Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space

Grace Veach


This paper examines the element of rhetoric that dwells outside of the logos, specifically as it is described in Gregory Ulmer’s chora and in Kenneth Burke’s references to the mystical. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments, his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, he reintroduced the idea of rhetoric as a link to the unknown. This move actually refers to a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had laid groundwork for Ulmer, as had Ernesto Grassi. Together, these three theorists lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown through the equally mysterious medium of language.

GREGORY ULMER AND KENNETH BURKE BOTH POSIT A REALM OF LANGUAGE that connects the City, with its logical, reasoned commercial interactions, with the abyss, the realm into which the human can peer, but not venture. Ulmer uses the term “chora” to describe this intermediary space. In the chora, events are random, not causal, and it is up to the symbol-using animal to make sense of these random events, images, and encounters. The ability to do so productively can be intentionally refined; Burke, Grassi, and Ulmer each approach this technique in ways that demonstrate the power of metaphor and the performative in the rhetoric of mysticism.

Ever since Gorgias, the old Sophist, acquitted Helen by attributing to rhetoric powers comparable to magic, rhetoric has been linked to the mystical, the unknown, and that which is beyond the natural. Yet the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and science, forced this strand of rhetoric largely underground. When Gregory Ulmer introduced divination into Electronic Monuments,his 2005 book advocating the commemoration of the abject, I had almost forgotten this characterization of the discipline. Although Ulmer’s connection of rhetoric with divination seemed at first to come “out of the blue,” I realized that he was refreshing a long tradition; in fact, Kenneth Burke had done groundwork for Ulmer in several of his works. Together, Burke, Ulmer, and Ernesto Grassi lay out possibilities for making a space in rhetoric for the mystical and the divinatory; the demise of modernism may mean that we are once again ready to hesitantly approach the unknown.

In his 2007 article “Toward the Chōra,” Thomas J. Rickert postulates that the little-used rhetorical term “chōra” might be a rhetorical space where rhetorical work that mingles reason and mystery might take place. Although Plato uses the term interchangeably with “topos,” Rickert teases out the meaning of “the outskirts of a city” for chōra. The repetitive movement between the city proper and its outskirts evokes the original Homeric meaning of chōros, a dancing space (254). In the sense that chōra is non-city, it carries a sense of place not-yet-formed, which Rickert associates with the initial state of invention “in the sense of finding ways to actualize or enact what are initially only ideas, feelings, or intuitions” (257). Ulmer’s choice of the word “chōra” as the site of invention for his electronic monuments, then, deliberately situates the divinatory work of rhetoric outside the site (topos) of rhetorical invention that emphasizes argumentation and logic. Another feature of the chōra, situated as it is surrounding the city, is that it occupies the space between the city and the abyss. The abyss, of course, brings the unknowable, thus the ineffable, to the borders of the known, where, as Kenneth Burke famously writes, humans “build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss” (Permanence 272). The abyss represents that space where foundations fail; the chōra represents the expansive space between certainty, reason (the city), and the unspeakable.

In his book, Electronic Monuments, Gregory Ulmer begins in the chōra, which he claims that Plato interpreted “as a third metaphysical entity, as the space or region in which being and becoming interacted” (Electronic Monuments 6). For Ulmer, chōra leads toward divination early in the book, when he writes that “chōra is about the crossing of chance and necessity” (39). As opposed to topoi, where the rhetor purposefully seeks answers, the chōra is a space of potential; as the querent mindfully dwells within the chōra, the answer to her dilemma may arise by chance. The ability to recognize the kairotic coincidence of need and solution is the skill the rhetor needs in this moment; Ulmer writes, “’Chora’ names the memory or memorial operation of sorting or ordering of that which remains undifferentiated” (125).  Thus chōra names a place of action, of assigning potential meaning to a seemingly random occurrence.  Calling on Aristotle’s distinction between essential and accidental qualities, Ulmer distinguishes literacy from electracy, his term for electronic literacy, by using these same categories. Thus “a topos collects entities into universal homogeneous sets based on shared essences, necessary attributes; chora gathers singular ephemeral sets of heterogeneous items based on associations of accidental details” (120). The accidental quality of the chōra establishes it as the place for non-logical combinations, i.e. divinations.

