CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics

On Consensus, Truth, and Knowledge

This week’s readings on epistemology had a number of connections to the readings last week—defining truth, acknowledging and theorizing on the discipline’s fractured identity, discussing the role of ethics and community. In fact, while reading the questions I posed last week (eg. How do we build rhetorical communities when groups are marginalized and excluded from our “real-life” communities?), I realized I had similar questions this week:  How are some bodies excluded from the collective who create this knowledge?

And these questions lead to something else—perhaps a theoretical inquiry: How does consensus function (or, how are truth and knowledge are made) within communities where the experiences and truths of marginalized people are regularly suppressed?

To start, a definition for truth and a challenge: Scott defines truth as “some set of generally accepted social norms, experience or even matters of faith as reference points in working out the contingencies in which men find themselves” (134, emphasis added). That is, though we can’t absolutely know them, there are qualities—such as norms—that identify “all experiences with all others” (136). Scott’s main argument is that these qualities are temporal and contextual—that is, that which was once valued may not be in the future, so we can never be certain of its truth. This relates back to an idea of norms and how people hold on to past ideas of “truth.” For example, we hold onto medical models of disability (that diagnose disability as an issue in need of cure) because these values were once identified as capital-t medical Truth and socially normed as knowledge. It’s hard to break away from, and thus devalue, those norms.

The challenge, then, returns to Scott’s emphasis on identifying all experiences with all others. If, thinking back to the center & periphery, those categories exist because they are not equal to each other—that is, the experiences of some others are different than some others.

Enter consensus.

Building from Aristotle’s notions of rhetoric as from common (public) knowledge for particular (civic) audiences, Farrell argues that rhetoric is an integral part for making social knowledge—a particular kind of truth. According to Farrell, “Social knowledge comprises conceptions of symbolic relationships among problems, persons, interests, and actions, which imply (when accepted) certain notions of preferable public behavior” (142). The nature of such knowledge necessitates collaboration in order to create knowledge, which signals the importance of consensus.

Consensus, Farrell writes, is “an awareness or understanding that agreements are held” (144). And though social knowledge doesn’t need to be concretely shared (that is, everyone doesn’t need to agree on the same thing), it must be attributed to and recognized by an audience. The audience, then, both impacts the action of social knowledge and while also ensuring that social knowledge is fluid and generative. That is, as new issues emerge, new actions can be taken based on the collective decision-making of the audience. And finally, social knowledge has a normative impact on collective decision-making, and it is this final characteristic where I want to pause for a moment.

To make a collective decision, there have to be agreed-upon values or rules or norms. Farrell describes rhetoric as the “primary process by which social conduct is coordinated,” which implies a certain level of “regularity” (143). The example he gives is the phrase “as a rule…” which signals the way we understand and participate in the social world. However, the emergence of norms necessarily indicates that which exists outside those norms.

This goes back to my original concern: How are some bodies excluded from the collective who create this knowledge? What role do nonnormative bodies have in the collective decision making process? Or perhaps more specifically, how are nonnormative experiences and values factored into the process?

It would be excessive to say that those people and experiences aren’t valued at all but perhaps not unrealistic to say that they are, in some significant ways, devalued. Brummett, for example, in his article about intersubjectivity argues that reality is “shared meanings”: Therefore, truth, for the individual, is the extent to which the meanings of experience (that is to say, reality) of that individual are shared by significant others. Truth is agreement” (162).

And while this may sound similar to Farrell (and in many ways is), the emphasis on meaningful experience and the word significant called up a number of concerns. An example: the knowledge (or truth or even reliability) of the intellectually disabled is frequently called into question. One example I have are the many examples of women who are raped (intellectually disabled or not) whose experiences are called into question because 1) they lack awareness or 2) their memory is unreliable or 3) they don’t have the ability to assess the situation logically.

So my concern is not that everyone needs to come to agreement (which none of the authors here are arguing). My concern, instead, is that some people’s material realities are so systematically denied—some people exist so far outside societal norms—that there isn’t even space (within the dominant discourse) to consider the possibility of agreement.

This is not to say that there isn’t value in collective decision making or creating knowledge within communities, however. Simi Linton in Claiming Disability makes an argument for the power of creating such collectives:

When disability is redefined as a social/political category; people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. These designations, as reclaimed by the community, are used to identify us as a constituency, to serve our needs for unity and identity, and to function as a basis for political activism. (12)

This is a nice example of Farrell’s point because it acknowledges that social knowledge relies on consensus, is attributed, audience-dependent, and generative—qualities that all contribute to its normative potential. The question, then, is how do groups and their political actions gain currency (or normative force) beyond their particular collective? How, to re-hash the question posed in class last week, do marginalized groups gain power?

 

 

Brummett, Barry. “Some Implications of ‘Process’ or ‘Intersubjectivity’: Postmodern Rhetoric.”  153-75.

Farrell, Thomas. “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory.” 140-52.

Scott, Robert. “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic.” 131-39.

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