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Christianity and Politics (2): Stanley Hauerwas and excessive speech

October 12th, 2005 by isaac · 5 Comments

I tried to excise myself from the conversation with Steve Bush and the folks over at Generous Orthodoxy, but I couldn’t resist another conversation (look here and here for other conversations). In summary, this is still my question for Steve Bush—it’s part of a comment I posted in one of those long conversations at Generous Orthodoxy :

“I think I can understand how you can hear Hauerwas like you do. But what I wanted to try to point to in my post at www.rustyparts.com/wp is that there is a voice in those texts that you seem to ignore, or slant. And this voice doesn’t have to go in the direction of your hypothetical Hauerwas. This voice does call for the church’s involvement in political processes, but it is also interested in exploding narrow conceptions of what counts as ‘political.’ And since that voice is ignored in your hypothetical, I think your re-presentation of Hauerwas is deficient. Which, I guess, is fine. But that makes me wonder why you take the route that you do. Why ignore some of Hauerwas’ other voices in order to isolate a possible hypthetical figure with which to spar? It seems you could just as easily give an account of Hauerwas that fits your project and thus create a textual coalition, and maybe your piece could be a democratic moment—voices joining together against a common foe. In this way you can appeal to all those folks who find something attractive in Hauerwas’ voice, and at the same time make an attempt to win over that stream of Hauerwasian interpretation (I know these people too) that finds a home in a Dorothy Day that says, ‘Don’t vote. It only encourages them!’”

All that is still in the foreground for me. But I thought I would engage Kevin Hector’s “consolidation” project (as Eric Lee called it).

My engagement comes by way of an essay Steve Bush recommended to me: “Democracy, Theology, and the Question of Excess: A Review of Jeffrey Stout’s Democracy & Tradition” by Romand Coles (Modern Theology, April 2005). From the outset let me say that I think Jeffrey Stout’s new book is a wonderful contribution to the contemporary conversation in the United States that attempts to name democracy. His work is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere where John Rawls still sets the terms for what we mean by ‘democracy’. But one of Cole’s important questions in his essay on Stout provides an imporant way into Hector’s (and Bush’s, I take it) stand against “a rhetoric of excess.” Hector sums up this phrase for us: “I am referring to the practice of inflating assertions for the sake of rhetorical punch, even if this inflation involves a distortion of one’s position (or that of others).” The figure in mind is Stanley Hauerwas, of course (but Cornel West fits the criteria as well, especially his use of “constantinianism” in Democracy Matters ). And Steve Bush provoked this criticism on page 7 of his paper . This criticism is not unique to Bush. Rather, I take it he got it from his professor Jeffrey Stout who develops it in chapter 6 of Democracy and Tradition. And Hector does a pretty good job at summarizing the Stoutian criticism of Hauerwas’ so-called rhetoric of excess : “the rhetoric of excess leads to misunderstandings, which lead to arguments about what someone is ‘really’ saying, which lead us to talk more and more about social witness than engaging in such witness—or at least talking about its proper content.”

These are all echoes of Jeffrey Stout, or at least speak in Stout’s same voice: “strategies of rhetorical excess have…outlived their usefulness” (Democracy and Tradition , p. xi). But do we really want to believe that? Rom Coles thinks not and offers a compelling defence of the rhetoric of excess . He tracks Stout’s sources of inspiration and finds that folks like Emerson (an important figure for Stout) speaks in exaggerated tones: “Imitation is suicide,” for example. Coles comments on this quote from Emerson: “Did he not…mean something infinitely richer and more nuanced that he thought, nevertheless, needed this tiny, piercing, powerful-because-exaggerated phrase in order to be conveyed, and, perhaps, even to be thought?” (309). On Coles’ read of Emerson, exaggerated speech is the excess that reaches language to the limit, to the beyond of the linguistically possible. Rhetorical excess is the communicative practice that struggles to break free from realism’s pacifying conceptual powers—those powers of the status-quo that enslave our imaginations. Excessive speech is fodder for creativity, the expression of hope, the collapse of the possible that invites the impossible. Coles thinks fidelity to exaggerated voices like Emerson’s has something to offer us in our conversations about the (im)possibility of democracy, and these are the gifts that Stout rejects. Rom Coles goes on to explain the tradition of rhetorical excess:

