Tag Archives: rhetoric

A Sampling of Revelatory Books on Human Communication, Updated

book cover zenGood studies of human communication force us to rethink assumptions that are sometimes more comfortable than accurate. They give new life to the familiar and routine.

This very selective sample of books about communication is wide-ranging, mixing history and media theory with some far-ranging discussions of what is possible in human communication. Some of these studies are recent and helpful in understanding how digital media have altered social relationships. Others were published years ago, but will be thought-provoking for anyone interested in exposing the inner layers of communication. They are listed in approximate order of their accessibility to a general reader.

  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (William Morrow, 1974). This multi-million-seller which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary is many things: a narrative of a troubled life, a road-trip saga, an account of different modes of thinking, and an evocative introduction to Plato’s concerns about the corruptions of communication.  Pirsig weaves all of these threads into a coherent personal narrative focused on his friends and his son. He’s especially intrigued that his chosen field of study, rhetoric, was borne under the dark cloud of intellectual illegitimacy.  Plato argued this negative theme in various ways over the course of his life. It’s a claim that Pirsig wants to explore, sometimes while sitting on the saddle of an aging Henderson as he travels through America’s northern plains. Along the way the main event of the narrative is his active mind, considering everything from intellectual black holes to the nature of insanity.
  • Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Anchor Books, 1959). Goffman was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducting
    Erving Goffman Source: Wikipedia.org
             Erving Goffman

    research that had a global reach. His methodology of deep observation of everyday events provides all kinds of insights about the intricacies of even simple interactions. The book remains a stalwart for anyone interested in the sociology and communication, and for good reason. His observations of everyday settings–restaurants especially fascinated him–is the perfect antidote to the bland survey research that now dominates so much of the social sciences. And because he helps us see the familiar in new ways, he’s fun to read.

  • empire of their ownNeal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Anchor, 1998). Gabler’s study of the first film entrepreneurs is a wonderful piece of social history that is especially timely in the current climate of narrow nativist sentiment. Gabler documents our debt to a select group of Eastern European Jews who gave us the Hollywood film factories. These men were driven to turn out reliable middle-class visions of the American dream, even though they were the victims of virulent anti-Semitism. The ironic result is that they were sometimes kept out of key institutions in the very town they created. The book also confirms how vital film and its modern forms remain to understanding the American experience.
  • the shallowsNicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011). Carr’s popular book makes the case that the pacing and fragmentation of internet content is undermining our abilities to be critical thinkers. Though this study has produced a number of doubters, he is mostly convincing in describing how heavy doses of screen time have altered our abilities to concentrate and focus. We may be schooling ourselves out of the kind of rigorous concentration that has contributed mightily to human progress. His observations raise questions that everyone who is part of the wired planet should consider.
  • reclaiming conversationSherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin, 2015). In this useful and eminently readable study, the M.I.T. researcher explains why conversation as the default model for communication is threatened. Using this benchmark, she offers extensive interviews with children and young adults that suggest a drift toward preferences for connecting that weaken links to full and vital face to face exchanges. Her concern is how to maintain the natural social natures of our children, who now fear the unpredictability of direct contact with others. As she notes in her conclusion, “We want more from technology and less from each other. What once would have seemed like ‘friendly service’” from a sales clerk has “now become an inconvenience that keeps us from our phones.”
  • no sense of placeJoshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place (Oxford, 1986). Although written a number of years ago and in advance of widespread use of the internet, Meyrowitz still makes what I believe is the single best case that newer forms of human communication have undermined the psychological security that came with living only in real space and time. The book is revelatory in its assessment of how visual media work as irresistible magnets for our attention, and how visual media often weaken connections that truly matter. Given his use of seminal thinkers like Goffman and Susanne Langer, Meyrowitz’s framework for assessing communication processes is unsurpassed. By the end of the book he’s offered a haunting intellectual case for how electronic media have undermined the sources of personal identity.
  • speaking into the airJohn Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air (University of Chicago, 1999). Peters is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa and a frequent critic of the common but mistaken assumptions we have for communication. The Introduction to this book is alone worth a look. It takes apart most of the cherished myths we hold, among them: that communication is the best pathway for settling long-standing differences, and the idea that disagreement is just a matter of misunderstanding. From his very first sentence that “Communication is a registry of modern longings” a reader can sense a study that will offer challenging arguments and interesting insights. The references in the book are sometimes obscure.  But every chapter has interesting observations, most of which come by quoting writers and thinkers who were experiencing the powers of telegraphy and the telephone for the first time.  Peters also has surprising things to say about communicating with machines, animals and perhaps other sentient beings “out there” in the universe.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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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