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Molecules, Neorons, and Paradox: The Applicaiton of Daoist Rhetoric to Everyday Life

I appreciate the effort by Steven Combs to apply the ideas of Daoism to rhetoric, offering a very readable, easy to follow overview and application for examining texts through this lens. While there are surely things that I could critique, I prefer to focus on some aspects of this text that I found particularly useful or thought-provoking:

“Furthermore, context does not imply causation. Daoists reject linear explanations of events. Texts are not caused by situations but are part of them” (13).

While this quote is specifically discussing the texts of Daoism within their historic context, it made me think about the discussion/debate about the rhetorical situation

The Rhetorical Polyhedron

The Rhetorical Polyhedron

and exigency, whether the response occurs because of the situation itself, or whether the rhetor creates the exigency through the rhetorical act (e.g. Bitzer and Vatz). From a Daoist perspective, both of these things are simultaneously true and exist in relation to one another. If a particular instant is “frozen” in order to examine it, foregrounding a particular aspect, then it may appear as though one is causing the other, whereas from a Daosit perspective they exist interdependently, where one is causing the other causing the other, and etc. The rhetor both responds to and co-creates a situation – it is a dynamically moving rhetorical triangle polyhedron where rhetor, text, audience, message, history, culture, etc., etc., share a relational dynamic, rather than a static snapshot of linear cause and effect. In this respect, the “debate” over causality is mute.

“A study in Daoist rhetoric is a study in working with the fluctuating ineffable with imperfect tools. It is because these challenges that we can learn much from the rhetoric of the Daoist sages” (21).

I am excited about the idea of looking at texts through a Daoist rhetorical lens, especially those texts to which I seem most drawn, i.e. to those that may be described as attempting to represent the ineffable. I am drawn to texts that seem to attempt to move beyond words, that use verbal constructs as a means of pointing toward “something else” that goes beyond the words. In Western thought, there often IS nothing else acknowledged, even when the texts examined are written from within that tradition. Western methodologies have thus far (in my experience) not yielded much in the way of analytic tools that are of use when applied to these concepts beyond (speakable) ideas, and yet these texts exist, out of reach by conventional Western methods. A methodology based upon Daoist principles seems to 1) have a precedent and 2) offer those tools.

“Thus, at a molecular level, ‘solid’ objects are mostly space, and the constant movement of vibrating particles of energy enlivens the space” (27).

All that space...

All that space…

This acknowledgement, known for quite some time now in Western science, is (to me) astonishingly overlooked in Western epistemologies, at least as they are commonly internalized and used within Western culture. How is it that solid, unchanging reality is still even a viable construct within Western thinking? How do people look at a table (for instance) and still continue to see it as a solid, unchanging object? How do people see themselves as separate as they stand there exchanging electrons? How has this NOT informed the way that we interact with the world and each other to a greater extent? This fluidity makes up the basis of reality, not just at a philosophical, but also at a material level. Why is this not more apparent or acknowledged in the larger culture?

“Paradox functions rhetorically by forcing the audience to confront inconsistency that is posed as consistent. The incongruity is meant to be uncomfortable, spurring insight by challenging habitual assumptions” (35).

I found this a helpful way to look at paradox, something that I will be working with extensively in the text I plan to examine throughout the semester. This quote led me to think about the purpose of paradox as a way of communicating the incommensurability of essentialized binaries where their instability as residing comfortably within those categories is challenged and disrupted by pairing them together as unified within a larger whole, rather than opposing one another through separation. “Because the Dao is the unification of all things,” it allows for paradox to exist peacefully – the discomfort only arises if one is attached to the idea that opposites are opposing (40). For ideas that are beyond the scope of language, whose actual meanings are outside of the text, paradox works to use words to point toward those meanings without attempting to contain them. In this way, a Daoist approach is helpful to me in my ongoing analysis.

“This juxtaposition tends to radicalize the comparison, provoking the hearer to reconcile what seems odd, shocking, the hearer into potentially new insights” (48).

This idea, which pertains to parables, also works together with the method of paradox within a text that seeks to convey meaning that goes beyond words. By juxtaposing ideas alongside one another, it forces the hearer/reader to consider relationships that are novel and that create a larger whole that encompasses all of these elements. Using this as a lens not only for creation, but also for the analysis of extant texts, provides a means of speaking about ideas that are not easily contained by/within language.

“Daoism, like postmodernism, rejects foundationalism and energizes social critiques of universalizing theories and metanarratives. It fosters critiques of power and hegemony and empowers marginalized discourse. Yet, it is distinct from other critical perspectives because, in true Daoist paradoxicality, it retains a basis for normativity, consensus, and unity” (137).




“Derrida’s antifoundationalism commits him to a stance that there is nothing besides the perceivable world… While Derrida sees the play of signifiers as infinite, with no underlying stability, Zhuangzi never loses faith in the immutable Dao” (146).

This entire section had me thinking about neuroscience and the different views held about the role of neurons versus glial cells. In a way, this is a very fitting metaphor or representation of the same issue. Predictably, Western science has focused almost solely on neurons, believing (up until very recently) that glial cells, which form approximately 90% of the brain, essentially did nothing except hold the brain together (glial means glue). The neurons have long been assumed to be the root of thought and function in the brain with glial cells almost entirely overlooked. The networked

Glial Cells & Neurons

Glial Cells & Neurons

dynamics of neurons reminds me very much of Derrida’s “interplay of signifiers with no end to the iterations of meaning,” in that they can fire in essentially infinite ways and pathways, though of course their use (just as language) becomes habituated. The glial cells, on the other hand, I equate to the Dao, especially given more current research. These cells, the changing but stable basis of the neurons, actually control their action, reactions, and formation much more than was thought until recently. (My husband specifically studies glial cells – this is where I wish that I could access my “external hard drive” as I like to call him.) I see this discussion of the difference between postmodernism and Daoist thought to be like this – both recognize the infinite interplay of thought/words, but whereas Westerners find this infinity of non-fixed meanings to be disorienting or fragmenting, a Daoist would recognize the underlying but very flexible “glue” that creates a field/space within which all of this can happen but which is, itself, not rigid.

There is no language to speak of these things that isn’t moving. Every time I write a response I find myself frustrated in attempting to express what I can’t express with words that remain static on a page. I want to turn every word into a cloud – the visual, moving images that I see in my mind when I think of these things are so much closer to the point than these static linguistic representations. But this is what I have for now.

From: Steven C. Combs. The Dao of Rhetoric. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2006. Print.


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