On Refusing to Reduce the Saying to the Said (Davis 208)

14 September 2010

On Refusing to Reduce the Saying to the Said (Davis 208)

In light of week four’s foci: Levinas, Corder, and generally, ethics responsible to Heidegger, this presentation narrows our scope to focus on the notion of nonhermeneutic rhetoric.  Specifically, I attempt to unfold Diane Davis’ argument regarding what she refers to as the “ethical imperative to engage a rhetoric of the saying, to attend to the interruption itself” (208). Davis’ emphasis on this rhetoric of the saying, a “nonhermeneutical rhetoric,” begs the question, “What is rhetoric?” Just Kidding. A deft rhetorician like Davis wouldn’t even think of attempting to appropriate “rhetoric.” What Davis does respond to, in “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation,” (2005) is the following:

  1. What is a nonhermeneutic rhetoric?
  2. How does the notion of a nonhermeneutical rhetoric – the type of rhetoric that deals with the address itself, the saying – inform response-ability?

What is nonhermeneutic rhetoric?

Before clarifying what nonhermeneutic rhetoric is, it is important to specify “hermeneutical rhetoric.” Davis cites Steven Mailloux’s Rhetorical Power and Reception Histories as the bookends within which Mailloux brilliantly performs and explicates this term (Davis 191). Mallioux defines rhetorical hermeneutics as that which “… demonstrates the practical inseperability of interpretation and language use and thus of the discourses that theorize these practices, hermeneutics and rhetoric” (1998, 3). Essentially, Davis paints Mailloux’s “rhetorical hermeneutics” as a “rhetoric of the said” (194). Interestingly, though, Davis defers to Mailloux’s perspective [“ … the said also demands our attention” (208)] while simultaneously responding to – addressing1 – his argument. In agreement with Mailloux, she writes, “… rhetoric and hermeneutics are an indissociable team: together, they complete understanding’s circle … [but] I want to suggest that there is a non-hermeneutical dimension of rhetoric that has nothing to do with meaning-making … [which is a] dimension reducible neither to figuration nor to what typically goes by the name persuasion” (192). Naturally, then, as rhetoricians we ask, “Is it possible not to think of rhetoric as either persuasion or figuration?” This is the very question Davis responds to/addresses in “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation”: How do we refuse to “reduce the saying to the said, to keep hermeneutic interpretation from absorbing the strictly rhetorical gesture of the approach, which interrupts the movement of appropriation…” (208)? And thus, we arrive at Davis’ unfolding of  nonhermeneutical rhetoric. Although Davis’ readily appreciates Mailloux’s explication of rhetorical hermeneutics, she undoubtedly challenges his position in her deference to Levinas’ conception of learning, in that learning occurs “via an encounter with the other …” which, per Davis, “…could not be further from the process of homogenization and accretion that Mailloux describes, a process that grows the learner’s “world” while simultaneously shielding him from any outside encroachment” (199). Whereas hermeneutical rhetoric points to the said – more specifically – understands (?)2 that in whatever is said it is “impossible to encounter any other as other,” (i.e., impossible to encounter equates with “impossible to learn,” at least for Levinas) for Davis, “pre-understanding is precisely what’s shattered in the address, which announces its own sense, an unmasterable surplus irreducible to semantic appropriations … [furthermore] the address – the encounter, the saying – is the specifically rhetorical gesture that [Mailloux’s] rhetorical hermeneutics effaces …” (199).

How does nonhermeneutical rhetoric inform response-ability?

Davis explains, “… when you address me, no matter what you say to me, you expose in me a readiness to respond (a response-ability) that precedes both desire and will. For as long as I am conversing with you, opening toward you, “I” remain your addressee, which means … that “I” am/is ejected from the addressor slot …” (200). Again, for Davis, the readiness to respond – the response-ability – is not in the meaning-making, the said, but in the pre-understanding, the readiness, the encounter, the address, the shattering – the saying – itself. It is also important to note Davis’, “no matter what you say to me” because it further emphasizes the saying itself [i.e., the story (the said, what you say) which changes as each narrator recalls it … “the performance of a response is the message” (Davis 198)]. Essentially, “response-ability” is what occurs in the post-address saying, and it is nonappropriative; it has “… nothing to do with commonality, reciprocity, or equality” (Davis 201) as these descriptors pertain to the unethical (for Davis). And Levinas would agree: “In the relation called conversation, my “I” has no nominative form; it is only inasmuch as it responds to the other’s call, inasmuch as it is both host and hostage to the other … [which is] why conversation’s “we” never attains anything resembling equality [appropriation]: because “I” always owe(s) “you” everything” (Davis 201). If I were to reduce Davis’ insight to common terms (Davis would likely cringe, here) I’d propose that Davis’ nonhermeneutical rhetoric – that which emphasizes the saying itself – humbly accepts (not understands) the tension of the interruption (the address, the saying …) and furthermore, enables an ethical (nonappropriative) engagement between “I” and “you.”


1.       In deference to Davis, I am careful about my rhetoric, so I prefer to describe her essay in her own terms “… a response to Steve’s call – a response that is also an address, a return call” (191); therefore, “response/address.” I emphasize this because to refer to her essay/purpose in any other language would be to distort what it she saying.

2.       Again, “understands,” for Davis, implies appropriation, commonality, reciprocity, equality … all of which reflect Mailloux’s hermeneutical rhetoric (and the unethical). Therefore, I use “understands” with hermeneutical rhetoric, whereas I am careful not to use it when explaining Davis’ nonhermeneutical rhetoric.

Works Cited

Mailloux, Steven. 1998. Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural

Politics. Ithaca: Cornell UP.


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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