- Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture by Dana Cloud
In one of his many defenses of rhetoric, Aristotle states that "even if we were to have the most exact knowledge, it would not be very easy for us in speaking to use it to persuade [some audiences] … it is necessary for pisteis and speeches [as a whole] to be formed on the basis of common [beliefs]" (2007, 35). Dana Cloud's Reality Bites advances a similar position, suggesting that the political left needs to reclaim rhetorical appeals as a form of argumentation if it is to defeat the conservative forces that have taken control of the public sphere. Focusing on what she calls the "big five" (narrative, myth, affect, embodiment, spectacle), Cloud argues that the American left is losing political ground to the right due to its inability to craft effective stories convincing the general public that commonly held beliefs support a left political doctrine. Because people are embodied and emotional beings, fact-checking and appeals to pure rationality and logic are ineffective at convincing large swaths of people to change their actions and beliefs. And yet, the left continues to cling to the bare, factual truth, hoping to awaken the masses to their oppression at the hands of a proto-fascist Trumpian regime. As an alternative, Cloud proposes that we embrace what she calls rhetorical realism, a communication strategy built on the notion that "communicators can bring knowledge from particular perspectives and experiences into the domain of common sense, and that we can evaluate truth claims in public culture on the basis of whether they exhibit fidelity to the experience and interests of the people they claim [End Page 94] to describe and represent" (15). Rhetorical realism walks the line between relativism and realism, suggesting that "there is a reality—but none of us can know it except through frames of mediation" (2). Truths may objectively exist, but they can be accessed only through rhetorical interventions that structure meaning making.
Rhetorical realism has three interrelated tenets. First, rather than appeals to objective or universal truths, rhetorical realism relies upon experiential knowledge and rhetorical appeals. Two of Cloud's case studies—Neil deGrasse Tyson's 2014 reboot of Cosmos and #BlackLivesMatter—reflect this approach. Second, rhetorical realism traffics in doxastic, or common knowledge, rather than epistemic, or formal truths. Because knowledge is accessible only through mediation, rhetorical realism suggests that doxastic questions represent the most worthwhile explorations. Third, grounded in standpoint epistemology, rhetorical realism believes truth claims should be cognizant of power relations and align with the interests of the oppressed and exploited, as those at the lower rungs of society have a clearer, more holistic understanding of how society operates.
These three tenets point toward what is arguably rhetorical realism's most radical implication: scholars ought to stop entirely asking formal questions of ontology and epistemology. Drawing from the lessons of rhetoric of science scholarship, Cloud's position is not that "there are no facts outside of rhetoric's intervention," but rather that "the implementation of their use varies in ways that are strategic and invested with power" (25). Questions about the fundamental nature of our being or what truth is ought to be sidestepped in favor of "adopting the strategy of crafting frames of moral commitment and belief that can carry our truths out of the glades and into glorious, plain view" (4). Cloud does not negate the existence of an ahistorical metaphysics, but instead argues that the search for it is simply not worth pursuing. As she says, "Even if there were ever an original 'state of nature' in which humans encountered the world afresh, from that day forward, human symbolic framing and interpretation would have been ever present" (6). Humans instead engage in "dialectically evolving systems of ideas" that reflect localized, perspectival realities and the lived experiences of individuals and groups of people (7). Cloud says that only a realist perspective can explain both...