In moving to the level of the self, Ulmer theorizes that there is a point, the “punctum,” which is the response of the subject to that in an image or a text which disturbs, unsettles, or disperses the audience. The subject’s response results in the construction of a MEmorial, an electronic monument, which maps her attempt to fill in the gap that occurs as a result of the punctum. Ulmer calls this mapping function “choragraphy”; it is not “choreography,” a map of the movements of a dance, but a map that is generated within the organizing space of the chōra. When Ulmer writes, “the challenge is to locate and engage with the hole that necessarily opens onto the outside of every whole” (85), he relates the individual to what he calls the “group subject.” In attending to her own punctum, the mapping egent (i.e. electronic agent) offers her partial solution to the gap she has intuited. Ulmer goes on to remind the reader that “the paradox of modern knowledge circulates around the incompleteness theorem postulating the paradox that no system is able rigorously to account for itself. There is a blind spot at the very core of clarity” (85). The blind spot Ulmer refers to is similar to that which Derrida refers in “The Principle of Reason”; in Derrida’s case, that which is built on reason fails to account for the use of reason as foundation (10), thus creating an abyss. In both situations, that which is foundational cannot be explained with regard to itself and must call upon some radically different principle. For Ulmer, the egent resorts to choragraphy, invention which takes place between chaos (the abyss) and reason (the city).  

The link between the chōra and divination results from several elements characteristic of the chōra.  As the site of mystery, the chōra is the home of the sacred, the metaphorical, the random, and many other communicative acts that employ indirection rather than direction. Ulmer quotes Bataille: “In the sacred place, human existence meets the figure of destiny fixed by the caprice of chance: the determining laws that science defines are the opposite of this play of fantasy constituting life” (125). “Destiny fixed by the caprice of chance” is a fairly accurate definition of divination. Ulmer’s association of the chōra with chance, mysticism, emblem, music, and dance links meaning with that suggestion-which-is-not-quite-meaning, in a way that is somehow both inside and outside of language. Ulmer adds to the literate pair signifier/signified a third element to represent the electrate age; the chōra, the “third space” is represented by the image or emblem. Divination, then, is one possible means of linking the punctum, the perceived hole in the subject, with its destiny as suggested by the invention of the querent within the chōra; this encounter will be mapped through choragraphy.

Once Ulmer actually introduces the concept of divination within Electronic Monuments, he approaches it via “the magic tool,” to Ulmer a dowsing rod in the shape of a Y. He writes, “this transversal of instances constitutes a kind of divination process, shared among all those holding the ends of the virtual wishbone [another Y] . Together we are like those dowsers who wandered over the grounds of certain premises…” (163). Note that the divination to which Ulmer refers is here a collective process; the entire egency (electronic agency) searching together for meaning. He recalls the generation of his juxtaposition of divination with deconsulting (consulting regarding the punctum):

The chief addition to deconsulting … that resulted from the Miami experience was the syncretism of poststructural poetics with the Afro-Caribbean epistemology of divination. The formal operations of divination lent themselves well to choragraphy as sacred space … applied to cognitive mapping. Divination as an interface for consulting makes mystory [the individual’s electronic memoir] intuitively intelligible. A person with an intractable problem consults a diviner, who uses a chance procedure to connect the personal problem with the collective cultural archive. (213)

Ulmer imagines divination acting upon the punctum as one member of the deconsultancy speaks as “querent” and posits a “burning question.” He writes, “the querent…makes the final decision on the answer based on an emotional experience of recognition” (214). Ulmer calls this specialized application of divination “choramancy.” The specific mapping addressed by the choragraphy, which includes divination, is that of a maze or a branched tree (i.e. a rhizome). Ulmer: “The ubiquity of references to Borges’s ‘forking paths’ in hypermedia poetics is not only about linking, but about ethics. In the face of a collective amnesia, the Real presents us with a materialized rebuke: Don’t you see that every action—every click—is a choice?” (254). Completing the circle, Ulmer ends Electronic Monuments by calling on egents to “think at the speed of light,” a process which he terms “flash reason” (262). Flash reason equates to an electrate version of intuition, as Ulmer explains in his blog: “The immediate relevance for us is engagement with dimensions of experience that exceed the reach of language or discourse. The task of flash reason is to develop an image metaphysics that ontologizes this register of experience. Flash reason supports collective epiphany” (“Lord Chandos”).

