Pork n’ Beans is Rhetorical!

This is what happened.

The night before class—as the teacher later came to find out—a student ate two cans of Pork n’ Beans. The following day was a noisy and humorous one as this student became an object and subject of entertainment through his deviant behavior regarding public decorum. What I mean is he gassed the class, and it was funny!

This student was counting on the effects of Pork n’ Beans on and through his body to speak and use his voice. Seriously. I am being serious.

In this story, I see something important occurring. Kenneth Burke might say, “Food, eaten and digested, is not rhetorical. But in the meaning of the food there is much rhetoric.” What I mean is that he means what is occurring is an overlooked aspect of rhetoric.
While words or pictures aren’t being used, food becomes like a picture or a word in how it’s used on an audience. And just like words or pictures sometimes the effects on an audience or even ourselves may not be what we bargained for—after all sometimes what we say, show, or even digest just doesn’t work like we thought it would.

Check out this Beano commercial:

This is what I see: these are instructions for us that using beano is a rhetorical move for communicating how a person can control his/her body in public—behave appropriately or say the right things. It is similar to saying “Use flatulate, fart is too informal.” You know, “Use Beano, flatulating is too informal. Seriously.”

The 2nd Edition: [A]musing Ourselves

In the most recent issue of Harlot, my colleague Paul Muhlhauser and I published a satirical piece critiquing what we learn about genders and work from the November 2009 J.CREW catalog.  Yesterday, we posted a comment on our piece that extends our critique to the most recent issues of the catalog.  I’m copying our comment here for your delectation (and, selfishly, in hopes that some of you may enter the conversation we were hoping to start with our piece).  In case you didn’t know, each piece published on Harlot is “comment-ready”.  Just click on the “Add Comment” link below the piece and make your contribution!  [Caveat: you may have to register with Harlot if you are not yet registered.]

EXTENDING THE CONVERSATION (our comment on How Genders Work: Producing the J.CREW Catalog):

To be fair to J.CREW, they did “follow up” the Real Guys Relate feature with another issue that featured “real” women—women and their jobs. However, the feature is titled Who’s that Girl? rather than Who’s that Woman?. When women work, they are just girls. This sends the message that women’s jobs are really not equal to men’s.

Besides being called “girls,” these women are referred to as “muses” and “muse-worthy” in the introduction to the feature. This means they are sources of inspiration for others. In this context, the women inspire more than the job descriptions offered. What is striking is how these “real” women display behaviors consistent with women in How Genders Work. Though women are named and their jobs are listed, “girls” continue to be posed like the models in the magazine rather than the men who are aware of their positions and surroundings. Women’s posturing is still flirty as their toes are pointed inward, and they often look off to the side unaware of their surroundings and out of context. In addition, as if to counteract the effect women with jobs would have on a reader by unsettling a stereotype, J.CREW profiles the men who work at the British journal Monocle. These men become even more real as they are positioned in contexts of offices, city streets, and studios. The lesson we learn from this issue is that real men do real work—they exist in a real world, in context. Real women, on the other hand, may have real jobs but their work is to [a]muse.

To make matters worse, the issue following Who’s that Girl? once again features “real” men as workers and women models as flirtatious and air-headed. There are no “real” women in this issue. The theme for the issue is nature (as in landscaping, farming, and gardening). The instructions show us that women are incompetent and disengaged with regards to nature. Nature, for them, is an accessory. One model, for instance, looks as if she doesn’t know how to pot a plant. She holds it as if waiting for someone to help her. Another holds flowers—doesn’t do anything with them. Flowers are part of her “look.”

Men, in contrast, work with nature; they are competent and engaged. Rather than presented as an accessory, nature is presented as part of work and their livelihoods. In this feature, we return to the studio to learn about “The Naturals.” These “real” men are landscape designers, landscape photographers, agricultural directors, goat farmers, and agricultural farmers.

As these catalogs demonstrate, J.CREW has not changed their representation strategies. Though J.CREW attempted to represent “real” women, they failed. Our instructions still produce the J.CREW catalog. A second edition of our textbook would have a section for girls, muses, and jobs.

Contribute to the conversation!

Parody as Rhetorical Analysis

Right now there are a gaggle of imaginative and intelligent students at Ohio State working on Critical Rhetoric Videos, an assignment that takes Raymie McKerrow’s concept of “Critical Rhetoric,” but uses digital video instead of print to perform the critique.

(go to www.elementsof276.blogspot.com to learn more about this assignment)

In attempting to better identify which rhetorical appeals will work best for their target demographic (mostly those between the ages of 19 and 26), we consistently come back to humor.  This has me contemplating the potential value of a “precursor project”–more specifically, a parodic precursor–that would focus on the strategic use of humor before moving on to a project like the Critical Rhetoric Video.

