A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Scot Barnett's Rhetorical Realism: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Ontology of Things

Trevor C. Meyer, Northwest Missouri State University

(Published June 12, 2020)

Before I begin my review of Scot Barnett’s fascinating and challenging work, Rhetorical Realism: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Ontology of Things, I must account for my own “reality.” At the time of writing, the world is still suffering from a pandemic, and the nation is reeling from massive social justice protests against police brutality. For some, however, this is not what’s really going on, but rather a conspiratorial hoax to be ignored and an insurrection to be dominated with lethal force. These perspectives seem to be rooted in different “realities,” even though a common reality is required for such an appeal in the first place.

“Without any anchor at all in something we can call reality,” Dana Cloud writes in Reality Bites, “all political commitments become relative” (5). That is, when we shift the focus to the ways that language and knowledge make “reality,” we risk ignoring the very real material suffering of people. Instead, Cloud offers a “rhetorical realism” rooted in the material truths of human experience and aimed at the “critical task of identifying such truths and the work they perform in public life…in the real world” (12). Rather than the materialist politics that motivate Cloud, Barnett’s more ontological and historiographic project examines “how rhetorical theorists over time have constituted, managed, and negotiated distinctions between humans and nonhumans, rhetorics and realities” (13). Both books came out within a year of each other, and with both we have two very different approaches to the same exigence: if everything is really social construction, shaped by culture and ideology, then perhaps we have lost the necessary common ground to argue, teach, and study: reality.

While over the last ten years “object-oriented ontology (OOO), speculative realism, thing theory, new materialism, actor-network theory (ANT), and the post humanities” have helped extend rhetoric’s concern toward things and objects, Barnett argues that “in spite of their historical differences, all versions of rhetoric depend upon some realist assumptions about the world” (13). Through these different articulations of “reality” in the history of rhetoric, Barnett seeks to render “visible what it is rhetors and rhetoricians have always done,” which is grappling with the complicated ideas, things, and forces at work within and outside of rhetoric (13, emphasis original). That is, the insightful contribution of Barnett’s Rhetorical Realism is a way of seeing both realism as always already rhetorical and rhetoric as always already realist. Or to put it in another way, the current anxiety about reality is really nothing new, but fundamental to rhetoric.

Part of the problem has been that the term “realism” is really a “convenient shorthand for a wide range of perspectives” that focuses on things outside human knowledge and experience, not a singular school of thought different from others (Barnett 31). Another part of the problem is that the most common “realism” is “naïve realism,” which is the idea that “we can perceive and know reality as it really is without any interference” from language, culture, ideology, etc. (36). This problematic perspective “remains a very popular orientation for lay persons outside the disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy,” as seen by “politicians who claim to be offering voters ‘the truth’ rather than ‘mere rhetoric’” (36-37). While naïve realism is most common, it is not the only realism.

Drawing on the Realist Theses from Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World, Barnett outlines the complexity and multiplicity of “realism” as a position because while “relatively few forms of realism accept all” of Braver’s theses, “most are committed to at least one of them” (36). The first two are most relevant for Barnett’s project: Realist Thesis 1 (R1) is the metaphysical Independence of things from human knowledge and perception, and R2, which builds on R1, posits that “Truth” is understood (and can only be understood) as a Correspondence between the Independent things and humans’ discursive representations of them (37).

For example, if a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?

Per R1 Independence, Barnett explains that of course it would, as the tree, the fall, and the sound do not depend on human observation. Per R2 Correspondence, we would only be telling the Truth when we say, “yes it does,” which requires R1 to be accepted in advance. While these two theses are deeply intertwined, Barnett argues that simply assuming R1 Independence, what Barnett calls ontological realism, does not necessarily lead to assuming R2 Correspondence as well, what Barnett calls epistemological realism, or any other of the subsequent Realist Theses.

Naïve realism, for instance, is an “epistemological realism” in which language and thought are “mirrors of the world as it actually is, regardless of whether or not we exist,” thus enabling us, it’s assumed, to distinguish true representations from false ones (Barnett 42). In contrast, “ontological realism” is “not a thesis about our knowledge of objects, but about the being of objects themselves, whether or not we exist to represent them” (42). Barnett argues here that epistemological realism (which requires Independence and Correspondence) is not the only nor necessary consequence of ontological realism (only Independence), as the new materialist approaches exemplify (43). This complexity of and conflict between multiple different “realisms” is obscured by the singularity of the term.

