Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Being in the world is a counterintuitive process. On the one hand, all the parts are already in place, and the only thing to do is to react to them. On the other hand, merely reacting to things as they are is no way to be. To be sure, most of life is navigating the tension between these two poles, with the focus shifting from one time period to another. At some times, life is 100% crisis management mode, where making sure that the situation is under control is of paramount importance. At other times, life happens at a more indirect pace, where the task at hand is to – if you’ll pardon the wordplay – build a life for yourself.

This second part is no less dramatic for being indirect. More often than not, the only difference in terms of drama is that it takes more effort to appraise the situation. The paradigmatic example being someone’s school performance. From a direct point of view, it may appear that everything is going fine and according to plan; arriving on time, doing the work, getting the grades. From an indirect point of view, though, the feat of going through the motions may lay the groundwork for unhealthy or unsustainable habits later in life. This may or may not be readily apparent at the time, and may or may not be possible to alleviate if given proper attention, but in terms of building a life, it is hard to say whether the one is more important than the other.

Hyde is a rhetorician, and as such focused on the strategic aspects of intentional communication. In the introduction to the anthology The Ethos of Rhetoric, he naturally discusses the nature of the concept of ethos. Ethos in the context of rhetoric, as you might be aware, relates to a person’s character: their presentation, their force of personality, the personal aspects of them in particular that makes them persuasive. Just as communication in general is always tied to someone doing the communicating, ethos is always tied to the person holding the mic or the pen. Ethos is personal – it relates to the qualities of the person and the aspects of their discourse affected by these qualities. In a sense, ethos is a being in the world.

Hyde takes hold of this sense, and expands on it. For Hyde, ethos is not just a quality of some immediate discourse (a direct quality), but also a feature visible in more indirect ways. While a person’s character is undoubtedly visible in their immediate communication, it is also visible in other ways: the topics they choose to discuss, the manner in which these discussions take form, the recurring tropes therein, etc. Moreover, it is visible in such indirect aspects as architecture, decoration and aesthetics. Ethos, for Hyde, is not just a one-off affair: it encompasses all the things.

Attentive readers will note the use of the words “being in the world” and their Heideggerian connotations. This is no accident; Hyde is very explicitly taking off from Heidegger in his discussion of ethos. Ethos is a way of dwelling in the circumstances we find ourselves in, the ways in which we carve a piece of the world for ourselves and in our image. As humans, we may find ourselves thrown unbidden into the world and forced to confront it head on as is, but while we are here, we might as well leave an imprint on the parts we have control over. Our imprint.

This is, to be sure, a very general notion of ethos, more akin to its modern day incarnation of branding than its Aristotelian guise of arête. Which is both a point and the point. As a point, it serves as a reminder not to get stuck in the technicalities of neo-Aristotelian terminology, and to be open for other ways of looking at discourse in general. (This point is especially addressed to practitioners of rhetorical criticism, a group who gets their own chapter in the anthology.) As the point, however, it strikes closer to home, even to non-rhetoricians: we have it in our limited power the capability to affect our being in the world, and upon becoming aware of this, an imperative to do so in a responsible and reflected manner.

This, then, returns us to the starting point of the counterintuitive nature of building a life for oneself. On the one hand, we are faced with a myriad of choices every day: what to wear, what to eat, where to go, who to interact with, what to say. The immediate tactical tactility of everyday life. But we are also faced with the indirect choices of how to shape the way we live, the spaces we inhabit and the possibilities of our future selves. The one begets the other, both ways, and it becomes an ethical imperative to ensure that they work in tandem to take us where we want to be. Moreover: it becomes a responsibility to help others find ways to harmonize the two, and find a sustainable way of being in the world.

Hyde, being a rhetorician, mainly discusses the ways we do this in discourse. By discussing some things and not others, and by discussing them in some particular way rather than some other way, we give our readers and fellow humans a way of looking at the world. When they read our words, they are dwelling in a particular viewpoint, and get to try it on for size. Here, again, the ethical imperative returns: to provide others with the means they need to successfully navigate the tension between what is, what could be, and what should be. Our words are not ethically neutral, and upon being aware of this, we are compelled to ethical action. To do good and, if possible, better.

The point of writing is to give others words to live by. It is, at once, a comforting and terrifying thought.