So I thought I would share with you some great examples of parody, a term the Greeks used to describe works that imitated the epics in humorous fashion, poking fun at the style of master narratives.  (Just consider the etymology: para (along side of) + ode (as in “lyrical ballad”).)

These examples are astounding for their efficiency in revealing the rhetorical structures of the genre they’re poking fun at, while engaging the audience with their own set of smooth rhetorical maneuvers:

(thanks to Alex Speck, who tipped me off to this bit-o-genius)

(thanks to Kendyl Meadows for this one)

(thanks to Kate Comer for finding this hilarity)

not Beyond Persuasion

I remember when British Petroleum changed their name to “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000.  When pressed about it, I bet most could, which means that their $200 million advertising campaign worked.  (Ogilvy & Mather won the 2001 PRWeek award for “campaign of the year,” if you need additional support for its effectiveness.)

One of the most successful greenwashes of all time, the rebranding of BP has led them to be viewed as one of the most “environmentally aware” oil companies.  The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is putting pressure on this perspective, of course, but there’s good reason to believe that BP’s image will recover.  They’re veterans, don’t forget: of oil clean-ups, congressional “interrogations” of weak safety measures and poor environmental records, and–most importantly–PR disaster management.

(Eric Dezenhall recently wrote about when a “late public-relations honcho for a big petrochemical company” once told him “that he knew it was time to retire when, after a spill, the CEO’s first call was to him: ‘Get up here, Harry, we’ve got a PR problem.”)

PR disaster management is where rhetorician mercenaries spring to action; these are the Navy SEALS of  rhetorical situations where making the weaker argument appear stronger seems nearly impossible.  The documentary Our Brand is Crisis reveals some of this rhetorical mercenary work:

So after having spent enough time vacillating between rage and despair while reading accounts of the (continuing) oil leak in the Gulf, I thought it best to go to Derrick Jensen for some words of wisdom.  In Endgame (Volume 1) Jensen discusses BP’s name change, which they framed as a “statement of priorities.”

This particular type of smokescreen has been most fully developed by a public relations consultant with the appropriately named Peter Sandman.  He has been nicknamed the High Priest of Outrage because corporations hire him to dissipate public anger, to put people back to sleep.  Sandman has explicitly stated his self-perceived role: “I get hired to help a company to ‘explain to these confused people that the refinery isn’t going to blow up, so they will leave us alone.'”

He developed a five point program for corporations to disable public rage.

First, convince the public that they are participating in the destructive processes themselves, that the risks are not externally imposed.  You asked for it by wearing those clothes, says the rapist.  You drive a car, too, says the PR guru.

Second, convince them that the benefits of the processes outweigh the harm.  You could never support yourself without me, says the abuser.  How would you survive without fossil fuels?” repeats the PR guru.

Third, undercut fear by making the risk feel familiar.  Explain your response and people will relax (whether or not your response is meaningful or effective).  Don’t you worry about it, I’ll take care of everything.  Things will change, you’ll see, says the abuser.  We are moving beyond petroleum and toward sustainability, says the PR guru.

Fourth, emphasize again that the public has control over the risk (whether or not they do).  You could leave anytime you want, but I know you won’t, says the abuser.  If we all just pull together, we’ll find our way through, says the PR guru.

Fifth, acknowledge your mistakes, and say (even if untrue) that you are trying to do better.  I promise I will never hit you again, the abuser repeats.  It is time to stop living in the past, and move together into the future, drones the PR guru.

Speaking to a group of mining executives, Sandman, who also consults for BP, stated, “There is a growing sense that you screw up a lot, and as a net result it becomes harder to get permission to mine.”  His solution is not actually change how the industry works, of course, but instead to find an appropriate “persona” for the industry.  “Reformed sinner,” he says, “works quite well if you can sell it…’Reformed sinner,’ by the way, is what John Brown of BP has successfully done for his organization.  It is arguably what Shell has done with respect to Brent Spar.  Those are two huge oil companies that have done a very good job of saying to themselves, ‘Everyone thinks we are bad guys…We can’t just start out announcing we are good guys, so what we have to announce is we have finally realized we were bad guys and we are going to do better.’ … It makes it much easier for critics and the public to buy into the image of the industry as good guys after you have spent awhile in purgatory.”

Here’s some “reformed sinner” performance, punctuated with blame-framing and blame-shifting.  It’s rather remarkable that right after Senator Wyden says, “And the company always says the same thing after one of these accidents: ‘We’re gonna toughen up our standards; we’re going to improve management; we’re going to deal with risks,’ and then another such accident takes place,” BP executive Lamar McKay responds with the exact same formula just outlined: “We are changing this company.  We’ve put in management systems that are covering the world in a consistent and rigorous way.”

But why depart from the template that has worked so well and so consistently for so long?

