Rhetoric, Relevance, Writer’s Block

I’m very proud of the piece I wrote about my dad’s book, but it was very, very hard to write. Not because of some emotional block but because my instinct was to sit down and write a dry analytical piece, and my dear friend and editor Jason Briggeman was not about to allow that. It had to be something enjoyable to read, something that played up a son’s relationship to his father as a source of entertainment as well as insight. I wrote several drafts that played this angle but offered little insight, and several dry analytical drafts, and putting the two together was not easy and did not come quickly.

I am now embarking on a similar project, perhaps even more challenging. I had hoped to make some progress on it this weekend, but I did not. So here I am again, to talk about some things I have read, among other things. I’m hoping this will grease the wheel a bit, and ideally help me think through the very things I’m attempting to write about.

Rhetoric

I recently finished reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric (specifically, George Kennedy’s translation, which calls it On Rhetoric). This was done for the project I am working on. Until now, I have read a great deal about this work but not actually read it; most people’s relationships to most classics, though we pretentious types don’t like to admit it. I’m actually prepared to defend the practice: what is valuable is familiarity with the subject matter, and the value of specific texts is what they have to offer on that score. Authoritative texts are useful as reference points for a discursive community, but precisely because they are authoritative you can get a pretty good idea of what they’re all about just by engaging with the community.

Of course, you wouldn’t call yourself an expert on the Rhetoric without reading it (never mind reading it in the original Greek). Tom Palmer said that one should not read Aristotle’s Politics to learn what Aristotle thought, but instead to learn about politics. He was summarizing Gadamer on the importance of attending to the subject matter, but Gadamer was also a strong advocate of attending to the text. Especially if you are going to be offering an interpretation of it!

And that is precisely what I am going to be doing as part of this project of mine. One aspect of this project could be summarized with the elevator pitch “What Aristotle can teach you about new media PR”. Really it’s just an excuse to tell a business audience to ditch the very idea of new media PR and instead embrace the principles of classical rhetoric applied to a contemporary context.

The book in its details is what you can expect from any book on rhetoric, really; a lot of very specific analysis of what works in given cases. What the modern reader really needs is something more like Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoricwhich draws on an enormous corpus of examples to demonstrate the techniques; many more than Aristotle does. What’s needed, however, is a book that draws on contemporary examples and also discusses some of the rhetorical tricks that are particular to the media of our day. While I hesitate to say that we have new techniques above and beyond the classical tradition, it’s not as though the old Greek or English teachers could anticipate the particular rhetorical context of the quote-tweet.

But that is not what I intend to write. My particular interest in Aristotle’s Rhetoric can be summed up in one (Greek) word: ethos. This is the character of the speaker as perceived as a result of his speech. This latter part was news to me: Kennedy, whose translation is, as I understand it, the current academic standard, explains:

Unlike Isocrates (Antidosis 278), Aristotle does not include in rhetorical ethos the authority that the speaker may possess due to position in government or society, previous actions, reputation, or anything except what is actually said in the speech.

Rather than idealistically assuming away the influence of the speaker’s position in society, however, Aristotle appears to be making a technical distinction (though not explicitly; Kennedy may be reading it into the text). For Aristotle the art of rhetoric involves those elements of persuasion the speaker can influence. External factors outside the influence of the speech are not part of the art. So it’s not that one’s position in society has no influence on the persuasiveness of your speech; it’s just that that forms part of the situation the speech takes place within. It is outside the art, which, in the case of ethos, involves a portrayal of your character that elicits sympathy and trust.

This distinction is illustrated in an early passage that stood out to me:

That rhetoric, therefore, does not belong to a single defined genus of subject but is like dialectic and that it is useful is clear—and that its function [ergon] is not to persuade but to see the available means of persuasion in each case, as is true also in all the other arts; for neither is it the function of medicine to create health but to promote this as much as possible; for it is nevertheless possible to treat well those who cannot recover health.