Hyde: the ethos of rhetoric

Building Utopia by the numbers

A non-trivial aspect of computer games is watching numbers go up. The process usually goes like this: there is a resource (a number), which can be used in various ways. If used in the correct ways, the player can amass more of this resource (which is to say, a bigger number). This process then iterates, wherein the player uses the amassed resources to amass more resources, and so on until either the player or the game runs out.

This might seem like something of an oversimplification of the process. This is because it is an oversimplification of the process. For the player, things are more involved than it would appear from the outside. The increase of numberage is merely the mechanical side of things; if you had to describe the process in non-involved terms, this is what you’d end up with. Numbers used to increase numbers, and a difficulty to understand why players put hours upon hours into the activity of playing.

A more involved description would dwell upon the intent of the player. The intent is seldom to increase from a 2 to a 3 for the sake of the increase itself; rather, the intent is to further some other, involved goal. Sometimes it is to further a narrative, sometimes it is to increase the number of available options, sometimes it is part of a complex multi-stage process difficult to convey but pleasurable to experience. The numbers in and of themselves do not tell the whole story – the story is provided by the intentionality of the player. An increase from 200 to 300 means nothing in and of itself; it also means that one’s realm has grown by 50%, with all the implications that goes along with such an expansion.

It is with these things in mind one should understand online multiplayer browser games such as Utopia. On the surface, all that happens is that numbers increase. Once every hour (on the hour), the current set of numbers iterate and produce a new set of numbers. Or, phrased another way: buildings produce their goods, soldiers continue their training, thieves and mages recover their strength, and so on. Every hour, numbers go up; every hour, everything happens.

The game plays out very much like a spreadsheet. There are formulas for every aspect of the game, and if you are willing to crunch the numbers (or trust those who claim to have crunched the numbers), you can optimize for whatever purpose you might have in mind. Want to become the mostest mage possible? There is a formula for that. Want to become the mostest thief possible? There is a formula for that too. Want to become both a mage and a thief? It can be done, but by doing both you will find yourself not optimized for either. It’s all in the numbers; it is in fact all numbers.

Of course, what a player sees whilst playing is not a spreadsheet. The player is embedded in a kingdom with some twenty-odd other players, who talk to each other and help each other out – and occasionally go to war with other kingdoms. Understanding these interactions is the core component of understanding what the players are up to – whether it be the strategic preparations for war, the tactical sharing of information, or the more purely social exchanges. The point of seeing numbers increase – or of being the mostest mage possible – is to be able to contribute when things get hot. When things get real and the flames of war rise high, being able to bring numbers to bear and outmage the enemy mages is a valuable contribution to the shared effort.

The numbers do not mean anything in and of themselves. But they represent the idea of something happening, and are given meaning through the context in which they are situated. Any description of a game – or indeed any social process – that do not take these things into account, will find itself lacking in both accuracy and relevance. Going by the numbers will, with random precision, miss the point.

Addendum: upon writing this, I discovered that the game is (somehow) still active, rather than just being a nostalgic memory of a game I used to play around the turn of the century. Reading the changelogs of the most recent update (which took place a mere couple of weeks ago) brings back thoughts and associations from those olden days. There is a lot of social significance going into those abbreviations and percentages, to be sure.

Building Utopia by the numbers

Critique

Critique is such a misnomer for the activity it denotes. The split between denotation and connotation is such that those who are interested in the former are discouraged from engaging with it by the latter – and, moreover, that those who are interested only in the former claim it at the expense of the latter. The result is writing that proclaim to be ‘critical’ without knowing the first thing about critique, and (sadly) writing that never takes place for pretty much the same reason.

It is a shame. I daresay it is bad.

The split is between the notion of being ‘critical’ – having negative things in general – and critique – being able to discuss something intelligibly and for the purposes of mutual enlightenment. One of these can be done without knowing anything in particular about the subject matter, almost effortlessly; the other is a painstaking effort wherein the ambition is to present the best possible knowledge on the topic at hand. As subtle as the difference between the two might seem at first glance, it turns out to be the vastest of abysses when put into practical use.