This obscured complexity and multiplicity is the exigence for Barnett’s “rhetorical realism,” which is “a set of existential commitments, whether stated or unstated, that situate understandings of rhetoric in relation to mind-independent realities and the limits of our abilities to know that reality” (13). The relationship between epistemological and ontological realism is complex because they are set in “differing configurations depending on the needs and mentalities of a given historical epoch” (13). “Realism” in ancient Athens is not the same as “realism” in 17th century England or 18th century Prussia, nor is it the same “realism” for us now, Barnett argues.

Barnett examines three places where the relationship between rhetoric, reality, and realism is sorted out in different ways: Aristotle and his intertwining intellectual corpus, including both Rhetoric and Metaphysics (Chapter 2); Bishop John Wilkins, member of the Royal Society and one of many who attempted to create a universal language (Chapter 3); and Immanuel Kant, whose transcendental idealism radically shifted philosophy’s focus from the “objective” world to the workings of the “subjective” mind (Chapter 4). For each of these figures, there is a traditional “entirely too convincing” reading that conceals how these thinkers carefully negotiated relationships between rhetoric and reality in their own time and work (80). In response, Barnett “reads against the grain” to interrogate rhetoric’s realist commitments in each of these rhetorical realisms. That is, he ends up revealing the different ways that epistemological and ontological realisms fold, split, and work together, even when a particular realism emphasizes one over the other. Rhetoric has always been realist.

Barnett begins with Aristotle, in whose work phusis (nature) and techne (art) are traditionally read as opposing concepts. On one side, there are eternal invariable beings subject to knowledge (episteme), philosophy (sophia), and intelligence (nous); and on the other side are contingent beings, capable of being otherwise, that are engaged with in techne and practical knowledge. While the former are self-moving, the latter require a mover, a human agent. This traditional reading is exemplified, for me, in the notion of the enthymeme as an “incomplete” syllogism, a lesser/rhetorical version of a more privileged/philosophical term. Indeed, the syllogism can stand alone, but the enthymeme requires the human audience’s participation in their own persuasion by “filling in the gap” with their own beliefs and attitudes (doxa).

Barnett, however, uses Heidegger to read Aristotle more widely, beyond the Rhetoric, to give his readers a more nuanced understanding wherein phusis and techne are not opposed, nor equivalent, but rather have “a shared connection to dunamis” (“potential to be otherwise”) and a shared relation to kinesis (movement), even if natural things and artifacts move differently (85). Outlining how phusis is more contingent than traditionally thought, Barnett also shows techne to be more object-oriented as well: “Just like the metaphysician, homebuilder, or cabinetmaker, the master rhetor must have awareness of the being of beings, of the ways the wooden ships of an opposing army will respond to the country’s seasonal temperature changes or how the architectural features of an assembly hall will affect the tenor of one’s deliberative speech” (88). While the traditional reading falls squarely along human and non-human lines (epistemological), Barnett’s ontological reading illustrates that “to be rhetorical is to already be in the world and have an attunement to other beings” (95-96).

In Chapter 3, Barnett turns to Bishop John Wilkins, whose 1668 Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language takes up Aristotle’s system to construct a universal language. In a period traditionally characterized by Ramus’s reduction of rhetoric to style, Wilkins’s project was one of many that attempted to create a “fixed, orderly, and arguably, more universal” language in order to “bring an end to the curse of Babel” (Barnett 104). Reading against the grain, Barnett argues that the 17th-century emphasis on “plain style” was not “anti-rhetorical,” but rather an attempt “to redefine rhetoric to better suit the realist paradigm of the age,” which was Bacon’s natural science, an epistemological realism requiring clear communication (105). Relying on a Correspondence theory of Truth, early modern epistemological realism sought to put words into better relation with the new scientific understanding of the world.

However, Barnett argues that for Wilkins, such an epistemological realism also bore “an accompanying concern with the ontological status of objects and language itself” (Barnett 105, emphasis added). Rather than rejecting rhetoric, Wilkins’s “distinctly rhetorical project [was] designed to cultivate new understandings of the relations between symbols and things” by beginning from an Aristotelian focus on the being of beings, as seen in the Porphyrian Tree (115). Wilkins’s project actually requires “prerequisite understanding of the ontological status of things and concepts,” not just what they are in themselves but also how they are different from and related to others (131).

While ultimately failing to be complete or practicable, Barnett reveals that Wilkins’s project intertwines epistemological realist investments in R2 Correspondence with an ontological realist recognition “that language is not only an instrument for representing concepts in the world but has a material weight of its own that precedes understanding and that establishes the conditions of possibility for rhetorical action” (Barnett 134). The real failure is Wilkins’s epistemological presumption that “one can master and control language” (134). Articulating a common yet profound experience for writers, Barnett relates that “language resists us at times, it withdraws from our grasp, and it sometimes acts in ways we cannot always predict or control” (134). Language is as much an Independent thing as the things language attempts to represent.

