Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Theory of Rhetorical Overindulgence

I have for years ignored the advice of others. In regards to my writing, I have always listened politely before promptly doing whatever the hell I want. My freshman year of college I took English 100, a universal American college course, something the best and brightest passed out of, those less so designed to take, and those uncaring to put any work into anything forced kicking and screaming into. Slackerdom had been my haven for many years and my retribution was, when told that "You can call me Dr. Taedium. Or Bob," to say, "How about Dr. Bob?" He didn't like that. However, given those-less-so, the name stuck amongst many. I hate it when professors want to be called "Doctor."

Ignoring everything Dr. Bob told me (which wasn't much anyways), I went on my merry way doing what I wanted. Over the years, I have entreated upon others for constructive criticism, either on subject material or style. I have, without a doubt, almost entirely and well-nigh universally disregarded nearly all forthcoming advice, adverbial or otherwise. I want feedback, but my poor fragile ego apparently cannot handle it, and so constructs apologia upon rationalization in a delusory attempt at convincing me that me rhetorical instincts are impeccable, and that I am otherwise perfect in every conceivable way. "Yeah, but I wanted to sound like that because...." "No, you see, I want to just start from there, I don't want to have to justify starting from there...." "I know, I know, but I like doing it that way...."

For all those who have given their time and energy, I would tell you that you've not struggled in vain. Some part of me hears, and I am not so small as to forget help even if I slapped you away at the time.

The main thing I've been told for some years now has been that I should mind my audience more. "Who are you writing for? Should they know about Descartes? Rorty? Pirsig? Should they know what representationalism is? Why should they care? Should you make them care?" Who, indeed, am I writing for and why, indeed, should they care?

I have, on the whole, opted for an audience of one: me. It is the easiest way to always be satisfied by your writing. There are many reasons why I should have been satisfied with this stance, beyond the self-stoking fire of being satisfied by being satisfied. For one, who can I count on to be reading? This is a blog, one that, aside from the few internet-gained, intellectual associates, mainly lives off of random google searches. How in the hell do you satisfy a random audience? Do I assume laypersons or, though surely not members of the professional caste, do I assume, shall we say, deacons?

In lieu of such rhetorical choices, I've chosen self-indulgence. The insularity has at the least allowed me to develop my own voice as a writer. But it has certainly led to a proclivity, when confronted with a troubling line, of saying, "Well, why the hell not? Who cares?" For some reason I have yet to understand, I feel like I'm losing part of myself if I should omit a line I like. It must find a place somewhere--if I just delete it, it will be lost forever.

This self-indulgence has led to me knowing fairly well in advance, when writing for classes, what lines will be circled with attendant question marks or more specific queries--"How do you defend this?" "What are you saying here?" "Hungh?" I see most of them coming down the pike as I write, but it becomes part of a cost-benefit analysis: "If I put this in, they might downgrade me. But if I don't, I'll feel like I'm caving into to what they want. Have I already completed the assignment at a high enough level that I could stand a few points knocked off?" And so most of them stay and I get the added satisfaction of, not only keeping a part of myself from spinning off into oblivion, but like the apocryphal Babe Ruth, calling my shot. I overindulge because I can get away with it. I've already gotten my A, why not enjoy myself at the same time? It's kinda' like givin' the finger to the Man. "Here, I did your stupid assignment. And I did it my way. That's right, Sinatra-style. Eat it. Sit and spin. I dare you to give me a bad grade. Nanner, nanner--BLeh."

Contrary to popular belief (as if there are popular beliefs about me), my favored assignments for classes have always been the short reflections that teachers often employ to get students to write more before longer essays. These kinds of reflections are often ungraded with the only restriction of being short. So, despite my reputation for writing overlong about everything (a just, and actual, reputation gained from years of service at the discussion group), I most enjoy the short, ungraded assignments because I'm given free reign over saying whatever the hell I want. I'm afforded the opportunity to flex my skill at compactness without the additional pressure of argumentative justification. This comes out as trying to pack together as many scintillating one-liners as possible. True, I like imagining myself as, if not the only interesting person, or even not the most interesting, at the least the producer of the most interesting things. Whether true or not, I do enjoy piling on as much as possible.

This all comes around to the question of why I feel compelled to write these lines that overreach, why I insist on sinning against argument, against saying what you've rhetorically earned.

I've come to think that the sense of indulgence, the introduction of something you haven't earned the right to say, conferred by a critical audience following the evidence and argument you've deployed, is what continues the conversation. Saying things that are provocative, and there are many ways in which to provoke, cause in others the welling up of argumentative energy, which spill out in response, indeed responses. And even more, they produce the opportunity, by furthering the conversation, to fill in that right, to justify your saying it in the first place. One can't say everything at once, and most of the time we aren't even sure what we want to say all at once, so overindulgence is actually an opening for you to say something more.

Overindulgent sayings are experiments in discourse, assertions and the like that have yet to be fully tested by the critical audience that is the on-going conversation of humankind, which eventually weed out bad experiments and produce the experience proven, intuitive common sense of a culture. Rhetorical overindulgence is what expands our discourse, it leapfrogs and thereby produces the space with which to have the conversation.

At least, that's what I tell myself to help me get to sleep.


  1. Great writers didn't become great by following everyone else’s rules. They became great by being exactly what they are...

    In your case, perhaps that's an overindulgent, pompous ass. But so what, it's that vary passion that makes your writing what it is and further more sets it apart from others. I must say I pass by this blog from time to time, and where-as I don’t agree necessarily with much of what you say, I think you’re most certainly self absorbed, overblown, longwinded, close minded, so on and so forth, but it reminds me of myself… perhaps that’s why I’m attracted to the reading. At the core of things I tend to think that our real goal in writing is perhaps to relate, if only to one person.

