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Terrible beauty and mundane detail: aesthetic knowledge in the practice of everyday life.

In 1967 Robert L. Scott published an essay in which he argued that, contrary to Plato's critique of the art, rhetoric was a way of knowing. Scott's essay remains one of the best statements written in defense of rhetoric as both a social practice and a tradition of study.

As might be expected, the immediate responses to this essay focused on the epistemological implications of his central claim. Counterarguments by Richard Cherwitz and others attacked Scott for not conforming to the most conventional, institutionally established version of reconstructed inquiry in the social sciences - i.e., the intertwined logics of realism and empiricism (Cherwitz, Cherwitz and Hikins). Scott could remain silent because he had, of course, set out to do exactly what he was accused of doing. Others such as Barry Brummett took up the challenge, however, and I believe settled the dispute convincingly in Scott's favor (Brummett). A related contribution came from Michael Left, whose commentary on the essay identified key analytical requirements for developing Scott's claim as a program for inquiry (Left). In particular, Left emphasized attention to intermediate theories that can couple the analysis of particular texts with perennial concerns in the philosophy of rhetoric to provide strong explanations of specific classes of persuasive phenomena.

I suspect that both the appeal of Scott's essay and its subsequent influence depend in part on what he does not say. One of the key characteristics of the essay is its formalism: rhetorical knowledge is largely an empty category. Perhaps this lack of definition was one reason for the subsequent importance of Thomas Farrell's claim that rhetoric is a form of social knowledge: it provided the content to match the formal structure of Scott's perspective (Farrell; Scott, 1976). What is more interesting to me is how Scott shores up the hollow center of his theory from the outside. In place of a definition of what one knows when persuading or being persuaded, Scott places that knowledge (and its codification or development through scholarship) within the context of a deep humanism. This commitment to human freedom, dignity, equality, and fallibility is developed from its intellectual origins in the Greek enlightenment through contemporary philosophies of the human sciences (including, in the original essay, phenomenology, existentialism, Popperian liberalism, and Toulmin's critique of positivism, as well as hermeneutical philosophy in the sequel [Scott, 1976]). This bright horizon of meaning is enhanced further by the relentlessly ethical orientation of the essay - which extends so far as to explain philosophy's suppression of rhetoric in terms of the desire to be good: "The attractiveness of the notion that first one must know the truth and that persuasion at its best is simply making the truth effective rests in large part on man's desire to be ethical" (Scott, 1967, 15). Indeed, Scott's ethical orientation shapes every portion of his essay, and it is most evident in his most lucid formulations. One might wonder whether epistemology really is at issue after all. But this suspicion would be allayed by his final means for orienting the reader, which is his attention to the analysis of argumentation. This emphasis connected with the prevailing scholarly interest of the day, while it continues to compensate for Scott's displacement of instrumental, technical rhetorics. Rhetoric, we can continue to assume, is about arguments, and rhetorical knowing is the complex of cognitive skills and ethical norms suited to arguing well - that is, in a manner that both produces a reasonable consensus to resolve any specific problem while also perpetuating the process of deliberation. These emphases have remained evident in Scott's continuing reflections on the themes of his initial essay (Scott, 1993).

In what follows, I want to suggest that traditional emphases on humanism, ethics, and argument place undue limitations on the full understanding of how rhetoric can be a way of knowing. These limitations become evident when we consider another line of inquiry that has developed since the publication of Scott's essay: analysis of the aesthetic dimension of persuasive phenomena. At the time Scott was writing his essay, aesthetic awareness in rhetorical studies was trapped within a moribund debate about rhetoric and poetic - a debate that operated largely at the level of intellectual history rather than as a means for critical study - and in the technical inventories of stylistics, which itself was a continuation of the handbook tradition without regard to cultural context or political effectivity. (The great exception, of course, was Kenneth Burke, but that story has already been told.) By contrast, today aesthetic analysis draws on a much wider range of theory and method as it attempts to understand how all human activity involves complex dynamics of social performance.

