- The Ethical Fantasy of Rhetorical Theory by Ira J. Allen
In The Ethical Fantasy of Rhetorical Theory, Ira Allen does much more than give us a theory of rhetoric. He gives us a map of reality, of how we make the world real to ourselves, how we convince one another (and ourselves) of its realness, even as what we so deem is constantly changing. This book is a primer on how the fact of radical contingency is not in and of itself fatal to the project of human life and politics. On the contrary, for Allen, it is the source of human life and politics. In his careful and elegant way of thinking Allen shows us how out of the chaos and swirl of all that is, we manage nonetheless to continuously produce a tension (what he calls a "hung dialectic") between what we claim the world to be and what we experience it as being. At the center of this navigation is our relationship to rhetoric itself. For Allen, rhetoric is no less aleatory and contingent than the world we try to describe through its tropes. But rather than being a drawback, this shared contingency is precisely how rhetoric is able to connect us with this world in ways that are both creative and powerful.
Allen's book is divided into seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the nature of what constitutes "truth" in rhetorical theory. Allen shows us that something deemed true can also (must also) be both fantastical and poetic. Yet, as Allen shows, this is nonetheless a "pragmatic fantasy" (13), that is, it does something; it coheres and performs. Chapters 3 through 5 develop the idea of a "troubled freedom," a way of negotiating the rules (and there are rules!) to rhetoric without being overly limited by them. These central chapters explore the relationship between modern and classical rhetoric, the way that rhetoric circulates among what Allen [End Page 81] calls "focalizers" (the one, the some, the many, the all), and the relationship rhetoric has to the symbols that it employs. These various discussions contend with what could be called the granularity and sedimentation of rhetoric, the traditions and modes by which it is undertaken and how these both shape and free up the power of rhetorical theory to explain the world. Finally, in chapter 6, Allen looks at rhetorical theory in terms of what he calls a "self-consciously ethical fantasy," bringing this consideration into direct conversation with ethical understandings of how rhetoric functions.
In his examination of the possibilities and limits of rhetorical theory, Allen not only describes but models the key notion of his book, which is that of "troubled freedom." Troubled freedom, as previously noted, references the way we seek expression and persuasion even as we navigate the problematical limits of language. We are never as free as we want to be, but we are also never as constrained as we fear (here again, the tension between those two states is the basis for what we actually can do). Allen accepts the things that he can't prove or know, and from this limited basis, he shows how much freedom we do have, as well as the kinds of truths and fantasies—which in Allen's fascinating formulation are effectively the same thing—we can come up with out of this basis.
In order to give a sense of the depth and breadth of this book it is helpful to further explain a few of its central notions. One key claim is the aforementioned concept of a "hung dialectic." This notion is central to the entire scope of this work. A hung dialectic is one that does not resolve itself, does not lead to transcendence in any sense and is, perhaps above all, not a teleological certainty. For all of this, the hung dialectic still is highly effective. Allen tells us that rhetorical theory is itself a hung dialectic, writing, "As a hung dialectic, rhetorical theory does not issue in any one outcome...