The Rhetoric of Mastery: An Inquiry into Silence and Irony

Ian Dennis, in his GA-informed book, Lord Byron and the History of Desire, concludes by countering an assertion from George Soros that we can have a market economy but not a market society. Dennis contends, that, no, it’s market all the way down. He is working within the very expansive notion of the “market” I have also explored in recent posts, in which any presentation of any possibility to any set of competing desires can be termed a “market.” It is a position that overlaps considerably with von Mises praxeology, and is deeply rooted in the history of GA—as reflected, for example, in Eric Gans’s analysis of the liberal democratic political system as a kind of political market “superstructured” over the economic market, serving to express (and hopefully defuse) the very resentments generated by that economic market. (The question of whether we would not then need a third market, to “absorb” the “surplus” resentments generated by the political market is not at all a frivolous one.)

Thought experiments to test the limits of a particular concept are useful: in this case, the experiment would be whether there is any human activity that we could consider market-resistant or immune, again, in this broader sense of the market. (So, for example, seemingly easy answers like “love,” let’s say parental love, are not so easy—once children have “access” to a range of other affections, from friends, teachers, fellow boy and girl scouts, not to mention celebrities, etc., are not parents put on the “affection market” with all of these? Don’t we often speak of parents “competing” for their children’s affection, often by entering other markets so as to buy them objects of desire?) In other words, we have to work on a definitional or axiomatic, rather than empirical, level, here. Is there any human practice that can be situated outside of the desire for desire?

If we follow Dennis’s argument, the parallel question within discourse would be, is there anything, any imaginable individual or action, that is not vulnerable to irony? Dennis’s book is an extremely illuminating study of Byron’s poetry, starting with his early “heroic,” proto-nietzschean poses early in his career. Following Gans’s understanding of Romanticism, Dennis situates the origin of this aesthetic mode in Rousseau’s self-description as “[t]he most sociable and the most loving of humans [who] has been banished from their midst by unanimous agreement.” The one utterly rejected by society must in turn liberate himself from society, by eliminating all his desires for recognition from others. This would entail liberating oneself from mimesis—imagine composing an inventory of all your desires and identifying each one’s roots in some mimetic relation to another, and then setting about extirpating all those desires or reconstructing them so their dependence upon others has been eliminated. All the words you might use to define this stance—“strength,” “independence,” “defiance,” “spontaneity,” and so on—all betray their dependence on some distinction from weakness, dependency, conformity, etc. Even more, your stance could only be meaningful if you staged it for others—you could hardly embody heroic independence locked in your bedroom—thereby rendering yourself dependent on an audience. To be free from the desire of others (in both senses—your desires for others, and their desire’s effect on you) would be to be free from irony—everything you say would coincide completely with what you mean. But nothing could be more ironic than claiming such a stance, which would in fact lead to every single word you utter having unintended double meanings.

Dennis follows Byron’s gradual recognition of the ironies of his early stance, ironies exacerbated by the fact that his early poems made him a “celebrity,” and hence an intense focus of desire and resentment. In his masterpiece, Don Juan, Byron deploys his own ironic insights into his own history and position within the “history of desire” in order to deconstruct all claims to unmediated desire, which comes down to all claims to be free of the “market” (again, in the sense stipulated above). Dennis shows Byron demonstrating how even the most outrageous injustices and oppressions (like slavery) are ultimately situated within their own “markets,” bringing revolutionary and victimary claims (heavily dependent upon assumptions of authenticity and sincerity) within the scope of the irony we all need in order to navigate, both successfully and ethically, the universal market. That, in fact, is Byron’s essentially pedagogical project: to teach his readers how to act on the market, where all traditional conceptions, like “honor,” “hierarchy” and “authority,” as well as all the modern ones bidding to replace it, like “freedom,” “equality,” and “fraternity,” are “marketized,” attempts to gain oneself a market “share,” or a “brand.” I want to insist that within the inclusive notion of the market we are working with here, this approach can’t be denounced as “cynical,” because there’s no non-cynical exterior against which it could be measured. In a world where we are all “internal mediators,” the ethical position is to acknowledge desire and mimetic dependencies, and to keep generating new and non-violent ways of having those desires recognized and shared by others. A self-ironized stance on a comprehensive market in which we seek alliances/make deals with others is the only way of accomplishing that.