The purpose of critique is to make sense of things, and to make this sense publicly available in some form. Determining whether a particular thing is good or bad is part of the sensemaking process, but it is not the most interesting thing that can be said about it. A critique that ends after proclaiming something good or bad is an uninteresting critique – it only tells us that the thing exists, is good/bad, and possibly some reason for this verdict. It tells us nothing about the thing itself, its context, the various aspects of it that fail or succeed, the ideas it mobilizes by going through its motions, and so on. All these things are relevant to make sense of with regards to a particular work or text, and if the only thing that can be said about it is “it’s bad”, then no sense is being made or shared at all.

The worst critiques are those who have a set list of criteria for good and bad respectively, and then proceed to judge everything based on whether these criteria are fulfilled. Not only are these algorithmic critiques possible to predict beforehand, they also tell us very little about the object in question. More specifically, a reader will only find out if the work possesses any of the (un)desired qualities the critic has deemed relevant, and nothing else. In terms of furthering a shared making of sense, the advance is limited indeed. And if your view of the world is limited to only considering these aspects when confronted with new works of art or texts, then it does double duty by also being limiting as well.

This focus on furthering shared understanding places an onus on the critic to partake of what is already said and known about the subject matter at hand. If something has already been said a thousand times, it is a missed opportunity to not learn from these previous times when preparing to say it for yourself. If what you are about to say something about has extensive documentation written about it, then choosing to remain uninformed is a counterintuitive choice. While not knowing everything about everything is not a failure in and of itself – it is the human condition, from which we all suffer – the critic owes it to their ambitions to know something about something. There is already a shared understanding of most things, and any ambition of furthering this understanding requires some familiarity with its general outlines.

If you have read this far, then you are probably beginning to suspect that a critique is about more things than simply pointing out flaws in something. It is an unfortunate fact of language that the word ‘critical’ has come to connote assuming a hostile position against something, and that being critical and being hostile is seen as being the same thing. To be sure, if you are hostile towards something, then pointing out its flaws is a gratifying activity. But the gain to our shared understanding of the thing ought to be greater than simply finding out that you are hostile towards it; and, in the spirit of honesty, you owe it to yourself to find out why you are hostile towards it. Not only to be able to think clearly about it, but also to convey to others exactly why you think what you think.

The best critiques are those who ground the reader in a tradition and introduces them to useful points of reference for further thinking about the subject matter. It is for this reason some texts about particular works of art or fiction begin by talking about seemingly unrelated topics, until they suddenly arrive at the subject matter with such clarity and explanatory force that it becomes unthinkable not to see things that way. The best critiques manages to convey this sense of shared understanding by sheer force of explication – they formulate a point of view, and by trying on this point of view we can see the world in new and improved ways.

All this requires a non-trivial amount of time and effort to pull off. Having read the books, seen the movies and initiated oneself in a tradition is not something that happens overnight. It is about more than merely knowing a subject matter – it is about understanding the point of view that goes along with it. And, in the process, to point out any potential flaws inherent in this particular way of thinking about the world. So as to make us think better.

The purpose of critique is to make points of view visible.

Critique

How to read Fallout 4

The first thing to note about Fallout 4 is that it is not a story. It is rather a collection of stories, all contained within one single overarching frame. In order to read these stories as they are, in their manifold, it is important to acknowledge them as such: many.

There is an argument to be made that this multitude of stories gets in the way of the main story. Ostensibly, the protagonist is on an emotionally intense quest to recover their kidnapped child. In terms of gameplay, the player spends weeks and months of gametime doing absolutely everything but searching for that kid. After having become a raider boss who deliberately and systematically enslaved vast swathes of the countryside, the sudden emotional intensity of finally being reunited with the prodigal son is, to understate it, sudden. There is a main story, to be sure, but there are also so very many other stories going on that it becomes something of a sidequest. As it were.

That is a possible avenue of critique. But it is also a sidetrack from the assertion that you can read Fallout 4. Which is a more interesting assertion. Not least because it implies that the game is readable, and that it somewhere along the line had authors, who made choices as to what went where.

A first thing to note is that (almost) nothing is where it is by accident. This tells us something important. This tells us that if we pay attention, we can glean information as to what happened to the places we visit as we explore them. The placement of corpses, the layout of buildings, the textual residues on terminals (which, as an aside, are a nice return of the epistolary genre), the kinds of enemies encountered, and the various missions which brings you to these places in the first place. All of these things tell us something, if we but pay attention. It is environmental storytelling, and it is a lot of it.

