How advertisers break it down

Having spent several years working in advertising, I can no longer simply watch t.v. or flip through a magazine.

I now know that everything—from casting to level of retouching to the color of shovel a child is holding in a shot—is a belabored choice (by the way, did anyone else notice the beautiful lighting in the opening sequence of the new Harry Potter film?).

Will it soon be this way for all of us? Check out this Slate article about creative director Donald Gunn and his twelve kinds of ads, circa 1978. With his guidelines for categorizing commercials, perhaps Gunn was a better ad-man than we think.

Role of Intellectuals

From Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual:

“The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously… Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his/her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant… So in the end it is the intellectual as representative figure that matters—someone who visibly represents a standpoint of some kind, and someone who makes articulate representations to his or her public despite all sorts of barriers.” (11-12)

I’m a little hesitant about claiming the faculty to represent the diverse communities and individuals within “the public,” and I’m not sure how many professional intellectuals “cannot easily be co-opted”… but I admire the ideal. And I hope that Harlot somehow manages to please its audiences even as itchallenges them.

Occasions for Stimulation: Or, Why You Should Write for Harlot

Have you heard?! The audience for academic writing is being held captive! It’s true! Various factors – such as the need to “stay current” in one’s chosen field or a syllabus that dictates what we read for a seasonal cycle – function to capture a readership through the fetters of “requirements.”

The danger in all this, it seems to me (for there are plenty of positives as well), is that the rhetorical styles of academic writing are attenuated in the process. We read lots of dull writing. Seriously. It goes without saying that dull writing doesn’t equal, or even indicate for that matter, solid and serious scholarship. And it SHOULD go without saying that scholarship can benefit from exposure to a range of rhetorical styles that vary in philosophy and execution; but perhaps it goes better with it being said.

If you had to fight for your readership – that is, if the person wasn’t required (in some way or another) to read your writing – how does that change your delivery of content? How do you cultivate the skill of keeping an audience glued to the subtleties of your argument? How might one learn to make their writing engaging to the degree that a close reading is both desirable and necessary?

Short answer?

Write for Harlot.

Slightly longer answer?

When one must capture and sustain a reader’s attention – when an assignment, an upcoming tenure review, or a grade doesn’t create it for you – one’s assessment of what it is precisely that needs to be communicated is tested. Obviously, this is not to imply that in purely academic writing one doesn’t do such a review on their ideas. The point, rather, is to stress that when we seek an audience that isn’t beholden to us, we strengthen and enrich our rhetorical tools. I come to this idea, admittedly and respectfully, by way of Michael Bérubé and his book, Rhetorical Occasions.

Bérubé suggests that writing for nonacademic venues not only involves a careful examination of audience, but a reassessment of time as well. He writes,

“We are not accustomed to thinking about public writing in terms of public time … [these] rhetorical occasions are not simply a matter of intervening in such-and-such a space in response to this or that debate; they are also a matter of recalibrating work time, especially when one’s public writing is required to be timely” (3 author’s emphasis).

One’s writing is, unsurprisingly, improved by accepting such a challenge. Bérubé notes, “as it happens, some of the features of ‘popular’ writing are actually conducive to better, sharper writing than one ordinarily does in the course of one’s academic work [and leads to] intellectual stimulation, a matter of learning new modes of address and strategies for revision” (3).

Hell yeah; that bears repeating: “learning new modes of address and strategies for revision.” For those reading who may have nodded their head (even if slightly) at any of Bérubé’s comments, Harlot is the place for you. Join us.

Although I’m tempted to, I hesitate to get caught up here on “popular,” and its implied opposite of “private” (which, sadly, is understood as “academic”), and wish instead to end on a note of encouragement: Let’s go fight for our audience. Doing so, broadly speaking, will invigorate our communicative ability. Furthermore, by publishing authors whose ideas and style compel one to keep reading, viewing, or listening, Harlot will, in turn, create a savvy and substantial audience.

One small step for Harlot…

Hooray! Finally, after months of revising and agonizing, we’ve sent out the first wave of our call for submissions to the OSU community. It was suddenly scary as we began pressing “send”–exciting and a relief, but there was certainly a moment of “Wow — who do we think we are?” A bunch of grad students with a good idea and a catchy name… what right do we have to think that we can be publishers, let alone that undefinable “public intellectual”? I prefer to think of it in terms of responsibilities rather than rights (if only it didn’t sound so pretentious! but why should it?). And in a less altruistic vein, I think Harlot springs from a real need for some extracurricular application of our scholarly work.

As I said, though, the first wave only. We’ve given ourselves permission to keep our expectations and ambitions reasonable for the pilot issue this fall. But in order to get the sort of variety we want, we will have to reach much further afield — and, as the gracious genius Cheryl challenged us, to revise our notion of the very genre of the call in light of our goals of reaching “public” thinkers: why should it be print? where and how shoud it be distributed? We have dreams of video calls released to YouTube, notices in local community papers… Other ideas?

Thought of the day

From Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” The New York Review of Books, 1967:

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.


I’m inserting here some notes from our pre-blog days:

The web site design is in play and making progress, however haltingly. Getting a bunch of opinionated grad students to vocalize, let alone agree upon, color schemes, design motifs, and (the biggie right now) a logo is surprisingly more challenging than getting us all on the same page about our mission. It’s a heck of an interesting exercise in rhetoric.

A long editorial meeting—5 hours on the 4th of July—brought home the challenges of collaborative writing and group dynamics. Put 5 strong-willed and smart academics in a room and ask them to write a paragraph… would make for a fascinating case study, whether in composition or psychology!

Not to mention the tough theoretical and practical tasks we have set ourselves, plus our own high standards… Translating academicese, which we are all too fluent in, into real language for real people: now that’s a rhetorical challenge. And in all the fuss, I’m not sure the call has yet answered the question: why a journal about rhetoric for popular audiences? Somehow, though, we managed to keep pretty focused and worked through the biggest changes, I think.

A fun aside: Today we realized that, ironically, “Academicese” is pronounced almost identically to “Academic Ease.”

A meeting with Jim and some space to breathe, and we rediscovered our sense of humor (sense of Harlot?), manifested in tag line suggestions ranging from “For what you can’t get at home” to “Open Minds, Open Legs.” (Okay, that last was mine, and not quite serious.) For some fun with brainstorming, check out the Whiteboard’s ongoing list…

Last night Catie and I, over cosmos, decide on our preferred subtitle: A Promiscuous Guide to Public Intercourse. Tim, over beer, agrees. But today, in the sunlight and back in the big group, we negotiate objections and suggestions and finally (tentatively?) decide on A Revealing Look at Public Discourse. The urgency over such details is caused by our (twice extended) deadline for sending out the pilot call for submissions. The main body seems ready; we’re soooooooo close.

And so, with the help of tech genius Jason and his delightfully appropriate domain name, we launch our blog.

Harlot’s progress

Welcome to the Harlot blog, the playground of our new web publishing venture. To quote our most recent call for submissions, “Positioned at the intersection of cultural studies, new media, and the creative arts, Harlot is a digital magazine and web forum dedicated to investigations of persuasive communication in the public sphere.”

This story begins in media res, halfway through the “Summer of Harlot.” Marked by editorial compromise, heavy reading, technological creativity, and more than a bit of personal obsession, the summer has so far been an exhilarating experience in translating theory into practice. This space has been designed to track that progress, to explore those challenges, and to share our development process. Contributors include the editorial board, technology consultants, faculty advisors and friends of Harlot. In addition to the main narrative, the site includes pages for ongoing conversations about the title, technology, philosophy, and submission guidelines. Please join in!