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Sixth Edition

Barry Brummett

The University of Texas at Austin

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PrefaceAcknowledgmentsPart I Theory

Chapter 1 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical TraditionChapter 2 Rhetoric and Popular CultureChapter 3 Rhetorical Methods In Critical StudiesChapter 4 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: INTERVENTION-UnderstandingChapter 5 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: UNDERSTANDING–Intervention

Part II ApplicationChapter 6 Paradoxes of Personalization: Race Relations in MilwaukeeChapter 7 Notes from a Texas Gun ShowChapter 8 Simulational Selves, Simulational Culture in Groundhog DayChapter 9 Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes YouSmallChapter 10 The Bad Resurrection in American Life and Culture

Works CitedSuggested ReadingsIndexAbout the Author



PrefaceAcknowledgmentsPart I Theory

Chapter 1 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical TraditionDefinitions and the Management of PowerThe Rhetorical Tradition: Ancient Greece

The Rise of the City-States: How Democracy Grew Up With RhetoricRhetoric in Athens

Plato and the SophistsTwo Legacies of the Greek Rhetorical Tradition

Rhetoric Is Conventionally Equated With Traditional TextsRhetoric Is Paradoxically Linked to Power Management

Definitions of Rhetoric After PlatoRhetoric in the Eighteenth CenturyNew Theories Emerge in the Twentieth Century

Changes in Culture in the Twentieth CenturyPopulationTechnologyPluralismKnowledge

Managing Power Today in Traditional Texts: Neo-Aristotelian CriticismSummary and ReviewLooking Ahead

Chapter 2 Rhetoric and Popular CultureThe Rhetoric of Everyday LifeThe Building Blocks of Culture: Signs

Indexical MeaningIconic MeaningSymbolic MeaningComplexity of the Three Kinds of Meaning

The Building Blocks of Culture: ArtifactsAn Action, Event, or Object Perceived as a Unified Whole… Having Widely Shared Meanings… Manifesting Group Identifications to Us

Definitions of CultureElitist Meanings of CulturePopular Meanings of Culture

Characteristics of CulturesCultures Are Highly Complex and OverlappingCultures Entail Consciousness, or IdeologiesCultures Are Experienced Through Texts

Four Characteristics of the Texts of Popular CultureManaging Power Today in Texts of Popular CultureSummary and ReviewLooking Ahead

Chapter 3 Rhetorical Methods in Critical StudiesTexts as Sites of Struggle

Texts Influence Through MeaningsTexts Are Sites of Struggle Over Meaning

Three Characteristics of Critical StudiesThe Critical Character


Concern Over PowerCritical Interventionism

Finding a TextThe First Continuum: Type of Text


The Second Continuum: Sources of MeaningsDefining a Context

The Third Continuum: Choice of ContextThe Fourth Continuum: Text–Context Relationship

Intertextuality: When the Context Is Another Text“Inside” the Text

The Fifth Continuum: From Surface to Deep ReadingDirect TacticsImplied StrategiesStructures

The Text in Context: Metonymy, Power, JudgmentMetonymiesEmpowerment/DisempowermentJudgment

Summary and ReviewLooking Ahead

Chapter 4 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: INTERVENTION-UnderstandingAn Introduction to Critical PerspectivesCulture-Centered Criticism

Cultures and Their Own Critical MethodsAfrocentricity

Unity and HarmonyOralitySignifyingOther Tenets

Whiteness as a Kind of Culture: Analysis and ExamplesMarxist Criticism

Materialism, Bases, and SuperstructureEconomic Metaphors, Commodities, and SignsPreferred and Oppositional ReadingsSubject PositionsStandpoint Theory

Feminist CriticismVarieties of Feminist CriticismHow Do Patriarchal Language and Images Perpetuate Inequality?

Language and Images That DenigrateSilencingLack

How Can Texts Empower Women?Alternative Rhetorical Forms

Queer TheoryAnalysis and Examples

Summary and ReviewChapter 5 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: UNDERSTANDING–Intervention

Psychoanalytic CriticismMaking Minds and SelvesDesire

Visual Rhetorical CriticismImages as Focal Points of Meaning AttributionImages as Focal Points of Collective Memory and CommunityPoint of View

Methods Focused on StoryDramatistic/Narrative CriticismLanguage as Grounds for Motives

Terministic ScreensTeleology

Narrative GenresComedy and TragedyThe PentadAnalysis and Examples


Media-Centered CriticismWhat Is a Medium?Media LogicCharacteristics of Television as a Medium


Analysis and ExamplesCharacteristics of Handheld Devices as a Medium

Connective PowerContext Mobility

Characteristics of the Computer and Internet as a MediumFluiditySpeed and ControlDispersal

Analysis and ExamplesSummary and ReviewLooking Ahead

Part II ApplicationChapter 6 Paradoxes of Personalization: Race Relations in Milwaukee

The Problem of PersonalizationThe Scene and Focal Events

Problems in the African American CommunityViolence Against African AmericansThe School SystemWhite Political Attitudes

Tragedy and MetonymyMetonymizing the TragediesMetonymy and Paradox

The Paradox of IdentificationIdentification and RaceEnabling IdentificationForestalling IdentificationThe Persistence of Race

The Paradox of Action: The Public and The PersonalPersonal Action and Loss of VisionThe Paradox in MilwaukeeAfrican Americans “In Need of Help”

Some SolutionsReciprocal PersonalizationMetonymizing YourselfMetonymizing OthersResources for Careful Metonymy

Stepping Back From the CritiqueChapter 7 Notes from a Texas Gun Show

Texas and Gun CultureAt the Gun ShowConclusion

Chapter 8 Simulational Selves, Simulational Culture in Groundhog DaySimulationSimulation and Groundhog DayConclusion

Chapter 9 Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes YouSmall

Steampunk and Jumping ScaleThe Aesthetic of SteampunkJumping Scale DownJumping Scale Up

ConclusionChapter 10 The Bad Resurrection in American Life and Culture



The Fast and the Furious MoviesHalloween and Friday The 13th MoviesConclusion

Works CitedSuggested Readings

Culture-Centered CriticismMarxist CriticismFeminist Rhetorical CriticismPsychoanalytic CriticismVisual Rhetorical CriticismDramatistic/Narrative CriticismMedia-Centered Criticism

IndexAbout the Author


PREFACEWelcome to the sixth edition of Rhetoric in Popular Culture. Here I want to address instructors whomay be considering adopting this volume for their courses. This book brings together two vitalscholarly traditions: rhetorical criticism and critical studies. There are several good textbooks, eitherwell established or new, that cover rhetorical criticism from a fairly traditional perspective. They focuson the analysis of discursive, reason-giving texts, such as public speeches. On the other hand, thereare several good books of critical studies available. Some of the newer textbooks of critical studies aremuch improved over their predecessors in covering techniques of Marxist, feminist, and other criticalapproaches in ways that are accessible to students. But there is a need to apply the growing andcutting-edge methods of critical studies to the study of rhetoric and to link these new approaches tothe rhetorical tradition. That is what this book tries to do. It sees critical studies as rhetorical criticism,and it argues that the most exciting form of rhetorical criticism today is found in methods of criticalstudies.

There have been some changes between the fifth and sixth editions, primarily in Part II, theApplication sections. Of course, the entire book has been updated in regard to examples from popularculture, which must be done in every edition. Regrettably, even these updates may be a little out ofdate by the time you see the sixth edition! Examples such as Tom Brady winning the Superbowl withthe Buccaneers instead of the Patriots, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, and anexpanded discussion of intertextuality in Chapter 3 are a few to note.

Beyond that, the biggest change has been the addition throughout this edition, in every chapter, of adiscussion of issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Those issues were in the ffth edition but aremuch better developed in this new edition. For instance, there is greatly expanded discussion ofempowerment and disempowerment in Chapter 3, and white privilege in Chapter 4. Theirdevelopment is intended to empower teachers and students to explore how those issues work in theirown lives, as influenced by popular culture.

I have consistently refused to “dumb down” this textbook despite the occasional appeal to do so,having faith in the ability of today’s undergraduates to wrestle with challenging ideas that are (I hope)clearly explained. I also have faith in you, the instructor, to carry them through it. My approach hasbeen to give you and your students enough information on any given theory or method to help youlaunch your teaching, but in no case do I pretend or even want to exhaustively cover a topic so thatyour own intervention is not needed. I have faith that my teaching colleagues will ably fill in whatevergaps I have left. Any textbook should be the beginning of a discussion, not the whole of thediscussion, and surely not the end of it. Theory and method need not be scary, and they must not besomething distinct from the lives of ordinary people. If our students do not understand challengingideas, then we have failed them—or possibly they have failed themselves by not trying.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTSI am grateful to the editorial staff of SAGE, especially Lily Norton, who has been instrumental inbringing this sixth edition of Rhetoric in Popular Culture to fruition. I also want to thank Rachel Keithfor a masterful, helpful, and thoroughly professional job of editing the manuscript.

Reviewers for all six editions of the book have been more than helpful, and I want to acknowledgetheir assistance here.

In preparation of the sixth edition:

Emma Bloomfield (University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

Bryan Crable (Villanova University)

Susan Mackey-Kallis (Villanova University)

Michael McFarland (Stetson University)

Steven Mellin (University of Missouri, Kansas City)

Sarah Scott (Arkansas State University)

In preparation of the fifth edition:

Cori Brewster (Eastern Oregon University)

Ken Corbit (University of Alabama)

Mindy Fenske (University of South Carolina)

Leslie Hahner (Baylor University)

Matthew Meier (West Chester University)

Matthew Petrunia (Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY)

Patrick Richey Middle (Tennessee State University)

Anne Marie Todd (San Jose State University)

In preparation of the fourth edition:

Mary Elizabeth Bezanson (University of Minnesota, Morris)

Michael L. Butterworth (Bowling Green State University)

Peter Ehrenhaus (Pacific Lutheran University)

Trischa Goodnow (Oregon State University)

Christine Horton (University of Waterloo)

Kristy Maddux (University of Maryland)

Peter Marston (California State University, Northridge)


Theresa Russell-Loretz (Millersville University)

In preparation of the third edition:

Donathan L. Brown (Texas A&M University)

John Fritch (University of Northern Iowa)

Yvonne Prather (Austin Peay State University)

Roy Schwartzman (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

Joseph Zompetti (Illinois State University)

In preparation of the second edition:

Paul E. Bender (Ohio Northern University)

Christy Friend (University of South Carolina)

Donna M. Kowal (The College at Brockport, SUNY)

Michael W. McFarland (Stetson University)

Ronald B. Scott (Miami University)

Deanna D. Sellnow (University of Kentucky)

Donna Strickland (University of Missouri–Columbia)

In preparation of the first edition:

Bruce Herzberg (Bentley University)

Tom Hollihan (University of Southern California)

James F. Klummp (University of Maryland, College Park)

John Llewellyn (Wake Forest University)

Skip Rutledge (Point Loma Nazarene University)

Helen Sterk (Calvin College)

Barbie Zelizer (University of Pennsylvania)

I am grateful to all who have profited from reading previous editions of this book and used it in theirown work. Finding references to this textbook elsewhere is always a nice reminder that one’s effortsare making a difference. I am grateful to the many students who have used this book in my classesand in classes taught by others. Taking the principles explained here, they have taught me throughtheir insights about popular culture. I hear often that readers of this book see the world differently; Icould ask for no higher thanks or praise.


PART I THEORYIn Part I, we learn about the history of the practice and theory of persuasion, which is called rhetoric.

We will see why the rhetoric of popular culture is so important today.






1.1 Explain how definitions manage power throughout history

1.2 Describe the Greek rhetorical tradition

1.3 Summarize the debate between Plato and the Sophists

1.4 Describe our legacy of the rhetorical tradition

1.5 Explain how definitions of rhetoric evolve after Plato

1.6 Explain the important developments in the principles of rhetoric during the eighteenthcentury

1.7 Explain the important developments in the principles of rhetoric during the twentiethcentury

1.8 Link new cultural changes in the twentieth century to the emergence of new principlesof rhetoric

1.9 Summarize the process of Neo-Aristotelian Criticism and explain when it is appropriateto use

Do you know what your blue jeans are doing to you? What kind of person do you turn into when yougo to shopping malls? After a day of hard knocks at work or at school, do you use social media to“fight back” or to escape?

If you are like most people, you are probably not in the habit of asking yourself questions like these.We may think of our clothing, favorite kinds of music, favorite websites, or preferred forms ofrecreation as ways to express ourselves or to have fun. But we may think it a little far-fetched tobelieve that there is any serious meaning in the NBA, Fortnight, Marvel movies, or Jimmy Fallon, orthat our personalities and values are involved in checking out this spring’s new swimsuits.

Although most of us realize that clickbait ads or political commercials are designed to influence us, itmay not be clear to us how the regular media content outside and between the advertisements hasthe same function. A lot of us may feel that we wear our hair in certain styles for aesthetic reasons—because we like it that way. We may not often think that those styles also express certain positions inimportant social and political battles. We may feel that we consistently shop at Prada or Gucci ratherthan at Old Navy only for reasons of taste; we might be surprised to hear that our choice has thepotential to turn us into different kinds of people.

We will look especially at how popular culture affects our ideas and behaviors about the majorcategories and divisions around which societies are organized, such as race, gender, class, sexualidentity, and so forth. It is one thing to pass laws to empower those previously disempowered, butanother thing to create widespread social acceptance and empowerment of the previouslymarginalized. That empowerment as well as disempowerment lies largely in popular culture.

This book asks you to think about how everyday actions, objects, and experiences affect you andothers. You are probably already familiar with some of the more serious and newsworthyconsequences of music, television, social media, or films, such as the association of country-and-western music with conservative patriotism or the criticism of certain hip-hop musicians for their use ofparticular words and images. This book will expand on things you may already be aware of, leadingyou to see how all of popular culture works to influence the public. You will have noticed that the bookhas two key terms: rhetoric and popular culture. In this chapter, we will focus on rhetoric and its



There are some well-developed theories available for studying how messages influence people.These are theories of rhetoric, which we may initially understand as persuasion. The word rhetoric hasmany meanings, and we will examine many of them in this chapter. Many people understand rhetoricto mean the ways in which words influence people. “That’s just a lot of rhetoric,” we say, and by thatwe mean that it’s just so many empty but persuasive words. In this book, we will work from a different,expanded understanding of what rhetoric means: the ways in which signs influence people.

Has popular culture always been an important site of rhetoric? Not necessarily. To understand whythe conjunction of rhetoric and popular culture is especially potent today, we first need to understandthe history of rhetorical theory. We will begin with the ancient Greeks and how they thought about andpracticed rhetoric. As we move toward our own time, we will come to realize why the focus ofrhetorical practice has shifted from great oratory in public speaking in ancient times to music, film,television, and the Internet in our time. The historical review in this chapter will help you to understandwhy, if you want to influence people far and wide today, you start a viral video rather than preparing apublic speech.

Rhetoric has been around for centuries, both as something that people do and as a subject thatpeople study. One thing that is particularly striking about rhetoric is the many different ways in which ithas been defined, today and throughout history. In this chapter, we will explore some of thosedefinitions. Students of rhetoric are often frustrated with so many definitions for a term; “Why can’tpeople just settle on a meaning?” they sometimes ask. To anticipate that frustration, let us first thinkabout what a definition is and about defining as a strategy.



You may have taken courses that were a little frustrating because you learned that key terms havebeen defined by different authors and in different eras in different ways. You may also have noticedthat the ways in which you define certain terms can make a lot of difference; in fact, definitions can bea way of securing power. If you define culture, for instance, as high culture—as ballet and oil paintingsand symphony orchestras—that lets you reduce to second-class status everything else, includingbaseball games, cheeseburgers, reggae music, and hip-hop. This arrangement makes a pretty nicesetup for the wealthy and talented people who already control “high culture,” doesn’t it? If “culture” issomething that people think of as generally a good thing, then being able to define some things andnot others as “culture” is a source of power.

If you study history, you find that certain terms have been defined in many different ways. Throughouthistory, there have been varying definitions of what it means to be human. Some societies definedhumanity by way of race; such a definition empowered people of one race to enslave whole groups ofpeople who did not look like them on the theory that they were not really enslaving humans. In thetwentieth century, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany attempted to define humanity along ethniclines, portraying German Aryans as the only authentic humans. Through that definition, the Nazisdenied that Jews, Romani, and others were fully human. Women have been defined in different waysthroughout history, generally in ways that were disempowering (as incomplete or imperfect copies ofmen, as inferior versions of humanity, as essentially assistants or helpers for men, and so forth). Howgender roles are defined has a lot to do with their relative empowerment or disempowerment.

Let’s pause for some quick definitions. The term signs refers to the countless meaningful items,images, and so on that surround us; it will be explained more fully in the next chapter, when wediscuss the building blocks of culture, signs. A sign is something that induces you to think aboutsomething other than itself—and everything has that potential. The clearest example of a sign is aword; you read the word hat, and you think of something other than— something beyond—the markson the page that are that sign. There can be nonverbal signs also, such as the American flag, whichencourages you to think of something—the United States—beyond the colored cloth that is the sign.There will be more on signs in the next chapter. In this chapter, we will also use the word text, whichwill also be discussed in more detail in the next chapter, but for now we can think of a text as amessage, as a collection of verbal and/or nonverbal signs that create meaning. This book is a textcomposed of many signs in the form of words and pictures.

There are many terms that can have different definitions, such as terms used in describing families orsexual orientation. But there are also many terms that do not have varying definitions. There are notwidely different definitions for carrots, cats, dogs, umbrellas, or walking, for instance. What is thedifference? What makes one term have lots of different definitions while other terms seem relativelystraightforward? Some words have little to do with power; you will find that these terms do not getdefined in very many ways. When power and influence are at stake, the words in which power andinfluence (or disempowerment) are expressed or embodied will come to have lots of definitions.Settling the definition of carrots will not affect who has control over others, who has freedom to do asthey will, who will have to accommodate others, and so forth.


Exercise 1.1

The following exercise, which you can do on your own or in class with the instructions of yourteacher, will help you understand what is at stake in the general strategies of definition.

One of the most important ways in which people are defined is in terms of race. Considerthese questions:

1. What are the major terms for human races?2. Are there any disagreements over what to call certain racial groups? Is there lack of

agreement over what to call other groups?3. What does it mean that certain racial groups seem to be called by only one term, with little

struggle over what to call them?4. Do different terms of races imply different definitions of people? If so, what does that have

to do with power? Why are those terms struggled over? For example, in the last seventyyears, one group of people has “officially” been called Negroes, blacks, Afro-Americans,and African-Americans (and other, “unofficial” terms). Why so many terms? What doeseach term have to do with empowerment and disempowerment?

People struggle over power; therefore, they struggle over the words that express power. We may takeit as a rule that terms that have several different definitions—definitions that are controversial orargued over—are usually terms about important dimensions of human life. Such terms will havesomething to do with how power is created, shared, or denied. To control words is to control the world.Another example of that control has been the successful work of queer people to “take over” that veryword, queer, and turn it from an insult to a proud description of identities.

We have seen how there are disagreements and struggles for power over how the word culture isdefined. Now we will see that an even greater disagreement exists over how to define rhetoric.Struggles over how to define rhetoric run through history. It seems, therefore, that there must be someconnection between rhetoric and power. This connection was clear from the very beginning of thinkingabout rhetoric in Western civilization. We are about to take a detour of some length through ancientGreece. The reason for this is that the ways we—both the general public and rhetorical scholars—think about and define rhetoric are grounded in the ways the ancient Greeks thought about rhetoric.When we do rhetoric differently today, we do it differently from Greek practices. The Greek legacy tous includes ideas about the relationship between power and rhetoric as well as about the ways inwhich popular culture is related to both. Let us see what the Greeks thought rhetoric was all about.



Rhetoric has been studied for centuries throughout the world, although, in this country, we are mostinfluenced by Western traditions of rhetoric that originated in the Mediterranean world. Westerncivilization has historically thought that the formal study of rhetoric began in about the sixth and fifthcenturies B.C.E. in the ancient city-states of Greece and their colonies. To understand what rhetoricmeant to these people, how they practiced it, and what they studied, we will make a quick (andtherefore somewhat simplified) survey of their history.

Hulton Archive/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


The Rise of the City-States: How Democracy Grew Up With Rhetoric

Greece used to be a considerably more fertile, prosperous, and even more populous land than it isnow; some scholars think poor farming and land use techniques eroded the soil. At any rate, at onetime the Greek land supported a large population that was organized largely around city-states—relatively small political entities, each anchored in a capital city such as Sparta, Athens, or Mycenae.In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., several important developments took place. The Greek city-states had joined together to subdue their common enemy to the east, Persia, and thus they enjoyeda period of relative peace and safety from outside dangers. Many of these city-states were on or nearthe sea, and they developed navies and advanced techniques of navigation. Many of them becamegreat trading powers and began to prosper economically as a result. As is so often the case, tradebrought with it new ideas about science, government, philosophy, and technology, especially fromAsia and Africa. Another important development was political; many, though not all, of the city-statesdeveloped strong democratic forms of government.

A democracy requires that people govern themselves, and to the extent that people are self-governing, they must talk about common problems and devise procedures for shared decision-making. When new ideas are coming quickly into a place, the people will want to talk about them,weigh them to determine their usefulness for themselves, and debate their applications. Peace givespeople the freedom and leisure to participate fully in public discussions. And as economic prosperitygrows, the consequences of public discussions also grow; what was decided in a prosperous city-state could have an effect on half the Mediterranean world. Do you notice the common theme in thisparagraph? The ancient Greek world was an especially fertile context for the growth and developmentof rhetorical communication, particularly public speaking, as an important human activity.

Nowhere was that more true than in Athens, the largest and most prosperous of the city-states. Thistime period was known as the Golden Age of Athens; under leaders such as Pericles, it prosperedand came to dominate many of the other city-states culturally, economically, and militarily. Tounderstand some important assumptions that people make even today about rhetoric, we mustunderstand how rhetoric was practiced in this important city-state.


Rhetoric in Athens

The Athenians had no lawyers, no legislators, and no public relations or advertising professionals. Allpublic decisions were made by an assembly of the citizens of Athens. We often hear of Athens as aperfect example of a democracy. In fact, it was not; only the free, native-born, property-holding, adultmales of Athens were counted as citizens. In such a cosmopolitan and rapidly changing population,that number came to only about 15 percent of the total. It is worth noting that even a community thatthought of itself as democratic still marginalized many of its people, and created clear powerdifferences often at odds with the spirit of democracy. Still, given a population of about 150,000 for theentire city-state during this period, it made for a sizable group of people who participated in publicdecisions.

From time to time, these citizens would gather at a place outside the city, and any and all issues ofimportant public business would be raised then. When an issue was raised, it was dealt with throughdebate and discussion. Because such gatherings required that large groups of people be addressedat once, the discussion took the form of public speaking. That meant that every citizen needed to beable to speak in public at a moment’s notice and on any topic that might come up. If you were an olivegrower and someone proposed a new law that would regulate olive growing, you had to be able tospeak on that issue immediately to protect your livelihood. If you were a young man of the proper agefor the military and someone proposed sending an army or navy on some action, you might need tospeak on that issue. If you wanted some public works constructed in town, there were no city councilrepresentatives to call; you had to stand up yourself and suggest that a bridge or dam be built. If youthought your neighbor was violating the law, there were no police or district attorneys to call; you hadto stand up and accuse the rascal yourself. On the other hand, someone might accuse you of someform of wrongdoing, and you would be called upon to defend yourself in an impromptu speech.

In sum, an ability to speak, clearly and forcefully, on any subject that might come up was a vital skillfor these Athenian citizens, crucial for their business and personal affairs. Today, nobody would thinkof starting a business without some training in accounting, business mathematics, administration,business law, and so forth. For many Athenians, the sine qua non—the most essential component—ofsuccessful business was public speaking.

Public speaking was also vital for the Athenians’ political affairs. Athenians took participation inpolitical discussion to be both a duty and an entertainment. Unlike the situation for most of us today,political decisions would be carried out by those who made them; if you voted to repair the city wall,you had to help with the planning, construction, and financing. Politics also required well-honed publicspeaking skills.

This need to be able to speak in public created a market for those who could teach such skills. (Ananalogous need today would be the great demand for training in computer competence, a demandcreated in just the last few decades around the world.) A class of traveling teachers of publicspeaking, known as the Sophists, arose to meet this need in ancient Greece. You may be familiar withthe term sophist or sophistry; today, such terms are used to refer to those who argue for the sake ofarguing, who devise empty arguments that sound good but are not solid. A sophist is, in this sense,one who is more concerned with winning an argument than with establishing the truth. But theSophists of ancient Greece would not have defined themselves that way, seeing themselves insteadas teachers of a valuable skill. These definitions of sophistry actually arose from the viewpoint ofanother philosopher of ancient Greece, Plato. Let us see why.



Two complaints were lodged against the Sophists. The first is that they claimed to have knowledgeabout public speaking but really did not. It would not be surprising if this complaint was true of some ofthem. After all, there have been quacks and charlatans in every profession throughout history. Inancient Greece, there were no accrediting agencies that could certify whether a given Sophist was aqualified teacher. So, certainly, some Sophists claimed to be able to teach something they really knewlittle about, though this was not true of all Sophists.

A second complaint is more substantial and was the primary reason for Plato’s objection to theSophists. This complaint centers on the idea that public speaking is not an art of anything in particular,because a person can speak about everything. If public speaking is not an art of anything in particular,Plato argued, then it ought not to be taught at all; instead, speakers should learn more about thethings they spoke about. Certainly, given the way that public decisions were made in ancient Athens,people needed to be able to speak on any subject at a moment’s notice. They might have to speakabout shipbuilding if Athens was trying to decide whether to construct a navy; about wheat farming ifAthens was trying to decide what sort of agricultural laws to have; about rules of evidence under thecriminal statutes if an accusation of lawbreaking was made. The problem was, as a person took acourse and learned about public speaking, that person did not, through those studies, learn aboutshipbuilding, agriculture, or law. Instead, a student of public speaking learned about introductions andconclusions, arguments, and verbal embellishments that could be applied to any topic.

Plato objected to this state of affairs because he thought it made more sense to learn the subjectsabout which you would speak than to learn techniques of speaking itself (Plato discusses this idea inthe dialogue called Gorgias). Pursuing that logic to its conclusion, Plato argued that because truedemocracies refer all issues to all the people and because nobody can be an expert on every issue,democracy itself was flawed because it asked people to discuss problems and issues on which theywere not experts. Plato instead preferred to refer problems to experts in the appropriate subject ratherthan to democratic decision-making (see his Republic). He feared that democratic gatherings wouldbe too swayed by rhetoric itself, by technique rather than substance. He therefore defined rhetoric as“pandering,” as an art of appearances rather than reality (see the Gorgias). Only later in his thinkingdid he allow some room for rhetoric as a tool or servant of those who were already knowledgeable in asubject matter for better instructing their audiences (see Plato’s later dialogue, Phaedrus).

Thus, at the very birth of thinking about rhetoric, we find disagreements over definitions. And onceagain we see that the struggle over different definitions has a lot to do with power. For the Sophists,rhetoric was the art of persuasion carried out through public speaking, the art of determining how tospeak to popular audiences on the wide range of subjects that might come before them for review anddecision. For Plato, rhetoric was an art of fooling people, of flattering them, of getting the public tomake decisions based on oratorical technique rather than on knowledge or a grasp of the truth. Thesedefinitional disagreements arose precisely because power was at stake: the power to make publicdecisions about important public business. If the Sophists were correct in their definition, then allcitizens should share in the power to speak about important decisions, to influence others, to sway thejudgments of others. If Plato’s definition was correct, then decisions should be made by a small groupof experts in whatever subject came up, and persuasive speaking should not at all be a factor in whatwas decided.

So, what is rhetoric, really? Bear in mind that any answer this book might give would have its author’sown arguments for rhetoric—in other words, its author’s own power issues—embedded within it. Butthe impulse behind asking such a question is understandable; it would indeed be useful to have some“core idea” of what rhetoric is, a basic notion underlying all the definitions rhetoric has accumulatedover the centuries. Such a single summing up is probably not possible, but we might return to ageneral sense of rhetoric that we have already examined. Earlier, we used an extremely broaddefinition of rhetoric that could underlie at least most of these other definitions: the ways in whichsigns influence people. A public speech, like an essay or article, consists of lots of signs (words)working together in what we will call a text; rhetoric is, very generally, the ways in which these textsinfluence people. We will learn more about what a text is and the different forms it can take in the nextchapter, but for now, think of it as a message, as an attempt to influence someone. Certainly, theAthenians had to use the public speaking form of communication in their assemblies to influence


others. But what were they doing when they used those texts to influence others? What are we doingtoday when we use signs with rhetorical influence upon other people, or when signs influence us?How that influence is carried out, and ideas about whether that is a good thing or a bad thing to do,will be expressed more clearly in the narrower definitions that different thinkers offer.


Two Legacies of the Greek Rhetorical Tradition

The ancient Greeks were extremely influential in the development of rhetorical theory. The Sophistsand Plato initiated arguments over rhetorical theory, and Plato’s pupil Aristotle wrote the most famouswork on this subject, Rhetoric, which in one way or another influenced all subsequent rhetoricaltheory. Many of the assumptions, theories, and practices of ancient Athens have had an extraordinaryeffect on how people have thought about rhetoric ever since. We need to evaluate what the Greekstaught us, and whether the rhetorical tradition they began is relevant to rhetoric today. Let’s examinetwo important legacies from that rhetorical tradition: (1) Rhetoric is conventionally equated withtraditional texts, and (2) Traditional rhetoric is paradoxically linked to power management.

Rhetoric Is Conventionally Equated With Traditional Texts

When the ancient Greeks spoke of rhetoric, they were referring to a particular kind of text. The Greekrhetorical legacy encourages people to assume that only the texts of public speaking had rhetoricalfunctions. In exploring this idea further, it is useful to draw a distinction between rhetoric as a functionand rhetoric as a certain kind of manifestation.

Rhetoric does certain things; it has certain functions. In its broadest sense, rhetoric refers to the waysin which signs influence people, and through that influence, rhetoric makes things happen. Whenpeople speak, when they make television or Facebook advertisements, when they write essays, theyare attempting to carry out some function. What that function specifically is, whether it is good or bad,will vary with one’s definition. The Sophists would say that the function of rhetoric is to persuadeothers while participating in a democratic society, while Plato would say that the function of rhetoric isto flatter or mislead people. But the general function—that of influence—remains the same.

On the other hand, whatever rhetoric is doing, whatever functions it is performing, it must take onsome physical form that can be seen or heard. The signs that influence people come together as textsin certain forms or manifestations. In ancient Greece, the manifestation that was almost universallycalled “rhetoric” was public speaking. There are, of course, many different kinds of public speeches.But, for the Greeks, public speeches shared four important characteristics as a form of text. Thesefour characteristics describe what we might call traditional rhetorical texts. The Greek ideal of publicspeaking called for a traditional text that was (1) verbal, (2) expositional, (3) discrete, and (4)hierarchial.

Public speaking is a primarily verbal text: its main tool is language. Certainly, nonverbal dimensions ofthe experience, such as gestures or vocal expression, are important, but the words in public speakingare of primary concern. When we study the great speeches of the past, for instance, we look primarilyat what was said; there is rarely any record of how the speakers moved or used their voice toemphasize certain points, how they dressed or combed their hair for maximum effect.

Public speaking is also a largely expositional text: its main purpose is to argue and explain. Here wewill draw on critic Neil Postman’s usage of the term expositional in 1985. Postman’s broad definitionrefers to the sort of speeches that make several claims, then defend or develop those claims byproviding evidence, clarification, examples, and elaboration in carefully organized structures. Suchspeeches rely on evidence—especially technical, scientific, historical, or other knowledge—to makeand defend points. In other words, traditional texts are based on argument, not in the sense of beingdisputatious but in the sense of advancing and defending propositions. Expositional speaking entailslengthy development. By way of contrast, Former President Donald Trump took the themes of“change” and “draining the swamp” among several campaign slogans, often without specificexplanation of what changes he meant or what he felt he could do. These expressions were notexpositional in that the challenge was not developed, explained, or elaborated upon.

Public speaking is also a discrete text. By discrete, we mean clearly distinct and separate in time andspace, surrounded by clear boundaries. A snail mail letter in an envelope is discrete: it is all containedin one place and usually read at once, at one time. Text messages, although they may respond toprevious texts and may prompt new ones, are usually discrete messages: you hear the familiar


jingling of your cell phone, you call up that particular text, you read it, you either reply or ignore it, andyou are done.

A discrete text is a unified series of signs that are perceived to be separate and distinct from othersigns. Elevator music is not usually perceived to be a discrete text, because it blends into other texts.It is heard as its producers mean it to be heard: as a background noise that merges with whateverelse you happen to be doing. Traditional speeches are usually perceived as discrete texts. They beginwhen the speaker begins to speak, and they end as the speaker is finished. The words of a speechform the text for the most part; coughs and clearings of the throat by the speaker are not consideredpart of the text. Similarly, reactions by the audience—what they said and did in response to thespeaker (even during the speech)—are not part of the discrete text that is the speech.

Traditional speeches are especially discrete texts in that they occur in special times and places. Yougo to a certain place at a certain hour to hear a speech. You may go online or turn on the televisionbecause you heard that President Biden is speaking about the Middle East in an hour. Speeches arenot likely to be found breaking out unexpectedly in your living room. In that sense, traditionalspeeches are the epitome of discrete texts, texts that are bounded in time and space.

Finally, traditional public speeches are hierarchical texts. By that we mean that a structure ofrelationships is imposed on the process of using signs, of sending and receiving a message. Intraditional public speaking, the structure of relationship calls for one person to speak while manypeople listen. One person is, therefore, put in a position of advantage over others, at least for themoment. The audience may heckle or shout approval; they may violently disagree; others may standup to speak in agreement or opposition afterward—but as long as a speech remains a speech (ratherthan turning into a riot, for instance), the roles of speaker and audience are relatively different. It isvery clear in public speaking who is the source of the message. The speech is identified with anindividual, and that individual is, during the moment of speaking, put in a relatively privileged position.After all, that individual gets to claim the attention of an audience for the duration of his or her speech.In contrast, think of how often during the day you get to command the attention of thirty, one hundred,or more people all at once.

