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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/18/18

Michiko Kakutani's Book on Trump Is Alerting, Not Alarmist (REVIEW ESSAY)

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As to Roland Barthes and J. Hillis Miller, Ong discusses relevant works by each of them in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto.

Now, in the densely packed final chapter of Ong's 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982, pages 156-179), published in the book series New Accents in literary studies, Ong discusses his work in the context of literary history (pages 157-160), New Criticism and formalism (pages 160-164), structuralism (pages 164-165), textualists and deconstructionists (pages 165-170), speech-act and reader-response theory (page 170-171), and social studies, philosophy, and biblical studies (pages 172-174), orality, writing, and being human (pages 174-175), "media" versus human communication (pages 175-177), and the inward turn: consciousness and the text (pages 178-179). His final chapter is a tour de force of concision and precision. Whew!

As to speech-act theory, Ong reviewed Mary Louise Pratt's book Toward a Speech-Act Theory of Literary Discourse (Indiana University Press, 1977) in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric, volume 11, number 2 (1978): pages 134-138.

In the poem "Andrea del Sarto" (1855), a dramatic monologue, Robert Browning (1812-1889) says, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" (lines 97-98). In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I give Ong credit for his intellectual reach in the final chapter of his 1982 book.

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In any event, Ong's own position emerges most clearly in his article "Hermeneutic Forever: Voice, Text, Digitization, and the 'I'" in the journal Oral Tradition, volume 10, number 1 (March 1995): pages 3-36; reprinted in volume four of Ong's Faith and Contexts (Scholars Press, 1999, pages 183-204). Hermeneutic means interpretation.

Also see Ong's posthumously published incomplete book Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization (Cornell University Press, 2017).

But hermeneutic forever does not mean that all interpretations are equal. But the interpreter's "I" is involved in making his or her interpretation, and the recipient's "I" is involved in responding to or not responding to a given interpreter's interpretation. In my preferred terminology, each person's ego-consciousness (in Ong's terminology the "I") refers to who he or she is. But no man or woman is an island. Each person tends to listen to certain other people -- perhaps, at times, along partisan lines. Party affiliation is important in certain people's lives. If our personal narratives are important to us, then they will probably also be important to the storytelling involved in the politics of the two major political parties.

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Speaking of narratives, let's consider William Faulkner's famous novel As I Lay Dying (1930). In it, we find multiple narrators, and so we as readers need to sort out what each one says and play their competing accounts off against one another as we strive to interpret the actions involved in the narratives. This way of writing the novel is described by literary critics as the unreliable narrator. But many people would prefer to read novels with reliable narrators. Perhaps we should think of Kakutani's book title The Death of Truth as signaling the death of the reliable narrator -- or something like that.

Now, Trump's "I" (his ego-consciousness) has been vividly displayed in his various interpretations and conspiracy claims. He is a con-man, a trickster figure -- and an unreliable narrator. Wily Odysseus is a famous example of a trickster figure, as Kakutani notes (page 148). But I wish that she had also mentioned Herman Melville's novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1957).

For a discussion of it using Ong's thought, see Thomas D. Zlatic's essay "Faith in Pretext: An Ongian Context for The Confidence-Man" in the book Of Ong and Media Ecology (Hampton Press, 2012, pages 241-280).

But Trump is also an entertainer entertaining his most ardent supporters with his trickster verbal games. However, I, for one, am not amused by his verbal games. But why do his most ardent supporters cheer him on? No doubt certain things he says evoke a responsive chord in them (i.e., in their ego-consciousness individually), regardless of how wrongheaded his claims strike me. I will return to the question of his ardent supporters' motivations momentarily.

Now, in a certain sense, I would argue, the visual-aural contrast that Ong works with in his mature writings from the early 1950s onward can be reframed as a kind of deconstruction, at least in spirit, of cognitive process tendencies -- Ong's kind of deconstruction, as it were. Ong himself characterized his philosophical thought as phenomenological and personalist in cast. As phenomenological in cast, his thought can be interpreted broadly as a kind of deconstruction in spirit. As personalist in cast, his philosophical thought is oriented toward the person as subject, but without being merely subjective. Basically, Ong's philosophical thought can be categorized as philosophical realism. Mere subjectivism would involve relativism in all thought and all propositional statements -- no truth expressed in propositional statements -- Kakutani's death of truth.

For further discussion of Ong's philosophical thought, see my essay "Understanding Ong's Philosophical Thought" that is available online at the University of Minnesota's digital conservancy:

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Now, the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan's philosophical masterpiece Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, 5th ed. (University of Toronto Press, 1992; orig. ed., 1957) can also be reframed as a kind of deconstruction in spirit of our cognitive tendencies. Lonergan describes his own philosophical position as critical realism. His philosophical thought is oriented toward the person as subject, but without being merely subjective. As I say, mere subjectivism would involve relativism in all thought and all propositional statements -- Kakutani's death of truth.

In his philosophical masterpiece, Lonergan develops what he refers to as a generalized empirical method for all forms of human thinking. And he emphasizes the prime importance of judgment -- that is, of making intelligent and reasonable judgments as one proceeds to think. In plain English, being judicious in one's thinking is of prime importance.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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