Style and Substance

One of the complicated underterrains of struggle within the contemporary academy involves the use of language and representation. Many scholars in all disciplines have a sophisticated and subtle understanding of how we speak in our disciplines and across our disciplines, certainly. But I think it’s fair to say that a significant number of scholars in the sciences and in the “hard” social sciences view language as a kind of filter or form of noise that interferes with or distorts the underlying signal of knowledge, and look for ways to communicate that strip away as much unneeded rhetoric as possible. Many humanists in turn find this quest naive and reductionist, viewing rhetoric as inescapable but also desirable, that rhetoric is also signal, also knowledge, that there is no knowledge without it.

This is an old argument, and most academics know it. We’re not the only ones who have the argument. Most of the terrible data-creating practices associated with neoliberal institutions are ultimately justified by a suspicion of rhetoric–that there is nothing useful to be known, for example, from someone writing a narrative assessment of teaching, because everyone reading the narrative can interpret it differently, because the narrative can be crafted by a skillful writer or speaker to hide or excuse flaws. Hence the need for the supposedly objective, real, non-rhetorical collection of quantitative data: how many students improved their grades, how many students got better jobs, how many students passed a competency test. Which produces howls from a more humanistic perspective: why are those “real”? How can we explain why they matter (or don’t matter) without some kind of philosophical argument? Aren’t we just saying that whatever we can measure is what we value, and what we value is what we measure? What about all the other consequences of teaching that can’t be measured in that way?

I mention all this to acknowledge that there’s a complicated needle to thread in talking about reactions to Trump’s State of the Union Address, which actually put some of these usual shoes on other feet. Meaning, a lot of more humanistic speakers on the left reacted with great annoyance to praise for Trump by arguing that it’s the content or substance of his speech that matters, not the rhetoric or tone, and that the content hasn’t changed at all. Whereas others who might dismiss rhetoric or tone in some circumstances to focus on what’s “really” going on insisted that in this case, rhetoric was substance, and that the substance had changed.

I’m largely in the first camp, though partly because a single somewhat conciliatory speech does not cancel out years of unhinged word salad. Meaning, even sticking with questions of tone and rhetoric, there are questions of representativeness that matter. Just as I wouldn’t announce that a previously calm, collected, cerebral speaker had turned into a fiery off-the-cuff stump speaker because of a single speech, I wouldn’t do it here either. But also because the content of Trump’s proposals remains profoundly objectionable, if in some cases objectionable in familiar ways–e.g., not unlike federal policy under George W. Bush and even under Barack Obama.

What I am struck by in looking at the rapturous responses of some pundits is that they curiously enough end up partially validating the hostility of Trump and some of his supporters to the mainstream political elite. Meaning this: that the pundits in some cases are not welcoming a changed tone because they have a deep ethical or philosophical regard for how rhetoric shapes communities, connects national citizenries, offers a ethical model of compromise and consensus. The pundits and press who welcomed the perceived shift in tone are correct that tone is substance, that rhetoric is part of truth and knowledge. It’s naive to simply say, “Ignore the tone, focus on the content”, just as it it deeply annoying when people complain about “tone police” in social media as if rhetoric is irrelevant. But the thing is, the pundits like the tone of the State of the Union speech not because of the philosophical substance embedded in its rhetoric, but because the tone of the speech restored, if only for a few hours, a familiar, welcome relationship between the punditry and the Presidency.

What Trump’s speech did in its rhetoric is provide a familiar widget to set down on the conveyor belts of the 24/7 media apparatus and so for one night it ran smoothly. The President did what was predicted, he did what he was told, he read his teleprompter, he stuck to his script. He nailed his set pieces. Up to this point, Trump has been putting strange hand-built, jerryrigged heaps of awkwardly shaped garbage down on those oiled, smooth-running machines. The factory has been clogging, breaking down, smelling of possible fires. Up to this point, Trump has been for the media a bit like Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, singing the wrong arias while her music instructor watches exasperated from the pit. But all along Trump has been clear: that’s on purpose, that he’s sabotaging the machinery.

