[KB] Burke, Rhetoric of Neutrality

Gregory Desilet info at gregorydesilet.com
Fri Apr 17 16:53:25 EDT 2015

Hi Pierre,

In this context—concerning the potential “effect of neutrality”—I’m reminded of an exchange that took place years ago in a classroom  where John Macksoud was teaching at UC Santa Barbara. I have a record of it because I happened to tape record the session. Macksoud was a “student” of Burke’s and knew him and his work quite well, though perhaps he went further than Burke in the direction of viewing language-using as unavoidably strategic (even “strategic” by default). Here’s the exchange. It ties in with what Bob, Ed, and Clarke have said. It may be of interest to you and your project. Substitute the word “neutrality” for “impartiality.” 

Student: I’m not quite sure if we’re really interpreting impartiality correctly. Perhaps impartiality in the sense people like Girvetz [a professor in the philosophy department at the time] may think of it means, for example, impartiality as offering a multitude of sides or explanations or several modes or avenues of approach. That, to me, is what it would mean to be impartial. A teacher would be impartial if he offered several interpretations of something, apparently not favoring anyone. So in that sense it would be possible to be impartial. 

Macksoud: Now wait a minute. Your saying that it would be possible to do that in such a way that you would use equivalent language in each of these explanations? But you can’t do that.

Student: Not totally, no. But you could give that impression.

Macksoud: Well sure, but that’s not impartiality. That’s just cleverness. I would imagine that by investigating in a certain way you could give the illusion of impartiality. Say that you have investigated in the area you have thought to yield all the alternatives there are. But that won’t work. Because if you give three explanations of, say, a statute law, you omit four, five, and six. And there are infinite ways of expressing, say, a legal interpretation.

Student: Yes, but suppose you leave open the opportunity to add alternatives.

Macksoud: Okay and then what? Fifteen more, so now you’re up to over twenty.

Student: And thereby the opportunity to fill out a more complete understanding.

Macksoud: No, you’re leaving open the opportunity to add yet another slanted alternative. You see how far this process goes? [Here Macksoud reads from a letter to the editor of the Santa Barbara News Press signed by several professors]: “I believe that the function of the university is to teach and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth may be made known.” Yes? And how? What are these processes?

Student: Okay, but then moving to another level, how do you seek knowledge? Without there being particular processes [by which to arrive at impartial truth] are we just here to be trained in whatever processes? Truth is certainly something that is out there. Can’t we transmit knowledge, say, in the sense of teaching history, that sort of thing?

Macksoud: A description of a series of events?

Student: Yes, that would be the limit of the transmission, that something did happen. But the interpretation of events, again, is quite different.

Macksoud: You could do that, but that isn’t transmitting impartial knowledge.

Student: Well, to the extent that you’re transmitting knowledge to me—the choice of a particular event in history—you expose me to a factual situation that I might then be able to interpret for myself.

Macksoud: For a purpose. But the purpose preceded the example, didn’t it? I wasn’t there transmitting knowledge. I had a specific purpose in mind for which I chose strategically a certain kind of historical example. Similarly, if anyone has the impression that I’ve been saying this quarter that I’m here transmitting knowledge—that is a grossly incorrect impression. I don’t say that my way of looking at things is less partial than others. What I am saying is: Can you really buy the statement: “to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth may be made known”?

Another student: But in a class like this you are, in fact, teaching us something. And how would you go about characterizing that?

Macksoud: I’m teaching you the only thing I can—my way of looking at things, which is certainly not impartial knowledge. 

Another student: So if the University isn’t a place for teaching impartial knowledge, then it can’t be a politically-free zone?

Macksoud: Certainly not! 