“They are frequently excessive, I think, out of a powerful seense of the strength of the ‘grip’ of the basic perceptual schemes and practices within which we reside and the great difficulty we have reflecting upon and challenging them. They exaggerate to disrupt troubling affective commitments lodged in our disciplined flesh. Sensing the powerful sway of schemes they find complicit in what is most damaging in this world, they exaggerate in the hope of piercing horizons that have become impermeable; provoking or extending a transformation more resistant to being readily absorbed back into a relativley unscathed order of things that is deeply violent and subjugative. They exaggerate not only in the hope of swaying others more firmly trapped by the deafness and blindness of a particular schematic damaging grip, but equally and—in some cases more so—in the hope of releasing themselves from this grip of power-laden affective perceptual schemes…. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of exaggeration for thinking, dialogue, judgment, ethics, politics, and theology. Those who most inspire Stout know we would be stultified without it. Our cages need repeated thrasings.” (309-310)

Exaggeration is the excess of communication, an expression of hope, that pierces the horizons of the order of things, an order that has proved quite capable of absorbing movements of resistance—a resiliant order with a history of violence and subjugation. Rhetorical excess is the cry, the thrashing, of the caged, the suffocated, those gasping for a breath of fresh air in an exhausted, stultified cosmo-polis. And Coles locates Stanley Hauerwas in this tradition—an Emersonian tradition of rhetorical excess (even if Hauerwas protests, and I know he would). I am sure at this point Stout and company are frustrated. Emerson is suppossed to be their man, and now in an ironic move Coles makes him the rhetorician of excess, of exaggeration; and now Hauerwas—the major transgressor of their democratic traditions—is a contemporary Emerson! Coles then looks to Hauerwas, the exemplification of Emersonian excess, to teach us how to re-form our conceptions of democratic discourses—and this cuts to the heart of Kevin Hector’s consolidated criticism:

“Should [Hauerwas] simply trim the excess and ‘say what he means’ in a more circumscribed fashion, defensively anticipating critics with a now more measured and restrained voice? It would be good if more people cultivated more of their thinking in this fashion—it sometimes appears to be a dying art that is so necessary to better judgment, thinking, and ethical-political relationships. But the same people would do well to cultivate another dying and equally essential art, namely that of intelligent exaggeration.” (311)

According to Coles, the excess of Hauerwas’ exaggerated speech engenders possibilities for the cry of democracy. Intelligent exaggeration is an art that shakes up our perceptions enough to let in a glimmer of hope, a movement of the demos to the table of discernment where visions of new horizons of democratic possibilities break through the old order of things. Contrary to Hector and the good folks at Generous Orthodoxy , a rhetoric of excess is an art of communication desperately needed in our reflections for the possibility of democracy, not something to trim.

Tags: theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Bush // Oct 12, 2005 at 8:25 am

    Isaac, in regards to the italicized paragraph above. I do not agree with you that I ignore this alternate voice of Hauerwas’. I explicitly draw attention to it in remarking more than once, and providing textual citation, that Hauerwas permits (not prohibits) governmental political action. I highlighted that in reaction against critics of Hauerwas who seem to believe he prohibits it. My argument is that permission is not enough. So in the passage you quote, “It is to be hoped that such people may provide the conditions for our ability to cooperate with others for securing justice in the world,” I would say that this is not enough. That’s not ignoring that voice of Hauerwas’, it’s disagreeing with it. How is that ignoring or slanting? I don’t think that’s a fair charge of you to make.

    Second, I draw explicit attention early in the paper to the notion of “political” that Hauerwas endorses and the manner in which that notion challenges the common notion of political. I attempt to acknolwedge the legitimacy of the Hauerwasian (ecclesial) notion of political, but still retain a proper attitude to the governmental notion of political. What then specifically have I ignored?

    I tried to give a very nuanced account of Hauerwas’ views, and I didn’t resort to such charicatures of his position as you often find. I didn’t use the word “sectarian” a single time! In my nuanced account, Hauerwas permits governmental political action but never presents it as a duty. That fact, in combination with his consistently negative attitude towards “justice,” “democracy,” and the “nation-state,” leads to an overall dissuasive attitude towards governmental involvement.

    In relation to the rhetoric of excess, I would only say that I find it extremely frustrating to participate in a conversation with people who employ the rhetoric of excess. I would point to the first comment on this post as an example of a rhetoric of excess. Here I was informed that my position collapses into nihilism, that I rely on a Cartesian view of the self, and that my position is liberal and modern. None of this was substantiated, and when I asked for substantiation on this and numerous other points, none of it could be substantiated. Besides being sloppy and careless in treating another person’s views, filling silences in your partner’s text with attributions of untenable positions just doesn’t make for constructive conversation.

