Saturday, November 21, 2009

Al-Farabi: The reason we know about Aristotle

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley is so good, it's probably the only book I want with me on the desert island, and I'll be happily reading away, not noticing the circling sharks. Because it is so good, I would like to lift, whole-cloth, the following (it's also known as 'quoting,' but in this case, since I'm quoting a rather long section of the book, it can realistically be called 'stealing'):

"Al-Farabi, who lived from A.D. 87-950, was one of the "great medieval Islamic philosophers" responsible for translating Aristotle, Plato, and earlier philosophers we would have otherwise forgotten, from Ancient Greek into Arabic." [Note: This includes the Sophists, although Al-Farabi's emphasis was on Plato and Aristotle.]

"This tradition," Critchley continues, "was usually considered to have begun with Al-Farabi, known as the "Second Master" (second, that is, only to Aristotle). Avicenna, Averroes, and Moses Maimonides all acknowledge their debt to the Second Master, and many of his writings were translated into Latin.

Al-Farabi's fame rests largely on his commentaries on Aristotle, particularly his logical works, but also the Rhetoric and Poetics. But the word "commentary" has unfortunate connotations and understates the originality of Al-Farabi's philosophy. His work is an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to combine the logical rigour and empiricism of Aristotle with the more mystical intuition of the One in Plotinism and Neoplatonic thought.

The title of one of Al-Farabi's works from 900 makes this ambition plain: The Harmonization of the Opinions of the Two Sages, the Divine Plato and Aristotle. The goal of such a philosophical harmony cannot be separated from the more religious ambition of the salvation of the soul in the next life.

We do not know if Al-Farabi made it to the next life and we know very little about his life on earth. He was born in Turkestan, educated in Damascus and Baghdad and worked in Aleppo in northern Syria. According to one source, he died in Aleppo after a long trip to Egypt, but according to some medieval biographers he was violently murdered by highwaymen on the road from Damascus to Ashkelon."

This period in the history of philosophy is not as well known as it should be, and the importance of the Islamic world in transmitting Plato and Aristotle (amongst so many others) to the West is sadly underestimated.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Library of Congress

This might seem like an abrupt change of subject, and in fact, it is, except for the overall subject matter of the blog, which is writing. Libraries and books are related, so it isn't too far afield. While reading the most recent Dan Brown novel, The Lost Symbol, I began researching the Thomas Jefferson building, belonging to the Library of Congress. The interiors of this building are so beautiful; I had never seen them prior to this, but would one day like to visit.

The following URL provides a tour of the building, but I shall insert some pictures taken inside the library itself.

For example, this incredibly beautiful ceiling on the First Floor has to be one of our great American treasures. It honors poets from Longfellow to Poe, whose names appear in painted wreaths around the ceiling.

In a rarely viewed Members of Congress room, there are various panels painted to represent certain virtuous undertakings the builders and designers thought worthy of inclusion in the 1890s, when this portion of the library was constructed. This panel represents my favorite activity, "The Light of Research."

Look at the incredibly beautiful Art Nouveau detail of this ceiling on the Second Floor:

The building's interiors are so incredibly detailed and beautiful, one might miss the highlights of the contents of the library itself; the special, permanent exhibits of the Declaration of Independence, including the various drafts; Lincoln's hand-written addresses, and Christopher Columbus' written diaries and papers. This library is an amazing resource, one I had no idea was as staggeringly beautiful as it is, containing so many precious works and images (but then, I love libraries; I love the idea of libraries, and revere Benjamin Franklin for coming up with the idea of a lending library).

I shall leave you with this picture. It is of the office of the Head Librarian of the Library of Congress. It has to be one of the most beautiful working spaces in the world, and the person who occupies this post is very fortunate indeed, to work in such exquisite surroundings.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Underlying agonism in the rhetorical tradition

In Composition in the Rhetorical Tradition, Ross Winterowd states that the crucial split for English studies occurred when Aristotle’s “real world” philosophy diverged from Plato’s idealism, creating the “two roads” of the empiricist-idealist dialectic. More recently, in his study on the influences of this philosophical divergence on writing pedagogy, James Berlin has implicated this empirical/idealist schism through his contention that many teaching practices are based on divergent and coexisting approaches which have created competing and mutually-exclusive pedagogies. These beliefs, which continue, unexamined and misunderstood in English programs, cause what Berlin calls “confusing pedagogies,” which I suggest are created because writing teachers aren’t aware of the contentious history that lies behind the work they’ve chosen.

The rhetorical tradition lies in the agonistic, aristocratic Athenian pedagogies of Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle, who, as members of what historian and political scientist Josiah Ober calls the Athenian “educated elite,” were trained in eristic, a method of philosophical debate popular among aristocrats comfortable with verbal sparring.[i] Eristic, with its warlike metaphors, became part of a traditional rhetorical education. After a protracted period during which rhetoric was forced to change its name or relocate to various university departments,[ii] it has, over the past fifty years, reemerged as a pedagogical tool within English studies.

With rhetoric’s reemergence comes the question of how to integrate its politics of aristocracy with the material reality of today’s nontraditional and often disenfranchised student (or teacher). What had traditionally been a method of constructing persuasive discourse for ‘enlightened’ orators has been adapted for students who need to find a job. There are those who may not be able to understand the need for an education that has traditionally reified ancient divisions between aristocrats with the power to make policy, and the common person who must follow that policy. Because traditional constructions of rhetoric seem increasingly aligned with all that radical and democratic pedagogies must abandon if previously excluded communities are to consider themselves welcome at the university, the field of rhetoric must now discuss these politicized binaries, even if they cannot be resolved. These power binaries lie at the heart of the many difficulties inherent in a rhetorical education, so it is timely and necessary that educators who rely on rhetoric as a pedagogical tool take up this discussion and make it their own.

Students who wish to write but believe they cannot are too often prevented by societal constraints that tell them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that this form of expression is denied to them. These are social forces that educators like Mike Rose, Mina Shaughnessy, and Paolo Freire have committed themselves to trying to counteract. It is because of their work, and the work of James Berlin and so many others who have inspired my questions, that I was tempted to try to find answers. Instead, what I found are connections and possibilities that I cannot prove empirically, but can only point to as indicators of teachers’ and students’ limiting beliefs and behaviors. Knowing that students rarely consider themselves writers is frustrating, but not surprising. However, my frustration caused me to ask why these limitations exist, and how they are perpetuated.

[i] Given the hierarchical structure of higher education, egalitarian ideals and elitist practices coexist uneasily at the university. Although the liberal arts’ tradition is inherently elitist, post-WWII expansionist economic ideologies encouraged increased access for the American masses to higher education. This practice has fostered the belief that the concomitant education received is based on liberal democratic principles of fairness and equality. However, the form of liberal democracy that privileges individual rights is at odds with the conservative view that education exists to foster civic responsibility. The power imbalances governing educational practices forces teachers to exist in an environment that asks them to behave democratically while at the same time they maintain ethical and moral standards that reflect the inherited elitist, agonistic, and exclusionary practices of Ancient Greece.

