Unit 1 Response Michael Wojcik

I'm sympathetic to the projects set out by Dragga and Voss; Katz; and (to a lesser extent) Islam, Zyphur, and Boje in this unit's readings. My disagreements are primarily philosophical or theoretical; but they arguably have some practical consequences when we consider how to apply the ethical imperatives DV and K announce, or extrapolate strategies for intervening in systems from the observations of IZB. And, finally, they have consequences for how we evaluate and respond to the current state of system in industry, as revealed by Yates.

Problemantic Pies

The argument presented by DV is easiest to critique, because it's a relatively short piece, with straightforward claims and broad assumptions. For example, DV make frequent references to human suffering, but offer no theory of pain to ground it. (I'm reluctant to invoke the always-problematic Elaine Scarry, but at least The Body in Pain tries to explain what we might mean by terms like “human suffering”, rather than assuming a common understanding.) More worrisome, I think, is that the piece has no critical moment where it interrogates the notion of a “humanistic” approach to representing, say, death statistics — a notion its authors rely on extensively. Graphics, after all, are a human invention; what makes them less humanistic?

Part of the problem with this unqueried “humanistic” is that DV seem to believe that the humanist content inheres in the factual content, and is being erased or elided by the graphs. I think that's a category error. There's a humanist content to each individual life, of course. There's a humanist content to narratives extrapolated from the aggregate data: “the terrible human cost of fishing accidents”, say. But the latter is not the recovery of the former. It's meaning produced from the statistical facts and other inputs. DV are actually more right than they know when they say “facts just like all other facts” (269) — there's no metaphysical specialness to the facts represented by the graphs. What's special is the meaning we produce from them.

That said, I appreciate the rhetorical move DV recommend, as it encourages the reader to construct a narrative from the graph and produce an ethically-enriched meaning. However, we must also always ask what that ethically-enriched meaning is. And here I think the greatest issue with DV's lack of critical reflection emerges. Technical illustrations of the statistics of human suffering may better evoke that suffering when augmented in the ways DV suggest. There's no guarantee, though, that the ethical valence thereby attached to the graphic fits the (implied) ethical scheme DV advocate. For an example see Appendix A.

The Origins of Expediency

I appreciate K's careful argumentation on many points. I believe it's crucial that he opposes the idea, advanced by Weisel and others, that the Holocaust is an exceptional event, of a different order than other mass killings (Stalin's USSR, the Belgian Congo, and so on), and a radical break from the continuity of European history. These counterexamples to Holocaust exceptionalism are precisely why the defenders of that idea must argue it's outside rhetoric, and conversely why K — concerned with critiquing a rhetorical basis for the Holocaust — must argue against it. I stand among those who feel exceptionalism is an obscurantist and politically dangerous idea which only eases the repetition of mass injustice.

Ultimately, this is a metaphysical question, of course — a special case of pluralism, if taken to its ontological extremes; or at least, if confined to the question of rhetoric, a matter of “the limits of representation” as one text puts it. I suspect this is one reason why Derrida attacked metaphysics: because the European metaphysical stance (as opposed to, for example, the pragmatist one that dominates much of US philosophy) enables interpretive systems that rationalize empire — and, crucially, a more effective empire than pre-modern ones, an empire that could be sustained in a commodity era. A similar connection might be drawn to Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic, which argues that slavery was not an abberation in the Enlightenment but consistent with it. In this way I believe K's project is compatible with Derrida's anticolonial project (elucidated by Robert J C Young, for one): tracing the orientation toward injustice and violence embedded in an ethic of expediency which is in turn embedded (or is it? a question I return to below) in a rhetoric of technical-scientific detachment.

So I find K's argument well-constructed, and I agree that the Holocaust is both consistent with the development of European thought and culture, and that it implicates that culture in an ethical failing of the most extreme degree. And, as with DV, I agree with K's call to critique the rhetoric of technical communication and the ethic of expediency. Where I believe we differ is in our conception of how that rhetoric and that ethic are connected.

