Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, February 19, 2007

Read Your Rhetoric

Every time I read some self-appointed member of the "Futurological Congress" intone about "memetic engineering" or hear another linguist proudly announce that "framing theory" has found its way to some new PR discovery, I have to admit I squirm a little with embarrassment. It's called "rhetoric," folks, and generations of brilliant people with time on their hands and a flair for words have been noodling about with it for over two thousand years. "Memetics" is an impoverished re-invention of the wheel, cooked up by a handful of True Believers entrapped by an inapt metaphor. "Framing" wasn't a bad notion, but fleshing it out into an autonomous theory is just some guy's pointless ego-trip.

Read a nice survey of rhetoric, ponder the Trivium, learn about the three Aristotelian appeals, logos, pathos, ethos (ethos may well blow your mind), survey the common topoi, discover the difference between a scheme and a trope, a formal versus an informal fallacy, play around with enthymemes, learn the rules of engagement governing the various modes of syllogism, read thousands of years of meditations on the differences between deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourse, thousands of incomparable stylists on style, thousands of wits on wit.

It's bad enough that some "memeticists" and "frame-theorists" seem so smug and self-congratulatory about the facile insights they occasionally rediscover as they sketch out their little finger-paint pseudo-rhetorics, but worse by far are the earnest and genuinely intelligent newcomers who delve into these wan pseudo-disciplinary vestiges for discursive guidance no "meme academy" or "frameshop" or comparable bumper-sticker bubbleworks could ever deliver, when all the while the untold riches of the rhetoricians stand near to hand mouldering in the bargain bin.

Love, Dale (Okay, full disclosure: PhD, and now Lecturer, Department of Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley. What's your point?)


AnneC said...

Hi Dale,

I think what you might be observing here is the result of what happens when people who haven't been formally trained or educated in the practice of rhetoric start making observations and realizing certain truths about communication and social discourse.

Having used the terms "memetic engineering" and "framing" over the past week I am probably one of the people you're talking about, if not specifically, then certainly in spirit. :P And that's fine, of course. I'm here (in the world, on the Internet, etc.) to learn, not parade around in trappings too fragile to withstand critical commentary. But one thing I think you might want to understand is that "re-inventing the wheel", so to speak, is a major part of how I (personally) learn in the first place. I'm the sort of person who will purposely not look at instruction manuals in certain cases -- not because I'm trying to be Macho Geek Girl, but because if I look at the manual I'll have a lot more difficulty making sense of the actual hardware. In some cases, the instructions represent a layer of confounding abstraction between my brain and the real objects the instructions purport to describe.

But not forever.

What usually happens is that at some point, I'll have enough "direct" sensory or conceptual data about whatever it is I'm thinking about (be it a physical object or an idea, or a set of ideas) such that when I see an abstraction that seems to pull the patterns and data I've been absorbing together in a meaningful fashion, I will be able to recognize it. At which point I'll start using it. But I can't start using abstractions before I understand them, and in order to understand them, I need profuse amounts of pattern-data.

If I read about some of the rhetorical terms you referred to in your post I would very likely find that some of them better fit some of the concepts I've currently got stashed in my brain's visual-spatial-conceptual databank than some of the terms I've been utilizing recently. This sort of thing happens to me regularly. But it's not anything that can really be forced, and certainly nothing that would compel me to not write until I feel sufficiently well-versed in formal rhetorical technique.

I realize that's not what you're suggesting, and your points are well-taken. As an engineer, I can see the analogy between your comments in this post and comments made by expert computer programmers who come across newbies excitedly re-writing bits and pieces of code that turn out to already exist as neat functions in long-established libraries. But still, though it's fine to point out wheel-reinvention when it is observed and nudge people in the direction of prior work that might provide informational resources that will allow clearer and more effective communication and action, remember that some of us may very well be fully aware of what we're doing. There's a difference between someone who re-invents the wheel and tries to call it his own (or who gets overly excited, thinking he's made a new discovery) and someone who is simply trying to reverse-engineer things on his/her own terms very consciously for educational purposes.

Dale Carrico said...

Just to be sure everybody understands -- the parenthetic remark there at the end was meant to signal that my tongue was firmly lodged in my cheek when I went on my rampage here. Tho' I will repeat my sincere conviction that most "memeticists" and "frame-theorists" would mightily benefit from a perusal of the dusty discipline to which I devoted myself.

Robin Zebrowski said...

See, this is where not being eloquent enough to use fancy words pays off!

(Really, I just wanted to chime in since Futurological Congress is one of my most favorite books of all time.)