[ii] Cf. James Berlin, esp. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985, and Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Brief Overview of the Philosopher-Sophist Debate

To understand the history of writing, one really should have a better understanding of the importance of the Philosopher-Sophist debate, which centered on two antagonists: Plato, representing Greek philosophers, and Isocrates, representing Sophistic thinking. Unfortunately for those of us who inherited the legacy of this debate, this false binary, pitting one 'side' against the other, has perpetuated many myths and misconceptions about the Western philosophical tradition, as well as attitudes toward writing. In fact, Plato and Isocrates, both Athenian, had much more in common than not, and shared most, if not all, the same beliefs and cultural biases. Their differences, however, form the basis of this famous debate, and shape the way in which writing is taught to this day.

The traditional view of the Philosopher-Sophist debate begins with Plato’s ethical and moral rejection of the Sophists, which is portrayed as a philosophical disagreement between Plato and Isocrates. Following in Nietzsche’s and Hegel’s footsteps[i], Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (1944) discusses how the ancient Hellenic “rivalry” to determine which was more important to personal development, gymnastic training or a ‘musical’ culture, devolves over time into a narrowed dispute about the “relative values of philosophy and rhetoric” (47). Jaeger characterizes Plato’s rejection of the sophists as ‘violent detestation’ and notes that Isocrates, who began his belated career in education after Protagoras and Gorgias were written, defended sophistic education against Plato’s attacks.

George Kennedy’s 1963 edition of the Art of Persuasion in Greece focuses similarly on the philosophical dimension of the debate; for example, he notes that Isocrates alone believes it possible to develop a moral sense from the process of rhetorical composition (178), a perspective with which Plato vehemently disagrees. Kennedy’s later revised edition, retitled A New History of Classical Rhetoric (1994), begins to look more closely at the political dimensions of the debate between Isocrates and Plato when he states that Isocrates’ ideals of morality are central to teaching arete or political virtue, which Plato firmly believed could not be taught. However, the focus remains largely on the cleavage between philosophical worldviews represented by sophistic and Platonic ideals.

In 1976, Samuel Ijsseling published Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict, which comes very close to a political critique of Plato’s rejection of the sophists, especially when he discusses sophists’ awareness of the power of logos, which Ijsseling acknowledges as central to Plato’s problem with rhetoricians. Ijsseling does not pursue this line of reasoning, however, as he relies heavily on Plato’s difficulty with language’s moral ambiguity (7-14). As recently as 1999, Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, skimming briefly over the history of rhetoric in their textbook Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (4th Edition), state that despite Isocrates’ high ideals, he “did not succeed in allaying Plato’s suspicions of rhetoric” (492). Few writers choose to complicate the conventional view of the debate by providing historical and political context.

Two notable exceptions who have begun this discussion incorporating the political are Sharon Crowley, in her primer Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students (1994), and John Poulakos in his book Sophistical Rhetoric in Classical Greece (1995). Crowley acknowledges the complexity of the political relationships in Ancient Greece by historicizing the role of ancient rhetoric as contingent upon the political atmosphere in sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries B. C. E. Noting in the opening paragraphs of her textbook that Athenian citizenship was determined by birthright, she goes on to discuss the ways in which rhetoric became “useful in the new Athenian democracy” (21) and the responses to its use by Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle.

The historical background she provides indicates to the student-reader that a rhetorical education is in no way politically neutral, but that it comes with a long history of contentious debate at its center. Poulakos is also careful to discuss the historical and political context within which this debate occurs. As he says, to follow the tradition of portraying Plato as “an eccentric thinker, an elitist mind, or an unrepresentative intellect of the Hellenic world . . . would be to admit that he, or any thinker for that matter, can be considered apart from the historical moment in which they lived and thought” (96). Instead, Poulakos tries to understand Plato’s position against the sophists by showing that, for Plato, the sophistic movement “had not led to a better world; worse, it had reduced the world it had inherited to virtual ruins” (104). In this effort, Poulakos makes it possible for the reader to comprehend the values and morals at stake for Plato, and to put the Philosopher-Sophist debate into historical and sociopolitical context.

[i] However, there is also a long tradition in philosophy of characterizing Plato’s relationship to the Sophists as one based on envy and agonism, in the belief, as Nietzsche says, that the “rule of one” is an abomination and must be challenged. In Homer’s Contest (1872), Nietzsche, focusing on envy, which he believed to be a Greek trait that spurred them on to “glory,” characterizes Plato’s reception of the Sophists as a “contest with the art of the orators” (37). And from 1892-1896, Georg W. F. Hegel gave lectures on the history of world philosophies; he characterized the relationship between Plato and the Sophists as a “rivalry.” Later, Samuel Ijsseling discusses Nietzsche’s influential belief that Plato’s jealousy of the sophists is one way of trying to understand Plato’s hostility (9). Also see Catherine Zuckert’s Postmodern Platos for a discussion of Nietzsche’s influence on later philosophers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One of my many hats...

is as a tutor for gifted and special needs' children. Parents often ask me if they should homeschool their children, and I usually tell them the reasons why I am increasingly concerned with this prevailing sociopolitical trend in America. There are some problems with homeschooling, which I see when I teach in the college classroom. I agree that some children will benefit from homeschooling, but they are usually special needs' students who do best when they have undivided attention.

I have seen other arguments against homeschooling, but because most of the people making them lack time in the college classroom, they also lack awareness of what your child needs to excel in a college environment. The skills your child will need are not skills you can teach them through homeschooling most of the time, not unless you are using a diversified, collaborative group system that more closely resembles a charter school, rather than the typically casual environment of the home.

Homeschooling is not inherently antisocial, it’s not ‘unfair’ to public school children, it’s not necessarily elitist, although it can be intellectually unfair to your child to deprive him or her of a rigorous academic environment that challenges them through diversity and collaboration. The National Education Association lobbies against homeschooling for precisely these reasons, stating that “home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience."


The heart of the psychological reality for parents of homeschooling is control, control over your child, his or her focus on what you deem important, and the sense that you know best and are equipped to provide the kind of education you think they will need. To understand this belief, read this article written by a mother who makes it clear that, although she is not qualified to judge her children's future academic needs, she nonetheless is "pulling them out of school" so that she can take the "burden" off of them:

This attitude, that children should not have to withstand the "burden" of the traditional classroom, is worrying. Unless you are a trained professional, you might only be thinking in terms of course material and your personal values, rather than the ways in which a more traditional, albeit imperfect, school setting, provides academic skills you are not currently aware your child will need to excel in today’s more rigorous college or university environment.