A doctor by definition cannot cure a disease which, with current medicine, is incurable. But she may be able to treat it for any number of reasons; to extend the patient’s lifespan, for example, or moderate their symptoms. Similarly, a poor, illiterate person cannot change their circumstances at the time of their speech, but they can make the most of them. Finding the available means of persuasion for a particular situation is what Aristotle considered the art of rhetoric.

These distinctions are all well and good, but to be honest my main interest in ethos was far more minimal than this. Really, the idea that who you are in a speech situation is at least as important as the merit of your argument (logos), or even the emotional resonance of your choice of words (pathos) was what I was after. People tend to have a pretty bleached view of what discussion means. In the limit you get deliberative democracy types seeking the ideal conditions for a pure exchange of logos, or cynics who see all pathos as simple manipulation.

Something that basically all sides of the 20th century debates in philosophy agreed on is that knowledge is a product of social relations, not of an individual knower acting alone. Emphasizing ethos, to me, means having a basic awareness of where you stand in that web of relations, and what effect you can anticipate your actions having as a result. The CEO of a publicly traded company should not shoot from the hip in her public statements; it could do a fortune’s worth of harm to shareholders and employees. The particulars of the speech situation carry the day of course; that same CEO is usually safe shooting from the hip in what she says in the privacy of her own home with a close friend.

I used to think public shaming on social media was this dangerous new trend. I still think it largely sucks, but:

  1. It impacts a small number of people and is about as far from the most pressing matter as I can imagine, and
  2. A lot of it comes down to people treating public social media spaces like Twitter as if they were intimate settings.

2 is of more interest to me. Sensitivity to what speech situation you are in and who you are in it is vital. Pinker-style Team Enlightenment thinking tends to pit this sort of sensitivity against a bleached logos-only or logos and pathos at most worldview.

Relevance

I wasn’t much a fan of Birdman, which struck me as one big Hollywood and theater industry circle-jerk, but I did like this particular bit:

Riggan: Listen to me. I’m trying to do something important.
Sam: This is not important.
Riggan: It’s important to me! Alright? Maybe not to you, or your cynical friends whose only ambition is to go viral. But to me… To me… this is – God. This is my career, this is my chance to do some work that actually means something.
Sam: Means something to who? You had a career before the third comic book movie, before people began to forget who was inside the bird costume. You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! Things are happening in a place that you willfully ignore, a place that has already forgotten you. I mean, who are you? You hate bloggers. You make fun of Twitter. You don’t even have a Facebook page. You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.

“There’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day.” I’ve always followed a strategy of trying not to fight too hard or care too much. On the whole I’ve stuck with writing about what I enjoy writing about, connecting with small numbers of people who enjoy reading and writing and discussing the same things, and it has given me many good friends and even more fun conversations over the years.

What makes pieces like the one I wrote on my dad’s book, or the one I’m working on now, different, is that I am actually trying to be relevant. It is very hard. It is a struggle. But, contrary to the cynicism of the Birdman quote—I think it is also healthy, or at least it can be (as Aristotle would say, in his ethics rather than rhetoric: if done the right way in the right amount for the right situation and so on). Being relevant is really just about being interesting and enjoyable for other people; it requires you to get out of your own head and think about someone else.

I can write a pretty long piece on hermeneutics or rhetoric or virtue ethics in under an hour, no problem. Back in the Sweet Talk days, I did that multiple times a week for months at a time. I am very lucky that those pieces were interesting to anyone at all. And in as much as they were part of conversations I was having with a small group of people, I was lucky to live in a world where technology enabled me to drill really deep into subject matter like this with people who know more about it than I do and enjoy it just as much.

But appealing to a wider audience requires much more work and discipline. And frankly, a lot more help from other people—Jason most of all! That process helps me to grow, and not only as a writer.

So alongside my advocacy of the art of rhetoric I will also offer a defense of fighting to be relevant. As Teddy Roosevelt put it:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

But to TR I would reply: the critic is in the arena, too! Criticism is a deed that is done, where errors can be made!

Nevertheless, I like the spirit of what he says.

That’s all I’ve got. See you the next time I’ve finished a book I can’t get out of my head, or am struggling with what I actually want to be writing.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.