The Deliberative Sublime: Edmund Burke on Disruptive Speech and Imaginative Judgment

Edmund Burke Engraving
Edmund Burke Engraving

By Rob Goodman of McGill University

Could it be true that judicious political conduct requires injudicious political language? Is there a case to be made for the value, amidst relatively settled institutions, of unsettling speech—speech characterized by rhetorical excess, exaggeration, impropriety, indecorousness, and even the uncanny?

Given the current state of American political discourse, many of us would be tempted to answer with a firm “no.” In fact, many of us would likely agree with former President Obama’s argument that “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation,” or with the bipartisan group in the House of Representatives, who last year claimed in a draft resolution that “civil discourse and dialogue…have been jeopardized in recent years by growing division in and coarsening of our political culture,” and who called for “civility training in schools.”

And again, many political theorists would seem to sympathize with these arguments. The literature on democratic deliberation (even when rather grudgingly setting aside a place for rhetoric as a prompt or invitation to deliberation) often conceives of the desirable norms of political speech in restrained terms, stressing discussion, conversation, civility, and strict factuality.

These concerns are part of a long tradition. To eighteenth-century ears, for instance, such complaints over immoderate political speech would have sounded familiar. Among theorists in the early era of constitutionalism, it was something of a commonplace that the rule-bound governance of the modern era demanded a complementary style of rule-bound speech: a discourse that was factual, restrained, dispassionate, and even happily mediocre. When the partisans of this discourse denounced classical eloquence as “waste language” (John Trenchard), praised the speech of modern pleaders who aimed only “at convincing and instructing” (Hugh Blair), or decried “the ascendency of passion over reason” (James Madison), they anticipated in important ways the deliberative theorists of the present, as well as the contemporary yearning for “civility” as a cure to political ills.

Even if the discourse of deliberative civility has been more honored in the breach than the observance, it is still a matter of enduring interest for political theory: notions of acceptable and aberrant speech have long been treated as central to a polity’s self-conception. It is one thing to tolerate immoderate speech; it is another thing to actively defend it. How could one make such a defense? Why would one even want to do so?

In a paper presented at the 2016 MPSA conference, which was recently published in APSR as “The Deliberative Sublime: Edmund Burke on Disruptive Speech and Imaginative Judgment,” I tried to answer those questions. In doing so, I drew on an unlikely eighteenth-century source: Edmund Burke’s theory and practice of rhetorical excess or, in his own terms, the rhetorical sublime.

In the Burkean view that I develop, there are considerable costs to thoroughly hiving off from the work of deliberation what Thomas Spragens once called the “darker passions.” Drawing on Burke to defend unruly rhetoric might seem unlikely just because he shared with contemporary critics of rhetorical excess an appreciation for stability, predictability, and gradualism in the institutions and practices of government. But Burke’s historical reputation as the ur-conservative (which recent biographers have challenged as anachronistic), might blind us to the ways in which he rejected his contemporaries’ association of moderate language with moderate governance.

For Burke, such governance demanded the exercise of circumstantial judgment—and therefore demanded that deliberators overcome an allegedly ingrained resistance to judging. Burke presumed that most of us would take every opportunity to offload the pain of judgment onto preexisting “methods and forms,” maxims, and abstractions, all of which fail to engage with circumstantial complexities. He consistently urged his audiences to attend to the singular political moment and its particular circumstances, a challenge for which rules, procedures, and nostrums offer little help. In fact, he held that the very political stability he prized might lead deliberators to abdicate judgment. We may sympathize with such concerns if we recall the ways in which the phenomena of group polarization or the power of partisan loyalty over political perceptions and preferences seem to perform similar judgment-avoidance functions in our own time.

For Burke, the spur to sound political judgment was immoderate language: speech that might serve as a provocation of judgment and a corrective against the deliberative weaknesses he saw as endemic to constitutional government. There is thus a necessary place within settled institutions for unsettling and even uncanny speech. Burke proposes, in short, that the “deliberative sublime” is not the contradiction that it would seem to be. If the sublime is a kind of crisis of the senses—a simulation of danger that provokes a “sense of inward greatness” when successfully encompassed by the mind—there is a comparable kind of crisis that does not undermine a constitutional order, but inoculates it. My paper attempts to show how an analogous claim can be brought to bear on the anti-rhetorical strand of contemporary deliberative democracy—and, on the other hand, how even the Burkean defense of sublimity is consistent with a recognition of the harmfulness of certain kinds of uncivil and hateful speech.