I don’t think I have to disagree with any of this; I just can point out that it only applies to the declarative order. If you try to issue ostensives and imperatives ironically, they are no longer ostensives and imperatives. Dennis points out that irony is the contrary “of what Gans speaks of as a ‘rhetoric of mastery,’ the most potent expression of which must be silence” (216). The most potent or authentic rhetoric of mastery is silence because only in that way are the master’s words and therefore intentions made invulnerable to the repetitions, inevitably ironic, and therefore subversive, of his underlings. This really brings us to the crux of the issue, and the logic of the ironizing position is itself potent. Even if the ruler speaks only in clear, crisp, directly implementable commands, he still has to issue those commands. If he were genuinely master, his subjects would be constituted by his intentions, in which case they would not even need to be uttered. The full deconstructive logic should be faced: to issue a command is to allude to the possibility of its violation, or, for that matter, unintended parody. We would be back to a market in which the ruler places his own desires on the marketplace, i.e., democracy.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon whereby the subjects of a king who is perceived to be acting wrongly exempt the king from all responsibility, which is then placed upon his advisors. Peasant protest movements in Russia, for example, would plead with the Czar to undo what his evil advisors had done, obviously without his knowledge and consent. We see the same thing with supporters of President Trump, who see him constantly betrayed by his RINO advisors. For a liberal, this faith that the ruler cannot possibly have willed wrongful acts seems delusional and craven, but it’s really exactly the right attitude—although it would be even more right if silence regarding the ruler’s knowledge and motives were extended to all acts carried out in his name. The ruler’s silence—and even if the ruler is seen explicitly commanding the “wrongful” acts, there is the silence of his refusal to entertain complaints and demands is “echoed” by the silence of his subjects. As soon as the space of silence is violated, irony does seep in and corrupt the chain of command. The only responsible response to those who do violate it must include, along with whatever is actually said and done, a kind of dumbness, which “echoes” the refusal of the “rhetoric of mastery” to entertain complaints and demands, and which we may have to allow to be taken for stupidity. After the command comes silence, and then we see whether marginalization of irony by the silent obedience to the command means that it was, in fact, the rhetoric of mastery.

Nothing that isn’t repeated has actually happened. Repetition can include mimicry, response, reference, recording, translation, allusion, reordering of patterns as a result of the event, among other possibilities. The sign needed to be repeated on the originary scene, and all of subsequent human culture is a series of attempts to repeat the orginary scene, starting with the first ritual. The imperative was originally a mistaken repetition of an ostensive, and the imperative became the imperative through an ostensive repetition—Gans, in his discussion of the emergence of the imperative in The Origin of Languagerefers to the operating room, where the doctor’s request is repeated by the nurse’s acknowledgement: “scalpel—scalpel.” What comes between the event and its repetition, which also means what comes “within” the event, or between the event and itself, is silence—a silence that is a kind of faithful awaiting, an imperative-ostensive oscillation. But this space within the event can be prolonged by a silence that is willing to give resentments more time to reveal themselves—the one who breaks the silence takes the risk of becoming subject to irony, and the one who maintains silence takes the risk of attracting the resentment of those who want the scene closed. But that’s just a way of raising one’s own value, isn’t it? Maybe, but when does the item go up for sale? Simultaneously attracting and repelling resentment anticipates the accrual of value beyond all possible exchanges. At a certain point one has shaped enough of reality to pre-select and pre-repel the resentments—those resentments then give way to silent acceptance of and resentment toward challenges to the center. And a value beyond all exchanges isn’t exactly “value” anymore; the asymmetrical exchanges engaged in are too extended in time to have measurable value. Of course, this recapitulates the emergence of the Big Man, but what in a market society excludes that possibility? Ironically, only the state, but if we presuppose a scenario in which the state become simply another player on the market, or gets chopped and divvied up by the largest market players (and in a market society, why wouldn’t that happen?), what is unimaginable about some of the more silent “masters” across various crucial institutions being brought under a single head that seems least likely countenance a fire sale when the (political) market is undergoing a mimetic crisis, i.e., crash? Byron started as an individual and remained one, but what if masters of deferral had to seek out yet greater masters to resist following the more mimetically addicted rushing to the bargain basement?

The vaster and more inclusive the market, the more it is suffused with the rhetoric of mastery, silence. Let’s grant that the market penetrates into every nook and cranny of the social order, even the most sacred: the soldier who sacrifices himself for the homeland has “bought into” an image of heroism and is putting his embodiment of that image on the market for future buyers, those who will value that gesture over some other (the soldier piles up his symbolic rewards in anticipation); the priest who baptizes is “advertising” a particular version of Christ, for those who place a value on their souls above other values. We can resist such “sacrilegious” descriptions of such events in the name of an inherited vocabulary, but that resistance can itself be ironized as another move on the market. A step in the other direction, toward an acknowledgement of ironizing marketing discourse and ethics, would be to note that the more self-reflexively aware you are of your own self-marketing the more you presuppose the protection from one embodiment of the rhetoric of mastery that can only be granted by another embodiment—to put it more crudely, you acquiesce in a protection racket, or you act as if there might be a trustworthy authority. You can only sell or buy that which will be there an instant later so as to be possessed or enjoyed. The more that presence and availability can be guaranteed, the more stable the value, and the more intelligent the market calculations. But the more you are buyer or seller, the less you can guarantee it. But the one who has been busy self-immunizing from resentment by attracting it can.

You can buy security, as the radical libertarians would have it; indeed, you can redefine the king as a paid for enforcer. But what guarantees the king will stay bought? Competition with other prospective kings, right? But the king to whom you have actually sold out possesses the apparatuses of kingship (which includes, among other things, lots of able and loyal men)—how much is that worth? Maybe you can’t afford it. Maybe the new king you’d like to hire has done his own risk analysis and will decline. The king who would willingly turn over all the controls (which, therefore, he presumably maintains competently) to the competitor who has underbid him is perhaps the king you don’t want to replace. Why would the king, who maybe now you want to keep, be so willing? Whatever it is, it’s hard to put a price on it; it’s hard to see how irony gets a handle on it. It may be the kind of thing about which it is best to remain silent.

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