Muckelbauer, John. “Rhetoric, Asignification, and the Other: A Response to Diane Davis.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 40.2 (2007): 238-47. Print.


The article focuses on the study of rhetoric and the so-called “linguistic turn” in the social sciences in the past thirty years. Scholarly thought has presented this “linguistic turn” as a signifying operation, meant to provide or interpret meaning. The author responds to the recent article by Diana Davis entitled “Addressing Alterity,” as it attempts to return to the roots of rhetorical theory. The author summarizes Davis’ arguments regarding the dimensions of rhetorical theory and discusses the implications and risks regarding rhetorical discourse.

Keywords: signification, hermeneutics, asignifying rhetoric, impossible rhetoric, sameness, otherness, alterity, linguistic turn, rhetorical turn, levinas, difference, appropriation


  • M. begins by questioning the rise of rhetorical interest with the “linguistic turn” in the Humanities and Social Sciences.  First, M. questions whether the linguistic turn and the rhetorical turn are necessarily synonymous.  M. claims that the linguistic turn posits language as signifying practice at the heart of all interpretive, meaning-making work in the aforementioned disciplines; however, M. claims that this entire apparatus of meaning-making via language (and more meaning making through the indeterminacy of language) doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with rhetoric (238).  As he notes, “rhetoric might very well indicate a dimension of language that is irreducible to the entire apparatus of signification” (239).
  • Instead of being “meaning-making,” M. claims that rhetoric is more concerned with the affect of language – what is it’s force?  How can it impact?  M. notes that these two views of language aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; however, they aren’t synonymous either (but they may require one another to function).
  • M. praises Diane Davis’s work because it addresses the “asignifying practices” of rhetoric and language use.  Her work considers the “non-hermeneutical” dimensions of rhetoric that seek to establish a “common ground” from which to locate the self in other (240).
  • M. draws attention to the fact that the multicultural desire to champion difference (“recognize difference” and “acknowledge otherness”) might actually be a very dangerous practice: it might treat the other as someone to be colonized, appropriated, and translated into something palatable.  It is in this way that M. draws a close association between liberal multiculturalism and multinational capitalism (240).
  • M. draws attention to the ways that Davis’s work creates a useful binary: the said and the saying.  The said are the signifying practices concerned with communication, interpretation, and understanding.  The said are the asignyfing, perfomative practices that highlight the site and encounter with the other.  A rhetoric of asignification is – according to M. – likely impossible (but preferable!).
  • The first risk in undertaking a rhetoric of asignification is to recognize that the unknowable other is unknowable (because if it is deemed unknowable it has been made “said).  So, this is a problem.  The second risk is that in describing the encounter instead of the communication, practitioners of this rhetoric of the impossible must also resist (impossibly?) the subjective experience (because it creates a complete whole that divides self from other?).  The third risk involves the description of encounter: in describing encounter metaphors of “excess” are deployed.  This is dangerous because, according to M., the discourse of excess depends on its excess of the discourse of signification; said plainly: asignification depends on signification to exist (return to the dialectic) (240-3).
  • M. calls these three rhetorical risks the metaphorics of non-knowledge, experience, and excess.  They all highlight the fourth risk: to take the other on its own terms you must recognize the pure otherness . . . . and this pure otherness is at heart contradictory to becoming (244 – lost on this point).
  • M. notes that “Simply put, one cannot avoid reduction, appropriation, signification, and the return of the same.  In order to attend to the irreducible, one must reduce.  One can only welcome the irreducible other in the discourse and in the dimension of the same.  This is the prime directive, the impure law of an impossible ethics, which, it must be added, is the only possible ethics” (245).
  • M. makes a key point at the end of his article concerning who’s “right” in rhetorical scholarship:  “one can never simply point to any of these discourses as being somehow ethically or politically superior because it is more attentive to difference or more concerned with the other. . . . rather than being the telos of rhetoric, judgment may simply be the residue of asignifying, rhetorical practices” (246).

Key Quotes:

In other words, rhetoric might very well indicate a dimension of language that is irreducible to the entire apparatus of signification. Indeed, what originally attracted me to the study of rhetoric was that, at least in its classical incarnation, rhetoric seems largely indifferent to signification and to the processes of either producing or interpreting a meaning. While signifying versions of language might ask questions about how language means, how we can come to understand it, or whether or not we can finally ever approach meaning (or a signified), even the

most instrumental, traditional versions of rhetoric seem to pose different questions. They ask, for instance, what force does language have? How can it impactactions? What effects does it produce (one of which may be “meaning”)? If I want to persuade the polis of something, I’m not necessarily trying to get them to comprehend my meaning or even trying to get them to understand anything at all; I’m just trying to get them to do something.


It is important to emphasize here that despite the fact that the terminology may seem abstract or theoretical, the stakes of Davis’s engagement are anything but. Her project is committed to developing a practical style of engagement with the other (whoever or whatever that might be) that doesn’t simply treat the other as someone to be colonized, appropriated, and translated into something reassuring and comforting for me. Indeed, one rather provocative consequence of such a project is that it raises the possibility that the common contemporary political effort to “recognize difference” or to “acknowledge otherness” might actually be more dangerous than many presume. That is, rather than resisting normalizing, hegemonic discourses, such political work—as important as itmay be in particular cases—might very much coincide with them. In this regard, the liberal championing of “difference” may share a deep resonance with multinational capitalism.

Yes, the other must be irreducible to knowledge, comprehension, and recognition, but it cannot simply be unknowable, incomprehensible, or unrecognizable. Or more precisely, articulating the other as unrecognizable indicates one particular style of recognition, one style of “betrayal.” And the encounter with the other cannot simply be experienced, since experience indicates nothing other than a style of subjective appropriation. In short, the encounter with the irreducible other is and must be impossible. While this encounter is both necessary and irreducible, it cannot simply take place.

The other: neither the same, nor different (nor both): impossible.

Key Sources:

Davis, Diane. 2005. “Adressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 38(3):191–212.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1961. Totality and Infi nity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP.

———— . 1988. Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence. Trans ALphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP.

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