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Upbuilding Discourse

I. Reference as Self-Reference

In addition to a few marvelous skills, a liberal arts education teaches one the reprehensible habit of inserting the names of writers and books into discussions. The speaker usually knows that it is a reprehensible habit, and is still tempted by the fruit of it. “For the right audience,” he might think (and we might even imagine him saying it with a harsh lateral lisp), “yes, for the right audience this could be a concise way to present ideas. I’ll just mention Kant by name and everyone will know that I am speaking from a standpoint inimical to Humean skepticism. And for the right audience, I can establish myself as an insider, and as someone drawing ideas from time-tested authority.” So he might think. And in this habit he goes on, more or less friendless, searching for that right audience.

An exaggeration, sure, but an important one. What is reprehensible about name-dropping is not that it makes the speaker look pretentious (that would be disadvantageous, but not reprehensible). What is reprehensible is that name-dropping usually gets in the way of any attempt at building the listener up. Building the listener up is compelling him to cross over into the truth that has been presented; it is prophesying to encourage the congregation, not merely praying in the mysterious language of one’s private mind; it is demanding the listener be a doer of the word, and not a hearer only (as much as possible from a discourse). So what is reprehensible is that name-dropping gives a reference to an authority that is in effect a reference to the speaker—a self-reference that does not build the listener up. The self-reference may be useful, insightful, charming, but it is not something the listener can take to build himself up. The listener usually cannot do anything in response to the reference, except maybe agree or disagree with its placement in the discourse. If he cannot do anything, he is certainly not built up.

Now, what about building the listener up? Generally, the listener’s upbuilding will be in proportion to the speaker’s disappearance, to the speaker’s obscurity, to the speaker’s fading into the content of the discourse, to the discourse becoming indistinguishable from the listener’s thoughts. This does not suggest that the speaker says what the listener already thinks. (Pandering is inflating, not building up.) Rather, an upbuilding discourse is addressed directly to the listener as the sole listener, so that he may compare the discourse to the voice of his own conscience. If the discourse is upbuilding, it eventually loses the speaker’s personality, the I of the discourse, and takes up the conscience’s you, which is the address of innermost human thinking—intimate, ineffable, indistinguishable from self. So the most upbuilding discourses tend to be the ones that memory paraphrases rather than quotes. Needing no exact reference to the speaker, the stress falls not on the reference but on the power of the idea, not in the spoken or written word but in the word-become-flesh in the life of the listener.

II. A Little Self-Reference

To go back a bit, dropping Kant’s name into a discussion may indeed be useful. Any reference, not just name-dropping, may be useful. Self-reference may be useful—useful from the perspective of rhetoric, which should not be overlooked or pooh-poohed. Keeping that in mind, the preceding section may be summed up with stress on a condition: if the purpose of the discourse is to build the listener up, then reference (self-reference) might undermine the purpose.

But—if the ultimate purpose of this blog is to build the reader up, why are there sections devoted to reference (and the writer’s self-reference), such as the posting categories for quotes and reflectionsthe “About” page, and Section II of this very post? The answer: weakness. These references are a display of one kind of weakness, for this blog’s writer uses others’ words where his own are lacking. On the other hand, these references are so much a part of the writer that they almost make no reference; if the name were missing from the bottom of a quote, for example, the writer would be guilty of plagiarism but not of stealing; the references are stand-ins for his own words until he has the time or talent to give an original, non-referential, upbuilding presentation. But this comes back to weakness, which the writer submits to the reader’s merciful heart.

One of the writer’s goals is to do away with reference and self-reference in his writing—that is, to have only Section I and no Section II.

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