If American conservatism is inauthentic but intersecting with ideas of postmodernism through a (non-right liberal) distaste for ideology and incredulity toward meta-narratives, then it is useful to consider some of its rhetorical features. The definition of rhetoric will vary because of the diverse natures and biases of the definers of this puzzling term. The relationship of the rhetorician to communicative practice is even more complex. A “postmodern” rhetorical construction, however, presents a useful means of exploring this relationship. I take the term “postmodern” to mean a criticism of modernity and of modernity’s attempts for certainty; it is not a denial of truth but a skeptical inclination toward socio-political totality. This definition is sourced in an unknowable order and set against ideology in a preservation of worthy customs and conventions - a “humble attitude” favoring cautious change - and overlapping with a postmodernist distrust of legitimating knowledge through an overarching system of thought. All human narrative, then, is inauthentic insofar as narrative makes a large claim. The incompleteness of human knowledge and inexperience can allow for no other alternative.

The legitimacy of a narrative should be tied to the willingness of the rhetorician to humbly qualify truth claims. In “postmodern” discourse, self is displaced as the central presence of experience. This refutation of self creates space for rhetoric to best discuss how opposing ideas and people relate to one another in discourse. This rhetorical space does not only spurn “utopian and total” doctrines. It will also shape the form and manner of intellectual activity. Humanity, I think, cannot easily dissociate socio-political principles from the methods of persuasion. There is a genuine connection subsisting between the order of rhetoric and the order of society. Totalizing rhetoric opens the way for totalizing, and perhaps totalitarian, measures. An abuse of language can in fact be reciprocal to an abuse of authority. As communicated by words and actions capable of attracting the likeminded, ideas do not stand alone free of value. For example, a holy text that “created” a language in reference to a transcendent order is not an ethically neutral activity. But it is not always a way of manipulation either. The imaginative text can become a way of conforming, and transforming, a character. This is the power and danger of narrative, and the primary reason why narrative legitimacy should exist from a place of humility. Through a skeptical persuasion, there is a willingness to listen, exchange, and build. This effort serves well the cause of mutual inquiry toward truth. It is a preservation of rhetoric. Because human knowledge and experience are limited, a basic function of rhetoric, both in application of the resources of persuasion and in more difficult to determine effects, is the application of inventive narratives most defensible to those of a similar inclination of sentiment. The small, social “communities” of persuasive listening and readership, varying greatly by their very nature as they came from messy, conflicted, mysterious beings, are present outside the scope of rational inquiry. For this, all communicative creatures should be grateful. Imagination, inventiveness, and a humble approach to truth claims will, across time and environment, facilitate the acquiring of knowledge and the expression of meaning.

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Articles by Jonathan Jones

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