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Do ideas like “nature” move history?


To what extent do ideas exert an influence on human history?  This is, of course, one of the oldest questions of political theory, and beyond the contrary answers given by Hegel (they have considerable influence) and Marx (they have little influence and are mainly epiphenomenal symptoms of underlying material forces), there is an even older tradition of setting words against deeds, rhetoric against reality.  I was reminded of this today in searching the article databases of Sage Publications – for institutional subscribers Sage has temporarily made their full databases available for essay downloading, a wonderful treat for the academically addicted – in using the search term “rhetoric” to see what has been published that I might have missed I was startled at the fact that most of the essays retrieved were using the word because of this juxtaposition, with titles centered on phrases like “rhetoric versus reality in the Social Security debate,” and so on.

The example is not a perfect one, and I don’t want to easily conflate the terms rhetoric and ideas or ideology.  Those institutions we might refer to as the rhetorical industries (the mass media and advertising particularly) are not necessarily coterminous with those dimensions of what Hegel/Marx understood as comprising a culture’s superstructure (a broad category that would add churches and unions and schools and political parties, all organized to centrally feature persuasive activity but also doing work not so easily reduced to that category).  This is a distinction clarified (though also to some extent muddied) by Louis Althusser’s partition of superstructural forces into the categories of ideological state apparatuses (ISA’s, which are institutions mainly proceeding by persuasion, like churches) and repressive state apparatuses (RSA’s, institutions mainly proceeding by physical force, like armies and the police).

In rhetorical studies, these issues have been much explored.  My Iowa doctoral adviser, Michael Calvin McGee, sought to escape the base/superstructure binary by seeing certain words as possessing material authority.  These words, which he called ideographs (not to be confused with the use of the same term in cinema studies, which alternatively connects to the linguistics theoretical use of ideograph as a symbol representing an idea without expressing its pronunciation), have a special suasory power because they evoke ideas into which we have been socialized.  McGee had in mind abstract words (in the American context) like equality and security and justice and freedom.   Their ambiguity means speakers can deploy them in a wide range of particular material situations and reshape and clarify their meaning to suit their purposes, but in so doing their use also makes the message more persuasive then it would have been otherwise.  If you can persuade me that a local ordinance requiring gun locks would have pernicious consequences by noting that it would reduce my liberty, I am likely to respond more favorably than I would even to other compelling cost-benefit claims, since as a child I was inculcated in myths and stories and reverentially introduced to doctrines that have forever privileged the idea liberty (often notated in the ideographic literature as <liberty>) in my mind.  When speakers connect their local cause with these broader suasory engines they do not always succeed:  if I am offended at the association of guns and freedom the attempt will backfire.  But when these abstractions are made discursively concrete, and successfully, speakers find their arguments much more readily accepted.

In rhetorical studies, McGee’s account is often readily accepted, in part I suppose because it reflects an occupational predisposition to see words as world-making, and so the scholarship his work has generated is largely usefully supplemental and not oppositional, and a number of critics have mainly attended to working through the contours of his argument and elaborating case studies that make use of it.  This is a little curious since McGee himself came to more aggressively question his account of ideographic influence, especially with the historically sudden collapse of the Soviet regime.  The Soviet case was a problem not because ideographs reflect or rely on socialist or Marxist theory, but rather because if McGee was right that childhood socialization played so significant a role in ideological indoctrination, the wholesale loss of faith in Soviet dogma should have better been resisted by 70 years of total indoctrination, three full generations of mythic embellishment and propaganda.  The Soviet example thus provoked McGee to think in tougher ways about the psychological powers of socialization, and his last work shifted in explicit ways from accounting to language as operating ideologically to an emerging late interest in how language operates performatively.

McGee, of course, is not alone in thinking through these questions.  To name just one more recent example, Ernesto Laclau’s recent book On Populist Reason makes what can plausibly be read as a similar move.  Laclau sees the idea/term populism as a similarly ambiguous term that has special suasory force as it is adopted by political movements opposed to existing regimes.

I’ve recently finished reading a book that tracks a parallel debate in political theory, James Ceasar’s Nature and History in American Political Development (Cambridge:  Harvard UP, 2006), which begins with the text of the Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture given at Harvard by Ceasar in October 2004 (for those unfamiliar with his work, the spelling of his name often looks incorrect, but he spells it Ceasar, not Caesar), with responses from Jack Rakove, Nancy Rosenblum, and Rogers Smith, all political scientists or historians.  Ceasar’s basic claim, offered as an alternative to longstanding work on political ideologies, is centered on his defense of foundational ideas.  As Theda Skocpol puts it in the foreword, foundational ideas “involve first premises – about nature [thus the lovely image above], history, or religion – that are not argued, but rather provide the basis for argument in contests among theories of governance or party programs.”

