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.

Froth and scum

Aut insanit Homo, aut versus facit—
[The man is either raving or composing. Hor. Sat. 7. lib. 2.]

Composing and Raving must necessarily, we see, bear a resemblance. And for those
Composers who deal in Systems, and airy Speculations, they have vulgarly pass’d for
a sort of Prose-Poets. Their secret Practice and Habit has been as frequently noted:

Murmura cùm secum & rabiosa silentia rodunt.
[They chew over mumbles with themselves and rabid silences. Pers. Sat. 3.]

Both these sorts are happily indulg’d in this Method of Evacuation. They are thought
to act naturally, and in their proper way, when they assume these odd Manners. But of
other Authors ’tis expected they shou’d be better bred. They are oblig’d to preserve a
more conversible Habit; which is no small misfortune to ’em. For if their Meditation
and Resvery be obstructed by the fear of a nonconforming Mein in Conversation, they
may happen to be so much the worse Authors for being finer Gentlemen. Their Fervency of Imagination may possibly be as strong as either the Philosopher’s or the Poet’s. But being deny’d an equal Benefit of Discharge, and with-held from the
wholesom manner of Relief in private; ’tis no wonder if they appear with so
much Froth and Scum in publick.

’Tis observable, that the Writers of Memoirs and Essays are chiefly subject to this
frothy Distemper. Nor can it be doubted that this is the true Reason why these
Gentlemen entertain the World so lavishly with what relates to themselves. For having had no opportunity of privately conversing with themselves, or exercising their own Genius, so as to make Acquaintance with it, or prove its Strength; they immediately fall to work in a wrong place, and exhibit on the Stage of the World that Practice, which they shou’d have kept to themselves; if they design’d that either they, or the World, shou’d be the better for their Moralitys. Who indeed can endure to hear an Empirick talk of his own Constitution, how he governs and manages it, what Diet agrees best with it, and what his Practice is with himself? The Proverb, no doubt, is very just, Physician cure thy-self. Yet methinks one shou’d have but an ill time, to be present at these bodily Operations. Nor is the Reader in truth any better entertain’d, when he is oblig’d to assist at the experimental Discussions of his practising Author, who all the while is in reality doing no better, than taking his Physick in publick.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, “Soliloquy:
or, Advice to an Author,” Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, vol. 1 [1737]

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.