Tag Archives: language

You Do What??

Peitho taking Eros to Venus            Wikipedia.org
    Peitho taking Eros to Venus and Anteros                                           Wikipedia.org

Can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?

I usually leave puzzlement in my wake  if I tell acquaintances that my job involves teaching rhetoric and working as a rhetorical critic. It’s as if I announced that I’m officially the  Resident and Redundant Professor of Pomp and Pomposity who also holds the Bernie Madoff Chair of Lies and Lying.  Use the “R” word just once and people aren’t sure they really want to know any more. The faint bewilderment seems to hint at the hope that I might might someday take up a more useful line of work.  After all, isn’t rhetoric always preceded by the word “mere?”  Can explorations of its nature tell us anything we must know?  And can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?  Indeed, after showing up in England on an academic exchange I was promptly told to go register with the police.  You can’t be too careful.

It helps to set the record straight if I can add that most of what humans say to each other falls into the purview of rhetorical scholars. Even though the term rhetoric suggests inflated and eminently disposable prose (never our’s, of course; always other’s) it actually has an impressive lineage that runs at least from Aristotle to Marshall McLuhan to John Stewart.

Rhetoric box

In fact we are all rhetorical beings. Talk is our link to the worlds inside and outside our heads that matter. The only way to avoid coming to terms with the centrality of language is to render yourself mute. We are not only the most loquacious of animals, we draw a finely adjusted bead on the word choices others make.  As rhetorician Kenneth Burke observed, we are all critics.

It’s something of a bonus that studying how we go about the tricky business of influencing each other is enormously rewarding.  Only after learning the secret handshake and passing the necessary exams did I began to realize what a bracing enterprise rhetorical analysis could be.

We think in language.  We judge others in the words we choose.  And what we know about the world is largely filtered through the evocative language embedded in narratives we tell ourselves.

The characteristic work of human existence is communication.  The goals we seek in our daily lives do not always terminate in movement, but in rhetorical action.  Communicating through language is the meaningful thing we do.  Ask a business or civic leader what their job is, and it frequently comes down to effectively connecting  with others. Someone examining the rhetoric of science, or health care or religion is engaged in discovering how these distinct realms of discourse create identity, acceptance and support for their sources.

Because our rhetoric is less photographic than additive–language use is more a projection of the self than a “perfect copy” of reality–we use it to bend impressions to match our unique view of the world.  It’s little wonder that a person’s stories about a vacation are almost always more interesting than their pictures. The stories are more fully them.

This general idea of worlds verbally created suggests a whole host of questions that point to the primacy of rhetoric. Some examples:

  • There are about 15 minutes of actual play in a nearly three hour-long football broadcast.  In fact, the narrated game itself is the rhetorical spectacle. If that seems impossible, why did so few who watched an experimental presentation on NBC a few years ago avoid the game that was broadcast without commentary?
  • Why are we compelled to describe the motives of others, even when they have not disclosed them?
  • Pick a social context (i.e., wedding, funeral, a party you’re attending with work associates ). Do you find yourself rehearsing what to say and what to suppress?
  • Every field has its tropes: routine patterns for expressing ideas.  What are the most common ones that reappear in real estate marketing? Popular music?  State of the Union addresses? Romantic fiction?
  • What effect does it have on readers when journalists “mark” their subjects by inserting adjectives  in front of the names of certain newsmakers?
  • Why are we so frequently the intellectual captives of metaphors like the “war on drugs” or “social media?

All of these questions suggest why rhetorical analysis can be so useful.

Besides, how many fields of study can claim their own goddess? You can’t say that about accounting, electrical engineering or computer science. Peitho, the goddess of persuasion was the companion of Aphrodite. It comes as no surprise that the mythology of love has long been entwined with the mythology of rhetorical seduction.  Both represent forms of human action that define our species.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The Impoverished language of Communication Description

In communication analysis, personal dispositions are often mistakenly converted into an ersatz psychology of the other.  

One of the ongoing challenges of talking about communication is that the language we use to describe effects and outcomes is hopelessly narrow.  Unlike other disciplines that have the obvious advantage of describing the material world, the language of rhetorical description seems relatively static and impoverished.  If we believe someone had a strong reaction to something said to them, we talk about the message’s “emotional” power, as if we were saying something important and decisive. But there’s rarely been a more useless word invoked as an ostensibly meaningful term of description.  Aristotle awkwardly used the idea 2500 years ago in one of the first rhetoric texts, and it still hangs around like an unwanted guest.

I’m as guilty as the next.  For over forty year, my own works of communication analysis have been filled with words like “expressive,” “media,” “interactions,” and “feelings,” as if these ideas were precise or even proximate units of meaningful exchange.  At best, such terms are mostly empty placeholders, begging for refinement and at least some operational detail.

We clearly need a richer lexicon that more thoroughly suggests the many nuanced responses that messages can elicit from receivers. Perhaps this is an essential function that is better carried by narrative film and literature. Poetry, the novel, and even music may often give us more precise pictures of the inner mental states we produce when we address others.  Even the standard “reaction shot” that a film director chooses when one character delivers bad news to another more clearly communicates authentic effects.  A face can register what our sometimes hackneyed language misses.

For example, take the challenge of naming intentions: a subject vital to understanding what individuals can possibly mean by their actions and words.  As I noted in The Rhetoric of Intention, the resources of ordinary English language seem inadequate to address the uncertainties and possibilities of reasons behind acts. There can be no question that we possess a rich vocabulary of feelings and affective states (“upset,”  “annoyed,” “excited,” and the like).  But we have no similar linguistic depth that would give us a lexicon of rhetorical intent.  We describe another’s likely reasons in an endless variety of available verb forms (i.e., “asserted,” “argued,” “pleaded”); but there are no exact counterparts for what should be the complementary “whys” of motivation. Instead attributions are made mostly by inserting imprecise qualifiers in front of clumsy and inexact interpretations of attitude. For instance:  “He may want her to make the first move,” “She doesn’t seem to be motivated by the money,” “Maybe he’s depressed,” and so on.

It’s not difficult to explain this mismatch between an important communication principle and its paltry vocabulary. This deficit is partly a consequence of the natural human compulsion to think deterministically. In our hardened presumption to find a language of first causes that can match the sciences, we mostly fall back on the inadequate language of psychological disposition.  The lexicons of psychology function as ill-fitting surrogates used to label all sorts of personal attitudes.  It’s as if every clinical word of description—common terms like “paranoid,” “depressed,” or “anxious” –is its own self-defining effect. The idea of jealousy, for example, is explained when we conclude that it springs from “envy,” or perhaps a “sublimation” of some sort arising from within. Personal dispositions are thus mistakenly converted into an ersatz psychology of the other.  In the process, we hardly notice that the rhetoric behind these labels remains mostly unnamed.

In practical terms, we could reform our usage by promising ourselves to depend less on empty but popular fallback terms of communication description, among them: “emotion,” “media” “feelings,” “rational,” and so on.  In their place there might be better terms that incrementally move us a little closer to naming the processes of communication with more precision.  My own preference is for a lexicon that would favor terms like “meaning” and “understanding:”  what is our best estimate of what we think receivers took away from a message?—“empathy” and “acknowledgement:” can we make a judgment about whether the needs of receivers were understood by the sender?—and was the message functionally “dialogical?”—meaning that we want to know if its source strived to make the receiver a true partner in the exchange. These attempts at greater precision are small steps, to be sure.  But they are a useful start.