Category Archives: Rhetorical Analysis & Comp

Try Again

So I was reading this piece in the NYT: “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.”

I have some problems with its theory of mind:

Your brain engages in the same sort of prospection to provide its own instant answers, which come in the form of emotions. The main purpose of emotions is to guide future behavior and moral judgments, according to researchers in a new field called prospective psychology. Emotions enable you to empathize with others by predicting their reactions. Once you imagine how both you and your colleague will feel if you turn down his invitation, you intuitively know you’d better reply, “Sure, thanks.”

Ugh. I can see why this guy is all excited about this, but he’s missing some crucial ingredients. We may be planning creatures, true, and that is important, but our ‘plans’ are made up of present judgments that come very, very quickly, and the past is constantly bubbling up to influence those present judgments. To say we are prospective creatures is to oversimpify – rather, we are present creatures with complex pasts AND futures. Ask a victim of abuse or trauma whether or not they spent all their time thinking about the future, or whether someone from a poor background and low education (that pesky past) thinks about “the future” the same as someone from a middle-class background and decent education.

Emotions are not even remotely understood, but it’s a good starting point.

This article reminds me of one of my pet peeves, which is that we are in the dark ages of understanding the brain. Let me give an example.

At one point in my research in grad school I was very interested in how people read. Not how to teach people how to read, but how reading worked in the brain. An analogy might be wanting to know how an internal combustion engine worked instead of wanting to know how to drive a car.

So I read a lot of reading psychology. I was massively disappointed. I discovered that no one in the field had more than a vague idea of how reading worked. The brain was effectively a black box to them – the input and output was known, but what happened between people’s ears – they didn’t have the foggiest. Lots of theories, no evidence. We are literally sentient beings with brains and we have little idea how our brains work, at all.

I have come to find that pretty much all research into the brain is at this state. We are not much beyond poking physical regions of the brain with fingers and electricity to discover what does what. So I look upon supposed new avenues as total shots in the dark. Again, this is the dark ages.

Ultimately I don’t see any major innovations in this area until we do the very-thinkable building of an artificial brain. THEN we will know how one works – or we won’t, because too much of what a brain does is emergent. Just wedding “emotions” onto a computer isn’t going to do it.

To leap into my field for a moment, rhetoric is largely a study of how decisions are made based not on ironclad logic, but on emotions.  When Mr. Spock says on Star Trek that “it is not logical,” he is mistaken – if he were really telling the truth, which Vulcans are supposed to, he would say, “it is not emotionally satisfying to me at the present moment.” That’s not nearly as quotable, of course, and pointing out that EVERY time Spock says he is being “logical,” he isn’t, would take me all day.

Suffice to say, it’s true we are emotional creatures, but our past influences said emotions and we also make WRONG decisions very often. Frankly, the emotions are not very good at making decisions, especially when the RIGHT answer is not blindingly obvious. Self-persuasion helps, but often turns into rationalization, like Spock and his supposed “logic” when all he really has is certain values.



Randomness and Teaching

Well, Trump won, and I suppose I will comment on that at length at some point. But I want to discuss something else.

I was thinking this morning about the randomness inherent in making decisions. Think of a path that forks left or right with no clues as to what follows  – what makes you choose left or right? SOMETHING does. Back when I knew something about programming – 1990? – we would use random number seeds based on the system clock if we needed a semi-random number. I have to wonder if the circadian system offers the brain a similar out.

That (random?) thought said, I am a general fan of randomness when teaching. I don’t have a lot of formal structure, usually, other than a vague ‘we are going to discuss X,’ or ‘we are going to do this exercise together to master Y,’ or ‘we are going to play a game in order to learn Z’.  I leave the creation of teachable moments to chance; I figure the friction created by me, the students, and the material rubbing together is going to create sparks that I can then turn into a fire. Once I have a fire going, then the class takes on a life of its own and all I have to do is enjoy the heat.

I do prepare graduate courses differently than undergraduate ones, though. I waltz into undergraduate ones and lecture extemporaneously as know the material really well.  For graduate classes, even though I still know the material, I usually prepare a page or two of bullet points and questions that I want to hit. It’s more of an emergency blanket; if the class discussion slows or meanders, I have my page to lean on to restart things.

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I rely on a certain degree of unpredictability when teaching. I make a lot of teaching decisions on the fly and instinctively rather than planning them out. Planning is valuable, and I sometimes do a fair amount of it, but it’s become necessary for me over the years to react quickly to conditions in a class.

FYC is different, though (I mostly teach upper-division PW and rhetoric). FYC students need structure; my more freewheelin’ style doesn’t mesh well with freshmen that come to the course feeling lost technically, socially, and materially. They don’t do well with abstract thought or ethical dilemmas. They don’t necessarily know how to answer, or ask, good questions. They are not as comfortable with ambiguity as I am. So I have to adjust and break the course into discrete, predictable units. It doesn’t please my personality, but adaptability – even random – is the essence, I think, of decent teaching.

