Dec 14, 2008 At Least It’s An Ethos: Why Merging Rhetoric With Composition Is A Mistake
from The Kugelmass Episodes by Joseph Kugelmass (x-posted to The Valve)
Teaching Them What They Already Know: Composition and Literature
Anyone who is not mentally ill has, within certain familiar realms, a very sophisticated, intuitive understanding of rhetorical strategy. Teenagers understand very well how to shift from one vocabulary to another, depending on audience, and sound completely different in their essays than they do in casual conversation or on IM programs. They have different ways of speaking to parents and friends, and they work hard on crafting online and offline persona that others will find appealing. This is not because they’re teenagers; actually, everybody does these things. One of the gratifying things about teaching rhetoric is that, up to a point, students “get it” right away, and manage to rapidly produce useful observations. This is especially true when they are dealing with something comfortable, like a scene from a movie.
On a deeper level, though, students “get” rhetoric (and we find it easy to teach) because it follows a similar intersubjective logic as capital. Rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with advertising, the dominant language of contemporary desire. Students find themselves growing up in a world where demographics — audiences — are created out of thin air by advertising in its various forms, and where mass production aligns itself to the desires of a consumer audience. Furthermore, rhetorical analysis is dissociative: anyone who has tried to teach ethos, pathos, and logos as operations to be performed on a text knows how students arbitrarily divide the text up into “emotional” sections and “argumentative” sections, even though such divisions are rarely defensible.
This is not the students’ fault, as we send them gunning for whatever holism a text possesses. The lysis of the text feels oddly familiar, though, because contemporary culture is similarly dissociative. Logic is the calculated process of competition and oppression, emotion is the catharsis of sentimentality, and personality is likeability; to put the matter crudely, ethos, pathos, and logos correspond to the capitalist triptych of the advertiser (the “front man”), the consumer, and the accountant.