    It’s tough to take a guy serious when he comes off in these fore-mentioned ways. I must admit I’ve nearly tossed Pirsig aside on many occasions due to what I perceived as a self centered overindulgence in Lila. Clearly this guy was full of himself and wasn’t afraid to let us all in on it. I’ve often viewed Lila as an old man’s attempt to justify his own debauchery, or perhaps to display before the world how much of a renaissance swinger he had become. Then, finally justify it all in the name of QUALITY….. Did I mention how he met with Robert Redford for his big movie deal? Who cares? What relevance does this have? Get over yourself. Well, what can I say, I’m same way I suppose. I love the old bastard.

    So what the hell Matt, keep doin’ it just like your doin’ it. I think it’s great.
    Then again, I’m an electrical engineer not a writer. So what do I know?

  2. Anonymous, I greatly enjoyed the forthright honesty, even more the irony inherent to this particular display. I wish I caused that kind of overflowing cup of appraisal more often during your repeated visits, or anyone's for that matter.

    But close-minded? I can nod along easily with self-absorbed, overblown, and long-winded, adding egomanical, self-aggrandizing, ostentatious, circumlocutory, loquacious, pretentious, grandiloquent, pleonastic. That list can go on, and I plead guilty to cultivating that image. But close-minded? How do you mean?

    By the by, have you read my "Idiosyncratic" reading of Lila? Whereas you might not necessarily agree with much of what I write, it would seem we might agree a little bit on that one.

  3. Ok sure,
    closed minded perhaps was a bit unfair. A better word may be contentious; at least percieved. A trait such as this can make a person come off as closed minded.

    I get the feeling you'd argue a point you don't even agree with for the simple sake of creating an argument/debate and winning it. I know I would, and do. Most people find these people, well, that's already been said. I find it to be a worthy skill and more importantly, I enjoy the back and forth. However in a setting where it's writting back and forth as apposed to speach face to face, I find I fall short due to my sub-par writing abilities..... I write like a I talk - they say that's bad.

    On agreeing with your ideas. I said that for spite.

    On your "Idiosyncratic" reading of Lila, I'll give it a read and drop you line.

  4. Ok so now your going to have to let me in on where it is?

  5. speach, speech, same thing.

  6. Hmm, that's interesting. I never thought I gave off the image of being, well, I guess you'd call it argumentative. I try not to in real life--it's actually something I quite dislike. For one, argumentative prowess doesn't equate to truth, or even successful persuasion. Stirring up arguments can be fun, and they can certainly lead to interesting viewpoints and insights, but I lost my taste when I was young. If I don't have a horse in the race, I try not to spend much energy on it.

    The post I was referring to is here. I forgot I had listed it without the "Idiosyncratic" bit in my rightnav bar.

  7. Matt I'm with you all the way on this. I was skeptical from the start with Lila.

    When I begin to tare into a philosopher the first thing I say to myself is, he's a man (at least in most cases). As a man he's motivated by the same things I am and for that matter all other men. This is to say to some extent that there aren’t any such things as pure intentions necessarily.

    For example, the conversations passed down throughout history are not a story of the search for truth written on behalf and for mankind. The search for truth was as much an inspiration as was, showing up your buddy and displaying your own intellectual prowess. If it was really intended that these things were for the masses, (then for example) Kant would have given us some real life examples…. But he didn’t do that, and he said in the beginning he wasn’t going to. Further more it wasn’t mankind and his struggle that awoke him from his dogmatic slumber, it was Hume; and remember it was Hume who said (and I paraphrase) “if you want to learn something about truth, humankind, read literature”.

    So who’s his audience of these philosophers? I think there are vary few philosophers that actually had the masses in mind. I would say that Plato genuinely considered the masses, perhaps Spinoza to a degree, certainly Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and I believe that Rorty also did (we could expand this list of course). I’ve always been suspicious about the intellectual communities’ stance on Rorty and others like him, and have felt that in his life there was a bit of respect missing. I think this is partly due to his consideration of the masses in his writings. He was writing truth, or rather formulating therapeutic philosophy for all of us, not just his fellow intellectuals. It’s much like (and I’m not a Christian fellow by any means) how the Jews shunned the disciples. Certainly they walked the same walk, however they walked with the gentiles, spoke to the gentiles, preached to the gentiles. In much the same way we have Pirsig preaching to the masses through his own problems, and now again we have a man who gets no respect. HOW DARE YOU TALK TO THE MIDDLE CLASS! Any book that gets so much attention from the middle class (also Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) is not generally respected as a great work.

    So that brings me back to Pirsig and his fancy of himself. Certainly he was inspired by his own debauchery and looking most definitely for a justification of his stance. In his efforts he opened up some rather dangerous paths of reason that can lead one to do just about anything in the name of quality, but that’s another topic. That being said I think he was also inspired partly by his own self pity. This is to say I think it’s always bothered him that the intellectual community never took him seriously (I mean come on, I have an IQ of 170, is not this my ticket to an honorary Phd). Part of him couldn’t help but jump back in the saddle and formulate the missing pieces to Quality, but he never had the inspiration to do so. That is until he started sleeping around. Pirsig is not Kant, is not Hume, is not Wittgenstein, he’s not some dry intellectual. He’s a man with passions, feelings, guilt, love, so on. I’ve always thought that what made Nietzsche so great was that he was such a wonderful writer. He could have easily written novels as he did philosophy; clearly he was a man who wrote with passion. Pirsig has this same drive. He’ll be long dead before anyone recognizes his contribution to philosophy…..

    Boy I’m movin’ all over the place here aren’t I (told you I was sub-par, my apologies for that). There’s simply too many points I’d like to share with you. I’ll leave this where it is for now.

    One last thing, I do realize I’ve contradicted myself a bit here, but I’ll let that stand.


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