Althusser and Shome

At the end of my seminar paper on Carl Beam’s work I ask the question:  How can we create new paradigms of thought within our own discipline in ways that will help us enact ethical anti-colonial scholarship?   Therefore, when I read this week’s readings, I couldn’t help but read for possible answers.   As we discussed last week in class, change of disciplinary paradigms begin with acceptance and acknowledgment.  In rhetoric’s case, change begins with acknowledging the “lasting encounter” that has governed the reality of our discipline since its inception.  As Althusser notes in “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” the “lasting encounter” becomes the basis for all reality, all necessity, all Meaning and all reason” (169).  The concept of the “lasting encounter” is really provocative to me and generates a whole list of compelling questions:  What is the “lasting encounter” in the field of rhetoric, what was the swerve that originated the field of rhetoric, what kind of swerve can we create to start a new paradigm?  Along those same lines, what are the givens of rhetoric?  How has our field developed “along a series of developments centered on the expression es gibt—‘there is,’ ‘this is what is given’…” (170)?  And how do rhetorical ideas and theories take form and take hold in our discipline??


Althusser explains that “nothing guarantees that the reality of the accomplished fact is the guarantee of its durability…[and that in fact] there is no eternity in the ‘laws’ of any world or any state” (174).  So the theories and laws that govern the rhetorical canon and tradition cannot endure.  A paradigm shift is inevitable.   Yet resistance is also inevitable, as Kuhn claims is true with all paradigm shifts, because what it takes is an evacuation of privileged kinds of knowledge and objects of study—what Althusser might call a “philosophical void.” 


In his essay, he discusses the fears that come with new paradigms of philosophical thought:  “What remains of philosophy once both God and the theory of knowledge, destined to establish supreme ‘values’ that provide the measure of all things, have been reduced to naught?” (178).  In the same light, we could ask:  What remains of rhetoric when we establish that the supreme values and theories that provide the measure of all texts is reduced to naught?  What do we with/in the void?  Can we as a field or individual scholars give up on the orderly system of rhetoric and create a void, a disorder, from which to create anew??


In speaking about the materialism of the encounter, Althusser describes it not as materialism of a subject “but of a process, a process that has no subject, yet imposes on the subjects (individuals or others) which it dominates the order of its development, with no assailable end” (190).   Althusser explains that “the very great temptation, even for those who are willing to grant the premises of this materialism of the encounter, of resorting, once the encounter has ‘taken hold,’ to the study of the laws which derive from this taking-hold of forms, and repeat these forms, to all intents and purposes, indefinitely” (195).   What is so interesting that even as we participate in these encounters, we are still haunted by a radical instability, which something we find very hard to grasp:  that laws can change—“ (195).   Yet, even still, many of us can’t help but be swept up in the mode of production and the mode of domination.  We can’t help but uphold the structures of thought that imposes its unity and domination over us…(203).

The Foucault quote Raka Shome uses to begin “Postcolonial Interventions in the Rhetorical Canon” seems like a direct response to the intellectual predicament that we find ourselves in:  There are time in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all (The Use of Pleasure).


I think one of the reasons that it is so difficult to break into new paradigms of thought and vision is because it takes a great deal of unlearning.  Shome argues that a postcolonial perspective to rhetorical studies can help expose the eurocentricism and (neo)imperialism that still pervades our field and the academy in general.  She calls for postcolonial self-reflexivity and offers powerful postcolonial theories to help reorient our field away from the discursive imperialism in which it participates.  More specifically, she encourages us to ask:  To what extent do our scholarly practices—whether they be the kind of issues we explore in our research, the themes around which we organize our teaching syllabi, or the way that we structur our conferences and decide who speaks (and does not speak), about what, in the name of intellectual practices—legitimize the hegemony of western power structures(596).  We need to reread and problematize “our dominant rhetorical paradigms, our theories, our critical tools, and our research agendas, against a larger backdrop of racial and neocolonial politics” (598).


We need also, Shome argues, to examine how the canon is rooted in broader colonialist and hegemonic discourses.  As Spivak says, we have to “unlearn our privilege,” a task that requires much self-reflexivity.  Shome advocates for self-reflexivity because even as we attempt to disrupt essentialist representations of Other, we are always committing essentialism (596).   Strategic essentialism is a form of productive self-reflexivity, as it asks us to examine our subject positions.  Shome claims we also need to examine the power relations that structure our own discourses  and the ways in which we reproduce neocolonial patterns of intellectual domination (597-8).  Shome makes an important point in that adding “others” to the rhetorical canon is not enough.  We need to examine and challenge “the value system on which the rhetorical canon and our scholarship is based” (599).  For instance, we need to challenge the idea that rhetoric as a discipline should be based on public address, which automatically excludes other rhetorical voices who did not and do now have power to speak in public.  We need to “unlearn a lot of the rhetorical tradition and evaluate critically what kinds of knowledge have been and continue to be ‘privileged, legitimated, [and] displaced’ in our texts and theories…and whose interests this privileging, displacing, and legitimizing has served and continues to serve’” (qtd. on 599).


We also, Shome argues, need to contribute to the present historical moment by using our rhetorical skills to reveal and examine the ways in which various institutions employ rhetorical strategies to establish and maintain hegemony….More to come….


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Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

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