On Apr 17, 2015, at 11:01 AM, Pierre Smolarski <pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de> wrote:

> Dear Greg,
> sorry I didn't express myself good enough: Of course there is no such thing as neutrality. pure neutrality would be unperceivable or at least totally boring. But of course there is the phenomenon, or better: the effect of neutrality. To call a house a house seems to be very neutral. Scienctific maps look as if they where neutral, etc. So do you mean by saying "there cannot be a rhetoric of neutrality" that there cannot be a strategical, rhetoical use of neutrality (as effect)? That there cannot be an attempt to create images or find words that will (in the eye/ear of the audience) have an effect of neutrality? Being a mediator, for example, is only possible if both side trust in your neutrality. Being a successful mediator so means, to create an atmosphere of neutrality. This creation would imply (I guess) some strategies: How to appear as neutral as I can? This understanding of neutrality does not contradict the idea of terminsitic screens. Moreover: Maybe neutrality has its own terministic screen?
> Burke is - by discussing Bentham in his Rhetoric of Motives - talking about neutrality: There he points out: "Where inducement to action is concerned, a genuinely neutral vocabulary would defeat its own ends: for there is no act in it. It would give full instructions for conditioning - but it could not say to what one should condition." Thats a great and right statement so far it reaches. But how far is that? Asking a designer of timetables and plans for train-stations, he said: "We just deliver (neutral) information for the persons, who want to travel by train. We give them what they should know." Nearly the same answer you can get from almost every information-designer. But is information neutral? For Burke, there is no 'should' in neutrality and therefore no direction, no act. In the answer of the designer you see: there is a 'should' even in the claim of neutrality. It is the Information you should know! At least the product (timetable, plan, map, whatever) has to persuade of its own value. 
> My kind of thinking is maybe to confus and to of course not elaborated enough, yet. That's exactly the reason for me to contact you. A 'rhetroic of neurality' should be an enquiry about the strategies used to create an atmosphere of neutrality in specific contexts. Even if neutrality does not exist, it can be a powerful motive, or not?
> Best Regards,
> Pierre
> Am 17.04.15 16:53 schrieb Gregory Desilet <info at gregorydesilet.com>:
>> It strikes me that Burke would be a theorist providing the paradigm rationale for why there cannot be a “rhetoric of neutrality.” Burke shows why every use of language is necessarily partisan. See his essay “Terministic Screens.” 
>> Greg 
>> On Apr 16, 2015, at 5:58 PM, Pierre Smolarski <pierre.smolarski at fh-bielefeld.de> wrote:
>> > Dear Burkeans,
>> > 
>> > while writing my PhD Thesis on 'Rhetoric of Design', I'm now at the point discussing rhetorical dimensions in information-desgin (especially in map-design, timetables at busstops, etc.) Long story short: This chapter is (or should be) embedded in a 'Rhetoric of Neutrality'. My question is: Is Burke writing somewhere about this topic?
>> > The simple baseline goes that:
>> > neutrum = neither of both
>> > Since rhetoric is based on 'one of both' (metaphorically: 'both' means the possibility of choice, the Agon; 'one' means the attitude, the partisanship, the aim of persuasion) it is contrary to the neutral 'neither of both'. Neutrality negates the rhetorical usefulness and/or meaningfulness of the Agon. Not in the way of 'neither of both, but a third' (this wouldn't break the logic of the agon), but in the way 'neither of both as third' (this might be the kind of neutrality of switzerland) This kind of neutrality is obviously. It is the disputatious position of having no position. (The use- and meaningfulness of the rhetorical agon is only negated on the first level. On the meta-level, concerning the motives of neutrality, there are still rhetorical strategies at work.)
>> > From there we come to other forms of neutrality:  the (sorry or my english) 'one of one' (going with terms like: the truth, the causal, the logical necessary, the natural, the antipersuasive (close to the sense of Kierkegaard) and, maybe: denotation) The neutrality is here not obvious, everything seems to be as it is: It is what it is. So is it. (Thats maybe the point, where scientific maps claim there objectivity and neutrality)
>> > Another form of neutrality might be the 'both of both' (going with terms like: mediation, diplomatic, etc.) 
>> > Mayber everything is confusing: So my question is just: Is there any rhetorical theory of neutrality? (Kinross is not very helpful)
>> > 
>> > Thank you much and greatings from Bern in Switzerland
>> > Pierre Smolarski 
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