The corpses, especially, tell many tales. They speak, ever so silently, about what happened before you found them. Some of them are from before the war, and suggest at the social processes taking place on the day the bombs fell. Other corpses are more recent, and subsequently tell of more recent events. Pay attention to where you find them, how many of them there are, and if there are items nearby which suggest particular courses of events. There is a suggested grammar to the corpses you find, in that skeletal remains are implied to be prewar, while meaty (to use a word) ones are recent. It is also implied that teddy bears represent the younger pre-war generations, but this is not universally applied.

At this point, you probably have questions, such as: why are the terminals still working after all this time without an apparent power source? How come no one has removed the corpses in the hundreds of years between the bombs falling and you finding them? Why are you apparently the first person to visit some of these places, when there are evidently people moving about mere hundreds of meters away?

These are good questions, and rather than answer them, you will have to either suspend your disbelief, or see the game as a written artifact. Everything is where it is because you are meant to find it there, and you are meant to see it as it is presented to you. The ghoul you find in the director’s office is in fact the director, and he has been in his office all these years, waiting. The nearby terminal that tells his story is indeed telling the story of the feral creature you just witnessed. A story that you, the player, is the endpoint of, and that you, the reader, is a witness to.

Fallout 4 is many things, and one of them is a balancing act between player and reader. It is possible to blast through the game without paying too much attention to detail, and still have a good time. Reading is not a requisite for playing. But a lot of effort went into making a great many places readable, both in themselves and in reference to the earlier iterations in the Fallout series. Should you effort to acquire a literacy in reading the results of these efforts, you will find yourself back at the start of this text: with the realization that there is not a story, but many stories. In this game and in life both.

How to read Fallout 4

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Every attempt to evaluate a particular work eventually bumps into the question as to what difference it makes. The particular work, that is. What difference does it make as an object in the world, what discussions did it spark, what statements have been made possible that were not possible before? What, through the mediation performed by the work at hand, has been accomplished by it being in the world?

On many occasions, this leads the critic to make statements which are vague in nature. A particular work might be described as flawed, unfinished or problematic – words which suggest a general direction of opinion, but which do very little to answer the more direct question of whether something is good or bad. The vagueness of these statements is not a bug, but a feature. Rarely is it the intention of a critic to come to a definite conclusion with regards to the goodness (or badness) of a particular work – rather, they seek to explore other aspects, which will prove more interesting upon further reflection upon the work at hand.

The word ‘problematic’ is a particularly useful word for such discussions. A work might be problematic in that it makes possible discussions upon a topic that were not possible without it, but in such a way that the emphasis of these discussions tilts in an unfortunate (or unwanted) direction. The fact that the issue is now on the table can be attributed to the work at hand, but so too can the fact that any further discussion of the topic now has to navigate around the implications introduced by the work as it exists. On the one hand, a good; on the other hand, a bad. If presented together, they constitute an interesting discussion and a useful critique.

I suspect many upcoming (and, to be sure, already existing) pieces of writing upon the recent Ghost in the Shell adaptation will focus more on the good and the bad rather than on the interesting. They will perhaps mention that it is (in their opinion) bad that the actors speak English rather than Japanese, and that the movie is bad by virtue of this. They might also venture further by pointing out how this is underscored by the one actor who speaks Japanese throughout; imagine how much better it would be if the movie went all the way, they’d say. Which may or may not be true, for any definition of true. But – and this is a big but – it would neither be useful nor interesting to conclude that the movie is bad based on this one thing alone.

Ghost in the Shell is flawed. It does some things well, and other things leaves you questioning its life choices. Enumerating the members of each category could fill blog posts and articles beyond any one person’s capacity to read, and probably will. The interesting thing, though, is that it messes with your frame of reference for how to interpret or evaluate what it accomplishes. And discussing how it does this is definitely useful.

On the one hand, it is a good Hollywood production. It does Hollywood very well, with all that goes with it. If what you seek is something that conforms to the norms and standards (implicit or explicit) of modern Hollywood, then this movie will do just that. Whatever else is to be said about it, the technical mastery and levels of production have to be acknowledged.