If nothing else, this expansion of the concept of style enriches rhetorical studies by reactivating foundational tensions between argument and appeal, reason and emotion, ethics and aesthetics - in short, between humanism and a more amoral sophistry. These tensions are summarized by the remark that when Heracles had to choose between Virtue and Vice, he surely went with the one who was more beautiful (Poulakos and Whitson, 382). We could proceed from here by considering how these foundational tensions are already present in Scott's essay - beginning with his invention of a tradition that runs from the sophists through Augustine and on to the modern ideal of an open society. Quite frankly, this approach might be giving Scott more credit than is due. I believe a better approach is to consider how aesthetic analysis needs to continue Scott's project while escaping his substantive assumptions.

The basic problem I am posing is that defining rhetoric according to Scott's template so emphasizes ethical knowledge that it inadvertently inhibits any recognition of aesthetic perception and judgment. The central feature in this template is evident in this statement: "The point of view that holds that man cannot be certain but must act in the face of uncertainty to create situational truth entails three ethical guidelines: toleration, will, and responsibility" (Scott, 1967, 16). As we see how this sensibility radiates throughout the essay, we also can see how Scott is arranging fundamental contexts for rhetorical judgment: ethics and epistemology are coupled together, with politics in a subordinate middle position - sotto voce, but always lurking in the shadows, and dangerous. Aesthetics is nowhere in sight. To adjust this model to better incorporate social performance, discursive artistry, textual design, individual eloquence, and other registers of the aesthetic, we could take several approaches. First, one might reorganize: For example, I suppose my work on political style proceeds by coupling aesthetics and politics, with ethics in a middle position and epistemology kicked off stage (Hariman, 1995). Second, one might reconstruct rhetoric in general on an alternative platform, as John Poulakos does with the concepts of opportunity, playfulness, and possibility (1995; Whitson and Poulakos). A third approach, a portion of which I will attempt today, is to identify specific features of the phenomenal experience that is activated in many practical arts, including the arts of persuasion.

Herbert Spiegelberg has remarked that "one might describe the underlying unity of the phenomenological procedures as the unusually obstinate attempt to look at the phenomena and to remain faithful to them before even thinking about them" (1976, 700). Scott's defense of rhetoric was significant in part because it implied that epistemology was preventing scholars from seeing an important range of phenomena. The discovery of the full range of human cognition required not just procedures for rational demonstration, but the obstinacy to see what could not be reformulated within those procedures. So it is that Scott reconstructed rhetoric as a mode of knowing that is inevitably contingent. Yet there remained the impulse to match the virtues of the philosophical ideal, which lead Scott to emphasize how rhetorical knowledge is thoroughly ethical. Yet we must look beyond ethics as well. To understand the aesthetic dimension of persuasive texts, acts, events, or processes, we have to discern how the experience of living with others is being coded according to terms that are not initially either rules of demonstration or norms of right conduct. One consideration I would add to the template of rhetorical knowledge is attentiveness to the relationship in persuasive practices between the sublime and the mundane.

The sublime refers to that preeminently aesthetic sense of wonder, expansiveness, and awe that we experience in the face of natural beauty, technological power, or artistic perfection (Nye). The sublime is created when some limit condition in ordinary consciousness is exceeded, often because of some assertion or confluence of forces that catch us by surprise. You are driving down the road and turn a corner to see a snow-capped peak towering upward, as if pulling you toward heaven. Or you come over the hill and a great cityscape is spread out before you, ablaze with electric light. Or you turn on the radio and hear a song that startles you into a blast of acceleration and joy. Or you hear the voice of an orator as it becomes the cry of the people, the voice of God. In the sublime there is the paradoxical simultaneity of seeing beauty and experiencing power: we see an aesthetic object, separate from us because so beautiful, and we feel an enormous transfer of energy that sweeps us into a transformed world. Although we experience it today as largely a visual phenomenon, the sublime always has been a horizon for rhetoric. Hence the alignment of rhetoric with magic in antiquity and elsewhere, the deep ambivalence all cultures experience about the powers of speech, and our suspicion of charisma in the modern world.

