Monthly Archives: August 2011

Solidifying Sound

I like when conversations and reading material coincidentally collide–and when I get to share those coincidences in hyperlinky ways. To wit:

Early this morning, my buddy Steven tweeted this:

Steven's tweet

A couple others jumped in. Harley Ferris pointed out:

Harley's tweet

And the inestimable DocMara directed us to this video, by my kind-of-hero Vi Hart:

I responded with a vague recommendation that everyone read David Burrows’s Sound, Speech, and Music. I had this kind of thing in mind:

Seeing is like touching, hearing like being touched; except that the touch of sound does not stop at the skin. It seems to reach inside and to attenuate, along with the distinction in Field 1 between here and there, the biologically still more basic one between within and without. In this way sound can ease some of the tension that goes with the duality of the organic condition. (21)

So there’s all that: essentially, some sound-loving rhetoricians trying to figure out what the heck sound does, and how that relates to the solid world our bodies inhabit. Weird, when you start thinking about it, right? In some ways, this is heart of the CCCC panel that I’ll present on this March along with Kati Fargo and Steph Ceraso: the physical nature of sound as something our bodies experience, not just as an idea we theorize about.

Even weirder: two (perhaps competing) things I read later in the day that hint at the topic of sound solidified–if perhaps only tangentially. Both are from interviews in Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve’s Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, part of the Oral History of American Music endeavor.

First, composer Leo Ornstein made an intriguing claim that I’m still trying to wrap my head around:

And besides–now I’m saying something very, very important–one has to be particularly careful of one’s own style because it’s so easy to simply operate almost unconsciously within the style, forgetting altogether about the substance, substituting style for substance. . . . The trouble is it takes the most astute kind of person to be able to distinguish when the artist is operating on his style or when he is operating within substance. And an audience can easily flounder. (91)

Within the context, he’s criticizing composers who are “much more interested in experiment than they are in music,” saying that those are the ones interested in “style,” in composing as a solely intellectual activity as opposed to something that’s supposed to move an audience. Instead, he’d rather hear composers who are interested in “substance,” in having some sort of musical meaning that can be communicated to an audience. (At least that’s what I think he means; that last line about audiences who “flounder” makes me second-guess myself.)

Interesting metaphor though, right? Substance. I picture “style” music as like lasers and lights flashing through the air, unable to be grasped and moving so fast that you can’t make out what they’re doing there, how it all coheres. But I picture “substance” music as food-like, able to be chewed and swallowed and cooked again later to better understand the ingredients.

Second, I read these lines from experimental composer Edgard Varèse:

My aim has always been the liberation of sound; to throw open the whole world of sound to music. . . . When I was twenty I came across a definition of music that seemed suddenly to throw light on my groping toward the music I sensed could exist: “the corporealization of the intelligence that is in sounds.” [Quote from Josef Hoene Wronski] It was new and exciting and to me, the first perfectly intelligible conception of music. It was probably what first started me thinking of music as spatial–as moving bodies of sound in space, a conception I gradually developed and made my own. (102-03)

Here again was the idea of sound as having substance, though in a very different way than Ornstein meant. Instead, Varèse is frustrated with the rules of music that Western concert music has followed for so long, and he sees an answer to that in reconceiving the basic metaphors we use to discuss musical form at all. Instead of music being recursive, or structured like an oration (in the Baroque period), or grown organically (in the Romantic period), music to Varèse is a physical thing hurtling through the air at you, like a pillar of cloud, or of fire.

Not that I have to, but I reconcile these kind of views (really, a very old debate) the way Andy Hamilton, a philosopher, does in Aesthetics and Music: he’s comfortable saying, essentially, there’s sound-based art over here, and there’s music over there, and they’re both awesome, but it’s okay for them to be different. Music, to Hamilton, has to deal with “tonal organization” created with some degree of will: “…with limited exceptions, tones not produced by human intentional action do not count as music” (49). Our pal Varèse would see that as limiting.

Side note: after reading about Varèse, I decided to listen to whatever came up of his on Spotify (a program I’ve written about before, and which I can give you an invitation to if you need it) while writing this post, beginning with “Arcana.” I expected heavy-handed, grating, noise-music–but at least in that track, what I got was something that sounded an awful lot like the score to the original Star Trek (this kind of stuff). Bizarre. Much nicer is the piano music of Ornstein I’ve got going now instead.

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Go Read: YouTube and Fair Use

Teacher-friends, I especially urge you to check out a couple of smart posts over at viz. on YouTube’s automatic system for flagging copyrighted material on uploaded material:

What I especially like (besides the wonderfully subtle–or not?–image at the top of each post) is the thoughtful walkthrough of the implications of YouTube’s policy here, which in effect uses very smart tech-driven copyright-detection solutions to spot possible copyright infringements and then freak out confused users, who may be completely within fair use rights but who aren’t really encouraged to understand what that means.
The author (not sure who; it’s listed as being by snelson, who isn’t on the viz. contributors page) writes,
While YouTube doesn’t deny users their Fair Use rights, as such a practice would be illegal, they certainly frame the debate in such a way to make exercising Fair Use difficult. . . . However, even when “educating” the public about copyright, YouTube errs on the side of copyright for owners’ rights.
Seriously. I can’t wait to talk through some of this with students–except I’m not teaching this semester! Curses!
I wonder what Tarleton Gillespie would have to say about this. . . .