The core of the issue is whether an ethics can inhere in a rhetoric. Plato, for example, believes in an innate moral sense which can be developed, so that ethics are deeply tied to aesthetics, and ethical behavior arises from an appreciation of the beauty of the Good. D D Storm explores an imaginative extension of Plato's connection between ethics and aesthetics in the science-fiction story “Mud/Aurora”, in which a moral system is embedded in the grammar of a language, so that grammatically well-formed sentences express moral truths and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the story's protagonist comes to question the authenticity of this relationship. But this does not stand up well to scrutiny. Thus Richard Rorty, for example, claims (in “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”) that there is no ethical sense: moral truth is not beauty. By the same token there cannot be any reflexive connection between rhetoric and ethics, or we could simply define the appreciation of rhetorical effectivity as an aesthetic experience and contradict Rorty. So unless we take a platonic view (something neither K nor I are inclined to), a given ethic and rhetoric cannot simply be two aspects of the same thing.

K goes to some length in demonstrating that Aristotle does not hold a Platonic conception of the Good (261-262). Instead, for Aristotle (in K's interpretation, which seems robust to me), the proper use of deliberative rhetoric promotes a good life in a healthy polis, which in turn is Aristotle's definition of happiness. But this still implies at least a precursor of an ethical system is embedded in rhetoric, and it too is unpersuasive. For one, it leaves us caught in the dilemma of cultural relativism (K points to Aristotle's approval of a slave class, for example) versus a hierarchy of rhetorical-ethical positions (in which rhetorically sophisticated cultures would also be ethically admirable ones) that does not appear to be historically supportable. Ultimately, though, I can't escape the feeling that part of the problem with Aristotle's model is the yoking of rhetoric and ethics; it's not that he “elides Goodness and Utility” (K 260), but that he raises the spectre of Goodness in the first place.

If, instead, we follow the Sophists in decoupling rhetoric and ethics, we can see the ethical effect arising from the context in which rhetoric is employed. Then we can insist that good rhetorical action requires attending to both rhetoric and ethics in parallel, and that it is not a matter of abstracted rhetorical practices but kairotic, of the moment. Here we return to the Rortian branch of recent American pragmatism, particularly the theory of the contingency of ethics, as seen in such works as Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity and Barbara Herrnstein Smith's Contingencies of Value.

Then we can suggest that the way out of instrumentalism and a dehumanizing focus on effect is to insist that there is no one way out of instrumentalism (in the rhetorical domain or elsewhere). Instead it requires a continual recirculation through the thickness of social (including the society of nonhuman actors), cultural (including cultural positions we do not participate in or even reject), political (including political positions we oppose), and material worlds. That does not mean that there will not be practices; for example, the practice of self-critique, of recognizing a failure to question assumptions. But those practices are functions of the specific occasion.

That's a stance for the rhetor, an orientation toward a communicative praxis. It doesn't respond to the question of how to bring that thickness into discourse, particularly into discourse that's heavily constrained, as for example much technical writing. The rhetor might conceivable work through a sort of mental suspension of the complexity of the world, but still produce a text that does not evoke that complexity in the reader. (Whether this would then be a failed rhetorical exercise is somewhat beside the point; the concerns raised by K, and others such as DV, have not been addressed.)

To that end, the evocation of the thickness of the world for the audience, I have three suggestions, which I only have room to sketch out in the briefest terms:

I propose this position addresses certain weaknesses in the latter part of K's argument. Take his example of the Locherbee bombing. It is easy to criticize the airline's failure to cancel the flight as an outcome of the ethic of expediency. This fails, however, to embed that decision in its sociocultural context; in particular, it fails to account for the realities of the political and economic situation. Bomb threats are easy to make, and if an airline fails to triage them they provide an “amplification vector”: air travel could be shut down by a small group making bomb threats. That would have tremendous economic consequences, with associated human ones. It would prevent many people from travelling, lowering their standard of living; and would force others into other, much more dangerous modes of travel (no doubt leading to more fatalities than Locherbee). The context-independent connection K draws from a scientific-technical rhetoric to an ethic of expediency to immoral decisions is too coarse a model.

