The “Wonderful” Wizard from Wicked

elphabaThe musical Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West (the character from The Wizard of Oz) … from her perspective. In the show, we learn that Elphaba (that’s the Wicked Witch’s name) isn’t so “wicked” after all. She was born green and so everyone in Oz treated her poorly and picked on her. She was born with the gift of magic, but her talents scared the citizens of Oz so they treated her like a villain and she became an outcast. The “fact” or “truth” is not that Elphaba simply is wicked; instead the way people talked about her and treated her made her seem wicked. The story is an excellent example of a “rhetorical view” of communication.

In the musical, the “wonderful wizard of oz” sings a song to Elphaba about how he came to be “wonderful.” His attitude in the song demonstrates nicely the “rhetorical view of communication.”

elphaba-2

“Wonderful” from the musical Wicked

WIZARD

I never asked for this or planned it in advance
I was merely blown here by the winds of chance
I never saw myself as a Solomon or Socrates
I knew who I was:
One of your dime a dozen mediocrities

Then suddenly I’m here
Respected – worshipped, even
Just because the folks in Oz
Needed someone to believe in

Wonderful
They called me “Wonderful”
So I said “Wonderful” – if you insist
I will be “Wonderful”
And they said “Wonderful”
Believe me, it’s hard to resist
‘Cause it feels wonderful
They think I’m wonderful
Hey, look who’s wonderful –
This corn-fed hick

Who said: “It might be keen
To build a town of green
And a wonderful road of yellow brick!”

(spoken) See – I never had a family of my own. So, I
guess I just – wanted to give the citizens of Oz everything.

Notice how the wizard realizes that communication made him wonderful. (They called  him wonderful so he is wonderful.) Before he got to Oz, his role, his primary performance was being a “mediocre,” “corn-fed hick.” But the people of Oz needed a leader and they believed it was him, so suddenly he became wonderful through the magic of communication. Lanham said that from a rhetorical perspective reality is what we make, what we accept as reality. It’s not something that just exists for us to discover. The wizard gets that. That doesn’t necessarily make him a fraud or a liar, but because he has a “rhetorical view” on life and communication and identity he understands that the “reality” of his wonderfulness is constructed, not natural.

ELPHABA: (spoken) So you lied to them.

WIZARD: (spoken) Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of
things that aren’t true. We call it – “history
.”

Elphaba sounds a little like Plato. As if the wizard is deceiving, manipulating, and lying–or using rhetoric to muddy up the truth. But just like Lanham’s “rhetorical view” of communication, the wizard understands that most of what we believe is an “illusion” of sorts. Everything is equally rhetorical. That dosn’t mean it’s not “real” or that everything is an evil “lie.” But it is a different way to think about reality.

(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

This part captures the “rhetorical view” perfectly. The wizard shows us why words invent ideas and knowledge instead of simply transmit them. Depending on perspective or culture or history, etc. we can easily come up with multiple “truths” about the world. Communication allows us to alter and shape reality, knowledge and truth.

They call me “Wonderful” so I am wonderful
In fact – it’s so much who I am it’s part of my name
And with my help, you can be the same

His final message to Elphaba is simple. Communication helped invent the reality that he was “wonderful” … and she can have the same thing. Unfortunately for her, the way people talked about her and the ways she performed created a different reality–she became “wicked” instead of “wonderful.”

Here’s the music if you’d like to listen along…

Listen

If you’re still confused about all that a “rhetorical view” of communication might mean, don’t worry … we’re only beginning to introduce that concept. Lanham provides a key foundation for what a “rhetorical view of life” might look like (even if it’s a shaky foundation right now) and we will keep building and adding concepts to this way of thinking about communication all semester. That’s why this difficult article is important.

In the meantime, here’s another example that might help you practice recognizing some of the attitudes about communication that impact how we think about the world (and help you think about your next assignment.

Beyonce, “Listen” from Dreamgirls

Listen, To the song here in my heart
A melody I start but can’t complete
Listen, To the sound from deep within
It’s only beginning to find release

Beyonce expresses views that resemble the “serious premises” of communication. There are songs and ideas coming from “deep within” her “heart” as if they were natural and appeared without any influence of communication. Lanham says that when we accept the “serious premises” of communication we talk about our identity and our ideas that way–as if they belonged to a “central self” that has always existed outside of communication. Beyonce creates that image and attitude with these lyrics. Her True self or ideas (the sounds deep within) are “finding release,” presumably because she has found the right words or the clearest style or the most transparent style to express those.

Oh, The time has come for my dreams to be heard
They will not be pushed aside and turned
Into your own all ’cause you won’t
Listen….