An example of a nonhierarchical message would be graffiti. Any of us can place a message on apublic wall, and any of us may choose to read or not to read it. There is no structure prescribed orimposed for how we are to relate to either writers or readers of graffiti. Another example would be ahighly informal, animated discussion among friends: people talk over, around, and through oneanother, paying little attention to anybody having more status or more of a right to speak. We shouldbegin to note the hidden assumptions of empowerment and disempowerment often encoded intraditional texts.

The Greek legacy tells us, then, that rhetoric occurs in traditional texts (verbal, expositional, discrete,and hierarchical). While the mainstay of Greek rhetoric was public speaking, other kinds of texts (suchas newspaper editorials) can also be traditional in form. But rhetoric occurs in many differentmanifestations. If rhetoric is using signs to influence others, then tweets, editorials, letters to theeditor, advertisements, and public speeches as well as your lunch, your blue jeans, Beyoncé’s latestrecording, and so forth are ways in which that influence is materialized, or made manifest, in the textsfound in real life. The Greeks, however, did not share that understanding, nor did later theorists whowrote under their influence. Theorists of rhetoric throughout history have mostly assumed that rhetoricis found in traditional forms and manifestations. In sum, the first Athenian legacy that we haveinherited is an assumption that whatever is called rhetoric must have most or all of the fourcharacteristics of traditional texts.

Rhetoric Is Paradoxically Linked to Power Management

The second part of the legacy that the Greek rhetorical tradition has given us is a paradox. A paradoxis an apparent contradiction. The paradox we inherit from the Greek legacy is that traditional textsboth include and exclude people from the management of public business and thus from positions ofpower. To understand this paradox, we must first clarify the idea of power management, or ofmanaging important public business.


When we manage power, we make use of our ability to control events and meanings. Our ability tomanage the decisions we face or that influence us varies with the amount of power we have. Imaginean invalid, unable to rise from a hospital bed. Although largely helpless and subject to the routines ofhospital staff, this person will still manage what happens to him or her as well as possible through themeans at his or her disposal, such as using the call button or granting and withholding cooperation. Atwork, others of us might be invited to help manage decisions concerning who gets to take vacationsduring prime months. Other decisions, however, are managed without our involvement, such aswhether to sell the company we work for to a foreign investor. An ability to participate in themanagement of decisions is empowering. Public business must similarly be managed. To the extentthat we are excluded from or included in decisions to pave streets, finance welfare programs, or go towar, we are correspondingly empowered or disempowered.

We often manage power in one more important way. Note that power has been defined as the abilityto control both events and meaning. Sometimes, as in the case of our imaginary invalid, the ability tocontrol events may be sharply limited. But a kind of power can be gained by controlling the meaningsof what happens; it makes a difference whether the invalid sees his situation as “recovery” or as“hopelessness,” for instance. Similarly, the president has the power to send troops at a moment’snotice into action in the Korean peninsula, a decision very few might participate in managing, but thepress and public have a different kind of power insofar as they manage what the military actionmeans: Is it a noble gesture, an act of self-defense, or the last gasp of imperialism? Given howresponsive many public officials are to opinion polls, management of the meaning that results in publicopinion can be a form of empowerment.

This second “paradoxical” legacy from the Greek rhetorical tradition can best be understood byconsidering two aspects of the way in which rhetoric is defined. First, the more favorably rhetoric isdefined, the more people it involves in managing public business. This is because rhetoric anddemocracy fit together naturally. When the public are officially entrusted with managing publicbusiness, they make those decisions through arguing about them together. The more decisions aremade by involving people in the rhetorical exchange of open discussion, the more democracy occurs.Therefore, if rhetoric is something people are able to do and feel that they should do, and if rhetoric isthe way important public business is managed, then rhetoric is a form of communication thatdistributes power widely. But as was the case for the ancient Athenians, let us remember that even arhetorically managed democracy will exclude and disempower some people.

If, on the other hand, rhetoric is defined unfavorably as something that not everyone should dobecause not everyone should be persuasive, have a voice, or be influential, then public business willbe managed by people who have some special status, some special claim to decision-making otherthan being persuasive. These people will be the experts—those who are already powerful, the highlyborn or the specially chosen few.

We have learned that within the Greek rhetorical legacy, a favorable definition of rhetoric enhancesthe democratic management of society’s important business. But, paradoxically, the specific Greekunderstanding of rhetoric as pertaining to traditional texts—texts that are verbal, expositional, discrete,and hierarchical—is not as democratic as it might be.

There is a reason for this paradox. When people assume that democracy occurs with rhetoricaldiscussions but then go on to define rhetoric as referring only to verbal, expositional, discrete, andhierarchical texts, they are unable to see the democratic participation in public decision-making thatcan occur through different, nontraditional kinds of texts. In ancient Greece, democracy was officiallyconducted within the assemblies. But after the assembly, citizens returned to the marketplace andconversed informally there. All the while, women instructed and nurtured children. Slaves andforeigners talked among themselves within their own groups. People were, of course, exposed tononverbal signs of all sorts, and there was surely the ancient Greek version of today’s blue jeans thatall the younger people wore. But in the thinking and writing about rhetoric at that time, there is nomention at all of these everyday communications. There is no awareness of what is rhetorical abouteveryday texts, or of how they might also be involved in the management of important publicbusiness.


Exercise 1.2

This choice between defining rhetoric (a) to democratize power and defining it (b) in order toconcentrate power among a few is one that we continue to face today. Let’s leap over severalcenturies and think for a minute about how this choice confronts you. For each decision listedbelow, think about how you would prefer that the decision be made and by whom.

DecisionsShould this decisionbe madedemocratically or byan expert few?

If democratically,who will beinvolved in thedecision?

If by an expertfew, who willthe expertsbe?

1. How should cityofficials organize theiroffice filing system?

2. Should your statepermit construction ofa new nuclear powerplant?


3. What should you doabout a lump that youhave discovered inyour body?

4. Is the presidentdoing a good job?

Some classical theorists such as Plato were concerned about the effects of certain kinds of texts—such as music, poetry, or drama—on the public. These kinds of texts may appear to be just the sort ofpopular culture texts we are studying in this book. But there are some important differences. First, theforms of ancient Greek music, poetry, and drama were closer to traditional texts than they would be totoday’s texts. A Greek drama, for instance, was highly verbal, with frequent expositional passages andnot much in the way of the kinds of special affects you find in Sniper Ghost Warrior. Second, part ofwhat was traditional about those texts was that they were experienced less in the moment-to-momentflow of everyday life than today’s popular culture is. They tended to be presented as special, and thusdiscrete, moments of high culture, very much under the auspices of established power structures.And, finally, nobody ever thought of calling those entertainments rhetoric.

To refer to our very general definition of rhetoric, there was no attempt among the ancient Greeks totheorize how any and all signs might have been influencing people. Instead, we find in Greek rhetorican assumption that the important business of the society would be conducted largely in traditionalrhetorical texts. However, many every day, moment-to-moment decisions are not made by reasoningthem out through the knowledge associated with traditional rhetorical texts. We arrange dates, figureout how to get along with the new family next door, and decide which television program to watch, allusing something other than traditional texts. But within the Greek legacy, experiences and decisionsthat people face in everyday, mundane contexts, and the ways in which those decisions are made,are all assumed to be of little consequence.

The chief result of this paradox within the Greek legacy for the study of popular culture is thattraditional thinking does not recognize any important rhetoric of everyday life. If any importantbusiness of society is being conducted through the texts of everyday experience—through nonverbalsigns or informal conversation, for example—then any thinking grounded in the Greek legacy will notrecognize a rhetorical dimension in the management of that business. This is because Greekrhetorical theory views rhetoric as sharing the four characteristics described on page 10, andeveryday conversation, nonverbal signs, and ordinary social practices will probably not be verbal,discrete, expositional, and hierarchical. In the traditional view, texts that do not share those fourcharacteristics have been seen as not fully rhetorical and as not fully performing rhetoric’s importantfunctions. But students of popular culture take issue with the idea that texts that do not have thosefour characteristics are less important and not concerned with a society’s serious business.

In talking about different kinds of texts, we should not make any absolute distinctions. Clearly, manykinds of communication will have some but not all of the four characteristics of the traditional texts ofpublic speaking. There is no sudden cutoff at which everyday, mundane business becomes public(and therefore important) business. Also, societies have a full continuum of business, from the vitallyimportant to the trivial; the majority of a society’s business probably falls somewhere in the middle. Buthistorically, traditional rhetorical theorists have assumed that the closer a communication is to havingall four characteristics of the traditional texts of public speaking, the more clearly it deserves to becalled rhetoric.

In sum, the ancient Greek rhetorical legacy assumes that rhetoric means verbal, expositional,discrete, and hierarchical—that is to say, traditional—texts. This legacy links rhetoric and democracy:the more public business is decided rhetorically, the more people will be involved in managing thatbusiness. But, paradoxically, the Greek conception of a traditional text places limits on the widespreadmanagement of public business. The Greek legacy does not allow for the rhetorical management of


public business within popular culture. That inability to see the rhetoric of the everyday lasted forcenturies beyond the time of the Greeks.


Exercise 1.3

To understand the assumptions that are sometimes made about what is rhetoric and what isnot, write down your reactions to the following exercise. In this exercise, you will indicatewhether the texts listed below share the four characteristics of public speaking.

Is this text verbal? expositional? discrete? hierarchical?

a. A speech by the president of the United Statesb. This bookc. A websited. An Internet-based video gamee. A mother’s routine for getting children ready for schoolf. Your favorite songg. A city bus going along its route

You probably answered yes to more of the four characteristics of traditional rhetorical texts forthe first two or perhaps three items on the list than for the later ones. Not coincidentally, mostpeople would have no trouble identifying a speech by the president or perhaps even this bookas rhetoric—but the ways in which a city bus is a rhetorical text may not be at all clear to mostpeople.

Now look over that list of texts again, this time asking yourself which ones are most ofteninvolved in the management of society’s serious business. Which texts are composed of signsthat influence people in important ways? We are likely to think that the more traditionallyrhetorical texts fit that description. A list of other traditionally rhetorical texts—texts that wouldbe likely to share all four characteristics of the texts of public speaking—would probablyinclude most essays and articles in periodicals and to some extent the literature of novels,poems, plays, and so forth.



In the centuries between Plato and the present, many thinkers and writers have devised their ownunderstandings of what rhetoric is, what functions it performs, what manifestations it takes on, andwhether and how it manages important public business. This book is not meant to be a history ofrhetorical theory, but it would be useful to review very briefly some of the ways in which some of theselater thinkers and writers thought about rhetoric. We will see that the Greek legacy has remainedstrong; though there are differences, these people’s ideas are fundamentally similar to those of theGreeks. However, we will also see that as cultures have changed through history, definitions ofrhetoric have moved more toward an understanding of popular culture as also rhetorical.

We noted earlier that Plato’s student, the philosopher Aristotle, diverged from his teacher’s views towrite a comprehensive treatise, Rhetoric. This book is a system for studying as well as doing rhetoric,and since Aristotle’s time, rhetoric has been a term that can be applied both to what people do and tosystems of knowledge or explanation about what people do. Thus, we might say that someonedelivering a speech is “doing” rhetoric. At the same time, however, there is likely to be a systematicexplanation of how the introduction and conclusion to the speech are constructed, how the argumentsare devised, how emotional appeals are used, and so forth; we would refer to this system of rules andpractical advice as a rhetoric. You could also call a systematic set of rules a rhetorical theory.

Aristotle broke with Plato over the subject of rhetoric because Aristotle viewed it more consistently asan activity worth doing, a subject worth studying. In Chapter 2 of Book 1 of Rhetoric, Aristotle definedrhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” In furtherdefining his subject, he made it clear that he viewed rhetoric as public speaking in legal, political, andceremonial contexts; it was in those contexts that he saw much of the important business of hissociety being managed. Aristotle did not include within his definition everyday conversation,bargaining in the marketplace, entertainment, religion, or other experiences of communication. Histreatise is concerned with the construction of public speeches, which are clearly discrete and verbaltexts. His focus is on expositional texts as well; how to discover and express argument is a majorfocus of his theory. And, for Aristotle, rhetoric is also hierarchical: He envisions the classic relationshipof a speaker holding the floor before an audience that has gathered to listen.

In the first century B.C.E., the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wroteextensively on the subject of rhetoric, most notably in Of Oratory. Cicero exemplified the Roman idealat that time, which maintained that life is lived most fully when one is actively involved in public life—that is, in public debate and discussion and in public decision-making. Romans considered it both aduty and the very rationale behind life to be involved in public life, discussing the important businessof their society. One of the most important ways in which that involvement occurred was throughoratory, or eloquent public speaking, which is how Cicero defined rhetoric.

Cicero was a Roman senator, and at that time, the senate made many of the most important decisionsfor the Roman Republic. It made those decisions through inspired public speaking, many examples ofwhich are still studied as model speeches today. Cicero also valued lively and learned discussionsamong his fellow patricians as a profitable way to pass the time and to acquire knowledge. But hewould assign the management of most of his society’s public problems to rhetoric in the form of publicspeaking; the involvement of every citizen in public affairs, rather than the assignment of problems toexperts, was his ideal. And, clearly, when rhetoric was used to manage public problems, it did sothrough forms of public speaking that were verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical.

Cicero died, the Roman Republic came to an end, and the age of the Caesars was ushered in. Withinthe Roman Empire, public business was managed largely by the emperor and by officials appointedby him. Although Plato would probably have disapproved of many of the people who were in charge ofimperial Rome, the Roman Empire did follow Plato’s model, which called for the removal of themanagement of public business from the hands of the people and, consequently, from rhetoric in theform of public speaking. Consistent with Greek assumptions, as democracy faded, theorists beganwriting as if rhetoric were also reduced in scope and importance. In the first century C.E., the Romanteacher and rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, or Quintilian, wrote a long rhetoric called theInstitutes of Oratory that both prescribed a course of study for training in rhetoric and gave practicaladvice for its use. But Quintilian was forced to define rhetoric primarily in terms of public speaking in


the courts because that was the only important arena left in Rome in which public speaking could beexercised meaningfully. It is interesting that Quintilian did not look for rhetoric—for the ways in whichsigns influence people—in manifestations other than speaking; clearly, the Greek tradition wasinfluencing him as well. This shrunken definition of rhetoric as legal public speaking reflects therelationship between rhetoric and power: As power was denied to the public and as rhetoric (publicspeaking) was restricted in terms of what it could control, so was the sense of what counted as“rhetoric” more narrowly defined. For Quintilian, rhetoric continued to be defined as the manifestationthat is traditional public speaking, with its four key characteristics.

An important rhetorician after Quintilian was Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in Africa, who livedaround 400 C.E. St. Augustine took on one of the most pressing problems for the early ChristianChurch: what to retain and what to discard among the artifacts of the polytheistic cultures that theChristians were replacing. Rhetoric especially came under suspicion, as many in the Church thoughtthat the faithful had no business seeking to gain advantage over others through any means, includingpublic speaking. In On Christian Doctrine, especially in Book IV, St. Augustine argued that rhetoricshould be used by Christians—that, in fact, it had the high calling of inducing belief and stimulatingfaith in people. St. Augustine shows the influence of the Greek legacy as well, for his view of rhetoricis embodied in the written texts of the Bible and the form of public speaking that is the sermon orhomily, traditional texts that embody the four characteristics very clearly (particularly the verbal andhierarchical traits). It is significant that St. Augustine does not have much to say about person-to-person witnessing or testimony, rituals and ceremonies, or nonverbal signs such as pictures, icons,and costumes, as elements of rhetoric. His writings instead reflect a sense of traditional rhetoricaltexts as managing the important business of the Church.

Widespread participation in public decision-making was scarce in Europe for centuries after thecollapse of the Roman Republic. Various forms of powerful, centralized political control succeededone another: the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the feudal system with its absolute monarchiesand principalities, and so forth. The important business of societies was officially being managed bypriests and princes in their abbeys and castles, not by peasants and merchants. Certainly, peopletalked and went about their business as they had for centuries, but we can find little evidence that anythinkers thought that those everyday experiences were important in shaping society or managing itsbusiness. Significantly, because what was considered the important business of society was beingmanaged by an elite few and not through public speaking, rhetoric came to be defined in increasinglynarrow and restrictive ways.

Between St. Augustine’s time and the eighteenth century, the Greek legacy continued to hold sway.The most interesting developments in rhetorical theory were the ways in which the definition ofrhetoric became limited, paralleling the highly centralized and nondemocratic forms of governmentand social control of the times. One way in which rhetoric was limited was its restriction to certainkinds of texts and not others. For instance, the province of letter writing was assigned to rhetoric. Inthe centuries after Cicero, letter writing was not unimportant; it was a major means of communicationover long distances. But letter writing certainly represented a restricted scope of subject matter andcontexts compared to the days when rhetoric involved thousands of people in political, legal, andceremonial speaking.

Another means of restricting rhetoric had to do with the kinds of strategies or techniques it used. PeterRamus, a sixteenth-century thinker, defined rhetoric so as not to include logic or reason; thosestrategies he set apart as a separate field of study. Instead, he defined rhetoric more narrowly as thestudy and art of verbal style. Because logic was undergoing systematic development and was seen asan important tool of thought and decision-making (especially in the Church and in academia),restricting the definition of rhetoric to style alone, apart from logic, was a disempowering move on thepart of Ramus and his colleagues.



We often think of the eighteenth century as the Age of Reason, as a time when nondemocratic formsof social control were rejected. It was during that century that the American and French Revolutionsboth took place, for instance. Significantly, the eighteenth century also saw renewed interest inrhetorical theory, especially in Great Britain. Many thinkers returned to the ancient Greek and Romanrhetoricians and reestablished that legacy. Richard Whately, for instance, extended Greek and Romanideas of argument to include the concepts of presumption and burden of proof. In argument,presumption means you do not have the primary responsibility to develop a detailed argument, since itis presumed that your position is correct. Tradition, custom, and power usually create a sense ofpresumption. If a parent tells a child to go to bed, the parent enjoys presumption. The parent does nothave to give reasons why the child should go. On the contrary, it is the child who has what is calledthe burden of proof. If the child has an argument for going to bed at a different time than usual, anargument for overturning parental authority, it is the child who must devise the argument, not theparent.

But alternatives to the Greek legacy were also developed at this time. It would be inaccurate to saythat any eighteenth-century rhetorician proposed a theory of rhetoric in popular culture, but a numberof thinkers did propose ideas that suggest ways of going beyond the Greek legacy, thereby plantingthe seeds of alternative ways of thinking. Let us briefly review just a few of the people who proposedsuch alternatives.

Giambattista Vico was a professor in Italy during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.Vico directly confronted the restrictive definitions of rhetoric that had limited it to style and verbalembellishment while the more substantive areas of reason and logic were assumed to be somethingother than rhetoric. Rhetoric, he proposed, should be seen as the ways in which we think aboutprobabilities and make decisions about issues that we cannot be totally certain of. Contrary to thepretensions of philosophers such as René Descartes of France, who thought that many if not mostdecisions could be made through formal reason rather than rhetoric, Vico argued that most, if not all,decisions were based on thinking about probabilities and thus had a rhetorical dimension. He claimedthat for humans, reality is a matter of what we perceive—that we create our own realities out of signs.Since reality is human-made, it must be understood by using human faculties, and rhetoric is aprimary human faculty. By carefully defining both human reality and rhetoric, Vico created a possibilityfor thinking about our experiences of reality (including public events as well as everyday experiences)as places where rhetoric is at work, influencing us to create our realities by seeing the world in oneway or another. Vico’s perspective is very close to the ideas that we will explore in Chapter 2 when wethink about the world of culture as both one that is made by humans and one that has a great deal ofinfluence bound up in the artifacts (signs) of which it is composed.



Another important departure from the Greek legacy during the eighteenth century had to do with thedevelopment of the idea of taste as a basis for making decisions and for constructing and judgingcommunication. Rhetorical theorists such as Joseph Addison and Hugh Blair began suggesting thattaste, an aesthetic way of thinking and perceiving, is and should be a factor in how peoplecommunicate and in how people make decisions on the basis of that communication. Blair and otherrhetoricians were primarily concerned with taste as found in traditional texts, including oratory, letters,essays, and so forth. But whereas a concern for argument, for instance, entails a restricted focus ontraditional texts, a concern for taste and aesthetics enables extension of those concepts beyondrhetorical texts. If taste is acknowledged to be a reason why people might do certain things, whydecisions might be made, that acknowledgment sets up ways of thinking about how taste in clothing,in grooming products, in interior decoration—in popular culture overall—might be rhetorical. If you lookfor rhetoric only in terms of how evidence can be mustered in support of a point, then you cannot seeboth a speech and a country-and-western star’s cowboy hat as rhetorical. But if rhetoric can bedefined to include aesthetic judgment, or taste, then that hat, too, becomes rhetorical.

The development of interest in psychology, and the application of that new human science to rhetoric,also created possibilities for envisioning the rhetoric of popular culture. British theorists such as JohnLocke, David Hartley, Joseph Priestley, and George Campbell began to probe into how people think,how the mind operates, during the full range of experience. Campbell developed a rhetorical theorythat explained how human understanding and imagination were addressed by others. AlthoughCampbell also restricted his focus in practice to traditional texts, he and his colleagues opened up thepossibility of thinking about ways in which people might be influenced through things other thanverbal, expositional, and discrete texts. Because they were concerned with the whole operation of thehuman mind, these rhetorical psychologists introduced the possibility of thinking about how the mindmight be influenced by signs and artifacts found throughout everyday experience, not just duringmoments of reading essays or listening to speeches.

One consequence of a concern for psychology was the development of methods of criticism. Bycriticism, we mean critiquing or analyzing, not just being contentious. Rhetorical thinkers had alwaysbeen concerned with how audiences received messages and thought about them. Plato urgedrhetoricians to study the different “souls” that could be found in an audience, for example, and


Aristotle discussed the ways in which messages would be received and understood. But their concernwas largely with offering advice for speakers, for those who would produce signs and texts, ratherthan for those who would see or hear them. In the eighteenth century, rhetorical thinkers such as LordKames and Blair began to expand their understanding of the different kinds of reactions that peoplemight have to signs and texts and to identify specific techniques for analyzing, or critiquing,messages, audiences, and the connections between the two.

This concern for criticism also created a possibility for thinking about the rhetoric of popular culture,because it is as critics, or as consumers, that most people confront the artifacts of popular culture. Wewill see later how the rhetoric of popular culture is concerned mainly with how people encounter andthen use, rather than originally produce, the texts of popular culture. To begin thinking about criticismis a step in that direction.

The eighteenth century was an age of powdered wigs, of candlelit salons, Mozart and Haydn, andVoltaire. It was the dawn of modern science and industry. The eighteenth century would not seem tohave much to do with Toby Keith or Lady Gaga, but developments in rhetorical theory during thatperiod laid the groundwork for understanding the rhetoric of popular culture. So far we haveconsidered four specific developments:

1. With Vico came an understanding that rhetoric runs throughout the experiences of human reality.2. With Blair came a concern for taste and aesthetics as a basis for decision-making.3. With Campbell came a widening understanding of the human mind and how it works in response

to signs and symbols.4. With several thinkers, including Blair, came a concern for refined methods of criticism, particularly

in relation to the reception of communication.



During all these centuries in which rhetoric was defined primarily in terms of traditional texts, peoplewere still experiencing signs and texts that were not in that traditional form. Informal conversation,architecture, clothing styles, common entertainments, food—in short, the whole range of culturalartifacts other than traditional rhetorical texts—were being experienced by people as influential andmoving, while rhetorical theorists continued to call only the traditional texts rhetoric. One purpose ofthis book is to demonstrate that many of today’s rhetorical theorists now understand the rhetoricaldimension of that wider range of cultural artifacts. In other words, many theorists today would choosenot to limit rhetoric to those traditional texts (although some still would, however; see Leff and Kauffeldfor an excellent review of scholarship grounded in traditional texts). That shift in understanding raisesthe question of what changed, rhetorically, between the eighteenth century and the present. Arepeople being influenced by signs in different ways now, such that we must now call the texts ofeveryday experience rhetorical but did not need to call them that two hundred years ago? Haverhetorical theorists awakened to truths that were always there but went unrecognized until recently? Inother words, does a change in thinking about what rhetoric is follow from a change in the world or achange in theory?

The answer to that final question is both. The world and our experience of the world have changed.The main locus of that change was the twentieth century, although it continues today at an even fasterpace. People do things differently, new technologies alter the realities of life, environmental andpolitical changes occur, wars come and go, and so forth. Theories, or our ways of understanding theworld, also change. Often, theories change because it is felt that the old theories no longer describeexperience, which has changed, accurately. But theories sometimes change for the reasons wediscovered at the beginning of this chapter. A theory is a complicated way of defining something aswell as explaining it, and so one important reason why rhetorical theories change is because peoplemay have reason to define and explain the world differently. In short, changes in theory may be part ofchanges in power.

A sampling of just a few definitions of rhetoric from rhetorical theorists within the last hundred yearswill show that the seeds of the eighteenth century have grown into conceptions of rhetoric that aremarkedly different from that of the Greeks. In 1936, I. A. Richards defined rhetoric as “a study ofmisunderstanding and its remedies” (3). Richards’s concern is almost exclusively with verbal texts, buthis definition is important in that it places rhetoric within the contexts of everyday communication andinteraction. Misunderstanding is at least as likely to occur in the give-and-take of conversation as inthe more carefully prepared traditional texts of essays or speeches. A concern for misunderstandingalso emphasizes the role of audiences or receivers of communication and the question of how theyunderstand and interpret texts in their everyday experience.

Perhaps the most famous definition of rhetoric in the twentieth century was that of Kenneth Burke,who defined it as “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that bynature respond to symbols” (Rhetoric of Motives, 43). Like Richards, Burke tends to restrict his focusto language, although he also finds rhetoric in art forms such as music. But his definition is widelyapplicable. Many kinds of signs, in many forms and contexts, can induce cooperation. Although itdoes not focus mainly on popular culture, Burke’s definition tells us to look for how people are inducedto cooperate with others, potentially in any texts, whether that be to their benefit (their empowerment)or not. Similarly, Donald C. Bryant sees rhetoric’s function as “adjusting ideas to people and people toideas” (413). Although Bryant restricts his focus to “the rationale of informative and suasory discourse”(404), the wider idea of adjusting ideas and people to one another is descriptive of a process that canand does occur outside traditional texts.

Although James L. Kinneavy objects to those who would define rhetoric too broadly, he himselfprefers anchoring its definition in “persuasion,” which encourages us to consider the ways in whichmany kinds of texts persuade. Kinneavy’s definition is geared to the function of rhetoric rather than toa particular kind of manifestation (216–18). Similarly, in his definition of rhetoric, Stephen Toulminproposes a model of argument, which would seem to be largely an expositional type of text (Uses ofArgument). But he develops his definition from actual arguments used in court decisions and other“real life” situations. Toulmin’s model has been widely used to explore the ways in which thearguments of everyday life are persuasive.


Changes in Culture in the Twentieth Century

What prompted these changes in theory and definitions of rhetoric in the twentieth century? What hasled to today’s explosion of rhetoric in popular culture? To begin to answer these questions, let usexamine some important ways in which the world changed in the twentieth century. That century was,of course, significantly different from the past in a number of ways that continue to be true in thetwenty-first century. Our concern here is with differences in how signs influence people. Some ofthese differences are radical, or extreme. Most, however, are relative, or matters of degree (thoughstill significant). In each instance, the difference has to do with a change that the Greek rhetoricallegacy and its assumptions cannot fully account for; thus, these are “real-life” changes that haveprompted changes in theory. Furthermore, these are changes that situate rhetoric squarely withinpopular culture. We will review changes in these interrelated areas: population, technology, pluralism,and knowledge.


Little argument should be needed to establish that in the twentieth century and beyond, the world’spopulation exploded. Populations grew at the greatest rate in the poorer countries of the Third World,but nearly every industrialized nation experienced the same phenomenon. Of particular interest inindustrialized countries was the pattern of population growth: populations first became moreurbanized, then suburbanized and exurbanized as the century progressed. That is to say, theexperience of living with only limited contact with others, or even of living on farms or in rural areas,became increasingly rare. Farm populations shifted to the cities during the first half of the century.During the second half, city populations began spreading out into suburbs and smaller towns on theoutskirts of larger cities. The main result of these developments has been that today, in the twenty-firstcentury, more people are being exposed to more people, and more different kinds of people, thanever before.



This difference in population patterns is to some extent a matter of degree. It was rare for people to becompletely isolated or in touch with only a few others centuries ago. Nor is it the case that no one isever alone today. But, relatively speaking, more people are living and working near more other peopletoday than ever before. That is an important difference, because it means that more people areexposed to a wider variety of cultural artifacts than before. We must note that the issue is one ofgreater exposure to cultural artifacts, a concept we will study in the next chapter; briefly, a culturalartifact is some kind of action, object, or event that particularly represents a group of people. Artifactsare highly charged with meanings of people. Certainly, people are no more conscious today than theyever were, nor do people have more things to perceive today than they did in the past. A person’sexperience is no fuller today than it was three thousand years ago. But today, a person’s day isrelatively more full of signs that are artifacts, signs that are charged with meaning and that bespeakthe presence of others. This is especially true of those who live in the population- and message-denseurban areas. Ian Chambers pictures the city dweller as “caught up in the communication membrane ofthe metropolis, with your head in front of a cinema, TV, video or computer screen, between theheadphones by the radio, among the record releases and magazines” (11).

Two hypothetical cases might help to make this relative difference clear. Imagine a farm family livingon the Great Plains 125 years ago. What would they see and hear during the course of the day? Manyof their experiences would be of nature, of signs that were not necessarily produced by humans andthat did not bespeak human groups. That is not to say that their culture was impoverished but ratherthat, relatively speaking, their exposure to cultural artifacts that represented others was limited.Compare that family with a family living in a city today. Certainly, the urban family encounters naturalsigns, but many of those might take on the status of artifacts to the extent that they were put in placeby other people, such as urban landscape architects. Of more importance is that as this family goesabout its business during the day, it is bombarded by artifacts of every sort, by a pressure cooker ofsigns that bespeak other people, certainly to a greater extent than was the farm family. Most of us livesomewhere in between these two extremes, but the point to remember is that, in general, peopletoday are exposed to more artifacts.

As an expanding population puts more of us in touch with more people and with the artifacts theyhave produced, more of us are influenced by more signs coming to us, not only in our surroundingsbut also by way of new technologies. Some have described this process as the development of a newkind of culture—mass culture—that is significantly different from the more localized and physicallycentered cultures of earlier times. People have, obviously, had their everyday experiences in all timesand places, but today’s everyday experiences are, relatively speaking, more filled with human voicesthan in the past. Those voices call to us from the objects and events of everyday experience. Whatare they saying to us? How are they influencing us? Such rhetorical questions about popular cultureare more pressing today.

Exposure to artifacts produced during daily living with many more people also means that we areexposed to more artifacts and texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, or hierarchical. Whenwe are surrounded by more people and thus by more signs that they have produced, artifacts come tous in a hodgepodge. We are exposed to signs that come and go quickly, without time for expositionaldevelopment; to signs that are nonverbal rather than verbal; and to signs that are mixed in with othersigns rather than discrete. And the clear imposition of a hierarchical relationship that is present in theexperience of public speaking is much less apparent in today’s signs. Instead, we, as consumers ofsigns and artifacts, become more instrumental in structuring how those signs and artifacts areexperienced and understood. How we do so, and how that influences the effects those signs andartifacts have upon us, are also rhetorical questions that are relatively more important today.


Exercise 1.4

A quick exercise will illustrate the extent to which you are surrounded by other people and bytheir artifacts. Consider, either on your own or in class discussion, the following questions:

1. From where you are right now, physically, how far would you have to go to be able to seeor hear any three things that were not designed, produced, or placed where they are byother people?

2. When was the last time that you were more than one minute away from the sight or soundof another person?

3. Of all the sights and sounds you have experienced in the last twenty-four hours, whatpercentage would you say took the form of verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchicaltexts?


A second development within real life in the last hundred years has been expanding technology. Thisdevelopment has been both quantitative (we are exposed to more technologies, more often, in moredifferent experiences than people used to be) and qualitative (we are exposed to technologies that arewholly different and unprecedented in human history). Of particular interest for the rhetoric of popularculture are the technologies of communication.

In the centuries following the ancient Greeks, technologies for distributing the written word weregradually developed, most notably the printing press. Although print technologies can certainlydistribute other kinds of texts, think about how well suited these technologies are for the distribution oftraditional rhetorical texts (see Boggs). Clearly, print is verbal; it presents words “as good as they canget,” so to speak, whereas nonverbal or pictorial images in print are “still” and thus able to representfar less, proportionally, of the visual dimension of experience than words in print can of the verbaldimension. The long and careful development of arguments is very well suited to print, for print allowsreaders to go over difficult proofs and arguments repeatedly if they need to. Most printed texts (suchas this book, for instance) are perceived as discrete texts. And printed texts establish a clear, one-wayhierarchy of communication; readers cannot talk back while using that medium.

But radical differences in communication began in the twentieth century. These differences are theproducts of developments of technology for the distribution and transfer of other kinds of signs andtexts. As we progress through the twenty-first century, the pace of these changes increasescontinually.

Today, the individual with a smartphone and headphones can go through the entire day literallyattached to a technology of communication. There is not a single moment of that person’s day, noplace of retreat at all, where technology cannot carry a message. If the person is listening to SiriusXMsatellite radio, that person can be reached by messages and other texts generated only an instantbefore anywhere in the world. Smartphones in the home, office, car, or in the mall allow a person tobe in visual or voice communication with others at all times.



Elaborate messages for distribution to others can be prepared on tiny computers that can be carriedanywhere. The Internet is accessible now through devices combining many functions into instrumentsthat used to be only telephones, and through the Internet one can be in touch with anybody anywhereinstantly. Television has given people easy access to a wide range of sights and sounds that theyused to have to travel to theaters to experience, and tiny portable televisions now also allow battery-powered mobility. Cable and video recording technologies have expanded this particular form ofaccess to messages even more; a person in possession of cable television and a digital recorder hasaccess every hour to more information and entertainment, to a greater volume of artifacts tumblingacross the screen, than someone living a hundred years ago could have experienced in a year. Coulda person one hundred years ago have sat surrounded by more books than he or she could read in alifetime? Of course, but today a person has instant access, by way of computer networks, to anexponentially larger number of artifacts even than that.

