Monday, December 08, 2008

Good Rhetoric = Bad Argument?

In a post a while back I talked about pushing the metaphor until it breaks as a way of really testing whether a metaphor is a useful heuristic, whether it illuminates what you are discussing or obscures it. I argued that "imbricated discourses" is a bad metaphor and thus just a piece of jargon intended to show that you are a member of a certain clerisy (and I just wanted to put the boot in on "imbricated discourses" yet again since this blog is now the #3 google search for "imbricated," so hopefully people will see how stupid "imbricated" is and will stop using it outside of contexts in which the metaphor, overlapping shingles on a roof, is really descriptive. If I can help make the use of "imbricated discourses" the sign of sloppy thinking and a second-rate mind, I'll be a happy person).

On the last day of classes, I was discussing Smith of Wootton Major with the students in my J.R.R. Tolkien class and gave them the famous quote by Roger Lancelyn Green that seeking meaning in Smith is to "cut open the ball in search of its bounce."

When I was giving my talk in Norway, I mentioned another nice bit of rhetoric, by Maurice Bloch, who, in criticizing meme-based theories of culture, stated that “the culture of an individual, or of a group, is not a collection of bits, traits or memes, acquired from here and there, any more than a squirrel is a collection of hazelnuts.”

Now both of these pieces of rhetoric are quite effective in that they always get a laugh and do a lot to move the audience to the "side" of the speaker. But the more I analyze them, especially as metaphors, the more I think they are fundamentally wrong and that they are a kind of sophistry that is very counterproductive to understanding the world.

The rhetorical stance of both metaphors implies that the speaker is being sensible and arguing for some kind of holistic or integrated approach that the "dissectors" (to steal a term from Tolkien's "Beowulf:The Monsters and the Critics") are missing. The metaphor is supposed to show how dumb such an approach would be: What kind of an idiot would cut open the ball to try to find the bounce? Ha, ha! There's no bounce in there. Who would dissect a squirrel to find all the hazelnuts that make it up? Only a total bozo--like you, who is using this approach.

That's an effective stance in many cases, but I think it is sophistry. Because the point is that the metaphor is supposed to fail, and fail easily, and from the failure of the metaphor, we are supposed to see the failure of the larger argument to which it refers.

But in both of these cases, I don't think the metaphor actually fails, and thus the rhetorical device, when examined carefully, actually does the opposite of what the speakers intend.

Let's take the ball and the bounce. Setting aside the danger of cutting open a golf ball and having the radioactive goo inside that makes it bounce so far leak out (I believed this as a child, at least for a while), you can in fact "find" the bounce if you cut open a ball. First, after cutting it open, you examine its internal structure and determine the physical construction of the ball--solid rubber, twine wrapped around a core, air under pressure, solid wood. Then you examine those materials in more detail, perhaps producing micrographs to determine physical structure, grain boundaries in rubbers or plastics, for instance. Then you do some chemistry to figure out how the molecules of the material are arranged, noting, for example, long chains of polymers and whether they are cross-linked or not and to what degree. At a certain point, when you understand the forces of tension and compression, stored energy, etc., you have "found" the bounce; you understand why the ball behaves the way it does.

If you have never cut open the ball, you might be talking about abstract qualities of "bounce-ness," but you really would not understand it. So the rhetorical attack, which relies on the metaphor failing, actually fails itself, because the metaphor succeeds.

Likewise with the squirrel and the hazelnuts, though in a different way. A squirrel that eats hazelnuts is in fact composed of hazelnuts, but to understand how, we need to break down the hazelnuts into their component parts (proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, etc.) and then understand the biochemical property by which the squirrel changes hazelnut into squirrel. Bloch has mis-identified the level of analysis of meme-based approaches, which are really working at the biochemical level but which he insists on seeing at the hazelnut level. (To be technical for just a moment, Bloch's "hazelnuts" are very large, co-adapted meme-plexes, but meme-based theory is much more interested in separating out much, much smaller memes, analogous to the complex chemicals in the hazelnuts. The structure of the hazelnuts also has something to tell us about the squirrel, as do their production, digestions, etc., etc.). So this metaphor also fails to fail in the way the device assumes it will for all right-thinking people.

When I discussed this with my students, I pointed out that they should get particularly suspicious when the metaphor seems to work too well in one way or the other. That is, a beautiful metaphor should be pushed until it breaks and then the pieces examined (or, if it does not break, then its robustness will be demonstrated). And the metaphor designed to fail should be treated as if it might actually work.

The worst intellectual failures happen when things people want to hear get put into a pleasing form. The rhetorical techniques illustrated by Green and Bloch encourage such failings. And "imbricated discourses" is still a useless bit of annoying jargon and people will think you're a doofus if you use the phrase.


Torgo said...

Thanks for your defence of golf-ball scientists everywhere; in return I promise to deprecate imbricate at every opportunity.

Vellum said...

"The worst intellectual failures happen when things people want to hear get put into a pleasing form. The rhetorical techniques illustrated by Green and Bloch encourage such failings."

Yes, I agree. But I don't suppose it's all that surprising, given that rhetoric seems to have developed first and foremost as a tool for convincing people of things (whether those things are true or false is another matter altogether). The 'Ad Herennium' - in all its pseudo-Ciceronian glory - depicts metaphors as a tool for the shaping of listener's impressions of the subject matter, whether it's for the sake of mangifying, minimizing, embellishing, etc.

So I suppose good rhetoric doesn't necessarily mean a bad argument, but (as you've admirably pointed out) it sure does the trick of hiding one if it's all you've got.


N.E. Brigand said...

But "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom" -- once the golf ball has been dissected, does it still bounce?

otherthanthis1 said...

Re:N.E. Brigand,
No, but there's still two left in the pack.

N.E. Brigand said...

Well, this may unsettle Green's metaphor in a different way: stories can't be mass-produced.

Westward traveler said...

You need to meet another class of people. Somehow I have never been tempted to use the metaphor 'imbricated discourses'. I am not quite sure why, but it just never seemed to come up in conversation.