Rhetoric at Work

April 6, 2007

In a New York Times article published today, one can immediately see the importance of rhetoric and the power of discourse at work. The maker of Equal is suing the maker of Splenda over a claim in their advertising that Splenda is “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”

Although most people may not be aware of the effects of rhetoric on their daily lives, when it influences the bottom line, companies become acutely aware of its power:

In less than a decade, Splenda has come to dominate the American artificial sweetener market. Last year, it had sales of $212 million, dwarfing Equal’s sales of $49 million. Splenda is now not just in packets and bulk, but in Cocoa Puffs, Diet Coke, Pedialyte, and nearly 4,500 other consumer products.

In its court filings, Merisant cites presentations made by Alchemy, Splenda’s advertising agency, that cited “the decision to position Splenda as not artificial.”In those presentations, the agency says that Splenda should be thought of as “sugar without the calories,” putting “significant distance from “artificial sweeteners.”

For a time in 2002, McNeil added the line “but it’s not sugar.” Sales fizzled.McNeil dropped the line and went back to “made like sugar, tastes like sugar” and “think sugar, say Splenda.” Sales shot back up.One apparent reason was that for consumers polled by McNeil, the tagline “made from sugar” caused some to be unclear as to whether Splenda is truly natural, according to a sealed declaration filed by a lawyer for Merisant who saw the documents. The comments were quoted by the judge in his March opinion.

Professor Keller of Dartmouth said that “it’s all going to come down to consumer perceptions, and how they interpret what these claims are, and are they accurate.”

More on this later, but an interesting story, no?

See You in Court, Sweetie – New York Times


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Jacques Derrida – “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

April 4, 2007

Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”
Alan Bass, tr. Writing and Difference (1966), pp. 278-95

Derrida begins his essay by noting that structures have always informed Western thinking but have not been paid sufficient attention due to the very nature of the structure themselves: because they are essential to the very process of thought, they have been viewed as natural and inevitable and therefore more or less unquestionable. Derrida takes up as his subject matter the largely unexamined structurality of these structures, and he begins by noting that “By orienting and organizing the coherence of the system, the centre of a structure permits the play of its elements inside the total form… Nevertheless, the center also closes off the play which is opens up and makes possible. As center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible” (196).

This notion of the center is essential for Derrida’s analysis of the structure of language (which Derrida argues is the structure of all existence). However, because “the center, which is by definition unique, constituted the very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality,” Derrida asserts that, within classical thought, “the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it… the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center” (196). Derrida pushes this destabilized notion of the center to the point of a “rupture” in the history of thought on structurality where “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (197). This rupture, this deconstruction of the center thus created a world where “the absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely” (197). In this move, Derrida has not just taken a new step in a known field but has invented a new way to walk on a piece of land that is both undiscovered and omnipresent.

Therefore, even the most radical thinkers in the past – Derrida cites Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger – have offered only limited critiques of operations within the traditionally centered structure. Derrida asserts that “there are two heterogeneous ways of erasing the difference between the signifier and the signified: one, the classic way [of the aforementioned thinkers], consists in reducing or deriving the signifier, that is to say, ultimately in submitting the sign to thought; the other, the one we are using here against the first one, consists in putting into question the system in which the preceding reduction functioned” (198). This second way is ultimately characteristic of all of Derrida’s work in this excerpt: without fail, he seeks to move to a new and entirely different mode of thinking instead of simply moving to new thoughts within the same old system.

Derrida goes on to consider a number of areas in which this destabilization, this internal decentering takes place. He first demonstrates how “the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he denounces them” as a general illustration of his principle that the application of his critique to the sciences “is a question of explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself” (199). In short, he seeks “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he criticizes” (201), which is exactly what Derrida has done with language and discourse (and in so doing has done to every other field, scientific, linguistic, philosophical or otherwise, because, after all, everything is discourse). Or, rather, what Derrida has shown language and discourse to be doing to themselves: “No longer is any truth value attributed to [these old concepts of empirical discovery]; there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticizes itself” (201).

The remainder of the essay consists of Derrida explaining three key terms that flow from his deconstruction of the structure of discourse: bricolage, play, and supplementary.

Bricolage is a technique that “uses ‘the means at hand’, that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there, which had not been especially conceived with an eye to the operation for which that are to be used and to which one tries by trial and error to adapt them, not hesitating to change them whenever it appear necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and their origin are heterogeneous – and so forth” (202). That is, because any sort of concrete link between signifier and signified has been shown to be impossible, one is therefore free to use whatever tools in whatever ways and in whatever combination one wishes to discuss the matter at hand.

Bricolage is permitted by that which Derrida terms “play,” and which he explains in the following quote: “If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field – that is, language and a finite language – excludes totalization. The field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite… instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions” (206). Play is Derrida’s way of simultaneously recognizing the infinite range of deconstruction is possible not because there is an infinite range of information but because the inherent quality of all information is to be lacking and for there to be no suitable material (information) with which to fill that lack. This leads to the notion of the supplementary: “The overabundance of the signifier, its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be supplemented” (207). Because positive, concrete definition is impossible for any term, every term necessarily requires a supplement or supplements, something or some things which help(s) it exist and be understood. Yet, at the same time, the object(s) which the supplement is (are) supplementing is (are) (a) supplements itself. Extend this web in all directions and the relationship between bricolage, play, and the supplementary begins to make sense.

