All posts by Gary C. Woodward

The Dominance of Light and Vision Imagery

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought.

Here is a thought experiment.  Why are there so many more metaphors and analogies built from visual terms than terms used to talk about what we hear? One slightly disconcerting thing about writing a book on sound is how often I must reach for descriptive terminology using metaphors based on sight. It undermines my key argument that sound is the true “first sense.”

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought. “Life as a game” or “Organizations are like badly made machines” are consequential in suggesting what to look for, what to fear or what to ignore. If organizations are “like machines,” they ought to be pretty easy to disrupt. Machines require all parts to work together. If an organization is like an “organism,” no such tinkering will make much difference. Plants like bamboo are nearly indestructible. But I digress. Back to descriptions based on sight.

They are everywhere in our narratives of the world. Hence, we have “soundscapes,” and audio engineers construct a “soundstage.” Both terms are derived from words describing what we see. I’ve found myself as depicting tubas as producing “fogs” of sound, or high frequency noise as being like “looking into bright sunlight.” A recording is said to by “dry”—not improved by signal processing—or “wet:” a track that has been put through any number of fillers and filters. Moisture or the absence of it is something we see or feel. We also seem to talk a lot more about sound “reflections” than “echoes,” especially when considering acoustical problems. The first is more visual; “echoes” are clearly aural. One more example: the gap that separates the arrival of a sound  coming from the right side to the left ear creates a “sound shadow.” That microsecond delay between the arrival of sound between our two ears is partly how we locate a source in three-dimensional space. Again, the visual reference dominates the explanation.

Communication owes a great deal to the aural. But the conversion of  perception from one sense to another requires the new terms to survive on foreign soil. That can sometimes help us think more creatively. But the seeming dominance of visual imagery even to describe sounds represents a kind of rhetorical synesthesia. This condition applied here means that someone will experience one sense via the language of another sense. It’s not a cognitive feature most people seek. We generally like our senses to stay in their lanes. To be sure, Italian words commonly used in musical expression are helpful, at least to Italians and musicians. But they haven’t caught on. Descriptive terms for sound still seem limited.

This quandary isn’t keeping me up at night. But thoughts are made available to us by the words we have for them. What might we be missing because we don’t have names for sonic effects? Then, too, perhaps that part of sound that is music needs no help for language. We sense it when an a musician caught in the web of a long interview seems relieved to quit talking and actually start singing or playing.

The End of the Rhetorical Presidency?

No one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for words of inspiration.

I’ll leave it to others to sort out the politics of our disheveled presidential campaign.  But we already have more than enough evidence to examine the ruins of something called “the Rhetorical Presidency.” The idea loosely encompasses the norms and traditions that have usually governed the occupants of the White House, at least since the Presidency of FDR. The Rhetorical Presidency includes the public statements and direct addresses made by the figure we used to call the “leader of the western world.” There may have always been a bit of hubris in that name.  But it suggests that the communications coming from the White House were often meant to represent the ideals of governance in a democracy.

We acquired some wonderful traditions from occupants who came in the last century, including Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. All are part of a tradition of using the office to urge the nation to focus on issues beyond their own personal interests. Think of inaugurals, state of the union address, oval office addresses, responses in times of tragedy, and formulations of progressive actions that could be effectively interpreted to the nation.

Generally, the Rhetorical Presidency represents a desire to weave the nation together as a national community sharing common goals, and it has fulfilled that ideal by leaving a legacy of public rhetoric that is more inclusive than divisive, more focused on shared ideals rather than divided loyalties, and usually resolute in not using the “bully pulpit” to demonize or denigrate other Americans.

Trump has used his office to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy.

You can see where I’m going with this. If the condition of the physical structure of the White House could represent the current state of the Rhetorical Presidency, we would have to imagine a building ready to be condemned. Its columns facing Lafayette Park would be buttressed by metal scaffolding. Some of the tall windows would be broken and covered with bare plywood. Raw plaster would cover expanses well beyond the porticos. And badly fitted blue tarps covering leaks in the West Wing’s roof would also contribute to the look of an institution that has seen better days. This is the Trump legacy. More than any other modern leader of this republic he has used his rhetorical power mostly to demonize enemies and exercise his voracious appetite for fantasy over policy. The United States Printing Office issues a nicely-bound annual Public Papers of the Presidents for libraries. But no one will look at the output of the West Wing in the last four years for inspiration. If the best presidential rhetoric suggested fair-minded and moral leadership, the recent inability of the current holder to even condemn white supremacy groups speaks to how diminished this vital feature of the Presidency has become.

Not long ago a President was the first mental construct children had of their government. It was safe to allow them to listen to his (and someday her) words. To be sure presidents could have bouts of temper. Harry Truman wrote angry letters, and then never mailed them. John Kennedy mostly confined his public anger to a hapless steel industry trying to raise prices in the midst of high inflation. And Richard Nixon said a lot in private but taped that “decent” family papers in the 1970s couldn’t print. But to a person, they tended to use their public utterances to speak to the shared aspirations of the nation.  Even in the already hopeless early years of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson could still rise to the occasion and scold his Southern mentors hesitating on legislating for true racial parity. On the evening of March 15, 1965, Johnson told a special meeting of Congress the time had long passed to approve a Voting Rights Act with teeth. It was a long speech that was a national lesson in tolerance, ending with a phrase associated with Martin Luther King:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

This was a very imperfect man still able to find the right words  to push an imperfect nation to do the right thing. That is what the Rhetorical Presidency could be about.

I miss those days.

Excerpt: LBJ’s Voting Rights Speech “The American Promise”

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson calls on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Whole speech available here: