I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post is part of chapter two. To have a look at other parts of chapter two–or the whole of chapter one (Concepts 1.1 – 1.10), click here.
Concept 2.3. Rhetoric is sexy. Rhetoric enacts the drama of receptivity. When a matter comes before you, what is your judgment concerning it? What assertions will you submit to—and what assertions will you reject? If Plato is correct, the self is one and knows itself as one via a process of contending self-talk that gets to yes. Likewise, discourse is a search for maintaining or getting to oneness, solidarity, harmony. Assertions are made, ideas are proposed—and thumbs from the audience go up or down. And if thumbs go up in approval, signaling submission, it can be, not just a submission to logos—a rational submission—through ever-heightened clarification, argument, and evidence-pointing—but a passionate submission—a submission to pathos—amounting to a seduction, as illustrated by James Joyce’s extraordinary soliloquy (self-talk) in his novel Ulysses, placed in the mouth of Molly Bloom as a stream-of-consciousness, with her eagerness for unification dramatized by the dropping of all commas:
[A]nd Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
Molly and her lover had a main point to which they were moving, and that’s the goal of rhetoric as well: a coming together to an overriding question or conclusion, as when T.S. Eliot, in the first stanza of his poem, “The Love Song of Jay Alfred Prufrock” (1915), invites the reader on a journey of discovery:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
Hopefully your own writing will not consist of any “tedious” arguments, but of novel and cogent (clear, coherent, convincing, relevant) ones, leading to an overarching question or thesis. In writing and speech, the point on which the yes is at ultimate stake is the thesis, the organizing and culminating goal of discourse.
Darwinian sexual selection and writing. The quotes from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot above are obviously erotically suggestive—and in Joyce’s case, explicitly so. And the fact that words in their suggestiveness are “fruitful and multiply,” breeding further thoughts and words in writers, editors, and readers, reminds one of writing’s relation to sex. Charles Darwin noticed that organisms do not just have adaptations for survival, but for spell-casting potential mates. By way of contrast with natural and artificial selection—may the fittest organisms in nature and on the farm survive—Darwin identified a third type of selection: sexual selection. May the most attractive survive. He did not include sexual selection in his seminal book, On the Origin of Species (1859); this was instead worked out in some detail in Parts II and III of his book, The Decent of Man (1871).
For contemporary biologists building on Darwin’s original insights, human language and sexual selection are not merely analogous. Like birdsong and plumage, language has literally evolved, at least in part, to make the sexes ever more intensively attractive to one another. Certainly in a social species like Homo sapiens, facility with language is enormously advantageous to lubricating social interactions and heightening attraction. Think of the contrast between someone with a vocabulary of 5,000 words verses William Shakespeare (1564-1616), a man who had an ever-ready vocabulary of perhaps 100,000 words. Which one would you predict would more readily attract a mate? In a competition for lovers, Shakespeare’s language displays would certainly have drawn a great deal of attention from potential mates.
So it’s beneficial to think of sentences not just in terms of their internet viral or memetic properties, or as akin to natural and artificial selection—may the best words in the best order win—but in terms of sexual selection. Like a feather in a peacock’s tail, a sentence functions to attract eyeballs—and so the more attractive and memorable a sentence is, the better for attracting eyeballs. And in a piece of writing as a whole, it’s not just the content or matter presented on its pages, or the attractiveness of its material layout and font choices that count, but its evident persona, energy, coherence, tone, ease of reading, use of syntax, word-choice, and flair (that is, its style or manner of communicating; its attractive use of words).
Rhetoric is akin to music. So writing that arouses gets read, coaxing the reader onward with a desire for more, more, more. It can thus also be likened to jazz—which is itself a seductive performative display. When, for instance, the poet Allen Ginsberg famously first publicly read his poem “Howl” in October of 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, he began his recital subdued and hesitant, as if starting a piece of jazz, but then a friend in the audience, the equally famous writer Jack Kerouac, goaded him to a greater expression of energy by shouting to him, “Go, go, go!”—which Ginsberg did—and to electrifying effect. Writing should go; it should matter, and the writer should believe that it matters, looking for ways to awaken what perhaps might be an otherwise sleepy audience.
So if you’re writing something, perhaps think of it in terms, not just of sexual selection, but of music. Think of it as your attempt to move, along a sliding scale, from merely catching a reader’s slight attention to actually holding her or his full attention. Seek to make your writing uncommon; a variant organism—a cultural organism—amidst the vast multiplicity of other organisms, different from all that has come before, attracting eyeballs to something novel and interesting. As the early modernist poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) put it succinctly, “Make it new!”
