Corder, Jim W. — Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love

Corder, Jim W.  “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.”  Rhetoric Review 4.1 (1985): 16-32.  Print.

Corder asserts that “We have not at any time in our public or personal histories known consistently how to deal with conflicts” (29). “In discourse and behavior,” he says, “our ways of resolving conflicts have typically been limited and unsatisfactory” (30).  Corder asks, then, “What can free us from the apparent hopelessness of steadfast arguments opposing each other?”  His answer is that “we have to see each other, to know each other, to be present to each other, to embrace each other,” but in order to do that, he says, “We have to change the way we talk about argument and conceive of argument” (23).  Currently, he suggests, the way we “understand, talk about, and teach argument” construes it as “display and presentation“: “We present a proposition.  We display our proofs, our evidence.”  “But argument is not something to present or to display,” he contends.  “It is something to be.  It is what we are” (26).

According to Corder, we are all “narrators, historians, tale-tellers” and “each of us creates the narrative that he or she is” (16).  Making “the fictions that are our lives [. . .] is what we do and are, even if we think we are doing and being something else [. . .] We are always [. . .] inventing the narratives that are our lives” (17).  In like manner, he writes, “Each of us forms conceptions of the world, its institutions, its public, private, wide, or local histories, and each of us is the narrative that shows us living in and through [those] conceptions” (16).  In sum, he contends, “The narratives we tell (ourselves) create and define the worlds in which we hold our beliefs.  Our narratives are the evidence we have of ourselves and our convictions.  Argument, then, is not something we make outside ourselves; argument is what we are.  Each of us is an argument” (18).

As narratives/arguments, Corder says, we can “live comfortably adjacent to or across the way from other narratives. [. . .], be congruent with other narratives, or untouched by other narratives.”  Sometimes, however, “another narrative impinges upon ours, or thunders around and down into our narratives.”  The other narrative/argument is “disruptive, shocking, [. . . ] incomprehensible, [. . . ] threatening” (18).  Hence, we sometimes “turn away from other narratives,” sometimes “teach ourselves not to know there are other narratives,” and “Sometimes we go to war” (19).  Given “the flushed, feverish, quaky, shaky, angry, scared, hurt, shocked, disappointed, alarmed, outraged, even terrified condition that a person comes to when his or her narrative is opposed by a genuinely contending narrative” (21), it is hardly surprising that “probably all too seldom–we encounter another narrative and learn to change our own” (19).

Corder’s response is to “insist that argument — that rhetoric itself — must begin, proceed, and end in love” (28), that we must “learn to love before we disagree.  Usually, it’s the other way around: if we learn to love, it is only after silence or conflict or both” (26).  He notes that “in the arguments that grip us most tightly, we do injure the other, or the other injures us, or we seem about to injure each other, except we take the tenderest, strongest care” (22).  Corder’s radical reformulation, then, is that “Argument is emergence toward the other [. . .] an untiring stretch toward the other, a reach toward enfolding the other, [. . . ] a risky revelation of the self [. . .] asking for witness from the other” (26).

“When argument comes to advocacy or to adversarial confrontation,” Corder observes, “mutuality [. . .] will probably not occur” (28).  As he puts it, “Evidence and reason are evidence and reason only if one lives in the narrative that creates and regards them” (23), and “there is not arguer who does not believe that his or her view is a just consequence of normal thought and deed” (30).  Hence, he stresses that “The arguer has to go alone.  When argument has gone beyond attempts made by the arguer and by the other to accept and understand, when those early exploratory steps toward mutual communication are over, or when all these stages have been bypassed altogether–as they often will be–then the arguer is alone” (28).  At that point, “the arguer must, with no assurance, go out, inviting the other to enter a world that the arguer tries to make commodius, inviting the other to emerge as well, but with no assurance of kind or even thoughtful response” (26).

