Rhetorical Approaches to Secrecy

Rhetorical Approaches to  Secrecy

Conventional Frameworks of Rhetorical Analysis

In their introduction to Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, Celeste Condit, John Louis Lucaites, and Sally Caudill ask, “What can a ‘rhetoric’ be?”[1] The auxiliary verb phrase “can be” offers an alternative to the more conventional construction, “What is rhetoric?" It rejects the idea that rhetoric is a singular descriptor, accounting for one object, method, or domain of human action. Instead, ‘what can a rhetoric be’ particularizes and pluralizes; it assumes prima facie that rhetoric is not monolithic but multiple. Applied to secrets, “what can a rhetoric be” not only implies that secrets are rhetorical, but that they are rhetorical in many ways. Indeed, rhetorical critics in the late 20th and early 21st century have engaged secrecy as a selective mode of addressivity, as a formal strategy of demystification, and as patterned features of a sprawling field of discourse. Each of these understandings has yielded unique histories, concepts, and analyses, from context-dependent speech acts to more general rhetorical forms.

Public Address & Secrecy

The first way to understand the rhetoricity of secrecy is through the established frameworks of public address. When defined in this way, rhetoric describes the proofs and persuasion undergirding persuasive speeches, visual images, and written modes of communication. Delimited by a rigorously defined situation, this rhetoric responds to an exigency, "an imperfection marked by urgency/" ameliorated through strategically deployed speech, image, and text.[2] Such rhetoric can address highly specific audiences and broadly circumscribed publics, all of whom are subjected to the rhetor’s worldview as interpreted through a historically defined context.

Although it has taken many forms, the longstanding emergency of American secrecy is the persisting rhetorical exigency that occasions this course. In 1987, rhetorical theorist Edwin Black argued that the World War II-era slogan "loose lips sink ships" made "judicious secrecy … a civic obligation," reminding laboring Americans to keep quiet about their wartime work.[3] Related expressions like 'snitches get stitches' and 'see something say something' carry similar weight, urging resistance to – or compliance with – policing authorities.[4] As speech, rhetoric may be a pithy maxim or carefully crafted oration. Crafted to produce effects upon an audience, rhetoric communicates something about the culture of secrecy in which we live: when to keep information hidden, when to spill the beans, and how each of these reinforces collective belonging and shared identity.

The framework of rhetoric-as-addressivity also describes secrets as covert significations, whereby a speech (for instance) means in one way for an ingroup audience while landing inconspicuously upon others. In other words, secrets are double-entendres that split audiences into dupes (who can’t hear the hidden meaning of a speech) and insiders (who are in the know, hear a true or intended meaning, and remain silent). Charles Morris III how recalls FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1972) made use of a "pink herring" to constitute a "silent, savvy, but discreet audience" in his tough-on-crime public address. By employing subtle "textual winks," Hoover affirmed his homosexuality to those who were ‘in the know,’ whose silence made his "duplicitous utterances appear legitimate."[5] However, duped audiences – those who took Hoover at his word – only heard these speeches as denunciations of the “menace” of homosexuality. Speech may also inadvertently reveal secrets in ways that break with a speaker’s conscious intentions. Joshua Gunn observes that "human speech harbors an inherent riskiness—that one will say something she doesn't mean, that someone will misunderstand, that others will hear things in our voices that we would rather keep secret."[6] This riskiness is, for example, part of parapraxes (or Freudian slips) whereby slips of the tongue or bodily tics allow the speaker’s unconscious to communicate against their best-laid plans. Understood this way, rhetoric theorizes the secret as speech addressed to an audience, willfully or not. When speech conjures secrets, it may codify civic norms, constitute a collusive audience, or disclose more than a speaker wishes to divulge.

