Friday, March 28, 2008

Performing sincerity

I have a friend with whom I argue about the same thing in all manner of guise. A recent version centered on rhetoric, in the context of writing non-fiction. I was arguing that there is some way in which writing that is transparent, i.e., made up out of sentences in which what one means is in some significant (and stylistically unique) sense equivalent to what one says -- that such writing is, in a way that matters, less rhetorically inflected than other forms. My friend disagrees with this, holds that all writing is performance all the way down. To think - I take him to be saying - that "transparent" writing is somehow any less of a show, is analogous to thinking that there is such a thing as "value-free" social science.

He may be right about this. But the thing that it gets to, and that I don't think he's right about - and maybe he doesn't even think it - is the idea that everything period is performance. It seems to me that the problem with this view, that is to say with pragmatism, is that there are certain things that presuppose that it is not so, presuppose that there is indeed a difference between performance and not-performance. Sincerity, for example. It is in the nature of the case that if one is talking about a "performance of sincerity," then one is not actually talking about sincerity. Or at a minimum one is not using the word in a way that is consistent with its accepted definition. It strikes me that this is a good reason to think that pragmatism is flawed, philosophically, viz., that it renders sincerity unintelligible.

5 comments:

anselmo-b said...

Thinking about this has put a knot in my mind, or is it my brain? I will refer to the idea that all expression is performance. I am not completely certain that this is what you mean with “everything period is performance” though I think you do. I think there are good technical reasons to say that all expression is performance, the main one being the redundancy of speech and other forms of language (I home my terminology is not too flawed). Redundancy means that there is more than just one way to convey the same meaning. It may be that this doesn’t have to be necessarily so, that redundancy is not an inherent property of language, but it seems that all the languages we use, even the artificial ones we create to instruct machines, possess a significant degree of it. That forces us to make a choice of words, signs, or signals every time we need to express ourselves. I would say that making such a choice is performing, even if we are not driven to choose by the intention to convey an aspect to our meaning, but are forced to select one of the equivalent expressions available. I don’t really think we can help being at least a bit conscious of the fact that we are making a decision as to how to do it, every time we express ourselves.
If we made up a language (I doubt humans have the ability to accomplish this) in which every single expression mapped to a different single meaning, then the problem could be avoided. But such a language would be very similar to the enumeration system from the “Funes” story we were talking about. What consequences would ensue from its usage?
Anyway, you can resolve the conundrum of sincerity by deciding whether performance is necessarily its opposite.
So, maybe we could say that all expression is performance because we need to translate the thoughts and concepts that we form in our minds into symbols that our brains use to communicate, but we lack a system of translation that maps thoughts and symbols one to one, and are thus forced to consciously participate in the translation process.
None of the above implies that I adhere to pragmatism or that I have a clue about what pragmatism is. I’m also not sure that my technical argumentation carries flawlessly into the domain of your own preoccupations. What do you think?

t-ruth said...

Hi anselmo,

I've been away, so only got to read your interesting post just now. I am struck by what you say about how a language that had one symbol per idea would be like Funes. I'm so tired out from this trip I was just on that I can't say more about it just now, but I think it's really interesting.

Do we want to say that there is a difference between "performance" understood as you are suggesting, as the inescapable need to pick some words and not others, and "performance" understood as something like artifice? I always feel that the "It's all performance" people slide back and forth between these senses of it, drawing on the latter for splash, and to deny a space between surface appearance and underlying reality, but then retreating to the former when pressed.

anselmo-b said...

Hi, (I don’t know how to address you properly: T-Ruth has a blasphemous sound to it and Beauty is just too pert (just kidding here)) I hope that was a nice trip that you made.
I totally agree with you, what I was trying to do was to make precisely that distinction without introducing a new term. Performance of course is too loaded and I can see what you mean about how it can be abused in a discussion.
The thing I see as pivotal is the fact that, at least it seems so to me, expression requires our active conscious participation in the choice of symbols.
That has nothing at all to do with our intentions in terms of truthfulness; we can’t help having to choose but that doesn’t mean our choice has to be driven by a need to mystify, allegorize, etc.
I would say that people who argue in the manner you describe, are mixing two totally different things out of convenience. But why do they do so? How did people get so suspicious of truthfulness?

t-ruth said...

Hi back to you.

It works if you just drop the T-.

Thanks for the good wishes -- I went to St. Louis.

I like how you put it, the thing about rhetoric, about expression. I don't think that the "performance" people blur the difference by accident, or for convenience. I think they are indeed suspicious of truthfulness, as you put it. But why? I guess because so much of what passes for it isn't really it. Or maybe because they think it isn't interesting. I don't know.

I like how you put it though, I do.

crowleycrow said...

Is this pragmatism? I thought that the idea that all expression is performance, that no expression can be "transparent" because that would mean you could see through it, it would be unclouded by inexactness or sentimentality or mess, and what you would see is reality, the thing described -- I thought that this was deconstruction (not a stance but a tool, though used by thinkers with a stance often enough.) I think that saying "everything is performance" or (as anselmo b refines it) "all expression is performance" is like saying "all life is a dream" or "everyone is selfish" -- doesn't it derive a statement of meaning if there's no negative to set it against? There would have to be unselfishness or unselfish people for the "sefish" in "everybody is selfish" to mean anything.

I am probably annoying the professional philosopher here with unclear thinkling. I mean thinking, though "thinkling" might be a good word for what I'm actually doing.