In Chapter 4, Barnett turns to Immanuel Kant, where “modern realism,” built from the work of Wilkins and his contemporaries, “finds its first substantial objector” (Barnett 157). Kant’s influential transcendental idealism re-centered philosophy on the human subject rather than on nonhuman objects, which cleared the way for “subsequent anti-realist epistemologies,” including epistemic rhetoric in the 20th century and its descendants, all of us (167). However, Barnett points out that even for Kant, for whom everything exists only “within the structures and limits [of] sensibility and understanding,” there are necessary, ontological commitments in the transcendental subject and the thing-in-itself (162). While the transcendental subject has largely been discarded by modern rhetorical theory, Barnett argues that a more nuanced reading of the ding an sich selbst betratchen (“‘thing considered as it is in itself’”) remains a useful “boundary concept” that ensures “limits to sensibility, even if the exact nature of those limits remains unknown to us” (167, 170). Barnett calls this unknown unknowability of things an inescapable “Kantian Compromise” that leads to “epistemic humility” (167). This built-in limitation means that knowledge, like things and language, cannot be mastered either.

In each of these cases, presumption of mastery leads to failure because things, language, and knowledge cannot be totalized by human perceptions and conceptions. Instead, Barnett offers a perspective in which things, language, and knowledge are not simply instruments to be used, but material collaborators in the world. Considered in this way, especially focusing on the humility in the face of things, language, and knowledge, Barnett underscores that any rhetorical engagement with reality is a deeply and fundamentally ethical project, but one requiring a different ethics altogether.

In his final chapter, Barnett eloquently argues that rhetorical realism requires a rejection of ethical systems that partition some as subject to ethical concern (humans) while others (nonhumans) are not. Such partitions “have historically tended to privilege those with the power to define what is right and wrong and who, by extension, is worthy of respect and care” (Barnett 192). Normative ethics can be seen in the Nazi “ethic of expediency,” the Cornerstone speech of the Confederacy, or the Biblical justifications for slavery and genocide in the Americas, all of which characterize certain humans as animals or objects undeserving of ethical consideration. That ethics, understood normatively, could be built to justify genocide necessitates a different model of ethics.

Barnett indeed finds something different—a nonnormative ethics that combines Martin Heidegger’s Gelassenheit, or “letting be” of beings in their beingness, with Emmanuel Levinas’s “radical openness…[and] response-ability to the Other,” which diverges importantly from “responsibility” in a causal, juridical sense, borrowed from Silvia Benso (187, 192). In this synthesized ethical framework, we find ourselves thrown into an existence conditioned by an inescapable ethical debt to care for and respond to not only all other beings, but all Other Being, an ontological oneness preceding human categorization, as I read it. Though challenging, this approach allows us to appreciate the complexity of ethical dilemmas while avoiding traditional divisions between who gets to be cared about and what is not.

As an example, Barnett examines the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While BP and its profit-motives are most to blame (the normative ethics read), Barnett argues “by only thinking of technologies as instruments and ‘the real’ as standing-reserve, BP failed to appreciate the alterity of things—failed to be responsible to things as they issued the most basic of demands to recognize vulnerability as the essential condition of ethical life” (206). That is, BP presumed mastery over the steel, concrete, and electrons, and as purely instruments, rather than material collaborators, they were excluded from ethical concern. Attending to their being, Barnett argues, could have prevented the worst marine environmental disaster in American history.

Even though object-oriented rhetorics are often seen as ignoring or rejecting ethics, these critiques seem to come from a more normative approach that people should care more about people than they do about things. While I agree that things and people have different response-abilities (e.g. humans are the only thing that extracts and burns oil into the sky), Barnett’s expansive ethical frame refuses easy, traditional answers to ethical quandaries. This ontological ethics of care demands a deeper, fuller attention to all affected by human action, and it requires that things, language, and knowledge be allowed a dignity in their own being. Expanding dignity, not contracting it, is the core of Barnett’s ethics of care.

However, even a project with such an expansive ethical goal has limitations because of the time, space, and context that condition any project. For Barnett, these limitations are understandable given the thickness and complexity of this project, yet they still strike a chord with me, especially considering the ethical core of this book. Such limitations seem to be places where traditional, normative approaches sneak back into this nonnormative project. As Barnett does for each of his subjects, here I will “read against the grain” to highlight further avenues for rhetorical realism.