Although Ulmer refers to divination several times in Electronic Monuments, the sudden introduction of the apparently occult into rhetoric might surprise the reader. While Kenneth Burke does not go so far as Ulmer does in opening the door to explicitly mystical practices, his rhetoric certainly paves the way for—and perhaps explains to some extent—Ulmer’s approach.  In her book Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edge of Language, Debra Hawhee devotes a chapter to Burke’s approach to mysticism. Hawhee believes that Burke’s encounter with mysticism led him to “a critical method that foregrounds the body as a vital, connective, transformational force” (33). This focus on the body may have been a result of Burke witnessing the mystic G. I. Gurdjieff’s 1924 visit to New York. Gurdjieff led a dance troupe that was certainly known to Burke and his circle; the troupe’s “performances aimed to alter existing habits radically, to revitalize bodies, and communicate sacred and vital knowledge through those bodies” (Hawhee 40).  It is no coincidence that dance is involved in mysticism; once again, choreography leads to its near-cognate, choragraphy. Dance, as an embodiment of mysticism, necessarily occupies space in the chōra.

Hawhee cites Burke’s embrace of the mystic P. D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum; Burke termed Ouspensky mysticism’s “apologist of distinction” (37). In his book, Ouspensky relates art and divination: “The artist must be a clairvoyant [i.e. a far-seer]: he must see that which others do not see: he must be a magician: must possess the power to make others see that which they do not themselves see, but which he does see” (quoted in Hawhee 37).  Although Ouspensky generalizes here about the artist, his description could as easily portray the rhetorician, who sees and then seeks to share her vision. Burke picks up this metaphor of sight in Permanence and Change. “When traditional ways of seeing and doing (with their accompanying verbalizations) have begun to lose their authority” (223) mysticism will come to the fore.  He apparently felt that he was living in such a time; he describes American culture of the 1920’s and 1930’s as a situation in which “precisely the resources which could make us joyous are allowed to mark the centre of our disasters” (quoted in Hawhee 35).  Ulmer too expresses concern for “the centre of our disasters” (i.e. the punctum); in Ulmer’s vision, however, it is not only the task of the artist, but of any who wish to become egents, to explain the punctum via the Electronic Monument.

Burke does not use “chōra” terminology; it would be up to Derrida to later revive the term. His descriptions of mysticism make frequent use of the choral metaphors we have come to expect, however. In Rhetoric of Motives, for example, he writes “there is a ground, in both agent and scene, beyond the verbal” (324). Assuming that the verbal is represented by the city, the chōra is that which is beyond and surrounding the verbal.  Burke seems to be referring to the abyss when he writes that “there are also sources of mystery beyond rhetoric….found in fears that arise from the sense of limits (so that one says in effect: ‘Another perhaps can go beyond that point, but not I’—or ‘Maybe I can go beyond that point after preparation, but not now’)”(Rhetoric 180). The city (logos) is therefore a place they can visit, but the chōra, with its uncertainty and its proximity to the abyss and its ephemeral boundaries is their true home. In Burke’s overall scheme this makes sense; because humans are the symbol-using animal, the place where body and mind both hold sway would be humankind’s natural dwelling place.

Even though logical argument composes a large field within rhetoric, there has always also been a parallel path for rhetoric in which it is “the speech that acts on the emotions” (Grassi 200). In “Rhetoric and Philosophy,” Ernesto Grassi illustrates the difference between rhetorical speech and philosophical speech through the example of Cassandra and the Chorus in Agamemnon. Cassandra, the prophetess or diviner, “knows nothing of cause and effect,” but “speaks only through images and symbols” (205). The only way that Cassandra and the Chorus can communicate is through metaphor, the special language which connects logic and emotion through intuition, or flash reason.  Burke identifies oxymoron as the characteristic rhetorical figure of the mystical, referring to a “‘truth’ beyond the realm of logical contradictions, and accordingly best expressed in terms of the oxymoron” (Rhetoric 331). The space opened in the oxymoron’s juxtaposition of contradiction is nothing more than the chōra being employed in discourse to extend meaning beyond the effable.