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Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

I thought I’d share an essay I wrote for a student audience, forthcoming in our Spring 2012 custom textbook for Composition 2 (thus the Works Cited). The second I turned it in, I found I wasn’t sure I agreed with everything I said, but that just makes it fertile ground for discussion. And, you know, it’s about rap.

Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

The website eHow has a page on “How to Freestyle Rap” (“Difficulty: Moderately Challenging”), and I’m trying to figure out what I think about it. On one hand, it seems like it would be against the ethos of an authentic rapper to use a page like this to brush up on freestyle skills. After all, the page is hosted on a corporate website owned by Demand Media, Inc., the same people behind, among other things, a golf site.

But on the other hand, the advice seems solid. The eHow page encourages me to follow an easy, seven-step model:

  1. “Learn the basics.”
  2. “Just start flowing.”
  3. “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”
  4. “Work on your wordplay.”
  5. “Practice at home in your spare time.”
  6. “Have a rap battle.”
  7. “Rap what you know.”

The page treats freestyling as an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rapper is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself—i.e., to keep it real.

And here’s the thing: I think rhetoric is the same way. That is, it’s an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rhetor (the person who is communicating rhetorically) is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself.

You don’t hear me though.

***

That’s right: rhetoric is an art. But not necessarily art the way we think of it. The ancient Greeks called it a techne, a word they used to mean “a craft or ability to do something, a creative skill; this can be physical or mental, positive or negative, like that of metalworking or trickery” (Papillion 149).

Other examples of techne? Ship-building, for one.[1] You’d better not muddle your way through the art of building a ship, or you’ll ruddy well sink.

Rhetoric developed as an oral art, the art of knowing how to give an effective speech—say, in the court, in a law-making session, or at a funeral speech. And if you muddled your way through a speech, not convincing anyone, not moving anyone, looking like a general schmuck in a toga, you’d ruddy well sink there, too.

***

If rhetoric is an art, it’s an art of what? The shortest answer: an art of communication, whether written, spoken, painted, streamed, or whatever.

But how do you judge when communication has worked, when it’s effective? In other words, how do know when someone has used rhetorical skills well?

That’s easy: when an audience says it’s effective. So:

  • An anchor on a conservative news show makes a jab at President Obama. Conservative watchers thought the jab was well-deserved and well-timed; it was rhetorically effective for them. Liberal watchers thought it was a cheap shot; it wasn’t rhetorically effective for them.
  • A student writes an essay arguing that advertisements are so pervasive in the U.S. that he can’t even go to the bathroom without seeing Coke’s logo. His roommate reads it and doesn’t think advertising is a big deal; he’s not convinced, so it’s not a rhetorically effective essay for him. But his teacher reads it from her point of view and thinks it’s cleverly argued and bitingly true. It works for her; it’s rhetorically effective for her.
  • Eminem ends a rap battle to raucous applause from the people in the room, but the old grandmother in the back of the club thinks it was all a lot of noise.

So rhetoric can’t be judged completely objectively. It wouldn’t make sense to say that someone’s rhetoric was “right” or “wrong.” It all comes down to if it works for the audience it was intended for.

Also, notice that all of those examples describe situations where the rhetor is being persuasive in one way or another. That’s a common part of definitions of rhetoric—that it’s the art of persuasion. And that’s important—we’re constantly trying to convince people, either subtly or overtly, to understand our points of view, and people are constantly trying to convince us of their points of view.

But I like to think of rhetoric as being about more than just persuasion, which starts to sound all bossy and manipulative when I think of that way. Instead, I think rhetoric is the art of making a connection with an audience. It’s a series of techniques to help me share the way I see things with someone else. And depending on who I’m sharing with, I’ll use different techniques. I wouldn’t communicate my views to my wife in the same way that I’d share my views to the U.S. president, or to Jay-Z.

***

The best rappers are surprising. You lean over laughing at wordplay that you didn’t expect. You smile, get into the groove, listen more carefully, and later you remember how much you enjoyed it. The communication was effective.

***

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t really get it. The author kept talking about rhetoric, and even after I looked up the definition, it didn’t make any sense to me.

Looking back, I think that’s ironic: the beating, blood-pumping heart of rhetoric is a consideration of audience. Speaking or writing or composing something that works the way you want it to for the audience you want it to work for.

But I don’t think senior-year me was the intended audience of Zen. If I had been, the author was pretty lousy at being rhetorical, because he didn’t explain well enough what rhetoric even means. The concepts he wanted his audience to be convinced of after reading his book didn’t leave me convinced and riveted; instead, I was glassy-eyed and dreaming about angsty 90s rock.

He was thoroughly un-rhetorical in his discussion of rhetoric.

I read the book now and I’m moved and touched. He shared his views effectively with me. Without the text changing at all, I became his audience. I get it now.

So he was being rhetorical after all. It’s both.