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

A second way that rhetoric engages the topic of secrecy is through the reading strategy broadly described as the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which aims to demystify hegemonic representations promulgated by finance-driven institutions and the securitarian nation-state as expressions of a subtending ideological superstructure. The “secret” of this hermeneutics is the covert interests and influences of militarism, capital, structural racism, and gender normativity. In this framework, rhetoric describes the banal public performatives, overdetermined symbols, and pre-figured discourse presumed to conceal these traumatizing realities. The hermeneutics of suspicion also posits that the world of representations is akin to a dream or collective fantasy. According to Slavoj Žižek, “the ‘secret’ to be unveiled through the analysis is not the content hidden by the form (the form of commodities, the form of dreams) but, on the contrary, the ‘secret’ of this form itself.”[7] A suspicious hermeneutics decodes the symbolic forms that make superstructural violence overt and ignorable to demystify ideology’s ruse and expose the formal structures sustaining social oppression.[8]

Notably, the suspicious orientation to symbols and discourse does not ensure that ideology’s so-called ‘dupes’ will turn against a ruling ideology once its secrets are revealed. Demystification may instead provoke a kind of resistance called disavowal, whereby ideologically-interpellated subjects keep their complicity with systemic oppression at bay by outwardly affirming the social structures they know are immoral and corrupt.[9] Because individuals are granted social identities by maintaining fidelity to a governing ideology, demystifying this illusion can provoke a retreat into familiar ideations “that justify, obscure, or mystify the workings of powerful interests and structures of power.”[10] At the level of the mass public, superstructural agencies encourage disavowal by deepening the secrecy enveloping our governing institutions. For instance, Donovan Conley and William O. Saas have argued that George W. Bush’s executive branch routinely employed an “occultic style” comprised of obstructionist tactics including redaction, esoteric language, and stonewalling. These strategies kept policies like military torture hidden in plain sight with euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation.”[11] As the modus operandi of many public institutions, disavowal creates strong forms of symbolic resistance that make the promise of American polity dependent on its remaining unseen, hidden, a secret.

The Assemblage and the Apparatus

A third way of connecting rhetoric and secrecy concerns the adoption of expansive frameworks that describe semi-stable totalities of discourse like the assemblage and the apparatus. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously assert that "all secrets are komplex-assemblages," a psychological and material ecology of discourse that separates the secret into three interconnecting layers of action. [12] First, the secret is always spilling out of its protective sealed containers, hidden somewhere between the known and the unknown. Second, the management of such secrets also implicates clandestine agents dedicated to preserving secrecy, creating personas and strategies of self-concealment. Finally, secrets escape this register as a viral spread, seeping across established boundaries as matter with unpredictable consequences.[13] Whether leaking from sealed containers or exploding as an uncontrolled dispersion, secrets seep out of their enclosures to capture a momentary totality of public attention.

Frameworks like this one offer an expansive explanation of rhetoric’s entanglement with secrecy because they can offer a comprehensive description of rhetoric’s wide-ranging material effects. Understood through the assemblage and the apparatus, secrets are the combined effect of persuasion, mass-mediated representations, global institutions, and the modulation of affect. The total action of these forces constitutes the boundary between knowing and not-knowing. These mechanisms organize signifying and non-signifying elements and deploy “rhetorical technologies” to the end of creating normalized social hierarchies, embedding them in public consciousness. A key aspect of this last rhetorical register is an absence of finite limits regarding the forms that rhetoric may assume. Like John Bender and David Wellbery's concept of "rhetoricality," the rhetorical assemblage of secrets may have an indefinite number of manifestations. They are "bound to no specific set of institutions," and there is "no explanatory meta-discourse [about secrets] that is not itself rhetorical."[14] In Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s words, assemblages have an open horizon as to the particular situations in which they may appear because they are "simultaneously empty of subject matter and overburdened with content."[15] One example is Davin Allen Grindstaff's theory of "rhetorical secrets," which he uses to describe the figuration of gay identities throughout the HIV and AIDS epidemic.[16]Grindstaff’s theory has four tenets: belated timing, public/private spatiality, desire, and forgetting. Rhetorical secrets occupy a retroactive temporality because they arise after the fact: a secret can only be public once revealed. Spatially, secrets oscillate between public and private spaces, such as the closet and the hospital. As a modality of desire, secrets evoke a fantasy of textual mastery, a sense that being ‘in’ the know restores agency and control over a given situation. Finally, secrets are anti-memory devices because they encourage erasure and historical forgetting. These features offer a powerful analytic of the constitution of gay identity during the early years of HIV and AIDS and highlight the unique role of secrecy in constituting queer publics and stigmatizing afflicted communities.

