Playing the whole (rhetorical) game

In class on Monday, I said that I’d like you to focus on “playing the whole game” for the rest of this semester. That is, in our final readings and in your final projects pay attention to ways that ALL the concepts and ideas of the rhetorical view are intersecting and overlapping every time you try to look at the world rhetorically.

The author who wrote about “playing the whole game” (David Perkins, Making Learning Whole) says that in order for learners to get better at doing something, they must continually experiment and push their knowledge further with curiosity, discovery, and creativity. Learners must find problems which will let them practice playing the whole game.

John Sloop shows us one way to do that in “Riding in Cars between Men.” He has found a problem and plays the “rhetorical game” in order to address the problem creatively and rhetorically. The “problem” is this: in a situaton where someone appears to break or transgress gender norms in seemingly positive ways (specifically, a female has entered into a traditionally “male” sport of auto racing), what are all the communicative ways that people and culture prevent those norms from being broken and reinforce more narrow and rigid gender norms as if they were “true” and “natural.”

So how does he address that problem? By playing the rhetorical game. He looks at performances (commentators describe how Debbie Renshaw still “acts” like a “lady”). He looks at the metaphors and myths that people use when they describe her actions and her identity. He looks at the ways media and fans create and reinforce gender identification and division (“the girls vs. the boys”) and therefore reinforce the “truth” about where Debbie Renshaw belongs. And while he plays this rhetorical game to show us all the ways that communication invents and reinforces cultural knowledge and truth about gender, he also reminds us that within communication we have the power to invent NEW meanings and truths, create NEW identities and norms, and so on (like Peters and Isocrates remind us).

And once we have the ability to play the rhetorical game and identify the complexity of social constraints or problems, we have a responsibility to use that understanding of rhetoric to create that change. (Eisenstein tried to do that with film. And that’s why people like Lanham and Burke emphasize how rhetoric moves people to action and attitude.)

As you read Sloop’s article about Debbie Renshaw and next week as you read the article about the legal construction of race, remember to keep the whole “rhetorical game” in mind and remember that we’re exploring the following themes of the “game:”

  1. What else does communication do? (beyond simple transmission or description)
  2. What is the relationship among communication and culture, knowlege, truth, identity, power relationships, social relationships, social norms, and so on?
  3. What can we do with a rhetorical view of communication? How does it change the way we understand culture? What is our responsibility to use the rhetorical view to change culture?
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Sample movie responses

I recommend you check out a couple of the following posts and examples from your classmates. These are great film selections and discussions of the film form and structure.

The power of film composition

Here is the example I mentioned in class on Monday. First, the original trailer for the romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally:

Now, the mock horror / thriller movie of When Harry Met Sally:

Notice how changing elements of the composition completely changes the feeling or attitude or reaction to the movie (“style becomes content“). Change the music, change the font style, change the order of images to create a different juxtaposition of shots and the entire meaning and attitude changes. The scene where Meg Ryan lays on Billy Crystal who stares blankly into space is somewhat comical in the first trailer; in the second, his stare becomes creepy and a little chilling because it’s been juxtaposed to a different sequence of images. Simply rearranging the clips created a completely different meaning.

One of Eisenstein’s points is that this has to happen with “organic” composition. That is, a filmmaker must use images, conventions, styles, music, and so on that seem familiar and natural to the audience. Through repetition (or maybe “dull daily reinforcement”) we’ve come to understand the “knowledge” that certain types of music correspond to feelings like happy-go-lucky or fear or terror. A filmmaker must tap into at least some of the already existing cultural meanings and forms or else the audience won’t recognize or feel what the filmmaker wants them to to. (Remember that Goffman made a similar point about fronts and our own performances.)

Another take on “marriage”

The following opinion column appeared in the Indy Star:

Threat to Marriage

It’s an interesting example for thinking about the different ways that the standard view and rhetorical view of communication impact our interactions. Notice how the author seems to suggest that the definition of marriage could expand and shift to include gays and lesbians. But at the same time, the author treats marriage as if it is a stable and natural “institution” that should mean the same thing for everyone.

Meanings and definitions

The linked cover story from Newsweek provides a great example of metaphors, myths, and creating meaning:

Why Rush Is Wrong

The author is a conservative Republican who talks about avoiding the belief that there is ONE, True way to be “conservative” (i.e. forgetting that it’s just a metahpor or myth). Instead he suggests that it’s necessary to continue to redefine the concept to better fit the country today. This article provides an example of the day-to-day significance of realizing that knowledge or meaning is not stable or universal.

American Myths

A quick review of how DeLuca’s article on “myth” fits in with our current “theme:” knowledge and truth. (These are brief summaries, not definitive reviews)…

  • Freire believes knowledge “emerges” in communication, dialogue, inquiry, interaction with others.
  • Nietzsche tells us that all knowledge and truth are only metaphors (arbitrary words that have become imperfect concepts) that humans have agreed to use.
  • DeLuca says we invent “myths” and then we forget that we created those stories and we treat those myths as absolute “truth” or “knowledge.” But he wants us to remember that all the cultural stories that we accept as “natural” are really “myths” humans created for social and political reasons.

Here are few more examples of VERY well-known or recognizable myths from U.S. culture.

Newsweek ran a story about “How American Myths Are Made.” The article mentions one familiar myth–the Triumph of the Common Person. Or in other words, the story we tell about how any old Joe or Jane can achieve greatness and accomplish extraordinary things if they just work and try hard enough. This myth explains why someone like the now infamous “Joe the Plumber” becomes such a big icon–he fits perfectly into the role of your everyday, hardworking guy with aspirations to buy a company and achieve something. This myth has positive aspects like encouraging people toward success, but it also can cause problems because it leads us to blame people for their “failures” when sometimes the odds are stacked against them. Not everyone who works hard will “make it.”

