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The Value of the Vague

The point is simply that the usefulness, appropriateness, and fit of these terms should always be in question and should never be assumed, and that their application must always bear a burden of proof when applied outside their original cultural contexts” (Garrett 54).

Garrett’s chapter about the issues of applying various Westernized definitions to “rhetoric” as it might be understood in China warn against assuming the validity of terminology, perceptions, and classification systems from Hellenistic traditions as applied to divergent cultural practices and histories. This discussion about using Western terms to discuss non-Western practices reminds me of three pieces that I read last fall about Chinese Rhetoric from Xu, Lyons, and Liu. The Garrett piece informs some of the disagreements and discrepancies that I saw comparing those three pieces as the issue is not only in using Westernized terms, but in even defining what that term (rhetoric) means or is to begin with. I recall that when I read the Xu piece, I myself was questioning the possible uses or meanings of “eloquence” and how that one word might mean a host of possibilities depending upon the person or cultural background from which one arises. Which leads me to…..

Those victimized by hyperconsciousness suffer not only from an excess of history but equally from a surplus of meanings” (Hall and Ames).

… a particular part of the discussion by Hall and Ames near the end of their central chapter in Anticipating China. I very much appreciated especially the end of this chapter in its critique of Western Enlightenment era thinking and transcendental Vaguenessmonism. “The value of vagueness” and the field/focus discussion were particularly valuable to me and I’ve made a tremendous number of notes in the margins as this gives me terms and a philosophical tradition in which to negotiate and name my own thoughts on some particular subjects of interest to me. I have always wondered exactly how Pragmatism, as a philosophical school, fit into or alongside of postmodern or poststructuralist ideas and the outline by Hall and Ames gave me a much clearer idea about situating these modes of thinking within an associative conceptual constellation which I found very helpful. I understand, now, the value of setting up the entire first chapter with its march through Platonic/Aristotelian thought, down through Augustine and then the Enlightenment era thinkers, an epistemology highlighted so that it could be shown as a construction, not a teleological inevitability. I admit some impatience with this at times, as it is not an argument of which I need to be convinced – I’ve never BEEN convinced by this way of thinking. I didn’t buy it as reality as a four-year-old and certainly don’t now, but I also understand that I am not the only reader, or perhaps even the intended one, who is supposed to be convinced by claims I already believe.

However, in chapter two, I’ve found a whole lot of value that is, in fact, new information to me, especially the situating of Pragmatism within/alongside postmodernism/structrualism and also understand more fully the audience to which Hall and Ames addresses this argument. If I were to situate my own thinking, I would certainly fall most into their category of interpretive pluralism where “one denies that there is any final truth to be attained” (144) wholly embracing the possibility (inevitability?) of multiple truths that, while they may appear to be in conflict, never really are.

The presumption of a single coherent world that might serve as ground and goal of descriptive or interpretive endeavors, or of an essentialized mind or ego that might ground the thoughts, decisions, and actions of agents, as well as the very idea of a stable agent that could serve as the author of ideas or the terminus of ascriptions of responsibility with respect to actions and decisions, are no longer presupposed by the above named movements. With the dissolution of ‘self’ and ‘world’ the remainder of the Enlightenment architectonic is undermined” (146).

I likewise appreciated the discussion about how the critique of the rationality of language and the “specter of incommensurability” (147) undermine the Enlightenment endeavor. (And wow does that word not fit with my conception of Western Enlightenment thinking. Enlightened as compared to what?) The Baconian conception Anti Baconof language as pointing to untroubled, single, definable objects “really in the world” is eroded through any in-depth exploration of language and meaning, in all of their ambiguity and richness and as Hall and Ames note, “dictionaries now serve primarily as a compendia of ambiguities” and that this “collapse of the dictionary is symptomatic of our altered conception of thinking” (165). At the same time, the authors eschew charges of cultural relativism by delineating between lower case “c” cultures, of which there are potentially infinite variations that “are indefinitely flexible,” and capital “C” Culture, of which there can be at most one, that “refers to a vague complex of significances focused in accordance with a variety of interests” (178). This redefinition of “culture” is extremely helpful in the simultaneous recognition of both similarity and difference across/within/trans/inter cultural dialogs as non-separate endeavors with no need to reduce any culture to a set of possible choices (as with the transcendental pluralists) or to seek some ONE defining principle with which to define them all (as with transcendental monists).

Given the nature of even the sciences today (quantum and field theories, neuroscience and plasticity of the brain, etc.) it is difficult for me to wrap my head around the possibility of thinking or seeking to think through a lens of transcendental monism – it is a paradigm that has never made sense to me, was/is reductionist to the point of absurdity and is, in my way of thinking, the height of irrationality, despite its own claims to the contrary. Hall and Ames note the horizontal nature of contemporary Western culture (171) which reminded me of the image I drew of the chalk board during the defense of my Master’s exams. I drew the conventional binary hierarchy “ladder” on the board labeled with a cross-section of various Western ordering systems that was predicated upon an individuated, atomistic model of human subjectivity, then contrasted that to what I was describing, which was a similar model but laid

Masters Blackboardhorizontally with a “Horizontal Field of Authority” (rather than top-down) in a “Dispersed Field of Relationality” that included my idea of hybrid subjectivity, which I labeled a molecular model. This, to me, seems to describe the same phenomena but without an ideology of domination and “power over” that I find a more productive lens for future relations and cultural directions without wholly disrupting (a process as potentially violent as difficult) a model already in place. Hall and Ames have offered an interpretive lens, and more importantly extant terms and concepts, that may help me explain these ideas in more accessible ways, as well as offering ideas for pragmatic applications.


One comment on “The Value of the Vague

  1. Renee,

    Glad to hear that chapter two connects to you more than chapter one and that their version of pragmatism and its approach toward meaning/vagueness resonate with your interests and thinking. All told, I hope these discussions will begin to provide useful lenses or frameworks to engage the other as well as our selves. And I myself have utilized their field/focus apparatus and found it to be generative. In some potentially ironic ways I think this very apparatus may end up destabilizing their own binary between the 1st and 2nd problematic, which we can talk next week. And anxious to hear your thoughts on their last chapter, where China finally appears after two chapters of anticipation.

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