The theory of rhetorical secrets also alludes to an open-ended field where secrets constitute an array of social relationships, public perceptions, and political stratagems. Notably, the features that comprise the rhetorical secret – retroaction, spatiality, desire, and forgetting – are transposable to situations apart from Grindstaff’s focal context of HIV and AIDS. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains, the epistemology of the closet, which undergirds the theory of the rhetorical secret, has been "inexhaustibly productive of modern Western culture and history at large."[17]This epistemic widening of secrecy gestures toward a tentative unity of discourse and culture in which the perception of secrecy organizes a range of seemingly unrelated identities and oppressions.

[1]Celeste Condit, John Louis Lucaites, and Sally Caudill, “What Can a ‘Rhetoric’ Be?,” in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, (New York: Guilford Press, 1999), XX-XX.

[2]Lloyd Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1:1 (1968): 6.

[3] Edwin Black, Rhetorical Questions: Studies of Public Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 79.  

[4]Joshua Reeves, “If You See Something, Say Something: Lateral Surveillance and the Uses of Responsibility,” Surveillance & Society 10:3-4 (2012): 235-248. SSN: 1477-7487

[5] Charles Morris III, “Pink Herring & The Fourth Persona: J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Crime Panic,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88(2): XXX-XXX.

[6] Gunn, “Speech and Public Release,”

[7]Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 3.

[8]Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 25

[9] Lorenzo Veracini, “The Settler Colonial Situation”

[10]Dana L. Cloud. 1994. “The Materiality of Discourse as Oxymoron: A Challenge to Critical Rhetoric,” Western Journal of Communication 58: 141-163.

[11] Donovan Conley and William O. Saas. 2010. “Occultatio: The Bush Administration’s Rhetorical War,” Western Journal of Communication 74(4), 329-350.

[12] Ian Buchanan, “Assemblage Theory and its Discontents,” Deleuze Studies 9:3 (2015): 382-392.

[13]Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus; Bratich; Seigworth and Tiessen

[14]Bender and Wellbery, 25.

[15] Gaonkar Rhetoric and its double 345

[16]Davin Allen Grindstaff, The Rhetorical Secret: Mapping Gay Identity and Queer Resistance in Contemporary America, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006).

[17]Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 68-69.

Secrecy's Fourth Rhetorical Register

There is also a "fourth way" to understand the relationship between rhetoric and secrecy.  Understood from within this framework, secrets are rhetorical in two interrelated ways.

  • Rhetoric creates secrets as objects hidden IN discourse and
  • Rhetoric creates secrets as complex rearrangements OF discourse.

To think of secrets as rhetoric means that secrets are not discourse, but a way of organizing discourse, an operation performed upon it. Rather than ‘discourse itself,’  secrets are rhetorical in the sense of interlocking and opposed procedures performed upon discourse. This secret is less a specific document or hidden information (e.g., of a letter) than formal procedures that re-organize discourse. These procedures are distinguished by the prepositions in and of. Whereas the secret in discourse refers to how secrets emerge from what is hidden in the past, the secret of discourse describes the retrospective transformation of discourse to produce an experience of discovery.

Secrets IN Discourse

The secret in discourse describes a relationship to knowledge that is only partially accessible or beyond view. It defines a relationship to the destroyed, lost, or forgotten document and the allure of the name protected by anonymity or subtracted by intentional omission. It is the pull of subtle meaning which requires reading ‘between the lines’ for catachresis and double entendre. Like pink herrings (Morris 2002) and secret passwords (Gunn 2005), the secret in discourse posits a relationship between a signifier and a broader discourse that contains and conceals it.

The Secret OF Discourse

Unlike the secret in discourse, which recovers an ignored or forgotten meaning, the secret of discourse retroactively displaces and erases its former self. Rather than found knowledge, it is produced knowledge, a discourse borne of repetition and against the grain of what has come before. The secret of discourse is a relationship to knowledge that is obscured because it is only available upon arrival, gotten retroactively, or after-the-fact.

In this section of the course, we will seek to talk about rhetoric and secrecy in terms of how they occupy these registers.

  • The entry on "Names and Naming" focuses on the register "in" discourse.
  • The entry on "Belatedness" focuses on the register "of" discourse.
  • The entry on "Autoimmunity" focuses on the relationship between the two.

Additional Resources

Newspapers and Opinion-Editorials

Edwin Black on Secrecy and Rhetoric

Secrecy and Public Address

Secrecy Apparatuses

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