. A scholar endures, for McCormick, by practiced constraint, by “not doing” when one could and by “persisting against” conventional, overt notions of dissent. Dissent once meant we relied on the suasory strategies and abilities of public intellectuals. Today, public intellectuals seem either in short supply or in a liminal state scattered throughout digital media. How, then, do academics survive, endure, oppose, and advocate in the capricious contexts of power? McCormick finds hope in the strategies deployed in the “minor rhetoric”—a commonplace writing genre (epistolary) with attendant and reimagined persuasive potential—of “learned advocates”—those who, through uncommon erudition and foresight, accrue and trade on cultural and political capital. McCormick shows how learned advocates throughout history—Seneca the Younger, Christine de Pizan, Immanuel Kant, and Søren Kierkegaard—use minor rhetoric to challenge power and effect change. If academics seek change, particularly in a time when university administrators rummage through presumably private email accounts—as happened in the wake of the Harvard cheating scandal in fall 2012—a more “subtle form of political contention” (17), of the sort practiced by learned advocates, seems in order. McCormick offers just this lesson and prospective remedy.
How, then, do we characterize McCormick’s politics of rhetoric? Rhetoric, at once, occupies a recognizable, recoverable, and usable past; connects [End Page 195] and amplifies historical exigencies to broader and timeless ethical precepts; and emerges in “modes of political intelligence and persuasive artistry” well-suited for current, sophisticated forms of dissent (12). Moreover, specific rhetorics, illustrated by the minor works of Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard, provide a targeted “antidote” (Gorgias’s “The Encomium of Helen” comes to mind) to the all-or-nothing confrontations typical of academic politics in the late modern era (3). McCormick proclaims in the book’s first (3) and last (143) chapters that:
Seneca’s rhetoric of withdrawal counteracts the politics of desertion implicit in the specialized, disciplinary language of late-modern academics; Christine’s rhetoric of exemplarity challenges their tendency to rely on linear, abstract and hyperrational forms of argument; Kant’s rhetoric of obedience offsets their Dreyfusard inheritance of overt dissent and radical opposition to public authority; and Kierkegaard’s rhetoric of identification short-circuits the prevailing Marxists standards of vanguard leadership to which many of them . . . aspire.(Emphasis added)
The respective rhetorics of withdrawal, exemplarity, obedience, and identification, advanced properly and targeted intentionally, produce rather extraordinary outcomes. These rhetorics not only counteract, challenge, offset, and short-circuit late-modern academic political maneuvering but also disrupt norms, generate fresh perspectives on traditional thought and expression, and, given reimagined and newly appreciated canonical arguments, advance the methodological agenda of the “new” cultural history.
In framing the book, McCormick indulges the desire to exaggerate the necessity and, in this instance, the political efficacy of his object of study. Such desire leads one to proclaim preexisting, inevitable, if not universal, rhetorical frameworks recovered and outcomes drawn from idiosyncratic, though well-researched, historical events. These “microhistories” apparently tap into a macro-historical and ethical reservoir on the basis of which one issues normative injunctions. Still, McCormick carefully approaches issuing normative injunctions from historical comparisons: “To be sure, imperial Rome, feudal France, Enlightenment Prussia, and Golden Age Denmark look nothing like contemporary democratic public culture” (16).
Although McCormick cautions against the easy use of historical analogues as guides to current political change, he appears oddly sanguine in [End Page 196] resorting to rhetorical analogues: “But the specific rhetorical situations in which Seneca, Christine, Kant, and Kierkegaard intervened bear a striking resemblance to those in which late-modern academics now find themselves” (16). Noting the crumbling system of tenure and academic self-governance at most contemporary universities, and the rise of corporate managerial styles and neo-liberal thrall, McCormick suggests: “It is here, in...