But surely this is the occasional moment in persuasive practice. And so it is, for the other pole of rhetoric is its baseline condition of routine, everyday problem solving: in short, the mundane world. This is the experience of having to drive another four hours across the great plains, of stopping to eat at yet another franchise just like the last one, of turning on the radio to hear the same sorry music recycling again and again, or yet another speaker talking about law and order, the bond market, road construction, etc. Likewise, it is the dominant mentality of rhetorical education: whether learning how to organize a speech, dress for success, or run for office, the emphasis is on mastering the details of ordinary communicative practices.

The aesthetic dimension of persuasive practices is created in part through the dialectical interactions of these two impulses. Each is a horizon of energy and order for rhetoric, each provides the means for disclosure of a world, and each does so in tension with the other. As rhetors acquire the skill to recognize and walk through the routine world, while also creating those moments for breaking through to the sublime, they realize a distinctive mode of aesthetic knowledge.

Thus, persuasive discourse provides imitations of both the mundane and the sublime. The imitation of the sublime need not be through direct depiction; it is more likely to be the attempt to imitate the beauty of noble action. And, of course, it can be such an action. I believe this sense of things is what Hannah Arendt was stretching toward when she spoke of "doing beauty" (1971). I suspect that this attempt to imitate the beauty of noble action is one reason why rhetoric has put such great emphasis on ethos. Unfortunately, the mimetic form involved has been obscured by an unduly ethical perspective, which made the imitation intelligible in respect to norms of right conduct (such as virtues or principles), rather than to aesthetic perception and mimesis. What also is important to see from this aesthetic perspective is that the model character arises not just from good choices but also from the ability to rise above the mundane without repudiating that word, which is essential to the continuity of whatever good might be realized at the moment of transformation.

But this modulation of the mundane and the sublime to imitate the constraints and creativity that together make up action in the world has its own problems as well. As the Greeks recognized, the aesthetic perspective can totalize and tyrannize just as much as absolute truth or absolute morality. They knew that great beauty incarnate was terrible. Stated otherwise, there is no internal check on pure aesthetic perception that would save one from total submission to the object of beauty. Against this recognition, the mixed aesthetic of rhetorical practice acquires additional significance. For through the imbrication of the sublime and the mundane, the skilled persuader can harness the powers of persuasion without succumbing to them. To understand this sense of the aesthetic, we need to journey back to a time before Plato had cast his spell - back to the time of the encounter between the wily Odysseus and beautiful goddess, Circe.

We expect the gods to be beautiful, but "the dread goddess" Circe was in a class by herself. Daughter of Helios, granddaughter of Ocean, she commanded elemental forces of nature for her private pleasures. Most dangerous of all, perhaps, was the fact that she talked with mortals. Indeed, Circe possessed three great powers that obviously are closely joined: beauty, magic, and persuasion. And she also had a slightly perverse streak: she delighted in turning men into beasts and beasts into pets. In Odysseus she will meet her match, of course, but before the story is finished we will have an object lesson in how sustained, purposive action depends on both dealing with beauty on its own terms and attention to the practical details of everyday living.

The story is simple: After losing most of his fleet in another disaster, Odysseus and his remaining men come to an unknown island. They are exhausted physically and emotionally. A search party discovers Circe's palace, where they encounter both enchanted wolves and a tableau of aesthetic perfection: "They stood there in the forecourt of the goddess with the glorious hair, and heard Circe inside singing in a sweet voice as she went up and down a great design on a loom, immortal such as goddesses have, delicate and lovely and glorious" (Odyssey, 10.220). They are greeted warmly but only to be drugged and turned into pigs. One man escapes to tell the tale to Odysseus, who sets out to save the others. Thanks to the intervention of Hermes, he gets an antidote to the drug and tactical advice about how to deal with Circe. He plays out his part as scripted, and the men are set free. This is where the reader might expect the story to end - the crew setting sail again for home with fresh provisions and good winds provided by the goddess. But the story doesn't end there, not just yet. It turns out that in conquering Circe, Odysseus has been conquered. Penelope seems to have been forgotten as he and his men settle down to an unending idyll of feasting and other pleasures. What went wrong - how did victory turn into surrender?

