That, Those, and the Other

President Obama speaking to a little girl who's built a block tower, words You Didn't Build That imposed over image

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"[H]ere. Where? There." — Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context"

When I think of the concept “technology,” I think of computers. Well, I think of other things too—mostly things with screens and occasionally things that explode—but if I were asked to draw a picture of “technology,” it’d probably resemble a laptop. 

I should know better (or think better), though, than to be forgetful of the technological, mechanical nature of even more familiar things. Take grammar, for instance, which is nowhere and everywhere for a rhetoric instructor. Right smack at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Rhetoric of Testing” in her book Stupidity, Avital Ronell writes, “He would not have claimed, as did Heidegger to his friends, that his greatest accomplishment was thinking through the elusive premises of technology.... Nonetheless, Paul de Man’s work is essentially engaged with and inflected by the question concerning technology” (97). De Man, Ronell argues, “tracked the unstoppable technology of a grammar.”

I would assume I’m not the only one who’s usually ignorant of grammar’s technological nature. The interface breaks occasionally (I’m looking at you, writer’s block), but everyday writing/speaking/signifying seems heavily reliant on suspending one’s attention toward grammar’s relentless mechanicity and just hammering or yammering away.

But perhaps I’m just living up to Ronell’s book’s title here. If I’ve gotten off track above, I’ll switch metaphors and buckle down: The point is I’ve been less forgetful of grammar’s technological function in the past few weeks, and it’s all thanks to two short words: “those” and “that” (stop me if you’ve heard this one).

You may know the drill. Last year, Elizabeth Warren said the following:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea—God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Then, a couple of months ago, Barack Obama reiterated her sentiment on the campaign trail:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

And one line from that Obama speech—“you didn’t build that”—got pulled from its context, becoming the (arguably fallacious) apotheosis of Obama’s economic and moral failings at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

A charitable reading—and I’m not the first to try it—might consider the context of “you didn’t build that” and assume Obama’s “that” was actually meant as a “those” referring to “roads and bridges” or infrastructure in general. Of course, if you want to read with the technological rigor of a grammar machine, the deictic reference is—mechnically speaking—to “business,” which is singular and thus a match for “that.” When the grammar robots rise to rule the world, they will surely remember Obama’s utterance as meaning this: All your business are belong to us.

But—to offer an interpretation of Obama’s reiteration of Warren—reading in line with a “grammatical automation” that accepts “business” as the referent of “that” would seem to require a willful ignorance of context (Ronell 97). Or, perhaps, requires charging President Obama with a great deal of stupidity for letting “that” one slip. A glance at the comment sections of articles on 2012’s Great Referential Fiasco (Thatergate?) reveals plenty of readers who think there’s a deeper, truer context—perhaps psychological, perhaps anti-capitalist—that can help us understand what Obama really meant when the grammar machine broke down on him. His slip of the tongue was a Freudian one, or so the argument might go.

I’ve got my own feelings on that subject, but I’m not blogging politics. I’m blogging pedagogy. So what’s the pedagogical significance of the words above?

First, I’m always excited (when I'm not distressed) to teach a rhetoric course in an election year. In that sense, I’m excited for what “you didn’t build that” bodes—who could build a class discussion without some a campaign season's deadwood? There is certainly much more of that to come.

Second, I wonder what meaning’s breakdown in such a seemingly obvious context as “you didn’t build that” suggests about how I communicate with students as the semester unfolds. I try to tread lightly when bringing political issues into the classroom, at least insofar as I try to resist taking a firm stance while students think through whether they’d rather vote for “that” or “those”—or “these” or “this” or the other. But though I can anticipate the engine’s sputterings when I’m intentionally playing "devil’s advocate" (sorry, Mr. Eastwood [see 7:18 for another fruitful moment for those teaching rhetoric]), I’m generally cruising too absent-mindedly to notice the tiny hitches every time the grammar bus runs over a deictic term. At which points can I practice more rigorous grammatical awareness and avoid the breakdown, and at which point is it better for me to realize that my grammar or my metaphor is collapsing no matter how hard I try to stay on the same page with my students?

Who’s driving this classroom anyway? The same person(s) who built this road we’re on?


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