Hope, Change and… Salmon?!

A neo-Aristotelian analysis of Obama’s State of the Union speech might focus on how he builds credibility after a mid-term election gave significant traction to a Republican agenda.  A Lakoffian critique would look at which dominant metaphors work to shape the framing of other issues, like how “the race to educate our kids,” “this is our sputnik moment,” and the theme of “winning the future” all contribute to a framework of competition.  A Burkean cluster approach would organize key terms around frequency and intensity and extract an analysis from there.

Here’s what that would look like with regards to frequency:

But what about intensity?  NPR did some reader-response analysis, asking over 4,000 people to describe the speech in 3 words.  Here are the surprising results:

Um, I for one did not see that coming.  Granted, there are very few jokes made in State of the Union speeches, so one could argue that those that do make it in are bound to stand out.  But nevertheless, I find this surprising.

What can we glean from this data about the impact of Obama’s speech?  What can we suggest about the role of sarcasm in this situation?  What rhetorical methods do we have which can account for this anomaly?

To make matters perhaps even more interesting, here is the same data broken down into party-affiliations:



I’ll be curious to hear some of your responses to this data.


** I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Obama missed an opportunity to point out the plight of salmon.  All five species of Pacific salmon are endangered: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye.  It was not long ago at all that this now-endangered species thrived.  From Derrick Jensen, a staunch defender of salmon and all wild life:

Painting by Rob Shetterly

At one time the Columbia River Basin was home to the greatest runs of salmon on earth. In 1839 Elkanah Walker wrote in his diary, “It is astonishing the number of salmon which ascend the Columbia yearly and the quantity taken by the Indians. . . .” He continued, “It is an interesting sight to see them pass a rapid. The number was so great that there were hundreds constantly out of the water.” In 1930, Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press wrote, “Millions of chinook salmon today lashed into whiteness the waters of northwest streams as they battled thru the rapids. . . .” The article went on to say that “the scene is the same in every northwest river.” Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review noted that at Kettle Falls, “the silver horde was attacking the falls at a rate of from 400 to 600 an hour.”

Now the salmon are gone. To serve commerce our culture dammed the rivers of the Columbia River Basin. People at the time–beginning in the 1930s–knew dams would destroy salmon. Local groups and individuals–including those who knew salmon most intimately, the Indians–fought against the federal government and the river industries, but dams were built and now the fight is becoming even more desperate, as nine out of ten major salmon species in the Northwest and California are extinct or on the verge.

Harlots in a Saloon: The LXD

Art is interesting. To me, at least. Dancing as rhetoric is also interesting to me. Shows specifcially dedicated to dancing as a metaphor for fighting and war is also neuron-firing. The LXD is a web-show from Hulu that I have discussed previously. I feel obligated to point out that the story lines’s a bit cheesy and the acting leaves a lot to be desired, but what they lack in acting ability, they make up for in pure dancing talent. At times, though, I can’t quite figure out the kind of symbolism that they choose to use.

Okay, an example would be nice, right? Let’s use the costumes then. In season 2 of LXD, we learn that there is not just one bad guy (the doctor), but multiple villains with the addition of this, um, shamrock guy?

Okay, not really. He’s supposed to look like a dapper wild west character–you know, very rich man in a saloon and all that, but don’t you think it looks a little Lucky Charms? Anyway, the wild west saloon motif is the style that he and his crew take on.

The evil doctor on the other hand makes even less sense. He himself dresses kinda like a PI from a film noir. See:

His crew seems to change with each episode. In “The Greater of Two Evils,” his band of thieves dress in a late Victorian Era-esque way–bowler hat and umbrella included. In this episode, then, we have the Wild West fighting the English “gentleman” (albeit modernized) with an always interesting dance sequence.