The Newsweek story also mentions the way we create myths about evil enemies and “others” when we need someone to blame or distrust. We saw this during the era of McCarthyism when the House Committee on Un-American Activities accused innocent folks of being communist. We saw this when the goverment rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in U.S. internment camps while many cultural messages portrayed any Asian American as untrustworthy and scary. We’ve seen another version of this enemy myth after 9/11 when anyone from the Middle East or any Muslim was suddenly a risky terrorist.

You might also want to check out this site about American Myths and their realities . It describes 10 myths that shape our lives such as “separation of church and state,” “no one is above the law,” and others.

Caution: We want to avoid dismissing myths as LIES or DECEPTIONS (that’s something Plato might do) … we’d call that attitude the standard view of communication because if we call myths FALSE LIES, then it implies that we should be using communication merely to describe and transmit the “truth” and nothing else.

The important thing is how we think about myths and how we recognize and realize the ways myths create reality. If we learn a rhetorical view of communication, we realize that most every cultural story is a “myth” (or all knowledge/truth is “metaphor” for Nietzsche … or every identity is a performance for Goffman). We pay attention to the many ways humans and human culture invent and re-shape those myths. And we realize that those myths all have social and political consquences. We can’t live without myths, but we can have a better understanding of how they shape our lives, our identities, and our world.

Here are a few other sites and a clip that provide interesting points to consider about myths in U.S. culture.

  • Here’s a post from another wordpress blogger about Myths: Ten American Myths 
  • Election rhetoric last fall played on a myth of small-town America as the real heart of America with hard-working, family-value oriented, folks. These qualities are not false, but they are not “natural” or “given” as this opinion piece points out: Yo, John McCain, while you’re in Pennsylvania
  • We create mythical heroes out of people like Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This site looks at the myth of Abraham Lincoln.

You might write about any of these examples or keep thinking about other examples of myths–the myth of the “traditional American family,” for example, or historical myths like the Boston Massacre or the way college admission materials construct myths about university life and the college experience.

More Metaphors

Nietzsche defines truth as “A mobile army of metaphors … in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.” In other words, he wants us to realize that we have invented knowledge and truth within human communication (this should remind you of Peters), but we tend to forget that truth is human-centered. Because we forget that humans constructed truth with metaphors (arbitrary words that become concepts) we tend to accept the “serious premises” and treat truth as stable, firm, and natural (sort of like Lanham says we think about our “central self”).

We looked at a few examples in class and tried to define the “truth” about “trees,” “mammals,” “family,” “honesty.” You could also think about “love” as a metaphor. We can’t know for SURE or with absolute certainty what “love” is. We can only group together similar (but not identical) experiences and feelings and stories and moments and call them “love.” But the essence of that concept is unknowable — we can only “know” it through what we say about it and what people agree to call “love.”

Colors might also help you think about how metaphors work. First, we made arbitrary distinctions as to what we would call light at certain wavelengths. So the “fact” that we call a certain wavelength of light “blue” or “red” or “green” is a metaphor. However, humans have added even more meaning to these metaphors because we associate certain colors with certain ideas or feelings. What do you think of when you see “black?” We wear black to funerals or when we’re sad or somber. It usually symbolizes evil and darkness. The way we use and talk about that color makes it seem like there is some inherent truth to the color. We could wear green or purple to funerals but we don’t. Those don’t have the right “meaning.” The same goes for red and sensuality or anger; blue and calm or peacefulness or sometimes sadness; white for purity and cleanness and goodness. But again these meanings are arbitrary things humans created that we’ve forgotten we made up.

I said in class that there isn’t much on the line when we talk about “squirrels” or “trees” … but when we believe we know the “truth” about bigger issues like what “life” truly is or what it means to be a true “American,” then it becomes important to remember how “flighty” knowledge can be and how we have the ability to create and revise knowledge–for good or for bad. 

We looked at one of the following clips before. During last fall’s election many candidates and pundits argued for their absolute knowledge and truth what it meant to be an “American.” Is there a Truth to that term? Many peple acted as if there was a truth to that concept? As if they knew the “real America” or the TRUE America … The Daily Show with John Stewart (which is typically a prime example for the “rhetorical view” of communication) featured these segments about the idea of a “REAL” America:

Again, the point is not that truth doesn’t exist and so we shouldn’t even talk about it. We’re not saying that anything goes.” Rather, because we have the ability to construct truth and knowledge with metaphors, we should pay attention to the rhetorical process that creates our knowledge. Whenever someone claims to have the definitive truth or knowledge, we should pay attention to how and why that knowledge came to be. Maybe we’ll all agree to it (like we all agree to call cute, fuzzy, rodents “squirrels”) and we’ll move on with no problem. But maybe we’ll see a problem that we could address like when someone claims that a small segment of the country are the “real” Americans. And remember, Burke helps us see that identification implies division–if we claim that it’s TRUE that one group represents “real, pro-America” Americans, then we’re implying that other citizens are bad, anti-American people.

Think about how we define “life.” Many people have strong beliefs about the knowledge of what counts as “life” … but even that concept becomes shaky when we consider debates over euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, removing brain-dead people from life support, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty, casualties of war, the quality of life for people living in poverty. And those are just the debates over human life. Environmental activits or animal-rights activists will use the metaphor of “life” to include farm animals, endangered species, even plant life and eco-systems.