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. 

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