Paying Attention: Preliminary Thoughts on Rhetoric and Economics

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

I spent much of last week trying to write an abstract for a yet-to-be-written paper for the New Chaucer Society 2012 conference. I wouldn’t normally try to propose a paper I haven’t written yet–why write extra conference papers when I’m writing so many for my classes, is what I figure–but the conference is in Portland, where my awesome in-laws live, and I’m taking a Chaucer class in the fall anyway, so why the heck not.

Anyway, I’m proposing to a panel on fraud with a paper about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, trying to work with some of the gift-exchange theory that I do. Gift exchange and rhetoric, it turns out, fit together naturally: gifts distinguish themselves from contract primarily through a kind of rhetoric, and furthermore rhetoric can be thought of as a kind of gift. Only one scholar, Marilee Mifsud, has made the latter connection, in a great article published in Philosophy & Rhetoric. Mifsud claims that “Rhetoric’s desire to dispose its audience to invest in the object of attention connects rhetoric to economy,” and goes on to argue that a kind of rhetoric may exist which instead of seeking the audience’s investment in the speaker alone, can create a kind of gracious excess (89). It’s a dense argument, and I won’t go through it all here–but the important point for now is the relationship between rhetoric and economy. We acknowledge this connection when we speak of paying attention, or when we ask a crowd to lend us their ears, or give us the floor. The exchange between a speaker and an audience is inescapably economic, because the attention we pay or give could be paid or given to any number of other objects.

So that’s the basic connection between rhetoric and economics, which has been absolutely revelatory for my studies. I’m interested in studying rhetoric, but until I discovered Mifsud’s argument I wasn’t sure how to connect rhetoric to my obsession with gifts, which has been used more in the study of literature and culture. So that’s been an important discovery for me.

Thinking about fraud has led this down a fascinating path as well, and here’s where I want to grope out into the realm of speculation and preliminary thoughts. If attention itself is a gift or payment to the rhetorician, fraudulent rhetoric does not necessarily involve lying or attempting to cheat the audience. The rhetorician can seek to defraud the audience simply by directing them to pay attention to the wrong object–even if the rhetoric itself contains nothing false. So you can be a cheat of a speaker even while speaking the truth and practicing a superficially honest rhetoric.

Not sure what the implications of this point are (maybe I’ll find out in writing that Chaucer paper), but I think it’s an original idea. I’m also interested in examples–I think there are some in Troilus and Criseyde, but I would love to hear about more. Can you think of examples of rhetoricians (in real life or fiction) who are fraudulent even while truthful, because they encourage their audience to “invest” their attention badly?

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