object-oriented rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

surrender, insouciance, and ideation

image from Tim Morton's recent post on concession brings to the foreground what can be a small, but beautiful, intellectual moment (and really all moments are small in themselves). He just briefly relates an anecdote of conceding a point at a conference. You would think it would not be that unusual, but it is not something one sees very often. At the very least concessions always seem qualified as in "if by what you say, you mean this, then I agree with you" or "I agree with you to this point" or "I see what you mean, however…" Do these sound familiar? 

I will say that I can be as guilty of these gestures as anyone. In part (in our collective defense), it is reasonable when giving a presentation to want to make sure that one's core point is getting across. If a response seems to really misunderstand, then hopefully one's response is not purely defensive, let alone agonistic. I will even concede that at times a vigorous defense and agonistic debate may be necessary, even productive.

However, today I want to consider the value of the opposite maneuver. In grad school, I was struck by Blanchot's use of the myth of Orpheus in The Space of Literature if I remember correctly. In any case, Blanchot discusses the value of an insouciant turning from one's creation, which has always resonated for me as a kind of Buddhist letting go. And now it reminds me also of an OOO-like withdrawal of the object. In Blanchot, the object is specifically one's own creation. One may turn toward the object, but it withdraws as Eurdicye withdraws from Orpheus. Ultimately, I think there is a recognition that for an idea to have its own life, to be more than a sensual object within one's head, it must withdraw from us.

I was also thinking about surrender in terms of the lesson of the Tarot's Hanged Man. The Hanged Man is a kind of bodhisattva moment: under a tree, suspended halfway between the material and spiritual worlds. It is a moment of surrender, where one gives up one's previous views and is prepared to re-enter the world with a new perspective. In this respect, surrender is a powerful intellectual move. In fact, one may argue that surrender is the only way that one can come to a new idea. That is, once one recognizes that all thought and ideation is relational, occurring only through exposure, that thoughts can never come solely from some inside, then one has to recognize that new ideas only come from being open to influence.

I can think this morning of three kinds of surrender/insouciance/letting go.

1. Rhetorical surrender: called such as it is the kind of concession that Tim mentions in his post, a concession during a potential argument. A surrender of this kind can be cynical and tactical, but it is most powerful when genuine. It immediately creates a new relation between you and your discursive partner. Perhaps that other person chooses to press on with more attacks looking to gain territory or further concessions. What happens if you concede everything? That person has given you her ideas. Accept them for the gift they are. Are you concerned that you will appear weak in the eyes of the audience? Why? If anything, it is continual defensiveness that makes one look weak.

2. Surrendering ownership: put simply this means giving up your ideas to the world of objects as Blanchot suggests. In the end you have little control over these matters anyway. It's not like you can go around suing people for  misinterpretation. Ideas that thrive have lives separate from their putative creators. 

3. Surrendering ideation: finally, what I consider the most powerful form of surrender, letting go of ideas in your own head. Clearly American culture, in its anti-intellectual splendor, calls this "flip-flopping," as if the ability to recognize that one was wrong or that someone else has a better idea is a mark of intellectual weakness. To be fair, academic culture is often not much better on this point. But we should be able to recognize that it is only through moments like the one represented by the hanged man, where we literally open ourselves to a new perspective on the world, to new encounters with an outside world of objects, that ideation becomes possible.