Now, it would make some sense if this kind of symbolism were consistent. On the one hand there’s the really wild and sporadic dancers–they crunk, they run up walls, their arms and limbs flail in wild directions and they wear saloon like gear in order to represent that wildness; that rebelliousness. The other bad guy, the doctor, is methodical, right? So his crew wears bowlers, they work as a team with specific choreography and have more restrained movements. Here’s the thing, though. This isn’t always the case with the doctor’s crew. He works in some kind of abandoned prison/insane asylum/hospital and he runs experiments on people who end up just as wild as the Wild Westers. Is this merely a case of it-seemed-cool-so-we-did-it?

Even more confusing is why the good guys, the LXD, would choose to dress western themselves when they go to face the Wild West Crew in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ra Part 1.”

What are they trying to convey with the costumes? Why would the good guys try to adopt the identity of a bad guy? What am I supposed to take from this? What is this costume trying to say to me? I’m just not so sure. Overall, this may be why this show is only okay. The dancing and choreography is amazing, so I keep watching, but if it weren’t then this inattention to story development would have me running for the hills. It appears that they aren’t conscious of their own rhetoric and that might be part of what creates these other problems. I’ll keep watching if I can, though. As long as the dance sequences continue to take up the majority of these episodes.

Calling for Harlot reviewers!

Help wanted.

Help wanted, by Thewmatt

Harlot wants you!

Now in its third year of publication, Harlot is looking to expand its consortium — a group of reviewers who work hard to make sure all published submissions are smart, fun, provocative, and a good fit for Harlot. Harlot is open to all people who are interested in acts of persuasion, and we are currently most in need of individuals outside academia.

Reviewing is easy. Just as we ask creators to mind five particular goals in mind, we ask reviewers to answer the same questions in their responses:

1. Success: Is the piece appropriate for Harlot? Does it achieve its goals/potentials? Is the production quality high?
2. Significance: Are the ideas relevant, interesting, and provocative to broad audiences?
3. Accessibility: Is the piece welcoming and appealing to audiences’ varying reading abilities and assistive technologies?
4. Personality: Does the piece exhibit wit, charm, humor?
5. Ethics: Is the work respectful and inclusive of diverse individuals and communities? Does it abide by legal and moral codes of copyright and fair use?



If you’re interested in joining, please visit Harlot’s registration page, click the box next to “Reviewer,” and enter your interests. And then tell your friends!

Begging burro.

Begging burro, by Gottolson


We want you.



2011 Banished Words

It’s that time once again, where someone bring up words that have been overused and want banished into obscurity. According to Yahoo News, Lake Superior State University releases this list every year. This year’s list-topper is “viral,” which is more than fine with me if people stop saying the phrase “going viral,” but could run into some problems when trying to explain your next cold to your doctor. Other seemingly innocent words include epic, fail, and the American people.

Within a traditional context, these words probably wouldn’t bother anyone, but when put into the internet context, well, yes, it gets old extremely fast. I do find that so many of these words are anti-internet, though. Or, at least, the internet culture? Terms such as epic, fail, (epic fail), viral, and using google or facebook as verbs are specifically linked to the the way we’re using them within an online environment. Frankly, until google goes out, I don’t think I will stop googling searches and I don’t know anyone who finds the use of this perplexing or aggravating, so why ban it? Would banning these things also be denying a part of ourselves–the part that we choose to express online? Or would it be underestimating or not acknowledging this kind of culture that exists online?

Parenting and Culture (and Tiger Mothers)

A week ago, Amy Chua, a professor of Law at Yale Law School and mother of two Chinese-American daughters, published an excerpt of her book (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) that reflects on her Chinese parenting techniques. The response has been astounding with over 6,000 comments — and not just because of the provocative title the Wall Street Journal chose for it either.

Smiling Chinese Tiger, by Gobind Khalsa
Smiling Chinese Tiger, by Gobind Khalsa

Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” presents Chua’s parenting model, and she offers three differences between Chinese and Western approaches (which, naturally, are countered by Asian and Western parents alike in the comments section):

  1. “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem” while Chinese parents “assume strength, not fragility.”
  2. “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything” and “must spend their lives repaying their parents by obeying them and making them proud.”
  3. “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.”