Homeschooled children receive somewhat mixed messages, in that they are usually very bright, curious kids who like to learn, like to read, and are constantly absorbing new information, but they receive this information through their parents. The home environment is not rigorous, and you lack objectivity and authority in your child’s eyes. Instead, children and parents work out a schedule that suits their personal needs and purposes. This is great for special needs’ children, who, it can be argued, rely heavily on parental intervention to begin with, but most kids do better with much more interpersonal, academically-oriented interaction, rather than interaction with a small group of well-known, familiar people. This articles discusses this concern, and brings up some of the other arguments against homeschooling:

I have clients who are currently considering homeschooling their nine year old boy. He is very bright, but has a lot of trouble focusing at school. This problem is exacerbated at home, where he is surrounded by interruptions and cannot apply himself. His parents are well-meaning, but are doing him a disservice by ignoring his lack of focus at the expense of wanting him to have “the best” education money can buy. He needs to be in a disciplined setting, where specific behaviors are expected of him, rather than a more casual home environment, where he can get up from his work whenever he pleases.

Students I have taught who were homeschooled have shown themselves to be very bright, and good at paperwork, but limited in their abilities to interact collaboratively. Their abilities to argue constructively are poor, because they have so little experience discussing their beliefs and opinions amongst groups. One student in particular stands out, because she learned at home that there was only one book she should ever rely on, and that was the Bible. However, in a typical composition classroom, we use a minimum of three sources to support an argumentation paper, and her inability and unwillingness to do so earned her a much lower grade than her intellectual abilities deserved.

Ultimately, there are students who will do well being homeschooled. As I've said, they are typically special-needs students who simply must have the one-on-one focused attention to succeed in an academic environment. However, most students who are capable, bright, and eager learners, lose out relying on parents to provide a rigorous, in-home preparation for their academic career.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Platonic Vs. Sophistic Myths and Beliefs About Writing and Writers

The Platonic Approach to Writing: The Creation of the Divinely Inspired Author

The myth: Few writers are divinely inspired, but they are special because they do not have to work to produce their text. Writing comes to them from somewhere indefinable. Its source is a mystery.

The message: Hardly anyone can be a good writer, a writer of genius. The writing style must flow, be poetic, and have a deeper, universal meaning.

Type of writer produced: If you believe your WRITING SOURCE is Divine Inspiration, you privilege the notion of the Genius, the Inspired writer, who then becomes one of a select few who are chosen to be well-educated in the classical, liberal, belletristic sense.

Teacher’s role: The teacher's role in this system is to be a mentor or a guide, like Socrates, who could only bring forth or encourage what already existed in the mind of the creator, thinker, writer (cf. midwife imagery in Theatetus, and Socrates-as-guide in the Meno).

Problem: This education is exclusionary, and perpetuates an isolated position in society for the writer of genius. She is elevated to the status of Author, and her words become 'pearls of wisdom.'

Material Outcome: No mere worker can compare to the Author, so by definition, only a few can possibly be considered writers. Writing classes will not help because anyone who has to struggle to write is not a genius, nor is she divinely inspired.

The Sophistic Approach to Writing: The Creation of the Expedient Writer

The myth: You can buy an education that will teach you how to write. This education is available to everyone (who can afford it), and will focus on individual abilities and effort.

The message: Anyone can learn to write if they apply themselves, but good writing takes time and hard work. Styles promoting clarity, logic, and linearity are valued.

Type of writer produced: If you believe your WRITING SOURCE stems from effort and application of skills learned with a teacher, you privilege the Expedient writer.

Teacher’s role: The teacher's role in this system is to be a coach, a mentor, a fellow writer showing new writers how it is done, and how to succeed in a capitalist society of publishers, editors, and bosses.

Problem: The educational experience furthers the notion that hard workers will rise to the top of a hierarchy. Some will make it; some won’t. The less worthy will be culled because they lack ability. The worthy will be exalted as special because they worked against the odds. The classroom experience is designed to capitalize on this writers abilty to manipulate words for persuasive affect.

Material Outcome: The writer learns that her worth is related to realistic notions of her usefulness in educational and professional fields. Although the writer is encouraged to work in collaborative groups, capitalism, with its own elitist markers, means that this writer’s work will be considered of value only when it is marketable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

3.2: The Subtle Art of Effective Use of Pathos

To understand the power of rhetoric, one must go back to the prejudices the Ancient Greeks brought with them to the use of oratory. Convinced that rhetoricians of their time were misusing oratory to bewitch, enchant, and manipuate their audience, philosophers like Plato and his student, Aristotle, derided excesses of emotion in a speaker, convinced that the higher moral ground of objectivity and disinterestedness was a more effective stance to take when attempting to persuade one's audience. We have, to a greater rather than lesser extent, inherited this bias against using strong emotion to persuade our audience, and so even now, we prefer to persuade with emotions that sound contained and respectful of our audience's feelings, beliefs, and values.

However, the fact is that your audience will often be unpredictable because of its mood or prevailing emotional disposition, and one must learn how to handle emotions, both yours and theirs. Aristotle discusses an audience's "disposition" in The Art of Rhetoric and compels the reader into believing his argument, which is that "shameless emotionalism" is "not rational" and is unworthy of being aligned with the practice of rhetoric. In fact, you will lose your audience if you sound irrational or unwilling to compromise, or if you are blatantly manipulative, or use "god terms", designed to inflame or provoke. ("God terms" is a phrase conceived of by rhetorician Richard Weaver, of the University of Chicago. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Weaver said that "god terms" are words particular to a certain age and are vague, but have "inherent potency" in their meanings. Such words include 'progress' and 'freedom,' words that seem impenetrable and automatically give a phrase positive meaning.)

An ethical use of rhetorical practice is defined, therefore, by adhering to certain rules when using emotion. Emotions should not be manipulated. Touching someone's heart with your honest feelings about something is permissible, but deliberately provoking a strong emotional response in the listener by playing on their guilt is considered manipulative and wrong. The power the speaker has over the masses, Plato believed, is considerable. The speaker (or writer) who can compel his or her audience to action, or a change of heart or belief, obviously has considerable real-world power, and Plato feared this power would be misused by unethical orators.

In today's world, think of how often you feel manipulated by a political speaker, for example. How often do you feel strongly about an issue you've seen presented on television, when five minutes before, you might have been calm, eating dinner or reading a book? Somewhere in those few minutes, you overheard words that compelled you to feel differently than you had just a few minutes before--that's the power of rhetoric. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the writer or speaker to be certain that their words stem from the highest motives, otherwise your use of emotion will be considered unethical and manipulative, and will most likely alienate your audience. Audiences are very astute; they've heard millions of words during the course of their lives, and they usually know when they are being deceived.