She suggests that ideas, knowledge, or dreams exist deep within her. “The time has come” implies that those dreams and ideas have always existed, that they were already there before communication ever took place. And now she has found the right words (or song or voice) for transmitting those dreams clearly. All we have to do is listen–we’re just receivers for the message.

Listen, I am alone at a crossroads
I’m not at home, in my own home
And I’ve tried and tried
To say what’s on my mind
You should have known
,
Oh, Now I’m done believin’ you
You don’t know what I’m feelin’
I’m more than what, you made of me
I followed the voice you gave to me
But now I gotta find, my own..

She tried to communicate effectively and “say what’s on her mind,” but barriers (noise? unclear communication?) got in the way. Her message wasn’t sent efficiently or effectively and that caused a breakdown in the transmission.

You should have listened
There is someone here inside
Someone I thought had died
So long ago …

Once again, she seems to express that if only the person (Jamie Foxx in this case) had listened or if only communication had transmitted the ideas correctly and efficiently then he would have understood her “true” central self.

The “Magic” of Communication, revisited

On the blog and in class I compared a “rhetorical view” of communication to a sort of “magic” that can create different perspectives, make things seem as if they are real, and make an audience accept certain “realities.” An article in the New York Times, “Sleights of Mind” from 21 August 2007, provides a few more descriptions of communication and language that might be helpful to understand what a broader, “rhetorical view” of communication might include. (I posted the full article on the Resources folder on Oncourse.)

The article describes the “narrowness of perception.” There are tons of messages and input all around us, but very few make their way into our awareness.” For example, watch the following video of people passing basketballs around and count how many times the members of team in white successfully pass the ball.

How we look at things (and how we’re told to look at things) matters. We’re going to return to this point in many different ways this semester.

We regularly use communication to create “cognitive illusions” that work like magic: “disguising one action as another, implying data that isn’t there, taking advantage of how the brain fills in gaps … making assumptions, … and mistaking them for facts.” This may sound negative, but we don’t always do it with bad intention. The point is that we’re always creating “illusions” of a sort, but because we tend to think of communication more narrowly as transmission or as a tool, we believe that we’re merely describing reality in an objective way.

Teller (of Penn & Teller) defined magic in the article as, “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that-in our hearts-ought to.” This is a great definition for the way we’re going to think about communication, too. We theatrically (or we could say through performance–and rhetoric and media, etc.) link messages that do not necessarily capture truth and reality, but we believe, or want to believe, they do and so we accept them as reality.

Like the “Amazing Randi” says in the article: “Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact. … It’s not necessarily so.”

Magic

In class I asked, “How does magic work? How do magicians make an audience suspend their disbelief and accept the “impossible?” How does David Blaine convince his audience that he’s levitating?

 

 

Magicians know how to make things seem as if they’re real. They create perceptions and diversions so the audience will see the illusion from a certain perspective and accept the performance as real–even if we know it’s impossible.

 

Penn & Teller explain some ways that magic works in this clip we watched in class …

 

 

 

As I’ve explained, this course attempts to change the way we think about communication and ask “What else can communication do?” beyond sending messages or transmiting ideas clearly and precisely. One way to approach that question is to think of communication as “magic:” an interactive encounter that makes reality seem as if it is a certain way and that helps us see things from certain perspectives. We regularly communicate in order to do some of the things that Penn describes in the video above.

  • “Simulation”: to “give the impression that something that hasn’t happened, has;” or to give the impression that it has happened in a certain way. How do we do this through communication? What are some examples where we try to change impressions or appearances?
  • “Misdirection”: to lead attention away from something. How do we use communication to direct our attention elsewhere? This may seem like a bad or manipulative feature … but is it necessarily a bad thing?
  • “Switch”: to secretly exchange one object for another; or to change the terms we use for something; or to change the perspective from which we view something. How do we change meaning and reality simply by using different words or symbols? What are some examples where we make a “switch” with communication?

These questions help us move closer to understanding the “rhetorical view of life” that Lanham describes in this week’s reading. You need to know how this way of thinking about communication and the world differs from the “serious” view of communication or the standard view of communication that treats communication as a tool that merely describes reality as it exists outside of communication. The debate between Plato and Isocrates over the role of communication is the same debate Lanham discusses. How is his “rhetorical view of life” similar to Isocrates’ praise of communication?

 

“Working Hard for the Truth”

As a follow up to the last post (and to further demonstrate the ways we we think about and value “truth” in communication), check out this short editorial by a news anchor from KSBW in Monterey, CA. My guess is that some of his opinions about truth are very familiar. For example:

  • he argues that “professional journalists truly do try to do their best each day to report in an unbiased fashion” and they “work very hard to take disciplined steps to be as objective as possible”
  • he “testifies” to the FACT of the news because testify “the stories we report are overseen by reporters, editors, and news managers who do their best to check and counter check what we report” for truth
  • he attacks a popular writer for her belief that the “pursuit of ‘truth’ cannot be objective or neutral” and in defense of his news channel’s truth (and taking another swipe at so-called biased news) he says, “We’ll leave the opinionated news to some activist weekly newspapers, cable news outfits, and the internet.”