Not only does technology expose the individual to more messages; it also exposes more of us to thesame global or mass culture of messages. Hip-hop, for instance, is now heard all over the world.People in distant parts of the world see recycled American television shows. People are connectedtechnologically at a cultural level in ways we were not before.

One important result of a vastly increased number of advanced technologies in everyday life has beena vastly increased exposure to artifacts. Technologies like online connections, satellite radio, orsmartphones with ever-expanding networks allow us to fill our every moment with artifacts should wechoose to do so. More exposure to information technologies means exposure to more artifacts andthus to more rhetorical influences in our everyday lives.


Exercise 1.5

To understand the extent to which new information technologies are a fact of everyday life,consider the following questions on your own or in class discussion:

1. Name at least four information or communication technologies that you could have accessto within a two-minute walk from where you are now (extra points for naming three suchtechnologies that you can see or hear without moving from your chair).

2. Name the last complete public speech, or similar traditional text, that you gained access toby using one of the electronic information technologies of information (the Internet,television, radio, and so on). If you are not able to think of many, draw some conclusionsabout the sorts of texts that today’s technologies seem best suited for.

3. Draw up a list of important activities in your personal or work life that you simply could notdo without some of the technologies of communication that we have discussed here. Nowdraw up a list of such activities that do not need such technologies at all. What picturesurfaces of how your life is shaped by technologies of communication?

A less obvious result of the increase in information technologies has been an increase in people’sreception of texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical. Much of ourcommunication today is visual. Other messages are verbal but in different forms. The lyrics of thelatest country-and-western hit coming to us through our headphones may be verbal, but they are notlikely to be expositional. The quick scrolling of numbers across a personal computer screen is notverbal, nor is much of the content of the videos on YouTube. A person who switches constantly fromone station to another while watching television is paying little attention to discrete texts. Instead ofmerely facilitating the more hierarchical relationship of public speaking, today’s informationtechnologies can place receivers of communications in a much more coequal relationship with theproducers of communications. For example, when using instant messaging on a computer, a personcan respond instantly online to the author of a message that appears on his or her screen. Bloggerscan post their thoughts about what is happening where they are and receive very fast responses fromreaders all around the world.

When people have more exposure to and control over a wide range of technologies in their everydayexperiences, they acquire more control over how and when they experience signs and artifacts.Ultimately, the Greek rhetorical tradition is inadequate when it comes to understanding how peopleuse and understand the wide range of signs and artifacts available to them through contemporarytechnologies.


A third significant development in the twentieth century and beyond is the growth of pluralism. Thisterm can mean many things. Here, by pluralism, we mean the awareness of many perspectives,philosophies, points of view, codes of ethics, aesthetic sensibilities, and so forth, and the awarenessof a legitimate grounding for all of these.

The growth of pluralism is directly related to the growth of population and to the spread of informationtechnologies. If you are not directly exposed to very many people during the day, chances are thepeople to whom you are exposed are people who are just like you. The Great Plains farm family usedas an example before would probably have experienced other people who were largely like them—ofsimilar values, religion, ethnic background, and so on. They would surely have been aware of Indianpeople living near them, but they would probably not have had much accurate information about them.Limited contact with people who are different limits people’s awareness of the beliefs, values,practices, and experiences of those different others. Nontraditional texts today thus offer thepossibility of greater inclusion and diversity in societies.



However, increased contact with different groups of people will not necessarily increaseunderstanding, particularly if people remain ethnocentric, judging different others only by thestandards and perspectives of their own group. Thus, the Great Plains family might have knownpeople who traded frequently with the Indians, traders who were aware of what these people thoughtand felt and did yet nevertheless dismissed their whole way of life as second-rate and degraded. ThisGreat Plains family was not likely to be pluralistic, in the first case because they were not aware of awide range of different points of view; they were not exposed to the variety of human thought andexperience that there is in the world. In the second case, neither the Great Plains family nor theirtrader friends were pluralistic because, whatever the differences of which they were aware, theyprobably would have seen no legitimacy for those different ideas and experiences.

But expanding population and information technologies have made for a change. As more and morepeople come to live in proximity to one another, they become more aware of their differences. Theexperience of immigrants clustering in American cities in the first part of the twentieth century is agood example. In this case, people from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and other countries were suddenlyforced to live in relatively close proximity to each other, and thus to learn about each other.Information technologies serve the same function, allowing us to find out more about people who liveeven on the other side of the world, as if we were neighbors, through things like the NationalGeographic Channel on television. Today, it is hard not to be aware of many other groups of people—of their habits, customs, and beliefs. (See Klotz for a discussion of the extent to which technologies ofcommunication, especially on the Internet, are responsible for revealing and connecting groups ofpeople to each other today.)

An even more important dimension of pluralism, however, is a growing recognition that the beliefs andcustoms of other, different people have some sort of legitimacy or grounding. This is not to say thatwe must agree with those who are different (nor that people often do so), but rather that we are awarethat others feel that they have good reasons for thinking and doing the things they do. People arebecoming increasingly aware that other people have philosophical, social, religious, or other reasonsfor their thoughts and behavior, just as “we” do.


In the nineteenth century, for instance, people might have marveled at stories, brought back byexplorers of faraway societies, of people who put their elderly onto ice floes and cast them off into thesea; “civilized” people might have shuddered and condemned the members of such societies ashopeless “savages.” Today, however, although we might consider such a practice wrong, we would berelatively more willing to seek to understand the reason for it; we would expect such a practice to havelegitimacy for that particular society, even if we would be appalled at the thought of doing anything ofthe sort ourselves. This sort of understanding of difference is relatively new; such understanding hasalways been held by some but is held more widely today. There is no doubt that prejudice andethnocentrism still exist, but they exist in a curious mixture with increased knowledge of other peopleand of why others are different.

One important result of pluralism—that is, of an awareness and acknowledgment of the legitimacy ofothers who are different—has been a democratization of status. Prejudice, bigotry, racism, classism,and sexism do still exist, of course. Nevertheless, there has been a relative increase in such pluralisticawareness in many countries over the last few decades, with the result being that many differentgroups have been granted legal and political power, or status, that they did not have before.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, for instance, only white males could vote throughout muchthe United States. Women and members of other races did not have as much of a voice as they dotoday; laws and the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed rights were often notenforced. Certainly, biases against these groups still exist, but today’s intentional pursuit of rights andprerogatives for all sorts of groups is practically unprecedented in history. Whereas second-classstatus was common for many groups in nearly all earlier times and nations, many democratic nationstoday try not to place any of their citizens in second-class positions. Of a different kind of importancethan traditional power (such as the right to vote) is the power that comes from increased presence inthe shared texts of a culture. Pick up most newspapers and turn on most television shows, and youwill see, hear, and learn from and about whole groups of people who might have been, in African-American novelist Ralph Ellison’s terms, “invisible” people only a few decades before.

Pluralism challenges the Greek legacy in a number of ways, two of which we will explore here. First, itlegitimizes signs and texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical in the ways thattraditional public speaking is. The Greek legacy is predominantly a European legacy, since Europeanculture was strongly influenced by Greece. That European culture has been dominant in the West forcenturies, of course. But people from non-European (e.g., African, Asian, or Latin American)backgrounds who came to industrialized democracies such as the United States have developedother ways of communicating, through texts that do not share the same discrete, verbal, expositional,and hierarchical characteristics.

In his book The Afrocentric Idea, for example, Molefi Kete Asante shows how the “Afrocentric” patternof communicating features unity, wholeness, dialogue, and aesthetics in ways that are distinct fromthe structure and argumentative patterns of traditional European-based public speaking. Women fromall backgrounds, who historically had relatively less access to the forums of public speaking than didmen, developed more interactional and dialogic forms of communication geared to the patterns ofeveryday conversation (Kramer; Rakow and Wackwitz; Treichler and Kramarae). Other ethnic andcultural groups have patterns of communicating rhetorically that are specific to their own heritages andthat do not follow the Greek model. Pluralism demands, in other words, that we consider alternativerhetorics, other ways in which people use signs to influence others and are influenced by signs in theirturn.

A second way in which pluralism challenges the Greek legacy is by creating the possibility of shiftingthe locus of where and when the important business of a society is conducted. In the Greek legacy,important business is conducted only by those who are officially empowered to conduct it, eithermembers of the public, using traditional texts, or the expert few. These, of course, will be the peoplewho are empowered generally, who are in charge within a society. If important business is conductedonly by those officially empowered to do so, then only in specifically designated places and times willyou find business that is considered important or valuable going on. So, for the Greeks, importantbusiness happened in their assemblies more than in their homes. In the Roman Empire, importantbusiness was done in the legal and imperial courts more than in the baths.

When certain groups and classes in complex societies are not empowered or are suppressed, theybecome marginalized. Their actions, thoughts, voices, feelings, practices, and so forth are assumed


not to have any part in the management of important business. Instead, these groups are moved tothe “margins” of power; whatever they do, it is assumed that their actions are not part of the exerciseof power taking place at the official “center” of society. In other words, society allows such groups tolive and communicate only within the times and places in which that important, official business is notbeing conducted.

Of course, all of us step into the margins from time to time; for instance, if you go fishing, play cards,or watch television with your family, the Greek legacy would hold that you are not doing anything ofmuch importance. But people who are often and repeatedly disempowered are made to occupy themargin for the long term. One outcome of such marginalizing is the assumption that whatever thegroup in question does must perforce be marginal or of less value; such an assumption is the veryessence of racism and sexism, for instance. This point is illustrated by the Greeks themselves: Officialbusiness was conducted by the citizens in their assembly, while women, slaves, foreigners, and soforth continued to talk and do their business within the “margins” of society: homes, taverns, farms,and so forth. What women, slaves, foreigners, and so on did was not considered the importantbusiness of society.

But in a more pluralistic society (which nearly all industrialized democracies are now or areincreasingly becoming), awareness of different groups and of the legitimacy of those groups’ practicesand beliefs brings an increase in the status of those practices and beliefs. And this means that whatmarginalized people say and do assumes more importance in terms of what happens generally in asociety. Thus, the margin shrinks. People who were ignored a century ago are now publicly noticedand heard. The margin is still there and probably always will be, but pluralism shrinks it.

The challenge a shrinking margin poses to the Greek legacy has to do with the fact that traditionaltexts have not usually been found in that margin. Many of the signs and texts found in society’smargins are not verbal, expositional, discrete, or hierarchical. As noted before, people who havepreviously been disempowered have developed texts that differ from traditional forms. The growth ofpluralism has given rise to texts that cannot be accounted for in the Greek legacy.


A fourth development in the twentieth century and beyond that has worked against the Greek legacyis the incredible expansion of knowledge, specifically technical and scientific knowledge. It can hardlybe denied that what there is to know increased exponentially in the twentieth century. Scienceespecially, aided by the information technologies (such as the computer) that we discussed earlier inthis chapter, has amassed enormous amounts of information. So much information has been gatheredand is being gathered even as you read this book that the ability to organize, understand, and gainaccess to that information has become a major problem, one as complicated as that of discoveringnew information.

Knowledge is becoming increasingly specialized. Whereas one hundred years ago one might simplybe a physician, today even a specialization like internal medicine is rather broad; subspecialties suchas gastroenterology exist, and even the knowledge covered within that subspecialty is vast. Newscholarly journals and books are being churned out by the hundreds at this very moment. Theexplosion of knowledge is obvious and simply stated; the impact of that explosion upon the Greeklegacy is significant and complex.



One effect of the knowledge explosion has to do with the relationship between knowledge and howdecisions are made—that is, with the specialization of decision-making. Of course, you needknowledge to make decisions. Historically, technical or scientific knowledge has been used in thedecision-making associated with traditional texts. By “technical or scientific knowledge,” we meanknowledge based on research, public knowledge acquired through scientific methods rather thansimply through personal experience. For example, when we argue expositionally, we consult facts andfigures, examples, history, expert testimony, and so forth. Such knowledge has traditionally beenconsidered more valuable than knowledge acquired simply through everyday experience or throughother means. But the available technical and scientific knowledge is becoming more and morespecialized as it increases in sheer volume. As such specialization happens, the location of decision-making also tends to become more specialized.

The problem is that there is a limit to what decision-makers can understand. As total knowledgegrows, the amount that decision-makers can understand stays about the same; thus, decision-makers’knowledge must become more specialized, since the amount that a person can understand andcontrol shrinks as a percentage of what is known overall. The result is that decisions based on


technical or scientific knowledge are increasingly being referred to specialists and experts. Thegeneral public cannot possess enough technical and scientific knowledge to argue expositionally andto make judgments about many issues that depend upon that knowledge. As a society diversifies, thesource and location of knowledge also diversifies, and may not be universally shared. How tonegotiate experience looks different to queer people than it does to those who are not.

Today, for instance, public decisions must be made about the issue of pharmaceuticals: how toregulate them, when to approve or disapprove them, how to finance the cost of prescription drugs,and so forth. To make these decisions, knowledge is needed. But who can know enough about thepharmaceutical industry to make a decision that is informed by technical knowledge? It is unlikely thatordinary people know very much about that subject, nor do our representatives in government.Increasingly, it is scientists in governmental or industrialized bureaucracies who are specializedenough in their knowledge to be able to make decisions about what sort of tolerance there should befor side effects, how much profit margin is reasonable for the drug companies, how to evaluateexperiments to test new drugs, and so on.

But suppose you take it to be your duty to read up on pharmaceuticals. The next issue to come along,however, is whether the state should control stem cell research. Do you know all the medical andlegal facts you need to know to participate in making that decision? After stem cell research, we needto decide what to do about international trade—are you knowledgeable about that? And so it goes.

The problem that this situation poses for the Greek legacy is rooted in the fact that the ideal of thatlegacy is popular participation in public decision-making through public speaking. The Greek legacy isbuilt upon the model of citizens who know enough about the issues that confront them to be able toform and develop expositional arguments about such issues, to understand the issues well enough todebate them. Traditional rhetorical texts, with their four characteristics, are designed for a rational,well-informed, step-by-step consideration of issues. The problem is that the public can no longerconfront most of the issues faced today in that way. Today’s issues and problems are too vast forpeople to debate them rationally and expositionally in the way envisioned by the ancient Greeks.

A number of thinkers have complained that the public is no longer able to argue expositionally andrationally (e.g., see Boggs; Postman). The problem is actually a result of the knowledge explosion:people cannot possibly know all they need to know, and gather that knowledge into rationalarguments, in order to debate public issues expositionally. It would take hours simply to recite all thestudies, facts and figures, statistics, and so forth that one would need to know to be able to make adecision about most public issues. A further problem is that there are so many public issues for whichthere is an overabundance of specialized knowledge that the chances of an audience understandingand being able to follow a knowledgeable speaker on a technical topic are not great. This problem istrue for all traditional rhetorical texts, essays, and articles as well as speeches. Information hasoutgrown the ability of this type of text to handle it. And as noted above, knowledge has become morefragmented and diversified as previously marginalized communities gain voices in a society, voicesoften based on different kinds of knowledge.

The explosion of knowledge confronts us with this choice: Either the public will become increasinglyexcluded from important decision-making as those decisions are referred to experts with specializedtechnical and scientific knowledge, or people will find ways to understand public problems throughother means besides traditional texts that rely upon scientific and technical knowledge. It may be thatimportant public business is already being managed in ways that are not limited to texts that dependupon scientific and technical knowledge. And, if that is true, then important public business is beingconducted through texts other than traditional texts that are verbal, expositional, discrete, andhierarchical.


Managing Power Today in Traditional Texts: Neo-Aristotelian Criticism

We have learned so far that the shapes taken by rhetoric are changing as more and more of oursocial business is managed in the rhetoric of popular culture. The verbal, expositional, discrete, andhierarchical forms of traditional texts are giving way to the new texts of television, films, and popularmusic. But it would be a mistake to assume that traditional texts have vanished, or that no importantbusiness is ever done using those tools. Think for a moment of times when the rhetorical conditions ofancient Greece still occur today, when empowered speakers still present reasoned, verbal argumentsin carefully crafted addresses to attentive audiences. Those moments would certainly include nearlythe whole of our legal system, much of the communication in places of worship, educational andtechnical instruction—in fact, you can likely find traditional texts offered up by your instructors in yourcollege classrooms on a daily basis! This very book you are holding is a traditional text.

Since traditional texts have not gone away, it would be useful to understand a method that has beendevised over the course of centuries for analyzing those texts. It is known as neo-Aristotelian criticism.It is based on the rhetorical principles explained by Aristotle but is “neo” because that great theoristhimself did not set out a specific method for the critique of traditional texts. More recent scholars havedeveloped this scheme. Let us take a look at the main principles of neo-Aristotelian criticism and howto use them in analyzing traditional texts. These principles may be summarized in this scheme:

The Situation






The Speaker



The Speech


Invention: logos, ethos, pathos




Memory (technology)


Effects and effectiveness

Ethical assessment

Neo-Aristotelian critics think of texts as tools that persuaders use to address specific problems. Theywant to know what prompted the speaker to craft a message, what the speaker hoped to accomplishin speaking, and whether the message met the speaker’s expectations and addressed the problemthat generated the whole process. So, neo-Aristotelian criticism begins with considering the situation,by which we mean the event, problem, issue, or difficulty that called forth the message—we call thisthe exigency—and the context in which the exigency occurred.

Sometimes the exigency, the event that sets the rhetorical process in motion, is a happy one (a highschool class is graduating), sometimes it is sad (a funeral), sometimes it is dangerous (there has beena terrorist attack), but in all cases the exigency is the kind of problem that can be addressed throughrhetorical communication. Nobody thinks of addressing the exigency that is a sprained ankle by givinga speech; that’s not the sort of problem that gives itself up to rhetorical manipulation. But there areproblems that need to be addressed by someone talking, and those problems are the exigencies thatthe neo-Aristotelian critic identifies as having occupied a speaker.

Of course, problems do not occur in a vacuum. There is a context for them. If there has been aterrorist attack, is this something new or part of a long, dismal pattern? Is it in a friendly or unfriendlypart of the world? On our soil or in another country? From enemies we know or enemies we don’t?The context into which the exigency enters will affect how the event is understood and will establishlimits and possibilities for response. The neo-Aristotelian critic always places the exigency into thecontext as understood by the speaker and audience.

This brings us to the third part of the situation, and that is the audience. To whom did the speakerpresent this message in hopes of addressing the exigency? What did the audience know about andthink about the speaker before the speech? The speaker assumes that the audience addressed wasin a position to resolve the exigency, so the neo-Aristotelian critic studies the audience to identify whothey were, what they knew and felt about the exigency and the speaker, what their strengths andweaknesses were, and what role they could play in addressing the exigency.

There is some reason why this particular speaker stepped up to offer a rhetorical response to theexigency for that particular audience, so the speaker is the next major category of analysis. The neo-Aristotelian critic should identify the speaker’s background—who that person is, what her reputationwas before the speech; if possible identify what the audience thought of her; and explain thespeaker’s qualifications, training, and experience that would be relevant in addressing the exigency.The critic wants to say why this particular speaker was put in the position of solving the exigencyrhetorically.

The speaker’s intentions are a key part of analysis. If we are to assess the success of a speech as atool, we need to know the purpose for which it was intended. The neo-Aristotelian determines asmuch as possible what the speaker planned to do. Since few critics are mind readers, identifyingintentions can be difficult. Fortunately, many speakers leave a record of what they intended to do inspeeches, and the more important the occasion, the more likely there is to be a record. A presidentdiscussing with top aides how to respond to a crisis will leave a record of notes, sometimes tape-


recorded conversations, and press releases. Often those aides themselves will write books recallingwhat the president meant to do. From these historical records, the critic can reconstruct the goals thespeaker was trying to achieve. An understanding of the speaker’s intentions then becomes abenchmark for evaluating the success of the speech.

The speech is the most complicated category of neo-Aristotelian analysis and the one on which thecritic spends the most time. We should be clear that we are referring to “the speech” as the exemplarof traditional texts, just as we refer to “the speaker,” but the techniques of this neo-Aristotelian methodapply equally well to other forms of traditional texts. The first and most complicated unit within thiscategory is invention.

Invention means the inventing of what to say. Here the critic identifies the substance of the speechand does so on three dimensions. First, the critic explains the logos, or logical (expositional) appealsof the speech. Second, the critic explains the ways in which the speaker built up an appeal based onhis own character, trustworthiness, goodwill toward the audience, expertise, and qualifications. Theseappeals based on the speaker himself are called ethos. Finally, the critic explains the emotionalappeals, or pathos, used by the speaker. For each of these subcategories of invention, the criticalways relates the analysis back to what the speaker intended to do and what the audience needed orexpected to hear in confronting the exigency, for those are the standards against which the rhetoricaleffort is judged.

Another category for analyzing the speech itself is arrangement: How did the ordering of differentappeals in the speech affect the audience? How did the speech begin; how did it end? Were thereissues the speaker delayed in raising; were there some issues that were addressed first, before otherissues could be tackled? The next category is style, or language choice. The neo-Aristotelian criticstudies key terms in the speech and the ideas that those terms bring to the foreground. The criticstudies stylistic devices or figures of speech such as metaphor, irony, metonymy, and so forth toidentify ways in which the speech was made both pleasing and effective.

Delivery is a category of analysis of the speech concerned with nonverbal rhetoric. This category willbe immediately recognizable as a major concern of many political commentators today who remark onthe physical expressions, tone of voice, regional accents, animated or wooden gestures, and oddpronunciations of so many political leaders and candidates. This category reminds us that a concernfor the physical presentation and appeal of messages is ancient, predating today’s popular culture ofimages and impressions.

Neo-Aristotelian critics do not pay much attention to the category that is sometimes called the “lostcanon” of rhetoric: memory. In the early days of Greek oratory, an ability to memorize lengthyspeeches was crucial, and several schemes were available for speakers to do so. In an age ofteleprompters and PowerPoint, such a concern seems irrelevant. I propose that the category beupdated rather than discarded, however. People had to memorize speeches because of the conditionof technology in ancient Greece: there were no teleprompters! But the condition of technology in ourtimes can dramatically affect the impact of even traditional texts. In place of memory, neo-Aristoteliancritics should study the speaker’s use of technology: Were visual aids to the speech used, and howwere they presented? Was video or music incorporated into the speech at all? If the speech wasbroadcast on television, how were camera angles used? When did the camera move in for a tightfocus on the speaker’s face, when did it pull back, and to what effect?

The final major category of analysis in neo-Aristotelian criticism is evaluation. The critic must assesswhether the speech worked as a tool to do the job for which it was intended. The first subcategory ofanalysis here is effects and effectiveness. Studying the effects of any persuasive effort can benotoriously difficult. The critic can examine public opinion polls taken after the speech to see whetheraudience attitudes changed. The critic can examine historical records of what actually happened aftera speech to see whether actions called for by the speaker took place. The critic can examine other,later rhetorical documents to see whether key phrases or ideas introduced by the speech were takenup by others as a sign that the speech was influential.

However, there are some difficulties in determining effects. There is the question of time frames: Aspeech may have very little effect when it is given but come to gain greater attention and respect astime goes on. On the other hand, an initially successful speech may come to seem unwise or dated astime marches on. There is also the question of intervening causes: Other rhetorical efforts as well as


events may occur that contribute to whatever effects may be observed, so that knowing how much toattribute to a particular speech is difficult. Finally, there is the question of very difficult rhetoricalchallenges: A speech may be effective even though it created few practical effects because it did thebest it could under difficult circumstances. The case of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address isoften given as an example of these difficulties. It was intended to keep the Union together, but theCivil War took place nevertheless. There were simply too many pressures for war for it to overcome,and too many intervening causes that negated any positive effect it might have. But over time it cameto be understood as a powerful argument for unity that guided the nation’s path even after Lincoln’sdeath, and for these reasons it is judged more in terms of effectiveness than effect, as a speech thatdid the best that it could against overwhelming odds.

Finally, the neo-Aristotelian critic is encouraged to make ethical evaluations of the speech. Whether aspeech succeeded in practical terms may not be the only criterion for judgment. Many dictators anddespots have been rhetorically successful in persuading people to follow them in their questionablepolicies, and so they would have to be judged practically successful. But those same speakers mayalso be judged on ethical grounds as having defended policies or points of view that werereprehensible.

In sum, the methods of neo-Aristotelian criticism can help us to understand how traditional texts worktoday. That is true whether the traditional text is in the form of a public speech, an editorial in anewspaper, or a sermon. Neo-Aristotelian criticism is a tool that is appropriate for studying traditionaltexts in just the same way as tools that we will learn about in later chapters are appropriate forstudying the texts of popular culture.



We began this chapter by posing the question of how everyday objects, actions, and events influencepeople. The idea that these everyday experiences of popular culture have an important effect onpeople should already seem more plausible to you. Rhetoric was defined initially as the ways in whichsigns influence people, and in this chapter we began to understand some basic concepts that will helpus to see how popular culture is rhetorical in just that way. We also briefly noted that influencing otherpeople is a way of securing power. And we noted that power often creates privilege, which may existoutside the conscious awareness of those who enjoy it.

This chapter has covered many ideas and more than two thousand years. First, we discussed the ideathat definitions in general are a means of empowerment and disempowerment; how you define a termis an act of power. Some terms that have a lot to do with power have therefore been defined in manydifferent ways throughout history; rhetoric is such a term.

We learned a quick definition of signs and of texts, although these will be developed further in the nextchapter. We learned a little about the history of ancient Greece, and about how public speaking wasthe public’s way of rhetorically managing important business. In subsequent years, this experience ofthe Greeks would create a legacy that strongly affected the development of rhetorical theory. Thislegacy comprises what we might call traditional rhetoric. Traditional rhetoric assumes, first, thatrhetoric means a particular kind of text, the kind that is most clearly exemplified in public speaking—that is, a text that is verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical. The second part of the Greeklegacy for traditional rhetoric is a paradox. We learned here that the more favorably rhetoric is defined,the more it democratizes power, because widespread participation in public decisions is conductedthrough rhetorical discussion. But, paradoxically, we also learned that because rhetoric meanttraditional texts for the Greeks, the rhetorical tradition fails to see how important business might beconducted by texts that are not verbal, expositional, discrete, and hierarchical. A useful idea inconnection to these issues is the distinction between the functions of rhetoric—what it does—and itsmanifestations, the form it takes. The Greeks had a narrower understanding of how rhetoric might bemanifested, which was restricted to traditional texts.

We saw how this Greek legacy, embodied in traditional rhetorical theory, influenced writers andthinkers for centuries. It is still important today, and we learned techniques of neo-Aristotelian criticismdesigned to help us understand how traditional texts work. We learned how a neo-Aristotelian critiquebased on the categories of the situation, the speaker, the speech, and evaluation can guide the criticin understanding the rhetorical effectiveness of traditional texts even today.

From the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, the germs of new ideas were planted, new ideasthat would eventually allow for the development of a rhetoric of popular culture that is becoming fullydeveloped in the twenty-first century. We also learned that “real-life” developments in the twentiethand now the twenty-first century have increasingly challenged the rhetorical tradition. We explored thespecific developments of (1) an expanding population, (2) new technologies (especially ofinformation), (3) pluralism, and (4) an explosion of knowledge.

Because of these developments, we concluded that much of the important business of a society mightnot be conducted in traditional texts as exclusively as the Greek legacy would have us believe.Instead of seeking only verbal texts, we will look for texts that also include nonverbal elements.Instead of seeking only expositional texts, we will look for metonymy and narrative as well. Instead ofseeking only discrete texts, we will also look for diffuse texts. And instead of using only hierarchicaltexts, we will also look for democratic texts. In the next two chapters, then, we will deal morespecifically with how the rhetoric of popular culture works and how to study it.



At this point, you may very well have several questions left unanswered. Let us consider somequestions that should arise from this chapter. You might think about these questions, discuss them inclass, or use them to prepare for later chapters.

1. We have talked about rhetoric but not so much about culture; what do we mean by culture,especially popular culture?

2. We have not said much about the different forms that texts can take and how they participate increating meaning.

3. We have not yet explored the idea of struggle over power very thoroughly. Are there ways inwhich you would say that popular culture is a site of struggle? For instance:

What happens when actions, object, and events mean several things, or mean contradictorythings? Who decides what meanings they will have?

How do actions, objects, and events come to have several meanings?

Can the assignment of meaning lead to power and disempowerment? How does thathappen?

How can people resist the meanings that others try to impose on them?

How is struggle over meaning conducted? What are the tools or strategies that people use?

4. We have learned about the characteristics of traditional rhetoric and its texts. What do the texts ofpopular culture look like, the texts that carry so much weight in everyday experience?






2.1 Understand and articulate what is meant by the rhetoric of everyday life

2.2 Define the term sign, and how it can be a building block of culture

2.3 Define the term artifact, and how it can be a building block of culture

2.4 Explain different definitions and understandings of culture

2.5 Identify the three important characteristics of culture

2.6 Identify and explain the four characteristics of texts of popular culture

2.7 Describe how power is managed today in texts of popular culture

Now we turn to the second important set of concepts in this book. Following our introduction torhetoric, let’s learn about what we mean when we say popular culture and thus the rhetoric of popularculture. In comparison to traditional rhetoric, when we think about how rhetoric works in popularculture, we are concerned with the rhetoric of everyday life. How can we understand the persuasiveinfluences that are all around us? In this chapter, we will examine the rhetorical dimension of thoseeveryday objects, actions, and events to which we are constantly exposed. We will also see inChapter 2 what it means to refer to these everyday objects, actions, and events as popular culture.We will learn that many, even most, of the ways in which we are influenced through signs can beobserved on this everyday, minute-by-minute level of popular culture. As we go through lifeexperiencing and enjoying music, clothing, architecture, food, and so forth, we are also participating inrhetorical struggles over what kind of society we will live in and what sort of people we will be. Thisbook will empower you to see those struggles as well, so that you will be able to find the rhetoric insongs by Ricky Lee, the motivations on Twitter, and the arguments in RVs.



To begin seeing everyday experience as alive with persuasive influences, let us begin by consideringpower. Power is the ability to control events and meanings. We are used to thinking that certainpeople, groups, or classes of people have power and that others do not. We say that the Bush andClinton families, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and so forth all have power. Perhaps you haveworked in offices or on committees with individuals whom you could clearly identify as powerful.Perhaps there have been other individuals whom you thought were relatively lacking in power.Certainly, we might all agree that, compared with adults, children are relatively powerless for severalreasons. But did you ever stop to wonder specifically when and where all this empowerment anddisempowerment come about?

Many people believe that, compared to men, women in some fields are relatively disempowered insome societies: women sometimes earn lower salaries for the same jobs; fewer women have high-ranking jobs and positions of prestige (e.g., US presidents or senators); there are not as many femalejudges, physicians, police officers, college professors, and so forth. How does this relativeempowerment of men and disempowerment of women occur? It is almost as if young males were alltaken aside at a certain age and initiated into certain mysteries of dominance; it would seem as if allthe men working at certain companies met in secret once a month to plan dastardly deeds ofdisempowerment against women. But this management of power does not really happen duringisolated moments of conspiracy. Instead, the relative disempowerment of women and empowermentof men at the workplace occurs from moment to moment during everyday experiences—in short, inpopular culture. For example:

In fashion, where women often have available to them largely uncomfortable shoes and clothingdesigned to accentuate their bodies rather than to create ease of movement and repose.

Around the office coffee pot, where the preferred topics of conversation among men are oftenthings like sports or sexual innuendo (and when the boss is a male sports nut, guess which sortof knowledge revealed in conversation is more empowering when it comes to impressingsuperiors?).

In social expectations, as when a male who leaves work early to pick up a sick child at school isconsidered responsible and sensitive, whereas a woman who does the same thing is oftenperceived as compromising her professional “commitment” to her career.

Of course, many women do not take these moments of disempowerment quietly. Women devisestrategies of resistance, refusing the disempowerment that everyday experience often offers to themand seeking alternative means of empowerment. These actions have paid off on a societal level, andthere is greater equality among men and women now than ever before. Similarly, we might considerways in which some groups defined by race, sexual identity, class, and so forth are empowered indifferent ways, and often through the same everyday means of popular culture’s influence. How thisprogress has occurred may also be studied in terms of popular, everyday sites. Everyday actions,objects, and experiences are really battlefields, sites of struggle among political and social forces. Wewill talk more about that struggle later in this book. Many kinds of social and political influence—empowerment and disempowerment—happen in the same way: from one moment to the next, ineveryday experiences. A quick exercise will emphasize this point.


Exercise 2.1

This exercise is designed to help you see how some commonly held, even fundamental,notions are born and maintained in your everyday experiences. Pick, from among the followingstatements, the one that you agree with most strongly:

American workers are suffering from unfair foreign outsourcing.

In this country, urban problems are mainly economic problems.

It is important to look nice and to smell nice.

Pornography is a serious problem on the Internet.

The United States is threatened by terrorists.

Most politicians are dishonest, self-serving, or incompetent.

Now, do some thinking and reflecting on this question: Specifically when and where did youcome to have that belief? Another way to ask this question would be, can you rememberspecific experiences that influenced you to hold that belief? To help you in your thinking, youmight want to write down some specific experiences that fall under these categories:

a. Television commercialsb. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)c. Moviesd. Faith communitiese. Popular musicf. Television newsg. Television drama or comedyh. Teachersi. Talking with friendsj. Family discussionsk. Internet sitesl. Other

The earlier statements are widely held ideas; they are a sort of “party line” for many peopleliving in the United States today. They seem for many of us to be “common sense”—statements that “grease the wheels” of everyday social interaction, allowing it to functionsmoothly. Perhaps not coincidentally, these statements are also what most people who are inpositions of authority or established power would want the public to believe. That is because ingeneral, these statements maintain present arrangements of power and privilege. If it isimportant to smell nice, then consumers will run out and buy lots of deodorant, perfumed soap,and so on that will keep the manufacturers of such products wealthy and powerful. If we areafraid of terrorists, we will tend to stick with political leaders who we believe have protected usso far. It is equally important to understand that we do not always accept what established andpowerful interests want us to believe. We don’t always “go with the flow” with those beliefs thatseem to be most common or easiest to hold. Which of the above statements do you disagreewith? If you do disagree with any of them, do you do so with the distinct feeling that you are ina minority, or bucking the tide of public opinion, in doing so? If so, use the preceding list ofcommercials, articles, movies, and so forth to identify how you developed your ability to resista popular idea or ideas. In other words, how did you learn to struggle against some widely heldideas?