This is not to say that one should attempt to "rise above" emotion. That is a common fallacy that people believe, because of the prejudice against irrationality we have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. There is little value in ignoring emotion and pretending your audience (and you) have no feelings. All human beings are motivated by their feelings at all times; what differs from person to person is the ability they have to control their feelings, understand them, and use them responsibly. To try to ignore your feelings when constructing an argument is futile. You're human. You feel. It's normal! And in fact, your audience will respect you more, and give you more credibility, if you can show why your feelings are controlled, yet germane to the issue at hand. One has respect for those with obvious self-control who are also obviously compassionate and understanding.

Emotions underlie one's argument at all times. The goal of effective rhetoric is never "to win," however, which is why abusing the privilege of touching your audience is not morally or ethically fair. The goal of effective rhetoric is to get your audience to see your issue from your perspective, and to get them to think the way you do, if only for a minute. Once you realise and accept how incredibly difficult it is to change anyone's mind about an issue that matters to them, that they have formed strong opinions about, you will understand why it's so important you use your emotions, not to control or manipulate others, but to persuade them that your feelings about the subject you're speaking about make sense, and are fair and right.

There is nothing wrong, ironically, with using your honest emotions to convince your audience of the importance of your point of view. The only thing that's ever wrong about relying on emotion when speaking or writing, is if you misunderstand your audience's disposition, and assume they feel something they do not, or agree with you when they do not. Then you most likely will have lost ground, and will not present an effective argument. Therefore, it is imperative that you pay close attention to the mood of your audience, and try, at all times, to gauge ahead of time what their mood is likely to be. Since their beliefs about your argument might not yet be fully formed, you have the opportunity to persuade them to see your position; use this opportunity with sensitivity, compassion and awareness that the people in your audience all come to hear you (or read what you have written) with their own feelings about the matter. Your words might trigger some deeply-held belief (or prejudice) of their own, and you, as an effective rhetor, must know enough about their beliefs to counter their potential disagreement with an appeal that they can hear.

Remember that most audiences are sincerely open to hearing you, but they will shut off if they feel offended, insulted, patronized, or lied to. Therefore, bring your honesty to your speech or piece of writing, and know that your emotions can be extremely powerful tools to help you convince your audience to feel just as strongly as you do about your subject. Never feel like you are forced to hold back how you really feel; just make sure you express yourself with respect for your audience's sensibilities. This creates the most powerful speech of all: one that combines effective use of logos, ethos, and pathos. I have said many times to students that a piece of writing, or speech, that relies too heavily on any one of these proofs is destined to fail, but a speech that relies on each one in balance is almost inevitable destined to persuade your audience of the essential correctness of your argument.

So, never leave pathos (the appeal to emotions) out of your argument, wrongly thinking you must, at all costs "sound rational." An over-reliance on logos (appeal to reason or logic) will lose the audience that came to hear a powerful speech, just as surely as lying to your audience in any way will make them doubt your credibility. Since your credibility can be enhanced by effective use of emotion, never fear that your emotions are somehow 'wrong,' just because we've been taught to discount them in Western society. Your emotions give power and resonance to your argument, when used with sensitivity to your audience.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Part 3.1: Pathos

Arguing from pathos, or the emotional appeal, is the most difficult part of the argumentation process to incorporate into your writing. The simple reason for this is that most people become very emotional while making an argument, and it would seem that this is the worst thing you can do. Most argumentation sounds less believable, less compelling, less rational, if it is overladen with emotion. The danger of losing one's audience is high if the argument over-emphasises personal feelings. Yet, without strong feelings, it's not likely the writer cares enough about her subject to write an argument in the first place.

So the negotiation is always between too much emotion, badly handled, and not enough emotion. If you do not manage to convey to your audience that you care about your subject, you're likely to lose their interest. The fascinating thing about humans is that we love a good story, and all speeches, all literature, all fiction and non-fiction, relies on a good story to move and incite the audience to feel, believe, or do something different than they already do. So your job, as a writer, is to find a way to convince your audience that your argument is not only correct (well-researched, supported, with all assertions verified) but also compelling.

The job for the academic writer, who seeks to write an effective piece of argumentation, is to balance the emotions that lead you to the topic in the first place, with the language that underlies the argument. The negotiation you make will be with your self-control. You show self-control when you prove to your audience that, through your choice of words and how you structure your argument that you understand your audience's feelings. You're not just attempting to tell your audience how strongly you feel about something, because most people turn off when they hear bitterness, invective, outrage, or any other strong emotion that causes you to lose control over your rhetorical choices. Instead, you're trying to persuade them to see the issue the way you do, and how can you do that if you alienate them with emotions that are so vehement, they're off-putting?

So what can you do to persuade your audience that your position is the right one, when you have strong feelings about your subject? You know you cannot use the language you'd use with your friends to express your umbrage; this is an academic audience, and your language must reflect not only your more articulate audience, but also the contextual expectations of the academic discourse community. Further, what if the subject you've chosen to write about is abortion, which is such a contentious issue, it is almost guaranteed to upset someone in your audience?

The first thing you must do is assess your motivations and your feelings about the subject. You must know why you have chosen this subject. Do you have any personal experience with the subject? If you do, this will affect your argument, and it could work against you if you aren't careful how you set up your argument. Let's say, for example, your sister was forced to have an abortion due to circumstances that are very painful and personal, but if she'd had the baby, her life would have been changed irrevocably. You have formed a strong opinion about abortion because of the pain and anguish your sister went through. How do you convey those emotions in your writing, yet manage to create an argument to support your assertion that abortion should be illegal, something you now believe very strongly?

In the next post, I will discuss ways to manage these conflicting needs; on the one hand, how to manage your emotions, which might be running very high, and on the other, to formulate a powerful argument that might just cause your audience to change their position.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Part Two: Logos

The process of using logical proofs to argue from is the second necessary component to the effective persuasive act. The writer/orator must provide evidence to support her primary assertion. Now, most evidence is refutable, hence the need for accurate and credible sources to indicate to your audience that your logic is sound.

Let us say that your assertion is "The war in Iraq must stop now." You are leading to an argument that you're constructing, which is that the war in Iraq costs too much and is losing too many lives--a refutable statement, since you must define 'too many' and 'too much,' even if the majority of your audience agrees with you. They will still need to know why they believe what they do, and your carefully-researched evidence will provide that proof.

There are many ways of approaching the construction of this argument. The fastest way to indicate that you understand your audience, however, is to research 1) How the war began; 2) Why we are at war; and 3) What it would take to end the war. The process of doing this research is the process of amassing evidence to support your argument. While you do this research, you are looking for every piece of evidence that supports your argument that the war costs too much, in both lives and dollars.

So, you would first research statistics. You want to know precisely what numbers are involved. "Too much" is a vague, amorphous term that means many things, and is easily misinterpreted. Instead of saying the war is costing "too much," the effective argument will tell your audience: This specific amount is what the war is costing us each day. From there, your audience should begin to be persuaded that yes, that is too much.

