Making Sense of Messages
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Making Sense of Messages

A Critical Apprenticeship in Rhetorical Criticism

Mark Stoner

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eBook - ePub

Making Sense of Messages

A Critical Apprenticeship in Rhetorical Criticism

Mark Stoner

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Making Sense of Messages, now in its second edition, retains the apprenticeship approach which facilitates effectively learning the complex content and skills of rhetorical theory and criticism.

A new chapter on "The Rhetoric of Ignorance" provides needed theory and examples that help students deal with the new rhetorical landscape marked by such discursive complexities as "fake news, " "whataboutism, " and denial of science that creates rather than reduces uncertainty in public argument. A new chapter, "Curating and Analyzing Multimodal Mediated Rhetoric, " deals with problems of media criticism in the digital age. It provides theory, models of application, and commentary that help novice critics understand and mindfully practice criticism that leads to insight, not mere opinion. Throughout the book, extended and updated examples and commentaries are designed to promote "novice-to-expert" agency in students.

This textbook is ideal for introductory courses in contemporary rhetoric, rhetorical criticism, and critical analysis of mass media.

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Part 1


1 What Are Rhetorical Messages?


  • context
  • exigencies
  • messages
  • rhetor
  • rhetoric
  • rhetorical acts
  • rhetorical artifacts
  • rhetorical discourse
  • rhetorical texts

Characteristics of Rhetoric

In an article about parenting in Newsweek magazine, an author writes, “Like so many other American cities, Hampton, Va., is full of parents who need help. But instead of settling for easy denunciations, the town is trading rhetoric for action” (Wingert, 1997, p. 88).
When you hear the word rhetoric, what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you think of flowery language with no real substance, politicians blowing hot air, or language that manipulates emotions but lacks substance. You may have heard or may yourself have used the phrase, “Oh, that’s just rhetoric,” suggesting that you’re hearing words without real meaning or substance. Most people believe action is real work that accomplishes material changes in the world, whereas rhetoric is mere talk about action that doesn’t, itself, accomplish anything.
Unfortunately, rhetoric has carried this negative connotation for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, fifth century B.C., citizens constructing the first known democracy found themselves in need of instruction in public oratory to function effectively in the newfound legislative and judicial systems. Ancient philosophical teachers known as Sophists came from Italy to teach rhetoric or oratory, among other subjects. The great philosopher Plato (1952) argued in his treatise Gorgias that the rhetoric being taught by the Sophists was mere “cookery.” The study of rhetoric was empty by contrast to the study of biology, for example. The discipline of biology has content, substance to be learned, whereas the discipline of rhetoric is all about learning how to speak the content or substance from other disciplines like biology.
Thus, said Plato, rhetoric itself has no substance as a discipline of study. For him, rhetoric was a matter of making ideas sound (“taste”) good. For Plato, where chemistry would be considered the substantive discipline of understanding the elements of temperature, water, and food substances involved in cooking, cookery was the mere knack of being able to make food taste good. The mastery of a discipline was of more value to Plato than possessing a knack for something.
Although Plato’s criticisms of rhetoric have persisted throughout the years, many scholars and philosophers have disputed the notion that rhetoric is merely cookery, hot air, or flowery language. Plato’s student, Aristotle, wrote a treatise, The Rhetoric, that to this day remains an influential analysis and justification of rhetoric. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (1984, p. 3). Specifically, he was interested in the intentional application of “all the available means of persuasion” in political speeches, courtroom speeches, and ceremonial speeches. Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s view that rhetoric was mere cookery. He saw it as a necessary, legitimate tool of democracy, worthy of study.
What was available only in the form of oratory in ancient Greece is created in many different forms today. Take a look at the following list of messages.
NIKE’s Instagram page
A graphic history1 of modern Palestine
The Vietnam War Memorial
A presidential campaign speech
A closing argument in a murder trial
A speech by a U.S. senator to the Senate supporting a tax cut
An episode of House of Cards
An editorial in the Washington Post
A pamphlet by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
A eulogy at a funeral
One might say that a presidential campaign speech is merely cookery; that candidates often do not speak the truth, but instead try to make things sound good so they can get elected. One might say that a trial attorney who knows she has a losing case might use rhetoric merely to make her client look good, even when the client is guilty. Although both, indeed, may be cases of “cookery,” they may also be much more than that. We’d like to suggest several functions of rhetoric that help us delineate our focus of study.

Rhetoric Typically Addresses Public Audiences

Each of the messages in our list is directed toward listeners, viewers, or readers in what we consider “public” space. Available to anyone with internet access, the NIKE Instagram site addresses audiences used to dynamic, changing message structures. The newspaper editorial addresses readers’ need for opinions on politics. The Vietnam War Memorial addresses tourists, schoolchildren, and others who visit the historical, commemorative monuments in Washington, D.C. They were all created to address public audiences. On the other hand, emails from you to your partner, even if intended to be persuasive, are interpersonal, not rhetorical.