Writers sometimes poison the well with others. Not all rhetoric is attractive. Sometimes it is repellent. While it may be, strictly speaking, always the case that the goal of rhetoric boils down to reaching agreement, that agreement may be with such a narrow constituency of the like-minded that it amounts to a no and a separation from everybody else. In such a case, the speaker or writer is indifferent to, or ignores, how his or her rhetoric might play to a broader audience of fair-minded people. This is illustrated by a nineteenth century controversy that surrounded John Henry Newman (1801-1890), who changed from being a Protestant clergyman to a Catholic clergyman at a time when tensions between Protestants and Catholics were more pronounced than they generally are today. Newman was accused by a prominent writer, after becoming a priest, of not being someone to safely dialogue with because he no longer could be trusted by Protestants to tell the truth. The implied prejudice being expressed was that Catholic priests deliberately lie to outsiders—to which Newman replied by coining a phrase that remains a part of the vocabulary of rhetorical studies to this day: poisoning the well—or “poisoning the wells” (viii).
To poison the well is to introduce into a dispute an accusation so toxic against one’s opponent in debate (they’re a liar, a racist, a murderer, a warmonger with blood on their hands, etc.), that dialogue cannot really be effectively sustained after making it. Poisoning the well is a signal of broken discourse, with an intent only to preach, as it were, to the tribe or choir on your side of the argument. It’s a way of demonizing others and sowing suspicion among groups. After the well has been poisoned, there’s talking, perhaps, but no real trust or listening. And so Newman writes in his book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (Latin: “A defense of one’s life”), that the effect of his accuser’s accusation was “to cut the ground from under my feet,” and “to infuse into the imaginations of my readers, suspicion and mistrust of everything that I may say in reply to him. This I call poisoning the wells” (Ibid.). Newman also describes such an accusation as he experienced as being at once “base and cruel,” and to which he found himself at a loss, rhetorically, how to reply (Ibid.). How does one respond to an accusation that places one in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t double bind? In other words, how does one prove a negative, marshaling evidence against an unspecified and general provocation to show others that one is not, and has never been, a liar, a thief, an extremist, or a murderer?
Writing 2.3.1. Think of a contemporary example of a piece of writing or speech poisoning the well of discourse. What was said, and how did the rhetorical poison do its work? Who did it function to persuade—and why did it succeed (if it succeeded)? Who was the audience for it—and who was alienated by it? What ultimate purpose was served by it?Did the poison ultimately benefit or harm the writer or speaker who deployed it?
Writing 2.3.2. Think of an audience that is inclined to disagree with you on an important matter, and write down, in a single sentence, a controversial claim surrounding it. Make sure it’s a claim you actually believe—that it’s your claim. Now develop one or two arguments in support of the claim, ever mindful of the unfriendly or even hostile audience that you’re writing to, and with a mind to winning them over; of having them ultimately submit to your judgment. Think about, not just what you’re saying, but the way you’re saying it (your tone of voice, etc.). How will you reach your end?
Writing 2.3.3. Write a couple of sentences on a topic of your choosing in such a way that you are very clearly and emphatically trying to bring attention and interest to it via evocations of eros, energy, and novelty. Let the writing, like thunder, be charged. The subject of the writing needn’t be sexual in content—that’s not the point—but it ought to be “sexy” in the sense of raising in the reader energy and attraction toward the writing itself. You should come across as an author implicitly interesting enough with which to go on a blind date. Don’t go beyond the crafting of the first couple of sentences. Really focus on them as if they are a make-or-break moment to an implicitly longer piece of writing; the moment when you either net your readers or lose them. In your sentences, attempt to stand out.
Writing 2.3.4. In a paragraph or two respond to the first sentence (or couple of sentences) of any piece of writing by asking, “Is this writer making it new? Is there anything vaguely—or overtly!—sexy or interesting about it? Does it raise libido (animal energy) or attention in some way? If so, how so? If it doesn’t, why doesn’t it? Has the opening of this piece of writing really caught my eye, reason, heart, and imagination? To what degree, exactly? How is it achieving its effects—if it is in fact achieving any at all?” Be critical—but not gratuitously so. Think about it. How are those first sentences functioning?