Leave a comment

The Rhetoric of Way-Making

Thinking about the rhetoric of the Dao as well as the idea of discursive fields or constellations of meaning, I found myself pulling out words that clustered around concepts, inter-linked and interdependent. This (somewhat) pictorially represents my thinking about those terms as central and peripheral terms in relationship to the meanings of the text.

Dao Wordle 2

So what does this mean for rhetoric? How is rhetoric addressed, or how might we imagine a rhetoric of the dao based upon the principles presented here?

Just looking at these words in relation to each other shows clearly that what rhetoric is, means, or does is very different than would be found in a Hellenistic-based, second-problematic framework. The “point” of a rhetoric based upon Daoist principles would be rooted in relationality, non-contention, community, deference, and interdependence. Rather than a second-problematic rhetoric based in individuation where one can be a “winner” or “loser” in a debate or argument, a Daoist approach acknowledges beforehand that “self-regarding is also other-regarding,” thus there is no separation of these parties beyond the conventional. What case can be made for “winning” in this environment?

The entire nature of power is reconfigured in the Daoist model and thus all resultant knowledge systems would likewise rearrange in relation to these principles. How can “power” as a “power over” model mean the same – or mean anything – outside of an agreed upon duality that posits opposites as inherently separate and unequal? In a yinyang model where that-is-always-becoming-this as this-is-becoming-that there is no over nor under to be found, or rather if it is found, it is discovered as it is already becoming its other. This, to me, is why Western binaries have never made sense other than at a very superficial, captured by happenstance in this particular moment, way. Perhaps it is the attachment Westerners have to permanence that makes these fluctuations difficult to acknowledge. Is it a fear of chaos? Instability? Uncertainty? Perhaps, but there is no order, stability, or certainty in insisting upon a solid ground that is ever-shifting. Does it not make more sense to acknowledge the changing nature of, well, everything and adapt legs to stand upon shifting foundations?

I think that the yinyang dynamic has the potential to intervene if it is repeatedly and rhetorically paired (re-paired) as a dynamic rather than as a thing. Though there is some recognition that its representation is a symbol, it is so often misunderstood that it has come to represent a static image of opposites – complimentary perhaps (which is an improvement over the one-up binary that Westerners are used to) but still a never-mixing, never-changing static image. Perhaps it should always be viewed in motion – perhaps everything should be viewed in motion – all representations.

Just as the Dao is not “THE way” but the way-making, the yinyang is always changing, one into the other, so that distinctions of “other” become almost superfluous other than as a conventional label AND as constituted in one particular moment and place.

This gets at the nature of the essentializing force of Western language, or potentially any language. Naming, in the conventional sense, has the potential to “freeze” a concept in stasis, or give the sense that it is or represents that thing itself, rather than something always in the process of becoming. Nouns do not verb very well in Western linguistic syntax. (Verb itself is not a verb, though it probably should be.) The Dao Do Jing speaks to this “function of language to separate out, isolate, and arrest elements within it…[where]…an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character than it really is” (113). Thus, deeper meanings cannot be directly spoken, only spoken toward and “rare are those in the world who reach an understanding of the benefits of teachings that go beyond what can be said” (145). This idea, that there even is anything beyond language or words, is one that is highly contested in Western thought with many believing that nothing lies outside or beyond the discursive. How, then to intervene within/into a paradigm made of binaries that tends toward believing that the discursive is all there is, IS reality, or can at least completely define/describe it? That what is beyond words is not really there? Or that it is not “simply cognitive ‘knowledge’ that is the site of knowing” (188)?

Perhaps it happens with a consciously created discursive field, with a rhetoric designed from the outset to re/pair particular words within an effective/affective rhetoric that speaks to and yet beyond the language conventions familiar to those steeped in second-problematic epistemologies. This, to me, is the larger and/or different project in cross-cultural or comparative rhetoric – not only speaking across “cultural” divides, but also across epistemological divides. I, having lived in this culture for forty-three years, cannot often speak of my ways of knowing to others who are likewise soaking in the same cultural stew.  (True story: When attempting to speak of experience that fell outside of the discursive in a graduate level class, I was once told that the idea itself was “just dumb” by the professor.) This rhetoric that speaks across these problematics may need to employ multimodal compositional practices that refuse to allow images, representations, and/or words to remain static – these are principles that need to be demonstrated rather than spoken of. Only in that way, I think, can the simply cognitive be communicated a/effectively to an audience in a way that may at least be partially grasped in the manner it is intended. Words alone are not enough – they have the appearance, syntax, grammar, and habit of stasis and essentializing noun-constructs.

Beyond that, intervening into binary paradigms occurs within relationships, often one-on-one relationships, where words can be used as a pointing-to rather than the thing itself. This takes time and individual tailoring to fit that occasion with that person, which is of course fine. But how to communicate that as a rhetoric to a larger audience….? I think about the references to water in the Dao De Jing and connect that (in my thought/concept constellation) to way-making, which is at its heart noncoercive. I imagine this way-making as perpetually moving and flowing, of finding its/one’s way as going in the directions where one naturally flows, as in

The highest efficacy is like water.

It is because water benefits everything (wanwu)

Yet vies to dwell in places loathed by the crowd

That it comes nearest to proper way-making….

It is only because there is no contentiousness in proper way-making

That it incurs no blame. (87)


This, too, may speak to a rhetoric based in Daoist principles where the time to speak is where it will be not contentious and toward the benefit of everything. I think about the tributaries and rivers mentioned in the text, and how way-making includes all of these (water) ways, thus even the smallest inroad of reconfiguring oppositional binaries is a step on that way toward a more fluid understanding of them. All things count – the focus/particular/local and the field/general/global. In those ways intervention is possible, whether that be in the classroom, over coffee, or on television. All tributaries flow toward the ocean, thus all “make way” in those endeavors.

I found myself thinking of Western rhetorical practices a few times while reading this, and as it has probably been ten years since the last time I read this text (and of course none of the versions I’ve read previously were this particular translation), this was a new way of seeing these passages. Though there are places where (assumedly empty or insincere) eloquent speech is mistrusted, what struck me more to the point were the passages that had to do with war. Western agonistic rhetoric has often been imagined as a type of verbal warfare where the point is to “best” one’s opponent and “win” the argument. If one applied the passages about war to contending with words, the message is clear that agonistic means do not lead to “winning” in the end:

I would not think of taking the offensive

But only of defending my ground;

I would not think of taking an inch

But only of giving up a foot.

This is what is called

Deploying forward without bringing the troops,

Throwing a punch without raising a hand,

Grasping tightly without having a weapon in hand,

Launching an assault without confronting an enemy….

Hence, when two armies, evenly matched, cross swords in combat,

It is the side that laments the need to do so that wins the day. (186)

This, to me, is a more long-sighted view of rhetorical practices (if we can, for a moment, read it that way) where “besting” one’s enemy leads to exactly that – maintaining an enemy. Rather than being about relationship, Western rhetorical practices are about separation. Only, I think, when binaries are resolved will those who live inside that paradigm and call it “real” realize that there is no “outside” or “other” or “separate” to which they can escape with their “winnings.” I think that texts such as the Dao De Jing have the potential to inform a new rhetoric that potentially crosses, bridges, or at least points toward/across the gap between first and second problematic thinking, showing the/a way of deploying rhetoric in service of greater understanding that “self-regarding is also other-regarding,” a concept so clear in this text.

From: Dao De Jing: Making This Life Significant. Trans. Roger Ames and David Hall. New York: Random House, 2003.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: