The Rhetoric of Douchebags

The rhetoric of stags is a display of raw physical and psychological energy conveyed by the simplest possible techniques and thus illustrates my contention that rhetoric, in essence, can be viewed as a form of energy that results from reaction to a situation and is transmitted by a code. Though costly in energy, since it can go on for as much as an hour, it is less costly and dangerous than an actual fight. From this and from similar evidence it seems clear that nature has encouraged the evolution of rhetorical communication as a substitute for physical encounters. The rhetorical energy a stag can exhibit is directly proportional to his physical strength and potential as the best mate for a female. This is tested by debate. The evolutionary function of the display is to determine who is the fittest to survive and transmit his genes to future generations of the species. The social function is to secure authority, territory, and mating rights.

In terms of the traditional Western concept of the five parts of rhetoric, the confrontation of the stags seems to contain elements of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, though these are natural attributes and not conscious “art.” The inventional elements, the code by which the stag’s energy is transmitted, are of the simplest sort: repetition of the same utterance, with increasing volume, for as long as possible up to an hour. Here, as in all animal communication and to a considerable extent in human communication, overstatement and redundancy are the means of overcoming distracting noise in the environment, securing attention, and expressing confidence and resolve to prevail.

George Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric 14.

Following up on my earlier puzzlement about Kennedy’s contention that “rhetoric is an energy,” it seems that this is his formulation rather than something with a solid source. I think that his observations have merit, though I am not at all convinced that rhetoric is entirely “transmitted by a code.” Code implies articulation of the elements into discrete “packets” or symbols—this is the part that I struggle with. I don’t think that visual experiences can be summarized that neatly.

Nonetheless, Kennedy’s articulation of the role of overstatement and redundancy seems particularly key in analyzing the rhetoric of the health care debate—on both sides. Few people seem to have actually read the legislation and insist on repeating hearsay evidence from dubious sources until it secures attention, expresses confidence and cements their resolve to prevail.

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December 26, 2009 8:41 AM