VIVIAN, Bradford; Being made strange: Rethoric beyond representation, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004,

by Igor E. Klyukanov

The author begins his book by noting that, in our efforts to understand the “supposedly universal human condition” (p. x), rhetoric plays a crucial role, traditionally conceived as an instrument which allows humans to represent transcendent phenomena. Traditional (Western) rhetoric of human being, in this sense, takes for granted such scholastic benchmarks as reason, truth, and transparency of speech. Bradford Vivian questions this logic and asks if we can “conceive of rhetoric without appealing to essential notions of human being” (p. 9). The groundwork for answering this question is laid out in Part 1 (“Beyond Representation”), which is critical in nature.

The author claims that the voice of traditional rhetoric, as representing intention or judgment by language, is too strong and biased. It is argued in the book that such concepts as identity, intention, and language have taken over our understanding of rhetoric; as a result, rhetoric in the active voice leads to “an intellectually conservative and rigidly moral interpretation of pedagogy, communication, and civic life” (p. 74-75). Such rhetoric, traditionally identified with ethos as artful expression of one’s essential nature is too categorical and results in unidirectional communication.

The author goes on to defend rhetoric from “the clandestine dagger of representation” (p. 53), emphasizing its discursive and non-representational nature. Not surprisingly, the template for this defense is formed by the ideas of such thinkers as Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida whose thrust is clearly postmodern. Based on their ideas, the author offers a new conception of rhetoric – rhetoric in the middle voice. This conception is developed in more detail in Part 2 (“Being Otherwise”), which is conceptual and methodological in nature.

Having criticized traditional rhetoric in the active voice for its equating communication with ethos of representation and canonization of the dichotomous ontology of subjectivity, conceptualized either as being or becoming, either essence or appearance, Bradford Vivian considers human being “in its more indeterminate and potentially transformational sense, as both a noun and a gerund” (p. 15); thus, the author’s approach takes on a non-linear character. Discussion of language reappears in the book, similarly to the reappearance of language following the “death of God” which, coupled with the “birth of man,” became the organizing principle of modern knowledge and discourse. For the author of the book, modernistic literature exemplifies the middle voice whereby language, as such, engenders subjects and objects, disseminating meaning (p. 50). Using literature as an example does not come as a surprise; the term itself, “the middle voice,” is borrowed by the author of the book from Hayden White who emphasized its doubly active nature as it both produces an effect on an object and constitutes a particular kind of agent. At the same time, “the middle voice expresses the occurrence of meaning without identifying it as either cause or effect” (p. 60).

Thus, rhetoric in the middle voice is defined, by analogy with modern literature, by self-enacting discourse, which engenders, maintains, or transforms modes of subjectivity. In this sense, rhetoric in the active voice itself turns out to be merely one of such discursive modes, engendered by rhetoric in the middle voice (p. 87). Following Foucault, the author focuses on the way in which different elements are related to one another in a discursive formation; this way – the Tao of rhetoric in the middle voice as it were – is captured in the concept of ethos that “refers to the heterogeneous sense and value of social relations themselves” (p. 102). Thus, the author of the book strives, from a rhetorical perspective, to de-center subjectivity, as far as it is possible to do without recourse to categorical being yet using language. In this respect, the author’s arguments resonate with, for example, the basic premises of discursive psychology that proclaims everything in the human world “in some measure, indeterminate” (Harré & Gillett, 1994: 35) or similar attempts in semiotics of de-centering “the self to an optimal extent, beyond which there is no more self” (Wiley, 1994: 194).

The author argues that the ethos of a discursive formation can be studied according to its style, which manifests the middle voice of rhetoric. Taking French sociologist Michel Maffesoli’s innovative definition of style as “the crystallizing sentiment of an epoch” (p. 114), the author of the book reconfigures this concept rhetorically, emphasizing its emotive and aesthetic rather than rational and universal aspects. In this light, communication is presented as a process of people “touching” one another rhetorically, “not a normative civic ideal, but the preservation of social or discursive conditions” (p. 128). True to his goal, the author is careful to avoid focusing on any represented position, as such, identifying as the defining feature of style its performative pursuit of dispersion. Even in the etymology of the term “discourse,” while explaining the rhetorical function of collective style, the author emphasizes its nature to run in several directions in a disorganized and chaotic way (p. 126) rather than its more traditional meaning derived from Late Latin “discursus” – “a running back and forth.” Similarly later in the book, the author finds the etymological core of the word “communication” in its “indelible sameness” (p. 188), which overshadows its connotations of sharing or exchange, based on implied differences. Traditional definitions of such fundamental concepts as “discourse” or “communication,” it seems, do not fit well in the author’s conception of rhetoric in the middle voice for each such definition can be viewed as a representation of inherent identity – the very position challenged in the book. At the same time, the author notes that his conception of rhetoric beyond representation should not be equated with a termination of rhetoric in its conventional form; he is careful to point out that, in his book, new significance is assigned to the nonrepresentational rather than antirepresentational elements of rhetoric (p. 37). Two specific case studies of such nonrepresentational elements are provided in Part 3 of the book (“Rhetoric and the Politics of Self and Other”).

More specifically, the author demonstrates alternate approaches to the relationship between subjectivity and the discursive formation of time, memory, and historical experience, investigating the public memory of Thomas Jefferson (chapter  5) and the interplay of speech and silence, based on the analysis of Malek Alloula’s “The Colonial Harem,” which describes a collection of erotic postcards of Muslim women popular among French colonists at the beginning of the last century (chapter 6). The author shows how the ethos of the past provides the discursive conditions according to which we define our relationship to historical figures as well as ourselves. It is convincingly argued that our collective memory often arises as a crisis of representation when “commemoration is not the product of a deep and coherent knowledge of the past. To the contrary, … it comes into being as the manifestation of a desire to regard our frequently shallow and elliptical knowledge of the past otherwise” (p. 153). Although it is never explicitly stated in the book, perhaps the author’s conception of rhetoric in the middle voice can be viewed as a reaction to such a crisis of representation, i.e. rhetoric’s traditional reduction to representation. The author of the book identifies this crisis and presents his case for rhetoric in the middle voice eloquently and meticulously. In a manner of speaking, he tries to make sure this middle voice is heard in the huge heritage museum of Western traditional thought, challenging its very foundations. Whether this call to question rhetoric as a purely representational phenomenon is supported or not will be seen as an indication of whether such a crisis of representation is, indeed, present or not.


HARRÉ, Rom and Grant GILLET.

The Discursive Mind. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage).

WILEY, Norbert.

The Semiotic Self. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

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