Sacrifice to the Signifier, in Comic Praise of the Logos
When Socrates wanted to inspire Glaucon with knowledge of the pure forms, he conjured up a rhetorical fantasm—a word-picture whose referent could appear no other way, and whose signified emerged from a cluster of signifiers (men chained before a blazing fire, shadows on a cave wall, etc.). At once self-consciously artificial and didactic, Socrates’ allegory prompts an understanding, produces a knowledge that leans upon fantasy and imagination as its only supports. Replying to Socrates, Glaucon registers his appreciation of the allegory: "All this I see."
Perhaps this primal scene of philosophical instruction can most productively be grasped as a deaf moment, or as an occasion of occult second sight that funds the philosophical drive toward the absolute. An ambitious, and careless, reading of this allegory might suggest that it illustrates a logic of signification grounded in imaginary (as opposed to symbolic) identifications—that sight, and not sound, image and not voice, is the most fundamental sensual modality, and that, consequently, all rhetoric is "visual." Herman Rapaport tempers ambition with caution: "More interesting is how a prop such as the cave image can suddenly turn into a stage, how an mage, itself framed, can immediately stage itself as stage and in that way absent itself or disappear from the viewer’s consciousness as image, object, or prop." That disappearing or absenting harnesses a sensual response, a response that, paradoxically, evokes a disembodied gaze. "So much, then, depends on a stage prop, on the theatricalization of philosophy." And more than that, so much depends upon the reduction of significance into sensation, the return or even radical collapse of all language in/to the body.
To some degree, such observations have durable pivots, not only in the allegory of the cave—which I take to be one of the archaic master-texts for any theorizing about visual rhetorics—but moreover in vernacular manifestations of (alleged) understanding. Glaucon’s utterance—"All this I see"—is a paradigmatic figure of speech, not a literal knowledge-claim, which composes a prominent pattern of response to the words of others. "I see what you mean," "I see it clearly now," "I’ve seen the light," etc.—such a pattern of response pins abstract cognition to sensual particularity. Furthermore, the rhetorical/poetic category of imagery suggests similar principles of anchorage. Vividness, clarity, scope, proportionality, elegance, and other criteria for rhetorical excellence all imply firm grounding in the utilities and pleasures of sight.
The prominence of that pattern or grounding may indeed imply a hegemony of vision over other sensory modes, but it does not perform a radical break from what Gadamer terms "linguisticality" or what we typically refer to as the logos. Nor does it recommend the displacement of other ways of essentializing human subjectivity, e.g., homo...