And there you have it: discourse, destabilization, language critiquing itself, bricolage, play, the supplementary. Of course, the discussion here barely begins to scratch the surface of the implications made by Derrida, for within not even a full fourteen pages of text, has established the foundation of one of the most significant revolutions in the history of thought. Of course, saying that Derrida demonstrated how the history of thought contradicted itself and in so doing imploded the foundation of Western philosophy would certainly fit better with a deconstructionist view of the world. Yet, there is scant little chance of denying that Derrida himself holds some special place in this development: if not as its father then at least as its catalyst.


Michel Foucault – from “The Order of Discourse”

April 3, 2007

Michel Foucault, from “The Order of Discourse
R. Young, ed. Untying the Text (1971), pp. 52-64

In a refreshing change in structure from that of many other theorists, Foucault actually begins this excerpt with a thesis that he proceeds to explain and explore in the remainder of the piece: “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organised and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality” (210).

From there, Foucault goes on to detail what he calls the “procedures of exclusion” (210). He notes that the prohibition of discussing certain topics (namely sexuality and politics) “very soon reveal [discourse’s] link with desire and with power” (211); that is, “discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized” (211).

Next, Foucault discusses the exclusive procedure inherent in the reason / madness binary, noting that the terms are, to a certain extent, defined (or perhaps delineated) arbitrarily and that how and where that distinction is made determines the manner in which one accepts the discourse coming from either side of the binary. In a bold move, he then asks if one could not, in a similar manner, “consider the opposition between true and false as a third system of exclusion” (212). To make this move, one must not think “on the level of a proposition, on the inside of a discourse” but instead “on a different scale [by asking] what this will to truth has been and constantly is, across our discourses, this will to truth which has crossed so many centuries of our history” (212). Just as standards of reason and madness can vary from one society or era to another, Foucault argues, standards of how truth and falsehood are measured can change. To be more specific, a given society’s value system can directly affect what is and is not considered true; to demonstrate this phenomenon, Foucault notes that “a day came [in the course of Western history] when truth was displaced from the ritualised, efficacious and just act of enunciations, towards the utterance itself, its meaning, its form, its object, its relation to its reference” (212).

The will to truth, which Foucault calls “that prodigious machinery designed to exclude” (214), is institutionally supported and reinforced (by libraries, laboratories, etc.). Furthermore, while the will to truth “exerts a sort of pressure and something like a power of constraint… on other discourses” (213), it is also the procedure least noticed, for “‘true’ discourse, freed from desire and power by the necessity of its form, cannot recognise the will to truth which pervades it” (214).

Having thus discussed “procedures for controlling and delimiting discourse [which] operate in a sense from the exterior,” Foucault moves on to discuss “internal procedures… which function rather as principles of classification, of ordering, of distribution, as if this time another dimension of discourse had to be mastered: that of events and chance” (214). These internal procedures include commentary (“a kind of gradation among discourses” (215)), the author (“a principle of grouping of discourses, conceived as the unity and origin of their meanings, as the focus of their coherence” (216)), and disciplines (a principle of organization “defined by a domain of objects, a set of methods, a corpus of propositions considered to be true, which Foucault asserts “is itself relative and mobile; which permits construction, but within narrow confines” (217)). The most significant of these three is the procedure of disciplines, because it allows Foucault to make the following observation: “Within its own limits, each discipline recognises true and false propositions: but it pushes back a whole teratology of knowledge beyond its margins… In short, a proposition must fulfil complex and heavy requirements to be able to belong to the grouping of a discipline: before it can be called true or false, it must be ‘in the true,’ as Canguilhelm would say” (218). Clearly, this notion of being “within the true” limits truly radical progress within disciplines; if an idea is so strange as to be outside of the true, it, no matter how much validity or usefulness it caries, will nevertheless be viewed as false.

Finally, Foucault discusses “a third group of procedures which permit the control of discourses [which operates by] determining the condition of [discourses’] application, of imposing a certain number of rules on the individuals who hold them, and thus of not permitting everyone to have access to them” (219). These final procedures are rituals, societies of discourse, doctrines, and social appropriation of discourses. “Ritual defines the qualification which must be possessed by individuals who speak” (220). “‘[S]ocieties of discourse’ …. function to preserve or produce discourses, but in order to make them circulate in a closed space [distribute] them only according to strict rules, and without the holders being dispossessed by this distribution” (220). “Doctrine… tends to be diffused, and it is by the holding in common of one and the same discursive ensemble that individuals (as many as one cares to imagine) define their reciprocal allegiance” (221). The social appropriation of discourses refers to the fact that “[a]ny system of education is a political way of maintaining or modifying the appropriation of discourses [that is, the transference of discourse(s) from one person / social group to another], along with knowledges and powers which they carry” (222).

Foucault, then, could possibly be called a superdeconstructionist, that is, one who deconstructs the social superstructures in which language (the structure on which deconstruction focuses and which a pure deconstructionist would see as inclusive of all of reality) operates. Foucault’s work is more (for lack of a better word) practical than the seemingly abstract work of most deconstructionist; rather than a concern for any theoretical underlying linguistic foundation, a careful eye for observable but often unobserved phenomena controls Foucault’s work, and it is through this more material grounding that Foucault may have found friends where Derrida was met with skepticism or frustration.