There may be an opportunity for you to discuss with your class or with friends how you acquired the


beliefs that you examined in the exercise above. If you are like most people, you will realize that mostof what you think did not come to you in one big moment of revelation. Instead, many of your ideaswere acquired through the influence of lots of transitory, everyday experiences of the kind you listed indoing this exercise.

Power arrangements that have been around for a while and that are not often questioned may foster asense of privilege in those who benefit from them. Although this may be changing, for centuriespeople of European heritage have had privilege in the United States: they have been empowered inmany ways that are not often questioned. Our example of gender above reminds us that men haveenjoyed privilege, and in some parts of the world they do so to an extreme extent. Paradoxically,those who benefit from privilege are usually those least aware of it, and especially least aware of howpower and privilege are maintained. When our experiences in popular culture are important sources ofmaintaining power and privilege, being able to understand and analyze them is especially important.People who benefit from privilege need to be able to see that empowerment and its sources so theycan live more ethical lives. People who are not privileged need to see precisely the sources of theirlack of privilege so they may struggle against it. One remarkable fact about power in popular culture isthat the empowered groups of people are often much less aware of their power than thedisempowered are aware of their disempowerment. People of middle and upper economic class maynot think critically about how they achieved their status through the assistance of culture, whereaspeople of disadvantaged groups are reminded daily of the cultural influences that keep themdisadvantaged.

Consider that heterosexual people still enjoy the privilege of relative empowerment in the UnitedStates. Heterosexuals will hardly ever be denigrated or attacked for their sexual identity. Yet very fewheterosexuals go around being aware of that privilege; it simply seems natural. What are the sourcesof this privilege? Chief among them are the messages in popular culture, such as advertisements thatconsistently show heterosexual rather than gay or lesbian couples or movies in which romanticstorylines are far more likely to be heterosexual. These ever-present but unseen (by the privileged)voices prop up structures of power. On the other hand, popular movies and ads depicting queerpeople in positive ways are increasing and may be a resource in the struggle against repressiveattitudes. In this book, we will come to perceive the complex network of those experiences as popularculture, and we will study ways to grasp the rhetoric embodied in popular culture. To comprehend howculture influences us, we need to develop an understanding of what popular culture is—what it ismade of, and how we live in and through it.



If we are going to think about the ways in which the things and events we encounter in everydayexperience influence us, then we need to start by thinking about how those things and events come tohave meaning. That is because influence occurs through the management of meaning. If a bigot ispersuaded to treat people of all races equally, it is because the meaning of racial difference ischanged for that individual. If you are influenced to vote for Senator Smith, it is because the senator(his or her ideas, positions, and so on) has taken on a positive meaning for you. Commercials arerather explicit about the link between influence and meaning; we are urged to attach meanings ofglamour and mystery to a certain perfume, for example, in hopes that we will be influenced to buy theperfume.

Let’s return to the idea with which we began Chapter 1, the concept of a sign (here we will follow avery sensible scheme proposed by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce). Everything isa sign. That’s because a sign is something that induces you to think about something other than itself—and everything has that potential.

Take the book you are holding. When you see it, you do not think only about the book itself; you thinkabout the class in which you are enrolled, about the ideas you have been reading, about the attractiveperson next to you in class, about how much the book costs, and so forth. Now lift your eyes fromyour book and look around you. For each thing you see, other thoughts associated with that thing willarise: the cell phone on the desk will remind you of the previous one you owned, the picture on thewall will lead you to think of the shopping trip on which you bought it, and so on.

Every sight and sound, every touch, smell, and taste you experience, prompts you to think aboutthings other than, or in addition to, itself. Therefore, everything is a sign of something else. We mightalso say that everything is a signifier, that everything signifies something else, or that everything hassignification. And signification—or the other thing that is signified—is just another way of referring tomeaning. If I say the word professor, and the thought of that learned individual who is teaching youpops into your head, then that thought is the meaning of the sign “professor.”

If you think about it, signification is a pretty strange fact. We hear words coming out of a friend’smouth, and ideas (meanings) start jumping into our heads; we see a cap lying on a table, and thesight makes us think of the soccer game we recently wore it to. How does it happen that when we seeand hear things, ideas that are not the things themselves pop into our heads? Things act as signs inone or a combination of the three following ways:

1. Indexically (from the word index, referring to indexical meaning)2. Iconically (from the word icon, referring to iconic meaning)3. Symbolically (from the word symbol, referring to symbolic meaning)


Indexical Meaning

First, some things get you to think about something else because the “thing” (sign) and the “somethingelse” (meaning) are linked by way of cause or association. One thing is always or often found withanother thing, and so one gets you to think of the other. This kind of meaning is indexical; we say thatthe sign is an index, or that it is functioning indexically. Smoke is an index of fire; if you see smoke, itcauses you to think of fire because you know that one thing is associated with (caused by, in thiscase) the other. A thermometer is a sign with indexical meaning; a rise in the mercury in the columnmeans a rise in the surrounding environment’s temperature. Why? Because the one thing is alwaysassociated with the other; in this case, too, the association is causal.

Every character on the miniseries Underground is an index of every other character because themembers of that complex community are associated with (though in this case, not caused by) eachother. Some characters are more strongly indexical of certain other characters, however; the Macon 7,or Pearly Mae and Moses, are more central than characters such as William Still and Lou, so theymay make you think of each other but also of Still and Lou. The same set of indexical meanings is trueof other shows with groups of closely connected characters, such as the different franchises of CSI orLaw and Order, or different iterations of The Walking Dead.

Everyone has played the word-association game in which players are supposed to say which wordscome into their minds upon hearing a cue word. That game can be an interesting indication ofindexical meanings. The word cat might prompt someone to think dog, for instance. Does that meanthat the meaning of cat is a dog? In part—indexically—it does. That linkage reveals the fact that onepart of the meaning of cats really is their association, as proverbial enemies, with dogs.

Many indexical meanings are widely shared. Is there a person who has seen any sports newsbroadcast in the last few years, for example, who will not think about basketball upon seeing a pictureof LeBron James or Stephen Curry? Baseball players Kazuo Matsui and Kenta Maeda are celebratedby many people but seem to be held in special esteem by those who share their Japanese heritage;they might be said to be an index of that community. Other indexical meanings are less widespread,being limited to particular groups of people, and some indexical meanings are even private. Sand mayinduce only veterans of our military involvement in Afghanistan to think of Afghanistan; to everyoneelse, sand may have the indexical meaning of a day at the beach. For your author, the smell of a cigaris an indexical sign of a grandfather who could sometimes be found with one, a more private meaning(an association) unlikely to be widely shared by others outside his particular family.


Iconic Meaning

If a sign makes you think of something else because the sign resembles that thing, then the sign hasiconic meaning. We would also say that the sign is an icon or that it has meaning iconically. Theclearest example of an icon is a photograph. You look at the photograph and think, “Aunt Griselda!”Why? Because the patterns of light and dark on the photographic paper resemble her. Computeroperating systems such as Apple or Windows use icons to signify the choices available to the user(what resembles a talking mouth is the volume control, for instance). Impressionists such as KateMcKinnon, Kenan Thompson, and many of the actors on the television show Saturday Night Live(especially during the 2016–2017 and 2019–2020 political elections and ensuing administrations)make their living producing icons; the combination of an inflection of the voice, a few gestures, and astance or way of walking prompt the audience to think “Hillary Clinton,” Rudy Giuliani, or “DonaldTrump,” because those signs resemble the voice, gestures, and stances of the original people.Halloween is a great iconic holiday; little children, icons themselves, dress up to resemble TuckerCarlson, Dracula, ghosts, and other horrors. Many words are signs with iconic meaning. Say thewords boom, bang, and tinkle out loud. Part of the meaning of those words is that they resemble (byway of sound) the events to which they refer.



As with indexical meaning, signs may vary in terms of how widely their iconic meaning is shared. Yourauthor once wore a set of nose-and-mustache glasses into class and asked the eighteen-year-oldstudents what those glasses meant. “Halloween parties!” they all replied, giving an indexical meaning(nose glasses are found at, or associated with, Halloween parties). But this indexical meaning brokeyour author’s heart. For him, nose glasses will forever mean Groucho Marx, because they resembleGroucho iconically. But alas, there arose a generation which knew not Groucho. Evidently, however,the group of people who share that iconic meaning is dwindling as poor Groucho recedes into late-night television movie land. Iconic meanings can also be private; your picture of Aunt Griselda maycause only you to think of her if nobody else knows her. For others, the iconic meaning of the photomay be something more general, such as “an elderly female,” because that is what the photoresembles for them.


Symbolic Meaning

Finally, signs can get you to think about something else purely because of agreement or convention,because people are in the habit of connecting a particular sign with a particular meaning. When thathappens, a sign is a symbol, has symbolic meaning, or is functioning symbolically. The clearestexamples of symbols are words. Why does this mark:


mean the thing that you are holding? Only because everyone who speaks English agrees that it does.People are simply in the habit of thinking of the kind of thing you are holding whenever they see thatmark above, and they know that others have agreed to think the same thing. If everyone decided thatthis mark:


would mean the thing you are holding, that would work just as well. Symbolic meaning comes aboutpurely by way of what people agree to do. In fact, in Spanish-speaking communities, everyone hasagreed that the mark libro means what you are holding. One way to refer to that agreement is to saythat symbolic meaning is conventional—a product of certain conventions, or agreed-upon rules.



Symbolic meaning is in some ways the most difficult kind of meaning to learn, because it is not naturaland because symbolic meanings vary from one group to another. Smoke naturally means fire. Thephotograph of your aunt naturally refers to her. There is a strong, clear, and necessary connection.Smoke also means fire in Japan, Germany, and Zimbabwe. And once you learn that indexicalmeaning, it does not change.

But anyone who has struggled through learning a foreign language knows that, as comedian SteveMartin said of the French, “It’s like they have a different word for everything!” If you want to speakFrench, you must learn what certain signs mean for the French and assign the same meanings thatthey do to the words of their language. The rule for understanding symbolic meaning is to consult thegroup that is using the symbol to discover what the symbol means. For instance, in somegeographically or culturally specific communities, the expression fall out means to faint or to pass out.A person not familiar with that usage might assume these words refer to a long drop from a window. Anuclear strategist, on the other hand, might assume that they refer to the radioactive particles


produced by a nuclear explosion. And a soldier might assume they are an order to disperse.

Words are not the only things with symbolic meaning. The particular pattern of red, white, and bluestars and stripes that you know as the flag of the United States means this country, symbolically,because the US Congress has ordained it so, and people everywhere are agreed on this signification.In the US Army, the figure of a golden eagle on the shoulder strap, epaulets, or collar of a uniformmeans a full colonel for no other reason than that everyone in the army agrees that this is what itmeans; a figure of the sun, or a tiny Washington monument, would do just as well if everyone agreedto it.

We noted above that smoke has the indexical meaning of fire, but it can also have symbolic meaning.Cigarette smoke goes through cycles of meaning in which sometimes it symbolically means“coolness,” sometimes it is “low class,” sometimes it means “toughness,” and so forth. Think about thesymbolic meanings given to cigarettes by recent movies and television shows you have seen. Whenthe Roman Catholic Church is in need of a new pope, as in the latest election of Francis I, the Collegeof Cardinals will meet in closed session to cast ballots. Those who wait outside the building for newsof the election watch a certain chimney. The ballots are burned in such a way that if a new pontiff hasbeen chosen, the smoke is white; if not, the smoke is black. In this way, too, smoke has beenassigned symbolic meaning. The meaning of the colors could easily be reversed, or chemicals couldbe added to make other colors, as long as everyone understood which color meant which outcome.

Symbolic meaning differs from iconic or indexical meaning in that it can easily be altered. Nobody candecide that smoke does not mean fire (indexically). Nobody can decide that a picture of a horse doesnot cause you to think of a horse (iconically). With both indexical and iconic meaning, once you learnwhat a sign means, the meaning simply cannot change. You can discover iconic or indexical meaning,and you can forget it, but you cannot legislate it.

But symbolic meaning changes all the time. Sixty and more years ago, the word gay meant happy andcarefree. Now it more commonly refers to a particular sexual orientation. Sixty years from now, it maymean something entirely different. Similarly, queer used to be a term of insult, and now it is widelyembraced by queer people. That is the nature of symbolic meaning: You can mess with it. You canchange it. And, for that reason, symbolic meaning is always slippery. This changeable quality ofsymbolic signs (principally language) has sometimes been described as the constant “slippage” of thesignified (meaning) under the signifier (word). That is, the sign (e.g., gay) holds still while the meaning,or what it signifies, slips around (from happy and carefree to homosexual and perhaps beyond). Whatsomething means is never precise, because there is never complete agreement among everybody asto what symbols mean. We will see that this “slippage” of symbolic meaning creates great possibilitiesfor influence in popular culture.


Complexity of the Three Kinds of Meaning

We learned earlier that signs have meaning in one or more of these three ways: indexically, iconically,and symbolically. You may have noticed that we have already demonstrated how words can carry twokinds of meaning: all words are symbolic, and some words are indexical (as seen in the example ofthe word smoke). The point is worth stressing: Most signs do mean in more than one way; in fact,most signs have very rich meanings. Sometimes those meanings are widely shared, sometimes theyare shared by a few groups, and sometimes they are very personal. But it is a mistake to ask whatsingle thing a sign means, or in which of the three ways it has meaning, because signs are typicallyvery complex in their meaning.

Pull out a dollar bill (if you have one after buying this book). This is a sign that has meaning in all threeways. You will see icons on it: some markings that resemble George Washington, other markings thatlook like a pyramid. You will find indexical meaning: you might think of shopping, of your wallet, or ofyour next payday, because all those things are associated with the dollar bill. You will certainly findsymbolic meanings: the bald eagle clutching arrows and an olive branch in its talons means theUnited States by convention; moreover, the fact that this piece of paper is worth anything at all ispurely conventional and by way of agreement. Congress could pass a law tomorrow saying thatpocket handkerchiefs will be the unit of economic trade. If that were to happen and if everyone agreedto it, then you could blow your nose on dollar bills but slave away at your job for handkerchiefs. Thefact that a dollar bill can be exchanged for a small candy bar or (at this writing) a third of a gallon ofgasoline is only a matter of agreement and, therefore, symbolic meaning.



In this book, we will be concerned with all signs that make up messages. In this section, though, weare going to focus on a subset of particularly powerful signs known as cultural artifacts. An artifact is

1. an action, event, or object perceived as a unified whole,2. having widely shared meanings, and3. manifesting group identifications to us.


Exercise 2.2

Here is an exercise to help you appreciate how complicated the meanings of signs are. Reviewthe signs listed below and identify whether each has indexical, iconic, or symbolic meaning.Also, determine whether those meanings are shared widely, by smaller groups, or arerelatively private for you or perhaps your family.

Sign Indexical Meanings(How widely shared?)

Iconic Meanings(How widely shared?)

Symbolic Meanings(How widely shared?)




A tattoo Statue ofLiberty


Star ofDavid


Now, work through some examples that you or your classmates or teacher can suggest.Whenever possible, try to find at least one meaning per category.

Everything in your experience—every object, action, or event—is a sign. But that statement,


although correct and important, is so broad that it does not go far enough to help us tounderstand how the things we experience in everyday life influence us. So we must go on toconsider even more specific ways in which signs have meaning.

This definition of an artifact is meant to be rather wide; nevertheless, not everything is an artifact. Let’slook more closely at that definition. It will take us a little while to go through it carefully and unpack itsmeaning.


An Action, Event, or Object Perceived as a Unified Whole

You may have heard the word artifact associated with an actual object, something you could hold inyour hand. An archaeologist who digs up a pot might claim to have found an artifact of Minoan culture,for instance. That idea of an artifact as something that represents a culture will become importantwhen we discuss the third clause of the definition (“manifesting group identifications to us”) later. Butin this first clause of the definition, notice that by artifact, we mean not only a material object that istangible but also an event or action that is perceived as a unified whole; in this sense, events andactions occurring in the material world are also material. Nike shoes are artifacts and they areconcrete, physical objects. But slam dunks, stealing second base, the latest popular song, and theFourth of July are also artifacts.

It is also important to notice that the artifact must be some action, event, or object that is perceived asa unified whole. In other words, perceptions of a whole “thing” or “happening” that has some identity orcharacter in itself make an artifact. The bottom stripe on the United States flag is not an artifactbecause, although you can perceive it all by itself if you make the effort, it is not usually seen as athing in itself with its own separate meaning. Neither is the field of stars in the flag’s upper left-handcorner perceived as a unified whole. Rather, the whole flag is perceived as a unit, and that makes theflag itself an artifact.

This first clause in the definition of an artifact is based on an old, but still controversial, idea that thereality in which humans live and move is one that is fundamentally socially created. The idea here isthat people live in a world of perceptions. For instance, the French have more words for different kindsof bread and pastries than do most Americans. Bread is more important to them, and they appreciatesubtle differences in the size and texture of loaves. That means that they perceive differences inbread that Americans might not (“It’s all baguettes to me!”). That does not mean that we cannot learnto see all those distinctions ourselves (in fact, American tourists must learn to recognize more kinds ofbread so that they can order lunch more accurately). On the other hand, people living in the UnitedStates today have many different words for vehicles: Teslas, Fords, Chevys, 4 by 4s, pickups, SUVs,RVs, Jaguars, and on and on. People in a part of the world that does not have so many vehicles maynot need to perceive so many different kinds and so may think of all vehicles as being pretty much thesame thing.

We see certain things and not others because of the social contexts that we grew up in; the peoplearound us have called our attention to certain things but not others. People organize the world in waysthat fit the physical and social environment they are in. That means that perceptions are adaptivemechanisms to help us adjust to the situations in which we live. If you live next door to a snarlingDoberman Pinscher, your perception of the dog as dangerous is an adaptive mechanism that causesyou to avoid the animal and thus live another day.

Furthermore, groups of people that live and work together try to adapt to their shared situations; thus,perceptions are also socially grounded. And so we grow up organizing the world, perceiving the world,in the ways that our social context encourages us to. For example, an important part of mostAmericans’ situations is the need to recognize different kinds of vehicles. In addition, most Americanshave the same, shared need to adapt to an environment in which vehicles are prominent. Footballfans can see a bunch of people running around on a field and identify all kinds of things going on: anoption play, the pass rush, and so forth. These fans have a recreational need to perceive lots ofdifferent plays, and they talk about the plays among themselves, encouraging each other to perceivethe plays similarly. People who are not fans do not perceive the world of a football game in the sameway because they do not need or want to; for them, a football game may look like just a bunch ofpeople running around on a field.


… Having Widely Shared Meanings

To become an artifact, a sign must be more than just a perceived, unified whole. The second clauseof the definition tells us that an artifact is a sign that has become charged with widely shared meaning,just like a battery that has been charged with energy.

Take the expression “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” That expression has an ordinary,straightforward meaning. It says that there is nothing wrong with “that,” whatever “that” may be. But inthe mid-1990s, it was an expression used on a popular episode of the Seinfeld television show inwhich the male characters were trying to put down rumors that they were gay. They were not, in thestory, actually gay and did not wish to be perceived as such, but every denial was followed by theexpression “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” It was delivered in such a way, with a sweepinggesture of the arms, as if to imply that they were leaning over backward to express liberal, tolerantsensitivities on an issue with which some might indeed still find “something wrong.” Soon theexpression was picked up and used as a follow-up to all kinds of similar denials. To “work,” it dependson people understanding the humorous, ironic intent of the expression. It is remarkable the extent towhich this expression, delivered in just the right way, still carries these ironic meanings decades afterthe fact. People will know how to read such a declaration, given with the right intonation and gesture,even if they have never seen Seinfeld. It is now part of the culture.

What happened was that those words, a simple English expression, became charged with widelyshared, additional meanings. They meant something beyond the ordinary meaning derived from justcombining those words. The phrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” has a definitesymbolic meaning stemming from the conventions of the English language. But it picked upcomplicated indexical meanings when it became associated with a cute television episode, eccentricand classic television characters, and an ongoing social issue.

In another example, Kanye West has always meant something to his friends and family, just as youdo. But you are not a cultural artifact because you are not charged with the extra meanings that Westhas picked up as a popular music star, tabloid fodder, political player, and notable rapper. So onenecessary condition for an ordinary sign becoming an artifact is that it becomes charged with moremeanings than it had before and with more meanings that are widely shared.

Now, it is possible that the “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” example reads like ancienthistory to some of you. That’s because this expression has by now lost some of its status as culturalartifact. As Seinfeld fades into syndication obscurity and fans move on to other, newer shows, theimpact of that particular phrase (with its accompanying expression and gesture) will at some pointfade. Eventually the phrase will not have that unity as a whole and particular thing, nor the widelyshared meanings, that once made it a cultural artifact. And, likewise, someday there will arise ageneration that does not remember Kanye West.

These examples demonstrate that there is a threshold at which objects, events, or actions becomeartifacts. Furthermore, that threshold can be crossed in either direction; in other words, things, actions,and events are often in the process of either becoming, or declining as, cultural artifacts. Becauseperceptions change, the artifactual status of any sign must be changeable as well.

In contrast to Kanye West, think about yellow ribbons. Before the 1970s, they had no special unity, noparticular meaning in themselves beyond just being yellow ribbons. An early 1970s song by the groupTony Orlando and Dawn proposed the idea of tying a yellow ribbon around a tree to indicate tosomeone who has been gone a long time that they are still wanted back. Although the song waspopular and catchy, the song itself was more of a perceptual unity, more of a cultural artifact, than wasthe idea of a yellow ribbon.

But when sixty-three Americans were taken hostage at the United States Embassy in Tehran, Iran, in1979, yellow ribbons came to be used as a gesture of remembrance by the American public. Theybegan to appear everywhere, with the specific meaning of (1) a demonstration of solidarity with thosewho were absent (the hostages) and (2) a desire to have them back. Since then, foreign politicalcrises involving absent or missing Americans have repeatedly been accompanied by widespread,spontaneous sproutings of yellow ribbons around trees, lampposts, and traffic signs. People wear


them as pins on their clothing. They may be seen as tokens of solidarity with troops in the Middle Easteven now. They have crossed the threshold into the realm of cultural artifacts, and they are beingmaintained in that status by continuing social customs that encourage people to perceive them asartifacts—as things that have special meanings, as unified whole entities. And other causes havetaken up the idea of ribbons as artifacts, as sporting ribbons of different colors is a way to showsupport for those with different kinds of cancer, AIDS sufferers, and so forth. Whether yellow or not,the wearing of ribbons as charged with meaning grew out of the original reference.

One consequence of becoming charged with widely shared meanings is that artifacts can be verycomplex; sometimes an artifact might even be composed of other artifacts. The Beatles were (in fact,still are, even if half of them are deceased) a cultural artifact as a group, but John Lennon, PaulMcCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are cultural artifacts each in their own right. (JohnLennon and George Harrison, individually, remain so even after their deaths.) The same has beentrue of the New York Yankees during several periods of their history. The television show The TonightShow is so popular that it is an artifact, but so are some of its more visible characters, such as thehost, Jimmy Fallon, as well as his studio band, the venerable The Roots. The Kansas City Chiefs arean artifact, but so are quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid. Complex artifacts arecharged with meaning, and if they comprise artifacts, then those constituent artifacts are also chargedwith meaning. This creates some very elaborate webs of meaning, and thus of influence.


… Manifesting Group Identifications to Us

The third and final clause in the definition of a cultural artifact identifies all artifacts as signs of groupidentifications. We have noticed that the charged meanings of an artifact must be widely shared; let usturn now to a consideration of how the shared nature of an artifact’s meanings relates to groupidentifications. Here we will learn that artifacts are the material signs of abstract groups.

Part of the meaning of an artifact is its connection with a group. All of us belong to many groups.Some of those groups are ethnic or racial: you might identify yourself as Italian-American, African-American, Polish-American, or Southern white, for example. Some of those groups are geographical:you are an American, a Kansan, a Brooklynite, a resident of your neighborhood. Some groups aresocial: you might be a member of the Latin Kings, of a bridge club, of a tennis team. Some groups arereligious: you might be Catholic, Methodist, Rastafarian. Some groups are economic: you might bewealthy, middle class, working class. Male and female are two large group identifications.Identifications sometimes have emotional or aesthetic bases: allegiances to particular sports teams orto clothing or product brands or designers are very often the grounding for group identifications, aswith “Packer Backers” or those who buy only Calvin Klein jeans.

All of us, in other words, have many different group identifications. But, in fact, we very rarely seethose groups in total. If you are a member of a local motorcycle club, you might very well see thewhole group together at the same time. But most of our other group or social “memberships” are muchlarger or more abstract.

Perhaps you think of yourself as a Quaker; how, where, and when are you ever in touch with theQuakers? You see particular other Quakers, but never all of them and never at once. Perhaps youthink of yourself as an African-American and identify with other African-Americans, but when andwhere does that identification occur? Another way to put this question would be, when does the“group” of African-Americans touch you? When does it speak to you? How are you reminded of whatto do, how to act, and what to believe, so as to identify with that group? Many of us identify ourselvesas “American”—a very broad identification—but how does that identification occur? Are you beingAmerican as you sit here reading? If you stop for coffee? When does that group, “American,” speak toyou?

Large or abstract groups of people (and nearly all of the groups with which we identify are large andabstract) connect with us, and influence us, through cultural artifacts. There are objects, actions, andevents that manifest those groups to us that make the groups real, particular, and material. Artifactsrepresent groups to us, they show us what it is like to be part of or to identify with those groups, orthey remind us of those groups and of what we are committed to by our identification with them.Artifacts are charged with meaning, but many of those meanings bespeak (e.g., speak of or speak for)our identifications with groups. You need not be a member of a given group to understand an artifactthat manifests that group identification, but it helps. That is to say, being a member of the group allowsyou to appreciate more of the meanings and to understand the ways in which the artifact is standing infor the group as a whole. In that way, a cultural artifact is a sort of an “in-joke.” Others may understandsomething of what it means, but it is really the people “in the know,” those who identify with the group(or groups) for which the artifact speaks, who find the richest meanings in an artifact.

Artifacts span the continuum from those that are quite obviously associated with a specific groupidentification to those that do not so clearly bespeak a group. Often, you may see more clearly how anartifact manifests a group identification if you are not part of that group (although then, paradoxically,you probably will not fully understand the meanings that the artifact conveys).

For instance, think about the form that cable television takes in the United States: a widely availableopportunity to choose among hundreds of channels, many of them with very narrow, specificpurposes, even as alternatives to cable such as Hulu and Netflix are widely offered. Now, this artifact(cable television) is part of being in that very large and abstract group, “American.” Nearly allAmericans have access to cable, or if not that, one of the other services such as Netflix, or to satelliteor Internet television. Because so many of the readers of this book are part of that group, because weso rarely step outside of it or confront in any meaningful way the people who do not identify with thatgroup, the artifacts that bespeak “being American” to us may seem natural, universal, or even


invisible. Those artifacts may simply seem the only way to be. We do not notice how they create agroup for us. It may take going to another country, with different patterns of television broadcast andconsumption, to see American cable TV as not universal but a particular way of doing things, as our“American” way of doing things, as our sort of entertainment in-joke. Seeing alternatives to such adistinctive cultural artifact helps us to realize that widespread access to cable TV is peculiarlyAmerican.

Americans are defined in many ways, and we have many points of identification with being“American,” but one of them is that we are the people with ready access to that kind of cable TV. Whatis useful about recognizing the ways in which cultural artifacts manifest groups to us is that we canthen begin understanding the meanings of the artifact, and at that point we begin to understand ourgroups as well. To pursue the present example a bit further, think about what all those cable choicesmean, especially in terms of what it means to be an American. We can tell from what cable TV meansthat being American has something to do with an abundance of choices. You might consider otherdistinctly American experiences that display the same embarrassment of riches (such as largerestaurant menus or giant supermarkets)—the availability of more choices than anyone can possiblyuse.

Cable TV is one of those artifacts not obviously connected to a group, yet, as we have seen, it doesmanifest the group identification of being “American” to us. Consider a narrower example. I once wentinto a small-town delicatessen in a Pennsylvania Dutch county and asked for a pound of the salamidisplayed in the case. The woman behind the counter was dressed (as were all the other clerks) in thetraditional long dress and hooded bonnet that the Mennonite or Amish women wear in that part of thecountry. She looked at me with dark suspicion: “What are you calling salami?” she asked. It turns outthat all hard sausage there is called “bologna.” What I wanted was “Lebanon bologna” (made nearLebanon, Pennsylvania). For this store clerk, “Lebanon bologna” is an artifact that is a material sign ofher group identifications, and manifests that group so strongly and so often that she has ceased tothink of that sausage as in any way special to her group. Lebanon bologna now seems natural anduniversal to her. Now, it’s flatlanders like me who ask for artifacts that bespeak our groupidentifications, artifacts such as “salami.”

Certain artifacts very clearly are the material signs of group identifications; they manifest specificgroups to all sorts of other people. Take African-based hairstyles, for instance. One such style isdreadlocks, that style of long, twisted skeins that originated in Jamaica and in Africa before that.Plenty of people who are not of African heritage imitate such styles to an extent—and on the otherhand, most African-Americans do not wear dreadlocks—but the artifacts of that hairstyle are firmlyand unchangeably African-based. It is a style grounded in African heritage: African people have beenwearing dreads for centuries. Dreads are even best suited physically to the characteristics of Africanhair.

Let’s summarize what we have covered so far. We have seen that everything is a sign, but that notevery sign is a cultural artifact. We have defined an artifact as

1. an action, event, or object perceived as a unified whole,2. having widely shared meanings, and3. manifesting group identifications to us.


Exercise 2.3

Identify yourself as a member of at least two broad social groups (e.g., Hispanic and a unionmember, American Southerner and a motorcycle club member, male and United Methodist).For each group, identify:

a. An artifact that “belongs” only to the group that only members of the group are likely to seeas charged with meanings. Identify some of those meanings. (e.g., Only collegeprofessors are likely to know about and use the term curriculum vitae. Ask your instructorabout it.)

b. An artifact that is closely identified with the group but that persons outside the group knowabout, use, and appreciate. Identify differences in what the artifact means for those insidethe group and for the public at large. (e.g., What does “Mexican food” mean for membersof that ethnic group as well as for the general public? Does what is considered “Mexicanfood” differ between Mexicans or Mexican-Americans and the public at large?)

In elaborating on this definition, we discovered some important characteristics of artifacts:

1. Artifacts are a socially created reality.2. Signs become artifacts as they become charged with meaning, thus crossing a threshold into

artifact status.3. An artifact can be very complex, even being made up of other artifacts.4. Artifacts are the material signs of group identifications.

We have learned about signs and about the “supersigns” that are cultural artifacts. Both ordinary signsand cultural artifacts are key components not only because they are components of messages butalso because they are also components of culture, and culture is the stuff out of which you and I aremade. Let us turn now to the idea of culture.



In learning about signs and artifacts, we are studying the building blocks of culture. Now we need toturn to the term culture itself to understand what that means. Throughout history, culture has been acentral concept with a number of definitions. As the scholar Raymond Williams put it, “culture is one ofthe two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Keywords 76).


Elitist Meanings of Culture

Perhaps the most widely known definition of culture has an elitist flavor to it: culture is the very best,the finest, and most refined experiences that a society or nation has to offer. This sense is found inthe Oxford English Dictionary definition of culture, as “the training, development, and refinement ofmind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side ofcivilization.” This definition of culture underlies Moe’s recurring complaint to Larry and Curly of TheThree Stooges: “Mind your manners! Ain’t ya got no culture? What would Emily Post say?” This ideaof culture is often referred to as high culture.

This first, elitist sense of culture sees relatively few artifacts as making up culture. Only those objectsor events having meanings associated with the very best, with high intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritualachievement, would be considered cultural artifacts under this definition. By exposing ourselves tothem, we “become cultured.” Those who are not exposed to those artifacts are not cultured, in thisview. Some familiar artifacts that would be subsumed under this sense of culture would include theballet, the symphony orchestra, public television, music by Bach or Beethoven, paintings byRembrandt and Van Gogh, and sculptures by Michelangelo and Rodin. Some objects or events thatwould certainly not be considered cultural artifacts by this first definition would include heavy metalrock, polka bands, cage fighting, Rihanna, and corn dogs.

Often, those who talk about culture with this first definition in mind have what might be called anedifying impulse. In other words, they hope to improve people (which is not necessarily a bad thing)by exposing the public to the right artifacts. For these people, there is a sense that if you listen toBrahms rather than Common, if you see Shakespeare plays rather than Friday Night Fights, if you eatgourmet cuisine rather than Ho Hos, you will be a better person for it (and, by extension, our countrywill be a better place as well). This edifying impulse has been around for centuries and can be foundin nearly every instruction from parents or teachers to do certain things because they are good foryou. The edifying impulse is not necessarily limited to conservatives or those in power, either. It canalso be found among certain Marxist scholars; for example, theorists such as Theodor Adorno andHerbert Marcuse (who were part of the so-called Frankfurt School around the middle of the twentiethcentury) thought that the pleasures to which the masses of ordinary Americans were addicted (thingslike television, pro football, and church bingo nights) were contributing to the oppression of thosepeople (Adorno; Alford; Modleski ix; Mukerji and Schudson 56).

When it comes to empowerment and disempowerment of people, one could hardly imagine a stronger(and more brutal) understanding of culture. I once heard that business executives make summaryjudgments about prospective hires by observing whether they know which forks and spoons to use ata fine cuisine restaurant. Applicants who may have grown up poor will have little chance with suchexecutives. Most if not all high culture is expensive, and so under the control of wealthier people.Someone who grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood-loving hip-hop is likely to be left out of aboardroom discussion of the relative merits of Stravinsky and Hindemith.

On the other hand, there have been radical twists to this first definition of culture. Some people haveargued that it is the radical or subversive elements of culture to which people should be exposed, andthat high culture offers those subversions. This effort to “turn the Frankfurt School on its head” tocelebrate the liberating power of popular culture involves identifying experimental or alternative formsand experiences—such as guerrilla theatre, alternative rock or folk music, performance theatre, andso forth—as the kinds of cultural artifacts that will liberate the common people so as “to achievedignity and to make life full” (Buhle xx). The particular artifacts identified by this school of thought asdesirable, as the right things to do or hear or see, are very different from those included in the conceptof high culture. But the edifying impulse is the same. In both of these versions of what culture is, thefocus is on a very limited set of artifacts, such as the objects and experiences of art, that deserve tobe called culture. In its 1987 supplement, for instance, the Oxford English Dictionary updated its olddefinition of culture to emphasize “the civilization, customs, artistic achievements, etc. of a peopleespecially at a certain stage of its development.”




