16.4.09

Clinton on Johnson is Really about Rhetoric

Stephen Johnson has a neat post today on Bill Clinton's reaction to The Invention of Air. I haven't had a chance to read this one yet, but I am looking forward to it this summer. Anyways, in his praise for Johnson's book, he makes an argument for the contemporary importance of books:

I spend all my time in the "how" business now. I predict to you that there will be a big demand in the future for books that deal not with how to become a millionaire in 36 days or two and a half hours. Not those. Serious "how" books. Books that answer the "how" question. How do you turn your good intentions into positive changes in other people's lives so that our common life is better for our children and grandchildren? The "how" question…

Unfortunately, the rest of Clinton's response falls into some fairly shallow and commonplace critiques of the web as a narcissistic cult of immediacy. The problem here is of treating internet users one monolithic entity--there's a diverse collection of social-intellectual practices developing around media technology, and not all of them are as opposed to extended thinking as Clinton implies (linear is another story, but I don't feel like getting into that right now).

I do think Clinton's "how" offers a nice contemporary description for the task of rhetoric: "how do you turn your good intentions into positive changes in other people's lives so that our common life is better for our children and grandchildren?" Notice the sentence doesn't rely on truth--I don't know concretely if my intentions are "true." Notice, too, that I do not necessarily have to "persuade" others of the validity of my intentions, nor do I have to persuade everyone. This, like Obama, is a localized rhetoric of small changes and social complexity.