The impossible task

One of the more interesting things that I noticed when I first started studying rhetorical theory is that some rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. Everyone, I think, at one time or another, has encountered an audience that cannot,  or, rather, would not, be moved.

The distinction between ‘cannot’ and ‘would not’ is important; if an audience cannot be moved – if there is some gulf of values that somehow cannot be crossed by any conceivable method  – then that is one thing, to say that rhetorical power has limits.  But if an audience refuses motion – if it chooses not to move when it could have – that implies something else, that namely, the audience has all the real power, and we should speak less of rhetorical power and more about audience power. Rhetoric becomes more of a curious byproduct – a residue of an interaction – than a means to an end.

So if audiences can choose not to be moved, all rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. People cannot be persuaded – rather they choose to persuade themselves in the light of certain situations or stimuli.

Where does this place the so-called persuasive speaker, the charismatic, the leader? Obviously some people can move others and are demonstrably better at it than others, right? So I think that the power to refuse movement is present but not always used, comparatively. It would require a mechanism that is the reverse of cognitive dissonance; that is to say, instead of rationalization in the face of dissonant input, there is an resistance to information that does make sense to the listener – an unwillingness to move, to listen, to process. I may be equivocating between “dissonant input” and “makes sense”

Ferguson speech

The prosecutor in the Ferguson case, Robert McCulloch, gave a very interesting speech last night while announcing the grand jury’s decision. I am particularly interested in it because of the extensive use of moderating language, given that I have published a piece recently on moderation.

Over and over again, McCulloch stressed that the grand jury had worked extremely hard and that every piece of possible evidence had been extensively weighed and considered, and that the process was fair and impartial and had considered every angle. This must have been 90% of his prepared remarks and much of it predicated the actual announcement of the grand jury’s decision. The other 10% was criticizing the media. The announcement of the decision was almost anticlimactic given the amount of apology that preceded it.

Needless to say, all this moderating language as an apology for the decision could not have possibly succeeded. Ultimately the speech could do little more than reinforce the beliefs those who believed the shooting was justified, and anger those that thought the incident was some form of murder. In short, McCulloch was in a no-win situation, rhetorically – there is literally nothing he could have said that would change anyone’s reaction to the news. About the only way he could have done worse is to not give the speech at all.

New publication

Well, the title here is misleading. I have a new article forthcoming on moderation (see the About page) but I co-wrote it four years ago.

It has been quite the journey to get it published. For a long time I considered it an example of how peer review occasionally doesn’t work, because I and my co-author are at that point in our careers when we can smell whether something is publishable or not. And this piece has always had that distinctive smell, but no one was biting. I’m glad that it will have an audience now.

Happy holidays

It’s a pretty lazy holidays for me so far. I’m sitting here with the dogs at my feet, doing some ancillary reading for a spring project. Tomorrow we go see my mother and stepfather and grandmother, which is good.

Some other good news recently – another accepted article, this time at Rhetorica (see the About page) – though I don’t know when it will appear. This one is particularly important as it’s the first time a chapter from my dissertation has made it to print. Previously I had a big idea from a chapter appear (the article on Origen) but not a whole rewritten chapter. So I’m pleased.

Stasis theory part 2

In a previous post I noticed that certain sources have a different version of ancient stasis theory than the one I knew to be accurate to Hermagoras.

I initially thought Crowley and Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students was the source of this difference – namely, the introduction of a fourth stasis, policy, that replaces jurisdiction – but apparently it goes farther back to an article by Fahnestock and Secor in 1985, “Toward A Modern Version of Stasis.” Crowley and Hawhee correctly identify their version as a “hybrid” in a footnote, but don’t mention Fahnestock and Secor. F&S have a textbook that apparently furthers their stasis model.

There is also a reference to George Kennedy’s “reconstruction of Hermagoras’ lost treatise” in C&H, but the text they’re referencing is not in the bibliography. In fact, in A New History of Classical Rhetoric, Kennedy lists the four stasis questions, and they’re the correct classical ones from Hermagoras (98-99).

Now what is the significance of this, you may ask. On one level, I’m just being nitpicky about representing something as classical – and getting the ethos that this bestows – when it is really modern. On another level, though, I wonder if the policy question actually adds anything to the theory. Still digesting that one.

Stasis Theory – Changing?

So I was prepping a quick lesson on stasis theory for my undergraduates and popped online to confirm the four categories. The first link on Google for stasis theory is the Purdue OWL. Unfortunately it is incorrect from what I remembered of  ancient stasis theory – the fourth question is translatio, a question of jurisdiction – not policy, a question of what to do. The second link, the Forest of Rhetoric, gets it right. The third link, The Everyday Writer is back, however, to policy

The guilty party appears to be Crowley and Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, which is cited here and there in teaching materials online. What’s going on here? There is nothing in Hermagoras or the Ad Herennium or Cicero to support a ‘policy’ question. Even Wikipedia gets the four categories right. Is this some kind of reinterpretation?