1,944 Facts That Explain Why You Can't Escape The Vast Prison Of Language

Nathan Riggs

Nathan Riggs is a Visiting Assistant Professor or Technical and Professional Writing at Miami University on the Hamilton Campus, and received his transdisciplinary PhD in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University in the Summer of 2018. His research interests include the rhetorics of science, ethics, technical communication and code studies. You can find more of his digital experiments at http://www.nathanriggs.com.

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The General Rhetorical Accident

In the beginning of The Information Bomb, Paul Virilio makes his case clear against contemporary scientific practice:

As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes...as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality— and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude. (3)

Widely known for his work on dromology (the logic of speed, especially as it applies to shrinking space) and the theorizing of the "General Accident"— a catastrophe that happens to all of us at the same time and with equal force, thanks to our thus unabated desire to shrink space with speed—Virilio, like his fellow "postmodern" contemporaries Baudrillard and Ellul, spares little mercy for his attacks on scientific practice, technological aims and effects, or cultural phenomena seeming to suddenly running amok with a new-found disregard for time or space. Nor does Virilio, for the most part, spare his audience: most of his conclusions leave little room for hope, and even less room for averting disaster. Joining the ranks of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Camus and others, Virilio seems ripe to join the League of Noted Gentleman Pessimists—and maybe even lead it.

Pessimists are rarely entirely correct, thankfully—but nor are they ever entirely wrong. Consider, for instance, a reworking of Virilio's statement above:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

riggs quote.gif

With a few small alterations, Virilio's quote may not only accurately portray the state of science today, but of all transactions of information happening in our techno-scientific, cybernetic landscape—and "fake news" is only but one symptom of the ailment. The replacement of Virilio's "verisimilitude"—the appearance of being true—with "Truth" belies the point: increasingly, that which is patently false, or as close to falsehood as one can be, pursues verisimilitude at all costs, borrowing the conventions of good faith discourse to such an extent that truth itself, without a monopoly on the contrivances that sustain it, becomes impossible to discern or sustain: what is true is the effect of discursive acts and utterances, whether those originating statements are "true" in themselves or not.

This is old news for contemporary scholars of rhetoric, who have digested more than their fair share of thinkers who systematically question the foundations of truth: Lyotard, Derrida, Latour, Heidegger, and so on. While the philosophers and scientists claim truth, though by radically different means, many rhetoricians question and even deny the very truth-hood of capital-T, platonic Truth; given that notions of true and false are ultimately up to matters of persuasion and human fallibility (both individual and collective), the veracity of a statement depends not on a solid yet abstract, undeniable grounding, but on the people involved, their places in the world, cultural understandings, and even perhaps the dismal weather at a point in time and space when and where a truth is established or denied. Whether systematically identified in the techno-scientific laboratory or painstakingly crafted from axioms and premises, whether debated in a college classroom or established in a holy ceremony, one truth seems to trump all others: we must agree to a truth, in our communities or professional organizations, or even in our interpersonal relationships, before a concept attains a "true" status at all.

We must admit: scholars of rhetoric seem thoroughly, abysmally unhelpful, and perhaps even add to the problem: with all of our denials of the platonic truth, and the increased influence over young minds that we have harbored over the past century, it is no wonder that 64% of adult Americans, many of whom were educated in the rhetorician's college classroom, have fallen for some form of fake news—and many of those same, often rational people equally believe that traditional journalistic outlets of "news" are the "true" purveyors of falsehood. After decades of fighting against grand truth claims, one might come to the conclusion, and understandably, that rhetoricians are reaping what they have sewn, and the rest of the world is reaping (weeping) with them. Scholars of rhetoric, rejoice!—it seems we have won the day.

Take that, Plato! The. End.

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Yes, yes. Not so fast.

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1,944 Facts That Explain Why You Can't Escape The Vast Prison Of Language
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