Another problem with K's interpretation is that it's too easy to find counterexamples to the hypothesized embedding of ethics in rhetorics. One is Quine's impenetrable contexts, contexts of language use which break the transitive substitution relation of equivalence. Quoting is an impenetrable context: we can say that ordinarily 9 is equivalent to nine, but while the statement “nine” has four letters is true, it becomes false if we substitute the numeral 9 for the word.

The impenetrability of quotation also breaks the purported association between rhetoric and ethics. A trivial example is K's own use of Just's memorandum. Obviously K's ethical project is diametrically opposed to Just's, but for both of them Just's text admirably serves their rhetorical aims. The impenetrable context of quotation prevents Just's original ethical telos from attaching to his rhetorical structures, when his text is located in the context of K's essay.

Of course K asks us to attend to context, in order to resist the ethic of expediency; but the context he appeals to is that of the whole ethical realm: “We can begin by recognizing the essentially ethical character of all rhetoric ... we can and should teach the whole panoply of ethics” (272). But as I suggested at the beginning of this section, I believe that while an explicit attention to ethics is useful and even necessary, it's ultimately misleading to see ethics as embedded in rhetoric. Rhetorical acts have ethical consequences, but those consequences depend on the context of the acts. Thus while K's argument is in many ways far more sophisticated, developed, and thorough than DV's, the latter's broad recommendation to make explicit a human factor in technical rhetoric is in some ways a more useful guideline for remediation than anything K gives us.

Expediency and Individualism

I'd argue, contra K, that it's not individualism per se (as opposed to a communal orientation) that's the direct precursor of the ethic of expediency, but an individualism grounded in individual exceptionalism and the liberalism of the nascent middle class that privileged liberté over fraternité. It did so precisely because of a focus on class ascendancy and a need to reject hereditary (aristocratic) and institutional (church) privilege. Expediency became a good in itself when it was shown to stand against early-modern European social structures: by defining the individual as a monad and all individuals as metaphysically equivalent, an individual's only rightful claim to power was effectivity. The good individual, in the nascent middle class, was the individual who got things done; any other definition threatened the middle class ability to challenge the social, cultural, and political capital of the aristocracy, the gentry, and the members of traditional institutions (the churches, militaries, judicial systems, etc).

I admit this is a rather speculative thesis, but I believe that I could support it, given more time, with primary sources such as Milton's “Tenure of Kings and Magistrates”. Also note that this thesis contradicts (K's gloss of) Habermas: the “purposive-rational subsystem” did not “quietly usurp” the “traditional-institutional framework”, and it did not suddenly happen in “late capitalism” (266). The history of European modernity is the noisy history of this usurpation. But then I don't recall ever agreeing with Habermas.

Fortunately, K's tentative solutions to what he sees as the problem of individualism — that is, the causal relationship he draws from individualism to the elevation of expediency as a good in itself, and then to a pervasive ethic of expediency promulgated through a dehumanized technical-scientific rhetoric — apply nearly as well, with only minor changes, if the actual precursor is not individualism writ large but a lingering strategic individual exceptionalism developed to challenge institutionalized class prerogative. The first aspect, largely implicit, of K's solutions is a return to the social nature of deliberative rhetoric advocated by Aristotle: “the decline of both the philosophy of ethics and of virtue itself is marked by the breakdown in Western culture of a communal teleology and the shift to individual moral authority and utilitarianism ... [this] may be important when we consider some of the implications for rhetoric of the ethic of expediency” (262). Even while K identifies the kernel of the ethic of expediency in Aristotle's rhetoric, he notes that for Aristotle it was always tied to the good of the community.

Of course, K also demonstrates that Hitler couched his use of rhetoric and application of expediency in the good of the community too — albeit with very carefully restricted definitions of “community” (Aryan) and “good” (dominance) — in the section “Hitler's ‘Ethical’ Program?” (263-265). So a communal focus is not enough. Individualism, or individualist exceptionalism, may have nurtured the development of the ethic of expediency, but it's not necessary to the continual application of that ethic. So the second aspect of K's tentative solutions to the problem, which I've already discussed in the previous section, is an explicit and thoroughgoing attention to the entirety of ethics in the study and practice of rhetoric. I have no argument with that; even if I don't believe that ethics inheres in rhetoric (as I argued in my first section on K), ethical study is both a pragmatic intervention in unethical rhetorical behavior (as a moral paideia) and an opportunity to gain critical distance on previously unexamined ethical assumptions.