  • 2 Steve Bush // Oct 12, 2005 at 8:50 am

    Further, I would like to say this: I believe that we live in a culture that is permeated by the rhetoric of excess. We live in a Hannity-&-Colmes environment in which complex realities are forced into one of two boxes-red/blue-and denounced or defended energetically and vigorously for a grand total of 90 seconds (before cutting to commercial break. In such a format, and such a cultural environment, the substance of the issues are never even touched. Instead, the point seems to be to reify and rigidify the viewers’ preexisting orientation and reinforce their disdain for their opponent, precisely by never attending to the strengths or complexities of their opponent’s position. (We could talk about George W. Bush’s rhetoric of ‘good vs. evil’, as well). I see Radical Orthodoxy of taking these same communicative strategies into the one sphere that one would hope would resist them: academic discourse. The zeal and haste to label non-Hauerwasians/non-RO’s as “liberal” and “Constantinianism,” the one-dimensional conception of what liberalism is, and the simplistic dualisms that these judgments rely upon (either Constantinian or hauerwasian, either liberal or radical orthodoxy), the ease with which Christians are painted as virtuous and non-Christians as vicious, all astound me. There is, I’m sure, a place for the rhetoric of excess. But there’s also a place for striving to understand the complexities of intellectual positions and social configurations. There’s also a place for striving to make oneself clearly understood by articulating one’s own position with precision, accuracy, and care. Finally, there’s a place for striving to hear a conversation-partner’s views without preemptively assuming that they fit neatly into one’s own prefit dualistic categories. I think that Christians, and especially Christians (and non-Christians) in the academy have a responsibility to exemplify a mode of discourse at odds with the excessive, simplistic, high-on-flourish-low-on-content rhetoric that pervades our culture.

  • 3 Eric Lee // Oct 12, 2005 at 8:59 am

    For what it’s worth, while I disagree with your position Steve, I don’t think your argument collapses into nihilism.

    Also, after reading a flurry of Radical Orthodoxy material over the last few months, my own treatment of the material doesn’t seem to fall into the dualisms that you find it falling into; rather, I think people often misread RO and posit their own (dualistic) categories around it and try to argue that it is so. I read so much by the RO authors about allowing the flux of difference to continue that while I can disagree with you, I can also affirm you as a brother and not think that my own position has to “win” any kind of rhetorical contest. We don’t need to make each other into the same, but I think (and I hope) that we can work together where we do find similarities. I think it’s important to be of the same mind, but that doesn’t mean that both hands of the Body have to necessarily do the same thing.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 4 Steve B. // Oct 13, 2005 at 5:27 am

    Eric, I should clarify: I don’t mean to say that RO works are in general characterized by the features I mention above, I mean to say that they are characterized by those features when and to the extent that they participate in a rhetoric of excess. I find much value and sophistication in RO works, but at crucial moments, esp. when describing the moral and intellectual possibilities of non-Christians, they tend to slip quickly into the rhetoric of excess. Few things are as important in a community as how the in-group describes the out-group. So I am particularly troubled by this tendency in RO.

  • 5 isaac // Nov 2, 2005 at 12:13 pm

    Steve, first I want to say congrats on your expected child! That’s great news (even though it is probably old news by now!). Anyhow, I’m sorry I offended you—making “unfair charges.” You’re right, I didn’t give you props for steering clear of non-starting name-calling like “sectarian.” But I still am curious about your position:

    So, I read your paper as using ‘Hauerwasians’ and those in the Radical Orthodoxy camp as contrasting figures that highlight your project: there is an obligation to participate in political processes. I totally get why that’s important. But I wonder if it’s fair to Hauerwas’ nuanced voices to move to how “Hauerwasians” (p.5) might (that’s your hypothetical move that makes me curious) approach the politics of the nation-state with “a pronounced cautionary and dissuasive mood” (p.6), while not accounting for how ‘Hauerwasians’ could just as easily move in the other direction. I mean, don’t you have to rethink your characterization of a so-called ‘typical Hauerwasian’ when Stanley Hauerwas actually said, “What I’ve been trying to do all along is simply to make the church worthy of participating in the kind of political relationships sought by IAF”? And isn’t it significant that Rom Coles isn’t surprised that Hauerwas’ corpus points in the direction of involvement in political processes? So, that’s why it’s interesting to me that you seem to “disagree” with a ‘Hauerwasian’ voice that isn’t necessarily Hauerwas. At least, Rom Coles doesn’t hear the voice you want us to call “Hauerwasian.” And it sounds like folks that commented on your post (me included) echo Coles’ read of Hauerwas.