What has happened is that the mortals have become enmeshed within a world of beauty. As part of the script, Odysseus had climbed into the "surpassingly beautiful bed" of Circe and, after freeing his men, she had come close and persuaded him to invite the rest of the crew to the palace. And now the many descriptions of Circe's realm of beauty acquire their accumulative power. The men are in a palace of well polished stones and shining doors and gleaming furniture and splendid dishes. Furthermore, the narrator's attitude toward this entrapment differs from the early portion of the story: Where the magic was perverse, succumbing to silver tables and mantles of fleece and unlimited meat and sweet wine and words spoken for advantage is not something to be avoided. Indeed, unlike magic, these are the pleasures and powers that gods and mortals share. The story celebrates the pleasures of living - the experience of beautiful objects not least among them. The problem is one of consequences: by living solely in a world of beauty, Odysseus has forgotten his destiny, his obligations. Nor does he save himself from this loss of social identity: instead, the crew comes to him and persuades him to return to his country. The men have been a constant burden for Odysseus, but they also represent the pull of everyday life - the collective insistence that he fulfill a social role and do the job that everyone needs done.

Odysseus's incapacity without his men provides a clue as to how to read the story. This is not a study in individual cunning - e.g., as was his encounter with the Cyclops - but rather a more impersonal arrangement of human faculties. Just as Circe's palace and her interest in talking with mortals define an intermediate realm between gods and humankind, so is she midway between otherworldly beauty and the reassuring elements of domestic life. At the beginning of the story, we first see her in a tableau that doubles as the image of Penelope at her loom (itself an icon of domestic order); at the end of the story, she dons a gleaming white robe and golden belt that are identical to those worn by Kalypso, the goddess who had ensnared Odysseus at the start of his journey. These formulaic descriptions double as a model of two horizons of human action: the pleasure of exceeding a limit and the security of everyday routine. These are not absolute polarities, of course, as each includes a good portion of the other: the domestic tableau is beautiful, while the immortals' garments are described in quotidian detail.

More important, however, are the ways in which Odysseus complements Circe: against her art, we find his craft; and against her mastery of pleasure, we find his practical intelligence. These complements to her aesthetic skill are evident in Odysseus' descriptions of his own behavior, which might be described as the mentality of home repair. (See, for example, Odysseus' account of how he kills and carries a stag [Odyssey, 10.160-73]. In a less epic age, the mighty Odysseus could have done well writing technical manuals.) Even when sinking into the pleasures of the palace, we are told that the hot and cold water was mixed just as he wanted, and that the chair was elaborately wrought with silver nails, and that he put his feet on a footstool. Thus, the power of the palace over Odysseus comes from the fact that his native mentality fits seamlessly into the more dazzling artistry of the immortal's world of beauty. It is not enough of an antidote to her power, but her power need not be harmful to humans. These are two different attitudes that can each encompass the other: we can admire the details of a beautiful object, or see beauty in the mastery of a routine. Furthermore, each alternative can be a form of the good life or the means for its destruction.

Thus, in the story of Odysseus and Circe we can see two aesthetic mentalities woven into a single sensibility that offers both beauty and danger. The sublime is not a realm of excess emotion; indeed, both mentalities are contrasted with the Achaeans' incessant bawling, which we are told is of "no advantage" to them. The mundane is not a banal absence of difference or pleasure, as it is assumed to be in modernist depictions of bureaucratic order; it has its own aesthetic perfection. The sublime draws us into the world of the gods, where every limit can be surpassed until even self-consciousness is obliterated. The mundane draws us into the world of material necessity, where every task can be done with skill but any small mistake can have far-reaching consequences. Each mentality needs the other: mundane rhetoric is tied slavishly to its norms of appropriateness; charisma kills.