Exercise 2.4

Consider the following questions for individual thought or group discussion.

1. If paintings, opera, poetry readings, and so forth are the products of high culture, what iseverything else? Have you heard any particular terms (such as low culture or massculture) used to refer to everything else?

2. What kind of power is created by calling certain things high culture? Who gets to wield thatpower?

3. Has anyone ever tried to “improve” you by referring to the idea of culture? Think about thespecific ways in which that happened. How did you feel about those efforts?


Popular Meanings of Culture

There is a second meaning of culture that is also fairly widespread, although perhaps not as wellknown as the first. Raymond Williams explains this second meaning of “‘Culture’… as the growth andtending of crops and animals, and by extension the growth and tending of human faculties” (Marxismand Literature 11). In other words, culture is that which sustains and nourishes those who live andmove within it. We see one aspect of this meaning of culture in biological science: The culture within apetri dish is what allows microorganisms to grow and multiply. It feeds them and supports them; it isby consuming the culture, by living in that culture, that the microorganisms grow.

What would this sense of culture mean for people? We must remember that people do not live bybread alone; unlike microorganisms, we require more than simply physical nourishment to support us.We need to be able to talk to people, to entertain and be entertained, to enjoy all kinds of diversionsand distractions, to work at something we find meaningful, and to meet with other people. In short, forus, culture is our “whole way of life” (Williams, Marxism and Literature 17). Williams defines culture as“a very active world of everyday conversation and exchange. Jokes, idioms, characteristic forms notjust of everyday dress but occasional dress, people consciously having a party, making a do, markingan occasion” (Heath and Skirrow 5). Does Williams’s definition sound familiar? It should; he is reallytalking about the artifacts to which we are exposed.

We must be careful in how we understand the relationship among signs, artifacts, and culture,however. If you took a random collection of signs and artifacts from all around the world and piledthem in a building, you would not have a culture within the building. When Williams defines cultures as“whole ways of life,” he is implying a kind of connectedness among artifacts rather than simply amotley collection of many different artifacts. What turns a group of artifacts into a culture is that theyare systemically related: they make up a system of artifacts anchored in group identifications.

Individuals identify with other people and see themselves as parts of groups, as we have alreadynoted. Sometimes those groups are very small and completely present to the individual. More often,however, the groups are large and abstract, extending over wide geographical areas and broadreaches of time. Culture is the integrated set or system of artifacts that is linked to a group. Thelinkage between artifacts and a group occurs because the artifacts are how the group is manifested toits members. The artifacts are systematically linked to each other as they are linked to culture.

Culture is the system of material manifestations of our group identifications (remember that artifactsare actions and events as well as objects, and that what people do is just as material as are theobjects that people can touch or see). Part of the culture of your local motorcycle club is the mangymutt that is your mascot. Part of the culture of being Norwegian Minnesotans is eating lefse andlutefisk; even if any particular Norwegian Minnesotan never eats those, their consumption is still partof that culture.. But the club mascot is also part of a system of artifacts that includes your clubinsignia, the meeting place, certain eccentric characters who are members, the kind of motorcyclesyou have, your rituals and practices, and so forth. That system of artifacts, all of which are interrelatedthrough their link to the group of the motorcycle club, is the club’s culture. Similarly, lutefisk and lefseare part of a system of many other things that bespeak being Norwegian.


Exercise 2.5

This exercise is designed to help clarify the idea of culture as a system of artifacts linked togroup identifications. When you read the words sauerbraten or Tannenbaum, what comes tomind? Germany, of course. Not only that group identification, however, but other artifacts thatmake up the interrelated (and vast) system of German culture: Wagner, schnitzel, beer,lederhosen, Berlin, Munich, and so forth. To think further about culture as systems of artifacts,sort the following group of terms into what you consider the appropriate cultures:

gritsthe IRA

corned beef and cabbageStone Mountain

shillelaghthe Mississippi

kudzuthe Blarney Stone

Guinness stoutstars and bars

Catfishpeat moss

LeprechaunsSpanish moss

William Butler Yeatsantebellum mansions

NASCARCatholics versus Protestants

rebel yellsy’all

Take a look at Exercise 2.5. Most likely, you had no trouble discerning that certain artifacts in this listwere part of the system of Irish culture and the rest were part of the system of Southern (UnitedStates) culture.

Popular culture refers to those systems or artifacts that most people share and that most people knowabout. For those who identify with playing for a symphony orchestra, there is an interrelated system ofartifacts made up of rehearsals, performances, instruments, and so forth. But that culture is notpopular culture because most people neither identify with symphony orchestras nor know about theirsystems of artifacts. But television, and other streaming services accessed on television, like Netflix, isan immensely rich world of popular culture, as nearly everyone watches television, and even if noteveryone sees the same shows, they are likely to know in general about the shows they do not see. Inspeaking of popular culture, then, we are concerned with things, like television, that are part of theeveryday experience of most people.

We now need to refine our exploration of meaning to realize that few meanings are truly individual.Instead, meaning usually comes from a cultural context. What a given sign means, especially as anartifact, is determined in large part by the system of signs (the culture, the system of artifacts) in whichit is placed. For instance, what a candle means is largely shaped by the system or cultural context inwhich you find it. It means one thing within the system of signs that make up a movie about a hauntedhouse, where it might flicker and then go out in the night. It means something else within the culturalsystem of a given religion, as a votive candle or an altar candle, for instance. And it means somethingelse within the system of a dinner for two people in courtship, as it casts a low, warm light over theproceedings. In sum, to understand what a sign means as an artifact, we must consider that signwithin the context of the system of artifacts in which it appears.



The idea of a culture as an integrated system of artifacts needs further development and explanation.Let us explore three important characteristics of cultures:

1. Cultures are highly complex and overlapping.2. Cultures entail consciousness, or ideologies.3. Cultures are experienced through texts.


Cultures Are Highly Complex and Overlapping

When we say that cultures are highly complex, we mean two things. First, there are a great manythings that go into making up the system of artifacts that is a culture. Remember that cultures can bevery broad (American) or very small (this particular monastery), but even the small ones will be madeup of quite a few interrelated artifacts: the food, clothing styles, ways of walking and sitting,architecture, forms of entertainment, sayings and expressions, moral and ethical norms, religiouspractices, and other artifacts that are the material manifestations of the group. So when we thinkabout cultures, we are thinking about many different artifacts that are still related to each otherthrough being part of a system.

There is a second, more interesting way of thinking about the complexity and overlapping nature ofcultures. Ordinary language usage sometimes causes us to think that we belong to only one culture.But that is not the case; we identify with many different groups through the many different cultures thatnurture and support us. We can approach this second point by returning to Williams’s definition of aculture as “a whole way of life.” This definition is actually problematic; there really isn’t a single, wholeway of life for most of us today. To understand why, let’s take a brief detour through history.

It probably used to be the case, many centuries ago, that any given person lived within one large,overarching culture. Such a culture may have been complex, but it was not very multiple. If you hadlived in Britain during the Dark Ages, for instance (say, around 900 C.E.), everything around you,everything you encountered during the day, probably even everything you knew about, would havebeen part of the same system, the same group identification, and thus the same culture. You saw andspoke only to others of your own group. Different aspects of life, such as work, religion, andgovernment, were all closely interrelated; they all manifested the same overarching culture to you.This kind of social situation may still be found in some tribal cultures around the world, where peopleare primarily enveloped in a small, single group of people and surrounded by the artifacts thatrepresent that single group. Perhaps the clearest modern version of this kind of immersion in a culturewould be a cloistered monastery or convent, in which the members encounter, almost exclusively, theexperiences having to do with just their own, single culture.

But clearly, few of us live in such an extremely monocultural situation today. Communication andtransportation have become much easier and more common, especially over long distances. We aretherefore exposed to a bewildering variety of messages and signs, often originating materially in othercultures. People of many different backgrounds live with or near each other. We may now belong to anumber of groups rather than one large, overarching group that surrounds us. For instance, you canbecome deeply involved with simulations such as a game in the versions of Call of Duty, or withelectronic/email “bulletin boards” that are spread out all across the country or even the world, such asthe Nextdoor system. Such a group need not have anything to do with the company you work for,which may have very little connection with where you go for recreation, which may have little to dowith your ethnic or cultural identification, and so forth. In short, because there are many differentgroups with which you identify, you belong simultaneously to many different cultures. Because of thisabundance of group identifications, many people today feel that their lives are fragmented. Somesocial observers have called this fragmentation the postmodern condition.

You might also see this experience of complexity called intersectionality. Just because most of us arepositioned at the intersection of different cultures, it is important for people trying to understand oursocial world to keep in mind a complex view of cultures. Women may be one kind of culture, but theintersectionality of women and, for instance, race introduces complexity to the idea of identificationand belonging with certain cultures. Mix in other cultural dimensions such as class and sexual identity,and the idea of cultural identification can become quite complex indeed. This means that not only isthe critic’s task complex, but that there is an obligation for the critic to think about the intersectionalityof those being studied.

To return to Williams’s definition, for nearly all of us in today’s postmodern world, there simply are notany “whole ways of life” in which we immerse ourselves exclusively. We stand within a complexstructure of ways of life, identifying with many different groups that may have very little in commonwith each other. This is especially likely to be true for people who travel a great deal, who associatewith many different kinds of people, and who hold a variety of jobs. A person who lives in a largely


Hispanic neighborhood, attends a local, largely Hispanic Roman Catholic church, works in a localbodega, and hangs out at the nearby community center is much closer to living within a single,overarching culture than is the person who moves out of that neighborhood, works downtown,watches French and German films, eats in Thai and African restaurants, and becomes a Buddhist. Itwould be a mistake to say that everyone today is one way or another, but increasing numbers ofpeople are becoming like the second person in this example. At any rate, the more you are like thatsecond person—the more you move around, the more you vary your experience and yourenvironment—the more different cultures you will find identifications with. That variety is, increasingly,the condition of most people’s lives today.

It is also important to understand that our identifications with different cultures are one importantsource of contradictions in terms of what artifacts mean. For instance, if your business requires you togo in to work on Sunday while your religion requires you to attend Mass, you will be torn in twodirections. What it means to skip Mass will mean one thing to your business and another thing to yourreligion. Thus, our location in different cultures creates contradictions in what a given sign or artifactmeans.

This complexity can create tensions and struggles within us as we negotiate social struggles amongdifferent groups, and the complexity has much to do with the empowerment and disempowerment ofdifferent groups. Suppose you identify as queer, but also as of a religion that frowns on non-heterosexuality. Suppose you identify with a particular cultural group that is relatively new to thiscountry, and you also want to succeed in the world of business management. If your group ismarginalized in the current business atmosphere, do you identify more with your group or do youcommit to a business career that might pull you away from your group?

Throughout American history, new immigrants have experienced a tension between the old culturefrom which they emerged and the new American culture, one of many, into which they may want tomove. How to integrate while at the same time keeping identity is an age-old problem in this and othercountries, and may have a lot to do with how rhetoric works in different communities.


Cultures Entail Consciousness, or Ideologies

The second important characteristic of culture is that cultures entail consciousness, or ideologies.Let’s start with the second of these terms, ideology, which has traditionally been associated moreclosely with culture.

Ideology is a widely used term today. There are so many different uses for it that you should expect tofind little agreement among scholars as to what it means. For some thinkers, such as Karl Marx,ideology referred to a false set of beliefs and perceptions that the ruling classes attempted to imposeupon lower classes in an attempt to make those in lower classes cooperate in perpetuating the powerof the rulers. This meaning of the term is explained in one definition given by Raymond Williams, “asystem of illusory beliefs—false ideas or false consciousness—which can be contrasted with truescientific knowledge” (Marxism and Literature 55). Marx’s idea was to get rid of false ideas, ofideology, so that people could see things the way they really are. Then, he thought, oppressed peoplewould see the flimsy premises upon which ruling classes built their power and would rise up andoverthrow them. For instance, if the “divine right of kings” could be revealed to be a lot of ideologicalhumbug, then people who had been bowing to kings and queens for centuries could be enabled tosee that in reality all people are equal, and they would overthrow their kingly rulers.

That view of ideology as a system of false ideas that hide reality is still held by some, but increasinglythe term has come to mean something else. Williams also gives two other definitions of the term thatare now more widely used: (1) “a system of beliefs characteristic of a particular class or group,” and(2) “the general process of the production of meanings and ideas” (Marxism and Literature 55);furthermore, Williams suggests that these two definitions can be combined. This more recent notion ofideology is more consistent with the understanding of culture and artifacts that we have beendeveloping here. To distinguish these senses of ideology from the older sense of false ideas, it maybe more useful to think of the term consciousness, which is more clearly implied by Williams’s last twodefinitions. To grasp what consciousness (or ideology) should mean, we need to integrate several ofthe ideas we have covered so far.

First, recall that people live in a world of artifacts that are accessible only by perceptions. That meansthat people might change their perceptions or trade some perceptions for others, but it is not possibleto do away with perceptions to discover some bedrock reality underneath. We may struggle overmeanings, but to search for the “one right meaning” can be a power move favoring your side in thestruggle. To think that kings rule by divine right is one perception; to think that they do not is another.There are legitimate social and political reasons to prefer one perception over another, but becausewe as human beings can be aware of only that which we perceive, it is impossible to identify one setof perceptions as “natural” or “simply the way things are.” You will recall our earlier discussion ofempowered privilege as being propped up by just such a perception of what is natural.

Second, recall that all signs are meaningful, and that artifacts in particular are signs that are chargedwith extra meaning. Third, recall that the meaning of an artifact is significantly determined by its link togroups. Finally, recall that culture is a system, or interrelated group, of artifacts. An ideology orconsciousness is an interrelated system of meanings that is generated by the system of artifacts thatconstitute a culture.

The idea of systematicity is key to ideology or consciousness. To return to Williams’s definitions ofideology, consciousness is a system: The beliefs that make up consciousness (or ideology) relate toeach other; they are part of an interrelated set. Consciousness, or ideology, is a system of beliefs—not the way things “really, truly are,” but what people perceive to be true. Consciousness is theproduction of meanings (through artifacts) that are “characteristic of a particular class or group.”Ideology is based on a sense of what ideas go with other ideas. It is the system of meanings linked toa system of artifacts that is a culture.

This last idea needs some further explanation. It points to the fact that cultures, or systems of artifacts,are the locations of meanings (beliefs, values, ideas, perceptions). A sign becomes an artifact as itbecomes charged with particular meanings that belong to a system. That meaning relates to themeanings of other artifacts in the cultural system; the whole group or system of those meanings isconsciousness or ideology. Let’s take a cross as an example. This simple sign made up of two sticks


becomes charged with meanings of one sort when it is considered as a Christian artifact, or when oneplaces it or thinks about it within that system of artifacts. The cross has one set of meanings whenconsidered in the context of baptism, grace, communion, Christ’s crucifixion, and so forth.

The cross takes on a different set of charged meanings for fans of vampire movies, although thosemeanings are certainly related to the meanings derived from Christianity. This smaller and lesscohesive group is nevertheless a system, for the cross relates to the undead, to magical protection, toCount Dracula, and so forth. Finally, consider the meanings that the cross takes on within the systemof fashion accessories. Here the sign becomes an artifact as it is linked to earrings or necklacependants; meanings having to do with design or material (gold or cast iron, slim or stubby) becomemore important than they are in religious usage. It is realistic to say that the cross is perceived verydifferently—that, in fact, it becomes a different artifact—for the different groups that use it within theirsystem of artifacts (Christians, vampire movie fans, fashion-conscious people). We will examine inlater chapters how the meaning of an artifact can become quite complex as it shuttles back and forthamong these cultural systems. But, for now, it is important to understand that artifacts, such as thecross, mean what they mean according to their placement in a system of artifacts, a culture that is themanifestation of a group.

But those meanings are also often contradictory. We noted previously that contradictions in themeaning of artifacts arise as a result of our identification with different cultures, different groups. Wenoted how the different meanings read into a sign by different cultures will cause contradictions inwhat that sign means. But even within single cultures, contradictory meanings arise. When we saythat meanings of artifacts arise from groups, we are not saying that those meanings are always simpleand straightforward. For instance, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is surely an American culturalartifact. But within that “American” cultural system, he means several things, some of themcontradictory. He stands for racial harmony and understanding but also for a turbulent and violentperiod of our nation’s history. For white Americans, he is a promise that they can get along with blackpeople as well as a reminder of what white people have done to prevent such getting along. ForAfrican-Americans, he is a moral exemplar of nonviolent civil disobedience, as well as a reminder—through his own violent death—of the frustrations that may make violence seem justifiable. Manycultural artifacts are contradictory in similar ways.

Consciousness or ideology is the sum of meanings, or the system of meanings, that is most obviousor most strongly implied by a system of artifacts. We often refer to such meanings as preferredmeanings. These are simply the most popular, or the easiest, meanings to attach to signs. There is aChristian consciousness that is the sum of what the artifacts of Christianity mean. The meaning ofbaptism is linked to the meaning of grace, which is linked to the meaning of the Eucharist orcommunion, and so on. To become a Christian is to enter into that system of meanings, to know them,to see their relationships.

Preferred meanings also tend to be those meanings that prop up already established interests andpowers in any culture—meanings that maintain privilege. If Christianity is empowered in a culture(relative to, say, Hinduism), then the Christian meanings of the cross are more likely to come to mindfirst when one sees a cross. A key component of power is the ability to control preferred meaningsthat are widely shared.

That is not to say that Christianity has no contradictions or that every Christian embraces the Christianconsciousness wholly and completely. But it does mean that there are preferred meanings that makeup the Christian consciousness. Since the meanings of many of the artifacts constituting a culture arecontradictory, consciousness or ideology also contains the seeds of potential contradiction andinstability. In this book, we will pay special attention to the ways in which signs, artifacts, and wholemessages may become sites of struggle because of conflicting, multiple meanings, and we will learnmethods that help us to understand how those struggles proceed in the rhetoric of popular culture.

In an earlier exercise, you were asked to identify some group that you are a part of and to nameartifacts that materially manifest that group to you. Take a second look at that list of artifacts. Can youidentify a consciousness that “fits” with a group that you are part of, a set of meanings that you use tomake sense of the world, a set that would probably be different if you were part of another group?

We will see in Chapter 3 that people do not necessarily accept the consciousness of a culture towhich they belong totally and uncritically. In fact, several factors that we will examine (such as


contradiction) make it necessary for people to struggle over what artifacts mean, to pit the meaningsof one cultural identification against another. For now, however, keep in mind that whether oneaccepts it wholeheartedly or not, there is a consciousness, or an ideology, implied for most people bythe artifacts of a given culture.


Exercise 2.6

To understand where you fit into a network of cultures, you might take an inventory of yourself.If you really want to understand how cultural artifacts affect people, you need to understandwhat your own cultural artifacts are and how they are shaping you. On a sheet of paper,construct the chart below, leaving plenty of space to write in.

ArtifactsGroups Typical Events Typical Objects Other Typical ArtifactsGroup 1: Group 2: Group 3: Group 4:

Now, start thinking about some of the groups with which you identify the most—in other words,the cultures to which you belong. If you are like most people, there will probably be more thanone. Fill in your names for these groups on the lines in the “Groups” column, and for eachgroup, identify some of the artifacts that most clearly manifest that group for you. For example,if Group 1 for you is Indian, which typical events most clearly make that group real andmaterial for you? Which typical objects? Which other typical artifacts? Make similar lists forseveral other groups of which you are a part.

Now go back and compare the groups of artifacts within each column. Do the typical events ofGroup 1 relate to the typical objects of Group 2 in any way? Are the events of Groups 3 and 4connected with each other in any way? Do you find any examples of the same artifact meaningvery different things as defined by different groups? In other words, do you find contradictions?To the extent that you find a lack of connectedness, your cultures are complex, fragmented,and overlapping. Later in this book, we will consider what that complexity, fragmentation, andoverlap mean in terms of how power is shared and how social and political struggles aremanaged today.


Cultures Are Experienced Through Texts

The third characteristic of cultures that we need to understand is that they are experienced throughtexts. We have learned that we hardly ever experience the whole of the groups with which we identify,and that cultural artifacts are the material manifestations of those large, abstract groups. Similarly, werarely experience the entirety of a culture. While there is a set of artifacts that makes the large andabstract group of Polish-Americans materially present for individuals within that group, the individualPolish-American person is still unlikely to experience that entire set of artifacts, and certainly never allof them at once. Instead, we experience smaller, interrelated sets of signs and artifacts. It will beuseful for us to call those sets texts.

The term text is important to the study of the rhetoric of popular culture. It is probably most familiar toyou as a set of words, in the sense of a linguistic text; and, in fact, very many cultural texts arelinguistic, since words and expressions can also be cultural artifacts. This textbook is a text. Anewspaper article or editorial is a text. A letter is a text. We speak of the text of a poem or of a novel.

But, as we have seen, words are not the only signs, the only entities with meaning. Things other thanor in addition to words can be texts as well. A text is a set of signs related to each other insofar astheir meanings all contribute to the same set of effects or functions. All the words and parts of thisbook make a set because they work together to produce certain effects in you at this moment. But abaseball game is a text, too, because all the signs you see within the game work together to produceseveral effects: relaxation, exhilaration, allegiance to a team, and so forth. On the other hand, a groupcomprising your wristwatch, the potted palm on my desk, and Jay Z in all likelihood is not a text,because (unless something very strange is going on) their meanings are not contributing to the sameeffects or functions.

A text is usually a set or group of signs, as noted above, but that group can be large or small. To theextent that a single artifact is complex, comprising several signs within itself that all contribute to thesame effect, a single artifact can sometimes be read as a text. Beyoncé, for instance, is certainly acomplex enough artifact to be readable as a text in her own right. More often, larger groups of signsand artifacts, contributing to the same effect, are read as texts; an entire Beyoncé video might beanalyzed in that way, for example.

A text is something that people perceive, notice, or unify in their everyday experiences; it is alsosomething that critics or students of popular culture create. A text is something that people puttogether out of signs, insofar as people unify the meanings of several signs. You might go to themovies and understand the large collection of signs that you see and hear as the text of the latestFast and Furious, because you can see that the meanings of those signs work together to create thesame set of effects in you and the rest of the audience. On the other hand, you might not think of thenext meeting of a class in which you are enrolled as a text. But suppose a critic were to point out toyou how the arrangement of desks, lecture techniques of the instructor, clothing styles of the students,and subject matter somehow all work together as a set of signs with interconnected meanings, allcontributing to the same effects or functions. Suppose you had not thought of your class in this waybefore. In that case, the critic has identified the text, and having had it identified for you, you now canidentify it as a text yourself. We will see later in this book that one of the primary reasons for theinformed criticism of popular culture is that it can help people to identify texts of which they were notaware.

As we rarely or never experience the whole of a culture (the entire system of artifacts), we can extendour definition of a text by noting that texts are the ways in which we experience culture. Suppose wetake the whole of country-and-western to be a kind of culture, a system of artifacts, alwaysremembering that its fans are also involved in many other cultural systems. Music, of course, is animportant part of that set of artifacts, but so are certain practices such as dancing, going to concerts,and styles of dress and grooming. In addition, there are several subcultures of country-and-westernthat are more specialized systems of artifacts within the larger culture; such subcultures might includecountry gospel, bluegrass, and so forth. Clearly, we might identify ourselves as “country-and-westernfans” and yet never experience that entire system of artifacts.

Instead, we might go out one evening and attend to a Taylor Swift concert, or download some of her


songs to our phones; we experience her music as a text, and that is how we also experience thecountry-and-western culture at that moment. If we go to a concert, the whole experience of theconcert can function as a text as well, a text made up of the crowd, the security system, dancing in theaisles, whiffs of cigarette smoke floating around, and so on. For another example, the country musicstar Tim McGraw could be perceived and studied as a text: what he does, how he dresses, how hemoves, his music, his public image, his romantic affairs, and so forth.

There is an important continuum in types of texts between those that are diffuse and those that arediscrete. A discrete text is one in which all its signs are together in time and space, relatively tightlybounded. If you get a letter in an envelope in the mail, that text is relatively discrete. You do notexpect it to be part of the wallpaper or the tune you are hearing through your earbuds. On the otherhand, a Facebook page is a relatively diffuse text. Any Facebook home page that has any degree ofcomplexity is full of links to other texts, comments, websites, photos, and so forth. You begin with oneFacebook wall, and pretty soon you are three or four pages away from it. The original Facebook homepage is thus a diffuse text in that it bleeds out, chains out, into many other signs, potentially withoutlimit.

For many of the texts of popular culture, it can be difficult to identify the textual boundaries. In themusical concert, for instance, where does the concert begin and end? What is and is not the concert?Some signs—such as the music being played—are clearly constituents of that text. Some signs maybe questionable: Is the difficulty in finding a parking place before the concert, or the ringing in the earsafter the concert, part of that concert as a unified experience, as a text? Some signs, such as the birdyou see flying on your way home from the concert, may clearly not be part of the text. We will thinkabout how to identify and define texts more carefully at a later point.


Exercise 2.7

To better understand the idea of a text, think about the following examples (two of them yourown) and answer the questions below the examples that can help in identifying something as atext.

a. Your lunch todayb. Latest episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noahc. Local baseball game, seen lived. Your own example (#1)e. Your own example (#2)

Answer the following questions for each example:

1. How is this composed of a set of related signs? How do those signs work together tocontribute meanings to the same effects or functions?

2. What are some artifacts that make up this text? In other words, what are its constituentartifacts?

3. How does this text “stand in for” other texts or signs in a larger cultural system? How doesit represent other cultural artifacts in the same system?


Exercise 2.8

To understand this point, consider an example of a possible text that you considered earlier inthe chapter: your lunch today. Think about two texts, or two lunches, that two people sitting atthe same table might have.

Lunch #1 Lunch #2Double martini Hot herbal teaTwelve-ounce T-bone steak Pita bread sandwich with avocado, alfalfa

sprouts, and cheeseFrench fries Corn on the cob Raw vegetables and yogurt dipApple pie à la mode Stoneware plate, bone-handled knife and fork,plenty of paper napkins

Simple china plate, stainless steel knifeand fork, cloth napkin

Of course, an entire consciousness or ideology would be absorbed only after prolonged andrepeated exposure to the meanings of a wide range of artifacts within a cultural system. Buteach of these lunches nevertheless has a “voice” of its own, and the voice speaks both to andabout the diners. Would you say that either lunch shows a consistent set of meanings, beliefs,attitudes, or values? Does either lunch allow you to say something with some measure ofassurance about either of the two diners? Could you make an “educated guess” in response toany of the following questions?

1. Which of these diners is more concerned about the environment?2. Which of these diners is a fan of professional football?3. Which of these diners is female and which is male?4. Which diner is a Republican and which is a Democrat?5. Which diner is over fifty-five and which one is under thirty?

Now stop and think: most of us likely assign meanings rather quickly. Why? Are we rushing tojudgment or using unfortunate stereotypes? Why do we feel so sure of our answers, as Isuspect most of us do? The purpose of posing these questions is not to perpetuatestereotypes but to demonstrate that you probably felt that you could answer at least some ofthem. In order for you to have this sense that you could know the answers to such questions,the text of each lunch must mean something (at least approximately); each lunch mustsomehow fit into larger systems of artifacts and meaning. This is what we mean by stressing


the systematic nature of culture, of its artifacts, and of the ideologies that come from cultures.

Of course, if something is a text, then it can be read. What do we do when we read? We examinesigns and artifacts and identify their meanings. That is clearly what we do when we read words. Wedo the same thing when we experience other kinds of artifacts, so it may be useful to retain the termreading, even when the texts we are examining include things other than words. A text, in otherwords, is something that has meaning, a meaning grounded in the culture behind the text, a meaningthat can be examined and understood. We will see that those meanings are complex and are oftenstruggled over, since what a text means has a lot to do with power.

Because they cohere around meanings, texts are the ways in which we are exposed toconsciousness. A text is the mouthpiece for a culture; it is a representative sampling of the overallsystem of meanings that constitute an ideology or consciousness that is linked to a group. Texts urgea consciousness on us (and thus they also contain the contradictions that are part of aconsciousness.) We do not always accept that consciousness in its entirety, but the urging to do so isthere nonetheless.

So we have come full circle, back to the question of your blue jeans with which this book began.Suppose you see a man of about age seventy, wearing faded blue jeans and a tie-dyed shirt, his longhair pulled back and tied in a ponytail. Furthermore, suppose he is sitting on the hood of an agedVolkswagen Beetle plastered with Grateful Dead stickers, selling homemade jewelry from a battereddisplay tray.

The picture just described is a unified experience—it is a text. Just like the text of an editorial in thenewspaper, or the text of a speech by the president, the text of this seventy-year-old man is speakingto us. It has meaning, and it is articulating a certain consciousness for us. That picture has a voice—what is it saying? What do the blue jeans this man is wearing add to that voice that would not be thereif he were wearing pleated wool slacks?

These questions have to do with rhetoric, with how the meanings that we would find in or assign tothat text are being managed so as to influence people. In the next chapter, we will examine in moredetail some methods for drilling down into rhetorical texts, and arrive at a better understanding of howto apply and detect the concept of rhetoric to the texts of popular culture.



In the following chapters, we will look more closely at how the rhetoric of popular culture works, andhow to study it and examine it. By way of preparation, though, we need to think very broadly abouthow the texts of popular culture differ from traditional texts. We have just learned that popular cultureis experienced via texts. The differences between traditional and popular culture text can be bestunderstood in reference and contrast to the four characteristics—verbal, expository, discrete, andhierarchical—of traditional texts.

First, in addition to verbal texts, the rhetoric of popular culture will be manifested more often innonverbal texts. People are influenced not only through words but also through the images they see.Furthermore, the struggle over power can be conducted nonverbally as well as verbally. One personflies an American flag proudly while another person wears it on the seat of his or her pants; both arerhetorical attempts to use signs to influence others and to manage what it means to be American. Acoal mining company shows pictures of a beautifully restored former strip mining pit, while opponentsto mining show pictures of devastation and ruin; here, too, is the use of nonverbal signs, in this caseas part of the struggle over how the public business of energy and land use is to be managed.

Second, in addition to expositional texts, the rhetoric of popular culture will be manifested more oftenin texts that are metonymic and narrative. Metonymy is the name of a classical trope, or way ofthinking, that means reduction. When you think about something by reducing it to a simpler, smaller,more manageable image that leaves out certain details of the larger whole, you are using metonymy.The president is a metonymy of the whole executive branch of the government, for example. Theexecutive branch is actually many, many offices and officers, aides, and advisers, all hard at workbehind the scenes. But when we say, “President Biden decided that…” or “President Biden sent toCongress…,” we are using metonymy to describe this very complex institution in terms of a person. Inreality, President Biden’s appropriate Cabinet secretary and a hundred of that person’s aidesexecuted the action with the president’s approval. The idea of an individual, solitary president isunderstandable; the web of officials and offices that actually make up the executive branch, however,is much harder to grasp.



Metonymy is a reaction to the problem of the explosion of knowledge, which we have alreadydiscussed. The political problems of the Middle East, for instance, are vast and complex. It is unlikelythat most of the public could claim to understand the intricacies of those problems or of therelationship of that region to the United States. Therefore, we often find metonymy at work in reducingthe Middle East and its problems to images, stories, or quick explanations that allow the public to “geta grasp” of a complex situation. Metonymy is crucial to the aspect of power management that controlsmeaning. Part of the metonymy of the Middle East will be a focus on American or European hostages;any time one of “our people” is taken prisoner in the Middle East, the event will dominate mediaattention for a while. That is because our frustrations about dealing with so-called terrorists, with aseemingly unending conflict over which we have little control and with people who do things differentlyfrom us, can all be reduced to stories about the abduction of hostages. Through metonymy, Americanfears about uncontrollable political forces in the Middle East can also be reduced to images of fearedleaders of states or organizations that allegedly sponsor terrorism or threaten war; such leaders haveincluded figures such as Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad.

One of the most important ways in which metonymy is used to deal with complex issues is throughnarrative, or the telling of stories. Instead of developing complex arguments and amassing proof, as inexpositional texts, many texts of popular culture either tell stories or are storylike, using both wordsand images. Think about the various complex social issues that have been struggled over through themeans of popular films, for instance, such as race relations in the 2014 film Black or White, or inFriday Night Lights, or the management of intimate or social relationships in La La Land and the 28Days/Weeks Later series, or The Walking Dead on television. Television shows will often air episodesthat deal with complex social issues in thirty-minute installments by turning them into stories (thisweek will address alcoholism, next week will take on child abuse, and so forth). Through metonymyand narrative, texts in popular culture participate in struggles over power and disempowerment andmanage issues that were (and sometimes still are) debated in lengthy, expositional argumentselsewhere.

In addition to discrete texts, the rhetoric of popular culture will be manifested in diffuse texts. Severalpoints must be understood here. First, many texts of popular culture do take the form of discrete texts,although they often do not share the other characteristics of traditional texts (e.g., they are largelynonverbal or are not expositional,). A discrete text, you will recall, is a group of signs that is perceivedto be discrete in time and space with clear boundaries and clearly separate from its context. A diffusetext will sometimes not be recognized as a text by those who experience it, and at other times, it willbe recognized by them as a very complex experience. A diffuse text is a collection of signs working forthe same rhetorical influence or related that is not discretely separated from its context. Many of thetexts of popular culture occur in diffuse form.

One good example of a diffuse text would be the whole experience of watching televised football.Most people who are fans will watch televised football with other people in small groups. Think aboutwhat typically goes on during such an experience: people talk with each other, both about the gameand about issues relating to other dimensions of life; the television set is broadcasting both images ofthe game and an overlay of the commentators’ talk about the game; people come and go betweenwhere the television is situated and other parts of the house or bar (for refreshments, bathroombreaks, and so forth); people often switch rapidly among several channels to check on other games aswell. All of these signs and artifacts, mixed together in an incredible jumble, contribute to the samerhetorical effect of enjoyment, of involvement in football, of being a fan. Yet we would be hard-pressedto identify where this text begins and where it ends, to put boundaries in time and space on thissystem of signs. Thus, the experience of watching televised football is a diffuse text. Yet it hasrhetorical influence, and because so many people are so enthusiastically involved in following football,it even manages what has become some of society’s important business. Contrast this kind of text tothe relatively more discrete experience of reading a newspaper article about the previous night’sfootball game by yourself over coffee the next morning. That text is more bounded in time and space.