In spite of their seeming agreement to this point, regarding the extra-logical space which is home to both mysticism and rhetoric, Burke and Ulmer do differ significantly regarding the mystical. For Ulmer, divination is a means of invention which can be encountered within the chōra and which the querent (the rhetor) can shape into a pattern that reveals a message relevant to the query. In other words, the motivating force behind divination is ultimately the rhetor herself. For Burke, however, there is always a hint, the merest possibility, that the rhetor is not alone in the mystical activity. So rather than communicating with one’s own unconscious mind, one is communicating with the true unknown. Burke writes, “mystery arises at that point where different kinds of beings are in communication” (Rhetoric 115). Later, he elaborates:

Implicit in persuasion, there is theology, since theology is the ultimate reach of communication between different classes of beings….prayer has its own invitation to the universalizing of class distinction, the pleader being by nature inferior to the pled-with….One cannot without an almost suicidal degree of perfection merely pray. One must pray to something. Hence, the plunge direct to the principle of persuasion, as reduced to its most universal form, leads to the theologian’s attempt to establish an object of such prayer; namely: God….In sum, we are suggesting: The ‘theology’ that Marx detected in ‘ideological mystification’ is the last reach of the persuasive principle itself. (178-79)

Burke, Ulmer, and Grassi have all made a special place for mysticism within rhetoric, but how might this knowledge assist the rhetor in effecting social change? One key is in the power of metaphor. Grassi makes special note of this in the example from Agamemnon described above. In their book on metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson explain that metaphor “unites reason [i.e., philosophy] and imagination [i.e., poetics]” (193). Burke illustrates the rhetorical power of metaphor at the beginning of The Rhetoric of Motives, when he describes how Milton used the biblical story of Samson to rhetorically identify with this blind hero:

In saying, with fervor, that a blind Biblical hero did conquer, the poet is ‘substantially’ saying that he in his blindness will conquer. This is moralistic prophecy, and is thus also a kind of ‘literature for use,’ use at one remove, though of a sort that the technologically-minded would consider the very opposite of use, since it is wholly in the order of ritual and magic (5).

By pairing the rhetorical strength of the metaphor with Burke’s concept of identification, the rhetor employs a powerful appeal to the audience. This is in essence the technique that Gorgias uses in his Encomium of Helen when he compares the power of persuasion to witchcraft (metaphor), and reminds his audience that they themselves have been won over by words (identification):  “So that on most subjects most men take opinion as counselor to their soul, but since opinion is slippery and insecure it casts those employing it into slippery and insecure successes” (11).

The mystical and divinatory are also key in practicing and interpreting the performative in rhetoric. Both mysticism and divination involve physical practices, as does the chōra, with its rootedness in “choreography” and with its connotation of movement to and from the city. For Ulmer, one of the ways to perform divination is to move through a space and take note of recurring themes within that space as they might apply to the query. Burke expresses this more generally by describing mysticism as the way that body opens access to spirit (Rhetoric 189). Performativity can function in ways that do not easily fit into any of the classical rhetorical appeals, yet it remains firmly linked to rhetorical practice. In his book Acts of Enjoyment, Thomas Rickert quotes Žižek to emphasize this: “Leave rational argumentation and submit yourself simply to ideological ritual, stupefy yourself by repeating the meaningless gestures, act as if you already believe, and belief will come by itself” (115).  Here is the opportunity for positive change. C. S. Lewis writes of the power of pretending to transform or to be transformed: “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already” (161). Burke generalizes this when he writes “action is not merely a means of doing but a way of being” (Grammar 310). How mysticism and divination participate in rhetoric is indeed a mystery in itself. Perhaps allowing openness to the possibility of non-intentional (i.e. mystical, divinatory, intuitive, epiphanic, performative) cues is the first step. By being attentive to these cues, or at the very least to the individual’s interpretation of them, the rhetor can access a new level of possibility for inventing meaning in the world.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969. Print.

---. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. New York: New Republic, 1935. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils.” Diacritics 13.3 (1983): 2-20. Print.

Gorgias. “Gorgias' Encomium of Helen.” Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

Grassi, Ernesto. “Rhetoric and Philosophy.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 9.4 (1976): 200-216. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. Print.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Print.

Rickert, Thomas J. “Toward the Chora: Kristeva, Derrida, and Ulmer on Emplaced Invention.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.3 (2007): 251-273. Print.

Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

---. “Lord Chandos.” Heuretics: Inventing Electracy 4 July 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.

*Grace Veach is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Florida and Dean of Library Services at Southeastern University at Lakeland, Florida. Her research interests include Kenneth Burke, literacy and St. Augustine. She can be reached at gveach@seu.edu

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"Divination and Mysticism as Rhetoric in the Choral Space" by Grace Veach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.kbjournal.org.