Paralogic Rhetoric and Hydraulic Fracturing

In Paralogic Rhetoric Thomas Kent proposes that rhetoric and discourse are hermeneutic guessing games, the search for an alignment of hermeneutical actions sliding around one another in hopes of finding common ground from which to persuade or communicate. Drawing from Derrida, Kent argues that attempts to apply systems or structures to rhetoric are doomed to failure because there is no such system or structure inherent in language (Paralogic Rhetoric 33).

More specifically, Kent draws from Derrida and Donald Davidson to argue that the notion of  “convention,” or a structure in language that marks a conventional meaning or intention towards the world, is inherently wrong. Davidson’s discussion of the assertion is an example of this error: a speaker may make an assertion. But without any sort of cooperative hermeneutics or context to specify an utterance as an assertion, rather than a question or sarcastic joke, there is no final way to derive intent or meaning from the utterance itself. Any attempts to embed this meaning into language itself  inevitably fails. The invention of an “assertion” symbol, for example, would immediately fall short, in that typical language use is not bound by the necessity of actually adhering to the tenets of the symbol. Speakers and writers could immediately subvert the symbol for humorous, ironic or deceitful purposes  (28). According to Kent, convention does not make language or discourse possible, “language makes convention possible” (35). That is, conventions are constructed because of language. They are not interior to language.

This directs me towards some reading I have thus far on the question of “fracking.” Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing (link), is the process by which an organization drilling for natural gas will bore a well into a deposit of shale. Water and chemicals are poured into the well cavity at high pressure in order to open new channels for drilling or extraction. Possible problems stemming from this practice include pollution from release of gas and chemicals into the groundwater and earthquakes. While scientists have studied particular fracking wells and determined one be at the epicenter of recent quakes in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Wall Street Journal reported in December of 2011 that the EPA has linked fracking to polluted water in Wyoming, a debate on the value of fracking in the United Stated continues. Companies employing fracking (and the President) claim that Hydraulic Fracturing creates jobs and frees us from energy dependence.

It seems, and this will require more fleshing out,  that there are two different conversations happening here. One involves the pollution and alteration of the environment by hydraulic fracturing, and the other on the economic benefits of the practice, particularly job creation. What is interesting is how these discussion play out. The promotion of jobs and financial security as a benefit of what is turning out to be an environmentally damaging practice is not surprising at this particular point in American life. However, I find the way in which those opposed and those in support engage rhetorically to be indicative of a few things.

First, in reference to Kent and his paralogic rhetoric, what we might be seeing here is simply the way in which multiple parties (either pro or against)  seek to engage/discredit the other through shifting hermeneutical guesswork. The guesswork, however, does not necessarily pertain to convincing the other party that this is a good or bad practice. Rather, it seems to be a competition within the politics of science, addressing the populace who may share the concerns of economics and environmentalism. The creation of jobs from this industry is not something to sneeze at, especially if you are suffering from the economic depression and looking for manufacturing or labor-intensive work. At the same time, very few want their home to produce tap water that lights on fire (see image). On the surface, this seems like a competition of interpretation: how do we convince the population of our point of view? What are they looking for? This would jive with Kent’s assertion that interpretation proceeds invention in rhetoric (72).

From "Gasland"

Second, this directs me to an implicit understanding I believe I find in this discussion. For while the debate seems to boil down to a parry-and-thrust engagement (environmentalists:  “Fracking doesn’t create jobs and destroys the environment.” Oil Companies: “Fracking doesn’t hurt the environment that much and creates jobs and prosperity.”), the “truth” seems to be that perhaps both are right, to a degree. Perhaps fracking does cause earthquakes and pollution, while at the same time liberating the United States from energy dependence and creating employment. There is no way to settle the “important” part of this statement without appealing, ultimately, to the health of the planet. These parties must negotiate importance and meaning through their dialogue, even as they undermine the credibility or assertions of the other. At this juncture, I believe, we enter Bruno Latour’s realm of the “Collective,” as now we must engage in negotiation, in rhetoric, in order to determine what is “true,” or at least best for the Collective.

Two things can come of this (probably more, but this is getting long). On the one hand, we can engage in negotiation and determine how to reduce destruction of the environment (including natural resources and our own neighborhoods). This is Latour’s call. The Collective must not sit idle, waiting for a scientist or mathematician to hand the truth of the world from the hallowed objectivity of nature, in order to become engaged. In this sense, the Collective needs YOU (yes, YOU) to not take for granted that things will sort themselves out.

On the other hand ( in something that I want to cover in another post specifically referencing an essay by Kevin Ells), some debaters might regress into the notion that all that is needed is a little fear of Apocalypse for incentive. This rhetorical position assumes that the best way to approach these discussion is to project “Dead Earth” images based on worst-case  statistical projections in order to show that, yes, someday this will kill us all. I believe that while the images of ecological catastrophe are probably effective in some regard, they often fail in that they misread the interpretive scope of their audience and ignore the fact that ecological disaster will probably be a slow, irrevocable, possibly undramatic process. Probably something that we are currently undergoing.

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