Further, you must always take your opposition into account when constructing your argument. Now, if your audience opposes you (and there is always an oppositional stance in any argument, whether you like it or not), the logical proofs you need to persuade them are going to have to be immaculately researched. Let's say your audience believes this war, no matter the cost, is entirely necessary. What piece(s) of logical proof will persuade them they are wrong?

The answer is: it might not be possible to persuade them with logic alone. It probably isn't, not when your opposition holds highly emotional beliefs about the subject; which is why the final form of proof, appeal to pathos, or emotions, is ultimately the most important. No matter how high the pile of logical proof you've amassed, no matter how many statistics, data, graphs, tables, and charts you've created, the final arbiter of most persuasive oratory/writing relies on an effective appeal to the audience's emotions.

This is true because ultimately, people make up their minds (ironically) through their beliefs, which are deeply held, and rely on their personal values. Most people do not sit around all day and think to themselves "this argument on television reflects my personal values." They simply agree or disagree with something someone says, based on all of their life experiences and how they feel about the subject. Therefore, remember: logical proofs are absolutely crucial. You must have them, and your research must be impeccable. However, do not expect your audience to change their opinions based on facts and data alone.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: Part 1, Ethos

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle speaks of rhetoric as necessarily persuasive, and shows three basic proofs, or appeals, that the rhetor (the orator or writer) must rely on to fully engage the audience. These proofs were important for Aristotle to establish, because rhetoric disengaged from evidence was mere manipulation, something Ancient Greek philosophers deplored about the Sophists who came to Athens to teach persuasive oratory to budding lawmakers. 

Their rhetoric was considered skolion, twisted, because it appealed solely to the emotions of the hearer, and could bewitch or enchant the listener away from a righteous or moral path. So Aristotle's concern was to establish that rhetoric had a rational purpose by aligning it with the more scientific need for proof. This act distinguished the rhetoric of the day from the merely persuasive and poetic, aligning it instead with political speech. Prior to this, rhetoric had not been taken seriously as a form of political speech, as hard as that might be for us to understand today.

First, there is the appeal to ethos, establishing the proof of one's character. This is where one begins as an orator or writer, by establishing one's character and authority to be listened to and heard. For the Ancient Greeks, this was crucial, for to be taken seriously, a man had to be of good family, a good reputation, and have connections in the community. Nowadays, some of this is still crucial when writing, but the goals are accomplished differently in writing than in speaking. In speaking, an orator will most likely have a defined audience s/he speaks in front of, and will have developed her bona fides prior to speaking. 

Her character will be established by the person who introduces her to the audience, who will tell you where she's from, what her educational background is, and any organizations she's affiliated with. All of these contribute to define the speaker's character. Yet, your character, your ethos, is more subtly communicated as well, through your tone of voice, your subject matter, and your presentation style. It is also communicated through respect for your audience, attention to their concerns, and thorough knowledge of one's subject.

When writing, the author establishes his character through his background, his vita, his list of works cited, and a biographical statement. It is important when you're a student writer to establish your credibility by picking a subject you have personal experience with. It is impossible to take a writer seriously when s/he chooses a subject she has no experience with. Your experience is your avenue to credibility. If you choose to speak or write on a subject you know nothing about, you will feel uncomfortable and you lose credibility.  

Friday, May 1, 2009

Invention: how to pick a subject to write about

This can be the single most difficult issue of all for the writer--where to begin? What should your subject be? There are a few select and highly effective ways to begin, which I will list (this list is inspired by a book called The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers, by Frank L. Cioffi; a very good book!). 

The easiest place to begin is with your feelings: You have a strong emotional response to something that happened, or something someone said or did. Perhaps it's a political issue, or something to do with civic engagement (my favorite metatopic). Probably, however, it's much more personal, and you can find a topic in anything you've had a strong reaction to. Virtually anything will work, and if you've had personal experience with the subject, you will be writing from a place of authority, a powerful ethical component of effective argumentation. 

Curiosity: There's no better fuel, after your emotional response, than a subject you would like to know more about. Usually, this requires an extensive amount of research, and it might even mean you have to go and experience what you're curious about personally. Eventually, your curiosity will lead to experiences that you will have emotional responses to, and a cycle of interest--invention--creation will begin. Curiosity always feels very exciting, and it's the surest way to stay invested in a subject. 

Aporia: Aporia means "an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text." What happens is that you read something and your response is that it makes no sense. Using aporia as a method of approach to find a topic is extremely effective, especially in academic or essay writing. Your goal is to answer the question you've discovered the author has not answered, or has brought up in an incomplete manner. Aporia explains the fundamental problem most readers have with a text they question. For most readers the writing gives them a weird feeling that they're missing something, but the problem might not lie with your reading of the text. The problem might lie with the author's lack of argumentation skills or insufficient or incomplete evidence.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Importance of Kairos

In an article entitled "Kairos: A Neglected Concept in Classical Rhetoric" from 1994, James L. Kinneavy argued that the use of kairos, the principle of using the right word at the propitious moment, should be resurrected. Indeed, it's an ethical principle from Ancient Greek philosophers and Sophistic teachers who taught orators how to construct and present an effective speech, and it's a concept that should never have been buried by time. 

The principle of kairos, however, goes deeper than 'mere' rhetoric. It has to do with an important principle of timing. The use of kairos requires that the writer and/or orator pays attention to his or her audience and understands precisely when the right word would make all the difference in the outcome of the piece of writing. It requires an ethical awareness of others' needs, at the same time that it relies on the orator's sensitivity to others. 

So kairos is ultimately an ethical consideration, and the reason this is important is because rhetoric is usually seen as necessarily unethical. Rhetoric is considered to be only interested in persuasion, in manipulating the listener into doing something they would otherwise never do. This is a perception about rhetoric that never really dies, and is only made worse by the frequent misuse of the word 'rhetoric,' which has come to be associated with the worst, most avaricious aspects of politics.

Relying on kairos, however, indicates that you understand the use of moderation and balance in the speech act. Think about the times you've seen or heard someone who waited for the precisely right moment before they introduced a new topic to you, or told you some piece of information that was, perhaps, upsetting. Their sensitivity to your needs told you a great deal about their concern for your welfare, proving their integrity and self-control. The same is true for those giving a speech or writing a piece of persuasive argumentation for their audience, and that awareness of correct timing is a powerful tool when constructing an argument.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in Seattle.

I live in Seattle, ergo I am indoors too much, turning into a moldy vegetable. 

Seattle weather (it's pouring down rain even as I type) encourages the following, apparently, according to statistics:

More Ph.Ds per capita live here than anywhere else in America. I'm not kidding. 

There are more independent bookstores per square foot than anywhere else, even New York City, apparently, because we all stay indoors all the time, reading, drinking coffee, and going quietly or noisily insane.

