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.

Posted by Jeff at December 26, 2009 8:41 AM

Rhetoric/Anger is an Energy

Rhetoric, in the most general sense, is the energy in emotion and thought, transmitted through a system of signs, including language, to others to influence their decisions or actions.

George Kennedy, “Introduction,” Aristotle On Rhetoric

Your time has come, your second skin.
You climb so high and gain so low.
Walk through the valley.
The written word is a lie.

May the road rise with you. (4x)
I could be wrong. I could be right. (3x)
I could be black, I could be white,
I could be right, I could be wrong,
I could be black, I could be white.

They put a hotwire to my head
'cuz of the things I did and said.
They made these feelings go away,
but those feelings get in every way.

May the road rise with you. (4x)

Anger is an energy. (4x)

Rise (Public Image Ltd. song)

There was a time that I would have agreed with Kennedy that rhetoric is systematic and symbolic (semiotic). I am not so sure any more. But I wish I knew where he was drawing (in the classical world) the idea that rhetoric is an energy, and that this energy is inherent in thought and emotion.

Posted by Jeff at November 23, 2009 8:54 AM

Calipers to the head of a songbird

What is most menacing about the logic of sustainability is evident to anyone who wishes to look into its language. It will “operationalize” sustainability. It will create metrics and indices. It will create “life-cycle assessments.” It will create a sustainability index. It will institute a “global reporting initiative.” It will imagine something called “industrial ecology” and not laugh. Most famously, it will measure ecological footprints. What the so-called sustainability movement has accomplished is the creation of “metrics,” ways of measuring. It may not have had much impact on the natural world, but it has guaranteed that, for the moment, thinking will remain only technical interpretation. In short, it has brought calipers to the head of a songbird.

Curtis White via wood s lot

Posted by Jeff at November 12, 2009 8:02 AM

Holding on

Henri Cartier-Bresson Pour l’amour et contra la travail industriel (For Love and Against Industrial Work). 1931. Paper collage

This blog has stayed in a holding pattern for the last few years. It’s overdue for a change, and that will happen in the next few months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started blogging right before I started teaching—in 2001. I will continue to blog as I quit teaching, as of now. Perhaps “quit” is too strong of a word. It’s more like refuse to participate in a degrading system that values teachers at about the same level as Walmart greeters. My wife has secured a good job as a teacher, one that pays a worthwhile salary—most don’t. File me with the most. I was offered an adjunct post, but I feel as if the time has come for a career shift.

I am not really bitter about the situation—but as a profoundly middle class guy, I was actually looking forward to making that good “professor money.” Oddly, along the way I figured out how to make substantially more with far less effort; surrendering teaching comes easy when it only involves nearly trivial wages. In this environment, perhaps even because of it, intelligent investing pays quite well.

I won’t be deprived of anything, and my wife’s job will allow me to maintain access to research databases, good libraries, etc. without missing a beat. I plan on being one of those weird people labeled as an “independent scholar.” But I wear that label with no illusion that it is better or worse as being affiliated with an institution—each approach has its perks. This is just the situation that life has dealt me; I’m quite comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life. I plan to continue following and creating rhetorical scholarship, just not as a poorly paid “professional writing instructor.”

I’ve got seven years of being a writing instructor in, so I feel like I’ve made some contribution, but shifts in the field make me feel increasingly estranged from the educational “industry.” You see, educational institutions are at their core focused on institutional environments and practices. I have no hardcore interest in “technical writing” though I have a degree and years of coursework in it. Yes, I’m interested in technical subjects but not technical communication practices. I’m interested in communication practices, and increasingly I’ve found myself more aligned with scholars in communication studies rather than the emergent field of writing studies. But my degree path has not pointed me there, and crossover is difficult on the professional level.

At the core, what I have practiced/taught is Rhetoric (with the capital R) which is a discipline that seems to lack any specificity or exclusivity within academic departments. It wanders, passing in and out of fashion without ever really disappearing or finding a home—labeled as techné, not epistemé. Thus the containers are filled with it, e.g. communication uses rhetoric, but is not necessarily rhetoric; most if not all writing deploys rhetorical methods, but is not strictly speaking rhetoric. It is confusing to anyone outside the problem—why not call it communication, or writing? Well, because it’s different—but what is it? The modern trend is simply to pluralize the practices as rhetorics as if that resolved the definition.

Surrendering the element of teaching writing (or composition, if you prefer), what remains is my research agenda—which I have tried to place inside the container of “visual rhetorics” with little success. The fundamental problem with this, simply swept under the rug for the last several years, is the stature of visual images as propositions. The propositional nature of images, hotly contested for a time, is simply assumed without proof and endless interpretations are being spun from those propositions. But the assumption bothers me. Although I’ve made the claim myself for photographs—each photograph includes an implied verb “to be” making it implicitly a proposition that the subject “is”—I am no longer so sure that this is a sufficient explanation.

The problem of photographs as rhetoric lies in the domination of rhetorics that lie completely outside the object itself; thus the rhetorics are not at their core “visual” at all. The label itself is a red herring, an argument based simply in indirection. As W.J.T Mitchell has argued, “visual studies” may not necessarily need to exist as a self-contained discipline because cannot be mapped into a stable configuration. Just as “writing” is unstable, moving from English departments to business schools to writing studies departments, etc., visuals also migrate to where they are welcomed most. Photography first found a home in chemistry and physics departments, then art departments and journalism schools (coexistent with writing!) and now it seems to be taking up shop in communications departments (as visual rhetorics) at least to a minimal degree. My two obsessions, it seems, have no constant home.