However, I believe we can add to these recommendations by seeking grounds on which to challenge individualist exceptionalism, without taking on individualism itself.

Why preserve individualism?

If (a species of) individualism is part of the problem, why try to preserve it? The pragmatic reason: it's too deeply rooted in European-derived cultures to be dislodged. Also, there are no demonstrable viable alternatives; the only extant non-individualist cultures are either dysfunctional (North Korea) or unscalable (small agrarian or hunter-gatherer groups). The theoretical reason: it's the philosophical foundation of the rights that serve as a check on State power and so permit a degree of self-actualization. It can be argued that this definition is circular — that self-actualization is only a good under the premise of individualism — but it's not clear that there's any other non-tautological purpose human beings can aspire to. I suggest, then, that we can envision an individualism which does not imply an ethic of expediency if we can decouple individual exceptionalism from individualism. The implication from the beginning of this section that this might involve privileging “fraternity”, or more precisely some mode of solidarity and fairness, over liberty — while still maintaining a core of individual freedom and rights — is simplistic but in essence part of the solution. The second part is to shake off the lingering suspicion of the bugbear of undeserved privilege. Accept that undeserved privilege exists, through historically contingent vectors (for example, titled aristocracy isn't much of a force in the US today, but inherited wealth certainly is); accept that it must be accounted for in any struggle for justice (though it may often be coopted to achieve a tactical good, rather than uselessly opposed on principle). But do not construct a shadow meritocracy in an effort to undermine or bring to light a rotten value system. I agree with K: that path leads to the valorization of expediency and an abjuration of a just ethical system. And the final part, as always, is to maintain a critical stance that continually interrogates assumptions — even these ones.

Ethics and System

In their study of the Krewe de Vieux and the Mystical Krewe of Spermes, IZB propose a dichotomy between carnivalesque ritual that maintains the system of sociopolitical relations and ritual that challenges that system. They take up competing theories of such symbolic action — Bahktin versus Debord, for example — to develop the careful position that the carnivalesque in general is not necessarily system-maintaining nor system-challenging.

IZB introduce the “backfire” hypothesis (citing Moore and Myerhoff) to explain why symbolic action can have such a range of effects: “A possible explanation for the apparently contrary effects of social action is that such actions can sometimes backfire, opening up possibilities through their enactment that were not part of the original function of the enactment” (1587). But the backfire hypothesis has much the same problem as K's “ethos of technology” hypothesis, and that has consequences for understanding the possibilities for system-challenging symbolic action.

Both hypotheses assume too strong a linkage between a signifying act and its telos, and so can presume that a signifying act wants to achieve an end, which can embody an ethics (the ethos-of-technology argument) or fail to be achived (the backfire argument). If instead we adopt a Rortian-Davidsonian view of signification — For the “Rortian-Davidsonian view of signification” I refer to here, see the first section of Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. that it's not about the transmission of ideas (which may result in more or less correct reception), but rather an attempt to guide the audience in constructing an ideational environment which makes the signification comprehensible — then we can see both communal symbolic action (IZB) and technological deliberative rhetoric (K) as potentially resulting in certain teloi, with some probability, but not as privileging those teloi as their natural or “successful” outcomes.

We don't have to work against an inherent tendency of techno-scientific deliberative rhetoric to instill an ethic of expediency, because that rhetoric does not have any inherent tendencies. Instead, we have to work against a cultural tendency to implicitly (or explicitly) encourage such an ethic when we apply rhetoric. And we don't have to see carnival as a mode of symbolic action which tends toward system-transformational effects, because system maintenance and transformation are not attached to modes of symbolic action. Rather we can see carnival as a rhetorical exercise which encourages the audience to move out of ideational equilibrium into other ways of thinking — which might include more, or fewer, transformational ideas.