And I know I get more writing done because there's no good reason to go outside. Every day, I look out my window first thing, and make a negotiation with the omnipresent greyness. I decide to ignore it most days, but in fact, it's a psychic drain to live in place where the sun so rarely shines. I love it here in many ways; it's a great city, and it has become extremely interesting as the years go by. It has grown up from its industrial roots, and there is a lot to do, especially when the sun shines on those three days out of the year when everyone is out, making traffic even worse than it normally is (another reason to stay indoors, if you ask me).

but... we are forced indoors here unless you enjoy walking through downpours all the time. 

There is a joke made by old-timers who lived here back when it was all logging and fishing... that moss grows in people's underarms because it's so damp here. It's true. You do tend to get a little soggy living here, and mold on the walls and in one's brain is a constant threat. ;-)

Back to the writing, and listening to the sound of the raindrops. It's a lovely sound... yet I miss the sun.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Writing is easier with good software!

I am so excited about my new software. This might sound geek-lame, but I happen to love technology, and I am not ashamed to say that the latest version of Word for Mac (2008, v. 12.1.0) is great! Lots to learn. All I can say right now is, if you need to upgrade, don't hesitate to do it. It's worth the money. 

More about the details of using it as I learn it, but so far, it's got all the features I've been hoping for in a word processing program since 1986. Wait a minute; that's how many years?? Yes, it combines PageMaker/InDesign graphics functionality with advanced Word ability I have not seen prior to this. I had been hesitating to spend money on something I didn't really have to have, but in fact, this will make a couple of my current projects much easier, especially the book about containerized shipping in Asia, since there are about a hundred or so pictures to manage, and I need for them to flow rather seamlessly into the text. Up till now, I have had to juggle softwares to make this combination happen, and even now, I am going to have to work with Photoshop first of course, but Word is making all of this easier than ever.

I am in love. ;-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All Writing is Persuasive

I remember when I first read the above assertion in The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth. It was the first time I was introduced to the concept that narrative fiction might be trying to persuade the reader to think, feel, believe, or do something. This concept makes sense when reading novels by Charles Dickens; he was trying to bring social awareness to deplorable conditions in Victorian England. But what of Jane Austen? What was she trying to convince us of?

If you think about it though, you begin to realise that it's true. All writing is persuasive. This includes the obvious, which is politicized fiction that attempts to show the reader how the sociohistorical context used in the book influences the characters' choices, and, by extension, the reader's. I'm thinking here of novels like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which include a long discourse on the sociopolitical ramifications of whaling, and The Octopus, by Frank Norris, which discusses conflict in California's wheat-growing regions between farmers, ranchers, the railroad, and the legal system. Another politicized novel is All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren, which foregrounds politics in the South during the dustbowl era, and the amoral rise to power of governor Willie Stark.

With sociopolitical novels, it is easy to argue that these stories attempt to persuade the reader to believe something in particular.  Melville wanted to show the deplorable conditions for whalers, Norris hoped to bring awareness to the material deprivations of farmers, and the sacrifices they made, and Warren wanted to show how immoral and amoral politics is. Each writer's hope was that the reader would become motivated to complain and make changes, and in fact, each book is known to have had an effect on the readers of its time, which created material changes for the groups in question.

However, what about the novel Pride and Prejudice? Can it be said that Jane Austen attempts to persuade her reader of anything? Is she hoping for some kind of social change, or for her reader to think, feel, believe, or do anything in particular? Or did she write simply because she liked to write? I think that in fact, she did want the reader to understand something rather subtle. In essence, Austen's theme, throughout her six novels, is "unity." Think of the thing that the writer wants us to believe or feel, etc., as a concept or philosophy they're trying to "sell" us, the reader. 

In Austen's case, she wants us to understand how very important certain Enlightenment values were to her. One of these values could be expressed through her plot device of the question of whether or not her characters would be married, and if so, would that person be a true friend? Friendship, integrity, moral standing---these were all important Enlightenment and Romantic era values, and Austen is indeed writing to persuade us of their importance. 

You can tell a novelist wants us to believe something in particular when s/he uses certain kinds of language to express her values. It can also be seen through the subject matter she chooses to discuss. Textual evidence will support the novelist's theme, and language choices will indicate how s/he feels about the subject. Each sentence will be carefully chosen, whether consciously or not, to relay the novelist's values, and it is those values s/he is trying to convince you of.

The question is, will you agree or disagree with those values? That's when you find yourself nodding along to what you're reading, or perhaps rather vehemently saying "no." When that happens, you'll know the writer is trying to persuade you of something, and you're either in agreement or not, depending upon your values. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Learning how to write a novel by studying how to write a screenplay

One of the ways I suggest students get past a block in something they're writing is to write something else. Ideally, it should not in any way pertain to their primary writing project; the goal is to stay away from the project that's causing you difficulty. One way of approaching this is by trying a new kind of writing. The type of writing I've been researching for awhile now is screenplays. 

I have always wanted to write a stage play. However, what I'd like to write is intensely personal, and I'm not ready to say the things that would need to be said. It would emerge sounding stilted and stupid, as though I were avoiding saying certain things. Which is, in fact, what I would be doing if I tried to write it now. It involves my childhood, and it would be hard to write. So I'm putting it off for the time being. 

So instead I got started taking a look at how to write a screenplay. I've come up with a basic concept, which I was quite pleased to be able to do, since I've never done this before, and one doesn't know, when you try something new, whether or not you'll be able to accomplish even that much. I bought a bunch of books, and one of the things I've noticed as I read them is that they inform my novel-writing abilities more and more. The thing that's interesting about screenplays (from my perspective) is how visual the story must be, if it's going to be effective.

Now, if you're writing a literary novel, you have all sorts of room for interior monologue, and you can take a page to describe what a room looks like, what fabrics feel like, the color of a boy's skin or the smell of the fireplace. In a screenplay, all of that must be conveyed immediately, and it must be conveyed through the medium of the eyes. There is no room whatsoever for embellishment. Dialogue becomes the device that moves the plot even more so than in a novel. All of this has taught me to look at my characters and my scenes very differently, and I think it's been enormously helpful to my fiction writing, because every time I crack open a screenplay-writing guidebook, I get new inspiration about how to see my characters more clearly. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Rhetorical Triangle

I have a professor from my past existence as a student who laughs every time this subject comes up because the 'rhetorical triangle,' or the 'communication triangle,' as it's known if you majored in communication rather than rhetoric, refuses to die. I think that's true partially because it's so simple, and the concept is so basic and easy to explain. The problem is that it elides, or ignores, complexity. Also, the terms that define it change to suit the user, and although technically there's nothing wrong with that, in fact, it just proves how meaningless it is to use it as any kind of 'standard' to go from.

