Anathem – Those Evil Rhetoricians

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what to say about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which was nominated for the Hugo in 2009. The problem is that every time I find a line of inquiry worthy of a blog post, I think, “But I really need to reread the book before I write about that.” Rereading a 900 page book isn’t a measure I’m ready to take yet. Anathem was an experience: part speculative fiction novel, part scientific illustration (or calca as they are called in the novel), part dialogue. It made me feel kind of dumb, to be honest, because most of the scientific and mathematic components of the book were, quite frankly, a bit beyond me (there’s a good reason why I study language instead of particle physics). At the same time, I feel somewhat compelled to write something about it, so I did what I usually do when I feel compelled to write about something that seems really really hard: I submitted a proposal to conference.

In this blog post, then, I’m going to be barely brushing on Anathem as a whole. Instead, I want to focus on one longstanding fued of particular importance to my work and which I was surprised to see playing out in such detail in the novel: Plato v. the Sophists. In the mathic world, it’s called the Halikaarn / Proc debate, but it amounts to the same thing: Halikaarnians believe that words have inherent semantic value, that mathematic proofs exist in some kind of perfect state in the Hylaean Theoric World and filter down into our consciousness, while Procians believe that words only have the meanings we proscribe to them. To a certain extent, we have a science v. rhetoric thing going on throughout the novel. Interestingly, at the time of the narrator’s story, the Procian New Circle is in acendancy, with their avout taking positions of power in the hierarchical structure of the mathic world while the Halikaarnians are doing honest work on actual science (or so it is painted by the narrator). In fact, the villains of the novel, for some time, appear to be the New Circle, throwing their weight around to get avout and playing with politics. And I personally found this depiction of rhetoricians slightly offensive, though perhaps not unexpected. After all, rhetoricians have never been popular, and the slimy politician iconograph (as they call established figures or conceptions that non-mathic people have about mathic people) is one that is never far away. Either that or we’re the ones who outright and stubbornly refuse to believe in Truth, Beauty, or Justice (with capital letters of course), making us cynical, jaded, and inclined to condescend to everyone. Which is exactly what the New Circle elders do. Furthermore, popular histories of the mathic world by non-mathic people frequently turn to the supposed epic battle between the Incanters, who had the power to change the future, and the Rhetors, who had the power to change the past by manipulating people’s memories. Of course, in these stories, the Rhetors were the bad guys.

I spent a lot of my time reading this novel feeling slightly grumpy about how the rhetoricians were being depicted (though I really and truly enjoyed the novel as a whole). At the same time, these are only the representations of the narrator, a young, naive, and sometimes painfully stupid young man. I spent a lot of time wondering how much of the bad press was Stephenson’s own ideas about rhetoricians and how much we can attribute to a sometimes unreliable narrator. I’m also left wondering what I should make of the end of the novel in light of the unflattering representations throughout: a Procian and a Halikaarnian come to a point of agreement about all those capital letter worlds and the narrator himself marries a New Circle avout, a young woman who knew she wanted to be in the New Circle from the very beginning (though her special skill in the novel is her ability to organize people, not do theoretical work).

So, with these thoughts in mind, I proposed a paper for the Pop Culture Assocation South / American Culture Association South Regional Conference in a few months. In this paper I’ll be looking at representations of rhetoricians in recent spec fic texts, primarily Anathem and Embassytown — in which we see linguistics and rhetoric set up in a dualistic relationship and in which rhetoric comes out on top. It should be interesting, and it will make me read Anathem again.


4 thoughts on “Anathem – Those Evil Rhetoricians

  1. Pingback: The Farthest Shore – Platonists and Sophists…again | Speculative Rhetoric

  2. Nice writeup; I enjoyed your thoughts, as I’m also one of those people who can countenance Neal Stephenson and Ludwig Wittgenstein with equal enthusiasm. I don’t think the nominalist (or Procian) point of view was set up as a strawman, just not explored as thoroughly. Stephenson concedes that for Rhetors’ alleged powers to work, the nominalist understanding of Fraa Jad’s timeless physics must be as detailed, complete, and valid as his own Platonist understanding. The Rhetors must have reached the same place as Jad and co. (through application of heuristics to syntax rather than cosmography), it just appears different (protean and plastic) because there are multiple ways for local laws to have been consistent (social construction), whereas there’s only one way for global laws to remain consistent (preservation of causality).

    It would’ve been interesting to peek inside a Procian math, but maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t as the entire raison d’être of the Rhetor is to operate as an éminence grise.

    Will check out the rest of your stuff; thanks.

    • Thanks for the response! Having reread the novel to do some more writing on it, I’m inclined to agree with you. The unresolved nature of the conclusion validates both — or at least does not invalidate either — Halikaarn and/or Proc. I am continually worried, though, about how narratives like this one fit in with larger cultural narratives about rhetoric and rhetoricians, if only because I’d like to be able to say at parties that I study rhetoric without people assuming that I’m just trying to win arguments by any means necessary.

  3. Fair points all round – and I’ll prove your point by disagreeing!
    I’m a huge fan of Anathem, and I’m on your flipside by having a really solid grounding in the cosmology/physics/philosophy of science side, but being weak on the linguistics (I was forced to do a language at school and chose Latin, which has turned out to be really useful in many ways, including my enjoyment of this book).
    I’m also a bit of a Platonist…yeah, I freely admit that in scientific circles that’s tantamount to “religion” (as the book alludes to), and I equally freely admit that I have absolutely no evidence to offer other than it just “feels right” – see Wigner’s “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics”.
    So yeah….interesting post to read, because I’d always read Anathem as a book *by* someone with my views, *for* someone with my views. And, as such, I love it.
    Interesting to hear from somebody who is on the “Procian” side to an extent though, and I’m glad to hear that you appreciated, if not 100% enjoyed it. Yeah, you’ve probably got a very good point, while it recognises your take on reality it’s not particularly friendly towards it. And I don’t think Erasmus being “young, naive, and sometimes painfully stupid young man” (a perfectly valid description) excuses the tone of the novel in that regard.
    Not making excuses for Stephenson, it’s his novel, but to be absolutely frank it wouldn’t be my stand-out favourite book so far if he’d tried to balance that argument better. He takes a side and runs with it.
    Thank you for reading it, thank you for understanding it, but as a bit of a Platonist, I really don’t want to see it any different! Your universe, however, may vary 😉

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