Ultimately, I think that rhetoric and photography are intellectual twins. Both are wedded to industry, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, both can be attached to the humanities in an urgent sense. As Jim Corder once described it, “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities.” Classical documentary photography began from the same premise. I started revisiting Corder today because my mentors at the University of Arkansas, when I first started this public writing project had placed him high on the reading lists for teaching composition. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, revisiting where I began as a teacher, or perhaps Corder has been lost through consistently shallow readings.

The Rogerian approach has long fallen out of fashion (both as documentary photography classically conceived from the "family of man," and expressivist composition centered on actualizing the self) but it had an influence deeper than I sometimes admit. I prefer love to industrial work.

What next? I suspect that my sidebar for this Public Address 5.0 will change from “rhetorician/photographer” to “photographer/rhetorician”—because photography is always what I have loved the most. I’ve just been away from it for a long time. It’s a large move, physically, from Minnesota to New York. But it’s a small move linguistically. As I suggested back in 2002, “It’s easy to move, hard to change.”

Posted by Jeff at May 23, 2009 10:53 PM

All Stripped Down

I was upset when the institution where I got my M.A. stripped the disciplinary label Rhetoric from its degree—while they still wear their allegance in one form (Department of Rhetoric and Writing), the degree is listed as Professional and Technical Writing. History repeats, with the latest change here purging the name even from the department label: the University of Minnesota no longer has a program in Rhetoric, (they have reserved the possibility of incorporating it as an interdisciplinary program). I selected this program because it was one of the oldest (almost a hundred years old) Rhetoric programs in the country. Things change, I guess. An article in the Washington Post declares it to be the return to “an old standard to ensure its success: teaching students to write better.”

Blink. Seems to me that this is what we’ve been trying to do all along. The "old standard" is embedded in our department's 19th century roots.

The push to improve writing is taking hold at many colleges and universities amid a national debate about what higher education in 21st century should look like in the face of government projections that nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree -- a degree only one-third of adults have.

. . . Even at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], where institutional change is easier to accomplish because its traditions are not as enshrined, [Vice Provost Joseph] Marolla said he met resistance to designing curriculum around skill areas instead of the traditional content areas. It took him two years to convince his colleagues that the curriculum change should revolve around six skill areas -- communication, critical thinking, information fluency, collaborative work, ethical and civic responsibility, and quantitative literacy.

"Academics say, 'No, no, no, I don't work with skills. Competencies, maybe, but not skills. It's not what I do,' " he said.

But whatever it is called, writing is in demand. "The number one thing everyone says is that people have to be able to write," he said.


Posted by Jeff at March 11, 2008 7:53 PM

Storytelling (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of storytelling, particularly about the way that technology impacts the way that we tell stories. There’s a lot to say about it, but it seems like some throat-clearing is in order.

Over the last few days, a couple of rhetoricians have weighed in on Doris Lessing’s Nobel prize acceptance speech—seemingly without bothering to read it first. This tactic reminds me of the sort of snap judgments that first-year composition students make—they accept the consensus of their peers without question. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of the rapid-fire atmosphere of electronic discourse—it’s easier to twit than to perform any sort of analytic work.

Lessing's speech is also a wonderful example of the classic solitary originary proprietary model of writing, which might provide an interesting contrast to the newly emergent models of distributed collaborative authorship if more close reading were applied. But there isn't space or time for that at this moment; I'll press on with the reactive component, hoping I can return at a later date to the analytic problem.

Dennis Jerz and Clay Spinnuzi are not stupid people. I wouldn’t normally expect this sort of knee-jerk. I remember months ago, rr linked to a video of Lessing being ambushed by journalists when she won the prize. She couldn’t think of anything to say, apparently, and ended up asking the reporters to tell her what to say so that she could repeat it back to them—a tactic first suggested by Andy Warhol in one of his books as I recall. Jerz and Spinuzi didn’t misread the speech as far as I know, they simply parroted back the critique of Techcrunch and Ars Techica—which read Lessing as claiming that the internet makes you dumb or that it was the cause of our fragmented culture. Really? That’s not what I read. Here is the pertinent section, as printed by the Guardian:


Posted by Jeff at December 12, 2007 9:34 AM

Here Lies Some Great Hamsters

In its way, San Francisco’s turn against graves provides a nice synopsis of the twentieth century, all the forces of modern times pushing toward a single end. So, for example, whatever politicians may have thought they governed, American cities were actually driven, for much of the twentieth century, by the juggernaut of city planners and public-health officers, their eyes gleaming with visions of Tomorrowland’s immaculate metropolis. So, too, the great engine of modern finance put enormous pressure on real estate—skyscrapers! bank towers! the downtown office!—in narrow urban spaces such as the Golden Gate peninsula.


Posted by Jeff at August 26, 2007 5:58 PM


It has been really difficult to get into any sort of “groove” regarding reading or writing. Lucid moments have been few and far between. I feel a weird sort of tension, for no apparent reason. In the past, I would have tried to write my way through it. Maybe I should try it again.

I’ve been reading my mentor Michael Kleine’s book, Searching for Latini. Michael was the chair of my Master’s thesis committee, and a big influence. But it’s strange to read a work of “confessional” scholarship after being steeped in a more hardcore theoretical atmosphere. It isn’t that Michael is less rigorous, it’s just that the form of his writing matches the desired result—a shared reflection, rather than groundbreaking new data/theory—making it hard for me to follow. It’s more aligned with creative nonfiction than academic writing.

I haven’t read that much creative writing in the last while, and I think that might be part of my problem with “brain freeze.” I’ve got to get unfroze, because I have a paper to prepare for C&W 2007 regarding Benjamin’s Arcades and blogging, and that should be (if it’s going to be a good paper anyway) more on the creative/reflective side as well.


Posted by Jeff at January 22, 2007 3:13 PM

December 2009 (1) November 2009 (2) May 2009 (1) March 2008 (1) December 2007 (1) August 2007 (1) January 2007 (1)