Exercise 2.9

In the preceding paragraph, it was suggested that spectator sports manage some of oursociety’s important business. On your own or in class, consider these questions carefully:When people follow their favorite sport on television, in the newspapers, or at the stadium, aresome important public problems being addressed? Which problems do today’s spectatorsports industries help to manage? In other words, when people become sports fans, are theyjust sports fans or are there wider implications to what they are doing?

The following points may help you to think about the questions posed above:

1. Criticism or praise of the performance of some African-American athletes, such as ColinKaepernick, Richard Sherman, or Venus or Serena Williams, is sometimes read as beingbased on race. Criticism or praise of white athletes is rarely assumed to be race-based.

2. When sports figures are involved in various scandals such as gambling, steroid use, orsexual abuse, sports commentators often sadly claim that it is especially tragic that sportsfigures should be involved in such activities.

3. Bicyclist Lance Armstrong has admitted using performance-enhancing drugs. This led tohis being stripped of his Tour de France titles, losing endorsements, and so forth. Itprompted discussions of drug use and the extreme importance of winning at all costs inAmerican society.

Finally, in addition to texts that are hierarchical, the rhetoric of popular culture is manifested in textsthat are democratic. In the preceding example of watching televised football, who makes the text?Who puts it all together? Clearly, the fans, the viewers, the audience, or receivers of communicationdo. Of course, a person reading a book or listening to a speech has a choice in how to experiencethose traditional texts to some extent, but, relatively speaking, the football viewer has more choice andcontrol. The fan is not placed in a situation where time, place, and procedures for experiencing textsare constrained as much as they are in the case of most public speeches. The fan is more actively atwork assembling many related signs into a diffuse text. This is how much of the rhetoric of popularculture occurs: people walk through the crowded sea of signs that are available today (down a citystreet, for instance), assembling diffuse texts to suit their needs and desires in ways over which theyhave more choice and control.

Because the rhetoric of popular culture is (relatively) democratic, it may be found to be at work inmarginalized areas of society where traditional rhetoric is not so likely to reach. Some scholars, suchas John Fiske (Reading the Popular, Understanding Popular Culture) and Malcolm Barnard (Fashionas Communication), even argue that popular culture springs mainly from groups of people who havebeen oppressed and marginalized. It is true that the texts of popular culture often emerge from, anddo their work among, the young, the poor, women, racial minorities, and others who have not beenofficially empowered. This is a relative difference as well, but a real one. The upper classes from NobHill watch ballet, while the disempowered from South Boston go bowling.

In general, then, texts of popular culture will be relatively more nonverbal, metonymic and narrative,diffuse, and democratic than are more traditional texts. Increasingly, because of the changes in real-life conditions that we have discussed in this chapter, the important business of society is managed inthose texts of popular culture. In this chapter, we have seen what the rhetorical tradition is and whychanging conditions are moving us away from it.



What kind of business is managed through the texts of popular culture? That question raises thewhole issue of what popular culture is and why it is worth studying. Earlier we learned that peoplegrow in and are sustained by popular culture, by the artifacts and experiences of everyday life.Furthermore, we considered the idea that empowerment and disempowerment in our society do notoccur only in grand, isolated moments but are enacted in the artifacts and experiences of everydaylife. Because of the growth in population, technology, pluralism, and knowledge that we have beendiscussing in this chapter, it is increasingly the case that public business is not being managed, andcannot be managed, in occasional, single moments of rhetoric (the “great speech,” the “importantessay,” the “pivotal book,” and so forth). Because of the growth in these four areas, more of theimportant business of our society is now done from moment to moment in people’s experiences ofpopular culture.

This is a relative difference: there has always been some public business done within the realm ofpopular culture, even if theorists did not recognize it; and today, there is still some business conductedthrough the “great speech” and so on. A century ago, the business of managing the problem of racismwould have depended to a great extent on the impact of significant, occasional rhetorical efforts byleaders such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. But today many of the problems ofracism are managed in Spike Lee films, with different styles of clothing and grooming, and in moment-to-moment interactions in public schools.

Let us pursue the example of racism further. Earlier in this book (Definitions and the Management ofPower in Chapter 1), we discussed the meaning of the management of power. How do the ideas weexplored there apply to the public problem of racism as it is managed in popular culture? People mustdecide what to do and how to behave in relation to people of other races. We must also decide whatcultural differences mean: for example, is it threatening or disrespectful when people of another racespeak more loudly or more softly than we do, walk in a different way, stand too close to or too far fromus, or use eye contact differently? Are such decisions managed, or influenced, by stirring speeches orlengthy essays today? Probably not so much. Instead, the problem of racism is being managed in theplots of television sitcoms and dramas, in movies, that take racism as an occasional theme and urgecertain audience responses to it. Racism is managed in the increasingly common advertisements thatfeature couples, families, and friendly groups of different races interacting. Racism is managed infashion, as shirts and caps with the name or photograph of a popular hip-hop group, or slogans ofracial pride (e.g., “La Raza”), are worn in public and seen by people of all races. And racism ismanaged in athletics, as people of color are elevated to heroic, even mythic, status by their exploitson the field. Racism is being managed and struggled over every time two twelve-year-old white kidsdebate whether the latest The Weeknd download is worth spending this week’s allowance on. There,in the everyday texts of popular culture, is where racism is increasingly managed today.

The same holds true for the management of many other public issues. Earlier, we discussed theincreasing inability of traditional texts to manage the problem of how we develop and marketpharmaceuticals. For the public at large, concerns about prescription drugs may be embodied in theplots of movies that champion lawsuits against drug companies or that feature exciting quests to findnew antibiotics in the Amazon. Comic books or video games influence young minds with depictions ofmonsters created by drug company programs gone awry, and many jokes are made on televisioncomedy shows about drugs, like Viagra, for more “personal” problems. These texts of popular cultureshape many of today’s arguments over the issue of pharmaceuticals.



If we want to understand how people are influenced on these and other issues, and how public affairsare nudged in one direction or another, we need to look at least as much at what is happening inmovies than on the Senate floor. The theory of rhetoric today is increasingly recognizing the importantbusiness that is done through popular culture, as we will see in upcoming discussions in this book. Inshort, more important business is being done in the culture of everyday life, and theory has begun torecognize that business more fully than it ever has before.



To understand what culture means, we began with its building blocks: signs. Signs have meaning inthree ways: indexically, iconically, and symbolically. In discussing symbolic meanings, we noted thatbecause symbols are arbitrary and conventional, their meaning is easily changed. And because theyare not naturally or permanently connected to their meanings, symbols are imprecise and changeablein meaning.

We defined an artifact as (1) an action, event, or object perceived as a unified whole, (2) havingwidely shared meanings, and (3) manifesting group identifications to us. In discussing that definition,we reviewed some important characteristics that contribute to this idea of an artifact:

1. Artifacts are a socially created reality.2. Signs become artifacts as they become charged with meaning, thus crossing a threshold into

artifact status.3. An artifact can be very complex, even being made up of other artifacts.4. Artifacts are the material signs of group identifications.

We defined culture as the integrated set or system of artifacts that is linked to a group and noted thatculture in this sense is what we grow in, what supports us and sustains us. Popular culture, morespecifically, is made up of those systems of artifacts to which most people are exposed. We notedthree important characteristics of culture:

1. Cultures are highly complex and overlapping.2. Cultures entail consciousness, or ideologies.3. Cultures are experienced through texts.

We learned that a text is defined as a set of signs related to each other insofar as their meanings allcontribute to the same set of effects or functions. Furthermore, texts are the ways in which weexperience culture.

We learned that relative to traditional texts, texts of popular culture are more nonverbal, metonymicand narrative, diffuse, and democratic. We saw how these characteristics match a state of affairs inwhich more important rhetorical work is done in popular culture.



We have left many questions unanswered. So far, we have only a general idea of the basiccharacteristics of the texts that enact the rhetoric of popular culture. We need a clearer idea of what tolook for in texts of popular culture. Thus, one important question in the next chapter will be “what doesthe critic look for in identifying the texts of popular culture?”

Critical analysis of rhetoric is never a lockstep procedure, though. Different critics will be interested indifferent aspects of a given subject or will want to ask different questions about a text. Thus, a secondquestion for us in the next chapter will be “what choices are available to the critic of popular culture?”

We also need a clearer sense of how texts work to manage society’s business through popularculture. Thus, an important final question for us will be “what is it about texts that persuades people?”And since most texts are complex and exert influence in several different ways, we will also want toknow how to analyze texts on several different levels. These and other questions will be taken up inChapters 3, 4, and 5.






3.1 Explain how texts can be sites of struggle

3.2 Explain the three characteristics of critical studies

3.3 Discuss the ways in which a critic can find a text

3.4 Explain what critics do when defining a context

3.5 Explain the choices a critic must make once inside the text

3.6 Say how metonymy, power, and judgment figure in to criticism, and how the criticshould think about those concepts

If you are an alert reader of chapter titles, you may be wondering about the title of this one. You knewthat you were going to study rhetoric, but here, apparently, is a chapter that also seems to be aboutcritical studies, whatever that may be.

There are at least two reasons for this chapter’s title. First, most of those who study the ways in whichpopular culture influences people are working within a general approach to scholarship known ascritical studies (although not all of these people use the term rhetoric). We will look at what criticalstudies means in more detail a little later on. Second, what you do when you study the rhetoric ofpopular culture and then share your findings with others is known as criticism; you will end up writingor presenting criticism, or a critique, of the particular aspect of popular culture that you are studying.The last five chapters of this book, for instance, are examples of critical studies—of race relations inMilwaukee, gun shows, the movie Groundhog Day, steampunk, and “bad resurrections” in Americanlife and culture.

This chapter is concerned with how to think about rhetorical criticism. It should not be taken as a set ofinstructions for how to march lockstep through a term paper. The different sections of this chapter, forinstance, are not a “step 1, step 2” guide to how to write a critical study. Preparing an actual criticalstudy is like writing an essay, and you should proceed as you would for writing any essay or report.What is more important is understanding how to go about critiquing popular culture so that you willhave something to say in your critique. That is what this chapter will equip you to do.


Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images



Before we learn more about critiquing the rhetoric of popular culture, we need to clarify two basicprinciples that will underlie the critical methods explained in the rest of the book. These two principlestogether create a paradox about the nature of texts. First, we will learn that texts wield rhetoricalinfluence because of the meanings they support. In other words, texts facilitate the creation ofmeanings that influence those who receive them. Second, we will learn that because texts can meandifferent things, they are often sites of struggle over meaning (and thus, over how and what or whomthey will influence). Creation of a text may be the point of rhetorical struggle. The paradox is that a textis both a means to, and an outcome of, rhetorical struggle.


Texts Influence Through Meanings

We noted earlier in this book that texts influence people to think and act in certain ways. Thatinfluence is the rhetorical dimension of texts. Here we need to be more specific about exactly whatmotivates or drives that influence: the meanings that texts encourage people to accept. We think oract in certain ways in response to texts because of the meanings the texts have for us and themeanings they urge us to attribute to our experience.

In the 2015–2016 National Football League season, it was discovered that footballs used andmanaged by the New England Patriots were underinflated, which allegedly gave an advantage to ateam’s offense, and that meant to the Patriots’ stellar quarterback, Tom Brady. For months,arguments flew back and forth as to whether New England had intentionally deflated the balls,whether Brady knew about it, and so forth. Some argued that even if the balls were deflated, it didn’tmatter. Others saw a consistent pattern in conduct by the Patriots and Brady. Eventually Brady wasgiven a temporary suspension from play in the following season (2016–2017), which hardly hamperedthe Patriots at all. To this day, you can get a good argument started among sports fans by mentioningthis incident, even though Brady changed teams to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently. Why did allthese texts create all these meanings, and why did they urge such meanings upon the public?Because choices and actions that the public might adopt usually depend on meaning. You will notthink that Brady should be suspended unless cheating on football inflation means something criminalor at least wicked to you. And you will be moved to forgive the Patriots and Brady and move on if, toyou, deflation simply means something that everybody does now and then.

Texts generate meanings about other things in the world. Texts also have meanings themselves; forexample, Tom Brady himself is a text, or at least a complex artifact, with meaning. His status as aseparate text was solidified by his winning the Superbowl in 2021 with the Buccaneers. Whateverinfluence texts have on people’s thoughts and actions arises from what those texts mean to them.Faced with a row of otherwise indistinguishable jugs of motor oil in a hardware store, you will buy theoil that has the most favorable meanings. Of course, advertisers for oil, gasoline, soap, and otherlargely similar products spend a great deal of money trying to attach certain meanings to theirproducts, since those goods are hard to distinguish on the basis of their own intrinsic values. So if youpick Quaker State over Pennzoil, it is because advertisers have succeeded in causing Quaker State tomean something to you that you prefer over whatever Pennzoil has come to mean.


Texts Are Sites of Struggle Over Meaning

We now have to complicate the first principle we have learned by turning to the “struggle” side of theparadox of texts. As we learned in the first chapter, meaning is rarely simple. Instead, what a giventext means, what a sign or artifact means as the result of a text’s persuasive influence, is often verycomplicated. That is because, especially in the case of symbolic meaning, meaning itself is rarelysimple and straightforward. You can see this complexity in the example of transgendered people.What it means to be transgendered is being struggled over, increasingly, in state legislatures and inthe texts of popular culture. Within the last twenty years, we have seen a dramatic change in themeaning of Middle Eastern nations in the minds of Americans. These nations have “meant” eitherfriend or foe as governments have come and gone, rebellions and terrorist insurgencies haveoccurred and been crushed, and relationships to the United States have varied. Until two young menfrom Chechnya were accused of the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, most Americans likely hadfew or no meanings for Chechnya. A string of terrorist bombings in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere byagents from Morocco, Syria, and elsewhere brought awareness of Middle Eastern countries perhapsnot previously often thought of by Americans. Now the meanings many people have are likely to benegative.

The meaning of the popular music favored by young people has always been struggled over. FromBruno Mars to Juice WRLD, these artifacts have meant one thing to their fans and another thing toparents, police, and priests. In other words, people struggle over how to construct these different textsin ways that suit their own interests. Making a musical artist into one kind of text or another istherefore one goal of rhetorical struggle.

These meanings are struggled over precisely because of the first principle we discussed: meaningsare where the rhetorical power lies. The meaning of a president’s decision to send troops into actionagainst a foreign power will have enormous payoff in terms of who runs the government after the nextelection. Therefore, the president’s political friends and enemies will spend a great deal of time andeffort urging the public to adopt competing meanings of that action. Furthermore, the meanings of thevery texts produced by those friends and enemies are also at stake. The whole business of so-calledspin doctors, or public opinion shapers, is to struggle over the meanings of texts themselves so thattexts can go on to influence further meanings. Scholars in the field of critical studies describe thisstate of affairs when they note that meanings, and therefore the texts that generate meanings, aresites of struggle. The idea is that struggles over power occur in the creation and reception of texts asmuch as (or more than) they occur at the ballot box, in the streets, or during revolutions.

Take a look at Image 3.1 toward the end of this chapter. In his 2016 campaign, candidate DonaldTrump vowed to “make America great again.” Caps, shirts, and signs such as the hat Mr. Trump iswearing in the photo were common. Now, why would such a promise be a site of struggle? Hissupporters were in full agreement that American power and economic success had slipped during theObama administration. Trump’s opponents thought quite the opposite—that the nation was strong andsuccessful under Obama. Many of these opponents thought the slogan was a coded reference toObama’s race, as in those Trump supporters who wanted to “take back America.” Even seeminglysimple slogans like this can be struggled over. Former First Lady Melania Trump’s adopted motto of“Be Best” may have been an attempt to create a text that did not invite struggle, although somecriticized it for saying little.

The invasion of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, was certainly a site of struggle, as someregarded it as a patriotic action and others as treasonous. The presidential election of 2020, whichmay have been one cause of that invasion, was surely a site of struggle between those who thoughtthe election of Joe Biden was “stolen” from President Trump and those who did not.

Over the last few years, there has been greater public awareness over police shootings of people ofcolor, especially black men. The shooting of George Floyd in Minnesota in 2020 sparked muchstruggle over whether it was justified, what are proper rules for police conduct, and whether theeventual conviction of at least one officer was justified.

The critic of the rhetoric of popular culture (which is what you, as a reader of this book, are training tobecome) can play an important role in those struggles. Critics are meaning detectives; their role is to


explain what texts mean. Rarely do good critics claim to explain the only possible meaning that a textcould have. Instead, the best and richest analyses show ranges of meanings and may explain theways in which certain texts are sites of struggle over meaning. Because meaning is the avenuethrough which texts wield influence, critics work directly to explain how it is that people areempowered or disempowered by the meanings of various texts.

An important tradition in the study of struggle in texts is what is often called the “Birmingham School”because it was originally grounded in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the Universityof Birmingham in England. A major theorist of this school was Stuart Hall. The Birmingham Schoolarose in response to what is sometimes called the “Frankfurt School” and its leading scholars, such asTheodor Adorno or Herbert Marcuse. The Frankfurt School argued that popular culture was a meansfor empowered interests to control mass populations, which had little defense against such powerfulpersuasion. The Birmingham School argued, against the Frankfurt School position, that ordinarypeople in their everyday lives often adapt texts to their own purposes. This may include combiningtexts in creative ways or appropriating texts for purposes not imagined by those who created the texts.Through such creative adaptation, the rhetorical demands of power may be resisted if not entirelyavoided. A consistent theme in the writings of these scholars is that texts are sites of struggle and arerarely taken to mean only what those in power intend them to mean. Critical studies by members ofthis school, such as Hall, focus on the range and variety of different readings in which audiencesengage.


Exercise 3.1

To better understand why meaning is the source of the influence exerted by the rhetoric ofpopular culture, do this quick exercise on your own or in class on the instructions of yourteacher.

Think about the last article of clothing that you bought because you really liked it and wanted toown it (that is, not some socks you bought in a rush because your other gray pair had toomany holes). Do some self-examination and think about what that article of clothing means toyou. Does it mean physical attractiveness? Elegance? Fun in the sun? List your ownmeanings.

Now back up from that article of clothing and consider the meanings you just listed. Thinkabout other things you might do or items you might buy because of those meanings. Forinstance, if you bought a T-shirt because it meant summertime fun to you, what else will youbuy or do to produce that same meaning? Sunglasses? An hour in a tanning booth? ACaribbean vacation? If you think about it, it is the meaning of these items or experiences that isprimary; what you make of the tank top and the shades and the hour in the tanning booth—what these things mean to you—is what is going to stick with you.

Finally, think about the paradoxical nature of the various texts in this example. Some texts(such as ads for Caribbean cruises) urge you to accept certain meanings. But an article ofclothing is a text that you yourself work over so as to make it support meanings that serve yourinterests.

To think about the rhetoric of popular culture, or the ways in which the texts and artifacts of popularculture influence us (along with our own participation in making meaning), we need to think aboutwhat popular culture means to people—the ways in which those meanings can be multiple andcontradictory and how those meanings are struggled over. Because critics are meaning detectives, arhetorical criticism is an exercise in showing the influences exerted by signs through their meanings.There are many methods (organized, systematic, and reliable ways of thinking) for thinking aboutpopular culture already available to you. Let’s begin to consider such methods by examining the wide-ranging, loosely connected set of methods known as critical studies.



A large number of people all around the world are studying exactly what you are learning about here(see, for example, S. K. Foss; Storey). Working as university professors, as columnists andcommentators, or as independent writers of books and articles, these thinkers and scholars arestudying the ways in which experiences of popular culture influence people. Their work follows manydifferent approaches and is based on widely differing assumptions. But taken as a group, theyconstitute a loosely knit school of thought or way of thinking that has been called cultural studies orcritical studies. For the sake of convenience, we will use the latter term.

Critical studies is not a professional or social club with its own set of rules. It is not a tightly knit, clearlydefined, precisely delineated set of principles. Many of the theories and methods used by scholars inthe field of critical studies are, in fact, at odds with one another on important issues. Critical studiesoverlaps considerably with other fields such as literary studies and film studies. But there are alsosome principles that link these theories and methods together and help to define critical studies as aschool of thought. In this chapter, we will examine the principles that different branches of criticalstudies have in common, the theories and methods they share. In Chapters 4 and 5, we will look moreclosely at some differences among a few specific branches of critical studies. Now, however, we willlearn that all branches of critical studies are (1) critical in attitude and in method, (2) concerned withpower, and (3) interventionist.


The Critical Character

One thing that characterizes the different branches of critical studies is that they are all, unsurprisinglyenough, critical. In this sense, the term critical refers to both (1) an attitude and (2) a method.


The critical attitude is somewhat related to the everyday, colloquial sense of the term critical, thoughwithout its negative connotations. If you are being critical in this negative sense, you are disagreeingwith, or finding fault with, something. In finding fault, you take apart or dissect another’s words andactions to show their true (and pernicious) meanings. Now, critical studies is not exclusively negativein this sense, but it does refuse to take things at face value. It adopts an attitude of suspicion, in otherwords, in which it assumes that things are often other than (or more than) they seem. Again, thisattitude is not intended to be hostile or destructive; it simply means that people in critical studies wantto know what else is going on besides the obvious.



Critical studies is always looking beneath the surface. For instance, a critical scholar watching anepisode of one of the television Real Housewives series franchises would assume that besides beinga set of interrelated stories about some unfulfilled women, the show has meanings and is influencingpeople in a number of ways. To give another example, it is not being critical to say that vampireshows, such as Let the Right One In, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and From Dusk Till Dawn, are storiesabout the undead who go around biting people on the neck. Such a statement has not gone beyondwhat is obvious, or merely on the surface. It is being critical, however, to say that vampire movies helppeople deal with problems of conformity and industrialization (Brummett, “Burke’s RepresentativeAnecdote”). An observation like that is not obvious, but it can be an interesting insight that the criticdiscovers and shares with readers. So, in sum, the critical scholar must be prepared to dig into texts,to think about the ways that people are being influenced as well as entertained, informed, and so forthby such texts.


Critical studies is also a method, a way of asking certain kinds of questions about whatever is beingstudied. These questions are about meaning, complexity, and evaluation. A critical method wants toknow about meaning. It asks, “What does a text, an experience, an object, an action, and so forthmean to different people?”

Rather than breaking them up into isolated parts, a critical method deals with the complexity of textsand experiences as they are actually experienced. Such a method asks, “What are some suggestedmeanings in the text, what are some of their influences or effects, and how do these influencesinterrelate with each other?”

Finally, a critical method seeks to evaluate that which it studies, to make some judgment aboutwhether that object or experience’s meanings and influences are good or bad, desirable orundesirable, and so forth. The methods best suited to answering these kinds of questions aresometimes called qualitative methods (in contrast to quantitative methods that rely more heavily onexperimental or survey research). Critical is probably a clearer term than qualitative, however, so wewill return to that usage after the following discussion of the difference between qualitative andquantitative methods.


Exercise 3.2

Turn to the examples of images and ads at the end of this chapter. We will refer to these adsoften as illustrations of how to use critical methods. Consider Image 3.2, the Play men’sfragrance advertisement. We’ll think about more specific ways to study this ad later, but fornow, try to “work up some suspicions” about it. Consider these questions: What overallmeanings are created in this text? The intended purpose is, of course, to persuade people tobuy the fragrance, but what widely shared meanings does the text tap into so as to lure peopleto that purchase, and what widely shared meanings does the text reinforce or contribute to?The following are specific clues that could lead you to become suspicious:

Why is the fragrance presented in a bottle that resembles some sort of portable mediaplayer, such as a smartphone?

Why is Justin Timberlake pictured in an airplane seat, with an empty seat beside him?Why not in a bus, a train, or in coach class?

Based on the signs you observe in this text, what sort of audience do you think the text isdesigned to attract? Male or female? How about nationality or race? Does the text eitheruse or contribute to any stereotypes?

Consider the use of images in the text. What meanings are created by the clothing thatTimberlake wears? What is that around his neck and what does it mean?

There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions, but there are some betterand worse answers! You will need to provide evidence from the text to support your claims.The point is for you to see that for this advertisement, as for most texts, there may be someinteresting meanings, or influences, at work beyond the obvious ones. Note that whateveranswers you come up with, they require close readings of the texts; you have to dig into themwith both hands!

For an example of the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches, let’s go back to theexample of a critic studying one of the many Real Housewives shows. Some questions that might beasked in relation to that show are: (1) Did that aspirin commercial halfway through last night’s episodeincrease sales of that particular product? (2) Does the show as a whole series affect how peopleunderstand gender roles? (3) How should we understand the ways in which the show and itscharacters are viewed in moral or ethical terms in an era when more and more people at least saythey are concerned about morality and ethics?

Now think about the best ways to answer those questions. Questions 1 and 2 are not criticalquestions, by and large. They might best be answered by survey research; you could simply go outand ask people about their aspirin-buying habits or their views on gender. Or they might be answeredby experimental manipulation of variables, in which you compare the aspirin-buying habits and genderviews of a select group of the show’s viewers against a control group that does not view the show.Clearly, survey and experimental research (rather than simply sitting in a chair and musing about theanswers) provide better ways to answer such questions. Both survey and experimental research areconsidered quantitative methods because many of their findings will be expressed using numbers (thenumbers of those who buy more aspirin will be compared to the numbers of those who do not, and soforth).

Question 3 is a little different; it is more complex and might be answered in more than one way. Youcould answer it quantitatively, by surveying people as to their reactions, or by experimentallycomparing those who saw the show with those who did not. But if you share the assumption withwhich we began this chapter—that an important dimension of influences and effects is meaning—thenit is clear that these quantitative methods will not answer such a question adequately.


Question 3 becomes a critical question when you start to think about what ethics and morality in RealHousewives, or in American society as a whole, mean. This is a question that the critic must address.But asking an audience about meaning is usually not sufficient. You can ask people what the moralityof the series means to them and get an answer, but that is not a sufficient and efficient way todetermine meaning, for three important reasons.

First, meaning is complex. We have already discussed the idea that a given text or artifact meansdifferent things as it is considered within different contexts or cultural systems. Even within a singleculture, a text will usually have many different meanings. We have noted how contradictions inmeaning occur for many artifacts. Opposing meanings might be found in texts that are sites ofstruggle. All of this means that few people who are not accustomed to thinking about wide ranges ofmeaning will be able to say, comprehensively, what a text or artifact means. Texts usually have manymore meanings than most people are able to see.

Second, people may not be able to articulate meanings. We learned in Chapter 2 that peopleparticipate in making meanings, but that does not mean that they can always say how they do so. Ameaning detective might consider asking people to say what some text means. But some people arenot very good at saying what a text means to them, even though it may mean a lot. This does notmean such people are unintelligent; it means that intelligence, and an ability to detect meanings,comes in many forms. Some meanings may be nonverbal, intuitive, or emotional, and therefore notthe kind of thing that can easily be put into words. It may take a critic who is trained in talking aboutmeaning to articulate what certain texts mean.

Third, meaning is sometimes beyond awareness; people may not consciously know what a particulartext meant to them. They may not even be aware they are being influenced by certain texts.Participation in making meaning need not be done intentionally and with full awareness. Most peopledo not go through the kind of conscious introspection and probing of meaning that you are becomingacquainted with in reading this book. So, for many people, artifacts may have meanings of which theyare unaware, and therefore meanings that they could not report.

Critical studies is qualitative because it is concerned with qualities more than quantities—and that isanother way of saying that it is concerned with meanings. The critic’s job is to explore what a text orartifact means, including its different or contradictory meanings as well as the ways that meanings arestruggled over, forced upon some people and rejected by others. As critics reveal the meanings oftexts and artifacts, they are simultaneously doing two things:

1. Critics are explaining the rhetoric of popular culture, since, as we discussed above, what textsand artifacts mean are the ways in which they influence people.

2. Critics are showing how to experience life by demonstrating how texts and artifacts might beunderstood, the meanings that can be found in them. When we can see a different set ofmeanings in a conversation, or a film, or some music, we can experience that little part of life in anew way.

We have seen earlier in this book that people make sense of, or find meaning in, signs and artifactsas they experience them. To have an experience is to organize signs and artifacts and make themmeaningful. For example, take two people watching a parade go by. One is filled with patriotic fervorat the flags and bands. The other is more cynical and not very patriotic, and every flag and bandprompts her to grouse about the nation and its policies. These two people are finding very differentmeanings in the artifacts that go past them, and it would also be fair to say that they are constructingvery different experiences for themselves.

The critic’s job is to demonstrate ways of experiencing parades by explaining the different ways that,for instance, parades (or films, or sporting events) have meaning. But the critic does not have to stepinto the skins of people to show what a given parade definitely meant to a particular person. Thatwould be impossible to do, since nobody can see completely into another’s mind. Northrop Frye (63)makes a useful distinction that explains what the critic does instead: The critic shows what people, ingeneral, do, not what specific people did. The critic does not say, “Here is what that parade meant toJuan on that particular day.” Instead the critic says, “Here is one way that this parade might beexperienced [might have meaning].” In doing so, the critic shows his or her reader how meaningsmight be constructed and how life might be experienced.


Concern Over Power

The second main characteristic shared by most varieties of critical studies is one that you are alreadyfamiliar with: a concern for power. Critical studies examines what power is or what it has beenunderstood to be, and how power is created, maintained, shared, lost, and acquired. Critical studiesacknowledges that power is often secured through the more traditional routes of elections or physicalforce. But within critical studies there is also an awareness, stemming from the characteristic“suspicion” that we discussed earlier in this chapter, that power is seized and maintained in other, lessobvious ways: in architecture, in classroom layouts in public schools, in social norms for properbehavior during movies and sporting events—in other words, in all the experiences of popular culture.As noted at the beginning of this book, the empowerment and disempowerment of whole groups ofpeople occurs bit by bit, drop by drop, in the moment-to-moment experiences of popular culture. Therhetoric of popular culture, or the ways in which popular culture wields its influences, therefore has alot do with power.


Exercise 3.3

This exercise is designed to help you to understand the kinds of questions that are critical, thatlook into meaning, as opposed to the kinds of questions asked by other methods such asexperimentation or survey research. You will find some questions listed below. For eachquestion, determine (1) what methods, steps, or procedures would allow you to answer thatquestion and (2) whether it (or some aspect of it) can be answered critically.

1. Why do some people think that the world is coming to an end?2. What caused World War I?3. What motivates Tyler Perry to make his films?4. Does my car need a new battery?5. Does television fairly represent all races in the United States?6. Is television more violent than movies today?

Note: You may need to break some of these questions up into issues that can be dealt with critically and issuesthat cannot be. To answer some questions, you may have to count, compare, or observe something as well asapply critical thinking about meaning and evaluation.

In thinking about empowerment and disempowerment, critical studies assumes that although theyoccur from moment to moment in the experiences of individuals, they follow a pattern set by groups. Itis as large classes that people tend to be empowered or disempowered. Of course, individuals dothings that empower or disempower them individually. Being elected to the U.S. Senate is personallyempowering, immoderate consumption of alcohol is personally disempowering, and so forth. Butcritical studies assumes that most of the time, people experience power in ways that are similar to theexperiences of other members of their groups. If a child is disempowered, according to critical studies,it is because nearly all children are disempowered as a group.

The major demographic categories that have most preoccupied scholars in critical studies have beenthose of gender, race, and economic class. There are other categories one might consider, includingage, religion, sexual/affectional orientation, body type or shape, and degree of physical ability ordisability. Actually, the list of such categories is potentially endless and may vary from one time orsituation to another.


Critical Interventionism

We have learned that critical studies is critical in attitude and method and is concerned with power. Athird and final characteristic is that it is interventionist. That is to say, critical studies is explicitlyconcerned with intervening, or getting involved in problems in order to change the world for the better.A critic wants to step into the lives of his or her readers and give them ways to see and experience theworld differently.

The interventionist nature of critical studies is really an outgrowth of its critical attitude and methodand its concern for power. We noted earlier that the field of critical studies attempts to show peoplehow to experience life, or how to find life meaningful, in particular ways. That goal implies that peoplehave choices among different ways to live their lives. If people have choices, then they can beinfluenced or taught to make sense of experience in certain ways as opposed to others. The critic’sjob is to show how experience might be understood and in doing so to give people options forexperiencing their lives. As a critic, you cannot help but be interventionist, because any time you showpeople different ways of doing things, you have intervened in their lives and changed them in someway.

For example, there are powerful social and political interests in our culture that for decades haveencouraged consumption of food, fuel, consumer products, and other goods. From television ads togovernment and industrial press releases, we are told that it is good for the economy for us to buy asmany things as we can. We are constantly urged, for example, to strive to “keep up with the Joneses.”

From time to time, however, an ecological movement springs up that urges people to find differentmeanings in the process of buying and consuming. The current concern over global warming is justsuch a movement. People are encouraged to see acquisition of one product after another asunnecessary and harmful to the environment. For instance, people are being encouraged to questionthe wisdom of buying drinking water in disposable bottles. The ecologists who urge people to seeconsumption in this way are doing exactly what rhetorical critics do; they are saying, “Look at thisplastic hamburger carton this new way, rather than that old way,” and “Buying a new gas-guzzlingSUV every other year means a negative effect on the environment as much as it means a positiveeffect on the economy.”

Good critics do just that sort of thing. They show us how to think about and to find meaning in certainthings, how to experience certain texts and artifacts; in so doing, they try to change us. It is almostalways liberating to realize that you have more options in deciding how to experience life, to be able tosee and understand experience in more than one way, to be able to find many meanings in asituation. For that reason, good rhetorical criticism is liberating. It liberates you, the critic, because itgives you a chance to probe into and develop some of these other potential ways of experiencing andunderstanding. And good rhetorical criticism liberates your readers and listeners as they share thenew insights you have gained. Rhetorical criticism is always judged, therefore, in terms of the insightsit provides into how people experience the influences of popular culture, and whether it expands theoptions people have for ways of experiencing that influence.

We are now ready to consider some of the ways critics go about thinking about the rhetoric of popularculture. This chapter will soon shift into a different mode, so be warned: The following sections do notdescribe steps to follow in a prescribed order, nor do they give directions for writing or presentingcriticism. Rather, the actions described here are ways to think about how people experience life andwhat their experiences mean.