All of these statements represent a “standard view of communication” or “transmission model” that values clear, unbiased, noise-free, sending of true or correct messages … they are things we’ve heard before and maybe even things we’ve said ourselves. As the semester continues we’re going to challenge these ways of thinking and talking about truth.

For now, you might want to write about and discuss on your team blog why you agree or disagree with the way Plato wants us to think about communication, rhetoric, and “Truth.”  Or why you agree or disagree with Isocrates that everything we have starts with communication (logos). Feel free to use the blog posts to disagree with things we’re talking about in class or to offer counter-arguments about course ideas. We can learn a lot more if we work through some disagreements.

Search for Truth

The way we think about communication impacts the way we think about “truth.” We tend to think about truth as something that is objective and verifiable, something that has always existed, something that we just need to discover and describe. And when we use the “tool” of communication to describe or “convey” or “transmit” truth we usually judge the communication by whether it was “true” or “false;” “correct” or “incorrect;” “right” or “wrong.” We want people to be truthful and honest. We value finding and discovering objective Truth. Most of you talked about “truth” in these ways on your first assignment.

The slogan from the television series X-files makes sense because we tend to want to cut through all the illusions and discover Truth:

Likewise, we don’t like it when it seems like people twist the objective “facts” of a situation. We certainly don’t want to be deceived by lies and illusions. We make people swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in court with the understanding that they will not spin the facts or manipulate anything. We usually think about lies or distortion or spin or rhetoric as things that get in the way of clear, truthful, transparent, successful communication–it’s all “noise” when we think of communication as “transmission” or “sending info.”

These ideas about truth trace, in part, all the way back to Plato (and Aristotle and Socrates). As you read Plato’s Gorgias you should be able to identify some of these ideas in Socrates’ attitude about communication and rhetoric.

Think about these other examples that represent standard and typical ways we think and talk about truth:

  • Last fall, the presidential candidates had teams dedicated to telling the facts and “truth” about each candidate and combating the myths and lies … John McCain started the “McCain Truth Squad” (and the “Palin Truth Squad”) / Barack Obama tried to “Fight the Smears”
  • Karl Rove criticized some of the McCain campaign ads for going “one step too far,” and “attributing to Obama things that are … beyond the ‘100 percent truth’ test.”
  • When we learn history in K – 12. We memorize “objective” facts and data about the past that we typically treat as absolute truth. We see that attitude in a show like “Digging for Truth” on the History Channel, that goes on a quest to discover the truth of the past.
  • We want the news to tell us the truth. A CNN commercial tells viewers to “Get the facts. Demand the truth. We do!” We usually expect that ideal news will communicate neutral truth about the world.
  • We also value the objective truth in science, where numbers and data prove facts about the world.

Plato (via Socrates) isn’t exactly talking about physics and the history channel. He’s more interested in discovering True Beauty, the True “Good Life,” True Love. But the point is that the way Plato thought about speech, rhetoric, communication, and truth trickled down through the years and influences us today.

Suggestions: Think of other everyday examples where we value the Truth as something that has always existed outside of communication? As something that we just have to find, discover, and describe? How does that relate to the way we sometimes think and talk about our identities, our True self?

It might be equally helpful to think about messages that criticize what Socrates calls “rhetoric.” Other than politics, where do we devalue and criticize communication that we believe distracts us from the truth or misleads us from the truth?

Once again, relationship advice is another good source for seeing some of the common ways our standard way of thinking about communication shapes the way we talk and understand “truth”:

Time to start blogging!

Several of you have already gotten started on the blogs with your own posts and comments. “Thank you!” to those who have jumped right in and kicked off discussions. I know this assignment is different than what most of you have done before, but from my experience, once you get going this semester it will prove to be good learning resource.

If you still haven’t contributed to your blog yet, now is the time to start. Don’t delay … this assignment is not something you can “make up” in the last few weeks of the semester.Again, you don’t have to worry about writing a “perfect” post. As long as you’re trying to work through the ideas of the course and connect them to experiences and interests in your life, then you’re on the right track (and I’ll give you some guidance if it looks like your posts need some detail or focus.)

Check out some of these posts and discussions in case you’re still not sure what to write about on this blog. Maybe these will spark some ideas. These posts from your classmates are just a few examples of the many ways to start talking about the complexity of communication.

If anyone still has questions about this assignment or how to write a blog post or any other concerns or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.