***

Why study rhetoric? It’s the same as if you asked, “Why study freestyling?” Both are a set of skills and techniques that often come naturally, but which people can learn to do better by studying the methods that have proven effective in the past.

“Why study painting?” Because by studying how other people paint, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective painter.

“Why study business?” Because by studying how other people do business, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective businessperson.

Why study ship-building, or basket-weaving, or trickery, or anything else that you might be able to muddle through but which you’d be better at with some training and practice? Isn’t it obvious?

It’s the same with rhetoric, but in realm of communication. Why not learn some techniques that will increase the chance that your audience will think/feel/believe the way you want them to after hearing/reading/experiencing whatever it is that you’re throwing at them?

And that’s only thinking about you in the composer’s role. What about when you’re in the receiving end, hearing/reading/experiencing things that have been carefully crafted so that you’ll buy into them? A scary of list of rhetorically effective people: politicians, advertisers, super-villains. (You want rhetoric? Just listen to the slimy words of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or the words Voldemort beams into everyone’s brain in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two.) Studying rhetoric has the uncanny effect of opening your eyes to when people are trying to be all rhetorical on you, wielding their communication skills like an evil weapon.

***

My friend to me, the other day: “Ugh. Carrie just wrote something inappropriate on her fiancée’s Facebook wall again.”

Me: “What’d she say?”

My friend: “I don’t even remember. It was something all gushy and uncomfortable. I skimmed back a bit and saw she’s been doing that a lot. Doesn’t she know that she can write messages that go just to him and not the rest of us? She doesn’t have to post that stuff on his wall!”

As I thought about this conversation, I realized that Carrie (not her real name) was in some ways being a rhetorical failure. Yes, her fiancée (one person), who was certainly the primary intended recipient of her message, probably found the wall post very rhetorically effective. That is, he surely felt the gushy emotions that she meant for him to feel. Her message worked. How rhetorical!

But because a Facebook wall is to some extent public, there are others who will read her post too (hundreds of people). What is the intended message for them? If we trust and like Carrie (and if she’s lucky), then we may think, “Oh, it’s sweet when people are public about their love for each other!” If we’re kind of sick of Carrie, we might think, “She just plain doesn’t get that we don’t care about her digital smooches and hugs.” And if we’re mad at her, we might think, “She’s publicly declaring her love to him because she wants us to feel bad that we don’t have the kind of true love that she has!”

In short, the message to most of us is either A) that’s nice, B) oh, gross, or C) that hussy.

Why study rhetoric? Because so many people so often seem to have no no no idea about how to communicate well.

***

We’re still beating around the bush about what rhetorical skills actually look like. Up to this point, you could say, “You keep talking about all these different collections of skills, but besides freestyling, I barely have any idea how to go about being effective at this stuff.” Fine—pass the mic.

Mic passed. Among lots of other things, some of the skills practiced by rhetors (and composition students) include:

  • Basics that effective communicators keep in mind (like discovering the best time and place to communicate, clarifying what the communication is about, and learning about your audience)
  • Techniques for deciding the best kinds of ideas and evidence to use for a given audience (like freewriting, open-minded research, and other forms of what we call “invention”)
  • Techniques for deciding on the best way to organize material for a given audience (like models for organizing information into a business report, or a classical six-part speech, or a thesis-driven research essay)
  • Suggestions for how to shape your style in ways that will be both understandable and exciting for your audience (like using rhetorical figures to liven up your sentences or varying sentence length and type)
  • Considerations on the best way to get your communication to your audience (like a speech, an essay, a video, a recording, a painting, a post-it note, a letter made from words cut out of magazines)

Yes, I keep writing the word audience over and over. That’s because it’s the core of any rhetorical endeavor. Remember? All those bullets can be summed up in one sentence: thinking rhetorically means thinking about your audience.

And that means communicating in a way that doesn’t make you look stupid, mean, or confusing.

And that means you should communicate in a way that makes you look smart, nice, and clear.

It sounds obvious, right? I think so too. But then, why are people so bad at it?

***

Those are the failures of a failed freestyle rapper, too. He gets up to start a rap battle, looks impressive at first (i.e. he has a strong ethos—a word we use a lot when analyzing communication from a rhetorical angle), but then things go badly when he gets the mic.

He starts out blundering around, looking like he’s never done this before. (He should have followed eHow’s advice to “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”)

In desperation, he lashes out at the other guy with attacks that seem like low blows, even for a rap battle. The audience groans; he broke an unspoken rule about how mean to be. Rhetorical failure.

He can tell that he’s losing the audience, so he changes his tactics and starts blending together all kinds of words that rhyme. But he fails at this too, since nothing he says makes any sense.

Eventually, he’s booed off the stage.

Why study rhetoric? So you can succeed in rap battles. I thought that was obvious.

Works Cited

How to Freestyle Rap.” eHow. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 15 July 2011.

Papillion, Terry. “Isocrates’ Techne and Rhetorical Pedagogy.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 149-63. JSTOR. Web. 19 July 2011.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow, 1974. Print.


[1]Thanks to Dr. Debra Jacobs for pointing out this to me.

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