Foundational ideas are not the same as McGee’s ideographs, since their suasory force derives not from terminological socialization but from the apprehension of longstanding complex ideologies that have force not thanks to socialization but shorthand citation.  Both are rooted in abstractions (like nature or equality), but whereas ideographs produce persuasion (our minds are changed by the connection a speaker makes between local cause and the appropriated ideographic term), foundational ideas produce (or evoke) understanding.  The speaker appeals to history as a grounding for her political program, and the audience understands the appeal (and may then be moved to action) because its members comprehend the broader intellectual theories being cited and see an essential coherence between the local agenda and the shared history of the concept.

But even as I try to distinguish them one immediately sees the difficulties arising from the effort, and the affinities between FI’s and ideographs are close enough to make the resistance offered by Rakove, Rosenblum and Smith productive for those of us not used to seeing such concepts so strenuously opposed.  Among the affinities is that Ceasar defends FI’s not as philosophies or theologies but as discourses (5).  He insists that such ideas ebb and flow and evolve over time (as do ideographs).  And these ideas have material force in human history; as he puts it at pages 9-10, “foundational concepts are encountered as tangible political phenomena that are in play in the practical political world” [because of this fact, Ceasar believes he is also setting out a research program, where an analyst can track the evocation of such concepts as causally provoking political changes (pg. 82)].

Jack Rakove (a Stanford historian) objects to this program on definitional grounds, wondering whether FI’s are “important because they shape or influence the formation of positions on ‘real’ issues…  Or are they better understood as the source of rhetorical tropes, instrumental devices for advancing interests and legitimating positions adopted for other reasons?” (pgs. 96-97).  He wonders why the list should be limited to history and nature and why Ceasar omits religion, and liberty and equality.  FI’s “may be too abstract a concept for a working historian to grasp” (102).  Rakove is, I think, rightly struck by the irony that what Ceasar actually  “presents is less an analysis of how foundational concepts have operated politically, than an intellectual history of the waxing, waning, and occasionally promiscuous intermingling of nature and history, generally detached from the concrete description of real political phenomena” (103).  But he also sees in Ceasar’s tack a lurking (and important) agenda, which would enable political theorists (and rhetoricians too) to explore FI’s to better understand “how political ideas are generated,” and scholarly “efforts to identify and delineate the varieties of ways in which political controversy or uncertainty inspires the formation of new ideas and the refinement of old ones” (107).

Nancy Rosenblum (the Harvard government professor), noting that “Ceasar shows that political appeals to concepts of nature and history may illuminate periods already defined by historians and political scientists in other terms,” nonetheless objects that “he fails to show that foundational concepts are the exclusive or even most important concepts at work, much less that they actually shape these periods” (117).  In part the point is that Ceasar’s account of FI’s does not clearly enough specify the mechanisms of their justificatory power; one can imagine, she notes, “that invocations of foundational concepts may serve purposes of political persuasion without serving the purposes of justification” (131).  This objection, if correct, makes attention to FI’s potentially counterproductive in the sense that they may less lay bare the underlying argumentative structure of a society than shortchange it, as when theoretical work like Ceasar’s seems to downplay how often politicians use FI’s as empty signifiers to shut down actual and full-throated deliberation, and how they turn rich ideational structures into cliche and cant.

Prof. Rosenblum also notes with dismay that FI analysis (and perhaps this is true also of work on ideographs) tends most often to focus, even exclusively, on these terms’ substantive content, with much less attention to the work a term does to evoke what she calls “styles of thought.”  Inattention to the stylistic work done by ideas like nature diverts us from an understanding of how an orator’s evocation can animate paranoia or a conspiratorial sense.

Rogers Smith (the University of Pennsylvania political scientist) is, not surprisingly given his work on political rhetoric, the most sympathetic to the project, and his reply mainly raises methodological questions.  As he puts them:  “Though actors may talk as if certain concepts are ultimate justifications for them, do they really think and act in ways consistent with their talk?  Are foundational concepts foundational only to the thinking and acting of particular individuals, or do they also serve as unifying bonds for political coalitions or parties?  Does a practice of invoking one sort of foundational concept rather than another actually have important consequences for political life?  How can we tell?” (147).

Unfortunately, Ceasar comes across in his reply to all this as prickly and defensive, a tone I assume he feels provoked to adopt because his position can be easily caricatured but which is sad since all his interlocutors treat him respectfully.  Or perhaps it is the result of feeling marginalized because of his work on Leo Strauss (which he repeatedly evokes in the response).  I don’t know.  But by the time he thinks to confess “it is always unbecoming to appear overly defensive” (pg. 192), it is way too late and the damage is already done.

But his project is interesting and the work stimulating, a useful supplement (and potential corrective) to a more common acceptance in communication studies of accounts placing primacy on the power of language.

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