On the other hand. If you go into it expecting something that is not Hollywood, you will be disappointed. And it would be reasonable to expect something that is not Hollywood, given its anime origins. There is a very established, very elaborate framework from which to evaluate this new iteration of the series, and this framework jars with the work as it actually exists before us.

The dissonance between these two frames of reference makes watching the movie a very strange experience. On the one hand, the visuals are stunning; on the other hand, the things they do with these visuals makes very little sense, or is brutally underutilized. We know who Togusa is, and what he (significant for the setting) is not; we also see him for about fifteen seconds, and then only as a person who wears a suit. To be sure, that one suit more than likely has more thought put into it than most wardrobes, but this does not help its limited screen time.

The same dissonance can be found in most aspects of the movie. Even in the scenes that stick very close to the anime original, the difference between what is and what could be sneaks up on you and clouds the moment. The fact that they managed to nail almost every little detail in these recreated scenes perfectly, (to the point where you wonder if the depicted places have an objective existence outside the movies and people can just go there) – still does not erase this difference between what is and what could be.

Ghost in the Shell could be something different. But it is not. And it is not with such a degree of polish and perfection that it hurts. And that is a discursive anomaly more interesting than whether the movie is, for any definitions of the words, good or bad. –

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

The presidency of Donald Trump

Paul Virilio sees accidents as something that is created at the same time as the inventions they happen to. With the invention of the train followed the concurrent invention of the train accident – the one cannot exist without the other. The only way to completely eliminate the risk of accidents is to stop using the inventions that give rise to them; as long as the trains keep rolling, the accident looms as an eternal possibility just one routine mishap away.

Of course, accidents for Virilio are not only spectacular local events that happen once in a while (albeit with oh so many photo opportunities). They are also slow, gradual events that take place over large periods of time – and, in the case of railways, over large distances. As the number of trains and railways expanded historically, so did the number of local accidents. But it also brought with it more subtle systemic accidents, which even to this day are so subtle as to be unnoticeable lest someone points them out.

Railway systems need stations in order to work. Passengers need to be able to get onboard the trains at some point, and they also need someplace to disembark at journey’s end. This fact is trivial in and of itself, but it needs to be mentioned in order to make the distinction that there are places with train stations, and places without. The social, economic and geographic implications of this distinction, are the slow accidents of the railway system.

The fact that a certain place has a train station is not an insignificant fact. It means that this place is connected to other places with train stations, and that these places thus are linked closer than they would be otherwise. Being a node on the railway network brings with it all the advantages of being connected to the other nodes – people, goods and other things of importance can traverse the distance between here and there with relative ease. Which means that there will be more of these things moving about, by sheer virtue of access – especially in economic matters, where the profits of setting things in motion will perpetuate matters for as long as it can.

Conversely – accidentally – places that are off the railway grid suffer, as social and economic activity gather around the network nodes. Especially in more rural areas, where whole regions are depopulated as the process of urbanization keeps moving forward. To be sure, this was not intended by the inventors of the train (or the various machines, large and small, that make up the railway network), but nevertheless this is the accident that is produced by the invention working as promised. Even when there are no train crashes, the accidents of the railway system take place on a routine basis.

Accidents, then, are the unintended consequences of things that work just as they are intended to do. Accidents do not happen despite efforts to prevent them, but as a side effect of business as usual. They are, to use a common expression, the cost of doing business.

This metaphorical use of the notion of accidents can of course be extended to things other than trains. Virilio, for his part, applies the metaphor to most parts of society as we know it (such as war, cinema and aesthetics). But for the purposes of this particular post, we are going to apply it to one particular discursive anomaly:

The President of the United States, Donald Trump.

It is tempting to view it as an anomaly proper. Something that according to all known rules and predictive methods should not happen, yet which happened anyway. Something so out of left field that it leaves scientists baffled and pundits grasping at straws in order to fill the airtime they are paid to fill (if ever so vacuously). It is tempting, but such an approach would not lead us forward. Especially not if we, after having had months to digest the news, still manage to return to bewilderment time and again. The paradigm of the anomaly simply will not cut it.

If we view it as an accident, however, a different picture emerges. Even more so if we view it as an aggregate of accidents, where all the many moving parts are doing more or less what they are supposed to be doing, but the net result is the state of things as we know them. We did not end up with status quo despite the best efforts of all involved to avoid it, but because of an overall institutional configuration that made such an accident a very distinct possibility. Trump was not a result of everything spectacularly backfiring all at once, but rather an unintended result of everything doing exactly what it was meant to do – the accident inherent in the normal operations of business as usual.