In thinking about such issues, critics have to make choices or decisions about what to study, whatassumptions to make about what they study, and so on. Therefore, the rest of this chapter will lay outchoices for you to make, but it will not tell you what to do. Critics’ choices about what to study, andhow to think about those objects of study, will direct their attention in different ways, thus exposingdifferent dimensions of meaning. Thinking carefully about these choices is especially important if thetexts under consideration are sites of struggle over many possible meanings; in this case, critics mustdecide which of those meanings to focus on. In the next part of this chapter, we will examine some ofthe continua, or ranges, of choices that are available to critics.


One important thing rhetorical critics must consider is what the object of criticism will be. By object ofcriticism, we mean the experience that the critic wants to analyze. These objects of criticism areusually, but not always, texts rather than single signs or artifacts. The critic must identify a text andplace it in context; we will refer to this identification and placement as positioning the text. Obviously, afirst step in positioning a text is to find, or identify, a text that you would like to study.



A fundamental choice in thinking about a rhetorical criticism is that of selecting a text. You will recallfrom the first two chapters of this book that a text is a set of signs that work together to influencepeople. Another way to think of a text would be to look for a set of signs that are taken together ascreating an interrelated set of meanings. It is important for you to find a text that will be exciting for youto analyze, a text that you will be able to say something about, and a text for which you have somenew insights. There are two sources of texts that you should consider.

First, consider your own experience as a source of texts. What have you experienced recently, whathas happened to you, what have you seen or heard, that interests you? Have you seen a film or atelevision show, or read a blog, that “turned on” your critical attitude, for instance—one in which youthought there was something going on beyond the obvious? Can you point to some complexexperience, such as going to a wedding or a commencement ceremony, that might usefully beanalyzed as a text? Have any of your recent experiences seemed to have something to do withpower? Could you point to some magazine article or blog that you recently read that worked toempower or disempower people within its own small space of influence? Finally, have you recentlyexperienced a text that excited your interventionist impulses or your desire to get involved somehow(for example, did you see a movie that you thought was racist in subtle ways, so that you wanted toexpose that racism)? These are questions that you might ask in relation to yourself and your ownexperiences of texts. Remember to look widely for different kinds of texts; we will look more closely ata range of possible choices in a moment.

A second source for finding a text is theory. This term in this context will need some explaining. Acritical theory is an abstract statement about how people construct meaningful experiences. Incontrast, a criticism (or critical study) is an illustration, or modeling, of that theoretical statement. Atheory explains what people do in general, how they make sense of their experiences for the mostpart. A critical study is an application of a theory—it says, “That generalization can be seen at workhere, within this limited frame of space and time.”



For example, the critical study that is reprinted in this volume as Chapter 9 began with a theory thatsaid, in a nutshell: Steampunk is a critical and artistic movement that uses images of VictorianEngland’s industrial and imperial past to critique current American and European empire (Brummett,Clockwork Rhetoric). This is a theoretical statement designed to explain why steampunk appears theway it does in culture and why so many respond to it. Notice that this theoretical statement is abouthow people create experience; it makes an assertion about what people do to enjoy and participate inan aesthetic and cultural movement. Notice that the theory is also abstract or general; that is, it talksabout how costumes, cosplay, and published images work in general, not about a particular top hatwith a stovepipe on it.

The actual critical study that was based on that theory goes to illustrate, or model, that abstractstatement with specific examples from steampunk watches and from the movie Brazil. The studyshowed that steampunk manages the power that comes with empire, either by jumping scale up andputting people in a context of overwhelming and stultifying power, or by jumping scale down andcreating simulations that seem to put that power within the grasp, literally, of the public. Suchstrategies include providing a great many highly detailed examples, for instance.


A reader of that study should have been instructed by the study in how to use the theory tounderstand other experiences, in other contexts. After reading such a study, a reader might foreverafter be alert to strategies used in other aesthetic and cultural movements, or even in other examplesof steampunk more richly, noticing and understanding a little bit more of this aspect of life. A readermight go to a cosplay convention with greater understanding of what goes on when people dress inthe trappings of industry or of empire.

Too often, what you learn in one class is never called upon in other classes, especially acrossdisciplines. But in using theory as a source in selecting a text for critical analysis, your own readingand prior education become valuable resources. In psychology, sociology, anthropology, English, andmany other kinds of classes, you have doubtless read critical theories (even if the authors you readdid not always refer to their works by that name). For example, some theories describe, in generalterms, how people behave in businesses or other organizations; such theories might be illustratedwith case studies of what happened at IBM corporate headquarters in New York or at a Westinghouseplant in Indiana. Some theories describe how people in general understand poems and will beillustrated by analysis of a particular poem. Some theories describe the steps that people go throughin grieving for the dead and will be illustrated by concrete examples of the experiences of particularmourners.


Exercise 3.4

Think about theories you have read in other classes. If you need a reminder, look at the booksfor those classes and find “theory” in the table of contents or the index. Describe a theory thatyou have encountered that describes in general what people do, how people behave, howpeople experience life or find it meaningful. Summarize that theory in a few sentences. Whenyou first read the theory, was it illustrated with a critical study? Did an example come with it?How would knowing that particular theory equip you to understand other experiences beyondthe example provided in that particular critical study?

In other words, suppose you read a theory in a sociology class that made some generalstatements about the behavior of people in nursing homes. The theory may have come with acritical application, such as studying the behavior of people in a nursing home in a New Jerseytown. Does knowing that theory allow you to make interesting connections to the ways peoplebehave in other institutions, such as public schools, summer camps, or the armed forces?

Theories are a useful source for texts because they tell you how to look for a text. For instance, youmay never have thought of the stages of a personal relationship as a “text.” But after reading Knappand Vangelisti (Interpersonal Communication), you might well be able to see a unifying thread linkingseveral events that have occurred in a relationship that you have had, and that unifying thread mightconstitute a text. Knapp argues that relationships develop or deteriorate in clear stages; hisidentification of those stages provides a useful system of categories for analysis. In this way, Knapp’stheory of relationship stages calls your attention to a unity of influence among signs, or a text, that youmight otherwise not have been fully aware of.

Whether you find a text based on your own experience alone or one that is suggested to you bytheory, you will have some important choices to make about how to identify and understand the text.Critical scholars do not always agree about how to make these choices; we will examine some ofthose differences among scholars in Chapters 4 and 5. Here, however, we will examine some of theranges of choices that are available to you. We will refer to each range of choices as a continuum.

First, you must choose the type of text you want to study: discrete or diffuse. As we will see, a givenset of signs could be seen as either discrete or diffuse, depending on the critic’s intentions. Thischoice may be represented on a continuum as follows:


The First Continuum: Type of Text

discrete – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – diffuse

The terms discrete and diffuse should be familiar to you from Chapters 1 and 2. A discrete text is onewith clear boundaries in time and space. A diffuse text is one with a perimeter or boundary that is notso clear, one that is mixed up with other signs. Whether a text is discrete or diffuse depends on how itis experienced, understood, or used. The critic must decide how he or she wants an audience toexperience, understand, or use a text. A set of signs that could be seen as making up a discrete textfrom one perspective might also be seen as only part of a wider, more diffuse text in someone else’sexperience.

We are used to choosing to see some texts as discrete and some as diffuse just as a matter of habit,but good critics always consider the full range of choices available to them. The texts in Images 3.2through 3.32 (at the end of this chapter) are usually taken as discrete texts; it is clear where theybegin and end, and it is usually assumed that they will not spill over into the rest of the magazine orwebsite where they began. But a critic could choose to see each image as only one component of amore diffuse text, such as a text comprising a dozen ads of a similar type or a diffuse text consisting ofall the issues of a magazine.

The start of school might be understood as a diffuse text, including such signs and artifacts as payingtuition, meeting new friends, finding classrooms, buying books, buying clothes, going to parties andreceptions, and so forth. But the critic could choose to take only the first meeting of one class as amore discrete text in its own right. On the other hand, your sister’s wedding could be seen as a textwith a rather discrete, concentrated core of signs made up of the actual ceremony and the receptionafterward. But a critic may choose to include in the text some signs involved with the preparation for,and aftermath of, the wedding, thus making it more diffuse.

It may help you in settling on a text to identify where it falls on this first continuum of discrete todiffuse. What are the consequences of choosing a more discrete or more diffuse type of text? Let’sconsider discrete texts first. Discrete texts are usually easier to identify because the signs that makeup the text are close together in time and space; you do not have to “hunt” for them. The signs thatmake up the discrete text of the film Fences, for example, are all right there on the screen. Becausethe signs are together in time and space, people are generally accustomed to identifying such a textas a text. Both the sources and the receivers of messages that are discrete texts can count on thatagreement; the people who made the large poster advertisement on the side of a city bus, forinstance, know that you are likely to perceive and understand it as a text in and of itself. You do nothave to work very hard to convince people that the texts in Images 3.2 through 3.32, the televisionshow Monday Night Football, and a billboard are texts, each one a discrete thing or event. In dealingwith discrete texts, because people are already aware of your text as a text, the insights you have tooffer will usually be concentrated on particular details of the text. Your criticism will point to new waysto experience that text and others like it; it will call our attention to meanings that can be found in thetext.

Diffuse texts are harder to identify. In fact, very diffuse texts may be impossible to identify completely—because they are so diffuse. Your task may be to indicate most of a set of signs that seem to becontributing meanings toward the same influences without being able to identify every sign that couldconceivably be part of the set. So, if your diffuse text is the start of school, you may have to give anindication of what the text is by naming several of the signs it comprises rather than every conceivableone. There are many discrete texts within the very wide range of “hip-hop,” for instance, but hip-hopitself can be thought of as a diffuse text made up of music, clothing, celebrities, gestures, and so forth—such a huge text that to analyze it one would need to specify limits from the start.

Because you have to work harder to pull together a diffuse text, people generally are less likely toidentify as a text whatever you are describing as one. When texts are diffuse, people may not beconsciously aware of the unity of influence going on among the several signs scattered here andthere. Everyone knows that people prepare their income taxes, for instance, but not everyone may beaccustomed to seeing that activity as a unity, to seeing all the steps and experiences surrounding thatpreparation (over weeks or months, at home and in accountants’ offices) as a set or a text. Because


seeing the preparation of income taxes as a text may be something new for people, the insightsoffered by your critique are more likely to be both about the text and about the existence of the textitself. You have something interesting to say about the meanings and influences of the signs thatmake up the experience of preparing income taxes, but you also have something interesting to say inpresenting that experience to us as a text.



We have identified a text as a set of signs that work together toward the same influences, whichmeans toward the same meanings. Identifying meanings is central to finding a text. What makes agroup of signs “hang together” as a text is the fact that you can say that they work together to offerthose meanings. But who determines what meanings are? And how do we know what these meaningsare? As a critic, you also have choices in determining the sources of meanings that a text might have;these choices are represented on our second continuum, which illustrates the range of possiblesources of meanings:


The Second Continuum: Sources of Meanings

broad – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – narrow

One of the basic principles that we discussed at the beginning of this chapter is that meaning isusually complex and many-layered and may even be self-contradictory. For those reasons, it is rarelythe case that a critic can completely explain the meaning of a given text. Instead, critics must narrowtheir focus to some of the more interesting, influential, or controversial meanings. This secondcontinuum can help to guide a critic in making the choice of which meanings to study. This continuumreminds the critic that some meanings are widely held; we will call these broad meanings. Othermeanings are held by only a few people, or arise only in particular circumstances; we will call thesenarrow meanings. Of course, it is important to remember that we are dealing with a continuum ratherthan a sharp distinction here; for most texts, there is a whole range of meanings that are more or lesswidely shared in the middle of the continuum.

For instance, what do the book and film trilogy The Lord of the Rings mean? A critic who sets out tostudy that movie must choose which meanings to focus on, because they cannot all be analyzed atonce. Widely agreed upon meanings would include simply what the film’s basic plot or storyline is. Itmight be widely agreed upon as a depiction of conflicts among different nations or societies, forinstance, and attitudes toward global politics or war in general might shape some of the most widelyshared meanings. On the other hand, there are more narrowly held meanings that might be a fruitfulobject of analysis as well. Since global conflict and war are constantly recurring, people in differenteras and locations might attribute narrower meanings to The Lord of the Rings. People living duringthe Cold War of the 1950s–1980s might see the trilogy as meaning the struggle between communismand capitalism. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the trilogy may be read as meaning theglobal conflict between Western, secular, industrialized societies and fundamentalist, Islamicsocieties. Affluent people living in suburbs may find meanings in the trilogy that parallel their fears ofthe movement of drugs, violence, gangs, and poverty out of the city and into their neighborhoods.

Ezra Shaw/Staff/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images


What are the consequences of the critic’s choice of meanings to analyze? On the one hand, morewidely shared meanings are often more important meanings just because they are so common. It maybe important to show what most people think a text means, because meaning underlies how textsinfluence people. More widely shared meanings are also often easier to demonstrate in a criticalanalysis; they encounter less resistance because they are already understood by many people.However, because such widely shared meanings are already understood by most people, explainingthem further may not go very far toward changing the thinking of those who read or hear the criticalanalysis. People are less likely to have their eyes and ears opened to a wider range of meaning if theyare exposed only to meanings they already know.

Less widely shared meanings at the narrow end of the continuum do have the potential to widen thehorizons of people who may never have thought of finding such meanings in a text. For instance,several university and professional sports teams have for years had American Indian mascots: theCleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Redskins (now changed to The WashingtonFootball Team, the Florida State Seminoles, and so on. The most widely shared meanings for thetexts of these mascots were fairly innocuous; they simply “meant” the teams, and occasionally theymight have served as reminders of the history of a location and so forth. But critics have begun topoint out that a narrower meaning, first held by Indians themselves, is much less innocent. For manyIndians, those mascots have “meant” racial insults and a cavalier and patronizing treatment of theircultural traditions. Through choosing to reveal and analyze these narrower meanings, critics havesucceeded in persuading some teams (for example, those at Stanford University and MarquetteUniversity) to replace their mascots (at Stanford, from the Indians to the Cardinal). That critical effortwas not without difficulty; many people claimed to see no derisive meanings in the mascots. In fact,one consequence of choosing to focus on less widely shared meanings is that they are harder todemonstrate to a wide audience of people. But the payoff in terms of changing potentially harmful orinsulting meanings that can be attributed to some texts and signs can be greater.

There is an ongoing controversy over the meanings of the University of Texas’s alma mater song,“The Eyes of Texas.” Some see no racial overtones to it. Others point to its roots in “blackface”minstrel shows. The controversy is unlikely to be resolved totally, as wealthy supporters andupholders of tradition find very different meanings in the song than do those concerned with creatingracial equity and justice.

Paying attention to the full range of choices available to the critic, from narrow to broad, is important inrevealing texts as sites of struggle. Only by showing what Indian mascots mean (narrowly) to theMenominee or Ojibwa in contrast to what they mean (broadly) to many non-Indian sports fans couldcritics show how those meanings are in conflict, and how Indian mascots are therefore sites ofstruggle. This continuum reminds the critic of a full range of possible meanings, and thus of thelikelihood that those meanings will be in conflict with each other in many texts.


Exercise 3.5

One of the clearest examples of signs with both broad and narrower meanings is the cowboy.Look at the advertisement for the “Keep Austin Weird 5k,” Image 3.3. Were a broad, nationalaudience to see this ad, they might attribute meanings of fun and excitement to it due to thebright colors. The walking figure seems to be an image of an old country-andwestern musicianor perhaps a “hippie.” The whole thing carries meanings of a laid-back, fun event. Residents ofAustin will have narrower and more specific meanings that they read into the text. “Keep AustinWeird” is a slogan widely found around town on bumper stickers and on shirts. Austinites willknow that this means south, not north, Austin, which is certainly a narrow rather than broadmeaning. Icons specific to Austin in the ad will resonate narrowly with Austinites: belovedstores such as the local Amy’s Ice Creams, armadillos, or images of the bats that live underthe Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge. Readers over a certain age will interpret thestriding figure as being in the style of R. Crumb’s cartoons from the 1960s, which celebratedthe hippie culture. In sum, there are several levels of meaning here, from broad and nationallyrecognizable to meanings specific to narrow segments of the Austin population itself.



Once a text has been found, the next choice the critic makes in positioning the text is to place it withina context. Texts do not occur, and they are not “read,” in a vacuum. An important part of beingrhetorical is existing in relation to some problem or situation. In other words, signs influence people fora purpose, to some end, in some context. Questions arise, then, of what causes people to constructtexts, as well as who is influenced by the texts, why they are influenced, and under whatcircumstances. Answering these questions entails identifying a context for your text. Here, too, you asa critic have a choice, which is displayed in our third continuum:


The Third Continuum: Choice of Context

original – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – new

Every text appears or is constructed during some first moment or range of moments in time andspace. We may think of that moment (or moments) as the text’s original context. The people who firstgathered to hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address occupied a moment of time and space that was theoriginal context for that speech; a slightly wider, but still original, context was the nation that wouldlearn of the speech within days by way of newspapers. The “first” use of a text may also,paradoxically, occur across many different moments of time and space. This textbook, for instance, isa text that appears in its original context every time a student picks it up to read it for the first time.The context is made up of the room or library in which it is read, the reading assignment, and so forth.This context will occur (or so the author and publisher hope) thousands of times a year, but it isnevertheless the original context each time. Original contexts are defined by the intentions of thosewho make or use texts as well as by the “real-life” contingencies of when the texts, in fact, firstappeared.

On the other end of the continuum, texts are often moved or appropriated into new contexts, ones thatare different from those in which they originally appeared. In the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy,an “ordinary” soda bottle falls from its original context, an airplane, into the Kalahari Desert (a newcontext), where it is taken to be a message from the gods by the Bushmen who find it there. Lincoln’sGettysburg Address is now studied in public schools as an example of beautiful language, succinctand efficient wording, and great ideas; the original context of commemorating a battlefield has beenlargely lost to the sixth grader who is being tested (that is, encounters the text in a new context) on theaddress next week. Of course, changing the context of a text also changes many of its meanings,though usually not all of them.

As noted earlier, there has recently been much controversy over policing actions and policies andtheir effects on people of color, primarily black people. Those living in the context of nearly all-whiteneighborhoods may find very different meanings in news reports of police shootings than would thoseliving in highly diverse inner city neighborhoods. It can be difficult to find common ground given thesecontexts. Similarly, different attitudes found in how people regard queer people may depend onwhether one’s context includes those of differing sexualities and identities.

The critic has a choice that he or she must make about the context in which to position the text. Thetext may be considered in its original context, as it was first experienced by people. For instance, acritic might study the meanings that the Three Stooges film shorts had for their original audiences inthe 1930s and 1940s or their remake as a feature film in 2012. Or, there are two senses in which thetext may be considered within a new context.

First, the critic might examine ways in which people, acting on their own initiative or throughhappenstance, experience texts in a new context. For example, the critic might think about how themeanings of Three Stooges shorts change as they appear in the 2000s, as television reruns or onstreaming services.

Second, the critic might propose a new context for consideration by the readers of the criticism, evenif the text has not actually been experienced by these readers in that context. By suggesting that atext be seen in an entirely new context of the critic’s proposing, the critic can often fulfill the importantfunction of showing people more of the ways in which life is made meaningful. For instance, the criticmight suggest to her or his audience that they think about the Three Stooges reruns as politicalcommentary on the present presidential administration. Clearly, this is nothing like the original context.But if the reader begins to think about how those short features might be understood (or foundmeaningful) as being about the president, new insights about politics and our present situation mightbe opened up to that reader. The placement of the Stooges, or any text, in a radically new context likethis should not be done capriciously or simply for fun. The new context and text should “fit,” and thenew placement should teach us more about what both text and context can mean.

This kind of “updating” of context actually happens. In the 1960s, posters of the 1930s and 1940scomedian W. C. Fields were widely popular in college dorm rooms. Fields played characters that were


pompous and pretentious but also bumbling and incompetent. In many ways, he seemed to addresswidely held beliefs that high officials who led the United States into the Vietnam War were just asbumbling as Fields’s characters. Of course, that was hardly the original context or interpretation for hisfilms, but they seemed to fit the 1960s in new ways.

In a more serious vein, it would be interesting and insightful for a critic to ask readers to think aboutLincoln’s Gettysburg Address as being about the ongoing conflicts among nations around the PersianGulf, especially involving Iran, Israel, Iraq—the desert battlefields of their recurring wars, or those inAfghanistan and Pakistan, and those who fall in those conflicts. The critic can, in a sense, ask Lincolnto speak across the years and miles to a new context. We might learn a great deal about what warmeans to Americans and how Americans experience war by placing that text in this new context.Correspondingly, we learn more about the text of the speech itself by observing the additionaldimensions of meaning that are highlighted in a new context. For many people, the meaning of thespeech’s original purpose (dedicating a battlefield) has been lost; meaning might be restored to thespeech by repositioning it in relation to a new battlefield.

Choosing to place a text at one end or the other of the continuum, or somewhere in between, entailscertain consequences. To consider a text within its original context, the critic must do some historicalwork first to discover what the source of the text (the writer, speaker, film producers, and the like) andthe original audiences were thinking about. If we are to think about the film Gone with the Wind as arhetorical text in its original context, then we will have to look at the concerns of American moviegoersin 1939 and examine the meanings that the film may have had in that context. It may be illuminating,for instance, to think about the characters and events of the film in light of growing fears over war anddestruction in Europe and Japan, and to ask how the film influenced the audience through themeanings it offered given the context of the outbreak of World War II.

A second consequence of placing a text within its original context is that historical accuracy becomesan important criterion for judging a criticism. Whether a criticism faithfully reports the meanings a texthad in its original context is an important consideration when that context is where the critic places thetext. Today’s readers of the criticism will learn about how to experience and to find meanings in life ifthey can understand the patterns of meaning that were followed at different times in the past.

If the critic chooses to place a text in a new context, especially if it is a context entirely of the critic’schoosing, different consequences result. The context will be suggested more by the critic and thecritic’s insights than by historical research. Historical accuracy becomes much less of an issue, andinstead, the quality of the critic’s insight becomes a criterion for judging the criticism. What does itteach us, one might ask, to think of the Three Stooges films as being about today’s political context?Clearly, accuracy is not the issue in that case, as no one is claiming that those films either addressed,or intended to address, today’s politics. What matters is whether or not there are insights to be gained;unless placement of a text in a new context is enlightening, it becomes just a game that is bestavoided by serious critics.


Exercise 3.6

Examine Image 3.4, the advertisement for the Movado watch. In the pages of GQ Magazine,its original context, it carries meanings of style. It is surrounded by pages of suggestions onwhat to wear, how to decorate one’s home, how to present an image. But note how simple thisimage is, how adaptable it would be to many different circumstances. An engineer might studyit in appreciation of the machinelike aesthetics. Someone could expand it photographically andmake a poster that seems like abstract art for an apartment. You could imagine this imageworking in a film about mechanization and the power of industry, as a huge and towering iconof machinery. The image is adaptable to many different contexts due to its simplicity.

The last issue that we will consider in thinking about how to position a text is the relationship betweentext and context and how that relationship works. There is no single way to view that relationship; thechoices that are available to you are explained in the fourth continuum:


The Fourth Continuum: Text–Context Relationship

reactive – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – proactive

Sometimes, texts may be analyzed for the ways in which they react to a context, which is the left sideof the continuum. People have a clear perception that certain challenges, problems, or possibilitiesexist (creating a context), and that texts are devised so as to react to that context. People may be outof work, racial tensions may be high in a certain locale, perhaps there is a hole in the ozone layer, andso forth. Under such circumstances, texts are designed or are used to react to these perceptions of apreexisting difficulty. For instance, during the 2004 presidential elections, the film Fahrenheit 9/11appeared and attempted to influence many people to vote against President Bush, to assign negativemeanings to his reactions to terrorism. A presidential election is a clearly perceived existing contextfor most people, many of whom choose reactive texts in the forms of lapel pins, bumper stickers, andyard signs that react to that context and urge certain meanings upon others. Similarly, at the end of2012, the film Zero Dark Thirty appeared, and it offered what many took to be a generally positiveview of the value of torture in fighting terrorism. Both these films may be studied as on the reactiveend of this continuum. Similarly, the show Saturday Night Live reveled in its parodies of FormerPresident Trump and his associates, which was a reactive rhetorical strategy.

At the other end of the continuum is the possibility that texts might be analyzed for the ways in whichthey are proactive—that is, the ways in which they create their own contexts. That is not to say thatthese texts appear spontaneously or for no reason. Rather, the most important or interesting contextwithin which to consider them is the context that they create themselves. Much advertising works thisway. For example, many products, such as the cooking gadgets, mini-choppers, hot plates, wienersteamers, and so forth advertised on late-night television, are simply not needed; they respond to noreal-life problems. Instead, they create a context of need for themselves, proactively.

Politics often generates texts that are most interesting for the contexts they create. In the 2016presidential election, candidate Donald J. Trump conducted a campaign that was, by all accounts andas acknowledged on both sides, unconventional. In short order, Mr., soon to be President, Trumphimself became the issue. Other candidates and news shows alike began talking about him far morethan about his policies and intentions. In most previous campaigns, the nation would have beenpreoccupied with a candidate’s stance on defense, taxes, and so forth. Mr. Trump created a context inwhich the talk was about him.

Most texts in and of themselves are both reactive and proactive, just as a debater’s speech bothresponds to an earlier statement and in turn becomes the basis for the opponent’s reply. A critic mustchoose which sort of text–context relationship to feature in his or her analysis. But an analysis mightaddress a mixture of both kinds of relationships (a point in the middle of the continuum).

For example, racial conflict is usually a preexisting context of some level of importance in our country,although it varies in terms of immediacy and the amount of attention paid to it. Since the late 1980s, aseries of films, such as Twelve Years a Slave, Hidden Figures, Mississippi Masala, Crash, Rememberthe Titans, Friday Night Lights, Do the Right Thing, Mississippi Burning, Driving Miss Daisy, JungleFever, Malcolm X, Django Unchanged, Just Mercy, The Hate You Give, and Falling Down, have bothresponded to that perennial context and ignited a new and intensified context of racial concerns. Eachnewly revived context has generated more widespread public discussion of racial issues. Theconsequences of choosing whether to identify texts as reactive or proactive to their contexts areimportant. As a result of that choice, the critic must look either backward or forward—back to a contextto which a text or texts react, or forward to determine new contexts that texts create.



Intertextuality: When the Context Is Another Text

One of the most interesting, and commonly occurring, textual strategies that depend on manipulationof context is intertextuality. Intertextuality occurs when one text references, makes use of, or actuallyincludes part or all of another text. Any new song that has within it a hook from another, older song isan example of intertextuality. A new T-shirt with an old, recognizable image of a celebrity on it is akind of intertextuality. Likewise, if someone’s outfit seen today includes one element of “hippie” stylefrom the 1960s, such as bell-bottom jeans, the outfit has that amount of intertextuality. The new,container text then becomes the context for the older partial or complete text. In this way, meaningsassociated with the older text become incorporated into the new text, contributing to its rhetoricalimpact. Intertextuality can be a powerful and efficient way to create rhetorical impact because it makesuse of packages of meaning that already exist in the older text. To some extent, nearly all use of signsis intertextual, since most signs occurred earlier as parts of other texts. Every sentence we speak isintertextual, using as it does words that bring with them layers of meaning from their previous uses.But intertextuality in the sense we are using it appropriates rather specific texts from the past so as touse particular meanings associated with those texts.


Exercise 3.7

One of the clearest ways in which texts are proactive is when they sell the public newtechnologies. Think of the last time you went to buy a new cellular telephone and discoveredthat the store was full of appeals to buy the latest and most expensive model, which was full ofall kinds of features you never knew existed before entering the store. So it is for mosttechnology. Leisure products often work in the same way. Look at Images 3.5 and 3.6. Both ofthem are urging the purchase of leisure-time products such as enormous outdoor kitchens,barbecue grills, and patio furniture. If you think about it, few readers are likely to turn to amagazine to find out where to buy such things. The context of desire for these leisure productsmay not exist prior to seeing the ads. Instead, people are leafing through a magazine and aregiven a context of desire for these products; they are invited to imagine what their own scrubbybackyards might look like decorated in these ways. A desire for products that did not existbefore has now come into being as a result of these texts.

Sometimes texts are proactive in that they introduce an issue to the reader, an issue of whichthe reader was not previously aware. Image 3.7 is a startling example of this in that manypeople, especially in the United States, may not know that diamonds are sometimes mined bybrutal warlords who control parts of Africa, and that the warlords enforce their authority throughshocking means such as cutting off the hands of those who disagree with them. This proactiveimage may persuade some audiences to look into the connection between diamonds andviolence and to change their purchasing behaviors.

Intertextuality can sneak into discourse unannounced. For Former President Obama’s firstinauguration, the Reverend Joseph Lowery was asked to give the opening prayer. Perhaps noteveryone would recognize the opening of this prayer as some of the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice andSing,” traditionally and historically called the “Negro National Anthem.” But for those who didrecognize the lyrics, the prayer was a significant gesture placing Obama’s presidency in a historicalcontext of struggle and triumph.

One of the clearest examples of intertextuality in popular culture is sampling, a musical techniquefound especially in hip-hop. This has been a strategy used in hip-hop for years. Coolio’s “Gangsta’sParadise” samples heavily from, of course, Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” Wonder’s critique ofmaterialism and living only for entertainment provided a stock of meanings ready-made for Coolio’scritique of his own urban rapper’s culture. Mase’s “Welcome Back” begins with a sample of the themesong from the old television series Welcome Back, Kotter. That old comedy featured some tough butlovable characters attending an urban high school. Mase’s intertextual adoption of the theme songborrowed the lighthearted, comic meanings of the original show, which were rhetorically useful in hisattempt to update and repair his earlier “bad boy” image from his Harlem World album. Nelly’s albumSuit has a song, “Nobody Knows,” that intertextually incorporates an old gospel song, “I Ain’t No WaysTired.” Nelly sings of his own history of misbehavior over and around the gospel song so as to makehis journey toward stability and prosperity borrow the uplifting moral sentiments of the older song. Inthat way, he leavens his own “bad boy” image with meanings given by an old religious song, perhapsfrom the churchgoing days of his youth in Austin, Texas (sorry, St. Loo, he’s from the Lone StarState!). Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” uses intertextuality from the Beatles (White Album) and Jay Z(Black Album). Intertextuality occurs in many more texts and on visual and verbal dimensions as well.Critics need to be on the lookout for it, as it imports meaning into a text by making it the new contextfor an older text.

Intertextuality has often been a powerful way for disempowered people to comment on, react to, andeven subvert the sources of their disempowerment. By swallowing up parts of other texts, which mightsometimes have been signs of empowered interests, intertextuality turns those texts to its ownpurpose. When Public Enemy, in He Got Game, swallowed up segments from Buffalo Springfield’sFor What It’s Worth, it was borrowing a powerful anti-war and anti-police brutality from the 1960s tocomment on conditions in the 1990s.


We have discussed ways to find a text and a context. This has been a process of both discovering atext and positioning it so that we can think about it more usefully—think, that is, about what the text is,what it is trying to do, and the things to which it responds. In every case, the critic must make choicesabout the most interesting questions to ask about texts in context. Now we are ready to think morecarefully about the text itself and about how its component signs work together; for that, we must gofurther “into” the text.


Exercise 3.8

In this exercise, we examine intertextuality. Note how one text has swallowed up part ofanother text. Some interesting examples of intertextuality may be found in Images 3.2, 3.3, and3.8. In Image 3.2, note that the part of any text that has the look of a music player—compactdisks, portable media players, and so forth—is the image of “play” in the middle with an arrowpointing to the right, and double arrows to the left and right to signal fast reverse or forward.These meanings connected to cool technologies of entertainment are swallowed up into thenew text that is the design of the Play fragrance bottle. It is interesting that these controls on aCD, DVD, smartphone, or portable media player are themselves intertextual echoes of theolder technology of magnetic tape players, in which “play” pointed to the right because the tapereally did move from left to right, very quickly when in rewind or fast forward. More recentdigital technologies are, of course, not moving to the left or to the right (disks are actually readfrom the inside out, for instance), but the old tape technology was swallowed up intertextuallyinto the new digital technologies to make them more easily understood.

In Image 3.3, the walking figure is intertextual, since images very much like this appeared inold R. Crumb drawings from the 1960s and 1970s. The “hippie” meanings of those oldcartoons are transferred to this text through this intertextuality. In Image 3.8, a photo of LeBronJames grimacing in athletic exertion has been inserted as an editorial commentary into a photoof a baby. Readers are meant to merge what they know of crying babies with what they knowabout charges regarding James’s behavior when his NBA team does not perform as well as hewould like.



How can we think about what a text is doing? How do texts urge meanings on people, and how dopeople accept, reject, or struggle over those meanings? We will build our discussion of thedimensions of the “inside” of texts around three categories: (1) direct tactics, (2) implied strategies,and (3) structures. These three categories can be usefully displayed as ranging across our fifth, andlast, continuum:


The Fifth Continuum: From Surface to Deep Reading

direct tactics – – – – – – – – – – – – implied strategies – – – – – – – – – – – – structures

A word of explanation regarding this continuum is in order. This continuum, like the others, representschoices that a critic can make in thinking about critiquing a text. This fifth continuum representswhether, or how far, a critic wishes to go beyond studying the explicit and straightforward appeals thata text makes into an analysis of more indirect and less obvious appeals.

Most texts make certain explicit appeals, which we will call direct tactics. Texts also have impliedstrategies, which are subtler and not always consciously intended to be perceived; these impliedstrategies are often the implications of some of the direct tactics that are used.

And finally, any text is put together or organized in certain ways, and its various parts haverelationships among themselves. People experiencing the text may not be aware of these deeppatterns. These parts and their relationships make up the text’s structure. Direct tactics, impliedstrategies, and structures are the sources or storehouses of meaning in a text. Which of these levelsof appeals will the critic focus on? That is the choice offered by the continuum. The choice is acontinuum because, although we have identified three levels at which texts appeal, the levels are notradically distinct; rather, they merge into each other.

Direct Tactics

Direct tactics reveal the system of meanings, the consciousness, offered by a text most explicitly. Adirect tactic is any straightforward request or prompting for you to think or behave in a certain way. Itis often accompanied by a reason or rationale for you to think or act as urged. If someone says to you,“Order the steak; the lobster isn’t fresh,” it is clear that a direct attempt to influence you is being made.The direct tactics used in the rhetoric of popular culture are, in many ways, closest to the reasonedarguments of expositional texts that we studied in Chapter 1. Explicit claims, reasons given in supportof the claims, visual images with a clear message in terms of what you are being asked to do or not todo—these are all direct tactics that you might find in popular culture.

