Category Archives: rhetoric

Michael Warner on religion and politics

Last night, Michael Warner spoke at the Graduate Center as the plenary talk for the interdisciplinary “Religion and Sexuality” conference being held today. His talk was a riveting call to restructure the terms of the ongoing debate about the role of religion in secular politics.

His key point was the way in which the language of eighteenth-century evangelical religion, in which one is “a Christian” because of one’s declared faith (rather than, say, adherence to religious law or cultural associations), has been extrapolated in American politics to create a division between all religious peoples (“faith-based initiatives,” etc.) and secularism, which is defined as a lack of faith. He noted the ways in which even non-Christian religions are defined by political bodies as “faiths,” even though faith itself is a specifically Christian-evangelical requirement for religious affiliation. Warner noted that in Stanley Fish’s op-ed columns, Fish has repeatedly opined that he (as a secularist) feels jealousy of radical Muslims and Christians alike because they have “something” to believe in and fight for, while secular individuals have “nothing” to believe in.

Warner argued for a revision of this rhetorical separation between faith and absence-of-faith as a specifically evangelical mindset that neither does justice to non-faith-based religions or to the very long history of secular ethics. One way of doing this, he argued, is not to relentlessly separate the terms of church and state, but to recognize that if churches wish to be considered political entities, they must be analyzed in political terms, in part because the “beliefs” that religions bring into political realms are constantly changing, unrooted in either biblical or ecclesiastical history, and constantly plead self-referentiality. The war against homosexuality, for example, has never been a primary issue of Christianity until recently, when suddenly it has become the very shibboleth by which certain Christian groups assert their faith.

In the end, it seems, extrapolating “faith” to mean “whatever political interests the religion currently serves,” makes it a similarly empty and ahistorical category as secularism. It must not be called to answer for its lack of relevance to 2000 years of Christian ethics, and it also cannot be called to task under the provisions of the Constitution. If “freedom of religion” has come to mean that anyone in the U.S. can do anything and limit anyone else’s rights, as long as they call that impulse “faith,” then secular political discourse becomes totally powerless. After all, the problem with religious control of politics is not that it makes for bad “faith,” but that it makes for unacceptable political positions. Meanwhile, the very terms of “faith” require that all religious-political impulses frame themselves as faith-based, even when non-evangelical religions base community participation on other terms.

It was a brilliant argument and a deeply historical view of religion and politics in the U.S. over the past 230 years. Unfortunately, it seemed to spawn exactly the sort of conversation whose terms Warner was attempting to reset. I was extremely frustrated by the intransigence of the respondents toward a dialogue about the history of the discourse. There is a deep commitment in the secular academy to an us-vs.-them mentality with respect to religion, and a fear of engaging with anything called “faith” as a discourse, or as rhetoric. The conversation seemed to spin out into statements of the deeply-held “beliefs” of secularists, and then into religious audience members’ fear of an atheist-totalitarian state. A few questioners responded to Warner’s talk as it was presented, but his method of analysis seemed, sadly, completely unfamiliar to most of the respondents, who insisted on reasserting a post-1950’s view of what is true and must always have been true about U.S. politics.

the rhetoric of inquiry in the long eighteenth

Because I understand everything 20 years too late, I’ve really been enjoying a volume called The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987) for its essays on the “rhetoric of inquiry,” because it offers a really impressive example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship we are always being urged to practice. 

The consistency of this volume’s essays, the high calibre of the contributors (Richard Rorty, Renato Rosaldo, James Boyd White, Jean Bethke Elshtain, etc.), and the remarkable degree of focus achieved by its varied group of contributors make this an outstanding collection.  What lends the volume its coherence is its convincing depiction of the university as a place where persuasion is always happening, all the time, in every research discipline, no matter what method or methods it supposedly relies upon.  So despite the protestations of the social sciences and their rhetorical reliance on method, the diverse scholarly practices and inquiries of the university can be seen as a whole, if and when we see their common reliance on social, disciplinary, and institutional mechanisms of persuasion.

Of course, the bright future promised by this kind of volume–think about what could happen, what vistas would open up, the kinds of community and conferences we could create, etc. etc., if we just followed this research agenda–has not quite worked out.  This is the only benefit of reading something important 20 years too late, the latecomer’s modest advantage of being able to gauge the accuracy of an author’s predictions, or, really, to assess the acuity of an author’s historical self-awareness.  I have some thoughts about why the future didn’t work out the way the contributors hoped or expected, but I’ll address that in another post.

For the practicing 18th century scholar, I’d say that there are two major take-aways from this volume: the first is the historical, transdisciplinary, transdiscursive importance of the seventeenth century denigration of rhetoric, which helped to produce an alliance of scientific and philosophic method that continues unabated to this day, for all the embarassments that both the hard and soft sciences have experienced since the turn of the twentieth century.  As the editors note, this discursive alliance remains with us still as part of the modernity that we all “suffer,” and whose “dichotomies of subject and object” “gave fresh force to opposing truth and rationality on the one side to conversation and rhetoric on the other” (6).  (This convergence of modernizing and anti-rhetorical thought is also evident in the Sprat volume we discussed over the summer, and Habermas himself may not be free of such modernizing suspicions of rhetoric.) 

When I look at writing in our period, I see a three-way tension between the epistemological impulses of 17th and 18th century systems of knowledge-production, the still-powerful Ciceronian or Humanist elements of elite discourse, and the more diffuse energies of populism and the out-of-doors “public.”  The push-pull of these mutually antagonistic elements creates a lot of the generic and discursive instabilities and contingent opportunisms found throughout the Long Eighteenth.  Witness, for example Wollstonecraft’s distrust of the feminizing ornaments of Burke’s rhetoric in her Vindication, and her own embrace of a rationalist yet recognizably Protestant, dissenting discourse of conviction and demonstration in her political writings.

The large-scale historical and discursive stakes of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric is something that Bender and Wellbery’s essay on “Rhetoricality” treats very well, but it is also a major turning-point in every history of rhetoric I’ve encountered.  And yet how much do we discuss this turn against rhetoric in our undergraduate or graduate courses?  For all that, I think this topic of the decline of rhetoric deserves at least as much multidisciplinary emphasis as all the other “rise” narratives we routinely discuss in our respective fields, including the rise of the public sphere, –of the novel, –of the middle class, and so on.

The second takeaway from this volume would be the difficulty of conducting genuinely interdisciplinary research without an underlying assumption about the rhetorical or conversational nature of scholarship.  This is something that understandably came up during our NEASECS panel, but I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of my work on SACS accreditation and QEPs for my university and college.  What I have discovered is that while some disciplines encourage such scholarly conversations, and others do not, we all nonetheless receive considerable intitutional pressures to claim interdisciplinarity for our scholarship and research, even while many of the local and quotidian incentives go in the other, more safely specialized, direction. 

This set of tensions institutionalized within the modern university, which I regard as one of the historical legacies of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric, is also responsible for many of the ambiguities surrounding the “rhetoric of inquiry” since 1987, which resulted in the establishment of Rhetoric as a specialized field of inquiry adjacent to (and often competing with) literary studies, and the continued rejection of rhetoric by the other human sciences.



UPDATE: Since this book existed pre-internet, I had to hunt for links, but I did find two link for those not inclined to walk over to a real library.  Here’s a heated debate (via JSTOR, registration req.) between Peter Munz and one of the volume’s editors, in the Journal of the History of Ideas (1990).  And, as usual, Bruce Robbins has a nice take on these issues in his own piece on Interdisciplinarity from the same year.