As Eric Auerbach has shown, one of the great accomplishments of Western literature has been to create profound depictions of the relationship between the sublime and vernacular life (1953). The successful weaving together of the sublime and the mundane is also deeply characteristic of the practical arts, however. We might consider how the inter-penetration of these two attitudes is one element of metis: that canny tactical intelligence gained through experience that includes technical skill, vigilance, indirection, flair, and other attributes suited to competitive advantage when contending amidst great natural or social forces (Detienne and Vernant, 1978). There are no classical treatises on metis, in part because the concept is indigenous to the period in Greek culture before the ascendancy of philosophy. Indeed, it is "the sophists who occupy a crucial position in the area where traditional metis and the new intelligence of the philosophers meet" (4). The subsequent displacement of metis by Plato and reformulation (as phronesis) by Aristotle should recommend its reconsideration by those who would, like Scott, step outside of conventional epistemology to discover the full range of rhetoric.

Odysseus, not surprisingly, is an exemplar of metis. His predicaments involve the classic problems of this intelligence: how to avoid getting trapped while harnessing or contesting great powers in order to achieve a pragmatic goal. He lives amidst snares - and he, like any Greek of that time, is most vulnerable to the snares of beauty. He is buffeted about by natural and supernatural forces and has to fight against enemies that always are far stronger than he is. He wins because of his skillful use of available materials, his cunning exploitation of weaknesses, his deceits, his mastery of oratory, and other such modes of adaptation and indirection. His entrapment by Circe demonstrates the dynamic principle of metis, which is "the way it operates by continuously oscillating between two opposite poles. It turns into their contraries objects that are not yet defined as stable, circumscribed, mutually exclusive concepts but which appear as Powers in a situation of confrontation and which, depending on the outcome of the combat in which they are engaged, find themselves now in one position, as victors, and now in the opposite one, as vanquished" (5). The story of Circe is full of reversals: the men oscillate between lamentation and exhilaration; they are turned into pigs and then back again into men; food becomes poison and poison is transformed into food; one bit of play-acting leads to another; most central to all of this, Odysseus' victory over Circe's enchantments results in his becoming ensnared by her beauty. What the story lacks in dramatic art - the final reversal just happens - it makes up for through its continuing depiction of a world that is constantly shifting - the good news of their release from the island is also the bad news that they have to travel to hell.

I am suggesting that dynamic oppositions and reversals between the sublime and the mundane are one element in this practical intelligence that is embedded deeply within the history and practice of rhetoric. Persuasive discourse oscillates between these two aesthetic horizons, and it works at times by transforming one into the other. Similarly, to the extent that they have an aesthetic register, larger dimensions or deeper structures of social experience also are subject to continuing transformation. In the partriachial equations of the Odyssey, for example, aesthetics is a snare of the ethical just as beautiful women are a snare for men of action, and the greater the degree of heteroerotic pleasure the worse it is for one's sense of purpose. But it also is true that the beauty of Circe's palace restored the spirits of the wanderers. Magic turned the men into pigs, but only by enjoying such pleasures as soft clothing and good food could they become fully human. Beauty can trap, but it also heals, and every structure is destablized as it becomes subject to continuing oscillation between sublime and mundane embodiments. Any reversal can be good or bad, depending on the situation, and every reversal can be reversed. The lure of the sublime and the call of the mundane world are both opposites and complements within the practical intelligence that guides speech as it is a mode of action. As rhetoric is a mode of knowing, it must include some kind of aesthetic knowledge; as it is a practical art, it will be likely to include the aesthetic sense that registers how the world is both mundane and sublime, a world of both economy and awe, technique and terror.

