When Socrates wanted to inspire Glaucon with knowledge of the pure forms, he conjured up a rhetorical fantasm—a word-picture whose referent could appear no other way, and whose signified emerged from a cluster of signifiers (men chained before a blazing fire, shadows on a cave wall, etc.). At once self-consciously artificial and didactic, Socrates’ allegory prompts an understanding, produces a knowledge that leans upon fantasy and imagination as its only supports. Replying to Socrates, Glaucon registers his appreciation of the allegory: "All this I see."
Perhaps this primal scene of philosophical instruction can most productively be grasped as a deaf moment, or as an occasion of occult second sight that funds the philosophical drive toward the absolute. An ambitious, and careless, reading of this allegory might suggest that it illustrates a logic of signification grounded in imaginary (as opposed to symbolic) identifications—that sight, and not sound, image and not voice, is the most fundamental sensual modality, and that, consequently, all rhetoric is "visual." Herman Rapaport tempers ambition with caution: "More interesting is how a prop such as the cave image can suddenly turn into a stage, how an mage, itself framed, can immediately stage itself as stage and in that way absent itself or disappear from the viewer’s consciousness as image, object, or prop." That disappearing or absenting harnesses a sensual response, a response that, paradoxically, evokes a disembodied gaze. "So much, then, depends on a stage prop, on the theatricalization of philosophy." And more than that, so much depends upon the reduction of significance into sensation, the return or even...
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...unking of commodity fetishism or idolatry, nor a bloodless deconstruction of the social imaginary. Rather, it is a wary and cultivated respect for the passion of the image, its yearning (and, sometimes, promise) to be the transubstantiated Word: A comic orientation toward visual rhetorics described by Burke as a charitable attitude toward communication "that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation, but at the same time maintains our shrewdness concerning the simplicities of ‘cashing in.’" Such an attitude would command the power to see and not believe, to note one’s own foibles—to recognize oneself as both origin and apparition, anchor and crafted chain, self-conscious performer and bungling automaton—and to be wary of being cheated or seduced by delusions while also being capable of collapsing into the visions of others. Yes, indeed, all this I see.
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