Each of the three points assumes a significantly different common ground between parent and child compared to a generalized idea of Western approaches, which means that parents can take entirely different starting points toward shaping their children’s personalities, work habits, attitudes toward difficult tasks, and so on.

An anecdote in the excerpt shows what this persuasive approach can look like. It gives some insight into the kind of language, threats, and physical constraints (not violent, but including orders to sit still) Chua uses to control the learning and disciplinary environment after her youngest daughter, Lulu, repeatedly fails to master a difficult piano piece:

I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

When her technique also repeatedly failed to bring the desired results, husband and wife conferred, and Chua continued:

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Eventually something clicked for Lulu and she began to pay the piece correctly – and her exclaims show how proud she was of herself. But here’s where the critics disagree: Is Chua correct in assuming Lulu is “strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it,” or, as a writer at the New York Times repeats from a detractor, is Chua a “mommie dearest” figure raising a daughter destined for life in therapy?

Lots of questions, and lots of variables. Personally, what I think is interesting is parents’ struggle to follow one tradition while living and interacting in another. But I guess this is why Chua clarifies in a later interview that her book is a testament to the trails she went through as a bi-cultural (but Chinese-leaning) mother in a land with different basic assumptions about parent-child relationships. Whether her methods appear sound to us or not, my humble opinion is that we should applaud her attempts at sharing her experiences and reflecting upon them – a sign of good parenting in any culture.

data, information, knowledge, wisdom

Thanks, Kate, for the great post on McCandless’s animated visualization.  (Information is Beautiful is also the title of a truly terrific book of visualizations that I highly recommend checking out.)

The use of the word “problem” set me thinking.  If there is a problem, what is it and where is it?  One could argue, I think, that the sheer selection of certain numbers to work with posits an argument of sorts (opting for these categories instead of others suggests their relative importance, in other words).   There’s even a bit of narrative quality to the piece, with the credit crisis debt trumping all others and set in the sequence such that the music dramatically picks up as it’s dropped. So perhaps the piece does have an argument; it’s just not clear-cut.

Which suggests to me that if there is a problem, it does not lay with the piece–but with us.  Our problem is that we are asked to interpret the information and construct an argument of what it’s arguing.  Our interpretation–what does it mean?–is then automatically pitted against other interpretations, which is to say, argument against other arguments.

McCandless actually has another visualization that provokes a similar line of questioning using different terms:

Pyramid of Visual Understanding: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

Using this vocabulary, the problem we’re presented with is transforming information (the simple story of linked debt-centric elements) to knowledge.  This transforming act is no doubt affected by the natural trajectory towards wisdom (us rhetoricians may think phronesis would fit better here than plain old “wisdom”), which makes the entire interpretative process infinitely more complex–and interesting.

I’d be curious to hear what you think of this chart: its basic assumptions, what might get added, how it might be altered for teaching, etc.  And I’m sure McCandless would, too.  In his posting of this he actually links to a rhetoric blog run by Catherine Schuler, Assistant Professor of English and Professional Writing at East Stroudsburg University, so he’s demonstrated that he’s linked to our community in some fashion.

On a final note, I was intrigued by McCandless’s mention with “Debtris” that we should expect more “motion infographics” in 2011.  Interest in infographics has exploded in the past several years (even though it’s been around for a long time), but the move towards animation and video is taking new routes recently.  Check out this fascinating video by the dynamic Hans Rosling, for example:

data, aesthetics, and rhetoric

I ran across this very cool visualization of debt statistics (from David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful collection) yesterday:

Cool, right? It’s a smart way to present the info, well-executed, even charming for Gen Xers. It’s the Tetris narrative (enhanced by the accelerating tune) that seems ripe for rhetorical effect, I think. But when I showed it to my (logical) partner, he immediately called out the problem: It has no argument. The numbers, while striking in contrast, have unclear relationships and have been selected, or at least arranged, without seeming to have a point… which may not have been the goal of the creator, obviously.

But imagine the kinds of sweet rhetorical work could be done with such creative approaches to representing sharing data…