This dialectic between the mundane and the sublime can be found not only throughout the practical arts (such as architecture, interior decoration, hair-dressing, etc.), but also within that most pragmatic of political practices - democratic governance. Indeed, this aesthetic polarity accounts in part for the enormous difference in perception between those who are largely removed from democratic politics and those who are deeply involved. From the outside, the daily routines of campaigning, legislating, public speaking and the like appear uniformly mundane, banal, dull. From the inside, participants realize all of that but also experience powerful mood swings, visions of affirmation, acts of beauty, and moments of collective consummation. What is crucial to the democratic enterprise, however, is its continual oscillation between these two poles of ordinary, predictable detail work and extraordinary experiences of transformation. Democracy is an aesthetic state only so long as it maintains itself as a mixed aesthetic.

The intuitive value of a mixed aesthetic for democratic practice also is evident in the conventional criticism of mass media practices. The high degree of aesthetic sophistication in televised political advertising is commonly thought to be inherently injurious to democracy. Rare, indeed, is the scholar who is willing to defend the habits of avoiding verbal argument and relying on visual images (Nelson and Boynton). Yet perhaps the welter of visual appeals in contemporary democratic life are less dangerous than we suspect, precisely because they can cohere so easily with the more mundane practices that also still constitute political activity. Skepticism is still warranted, of course, but now with a difference: Patently aesthetic (and argumentatively irrelevant) appeals are not necessarily dangerous to democratic advocacy, but only as they might come to pull us too far away from the call of everyday life. The issue for judgment is not the presence or absence of epistemological content, but the relationship of the sublime appeal within the complex process of public address to a corresponding mentality of mundane obligations.

This emphasis on a mixed aesthetic, and a corresponding use of that aesthetic to valorize the communal, organic, non-utilitarian elements of political life, has been a persistent (if often marginalized) feature of both the tradition of rhetoric and democratic political theory. Significant proponents have included Renaissance humanists, the Scottish enlightenment, British conservatives such as Burke and Carlyle, and American progressives such as Dewey and Mead. As these diverse examples should suggest, it would be rash to claim one school of thought or predict one outcome for the development of an aesthetic perspective. Although the development of aesthetics as a theoretical discourse certainly was shaped by the need to mediate powerful contradictions in modern industrial capitalism, it carries no one ideological inflection and has no clear relationship with the social transformations characterizing post-industrial capitalism today (Eagleton, especially 60-65). Although "a political science depends on the exclusion of the humanist notion of rhetoric and the consequent redefinition of aesthetic experience as the most apolitical (i.e., disinterested) of experiences" (Kahn, 190, see also Beiner), the re-activation of aesthetically attentive political theory is not likely to unhinge the normal science of modern political studies. If words of warning are needed, I would caution against two characteristic reactions: On the one hand, there is little evidence for the modernist claim that the ascendancy of a postmodern aesthetic sensibility will destroy all commitment to knowledge or praxis (e.g., Hikins; Eagleton, 366 if.). This claim reproduces the modern distortion that sees any aesthetic sense as an autonomous, pure aesthetic incapacitating all reason. On the other hand, too reactive a postmodernism can rash into an aesthetic totalization, which, if nothing else, takes the power and amorality of beauty too lightly. In either case, whether fearing or reveling in the rise of the aesthetic, too little acknowledgment is made of the provisionality and impurity characteristic of all practical arts.

We can break the spell of Circe, because the means for doing so are already present in any world of beauty. If we remain attentive to the phenomenal reality of ordinary political practice, we will see that it involves a continual working together of the sublime and the mundane, a dynamic mixing of seemingly incompatible aesthetic conditions.

Perhaps I have come full circle - offering a theory of aesthetic knowledge parallel to Scott's theory of ethical knowledge. Truth in each case is demoted in order that human beings - error prone and easily awed - can live free of false necessity while remaining aware of their obligations to one another. If we are to reconstruct rhetoric as a way of knowing, we should not forget to include the knowledge of how beauty is a principle of practical action.


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Robert Hariman is a Professor in the Rhetoric and Communication Studies Department at Drake University.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue: The Epistemic View, Thirty Years Later
Author:Hariman, Robert
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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