Thus I'm suspicious of IZB's claim that “the laughter and fun are the very forms with embody and enact social transformation” (1583), because I remain unconvinced that transformation is an attribute of form.

And this, finally, has consequences for how we understand and deal with the systemic systemization of the workplace, as revealed by Y. Particularly in light of the rich evidence Y provides, it's difficult to argue against the thesis that systematic control through vertical and horizontal communication was (and continues to be) implemented with expediency in mind. I think, though, that it's a mistake to assume from this that it inculcates, endorses, or encourages an ethic of expediency. On the unpredictability of cultural production, see Weintraub, “Is ‘Is a Precursor Of’ a Transitive Relation?”, in Mathematics, Science, and Postclassical Theory. The production of cultural structures is chaotic and unpredictable. So we have to ask: does the systemization described by Y tend to produce an ethic of expediency?

I don't have a strong argument to make here. However, following from my beliefs outlined above that:

I would be reluctant to see workplace systemization as necessarily tending toward any ethical stance. My sense is that the flexibility afforded by ubiquitous communication in the modern enterprise actually can work toward or against an ethic of expediency. That comes largely from my personal experience, and not from any sort of rigorous observation. I'll be interested to see what others have to say on this question.

Of all genres of surveilance, two-way communication provides the greatest rhetorical opportunities for the surveiled. It's a wind-eye (vindauga, the Old Norse kenning for a window): opening the shutters to see out also means the wind can blow in. Of course this blows both ways: the written word is also an excellent vehicle for ideological indoctrination. Macauley famously recognized the usefulness of writing for indoctrination when he invented literary studies as a means of controlling colonial India. See Gauri Viswanathan, “The Beginnings of English Literary Study in British India”, Oxford Literary Review 9, and Masks of Conquest. But the appetite for information and analysis at the managerial level does present some opportunities for the labor force to rehumanize their relationship to the organization and reduce alienation. So perhaps ultimately the lesson to take from this week's readings is not only to teach ethics more broadly alongside rhetoric, as DV and K argue, but to teach rhetoric more broadly to everyone who seeks change in a system marked by communal symbolic action (IZB) and pervasive communication (Y).

Appendix A: Degenerate Uncruel Pie

One recommendation DV make is to decorate pie charts and other “technical illustrations” with icons representing the referenced, but otherwise invisible, human content of those graphics. For example, they add icons representing soldiers and casualties to Minard's famous graph from DV's updated Minard from DV's updated Minard of Napoleon's Russian campaign.

One problem with this approach, though, is that while adding overt ethical markers to an instrumental text such as a technical illustration does indeed attach an ethical valence to it, the content of that valence is still determined by context. Appealing to accounts of human misery does not inevitably lead to the sort of ethical position that DV, and presumably you or I, would support. It normalizes and endorses an ethical framework, but it does not determine that ethical framework.

As a hypothetical example, consider a graphic that might appear in the Malleus Maleficarum Monthly, the preeminent witch-hunting journal of fifteenth-century Europe.

MMM, which has a lasting editorial concern with the pernicious effects of witchcraft on good, god-fearing citizens, might well run articles on the various methods whereby the Adversary's fan club might wreak doom upon the rightous. When such articles have a quantitative bent, a pie chart could be a useful visual representation. Now suppose the authors proleptically take their cue from DV and include icons to evoke the human “reality” of witchly oppression.

The problem, of course, is that the ethical framework of MMM, in which this graphic is embedded, and which the “uncruel” graphical annotations refer to and evoke, is not one that DV would endorse. The human misery in question, whether real or apocryphal, is not the result of the purported cause (witchcraft). Worse, the rhetorical telos of MMM is institutionally-sponsored violence against the innocent and politically unempowered, generally poor, unpopular women.

Given the degenerate case of a graphic predicated on an ethically abhorent thesis, there are only three possibilities for DV-style dressing: either it has no effect; or it's rhetorically effective, which must have the wrong ethical effect; or it acts counter to the ethical framework of the work itself. The last — the only ethically desirable outcome (from our point of view) — requires some exterior moral order which the reader can appeal to in order to counter the rhetorical force of the graphic, and if such exists, then it's not clear that the problem posed by DV exists at all.

