Understanding the Rhetorical Super-project: Mapping Foundations and Measuring Impacts


How are societies mobilized to overcome the impossible? The call and sustained effort towards pursuing “transcendental” missions is often the tool used by political regimes to mobilize people towards certain ends. These missions are often massive in cost and unclear in benefit but can be undertaken by motivation through rhetorical methods. I refer to these missions as rhetorical super-projects: the use of rhetoric to persuade the majority of a populace to contribute greatly to a sustained endeavour that often has unclear tangible costs and benefits. By comparing Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” and George Kennedy’s “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric,” I propose we can get a better sense of inputs and outputs at play of the rhetorical system when such super-projects are launched and executed. A rhetorical super-project is the ultimate method to create change in the physical world where outputs are exponentially more energy intensive than inputs and can be analyzed as a system with energy flow.

Massive, whole-society mobilizing projects are usually thought of as stereotypical of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. In a democratic society like the United States, examples of transcendental missions or rhetorical super-projects are rallying towards entering the First and Second World Wars, the creation of the internet, the war on cancer, the interstate highway system and the manifest destiny driven race to settle the west. There are special cases, in democratic and open societies, where a transcendental mission with incredibly ambitious ends can be completed through utilizing rhetorical means to mobilize societies. The transcendental mission that I will focus on for this paper is the US Apollo Lunar Program, from the announcement of the goal by President John Kennedy in May 1961 to the landing of Apollo 11 on the moons surface in July 1969. The rhetorical dimension is threefold; the super-project as an opportunity based on an existing rhetorical structure, the rhetorical inputs and outputs of the super-project as theoretically quantifiable, and the super-project thought of as a signifier emitted by society as an organism. Comparing and contrasting the positions of Nietzsche and Kennedy will explore these points.

The main point that drives this comparison is Kennedy and Nietzsche’s acknowledgment of the fundamental connection of rhetoric to the physical world. For Kennedy it is the theoretical unit of the rheme that quantifies the energy for some basic unit of rhetorical effect, and for Nietzsche it is the word as a nerve stimuli.  The semantic connection of this basic energy unit to the rest of the physical world is arbitrary. How language as a system of abstraction emerging from this arbitrary but physical unit for the scholars is different. For Kennedy, it as an economic game of minimizing the amount of energy allocated to produce a maximal rhetorical effect. For Nietzsche it is from a “drive to form metaphors that [is] a fundamental desire in man” (Nietzsche 254) that pushes forward the system. Nietzsche’s interpretation is useful for rhetoric in order to understand how to work with rhetorical towards certain ends by appreciating the contradicting rigidity but overall fluidity of a language system. It is known that a rigid system can be manipulated by understanding its structure; reality is an all encompassing but flexible lie. Kennedy’s interpretation is useful for rhetoric in that it gives a suggestion on how to manipulate that all-encompassing lie through signaling.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense” discusses the relationship of language to the reality of the world. It raises deep questions about the nature of human understanding particularly in regards to how we form rhetorical concepts. Nietzsche states that when we speak of things, “we believe we know something about the things themselves” when in fact we are simply speaking about a metaphor which does not “correspond to the all the original entities” in the world (Nietzsche 249). To Nietzsche, language is a magnificent architecture. Our language and understanding is a web of metaphors that perhaps firstly builds on a horizontal platform of reality, but then builds on itself vertically to higher levels of abstraction. Nietzsche looks at the conceptual structure of language as, “a might architectural genius … an infinitely complicated conceptual cathedral on foundations that move like flowing water” (Nietzsche 251) to illustrate the horizontal and vertical complexities of a language.

A language is a metaphorical structure that emerges from some basis of physicality like how “a word … is a nerve stimuli” (Nietzsche 248) but is equally defined by what is left out from the physicality. A leaf is an arbitrary construct that is created by “forgetting the distinguishing factors” of individual leaves to create the idea of a general leaf (Nietzsche 249). Language is created as much by what is forgotten as by what is remembered. The subjectivity allows multiple versions of truth to arise, as many as there are languages. To Nietzsche truth is “a mobile army of metaphors … a sum of human relations which … are binding to a nation” (Nietzsche 250). This all means there is such thing as truth and it does have structure and that this structure is highly malleable and not anchored firmly to any foundation. The structure could be thought of as conceptual potential energy.

The Apollo super-project only presented itself as an opportunity based on an existing rhetorical structure. The mobilization of the society to support the project was essentially through a tacit agreement of the citizenry to consent for government allocation of tax dollars to the project and for industry to allocate production. To use Chomsky’s phrase, this consent was manufactured. Not because of a huge energy input on President Kennedy’s part, either in terms of a physical force or an extremely extended political campaign. Rather, a larger, pre-existing metaphorical network of the type that Nietzsche speaks of was tapped into. The stage of Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States was eminent; the concept that the US was wealthy and growing wealthier was salient; the general spirit of the race to conquer frontiers was canonical. The rhetorical super project of Apollo was made by connecting and making salient an existing network of abstract metaphor in an opportune way. This transcendental cocktail created a perceived value that could far outweigh the true astronomical cost.  