For example, Aristotle was appropriated by early Christian scholars, which in turn conditioned the possibility of Wilkins’s scientific project. In his Dedicatory Epistle, Wilkins states that he was trying to solve the problem of Babel and “remedy the Curse of Confusion” (Barnett 113). However, Barnett argues Wilkins wasn’t necessarily trying to return “to an Edenic state,” not believing “such a feat possible” nor did many of his readers (133, 115). While Barnett persuades me that it wasn’t all Wilkins was trying to do, Wilkins’s characterization of the messiness of language as a “curse” or that “every change in language is ‘a gradual corruption’” is conditioned by the possibility of some blessed, pure language, whether it is lost forever or might be made anew by science (Barnett 117, 118). With Wilkins I see how Christian myths persist in secular thoughts about reality in the West, or as it was once called, and still is by many, “Christendom.” Different propositional content, same structure of thought.

Furthermore, when “Chinese” ideograms are presented by Wilkins and Bacon as an example of the “real character” in natural language, yet their mentions of “colonial languages” are passed over or ignored in their writings, I am reminded that the Royal Society worked from a Eurocentric worldview that had naturalized itself (and secularized Christianity) as “Reason Itself.” Despite their natural use of a more “rational” script, the Chinese were still foreign others, seen as pagan and inferior. While Barnett’s project specifically focuses on the Western tradition, this example was the only non-Western one I noticed.

My point here is not to rehash the valid and ongoing critiques to new materialism or the Western tradition writ large by scholars of color, non-Western, indigenous, and otherwise. Rather, I want to emphasize that we need to do more and do better to more critically engage an intellectual tradition that was marked, well before the Holocaust, by the material realities of ethnocentrism, colonialism, and xenophobia, which were justified through supposedly-neutral science and scripture. We might, for example, attend to all Other Being with the Tao, “which cannot be named,” not as a “cultural artifact” but as an equal contribution to the question concerning reality, as important as Aristotle, Kant, or any of the other figures in the Western Canon (Lao Tsu 3). While we cannot escape our history, we can inhabit it differently, and thus make a future of different material realities.

Indeed, this lack of attention to material realities is why Cloud sees “pursuing questions of ontology, or the question of reality outside the capacity to perceive and interpret it,” like Barnett’s, as “unproductive” (6). This is a valid Marxist critique of bourgeois science’s drive to abstraction. In contrast, Cloud’s more materialist approach focuses on “the interests of the exploited and oppressed, whose experience, in reality, are the conditions of possibility for alternative realties and rhetorics based upon them” (5-6). If structures of power condition any response to them, we cannot simply renovate “rhetoric” from inside, built as it was by power, without reinscribing those attitudes we rejected in the first place. While I see Cloud’s point, Barnett does much to situate his subjects in their material conditions. Because of this, I do not see these two projects as mutually exclusive.

Rather, while both Cloud’s materialist rhetorical realism and Barnett’s ontological rhetorical realism are deeply invested in making the world a good place to live, they differ in means: break down the material structures of oppression or expand our ethical consideration to all Other Being. These are two different emphases on the real: as it is as experienced and as it is as it cannot be known. Both Barnett and Cloud are in fact different rhetorical realisms in Barnett’s sense: no more “rhetorical” or “realist” than the other, but conditioned by their time, place, and popular attitudes. As Barnett did in his tracing of Aristotle, Wilkins, and Kant, putting different rhetorical realisms together offers a rich interplay we might use to forward understanding of rhetoric and its complex, multiple, and differential relationship to reality at a given time (but especially at the same time, as is the case for Barnett and Cloud).

In sum, I have tried to briefly review a work that begins by radically complicating the seemingly obvious concept of “reality” and shows how it changes in the rhetorical tradition based on the time, place, and previous instantiations of realism. If rhetoric is always realist, as Barnett argues, then all that matters is the how and the why—rhetorical questions that trouble the easy, naive notion of “reality” as “what is there is there” and highlight the complexity and difficulty of what we do in studying, teaching, and practicing rhetoric. Yet, I struggle to understand “real” in the end, given Barnett’s complexity and multiplicity of the term; at times “real” seems to mean “material” or “physical,” while at others it means “true,” “actual,” or “fact,” and later it is an unknown unknowability that limits and conditions knowledge. My struggle both illustrates the importance of this work and exemplifies the difficulty of its project. Both thoroughly historiographic and deeply theoretical, Barnett’s Rhetorical Realism asks much of its readers, but it rewards those who read patiently and closely, attending to the text as Barnett calls on his readers to attend to all Other Being. In the end, this work provides not only a useful, nuanced, and divergent reading of this historical thing called “rhetoric,” but also a set of potentially generative tools for the contemporary practice and study we call “rhetoric,” an ethical project deeply invested in the here and now, the only real I really know for real.