Common vile fates visited vpon ye Godly: by Spiteful VVitches, VVarlocks, &ct.

Uncruel pie from MMM

In short, while adding human-evocative content to graphics may or may not “humanize” them (depending on one's definition of “humanize”), it certainly doesn't guarantee a palatable ethical attachment. DV claim that “using no graphics would be clearly superior to displaying cruel graphics” (272), but in fact independent of other attributes of the text, there is no absolutely superior mode of presenting information — with or without pies, cruel or otherwise.

Appendix B: Allieviating Pie Cruelty (Graphical)

Method and System for Allieviating Cruelty in Pies (Graphical)

  1. A method and system for allieviating cruelty in graphical pies, by attaching contextual information to them.
  2. The system of claim 1, wherein cruelty in a graphical pie is defined as the presence of statistics concerning human suffering combined with the absence of overt representations of that suffering.
  3. The system of claim 1, wherein such pies are contained on a web page.
  4. The system of claim 1, wherein the web page is rendered in an environment with an ECMA-262 (“Javascript”) program execution environment.
  5. The system of claim 1, wherein the subject matter of the cruel pie can be discerned from context on the web page:
    1. By examining metadata associated with the pie; or
    2. By the analysis of text on the page, using natural language processing techniques to extract key terms from the text adjacent to the <img> element (or equivalent) used to embed the pie in the page.
  6. The system of claim 1, wherein an ECMA-262 program is used to construct an array of search terms relevant to the pie, using the data acquired as described in the previous claim.
  7. The system of claim 1, wherein an ECMA-262 program is used to perform image searches against an online database such as Google Images, using the terms collected in the previous claim.
  8. The system of claim 1, wherein the top image search results that are JPEG (photographic) images are added to the web page in the vicinity of the pie, by an ECMA-262 program. (Non-JPEG results are eliminated because they are likely to be other equally cruel graphics, producing no net decrease in cruelty.)
  9. FIG. 1 depicts an example of a cruel pie (DV 268) as annotated by the system.

Uncruel fishing pie

Appendix C: Allieviating Pie Cruelty (Comestible)

Method and System for Allieviating Cruelty in Pies (Comestible)

  1. A method and system for allieviating cruelty in comestible pies, by replacing them with better ones.
  2. The system of claim 1, wherein a comestible pie may be nominally savory or sweet.
  3. The system of claim 1, wherein cruelty is defined as poor flavor and/or consistency and/or appearance, and/or unhealthy characteristics as might result from undercooking, etc.
  4. The system of claim 1, wherein the pie judged to be cruel is discarded, with prejudice.
  5. The system of claim 1, wherein a new, superior pie is obtained.
  6. The system of claim 1, wherein a superior pie is obtained from one of two classes of sources:
    1. A public pie source, reputed to deal in superior pies, such as the Grand Traverse Pie Company; or
    2. Optimally, a private pie source known to be superior, such as Bill Hart-Davidson.
  7. The system of claim 1, wherein the new, superior pie is eaten in the stead of the cruel pie.
  8. FIG. 1 depicts an example of a superior pie (BHD) that could replace a cruel pie, as implemented by the system.

Uncruel peanut butter pie, by BHD


Works cited in this response include (in rough order of importance):

Steven B Katz. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust”. College English 54 (1992): 255-275. Abbreviated K.

Sam Dragga and Dan Voss. “Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations”. Technical Communication 48 (2001): 265-274. Abbreviated DV.

Gazi Islam, Michael J Zyphur, and David Bojie. “Carnival and Spectacle in Krewe de Vieux and the Mystic Krewe of Spermes: The Mingling of Organization and Celebration”. Organizational Studies 29 (2008): 1565-1589. Abbreviated IZB.

JoAnne Yates. Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management. Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. Abbreviated Y.

The pie chart in Appendix A uses images from Dot Com Women (witch), Arthur's Clip Art (toad), Graphics Factory (piggyback), and Fun Draw (horse).