Kennedy seeks to fill in the gap that Nietzsche leaves between reality and the conceptual system of language. With “A Hoot in the Dark” he tries to explain the development of rhetoric as something that might be studied in animals. By looking at the occurrence of signs and signifiers in animal kingdoms we might be able to understand some of the more elementary precursors to our complex conceptual network of language. We might also be able to understand how the relation of arbitrary signals emerged from some thing in reality. To do this, Kennedy identifies rhetoric as something that is grounded in energy expenditure. He says that there may be “emotional energy that impels the speaker to speak… physical energy expended in the utterance… energy coded in the message… and energy experienced by the recipient in decoding the message” (Kennedy 106) that tie rhetoric to a physical phenomenon.

Rhetoric to Kennedy is something prior to human language, though part of it, and something we share with all of nature as “a ‘deep’ universal rhetoric” (Kennedy 109). If this is the case, then rhetoric is a type of energy and could be measured as a part of language as much as a simpler sign or signifier might be measured. Kennedy suggests “rheme” as a unit (Kennedy 106). Animals use rhetoric to represent two different types of information, “the presence of an animal in a territory and the internal state of the animal making the sound” (Kennedy 116).  From these simple foundations is a “history of diffusion of energy and growth of information communication” (Kennedy 117) that evolves into much more complex forms like human language. Kennedy suggests that there is a type of energy economics that governs the evolution of rhetorical invention that allows more complex conceptual webs to emerge. He suggests that mechanisms favour the least amount of energy for the greatest amount of information (Kennedy 117). This approach allows us to begin to conceive of the process that transforms simple signaling to larger conceptual structures instead of approaching it as a black box.

The rhetorical super project shows the ultimate economy of rhetorical power when thought of in this way. If connected to the larger conceptual structure of Nietzsche’s language truth, a rhetorical signal can produce energy expenditure exponentially greater than the energy input. To give only a general sense, the Apollo Lunar Program was a massive, decade long financial commitment that was effectively set off by the words of President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It was a challenge to land a man on the moon within the decade and it succeeded despite its costs. The symbolic power of rhetoric is converted into kinetic energy.

The rhetorical inputs and outputs of the super-project are theoretically quantifiable. If we think of such super projects as systems to achieve ends then we can use Kennedy’s approach to rhetoric as a way to understand the flow of energy. In a very simple sense, a relatively minimal rhetorical energy input of a challenge in a speech was a signifier that spurred a tremendous degree of physical action in the world. This epitomizes the maximization principle of rhetoric. It also means that we might be able to calculate the great potential that few words have. The quantity of rhemes could be equated to the overall expenditure of human hours and capital contributed to the project. One could also look at the rhetorical energy that the significance of the eventual moon landing presented. What power did the television broadcasts have on the physical world? It was a declaratory signifier that had a huge impact, but required a huge input to receive that effect. There are complex feedback loops that constantly change the energy dynamic of the rhetorical environment.

The super project could be a signifier of the society as an organism. This follows the view of Kennedy that rhetoric is a universal constant that takes forms at different levels of complexity. If we think of a society as the unitary whole then the moon landings could be seen as an energy-intensive, rhetorical “sign of intent”(Kennedy 108). The mission was to indicate the superiority of the organism of US society to the organism of Soviet society. Physical accomplishment signified this victory. Rhetoric could manifest itself in complex organic systems at the social level as energy-intensive signifiers. Whether it is the expression of national goals or the circular formation of elephant herds to protect their young, mass behaviour in unconscious systems could be thought of as rhetorically significant just as Kennedy sees amoebas as unconscious yet rhetorical.

Rhetorical super-projects create maximal impact in the physical world that is spurred by comparatively economic rhetorical energy expenditure. This efficient rhetorical expenditure is only possible given certain structural opportunity that can be taken advantage of. The ability of rhetoric to create big physical results seems to defy the laws of conservation of mass. But not if Nietzsche’s conceptual framework is a place of stored rhetorical energy. Understanding how unprecedented physical results arise out of rhetorical processes will help us understand the energy dimension of information and the mechanics by which to encourage or discourage new super-projects. Of our time, the most important to encourage is a sustainable global ecology and climate change response super-project.

Word Count: 1936


Kennedy, George. “A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. Allyn & Bacon, 1995 : 105-121.

Neitzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lying in the Extra-Moral Sense.” Friedrich Nietzsche on Rhetoric and Language. : 246-257.

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