However, it is a useful little device, and here's why. In Rhetorical studies, the triangle is made up of three points: Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. If you're teaching Communication, though, the triangle has been altered to reflect the needs of the communicator: Speaker, Message, and Audience. Now, if you need to know where the idea for the triangle came from, take a look at Aristotle's Rhetoric, and you will discover that he made use of the three principles of logos, pathos, and ethos to determine how a speaker should best approach the construction and structure of a speech. Modern rhetoricians have 'borrowed' this idea, and the rhetorical triangle was born.

When you construct a speech, you will want to keep logos, pathos and ethos in mind. These are actually three very important principles that will help you determine how to structure your speech, and how to present yourself to your audience. Here is a link to a site that shows what the triangle looks like (you will have to copy and paste it into your browser):

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Challenge of Collaborative Writing

I am involved in an ongoing project to write a history about containerized shipping in Asia from the 60s-90s. The reason I'm involved is because I grew up there, and my dad was intimately connected with what is now called globalization, because he opened up a number of overseas ports. Anyway, now I am working amongst a group of people and we're all trying to get this history written and published. 

To this end, I have to use my collaborative writing skills. However, the very first stumbling block (or two) you come up against when working collaboratively is that the members of the group might not all be pulling their oars in the same direction, making it very likely that your ship will flounder. To work effectively as collaborators, everyone has to agree to a timetable and a production plan, otherwise, the project is going to do what this one is doing now, which is floundering on certain problems.

One of them is motivation. A collaborative project depends on fairly equal amounts of work put in at the same time. If one person doesn't produce the material you need, you can't move on to the next phase of the plan. Right now, I've got a list longer than my arm of people to contact to get them motivated on producing the copy I will need to create this history. Motivating them to produce their copy is crucial, otherwise we have no history, and the plan is to sell this to libraries and shipping museums, of which there are many.

The second problem is much more personal, and comes down to ego. Now, this is one of the reasons I normally avoid collaborative work. It is slow and tedious and requires a lot of patience to juggle the various pieces to get to the finished product. And... it usually involves at least one person's ego, which gets in the way of getting the work done. I believe that's because of the inherent problem of collaboration, which is that no one person gets any credit. That can really cause havoc for people who need to be treated as though their contribution is enormously special.

Collaborative writing is special precisely because it's a work created by a group, for a larger reading public, and the individual is subsumed to the needs of the groups involved. In that way it is a real challenge for some people to cooperate well enough to adapt to those wider needs, all the while being asked to behave like grownups and not worry so much about whose contribution is more or less important. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How Plato taught you to distrust your emotions and never write poetry

We have inherited an ancient prejudice against pathos, or emotion; the West has learned to privilege rationality, or logos. Ancient Greeks who sought the calm and rational intellectual life revered by Plato and other philosophers at the time distrusted emotional experiences, especially the irrationality that might occur in the presence of a persuasive orator, a compelling poet, or a tragic dramatist.

Plato insisted that the emotional part of human beings can be useful only when the rational part maintains complete control. For seekers on the path of sophrosune (the path of moderation) Aristotle's catharsis made as much sense as plunging the philosopher back down into the cave periodically so that the light of knowledge would dazzle him more thoroughly. Even today, for those who desire a reasoned, ordered existence, logos represents rationality, and it is to be found in an education that privileges the logic of philosophical precepts. 

It is this education that Plato revered. It existed in contradistinction with the educational style of the Sophists, the new, controversial educators in 5th-4th century B.C. Athens. Sophists inherited the "pathetic" tradition of poesy, rhapsody, and oratory. Impressive words and emotive force countermand wisdom, which can only be found in an education that stresses logic and rationality. Wisdom therefore comes through philosophical logos, not Sophistic pathos.

The person easily swayed by emotional appeals cannot be relied upon to rule a country. That which Plato called the 'ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy,' is at least partially a response to the tradition of hostility to exploitation of the pathos stimulated by strong emotional response. Beginning with Plato then, pathos becomes any state induced by strong emotion, and strong emotion is inimical to reason and rationality. The developing use of pathos in Ancient Athens, however, exists in contrast to its earliest meaning of a true victimization caused by the gods, a catastrophe largely or entirely undeserved by the victim. 

However, Socrates does not accept the change to the use of the word pathos. For Socrates, the gods are always good, and stories showing gods acting otherwise cannot be allowed, hence the rejection of rhapsodes and poets from the perfect city-state. The cause of one's trouble is always self-inflicted; sufferers must be seen to deserve and need their punishment. 

This response to pathos politically situates Plato's argument against emotion, because the real debate for Socrates (and for Plato, of course) was the debate between philosophers and Sophists. It also helps explain Plato's distaste for those he considers the purveyors of a poisoned vision of reality, those who blame the gods for terrible occurrences--the tellers of the 'great mythoi,' the poets, and the 'lesser mythoi,' such as mothers, wet-nurses, and the pedagogoi (tutor) the young man listened to prior to going out into the world. 

Ultimately, Platonic logos is an intellectual defense against oratory as enchantment--the orator's ability to bewitch the audience with persuasive, but, Plato feared, empty rhetoric. The power of the Platonic word lies in its ability to create a reasoned, dialectical argument with its only goal the search for truth. And this is our Western philosophical tradition, the underpinning to our societal prejudice against emotion. Along with that prejudice comes every other prejudice we have against writers and the irrational realm creative types inhabit. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Greatest Book Ever Written

Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but if you ever lack for creative inspiration, the best book ever written has to be Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud. Creativity is a sticky wicket, and it seems to need as much prodding as you can give it. This book, which purports to be about the production of comics, is really about the philosophy of creativity. I wonder if McCloud knows that? 

Anyway, it is a brilliant book because he describes in deceptively simple prose, through the medium of a comic book, how we perceive and conceive reality through words and images. This makes it an epistemological text, which is fascinating because of the meta-awareness it brings to the creative act. McCloud shows you, through a discussion of postmodern gaps and fissures, how the brain expects something called 'closure,' which it uses to create stories. Essentially, the brain takes each image provided by the artist, and creates the story it expects to see, providing the answer, or 'closure' the brain needs to know what to expect. Obviously, if you analyse that thought, you realise the difficulty, as McCloud discusses: we tend to create the version of reality we draw, or imagine, for ourselves, through our brain's need for 'closure.' This has its limitations.

Using the metaphor of comic books, the reader takes an illustrated, clever, and witty tour through the history of art, and sees how the artist's rendition of 'reality' morphs to fit our needs for simplicity through what McCloud calls 'universal identification.' This ultimately involves the creation of the comic image. He asserts that humans remember each other's faces in the simple lines that can easily become a cartoon, and that this is part of how we think about one another, and the world around us. 

The most compelling part of his argument lies in the notion that comics is a "mono-sensory" medium, and that only one of our senses is engaged when we read a comic: our eyes. However, that makes what happens between the frames absolutely crucial to the other senses, and his assertion is that what happens between the frames is key to our individual representation of reality. He also makes a highly cogent argument that all other art has this effect as well, in that all art engages the imagination, and compels the mind to create a story. 

