Saturday, November 26, 2016

Parasitic Rhetoric

Throughout this course we have read many texts on the theory and practice of rhetoric, and demonstrations of rhetoric that affected culture and governments in the classical period, but Eunuchus by Terence struck me because it uses the form of a play to show how rhetoric can be used to influence people at an interpersonal level. The character Gnatho uses rhetoric most blatantly flatters Thraso’s personality at every occasion. Gnatho was not part of the nobility. He admits that he persuades noblemen to grant him a place in their social world and give him resources to survive and fit in. In Act 2 Scene 1. Parmeno refers to Gnatho as the “Captain’s Parasite.” This figurative analysis will show that the parasite represents a type of rhetorical practice that makes the audience feel good by affirming the reality they most want to believe, while blinding the audience to the dialectic and potential flaws in their reasoning.
 When Gnatho first appears, he tells how he met a man like himself in having lost his personal wealth, but unlike Gnatho the man shows physical signs of poverty. Gnatho explains his secret to maintaining quality of life despite losing what he had owned, “There is a class of men who strive to be the first in everything, but are not; to these I make my court; I do not present myself to them to be laughed at; but I am the first to laugh with them, and at the same time to admire their parts: whatever they say, I commend; if they contradict that self-same thing, I commend again.” (Act 2 Scene 2) Gnatho makes himself the most dutiful companion to the egos of men who cannot achieve the apex of success, and thus are lacking recognition which Gnatho supplies by means of agreement and affirmation. Gnatho even contradicts himself if the object of his rhetorical display contradicts themselves. Gnatho expresses not his true feelings, but uses the art of rhetoric to keep friends with men who have resources so that he may make a life for himself in their court.
The figure of the parasite works well to explain Gnatho’s methods because he latches on to a host whom he may praise and altogether agree with in exchange for access to resources. Biological discourses usually define a parasitic relationship as one where a parasite attaches to a host in a relationship that benefits the parasite at the expense of the host. When Parmeno says “Heyday! Surely this is Gnatho, the Captain's Parasite” (Act 2 Scene 1) he does not merely explain that the captain plays host to Gnatho; he also claims that Thraso’s quality of life diminishes because of the parasite’s presence. The host may feel good because his qualities are complimented and his opinions are affirmed, but the parasite actually gives the host a false sense of confidence. Parmeno comments on this; “A clever fellow, upon my faith! From being fools he makes men mad outright.” (Act 2 scene 2) He calls Gnatho clever, and surely he must be to pull off his scheme. More importantly he identifies the hosts who take Gnatho in as fools and implies that Gnatho’s powerful rhetoric can suck them dry of their own grip on reality making them insane. The parasite wields power over the host by letting them believe only what they already want to believe until the parasite has nothing to gain; then, it finds a new host
The play exposes us to parasitic rhetorical practices that appears to be good for its audience, but actually does them harm in the long run. The exposure comes across through characters in the play and the plot, and it also reveals how this type of rhetoric functions more broadly. The speaker takes the role of parasite, and the audience plays the host. The message acts as the parasitic mechanism that makes the audience feel good.  The speaker seems to give counsel but simply affirming the pre-existing viewpoint fails as a form of counsel; instead, the speaker only compliments. In this relationship where the speaker affirms whatever the audience would like to believe already, the dialectic has no air to breathe. In the final act of Eunuchus, the Captain, who had been the host of Gnatho, fails to win the favors of Thais and becomes beholden to the will of Phaedria who gets to live with Thais. With his first host ruined, Gnatho attaches himself in the last moments to Phaedria and Chaerea asking “One thing I have still to beg of you,--that you'll receive me into your fraternity.” (Act 5 Scene 8) In the end the parasite uses rhetoric to attach to a host weakening it, then moving on when the opportunity arises. The parasite lacks a conscience for the effects of rhetoric on disposable hosts as long as more hosts are available to feed the parasite’s well-being.  

In conclusion, the figure of the parasite reveals how rhetoric can function in personal relationships to benefit speaker, but hurt the audience despite the audience’s pleasure. This kind of relationship resembles a trusted friend and advisor, yet the advice only a reiterates what the host already believes. The parasite kills the true dialectic, and reveals the danger of receiving information always from the same source. We can find parasitism in the United States’ political arena, where partisan media organizations cater content to democrats or republicans, and fake news sites leverage people’s prejudices for clicks, all so that one need not read anything outside of one’s bubble. The audience feels good swallowing a message that already agrees with them, having been persuaded not to chew on other points of view. Parasitic rhetoric if practiced correctly feeds our ego making it hard to realize we are being fools blind to our flaws.  I see the danger in becoming complacent with news, or friends, or even classes that only affirm the opinions I have and lifestyle I live, because I would rob myself of the chance to change. 

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