If you find such behavior and responses (both by oil executives and the “legal personhood” of a corporation) to be best described as pathological behavior, then you might find useful the documentary The Corporation, which uses some of the key symptoms of psychopathy as outlined by the DSM-IV as an analytical lens for understanding corporate behavior:

  • callous disregard for the feelings of other people
  • the incapacity to maintain human relationships
  • reckless disregard for the safety of others
  • deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit)
  • the incapacity to experience guilt
  • failure to conform to social norms and respect for the law

Oil has brought us some nice things and (to borrow another phrase from Derrick Jensen) all other things being equal, I’d like to have some of the things that are the result of oil.

“But all other things aren’t equal, and I’d rather have a living planet.”

Question (FB & Commonplaces)

Has anyone written about Facebook working as modern day commonplaces?

I mean, wikipedia suggests that “[s]ome modern writers see blogs as an analogy to commonplace books,” but I see Facebook posts has a much more similar connection. Considering that blogs are there to produce content more than just post it, then I’d say that blogs are closer journaling and facebook, which many of us use to post various articles, music, pictures, etc, could tie in with commonplacing.

I’m just wondering if anyone else has had any insights into this?

getting physical

I was lucky enough to spend yesterday afternoon at the MoMA experiencing the Marina Abramovic performance art retrospective.   Abramovic tests the boundaries of the body and the mind in her pieces and disrupts the traditional relationship between performer and audience.  For Abramovic, the body is a medium for argument.

In one of her early performances, she sat herself in public beside a table containing things such as knives, a gun, and a bullet.  A note on the table invited passers-by to do to her what they wanted.  For six hours, she endured people cutting her and sucking her blood, undressing her, carrying her, and putting the loaded gun to her head.  In another piece, she and her performance collaborator stood naked in the entryway of an art museum.  They positioned their naked bodies so anyone wanting to enter or exit the museum had to pass through their naked bodies and had to choose whether to face the naked man or the naked woman as they slipped through them sideways.  This performance piece is being recreated for this retrospective, so a contemporary audience can experience it for themselves.

In addition to videos and live recreations of her performances over the past four decades, the exhibit includes Abramovic herself performing her longest-running solo piece “The Artist Is Present.”  For this piece, she is sitting in a chair facing whoever sits in the chair opposite her.  Visitors to the museum take turns sitting in the chair opposite her and are invited to stare into her eyes for as long as they wish.

Abramovic’s pieces are moving, engaging, and sometimes disturbing.  Not surprisingly, they are effective as a medium for political, social, and cultural arguments.

Know Your Music: Tempo Rubato as a Persuasive Technique

When you lay on a couch and listen to Chopin, you’re bound to notice something very specific. One of the things that makes a Chopin piano piece is the lingering resonance and/or the quick succession of certain notes or phrases. There’s a technical term for that. It’s called “tempo rubato.” (If you’re burning to hear an example, try Martha Argerich’s performance of Nocturne No. 16 in E Flat, Op 55, No. 2.)

I would suggest (and I do) that tempo rubato is a rhetorical technique within the form of musical performance. It is a style meant to express improvisation and feeling. . . pathos. By speeding up, we are hurried through the piece and by slowing down we are forced to contemplate that musical phrase. Like any good romantic period piece, it emotes and manipulates. Tempo rubato manipulates its audiences into feeling differently than if the piece were kept in strict time.

I know, I know–you may be asking yourself why this is important. Why does it matter what it’s called as long as it’s effective, right?  Well, I guess I’m kind of a music geek (I did minor in it), but the effect that music has on our current society is undeniable. Don’t you think?

How many musicians have benefited from Apple commercials using their songs (The Ting Tings, Yael Naim, CSS, Prototypes, etc.) or car/alcohol/sports commercials (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Young Dubliners, etc):

(Which, I am a fan of Spread Your Love by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. It’s definitely a driving-in-your-car-feeling-bad-ass song.)

Music is used to add to other persuasive forms/arguments/compositions, yes. It’s used in movies, tv, commercials, grocery stores, department stores, etc., etc., but music also has its own persuasive techniques within itself. I once learned in some music class which I can’t pin down that what most people were drawn to most of the time was the use contrast and repetition. That’s why songs on the Top 40 lists follow the same basic format: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus.

This is where tempo rubato comes in. This technique is used to offer that contrast which maintains a person’s interest while repeating a phrase that we’ve already heard. It draws us in because there is familiarity and keeps us there because there are slight changes. It persuades us to keep listening.

Just as Marx declared he is not a Marxist…

“[My questioning of norms] has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric … The fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching in rhetoric is essential … whether in the sense of the art of persuasion or in the sense of logical demonstration.”

Unlike Marx, Derrida would probably be more inclined to play with his label of “deconstructionist” rather than out-and-out deny it.  But as Booth points out in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, Derrida is just fine with being labeled a rhetorician.

“If you really understand Kenneth Burke, you don’t need Derrida as much.”

~ J. Hillis Miller, Interview, Criticism in Society, 1987