While Burke is best known today for his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he was also regarded as one of the leading parliamentary orators of his day—one whose language, even by the standards of its time, seemed especially florid, heated, emotive, or superabundant. One contemporary compared him to a howling “wolf” in debate, and another described him as “foaming like Niagara.” Such contemporaries as William Wordsworth and James Boswell were struck by the force of his rhetoric. Others described him in terms of ethnic caricature, as when the populist politician John Wilkes mocked his “wild Irish eloquence” as the product of “potatoes and whiskey.”

My paper engages in a close reading of a number of passages of the kind that inspired these assessments—passages that seem to have been intended to startle, provoke, and disorient. Those passages include an account of a bloody whaling expedition, imagined visitations by supernatural entities, and a vision of the globe “burned to ashes” in the apocalypse. In some strict senses of the term, such passages are not “deliberative” at all. But in Burke’s theory of language and judgment—which was developed in his early work on the aesthetics of the sublime and put into practice in his oratorical career—such passages are integral to deliberation, because they stimulate the imagination and prime audiences for the exercise of judgment. In Burke’s terms, deliberation is so mentally strenuous that most of us take every excuse to avoid it—and so we must be “alarmed into reflection.” In fact, Burke explicitly cast his oratory as an appeal to the imagination:

Do not entertain so weak an imagination as that your registers and your bonds, your affidavits and your sufferances, your cockets and your clearances, are what form the great securities of your commerce… All this, I know well enough, will sound wild and chimerical to the profane herd of those vulgar and mechanical politicians…who, therefore, far from being qualified to be directors of the great movement of empire, are not fit to turn a wheel in the machine.

Burke’s object is not just to criticize the habits of parliamentary government for failing to “stretch and expand our minds”—but also that his own words might begin to affect the needed expansion. Burke leads us to the counterintuitive position that the language best suited to judgment may not itself be judicious.

None of this means that we ought to mistrust the notion of civility itself. Burke, for one, stressed that politics, “as it is a work for social ends, is to be only wrought by social means.” In other words, deliberation is a collaborative activity, and it benefits from the inclusion of marginal perspectives and language, as Burke’s own example illustrates. Because deliberation is collaborative, orators are obliged to carefully balance the need to provoke with the need to preserve the social context that gives provocation its value, steering clear of the kind of incivility that can be described (in the words of J. Cherie Strachan and Michael R. Wolf) as “rhetoric apt to sever relationships.” On the other hand, my paper argues that too demanding a notion of civility can stunt deliberation. We may have good reason to prefer a standard of civility minimal enough to make room for disturbingly provocative speech, agonistic ambition, and even what Teresa M. Bejan called “a commitment to mutual contempt.”

While Burke was engaged with eighteenth-century problems of parliamentary government, his core arguments—that cultivating political judgment can be difficult and even painful, and that disruptive speech can help us overcome that pain—continue to resonate. Consider, for instance, a 2014 speech of Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshall Islands poet, to the United Nations Climate Summit. Jetñil-Kijiner addressed these words to her infant daughter, imagining the lagoon near their home transformed by rising seas: “Men say that one day that lagoon will devour you. They say it will gnaw at the shoreline, chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees, gulp down rows of your seawalls, and crunch your island’s shattered bones.” The echoes of the Burkean sublime, and its aim of alarming into reflection, ought to be evident enough. At the same time, reconceiving deliberation in Burkean terms would lead us to reconsider the varieties of political speech we tend to view as troubling—not only the demagogic appeal, but also what Umberto Eco called the “pernicious vacuousness” that fails to offend and equally fails to engage our judgment.

MPSA_Awards_RecognizingOutstandingResearch
About the Author:
Rob Goodman will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science at McGill University, beginning in August. His paper “Edmund Burke and the Deliberative Sublime”, presented at the 2016 MPSA conference, received the Review of Politics Award in 2017.

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