Making sense of Michelle

Here’s another good example for thinking through the many different elements of the “rhetorical view” that we’ve addressed and developed … it’s a commentary about what people say about Michelle Obama.

Just to review, we’ve spent all semester identifying and describing the ways that communication does much more than transmit packets of neutral, pre-existing information or ideas. Instead we’ve explored a rhetorical sense of communication that helps us see the ways communication (including words, signs, symbols, performance, media, pictures, and so on) shapes, invents, forms, creates, influences, [insert other “making” word] the world around us and the way we understand and act in the world.

We’ve said that if we want to understand culture better we should look carefully at the surface of what we say about culture or the things we do (or ways we perform) in our lives. If we want to understand our actions, our beliefs, our values, our knowledge, our identities, then we should pay close attention to our communication because that’s the way we make sense of—or quite literally create meaning for—these things.

The link to the short commentary above is an example that looks at what people say about Michelle Obama’s personality, identity, style and considers what that means for the complex meanings about race and gender in U.S. culture.

A rhetorical view on race

With a rhetorical view of communication we realize “‘race’ is not a fixed term” or identity. Instead it is a fluctuating, decentered complex of social meanings that are formed and transformed under the constant pressures of political struggle.” (Lopez, White by Law, 13) This definition or way of thinking about race hopefully makes you think of several other concepts from a “rhetorical” bag of tricks. We could could also say:

  • Racial identity acts a little like a myth constructed by “conflicting discourses,” “political struggle,” and “rhetorical discourses that have political consequences, both positive and negative” (DeLuca, 637, 634)
  • Our knowledge about race results from “arbitrary assignments” and “illusions” that we’ve forgotten we invented. Our truth and knowledge about race results from “a sum of human relations which ahve been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically.” (Nietzsche)

Lopez focuses on the way law and court cases helped create our knowledge, truth, and reality of race.  Your help document points to some of those legal decisions (just a few of the “intersecting discourses”) that constructed racial meaning, definitions, and reality. The previous post and the PBS website Race: The Power of an Illusion also provide examples of how humans have invented and agreed upon race and racial identity. I strongly encourage you to explore those resources — I would be very happy to meet with you and discuss any questions you have.

But LAW is not the only form of communication that constructs the social meanings we assign to race or that impacts the material consequences of race. MANY intersecting discourses or “rhetorical discourses with political consquences” (myths) in society help construct this knowledge–from movies, to advertising, to news reports, to music, to childrens books and cartoons, etc.

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia has a large collection of cultural items–a broad range of “communication” if you will–that constructed social knowledge and truth of black Americans that many people believed to be generally true: caracatures like the “Mammy,” the “coon,” and the “picaninny.” These messages appeared in everything from piggybanks, to cartoons, to product advertising. Here are a few examples:

coons-look-alike mammy01picaninny-ad

When it comes to race it’s very easy (especially for white folks) to say “These messages existed a long time ago and don’t matter any more” … But the social and material consquences–or the “political consequences” of these myths–still exist … and even though times have changed for the better, we still create messages with similar effects.

We have evidence that these messages still exist because we have black citizens today who 50 years ago were denied entry to college and who are moved to tears today because they NEVER thought they’d see a black President … and we have voters who refused to vote for Obama because they’re scared he’s a Muslim, or a terrorist, or who say “there’s just something about that guy that doesn’t sit well with me”–meaning his RACE.

We know these messages exist because they still create disproportionate gaps in income, incarceration rates, and graduation rates from high school and college. We still see housing / residential segregation in major cities, suburbs, and rural towns.

Here’s an example where Michael Moore rhetorically plays around with and challenges certain “myths” about race that exist today:

RACE: The Power of an Illusion (help and preview for Monday)

I’m posting all 6 parts of a PBS special about race in U.S. culture. It may be especially valuable to help you think about “playing the whole game” of rhetoric. Throughout the clips are many examples of the intersections of communication, myth, performance, social truths and knowledge, identity construction, and so on. I also highly recommend that you check out the following website to help you think about the social construction of race.

RACE – The Power of an Illusion

Just because we call race an “illusion” or “myth” doesn’t mean the effects of race are imaginary. It means we’re thinking about the nature of “reality” and “truth” and “knowledge” differently than we’re used to. We might have made up the classifications and meanings and social consequences of race through laws and media representations and many other forms of communication, but these myths are “rhetorical discourses with political consequences,” and those consequences are very real. With a rhetorical view of communication, we realize there might be nothing “natural” or “given” about race, but we also realize that there are real effects and consequences of the truth, knowledge, myth, and meanings we’ve created and come to accept.

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?

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.