The presidency of Donald Trump

Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance lyrics have an underestimated use case. Whenever someone asks you a mundane question about your everyday life – out of curiosity or out of some ambition to commit small talk – it is very worthwhile to replace whatever answer you might have with a line from a Dead Can Dance song. Whatever the topic of idle inquiry your interlocutor might have attempted, the conversation will from then on be brutally reframed into a very different topic indeed. For instance, the question “how was your day?” is favorably answered with the lines:

For time has imprisoned us
In the order of our years
In the discipline of our ways
And in the passing of momentary stillness

These words express, semantically speaking, the same meaning as the word “nothing much”. Nothing in particular happened, same old same old, things set in motion long ago are still predictably in motion. However, the act of circumscribing the status quo with more words than is strictly speaking necessary alters the social situation you are in. No longer are you in a ritualistic and predictable situation of talking small – you have elevated the situation to a full blown rhetorical situation.

A rhetorical situation is a situation where the outcome is not defined beforehand. Most situations in life are for all intents and purposes predetermined. There are rules and rituals that can be followed and performed in order to move things along. When ordering food at a restaurant, paying for groceries at the store or performing routine errands of everyday nature, you do not really have to put very much of yourself into it. The question of whether or not you want fries with that is at once both empty words and sacred ritual – the fact that it has been asked means that everything is proceeding along predicable lines. The situation is resolved, no further discourse is required. Everyone knows what to do.

You do not have to think of something to say.

Of course, throwing a random Dead Can Dance stanza into a situation makes everything uncertain. It defies all expectations, and thus interpretation must be brought to bear. Who is this fool who speaks with too many words and too little straightforward clarity? How to respond to them? What even is going on?

As a rhetorical strategy, this has the distinct disadvantage of a high likelihood of backfiring. Being thrown into uncertainty is not a pleasant experience, and might provoke anger from whomever is at the receiving end. Caution and discretion is to be advised – there is a time and a place for all things, and fortunate are those who know where these might be.

But as a discursive anomaly, it tells us something about the limitations of interpersonal communication. One can only stray too far from the expected before things start to break down into uncertainty. There are rules, genres and traditions which must be respected, above and beyond any purely utilitarian aspects of a situation. The range of useful things to say is far narrower than that of things possible to say, and the response to straying outside of discursive usefulness often comes in the form of punishment.

Like Prometheus we are bound
Chained to this rock
Of a brave new world
Our god forsaken lot

A common these among those I have spoken to about Dead Can Dance is an appreciation of being reminded of an older world. A world that used to be around, but whose remnants are hard to come by. The frequent allusions to various names – Prometheus, for one – harkens back to a time where you were expected to simply know these things. You were supposed to know of the gods, the mysteries and the possibilities of eventually encountering them. It was a different time, of prophets, alchemists, seers, secret societies, inspired poets and broken souls. Ancient names, ancient sins, ancient memories – it is rare to be reminded of such things.

Things didn’t always use to be the way they are. Things could be different.

To be sure, most of the things alluded to are myths, and most likely weren’t around in the past thus mythologized. But that is beside the point. Being reminded of Xavier’s sins is not a matter of recalling the facts of something that happened in historical time, but a reminder of the possibility of acting in a world with a sense of purpose far beyond the ambition of scoring an extra percentage point on the quarterly report. The madman thought he could cure humanity, and was struck down for his sins. Oh, to be moved by such ambitions!

In a world where language is ever more seen as a purely utilitarian tool – few are those who suffer poets – there is ever a need for reminders that the gap between useful and possible things to say is larger than it ought to be. Not every utterance needs to be useful. And, ironically, sometimes the most useful statement is also the least utilitarian. Stating something that ever so indirectly reminds those present that the present is not all that can be – now there is a useful statement indeed. Even if it is about the sagacious Solomon.

The question of whether or not you want fries with that may be the prevailing sacred chant of the day, but there used to be others. Better ones. We can remember them, if encouraged. Better yet – with sufficient audacity, we can write new ones.

Now there is an ambition to be moved by.

Dead Can Dance