Therefore, he not only discusses art, art history, and the importance of the comic book to the world of design--he also paints, step-by-step, a fascinating explanation of how creativity works. This is a very rare ability, because I certainly have never seen a book so entirely focused on how the individual artist goes through the steps of creation that is not then a boring "how-to," which this is not. Now, creation is a process so steeped in wreaths of mystery, that finding someone who explains the process so cleverly.... is a god, of course.  

There aren't a lot of books that thoroughly explain the creative process. There is Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, which is an explanation of the psychological realm of creativity.  Although Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way is inspirational for many, it is not really an explanatory breakdown of how creativity works (but she has since published Walking in This World: The Practical Art of Creativity, so I am going to have to check that out, since it looks like it addresses many of these issues). I don't know of anything else written about creativity that has Scott McCloud's marvelous sense of humour, though, and that alone makes reading this 215 page comic book so wonderfully fun. He has a series of books now, too, although I have it on good authority that Understanding Comics is probably the best of them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

In the land of writing...

intentions are crucial to understanding. I am finding once again that my intentions are possibly exceedingly hard for me to convey, especially when I don't know how my message is coming across. For example, I wrote a protagonist in such a way that my readers legitimately did not see what I saw; they saw him as a bad guy, which is interesting but disturbing, because I certainly did not intend for him to be perceived that way. Then this whole huge discussion ensued about what is a hero and what is an anti-hero, and I found myself getting really annoyed with one of my discussion groups, because my character was misunderstood. 

Which has lead me to the realisation that I myself can easily convey my feelings and my persona incorrectly. Think about it: if your medium is limited to the textual realm, the possibility for others to completely misunderstand what is in your mind and your heart is high. My character, inaccurately written, conveys his emotions and his reality badly. I do the same when I do not say what I am feeling or thinking for fear of saying too much. 

Apparently, this fear of saying too much is something my protagonist and I share. I didn't realise that until today, because overnight I was doing a lot of rewriting of chapter one, and began to see that the protagonist holds back a lot, and so do I. For what purpose? Certainly not to obfuscate or lead others astray, but mostly as a defense mechanism against pain, against making mistakes, against my own stupidity. How often have you said precisely the wrong thing that lands you into hot water? It makes you unwilling to ever utter another wrong or incorrect word, since words seem so easy to misconstrue. 

I need to find a way to express my own, and my character's emotions more clearly. He and I are both getting bogged down and it sounds like we're lying or we're insincere when nothing could be further from the truth.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Vexed Subject of Voice, Part Two

Here's the real problem with the concept of "voice": it depends entirely on the notion of the individual. Now, you're thinking, so what? Well, I'll tell you so what. The problem with this point of view is that for postmodernists, there is no such thing as the 'individual'. There are multiple perspectives, multiple points of view, and one person contains all of them, not one single unified identity that creates this mythical 'voice'. 

Think about it; if you were to express yourself in all the identities you maintain, you might feel schizophrenic. What are your separate identities? Do you use a different voice in each role you play in the world? I'll bet you do. You don't use the same voice to speak to your significant other that you use when you talk to your child. Does this mean you are all these different people, or that there are various facets to your 'personality'? (another vexed term for postmodernists). 

So if we contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman presciently put it, then how can we be held to one voice? Where do we get the idea that this one individual identity exists? Well, most recently, from the Modernists and the Romantics before them. We have inherited the notion that the individual reigns supreme. We have long forgotten the nameless, faceless, seemingly identity-less days of the Medieval period, or the Dark Ages, when an anonymous monk toiled in silence over his book of psalms. And we don't want to go back to those days, either. We want authorial rights, and we want them now!

If you spoke in all your various voices that you use during the course of the day, would you sound crazy to yourself? Would you doubt that you have one unified identity? Try thinking this way and see what happens. Better still, try writing down what each persona you live with would say, and all the different ways you have to say something, thinking specifically of your audience and the context in which you're likely to say it, and realise that you contain many voices. And that there's nothing wrong with that. 

Sorry I complicated this seemingly uncomplicated subject. I have a habit of doing that. ;-)


Monday, March 9, 2009

The Vexed Subject of Voice, Part One

"Voice" is one of those amorphous terms I object to, and cannot fight, since the concept of individual "voice" dominates the field of creative writing. What does it mean, though? Why is it such an elusive subject? And what does it mean to "find one's voice"? Here's the problem I have with the term, first of all: it's vague. Even though a critique of your writing will often include "strong voice," or "lacks a clear voice," it is never apparent what the critic means by that, because they themselves only know it when they see it--or don't see it. They learned the concept of voice in school from teachers who were taught Expressivism, a movement that relies on Romantic ideas of individual expression for its theoretical basis. 

Secondly, it's inaccurate. Everyone has a voice. Everyone. Every writer who ever wrote anything writes in their own unique style, which is what "voice" apparently means, first and foremost, these days. So what critics mean when they say your writing lacks "voice", then, is that it lacks an individual style that separates it out from everyone else's writing. Okay, now that we've cleared that up, what can we do about it? And is it realistic to expect writing to carry a truly "unique" voice that doesn't contain echoes of other voices you've read before? I say this because, realistically, no one writes in a vacuum. We are all influenced by one another, and every writer I read reminds me of someone else I've read. Every single one. None of us have ever recreated the wheel, not entirely. It's unrealistic to hold a writer to that standard. 

First, playing devil's advocate, let me ask, why do we need an individual voice? What's so bad about sounding like the author you love? Why shouldn't you aspire to copy, or mimic their style? When you take beginning writing classes, that's exactly what you do; you learn how to imitate the style of the writer you're reading, so that you can prove to your teacher that you understand the basics. The idea(l) that lies beyond that level of writing skill, however, is what plagues most writers. The ideal is that you will not want to mimic someone else, and that it is bad to do so.

The problem I have with this goes back to what I was saying above; it is entirely unrealistic to aspire to what critics love to label "a brand new voice." That's hype. There is no such thing as a brand new voice. What there can be is a new take on an old subject, told from a different perspective, using language you're not used to hearing. Anything reminiscent of someone else's writing that sounds too much like them, though, will be trash-canned, either for real or on someone's desktop. 

Why is that? Why is the search for that "new" or "fresh" voice so important to the writing community?  I believe some of it stems from the perpetuated belief that the act of writing is really akin to the divine. There is that unexpressed hope that you're going to read something you've never seen before that will lift you out of the mundane. That seems to be a deeply-rooted need, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for readers of all sorts. We're taught so many things about writing that allow these myths to persist, that the myth of the "fresh" voice is just one of many.

If voice is about your style, though, about how you say the same old thing, that's different, and that can be taught, and it can be nurtured. It is attainable. It is no longer a divine mystery.  

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