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.”


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