May 23, 2006

A new rhetorical technique

Or rather, a new term for an old rhetorical technique. John Holbo, "The Mark Steyn Code", describes premature dejoculation: "stripping off the humor so you can paint it on again". As he explains,

Something like this problem actually arises in academic writing. In order to have something original to say, you pretend so-and-so didn’t see something about his own position which, plausibly, he really did. (Not a strawman argument, because you aren’t exactly attacking. A straight man argument. You need them to say something a bit obtuse, to make a space for your cleverness.)

Among the comments, Holbo hints at a relationship to Harold Bloom's theory of misreading, which is described by the Wikipedia as follows:

"Poetic influence, as I conceive it, is a variety of melancholy or the [Freudian] anxiety-principle." A new poet becomes inspired to write because he has read and admired the poetry of previous poets; but this admiration turns into resentment when the new poet discovers that these poets whom he idolized have already said everything he wishes to say. The poet becomes disappointed because he "cannot be Adam early in the morning. There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything."

In order to evade this psychological obstacle, the new poet must convince himself that previous poets have gone wrong somewhere and failed in their vision, thus leaving open the possibility that he may have something to add to the tradition after all.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 23, 2006 06:48 AM