Which has been a popular message for reasons that the press both sort of understand and yet also doggedly refuse to understand. They understand that they’re not popular, but they flatter themselves that this is because they’re truthful messengers bringing unpopular news to unhappy recipients. What they don’t want to understand is that they’re also unpopular because they’re seen as a part of the machinery of power. Not town criers carrying woeful news but courtiers and jesters fawning over a succession of kings and dukes. So Trump gets exalted for a night because he gave them something normal to fawn over again. Even some of the usual criticism is a kind of money shot: it lets two or more commenters get paid off for scheduled work on a play-by-play from a game they understand, rather than leaving them confused and speechless at the spectacle of anarchic improvisation.

The thing is that they’re right: tone and rhetoric are substance. We do not get to look through it to some underlying reality and engage only that instead. If Trump sounded like this henceforth, every day, that would be meaningful. To some degree, it would be better, because one of the substantively awful things about Trump up to this moment has been his volatility, his unpredictability, his indignity, his expressed disregard for any facts that annoy him, his contempt for all others, his desire to break all the machinery of the status quo no matter what its functions or uses might be. Those are not merely quirks of personality, they are governance, and both terrible and terrifying as such. But not only is the desire to sabotage everything still visible in abundance throughout his Administration and abroad in the land, not only is Trump essentially leading a mob of rioters who are breaking windows and setting fires, if what we want is a different substance in his rhetoric, we should not be looking simply for it to return to the comfortable familiarity of a product for the political classes to run through their factories of meaning-making. If, for example, the press is alarmed by being named “enemy of the people”, they should not simply relax the moment that a President stops using that phrase. They should ask instead whether they need to do something fundamentally differently in order to make that phrase irrelevant or immaterial. What might they do, for example, if they didn’t have the familiar widgets to lay down on the expected machinery? Perhaps they need to be making something completely different than what they’ve been making.

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4 Responses to Style and Substance

  1. Jay Rosen goes in a similar direction with a highly compressed Twitter “Moments” series:

  2. Sam Zhang says:

    I’ve found Masha Gessen’s recollections about the experience of the early days of Putin’s Russia to be a powerful source of vocabulary for these times. For example, the idea that this “aesthetic” degradation of the presidency is vehicle to a project of delegitimizing the public sphere.

    The failure of the pundits to respond to this just makes so clear how they have become used to legitimizing the already-powerful, so that they don’t know what to do when someone actually bad is in power. I read a headline from Thomas Friedman the other day that read, “What Trump is doing is not O.K.” Hardly resistance.

    If they knew any better (perhaps by reading Masha Gessen), they would know the rules of surviving an autocracy include “Don’t be taken in by small signs of normality”.

  3. Tim Blankenhorn says:

    There is nothing smooth or easily described in the events unfolding in Washington. Trump’s speech was anomalous — and quickly receded into the past. The new ruling order is being reshaped as it reshapes, creating and being created by numberless individual interests — which themselves shift and reshift.

    Media people have the terrible burden of having to respond to Drumpf on a daily/weekly basis. This leads to mistakes. It also, inevitably, leads to a tendency to normalize him and to minimize the appalling stupidity and evil of what he has said and done in weeks/months/years past.

    There is pressure to play nice.

    I am good friends with a talented and experienced “pundit” who has explained to me the terrible punishment meted out to reporters who have offended the White House. You are shunned. You don’t get phone calls returned, It becomes hard to do your job.

    I am also old friends with a longtime Establishment foreign policy figure whose name shows up in association with the Trump administration. I think he is 1) attracted to the possibilities for restructuring the global map along more comforting, “rational” lines, 2) interested in the large amounts of money floating around, and 3) desperate to stay relevant as he enters his eighth decade.

    It is bad form to say this, I know, but I just stand on the sidelines, praying that the good guys will win…eventually.

  4. Cervantes says:

    Well, communicative action is indeed action. The rhetoric of politicians to some degree shape the social environment. Trump’s racist statements and incitement to violence did in fact cause an increase in hate crimes, and gave people felt license to insult and intimidate people. This certainly matters in itself, and will have many (not entirely predictable) downstream repercussions. At the same time, if he were to stop that sort of language, that would not mean we could stop worrying about related policies, e.g. that the Justice Dept. will no longer enforce civil rights laws. So it’s a little bit of both. (BTW I’m Swarthmore class of ’78.)

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