Rhetoric and Magic in the Anthropocene: A Variation

Below is a comment on Tim Morton’s Realist Magic available on Open Humanities Press, and recently published in paperback.  For a review see a previous Environmental Critique post by Rick Elmore, “Adventures in Realist Magic” (6.20.13).  (WordPress link functions not cooperating in this endeavor.)  I highly recommend the paperback to scholars who want to grasp the material more firmly and really work with it.


Timothy Morton’s critique of modern causality in Realist Magic is in some sense a fulfillment of an unspoken promise in the earlier works.  It reveals the fragile “man” behind the curtain of  the normal science that underwrites consumer capitalism, and it synthesizes Morton’s aesthetic and ecological investments in a manner that avid readers will find particularly satisfying.  While it is commonplace to critique the scientific establishment in the name of ecology, much current criticism fails to grasp the elusiveness of the empirical method as a hyperobject that confounds conventional analyses.  Morton’s thesis that causality is aesthetic braves the complexities.  It also comes to the rescue of sleeping Beauty and the dwarfed Humanities (to confound and confuse narratives even further).


In this comment I focus on Morton’s stunningly simple inversion of the rhetorical canons.  The five canons, often used to describe the writing process, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  In Realist Magic Morton privileges delivery, arguing that the other canons, as aesthetic moments, follow (in reverse order) from delivery.  Indeed, the work performs this thesis, beginning with the opening of Realist Magic and Morton’s sound track of PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.  The melancholy 90’s mix sets the tone for the work at hand, attunes us to Morton’s melancholy, and foregrounds relationships between affect and cognition within the context of causality.

Linking the rhetorical canons and causality is not so radical given the dominance of the canons as tools of thought in the pre-modern era, and the likelihood that the empirical method was derived from these rhetorical habits.  However the reversal of order and focus on delivery, as opposed to invention, are very—Morton.  As I suggest above, the inversion also dovetails with affect theory, if delivery follows sense of audience and sense of audience follows affect (attachment), as outlined, for example, in Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself.  I particularly appreciate Morton’s references to sound throughout the text.  Sound is an important element of rhetoric (which I think is categorically affective), not only because tone is always constructive of meaning, self, and relationships, but because internalized qualities of rhythm and harmony pervade all rhetorical performances including Morton’s text.  This emphasis on sound is performed by the cadences of Morton’s well-known authorial voices, articulated through his prose, and in the echoes of his public and new-media selves.  Morton’s recursive style is also punctuated by sharp images, including (my favorite) clown faces crowding the picture frame.


Circling inelegantly back to rhetoric, aesthetic and affective qualities of causality are evident not only in the rhetorical canons, but also in the Classical Stases, which are the stages of an argument or deliberation.  The conventional order (stages) of Stases arguments (“stasis” is the singular) are fact, definition, cause and effect, evaluation, and policy/procedure, or what I might here modulate into “practice.”  (This is one of many versions of the Stases, btw.)  Arguments about causality are crucial to conventional processes of deliberation because they are the presumed basis of value judgments and practical procedures, but they are relevant to the discussion at hand because, as arguments, they have an affective quality.  A good deal of contemporary critical and rhetorical theory  (not to mention neuroscience) has proposed that cause and effect follow value judgments, which follow practice as habit.  To the extent that all of these arguments are aesthetic/affective, not only sound and sight, but various other senses (external and internalized), determine our perceptions of causality.  Following Morton, rhetoricians might further explore an inversion of the Stases.  We might ask what aesthetically and affectively warrants practice and work back through value, cause and effect (or effect and cause), and definition, to fact. 

Such a reverse practice, a rhetrico-hermeneutic moonwalk if you will, could be applied to virtually any socio-cultural situation or text.  Ecological restoration, for example, a major concern of the Institute for Nature & Culture which sponsors Environmental Critique, could be encountered as an aesthetic problem, which derives its ethical means and meanings from beauty, writ large.


On the simplest level Realist Magic reminds us that causes are infinitely complex and our instrumental understanding of them is always an interpretation.  The book is full of rhetorical magic performed, as Morton advises, right before our eyes.  While the old alchemists strived to turn dross into gold, Morton merely vanishes matter, and thus the usual “substance” of both capital and science.  He does not dissolve the real into the ideal however.  Rather he separates the real from the material, redirecting our attention to affect, the limitations that science places on our affective experience, and the capacity of art to reveal and realign our priorities.


Image titles, artists, and sources in the order they appear:

Installation 1 by Gregory Euclide:



Field of Flowers by David Friedman:


Self-portrait with Masks by James Ensor:


The Big Bang by David Friedman:



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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Art, Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology, Music, Nature, Objects, OOO

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