trickle down democracy

Camille, thanks so much for taking on the “grand narrative” bit and reminding us that’s passe! The term that came to mind as an alternative is scaffolding. We need some kind of networked structure of tropes and metaphors that complement each other but can be deployed variously and flexibly in myriad situations.


I gave a presentation at Hampshire College last night (significantly assisted by Denise Stevenson as an audience member) in which I tried to argue that these are not “conservative times” (the description provided by the student who organized the event) but rather “neoliberal times.” I’m thinking along the lines of the kind of shift in discourse Bush crowed about after the 2000 campaign, in which the question of taxation shifted from a question of “whether or not” to lower taxes to “how much” to lower them. Those are the kinds of shifts we need to generate/contribute to producing if we want to have an impact on the political-economic structure.
And I think creating space for connected knowing is vital in this endeavor. I didn’t say drop separate knowing altogether, but rhetoric – it seems to me, certainly in terms of public campaigning – is most often deployed as a weapon in a separate knower kind of way. It’s designed to foreclose argument, leave no room for disagreement, assert the primacy of the rhetorician’s point-of-view. To overpower the other; its primarily self-interested – “my” POV, “my” desire, “my” vision for how things should be.
Which isn’t to say people don’t learn from this kind of engagement; obviously they do, and I include myself quite prominently. However, its not a mode that’s particularly helpful with intractable problems in which “sides” are locked in to their respective rhetorics. A shift in tactics, in communicative strategy, is the only way to break those logjams.
This was illustrated last night when a discussion about welfare came up. In the initial round the classic conservative/liberal split against/for it seemed patently evident to everyone in the room. But, because the emphasis was more on communication skills (mainly, listening) the conversation evolved to the point that we discovered the two main antagonists actually agreed that the system as it is sucks! We didn’t pursue it further, but that kind of movement isn’t possible in a short time frame (90 minutes) when separate knowing and the rules of debate and conquor prevail.

6 thoughts on “trickle down democracy”

  1. OK, Stephen, I know I’m going to have to take up the challenge to argue why groups matter in non-psychological language. Maybe I’m going to end up starting over FROM SCRATCH on my paper for this class…gosh. Gotta love intellectual development! 🙂
    As for grand narratives VERSUS scaffolding, I think that’s a false dichotomy. We’re debating – as we have most of the semester – the means for establishing large-scale conditions for “real” democracy (which we may still also have some disagreement about). I think there is a heck of a lot of room for both/and here (yes, the demonized connected knowing!) We also need clarification about which tactic where. Does our group (!) need a grand narrative? Maybe we need a scaffold first, that produces conditions among us which are democratic (so I recognize your expertise as a rhetorician but not your authority as a professor – gasp!/i>), which also invites others in to our discussion (since we are rather homogenous, really), out of which a “grand narrative” for mass media purposes can grow?

  2. when i read these discussions, i sort of feel like luke skywalker at the end of empire strikes back, with steph and company representing the well-meaning band of rebels, and stephen representing the more pragmatic emperor (dont belabour the comparison too much, it doesnt hold up under scrutiny). even as i child, i always thought the emperor made some very compelling if not particularly romantic points, and i hid my secret allegiance to the dark side away. ive also always had a violent reaction to mark hamill’s face, but more relevantly, its cliche at this point to point out that the film mobilizes american mythologies during the cold war era that ran counter to the actual political practices the vast majority of the country were vigorously supporting. i’ve been thinking about this for awhile now, and i increasingly feel the same sense of secret duplicity and guilt when i employ some of the most agreed upon claims of contemporary cultural studies in my lectures(i’m thinking specifically of the fiske-type claims of audience/consumer resistance), and ive experienced little from my students, peers, or country to make me feel otherwise–i just dont completely believe what i’m saying. i know i should have my typing fingers chopped off for this, but i think some of those frankfurt schoolers are more relevant than we’d like to acknowledge. i do believe this can, theoretically, change, but what of our current cultural climate indicates that the conditions are ripe for this to happen? if anything, our ability to “raise consciousness” in the freire sense is becoming increasingly constricted, as neo-liberalism becomes more entrenched, the (clear) channels for the distribution of counterdiscourse are monopolized, virtually every element of cultural life works to reinforce what i think are our natural tendencies for self-gratification at the expense of the community…etc etc. i have this gollum-like schizophrenia going on in my head during class sometimes: i know what i’m supposed to believe as a good progressive liberal, but i dont believe that the world is prepared to buy that as a legimate alternative to the rhetoric of the right. if it was, kucinich and nader would be something other than the marginalized figures of ridicule that theyve become. i sometimes believe that the sin with which condemn the bush administration–choosing stubborn, righteous resolve over practical, reality-based (and don’t tell me about the construction of reality–I KNOW, but who else cares? try making that your campaign slogan: “VOTE ME IN 2008: NONE OF THIS IS “REAL”, IN A SENSE!”) action–is exactly the same thing we’re doing in a more genuinely compassionate but equally ineffective manner. actually, the right is quite effective, but their form of effective has disasterous consequences. but that doesnt seem to be an impediment if you have a pleasing grand narrative. as i said in class, somewhat sheepishly, my feelings may be an effect of post-election trauma. or maybe we’re pissing away our chance at forming a cohesive resistance because of our well-meaning but misguided adversion to grand narratives. i say hammer together an effective counter-narrative that the people will buy (elitist? maybe. but so are all of us who believe that working class conservatives would agree with us if they’d just learn a little more. i for one dont believe they want to, and thats their right in a democratic society. it doenst stop me from trying or believing that). i’d much rather deal with the fallout from a successful vaguely leftist grand narrative than bag the bodies of a conservative one.
    enough. i’m going to drink some (more) wine and watch the red sox world series dvd for the fourth time. there’s a grand narrative i accept with happy, deluded complicity. its nice to know what that feels like from time to time…

  3. I like the imagery, Brett – I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction hero. 🙂 But I wouldn’t polarize us quite so drastically (and not just on Stephen’s account, I hope!). As I bounce back and forth between rhetorical perspectives I am encouraged that this kind of intellectual tussling is agonism, or at least a precursor to it. And that’s why I am such an advocate of groups – because I don’t think agonism occurs within/among publics. There must be some level of commitment/engagement to the Other, and, my suspicion is that only if and when we “agonize” discursively with each other long enough are we going to discover the pleasures in it and figure out how to frame these into grand narrative themes. I keep thinking about part of the Richard Florida book we read on the creative class, and the way he discussed the need for a combination of “weak ties” essentially independent creatives (high mobility, fewer interpersonal/relational constraints/commitments) with core groups – one could say communities – of people with “strong ties” (those who stay in a town/city long enough to establish political presence and advocate for schools, roads, the infrastructure). The other thing about groups-that-become-communities in some way, is that you have to figure out how to deal with each other’s irrationalities. They become visible, and to the extent people will engage, known. This is also part of agonism – determining when/how the irrational is blasting the heck out of the rational or masquarading as such. What the right does, besides grand narrativization, is understand and mobilize irrationality. I think the roots of some of the disagreements from many members of the DRP class and Stephen have to do with (what seems to be) his insistence that we have to mobilize irrationality in the same ways as the right, and a desire (I think) to come up with either different ways or even different aspects of the irrational to use as “source”.

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