Rhetoric Is Purposeful

Each of the messages in our list seeks to affect its audiences’ beliefs, values, or actions. The messages are intended to accomplish more than sharing of information for information’s sake or the expression of emotion for emotion’s sake. For example, the graphic history using visual devices designed for certain rhetorical and suasive effects elicits emotional responses regarding the everyday life experience of Palestinian people, but more emphatically makes a case that their displacement is an ongoing injustice. Not everyone believes that.
The Vietnam War Memorial affects viewers’ attitudes, emotions, and beliefs about the nature and value of the Vietnam War and the plight of soldiers sent to fight it (Blair, Jeppeson, & Pucci, 1991, pp. 263–288). The eulogy seeks to affect mourners by helping them accept the death of a loved one and transform their physical relationship with the deceased to a spiritual relationship. So, in each case, the message is purposeful.
That said, we recognize that messages are more or less intentional in their persuasive purpose. Communication scholar Roderick Hart writes that rhetorical messages might be viewed on a continuum with more obviously persuasive messages being at one end and less obviously persuasive messages being at the other (1997, p. 12). For example, the persuasive purpose of a speech by a politician running for office is obvious: to convince its audience to vote for her. However, on the other end of the scale we might place messages that function rhetorically without necessarily intending to do so. For example, the Komen pamphlet, “Support After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis,” features explanation of what counts as support and sources of support for women with a cancer diagnosis. However, taken together, the context, structure, and content encourages women to seek support post-diagnosis.
Since authors of rhetorical messages may or may not intentionally seek to affect audiences suasively, intentionality is not a necessary characteristic of rhetoric. Messages are purposeful insofar as they are deliberately crafted by some author or authors, but the authors’ apparent purposes may or may not necessarily be related to the rhetorical functions of their messages.
What, then, is not rhetoric? A table reporting statistical data is not rhetorical; neither are lists of ingredients in pharmaceuticals, checklists for complex tasks, or organizational charts or other data unless explained and interpreted. It is how a scientist interprets data or how a politician uses data in the context of a message that constitutes rhetoric. Data are meaningless and information remains information unless used by a person/speaker/organization addressing an audience for the purpose of shaping audience beliefs, values, or behaviors.

Rhetoric Responds to or Creates Social Concerns

In some cases, rhetorical messages respond overtly to existing social concerns. For example, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation pamphlet may be a response to the lack of awareness of breast cancer support available to women diagnosed. A speech by a senator supporting a bill on gun control would be a response to social concerns about gun violence. These cases reflect what Lloyd Bitzer called “rhetorical situations”: social problems that humans attempt to resolve through rhetoric. Such realizations as the rate of climate change, the effects of income inequality on social stability, and the persistent sexual exploitation of women globally are exigencies.
Exigencies are “imperfection[s] marked by urgency 
 something waiting to be done” (Bitzer, 1968, p. 6). For example, when Americans learned that the shuttle exploded, they awaited a response from President Bush. When the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were massacred, everyone turned to President Obama for help in making sense of the senseless. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and when wildfires wiped out communities in California in 2017 and 2018, the communities, the state, and the nation awaited President Trump’s response. Rhetoric is the only means by which communities can make sense of their experience.
However, it is naïve to think that situations themselves exist apart from rhetoric, for as much as rhetoric responds to social concerns, it is also instrumental in the creation of social concerns (Vatz, 1973, pp. 158–159). In fact, Richard Vatz argued that Lloyd Bitzer’s notion of an “exigence” is erroneous because no sense of imperfection or urgency exists apart from rhetoric (Vatz, 1973, p. 159).
For example, Hitler’s speeches to the Germans in the 1930s and 1940s created social concerns about the German economy and beliefs about the Jewish people, which, in turn, demanded other rhetorical responses. A few years ago, at a university graduation in northern California, the commencement speaker responded to the events of September 11, 2001, articulating her concerns about losses of civil rights post 9/11. The members of the audience had such a negative reaction (stomping and hissing) that the speaker was unable to complete her speech. Both the audience’s reaction and the content of the speech created a wild controversy and national debate (hence more rhetoric) about what is appropriate subject matter for a commencement speech, and the meaning of the audience’s intolerance of her viewpoints. This speech both responded to and created social concerns.

Rhetoric Is Built from Verbal and Nonverbal Symbols

Whether rhetorical messages respond to or create rhetorical situations, they are strategically constructed by author(s) using verbal and nonverbal symbols. Aristotle’s conception of “all the available means of persuasion” was narrower than ours because he lived in an oral culture whose primary medium for the exchange of ideas was public oratory. Today, however, we include much television content, internet content, some music, and even architecture as forms of discourse that respond to social problems and seek to affect public audiences. A speech or editorial relies on linguistic symbols (language), whereas, say, the Vietnam War Memorial relies heavily on visual, nonverbal modes such as its color, shape, and orientation. A eulogist uses verbal symbols (language) to respond to the situation of death, but the civil rights protester might use the nonverbal symbol of a sit-in, a march, or an effigy of a political figure.2
A television commercial might shape its viewers’ beliefs or opinions through camera angles, which essentially are nonverbal symbols that affect audiences’ responses to characters, actions, and ideas. The close-up shots of an elderly woman with a tear streaming down her face while reading a Hallmark card from her grandson might be just enough to motivate a viewer to swing by a Hallmark shop the next day and buy a card for his grandmother. The author of a university website relies on words (e.g., written “testimonials”), visual images (video clips of graduations), and sound (cheers, rousing music, or the voice of a student concluding a powerful ...

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