Tag Archives: rhetorical criticism

The Pleasures of Criticism

Good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an object, idea or event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience. 

                                 Paul Goldberger

The title here may be misleading.  I have no interest in selling the idea that harsh judgments are ‘fun’ to make.  That’s what “criticism” can mean.  But it isn’t what I think of when I use the term.  I’m more interested in its second and less common meaning: writing that combines analysis and assessment of the most interesting forms of expressive activity.  Criticism is a sustained and considered effort to understand a new project: usually the work of an artist or innovator interested in moving beyond the strictly utilitarian. Critics try to make sense of what these people have done or perhaps failed to do.  They may come from academic or journalistic organizations, or freelance on their own.

Almost every field–from architecture to food–has potential ‘appreciators’ who profess to use fresh eyes and ears to extend our understanding about a particular effort.  Criticism can be as accessible as reviews of new books, plays or music in a news outlet like the New York Times.  It can also be seen in the rarer video essays of Anthony Bourdain, Leonard Bernstein or Michael Tilson Thomas.  Some efforts stand as monumental and single works of sustained analysis, like like Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950. (Oxford, 1975).  And some can be impressive panoramas that leave us richer in our understanding of a single kind of human enterprise. Among these, I’d count Michael Arlen’s fascinating assessment of television in the Vietnam era, Living Room War. (Viking, 1969).

                                  Joan Didion

Criticism ought to be a cherished kind of writing—not just because it promises incisive observation, but because good criticism ‘opens up’ our understanding of an event: what its presence can mean as part of the human experience.  To use a simple example, I will never eat in most of the restaurants that the New York Times’ food critic will write about.  But Pete Wells’ assessment of the food and the experience of a particular eatery is still interesting.  Wells isn’t doing a Yelp review.  His best reviews place an establishment in a timeline, and its food in a broader culinary tradition.  The food he samples functions as a kind of ‘find’ in an archaeological dig.  It’s roots are from somewhere else, but handed down and modified by whoever is in the kitchen.  And, of course, its New York.  So most restaurants feed strivers looking for sensations that are different and potentially better.  Who knew that Malaysian coffee can be so different?  How have Americans not understood the varied and fascinating textures of something as basic as rice?

      Robert Hughes illustration by John Spooner

Try any field of effort, and there are fascinating critics from the present or recent past to explore.  Many have been journalists: Robert Hughes on art, Alex Ross on concert music, Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Joan Dideon on the East and West coast life, Paul Goldberger on architecture, or Gary Giddens on jazz.  Whatever the work, we expect critics to be curious, aware, and more interested in discovering and knowing than judging.

 

Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.

I was trained as a rhetorical theorist and critic.  No shingle hangs out of my office to attract potential customers.  But with communication as my world I am never at a loss for subjects to explore and ponder. I and thousands of other academics are following in the footsteps of other rhetorical critics before us, including Wayne Booth, Hugh Duncan, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and Kenneth Burke.  The names of these academics are perhaps not familiar.  Yet they have shaped what communication means in the American academy.  They are still read by flocks of undergraduates on their way to sharpening their critical and analytical skills.

                     Kenneth Burke

Burke wrote what many of us sometimes say in moments of exasperation: we are all critics.  Living in the thick of a culture requires sorting out and assessing the passing parade of ideas and artifacts that vie to make an impression.  The key difference is that our own ad-hoc judgments are usually personal: said without much prior knowledge and not very well worked out.  That’s why our opinions are usually less interesting than a gifted writer who is also a professional appreciator.

 

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