When I learned the news of Jim’s death, I could think of nothing better to do than to read his work. Like Jim, I am a reader. I think he thought as I do: when someone takes the time to read your words, to think about what it is that you have said, it is a great honor. And so, I picked Selling the Free Market off my shelf and settled in for the day. I’m glad that I did because the book reminded me that his voice will always be with us; I could hear him in line after line. But it also reminded me that we have lost a gifted and discerning student of rhetoric.
As a self-proclaimed, old-fashioned curmudgeon, Jim began as everyone should always begin, with a definition: "Rhetoric," he argued, "is the process of justifying decisions under conditions of uncertainty" (4). Both clauses mattered to him. In my experience, little angered Jim more than arbitrary decisions, whether from a president, a dean or a school board. At the heart of collective life, he believed, stood the need for reasoned assent; democracy demanded that people justify their choices and actions.
Equally important, those choices occurred under conditions of uncertainty. Like his mentor and advisor Tom Farrell, Aune viewed rhetoric as a practice that manages contingency–that which sometimes is and sometimes is not the case. There are no eternal truths or narratives, excepting, perhaps, the selfishness of a robber baron’s heart. Rather, rhetoric is a mode of collective action that tries to define and address communal problems under conditions of radical contingency; we simply do not know for sure what will work, what will make people’s lives better. That is why we deliberate.
Yet, as Farrell notes, we do not act in a vacuum, either. We have social knowledge ready to hand, the sets of usually implicit assumptions and languages that craft how we perceive, address and change the world around us. There are many ways and means of social knowledge, but I think Aune emphasized a couple in his work.
He focused on what I would call a broad social exigence, for lack of a better term, as a spur for rhetorical action. In other words, rather than looking to a narrow (Bitzerian) immediate rhetorical problem–say, the need to propose and pass a budget or to proclaim the state of the union–Aune turned instead to persistent cultural and societal issues. In Selling the Free Market, for instance, he addressed the concern animating much of his scholarly life: the transition from mid-century to late capitalism, the need to understand and grasp what he also termed "globalization." This was, he believed, a felt, material phenomenon, one that conditioned and animated a variety of political and cultural rhetoric. We knew our world was changing around us; we needed to understand and address that fact.
If social knowledge offered us stylized arguments for defining societal problems, it also offered set and available languages or ideologies to address and/or resolve them. The one that infuriated Aune through much of his life was that of free market economics or, as he called one aspect of it, "the rhetoric of economic correctness" (4). That ideology, like all ideologies, sought to manage the contradictions it threw up, in terms of its "fit" to the world and in terms of itself as a language. The task of rhetorical criticism, Jim believed, "is to identify the contradictions in an ideology and thus show the opponents of that ideology effective ways to target arguments. In a more conventional scholarly sense, rhetorical criticism of ideology develops an account of how ideologies grow and decay in the presence of internal and external problems" (121-2). Thus, as an "old-fashioned socialist," Jim used the traditional tools of rhetoric (and please note how often he turned to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca in this book) in combination with what he thought was "Karl Marx’s greatest contribution to the human sciences, namely, his unmasking of the strategies used by apologists for capitalism to obscure alternative ways of seeing both the nature of work and the possibilities of justice" (4).
As a rhetorical critic and social democrat, then, Jim sought to demystify the language of capitalism, to expose its contradictions and provide activists with appropriate and useful lines of arguments in the quest for social justice. At the heart of his project was a faith in the people around him, in the people he met in everyday life, from his colleagues to auto mechanics, from philosophers to waiters. He wished to improve the conditions and possibilities of public debate because he believed, with John Dewey (xiii), that the more people understood the public address and material conditions that defined them and their place in life, the more tools they would have to change themselves and their circumstances.
To that project, he brought an extraordinary array of critical faculties. Jim Aune was the most well-read man that I have ever met and this book demonstrates that fact. Equally important, he brought that erudition to bear without bias or prejudice. For instance, as he noted in the Preface, "I have learned as much, however, from traditionalist conservative critics of market rhetoric as I have from those on the left" (xiii). If he could learn from them, Aune cited them.
He also often cited Raymond Williams’s concept of a "structure of feeling." The book reflects Aune’s commitment to exploring patterns of free market rhetoric. He moved from scholarly writing to popular scholarly writing to traditional political rhetoric to cyberpunk fiction. More so than most, he understood the value, similarities and differences that marked the genres of public life, from the philosophical manifesto to the political tract to the science fiction novel. He found ways to bring them all into his analysis while also respecting their respective roles in the culture. In other words, Jim was not a reductionist or a vulgar sort of Marxist.
Yet he was a social democrat and he saw far more clearly than most of us do the institutional and political roots of so much American public address. He often noted, for instance, the "sponsors" of works he studies: "What It Means to Be a Libertarian (1997) was subsidized by the American Heritage Institute and by the Bradley Foundation" (111). An economics textbook was "published by Oxford University Press," but "the writing was financed and the book’s publication was ‘arranged’ by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City" (29). Uh-huh. Institutions matter.
His interest in using all that there is to use is readily apparent in Selling the Free Market. His chapter on "Economic Rhetoric and the Realist Style" is worth the price of admission; he sketched not only the arguments of economic realists such as Richard Posner, but also the dancing of the attitude that marked them: "They reflect a world-view that is pleased with itself for ‘seeing through’ the pretensions of poets, dreamers, and romantics. It is not difficult to imagine the right set of gestures for performing these utterances: the controlled, even vocal tone; the ironic shrug; the relaxed physical posture (perhaps accompanied by a few puffs on a pipe)" (40).
And as this passage indicates, Jim believed you could have fun with criticism. Few of us would have dared or imagined a critique of Robert Nozick’s libertarianism framed as a Star Trek: Next Generation episode or characterized the ridiculous "exaggerated sexuality" of Ayn Rand’s work as "something like an intellectual 1950s adolescent’s version of heavy-metal videos." I’ll miss that voice.
Please excuse this long post, but Jim’s work matters. He leaves us, I think, with two challenges. First, as he often indignantly proclaimed, rhetorical critics need to study economic rhetoric; we have sorely neglected the rhetorical history of labor unions, the economic speeches of presidents, the discursive constitution of key economic institutions such as the Federal Reserve or even the Treasury Department. If you want to honor Jim, write about the rhetoric of economics. Second, write about it with the ethical passion he brought to his work. People mattered. Jim never lost sight of the people public address affected. For instance, he made fun of Ayn Rand, but he was also clear about her ethical import: "To recognize yourself in the last pages of Atlas Shrugged, gloating over the ruins of civilization, may be fine if you are fantasizing about schoolyard bullies and snobbish cheerleaders receiving their comeuppance. But to turn such anger into a politics and a religion is not a fit preoccupation for adults. To be an adult is to recognize a sense of obligation: to a partner, a child, a community. Ayn Rand came to America because her relatives in Chicago helped her. They were an ordinary, hard-working, religious Jewish family. I wonder if she ever thanked them" (76).
Thank you, Jim.
P.S. As I finished this post, the St. Olaf Choir came on, singing "Amazing Grace." Thanks again, Jim.