Friday, April 27, 2007

The Rhetoric of Now Part 1: Stasis

Cross-posted at Daily Kos and European Tribune.

This is the first in a series about how concepts from rhetoric can help progressives understand -- and change -- the current political climate. It is based on the premise that the noble and ancient discipline of rhetoric is not trickery or deception, but rather that rhetorical literacy is a vital element of a healthy political community. To quote the Greek rhetorician Isocrates, "the power to speak well and think right will reward the person who approaches the art of discourse with love of wisdom and love of honor." (from the Antidosis). I hold that rhetoric anticipates and surpasses the best aspects of the current vogue for "framing," and that the rhetorical tradition offers a more humane and generous way of comprehending the social world.

This series has two aims. First, I want to rehabilitate the discipline of rhetoric for politics. Rhetoric is enormously productive in academic life, but in politics it remains associated with professional liars like [insert your favorite consultant here]. Second, I want to provide a vocabulary for interpreting in our present moment. Each entry will define a concept from classical or modern rhetoric and apply it, from a progressive Democratic perspective, to an aspect of the present crisis.

For this first installment, I'll discuss stasis theory.

What is a stasis? In ancient Greece, stasies were questions or issues. The term derives from a word meaning "a stand." In an argument, the stasis can be considered the location of a dispute, the place where a speaker takes a stand. The roots of stasis theory are found in the Sophists (you know, the folks Socrates opposed). Later, in Roman rhetoric, stases were more carefully developed as a set of ways of defining arguments. Eventually most ancient rhetoricians settled on four stases. Let me define them and then talk about how they're used.

In his Institutes of Oratory (Book 3), Quintilian writes:
Let students learn, therefore, before all, that there are four modes of proceeding in every cause and that he ought to make it his first business to consider which four modes he who is going to plead. Beginning first of all with the defendant, by far the strongest mode of defense is if the charge which is made can be denied; the next, if an act of the kind charged against the accused can be said not to have been done; the third, and most honorable, if what is done is proved to have been justly done. If we cannot command these methods, the last and only mode of defense is that of eluding an accusation, which can neither be denied nor combated, by the aid of some point of law, so as make it appear that the action has not been brought in due legal form.
These are the four stases, the four "modes of proceeding."
1. Conjecture (stasis stochasmos). Call this the question, "does the thing at issue exist"?

2. Definition (stasis horos). Call this the question, "what is the thing at issue anyway"?

3. Quality or value (stasis poiotes). Call this the question, "is the thing at issue good or bad"?

4. Policy or procedure (stasis metalepsis). Call this the question, "what is the proper format for dealing with the thing at issue"?
A good example is given in the Teaching Company's fine audio course on argumentation. Professor David Zarefsky walks through the case of a person who is being accused of stealing another's car. To the accusation "You stole my car!," the accused can say "No I didn't" (conjecture), "It wasn't stealing, it was borrowing" (definition), "and a good thing too because I saved a life" (value), or "so call the cops why don't you!" (procedure).

A few points to recognize.

First: all arguments come into being at some point of clash or stasis. A person who creates an issue wants to describe the issue so that the clash takes place at a point of advantage.

Second: we can argue at a given point of stasis, or we can try to rephrase the question at another stasis. In other words, with stasis theory you can take a question and rephrase it in at least three different ways (many more, actually). Instead of arguing at the point you're offered, it's often worth playing around with the stases, seeing which ones work, so that you can respond at a point of greater effectiveness. If you can change the question, you have a real advantage -- especially if you can keep it changed.

Third: stases are related in a specific way. Arguments at the stasis of definition have already accepted the conjecture. Arguments about value have already accepted both conjecture and definition. And arguments about policy have usually -- though not always -- accepted conjecture, definition, and value. In other words, conjecture is far upstream in the argument, and procedure is (usually) downstream.

An example from the present crisis. In early 2003, a number of public arguments took place about whether the US was going to seek an additional resolution from the United Nations before invading. As it turned out, we were going to and then didn't. No surprise in the hypocrisy of our government. But this argument about the UN is an argument about procedure. Simply by having this argument take center stage, we have already accepted -- at least implicitly -- a number of conjectures (such as "Iraq is a threat"), definitions (such as "Iraq is part of the Axis of Evil"), and values (such as "Invading Iraq would be good if it were done right").

Of course, many of those who wanted an additional resolution didn't accept any of these things. But allowing the debate to unfold at the stasis of procedure effectively shut the door on those other, upstream debates. Nowadays conservatives all claim that "everybody thought Iraq had WMDs." Now, empirically, that's just flat-out false. But by pitching the battle downstream, our public rhetoricians -- that is to say, our politicians -- established the illusion of a de facto consensus upstream. This haunts political discourse to this day, it was avoidable, and all the corrections in the world won't allow politicians to rehabilitate a case they willingly gave up.

Next up: kairos, or rhetorical time.


ATinNM said...

On behalf of the European Tribune community, I would like to extend an invitation to cross-post this series there, as well.

جابر إبن حيان said...

Maybe you could analyze a bevy of arguments that have or are occurring in the political world now. Also, how much weight does the authority of the media in not questionsing the very conjectures of power predispose arguments on grounds of procedure.

Plus could you recommend online resources, beyond the audio link, that would allow one to sudy rhetoric in ones free time. I must say that I have some inherent understanding of rhetoric, but it seems that rhetorical analysis could be extremely powerful in creating appropiate responses to established normative ideas, and it would be beneficial if the progressive blogosphere did study the art of rhetoric.

Please continue this series of posts and don't get discouraged by the paucity of interest it may generate at first, considering everyone seems to be obsessed with 'framing' the issues (ie propagandizing) rather than actually seeing the strength of passionate argument. But I think as the years go on, strong, logical, and passionate arguments will return to their preeminence and propagandistic notions will recede, especially as broadcast media withers away.

Again thank you for these interesting posts.

Hermagoras said...

Thanks. I'll put some general rhetoric links up soon.