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.

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