For such discourse to be successful, Corder says, we must “learn to live — and argue — provisionally [. . .] We can learn to dispense with what we imagined as absolute truth and to pursue the reality of things only partially knowable” (28).  In like manner, “we arguers can learn to abandon authoritative positions.  They cannot be achieved, at any rate, except [. . .] in arrogance, ignorance, and dogma.”  “An authoritative position,” he contends, “is a prison both to us and to any audience” (29).  And finally, he suggests, “We must pile time into argumentative discourse [. . .] we need time to accept, to understand, to love the other.”  Corder writes that “we must rescue time by putting it into our discourses and holding it there, learning to speak and write not argumentative displays and presentations, but arguments full of anecdotal, personal, and cultural reflections that will make us plain to all others, thoughtful histories and narratives that reveal us as we’re reaching for others.”  He notes that “The world, of course, does not want time in its discourses [. . . but rather] speed, efficiency, and economy of motion [. . .] We must teach the world to want otherwise, to want time for care.” (31)

Corder concludes that “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities. “[M]ost of our speaking is tribal talk,” he observes, “But there is more to us than that.  We can learn to speak a commodious language, and we can learn to hear a commodious language” (32).

Corder’s piece reinscribes a number of recurring thoughts I have about writing and nonviolence: that we are never taught how to deal with conflict or what the positive values of conflict might be; that we need alternatives to the stock moves we currently have, which seem to be merely avoidance of conflict or all-out war; that the possibility of composing nonviolent, productive responses to conflict is a matter of hope, of optimism, and has a future orientation; that what we need is nothing less than a fundamentally different way of thinking about, talking about, teaching, and doing argument.  I think Corder’s assertion that argument is not something we do but something we are is profound and powerful; it aligns strongly with my sense that genres are ways of being in the world (which is not surprising since that idea also comes from Corder).  His formulation that we are narratives/arguments is, again, a radical and provocative revision: our arguments are critically important, and we defend them so ruthlessly, in short, because argument is a matter of identity, the sum total of our entire life experiences and our conception of the world as expressed in a narrative that allows them to make sense.  What is at stake in any argument is not the issue, not what we should do about the issue, but my personal, fundamental sense of who I am and how the world works.

Corder thus quite rightly points out that when advocacy and adversarial confrontation occur (which is most of the time), mutuality is unlikely; that our evidence and reason and perspective will/can only seem normal to us and will/can never seem normal to someone standing in a truly different place/narrative/sense of the world; that when genuine contending occurs, our arguments injure the other unless “we take the tenderest, strongest care”; and that our responses to finding ourselves/our narratives/our arguments opposed will be primarily and strongly emotional, a matter of self-preservation, first and foremost, which is why we only rarely change our positions.

I both love and am challenged by Corder’s reformation of argument, of rhetoric itself, as love, that we must learn to love before we can profitably disagree.  It reminds me of something I heard described once as a tenet of Franciscan theology but have not been able to track down: that we have to love someone before we can understand them, that it doesn’t work the other way around.  I love the image of argument as emergence, the idea that to argue means to reach out endlessly toward our adversaries, to make ourselves fully present — not merely presented or displayed — to the person we are arguing with.

But there are significant challenges to this perspective, some of which strike me as perhaps insurmountable (at first blush, anyway).  Arguers, in Corder’s scheme, a fearless solo agents endlessly willing to sacrifice themselves before hostile adversaries.  Is this always the way of nonviolence?  Similarly, he notes that we will need to learn to give up the idea of absolute truth.  Is he suggesting that argument as emergence/love is predicated on epistemological conversion, that it cannot be successful unless all involved have embraced a post-structural sense of truth?  Corder likewise says that we “can learn to abandon authoritative positions” since they are “prisons,” but he does not say how we can urge or help people to actually give up these positions.  While I like the idea that giving up authoritative states allows us more movement, if Corder is right and we are arguments, then asking someone to give up an authoritative position is asking for an existential/ontological crisis.  I’ve spent a career urging people to embrace uncertainty as a positive experience and a productive state via the essay.  This is no small row to hoe, no small feat he is suggesting.  Finally, what does it mean to create a commodius world, to speak and hear a commodius language?  How do we do that?  How can we teach people to do that?  This resonates for me with the idea of heteroglossia, of polyphony, of miktos — the word Isocrates uses to describe his Antidosis, of Huxley’s three poles of essayistic development — the personal/autobiographical, the objective/factual, and the universal/poetic.

I am buoyed, though, by the one clear avenue for the development of pedagogy and practice of argument as emergence that Corder discusses near the end of this piece — the idea that we can use narrative and personal reflection to emerge toward our others, make ourselves plain to others, to reveal our full histories and the stories about how we came to occupy our positions.

— Paul Heilker

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