Rhetoric Ideographs: Symbolic and Materialistic Combined Simulacra?

The very word “ideograph” reminds me of Chinese characters, which is a systematic ideographic language. Additionally, I thought of the power that resides in visual rhetoric because visual rhetoric is kind of an ideographic representation of meaning and its carrier, or form and content. This piece also reminds me of Baudrillard’s idea of simulation and simulacra. McGee’s focus is how ideology can be seen holistically inside one society’s ideographs, and among different society’s ideographs(17), paying attention to both materialistic and mythical demonstrations(4). However, McGee is not as much postmodern in the sense of pluralism as Baudrillard.

Beginning with different interpretations of the term “ideology”, McGee claims that all the definitions point to the brutal truth that “human beings in collectively behave and think differently than human beings in isolation” (2). Then he illustrates how the dynamics of the collective mindset and the individual mindset operates according to Symbolists and Materialists respectively(2). Symbolists such as Burke believe that ideology is what people voluntarily participate in whereas Materialists such as Marx holds that ideology is just an illusion or a “lie” that the ruling class uses to control the society(2). Burke’s emphasis on the tricked individuals who are more concerned with motive rather than reality and Neo-Marxians’ focus on the materiality of the political machine both leads to the fallacy of the “moral” issue(3). Therefore, rhetorically speaking, symbolists seek for how the material reality is represented through symbol using while Materialists interpret how the reality each society is endowed with could affect how people gain power politically(3). The symbolists’ activities are thus mythical and normative because they cannot get rid of the conventional use of symbols and the archetypal—religious or non-religious rituals. Materialists’ neglect of language studies witnesses their failure in revealing the reality that is constructed by language(3). However, symbolists’ neglect of “non-symbolic environment” found their theory unable to describe how the material environment construct social reality(3) because it is only part of the story.

McGee proposes that we think of the “trick-of-the-mind” seriously and do not astray to both sides’ tricks(4), namely, the “myth” camp that denies human capacity to control power through the manipulation of symbols, and the “ideology” camp that studies the influence of “power” on creating and maintaining political consciousness(4). He suggests such a model should embrace at once Marxist materialism and symbolist myth(4). McGee agrees with Marx’s idea that political “truth” is forever an illusion(4) in that such an illusion “is the product of persuasion”(4). Therefore, there is the possibility of falsity(4).

By illustrating that due to the nature of ideology—”political language” composed of “ideographs,” “political consciousness shapes each individual’s “reality”(5) and “hinders “pure thought'”(9). The characteristics of “ideographs”—”the rhetoric of control”(5), and the reality that people are “conditioned” by the “vocabulary of concepts that function as guides, warrants, reasons, or excuses for behavior and belief”(6). Therefore the set of “ideographs” chosen becomes dominant power dynamics in a certain society(6-7). However, the connection between language and the set of ideology it creates makes what we may call nation or society or community(7-8). Certain usage or frequency of words and terms determine our identities and thus unite or separate human beings, even the same word may have different connotations in different societies which contains subgroups of communities that have subcategories of “ideographs” (8). Additionally, ideographs which are bound to certain cultures make impossible the “pure thought”(9) that should be free of cultural, historic, and ideographical differences, which is contrary to the materialistic and rational “truth of the matter” which is the “pure” concern of philosophy(9). Thus, ideographs are only meaningful in their concrete history(10).

In each ideograph’s history, the precedent or fundamental meaning is the “common denominator”—”categorical meaning” of all situations(10). The evolution of an ideograph’s different meanings is therefore judged by certain historical contexts/situations, for new situations requires complemental interpretation or restrictions for the ideograph to adapt to new historical conditions(10). A comparative research for an ideograph’s vertical meanings “now” and “then”(10-11) becomes a mirror of history. McGee suggests that compared to the dominant narrative or ideographic meaning, popular culture has more weight on determining the accurate meaning of certain ideographs(11). It seems to me that McGee inclines to support the popular rhetoric rather than the rhetoric of a few political elites.

McGee also emphasizes the point that ideographs should not only be studied vertically, but also horizontally because they are structured so(12). Because the vertical will be challenged by the horizontal rhetorical constructions which are enforced by a super political power from above such as the cases of Nixon and Hitler(12-13). An ideograph of the “present,” therefore, is “resilient,” consonant and in “unity”(13-14). McGee’s definition of ideology falls into two categories: one that “is a grammar, a historically defined diachronic structure of ideograph-meanings expanding and contracting from the birth of the society to its present”; Another is one that “is a rhetoric, a situationally-defined synchronic structure of ideograph clusters constantly reorganizing itself to accommodate specific circumstances while maintaining its fundamental consonance and unity”(14).

For conclusion, McGee claims that pluralist trend is the old talk of Marxism(14-15). His characteristics of ideographs (15) are not clearly defined to some extent, and seem to repeat what he argues in the former part of the piece. To him, ideograph is cultural bound and subject to changes in another culture while at the same time may have similarities or consonance with each community’s behavior or practice(15-16). The diachronic and synchronic tensions that ideographs create should be our study objectives if we are trying to analyze a given discourse(16).


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