Our fifth continuum represents a range of appeals that the critic could choose to analyze. Of all thepossible choices on the continuum, direct tactics are probably the easiest appeals to find within a text.Many advertisements are full of direct tactics. In Image 3.9, the list of technological advantages of theBMW diesel may be considered a direct tactic in that it explicitly lays out for a reader why this is thebest car to buy. A hip-hop song urging people to fight oppression or a rock-and-roll song telling peopleto stay off drugs is also using direct tactics.

But not all texts have direct tactics, whereas all texts do at least have implied strategies andstructures. In fact, some texts seem almost devoid of direct tactics. We have all seen our share of adsthat make no explicit claim upon us, ads that comprise nothing but a brand or company name and anambiguous visual image. Many soft drink commercials show only the product and images of happypeople having fun. Similarly, a street gang’s preferred hat style is usually devoid of direct tactics, yet itconveys a powerful message.

Image 3.4, the advertisement for the Movado watch, is nearly devoid of direct tactics. It is heavilyvisual, creating a feeling of desirability in the reader almost exclusively through the careful choice andarrangement of visual signs. Nowhere in that text is there any direct appeal to go buy the product, norare there any explicit reasons given to do so.

Because direct tactics are on the surface of the text, the critic who chooses to focus on them shouldfirst simply note what the appeals are, make a list of them, and identify what is being urged and why.The critic should think about what support or reasons are given for the direct appeals, rememberingthat such support might be visual as well as verbal or expositional. Finally, the critic should think aboutthe most likely audience for the appeals and then assess the likelihood of the appeals succeeding withthat group.


Exercise 3.9

Several of our images illustrate direct tactics to differing degrees. Image 3.10, advertising theFish City Grill, makes some simple and direct claims about its food and service. It also has astraightforward map to give directions for getting there. These are simple but direct appeals.Image 3.11 is likewise simple and straightforward in declaring its award-winning cuisine and ingiving information about its locations. Image 3.12 also shows a more complicated direct tacticof appeal. Information is given about the ecological virtues of Eco countertops. Statistics areused, such as the claim of 75 percent recycled material. Similarly, Image 3.13 touts the highquality of ALNO’s products and their construction. And Image 3.14 gives a great deal ofinformation as to what is included in the vacation package it offers. It shows direct tactics in itsclaims of ease and simplicity of travel, cheapness of fares, and so forth. By comparison, Image3.15 shows an almost complete absence of direct tactics. It intends to sell its Alyson Jonproducts visually, through more complex associations that arise from the conjunction of theimages shown. It does not explain why an antler-footed footstool goes with the rest of thedecor; it simply shows us that conjunction and lets us assemble our own meanings.

Implied Strategies

If critics are not satisfied with examining direct tactics alone (or if few, if any, such direct tactics exist),other choices are available to them. They can examine the implications of the signs, the relationshipsamong them, how they are arranged, and so forth. It may be a little difficult to understand exactly whatcritics are looking for in examining implied strategies and how such strategies differ from direct tactics.Perhaps a hypothetical example will help. Suppose you had a friend who was working at a bank.Suppose that every time you met that friend, his conversation was punctuated by statements such as,“Embezzling really isn’t such a bad thing”; “Gee, I think they probably don’t catch embezzlers veryoften, especially if, you know, they don’t really take very much”; and “I’ve often thought that reallysmart people could get away with taking their employer’s money.”

The “direct tactics,” so to speak, in the text of your friend’s conversation are rather straightforward;these are simple statements about the subject of embezzling. But if you considered only direct tactics,you would probably miss something else that is going on with your friend. Most people would probablyrealize that the implications of your friend’s words are far-reaching; they might mean that your friend isswindling the bank where he works (or at least considering doing so), perhaps that he is even inserious trouble. You would arrive at that conclusion because your friend is saying things you wouldnot ordinarily expect and repeating certain things more than is quite normal for conversation. Yourfriend may not even be aware of his conversational patterns. There are oddities and peculiarities,interesting things that call attention to themselves, in what your friend is saying. So, acting as aneveryday rhetorical critic in this situation, most of us would probably do an informal critique of thisfriend’s text and either warn him sternly or turn him in to the police.

Every text has similar interesting quirks and peculiarities—things missing or things too much inevidence—that convey meanings in and of themselves. A critic must choose to focus on these impliedstrategies. Following the work of rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, we will look at three categories ofimplied strategies, each of which suggests a question that you can ask about texts: (1) association(What goes with what?), (2) implication (What leads to what?), and (3) conflict or absence (What isagainst what?). These categories overlap somewhat, as we will see. The three questionsaccompanying them are the basis for how a critic probes a text for implied strategies.

Association: What Goes With What?

In answering this question, the critic considers the signs that are linked together in a text. Suchlinkage may occur when signs are placed in the same place or within the same image so that theyseem to go together naturally. The linkage may also when signs appear together repeatedly; every


time one sign occurs, the other sign occurs as well. For signs that are linked in such ways, themeanings that would usually be assigned to one sign are transferred to the other, and vice versa.Linking signs becomes a strategy of borrowing meaning, of moving signification from one sign toanother. Celebrity endorsements are a very common strategy using association. A shoe is showntogether with a celebrity in a series of advertisements in hopes that the positive meanings of thecelebrity will “rub off” on the shoe. A candidate for public office will want to appear with a popularpresident in campaign events so that the president’s positive meanings will slide over to thecandidate.




Exercise 3.10

Which images a text puts together with which other images can tell us a lot about themeanings it is trying to create. In Image 3.16, notice that Stella Artois and related products ofBelgian beer are not paired with burgers and fries, as we might see in so many ads forAmerican beer. It is put together with fine cuisine, as pictured in the four images just above thebeers. This creates meanings of luxury and classiness for the beer; we are meant to think it isnot for chugging with hot dogs at a game. Similarly, “Mexican cuisine” is a complex term andcould be read to mean anything from simple street food to a local taco joint to fine cuisine.Image 3.11 shows images of downtown to transfer meanings of urban sophistication to thetype of Mexican cuisine offered by the Iron Cactus. Image 3.12 supplements its direct appealto ecological values by associating its product with images of nature and of recycled glass,such that “green” meanings are transferred to its product. Image 3.13 pairs an image of akitchen with that of a fine wine being poured into a tasting glass, borrowing the meanings offine living and luxury from the wine for its kitchen furnishings. A very common use ofassociation is celebrity endorsement. In Image 3.2, the pairing of celebrity Justin Timberlakewith Play cologne transfers positive meanings the reader may have for him to the cologne,which may be new to most readers. Image 3.17 associates the Bentley automobile, long asymbol of luxury, with the Breitling watch, which may be somewhat less familiar as a luxuryitem. Find other texts that share meanings back and forth between associated signs in thisway. Image 3.18 puts the label of a clothing brand into the rubble of a factory building inBangladesh that collapsed because of unsafe working conditions; clearly the image wants usto associate that brand with its undesirable labor practices.

In another example, the maniacal killer Michael Myers in the Halloween movies, particularly the RobZombie series, is consistently associated with darkness and with mist or fog. In the brief scenes shotfrom Myers’s perspective, his own vision is foggy and blurred. All the mayhem is done at night; onewonders what he does all day when the sun is out. Think about how meanings of dark and obscuredvision are transferred to Myers’s character by this repeated association.

Implication: What Leads to What?

Often, several of the elements of a text will suggest, or lead to, some other element. There are twokinds of signs that do this: keystone signs and transformations. Sometimes one sign or kind of sign, akeystone sign, assumes centrality in a text. A keystone is the stone in the middle of an arch over adoorway; it keeps the whole archway up. Without the keystone, the structure would fall. In a text, thekeystone sign is key to the overall meaning of the text. That element may not even be the mostfrequently recurring sign in the text so long as the other signs consistently imply, suggest, or refer to it.Sometimes a keystone sign is the sign that catches the most attention in a text. If a keystone signwere removed from the text, the whole thing would lose its current meaning. The text will not blow atrumpet and announce to you that this or that sign has more importance than others; instead, many ofthe “roads” in the text lead to or imply that sign. If it is visual, the eye will be drawn toward itconsistently. If it is verbal, it will be the word carrying the most powerful meaning. We call that akeystone sign within a text and a close examination of that sign can tell us a lot about what the text ingeneral means.


Exercise 3.11

In this exercise, we look for keystone signs. Image 3.19, the advertisement for D&G, is anarresting image. The conjunction of interesting-looking young men in lipstick, with ripped jeans,old band, and military uniforms, and a luxurious old-fashioned library, certainly invites criticalanalysis. I suggest that one sign in the text is a keystone sign because it pulls everything elseinto place: beneath the jacket of the man in the middle can be seen, just barely, a shirt with theimage of Oscar Wilde on it. Wilde was famous as a late-nineteenth-century aesthete anddandy and is remembered as an early celebrity who openly displayed his homosexuality. Thatone small part of the whole image pulls everything into place. One can imagine these youngmen as the very sorts of fellows with whom Wilde hung out. The over-the-top clothing anddecorations, the suggestion of “queer” sexual identities, and the air of decadent luxury in theroom, all come into alignment when we have the image of Wilde as a keystone sign to pullthem together. In Image 3.20, we see color by itself as a keystone sign. The distinctive color ofthe Bombay Sapphire bottle label (although the gin itself is, of course, clear) is infusedthroughout the image of the ad. It is a cool, quiet, sophisticated yet not boring color andbecomes the keystone for the meanings that the ad wants to assign to the product. Image 3.21is a public service announcement attempting to increase condom usage. The condom in itspackage is a keystone sign; the eye is drawn to it. The sign is central to the meaning of thetext.

For instance, Rick Grimes and Darryl Dixon seem to be keystone signs in the early episodes of thetelevision show The Walking Dead. The show’s attitude and many of its plot developments lead to oneor the other, and the plot keeps returning to them as key figures. The two very different charactersprovide much of the dramatic tension in the series; between them, they can be taken as an indicationof the tone of the show and why it is so popular. In many hip-hop videos, the constant reappearanceof guns, cars, attractive women, or ornate male jewelry is a keystone sign; whichever is the key signfor a particular text lends its meanings to the whole of the text. In the long-running Fast and Furiousseries of films, fast and flashy automobiles are certainly key signs around which much of not most ofthe action revolves.



Another way in which one sign leads to another is by way of transformation, or the “standing in” of onesign for another (this transformation can be detected in the iconic, indexical, and symbolic meaningsof signs, discussed in Chapter 2). A transformation sign is not what it seems to be; you perceive it andyou know that it is standing in for something else. Sometimes the text gives you clear hints as to whatyou are looking at; sometimes time and care in reading the text are needed so as to figure out whatyou are looking at.

A widely popular theme in recent movies is the sign of the furiously angry and destructive infectedperson or “zombie.” Someone gets bitten by a zombie and turns into one directly. Films such as 28Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend, Quarantine, World War Z, Little Monsters, and Rec allfeature viruses that instantly make the infected rabidly violent. Huge crowds of screaming, furiouszombies come pouring over the hill, raging for your blood. The critic might gain some insight byasking, what is this infection, and what are the furiously angry infected, really? What are they standingin for? Is it fear of recently emergent communicable diseases such as COVID-19, HIV, or varyingforms of influenza? Is it fear of strangers? Is it fear of our own unbridled passions overwhelming us?Since the angry zombie is so frequently found today, it is likely that this recurring image is atransformation of some concern or fear we have across cultures. On a related note, Michael Myers’scharacter in the long history of Halloween movies seems clearly to be standing in for rage itself. He isthe embodiment of raging angry killing for the sake of killing. Another example is Image 3.21, a publicservice announcement attempting to increase condom sales and usage by transforming the condominto an “accessory,” a piece of fashion.


In thinking about the meaning of these transformation signs within the text, the critic should ask whyone sign was chosen to stand in for another in the first place, and what meanings are conveyed bysuch a transformation. For instance, a recurring feature of the Matrix trilogy of movies is an enormousDesert Eagle.50AE pistol. It appears to be the standard sidearm for the black-suited bad guys, the“enforcers” of the Matrix. The gun is of a size and clumsiness to make it an unlikely “real-life” carryweapon. It is very difficult to shoot and control. So the question arises, what was such a gun doing inthe films—why was that gun used and not a more realistic one? A critic might propose that themassive gun was really standing in for an intense fear of government or police power on theaudience’s part, expressed in a gun that looked awesome and destructive enough to be atransformation of that fear. In the movie Fences, most of the film’s action leads to the father figure,played by Denzel Washington. It is interesting to ask what the character is standing for in the film.Various critics have suggested that his character is a sign of the resilience of African-Americans,especially men, in the face of adversity. Others might argue that he is a sign of the tensions involvedin patriarchy within any community, but especially that of African-Americans.


Exercise 3.12

Let us look at some transformation signs in our advertising examples. Image 3.22, theadvertisement for ASUS computers, shows a string of butterflies being transformed into acomputer. A butterfly’s light weight, beauty, and portability are turned into the computer, andthose meanings are conveyed by the product. Image 3.23 transforms a MasterCard into a toylandscape, the card thereby becoming the underlying basis for an adventure of fun and play.Image 3.9 transforms diesel exhaust emissions into a green, growing plant. Thistransformation uses meanings of “green” things to make environmental protection claims forthe product advertised.

Conflict or Absence: What Is against What?

The critic who asks this question looks for ways in which the text keeps certain signs apart. Texts dothis in three ways. First, texts may omit certain signs. When a reader feels this absence, noting thatsomething that should be there is not, a conflict is created between expectations and the actual text.To locate such omitted signs, we ask what the text did not say and compare that with what it did say.We look for what is missing, especially for signs that should be there but are not.

Second, texts may show certain signs of conflict. Within such texts, we see explicit pairings ofconcepts in opposition to each other. Sometimes the text specifically places signs in opposition toeach other. Sometimes those oppositions are in the form of contradictions, such as including signsthat would not typically go with the other signs that appear within the text. Note that in texts of thiskind, signs that are usually against or apart from each other have been paired; this unusualcombination prompts us to think about the meanings that the odd pairing generates.

Third, texts may put together signs that are not ordinarily found together. The match-up of those signsstartles or jars us; it is from the potential conflict of signs that the unexpected pairing (and thus, thepairing of unexpected meanings) gains rhetorical strength. Complex meanings can be created bythese “mismatches.” In Image 3.24, both President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada areseen looking at Trump’s hand, extended in Trudeau’s direction. What does the photo say, or more tothe point, what can be read into it about this interaction? Is Trudeau snubbing Trump? Is Trumpexplaining matters to Trudeau?

Almost any night of ordinary television viewing will yield many examples of “what is against what” inthe first sense of certain signs that are omitted. For example, women were once often omitted asplayers or commentators from professional sports broadcasts, especially from the more popularbroadcasts featuring male-dominated sports such as NFL football. Thus, over time the meaning that“women are not athletic” was built up. Today it is not at all unusual to find female commentators andon-field officials for football broadcasters. Consider also the relative absence of people with physicaldisabilities on your television screen. Think about the relatively low representation in film or televisionof people who will be perceived to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. When texts rarely linkpeople of varying sexual identities with everyday roles such as store clerks, business office workers,plumbers, and so forth, such texts serve to further a false image of people with those sexual identitiesas uninvolved in the everyday life of our country.

So, if 90 percent of the successful professionals in the United States (such as doctors and lawyers)are not seen to be African-American, Asian, or Hispanic (as television shows would seem to indicate),what does that seem to say about realistic career aspirations for people of color? As the publicincreasingly depends on television for entertainment—indeed, for a description of reality—whatmeanings does such an underrepresentation of people of color convey to the public? What effectmight those meanings have on the members of those populations themselves?

One major absence on television is a realistic concern about money. On most television programs,you will notice that when people are finished eating in restaurants, they simply get up and leave. Inreality, however, people in restaurants divide the bill among themselves, argue over who ate what,


ponder the tip, and so forth. When the people on television programs do pay for something (such aswhen they are getting out of a cab), it is done with a hurried grab for whatever is in their purses orpockets. In reality, of course, people count their bills carefully, rub them to make sure two are notstuck together, wait for change, and so forth.

Television’s silence about money becomes most obvious in commercials. Commercials are rarelyspecific about what anything costs; in fact, most of the time the fact that a product costs anything at allis simply not mentioned. There seems to be an assumption that everyone can afford anything; allsorts of products are depicted as being affordable by people from all walks of life.

The second way in which signs are placed against other signs, the depiction of conflict, is clear andstraightforward. Dramatic television series almost always depict certain groups as in conflict.Terrorists are nearly always presented as Middle Eastern (specifically Arab or Palestinian) and areshown in conflict with Europeans or Americans. The popularity of Saudi or Iraqi “bad guys” ontelevision has grown as the plausibility of Russian enemies (a former TV favorite) slips; spies ontelevision shows now come from the Middle East instead of from the former Soviet Union. Suchoppositions, or conflicts, urge upon the television audience a particular view of how the world order isstructured.

The unexpected conjunction of signs that would usually be set apart from or against each other is alsofairly common. In any election year, for example, we see powerful and wealthy politicians don overallsand flannel shirts to show up at county fairs to eat fried chicken and corn on the cob. Wealthysenators tend not to eat corn dogs on a daily basis. The president rarely goes to 4-H shows in Duluth,Minnesota; thus, when he does attend such a show, the intended meaning of that unexpectedconjunction becomes interesting and noteworthy. Television commercials often show cheap andordinary products in contexts of great wealth. That kind of unexpected pairing may create in ordinarypeople the (false) sense that they can live just as well as the rich folks.

We have been learning about three implied strategies: (1) association (What goes with what?), (2)implication (What leads to what?), and (3) conflict or absence (What is against what?). It may havealready become clear to you that these categories sometimes overlap or blend into one another. Onething might “go with” another thing by “leading” to it, for instance, and being “against” one thing willoften imply being “with” another thing. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the categories andquestions presented in this chapter are ways to think about the rhetoric of popular culture, and suchthinking about real experiences rarely falls into tidy categories. Returning to our fifth continuum, wewill now turn to the third choice critics make once “inside” texts: whether to analyze those texts’structures.


Exercise 3.13

In this exercise, we look for the three kinds of conflict/absence in signs. First, let us look attexts that create explicit conflicts or oppositions. Image 3.14, which we have already examined,draws an explicit contrast (a sort of conflict) between the dense urban environment of NewYork in the top photo and the elephants of South Africa in the bottom photo. The contrast ismeant to highlight the attractiveness of the vacation being offered. This contrast would beappealing to those who want to get away from such an urban environment. Image 3.25 drawsa quick and clear contrast between “stinking” and Old Spice products, offering their deodorantsas ways to overcome problems of body odor. Does Image 3.25 create other contrasts orconflicts, and if so, why?

Second, let us consider how a text might have something missing, unexpectedly. In Image3.26, some of the diners in the restaurant are perfectly visible and clear; others are blurs. Whyare some of the figures “missing” or absent visually? Although taking photographs in low-lightconditions can cause blurring, the magazine could have corrected that problem with flash, orby taking the photo during the day. Think about what meanings are created by the blurredfigures, and why some of the diners are only partially there.

The third kind of conflict or absence is when a surprising or unusual conjunction of signsoccurs. We do not ordinarily associate young children with jail. In Image 3.27, the starkjuxtaposition between the innocence of a young girl and the harsh symbolism of the iron barsproduces an especially arresting image. Image 3.28 is an interesting example of a surprisingand unexpected mix of signs not usually found together. This is an advertisement for high-endfurniture. What meanings are created by putting some of that furniture, with a lavishly set tableand two fashionable diners, on a raft in the middle of a river with a bare-chested boatman?Why is this unexpected conjunction created? Image 3.29 offers an image of a beautifulpeacock merged with a turtle. Does this unusual mix of signs create the claimed meaning of“stylish and safe”? Sometimes an unusual mix of signs is risky; might this ad also transfer theturtle’s meanings of “slow” and “unresponsive” to the Kia (surely not a result intended by theadvertiser)? Note that Image 3.30 puts together the unlikely ideas of the moon and growingradishes. This unusual conjunction encourages certain ways of thinking about what AmericanIndian colleges do for their students—think about what those meanings might be.


When a critic chooses to analyze a text’s structure, he or she is dealing with the pattern, form, barebones, or the organization of that text. Recall that we are considering choices, on the fifth continuum,from surface to deep reading. With structures, we have arrived at the level of form or pattern. Here wedo not ask what is said or shown in the rhetoric of popular culture but rather what forms or patterns wecan discern beneath the things that are said and shown. At this end of the continuum, signs, and textsare examined to discover the most fundamental patterns that organize them and the broad categoriesto which their elements belong. There are two concepts that a critic might choose to focus on thathave to do with structures: narrative and subject positions.




A number of scholars have suggested that texts can be usefully studied by thinking of them asnarratives, or stories (see Aden; Fisher, “Narration,” “Narrative Paradigm”; Jameson). This isobviously true for texts that do in fact tell a story, as most films do, for instance. But clearly, a numberof texts (perhaps most of them) are not narratives or stories on the surface. So what can thesescholars mean by suggesting a narrative approach to the criticism of these nonarrative texts?

They mean that critics can treat these texts as if they were narratives. For texts that are not narrativeson the surface, this means that the deeper form or structure of the texts should be analyzed becauseit is at that deeper, formal level that the characteristics of narrative will be found. What does the criticlook for in examining a text for its narrative qualities?

The essence of all narratives is form, pattern, or structure. The phrase “the proud African warrior” isonly the germ or nub of a story because it does not flow forward; it suggests but does not followthrough on any pattern. But “The proud African warrior looked out across the grasslands as he set outon his quest” is already patterned, in two ways. First, it follows a syntagmatic pattern. A syntagm is achain, something that extends itself in a line. We can think of syntagmatic patterns as horizontal, asmoving in time and space. That kind of movement is what narratives do; a plot is nothing but a patternchaining out horizontally in time and space, a series of expectations that arise and are either met orfrustrated. The appeal of syntagmatic form is the appeal of “what comes next.” If you watch a movie ingreat excitement as to how it will turn out, then the film is appealing to you through its syntagmaticform. Our sentence about “the proud African warrior” asks us to start imagining that warrior as beingon a journey, in pursuit of some noble goal, and so we imagine what will come next. We mightimagine what that goal is, foresee dangers, and so forth. These expected developments will be


revealed to us (or not) as the story moves on.

A second kind of pattern that this sentence follows is called paradigmatic. In contrast to syntagmaticstructure, the paradigmatic structure is vertical; it looks at structures or patterns derived by comparingand contrasting a given sign or text with other signs or texts that are like it, even beyond this presenttext. We already know that our African warrior is in a quest story; thus, his story can be compared tosimilar quest stories: medieval knights in search of the Holy Grail, astronauts going to the moon, andso on. Much of what these African warrior means comes from that sort of implied comparison. If youlike quest stories, if you like that sort of form, then you will be persuaded by the quest story to payattention, to follow the text.

In a baseball game, to take another example, what develops when first Smith goes up to bat, thenJones, then Brown, will follow a syntagmatic pattern; events will follow each other in a forward-movingnarrative sequence. If it’s the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and bases loaded, “what happensnext,” or the appeal of syntagmatic form, is great. But paradigmatically, when a given batter is up, wemight compare that batter’s statistics to those of other batters to see how this batter’s performance fitsinto the pattern of other hitters. That second kind of pattern is paradigmatic; we are considering theparadigm, or category, of batters. The relationship between syntagmatic and paradigmatic forms isillustrated in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1 Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Forms


What Smith did in the lastgame

What Jones did in the lastgame

What Brown did in thelast game

What Smith did last timeup in this game

What Jones did last timeup in this game

What Brown did lasttime up in this game

Smith Grounds Out → Jones Hits a Double → Brown Singles JonesIn →

What Rivera (of theopposing team) did lasttime up

What Johnson (of theopposing team) did lasttime up

What White (of theopposing team) did lasttime up

What did the leadoff batterdo in that movie you sawlast weekend

What did the second batterdo in that movie you sawlast weekend

What the third batter didin that movie you sawlast weekend

The Syntagmatic Flow →

There are really two levels of paradigmatic form, and one of them we have already examined in


considering direct tactics and implied strategies. When we took a given sign and asked what it wentwith or went against, we were thinking paradigmatically. A second level of paradigmatic form is thelevel of structure. We can identify the flow, or pattern, of a given text syntagmatically. But we can alsotake that pattern as a unified whole and move vertically, to comparing and contrasting it with thepatterns underlying other texts so as to construct a paradigm. For instance, one can examine anytelevision newscast syntagmatically to identify the pattern that is followed: headline story, remotebroadcast from a reporter, next news story, personal interest story, the weather, and so on. But wecan also compare the entire pattern of a particular station’s news broadcast paradigmatically withthose of other stations in an effort to identify the overall pattern or structure that tends to underlie allnewscasts. Often, this construction of a paradigm or vertical form is also referred to as theconstruction of a genre.

Identification of form or structure entails asking the sorts of questions that we might ask of goodstories:

1. Is the pattern cohesive, and if not, why ? What influence or meaning occurs when the pattern isbroken? Humor is often the intended result of deliberate disruptions in narrative patterns thatseemed to be following the accustomed groove; examples of such humorous disruptions can beseen in many comedic television shows such as Saturday Night Live and Family Guy.

2. Is the pattern recognizable? What other texts seem to follow the same pattern, and what doestheir presence in that genre, group, or paradigm tell us about the meanings and influences ofparticular texts? A number of observers have noted, for instance, that one of the strengths offormer president Barack Obama as a communicator is that even when speaking on great stateoccasions, he seemed to be speaking within the form of a casual conversation; people in themass audience felt as if he were connecting with them personally.

Subject Positions

The Marxist scholar Louis Althusser (Lening and Philosophy) and others (e.g., Brummett and Bowers;Hall), have argued that texts ask those who read them to be certain kinds of subjects. To be a certainkind of subject is to take on a sort of role or character, one that allows you to make sense of the text.But repeatedly assuming certain subject positions may mean that the positions become who you are.These theorists argue that rather than having any single, stable, easily located identity, we move fromone subject position to another throughout our lives. In a sense, then, the power that a text has overyou has a lot to do with what kinds of subject positions it encourages (or forces) you to inhabit.Because we develop our ways of thinking by regularly taking up certain subject positions, they imply aconsciousness, which, as we learned before, is a system of meanings linked to group identification.Thus, there is a patriarchal subject position from which texts of male dominance make sense. Sometexts may call for a feminist subject position that entails the adoption of feminist consciousness, on theother hand.

Whether or not you agree with such a claim, an interesting question that can be asked of texts is,“Who was this text made for? who would fit into the role of an audience for this text most easily.” Notethat a subject position is not a character in the text itself. Instead, a subject position is who the textencourages you to be as you, the reader or audience, experience that text. Rarely will a text explicitlyannounce its preferred subject position for the members of its audience. Instead, a subject position,like narrative, is part of the structure of a text. You can think of a preferred subject position as themissing perspective, the point of view, required for the text to make sense. A preferred subjectposition is very often a means of control that favors groups already in power in a society. For instance,almost any “real-life crime” television show such as Cops will call for a preferred subject position ofdeference to authority, the assumption that the police are always right, and a sense that justice alwaysprevails. It’s simply easier to watch such shows if you can watch them from a preferred position thatviews them that way. Those ways of thinking also empower current arrangements of power andauthority in society. In fact, that very empowerment has recently caused many such programs to becanceled, out of concern that they may contribute to police excesses in violence.


Exercise 3.14

We have already examined the magazine ads at the end of this chapter in terms of directtactics and implied strategies. Still, or unmoving, visual images such as those found inmagazines can also be examined syntagmatically, but such examination can be difficult andusually involves placing oneself in the position of the reader as he or she “moves through” thead. Yet, very often a “still” image will suggest a story. Image 3.31 says, “It’s not what we do orwhere we go, it’s who we are.” Does that suggest a story about the church advertised? Is thereanything else in this advertisement that suggests a narrative that would be appealing tosomeone looking for a place of worship? If you look back at Image 3.19, think about the storiessuggested by the still photo of these men in this context. How did they come to be there? Willthey hang around this study posing all day? What will happen next—and how might such anarrative create positive meanings for the product?

Now we will depart from the magazine ad to consider some films, books, and television shows.

This is one form, pattern, or structure that might underlie a text:

a. People occupy a distinct spaceb. that they are not free to leave;c. hostile external forces attempt to attack or infiltrate the space, andd. they must be repelled or subverted.

Examine, on your own or in class, all of the films, books, and television shows from thefollowing list with which you are familiar. You will find that all share the structure described initems a through d above. For each film, book, or TV show, identify the surface features (actualevents, characters, and so on) that match the elements of a structure listed in a through dabove.

Film, TV Show, or Book a b c dOld, Classic Western TV shows The Blair Witch Movies Movie World War Z The Village


The Village 28 Days/Weeks Later Any Star Trek Movie/Episode I Am Legend (your own example)

What can you learn about the meanings and influences of these texts of popular culture byexamining their structures? How does clarifying the “bare bones” of texts, both syntagmaticallyand paradigmatically, help you to understand the ways that those texts might influencepeople?

A different structure underlies the following texts. This time you supply the description of thestructure underlying all of these texts. Then identify the surface features in each that match theelements of the structure you come up with.

a. The Christ Storyb. Dead Man Walkingc. Powderd. Phenomenone. The Brother From Another Planetf. Edward Scissorhandsg. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

You can also think of some subject positions as subversive stances, positions taken deliberately bythe reader in opposition to the “preferred” subject position, suggested most strongly by the text. Forinstance, almost without exception, old “cowboys and Indians” movies strongly encourage a white,law-and-order-based, pro-establishment subject position—in other words, one that will root for thecowboys. It is easier to see such films from this perspective; the films are structured toward that end.But one can also root for the Indians by refusing that subject position and taking an alternative, orsubversive, one. In this way, subject positions can often become sites of struggle.

Recently popular television “makeover shows,” such as Extreme Makeover, 100% Hotter, Unveiled,and Queer Eye, clearly encourage a preferred subject position that values style, aesthetics, and apassion for consumption. To make sense of that show, one must think of appearance as vitallyimportant and to think that appearance depends on constant shopping. But one could just as wellwatch the show by taking a subversive subject position, mocking the smug hosts, sneering at “must-have” styles that will be outdated tomorrow, and sympathizing with the poor guests who are made tothrow out their comfortable if frumpy clothing.

Another instance of the possibility of a subversive subject position can be seen in relation to the long-running, now-syndicated television show Touched by an Angel. Clearly, the viewers of that show areintended to see the film from a spiritual, even explicitly Christian, perspective, one in sympathy withthe “angels” who appear as regular characters. We are encouraged to feel uplifted by the ways inwhich these angels intervene in the daily lives of the troubled people they encounter; it is easier totake such a sympathetic subject position that delights in miracles and divine revelations. But it is alsopossible to see the film from the subversive perspective of a nonspiritual or non-Christian person.Such a viewer might “fight back” against the halos and auras of light, the miracles, and the divineinterventions portrayed on the show and instead see them as ridiculous, as things to be made fun of.Another subversive subject position at another extreme, which your author has observed in somepeople, is that of a strongly Christian viewer who takes offense at attempts to portray the divine ontelevision and at ordinary actors claiming (even in a script) that they are angels.

Now, the show itself appears to be trying very hard not to allow you these alternative positions; by theend of each episode, the creators of the series have pulled out all the stops to make you see theangelic characters as good and wonderful and to feel assured that God is in His universe. Butbecause every text has a preferred subject position in which it is trying to place you, it is alwayspossible, at least in principle, to find an alternative, subversive subject position. Doing so may yieldsome interesting insights into that text.


The ways in which texts encourage preferred positions, or discourage subversive ones, and theinclination of a reader to accept those positioning, has a lot to do with social struggles overempowerment and disempowerment. Texts that feature subject positions favoring white, straight,middle class, and Judaeo-Christian attitudes are empowering to those who in fact enjoy thoseidentities. Those who do not may have to “swim against” that dominance by taking on subversivesubject positions. It may well be that disempowered groups develop the skills and habit of taking onsubversive subject positions as ways of refusing disempowerment, even of finding joy in suchreadings. It may be “the business” of some texts to encourage preferred readings that persuade thedisempowered to accept their lot gladly, as something natural.

We have been learning optional ways to think about texts once you, as a rhetorical critic, havepositioned them. The kinds of close and careful examinations of texts that we have demonstrated inthis chapter have provided choices in considering direct tactics, implied strategies, and structures.Only one more set of choices is necessary to consider before you can begin to produce the actualrhetorical criticism. We will now consider different ways to step back out of the text and to think abouthow the meanings you have discovered do social and political work.


Exercise 3.15

This exercise is in two parts. First, go through the advertisements we have been using toidentify preferred and subversive subject positions. We have already considered some of theseissues earlier in our examination of the idea of context, or audience, for the images in Images3.1 through 3.32 (at the end of this chapter). Recall that we asked who the ads seemed to bespeaking to, but we also considered subversive, or oppositional, stances that an audiencemight take. For instance, it seems clear that the Breitling watch ad in 3.17 calls for a preferredsubject position that enjoys luxury, sees the Bentley and the Breitling as going together, andthat values high-end consumption. How might a subversive position take a more skeptical,critical view? What role or values might a reader assume that would undermine the premisesof this ad? Look at the public service announcement in Image 3.32; notice that it is you andme, the readers of the ad, who are being questioned by the officer. The image insists that wetake up a position in relation to it. On the other hand, we are addressed as “sir.” How does thisinfluence the ability of female readers to process and engage with the image?

In part two of this exercise, we turn to your own experience. You have been reading this bookfor nearly three chapters by now. That much immersion in any text will certainly call forth asubject position. Consider the following questions:

1. What subject position is the preferred one for this book? That is to say, who does thisbook “call to”? What kind of person, role, or character would find it easiest to read thisbook? What sorts of characteristics of consciousness are associated with that subjectposition?

2. Think about yourself as you read this book. You have to adopt a certain subject position inorder to read it. How does that subject position differ from the subject positions that othertexts—such as the text of a party you attended recently, the text of Fate of the Furious, orthe text of the Get Out movie—call you to?

3. Suppose you hated this book, hated the class it had been assigned for, hated the wholesubject. Think of an alternative, subversive subject position you could take in reading thebook, one its author clearly did not hope for. What difference would that alternative subjectposition make in terms of the meanings of particular passages, examples, or exercises?



Actually, the ways that we have gone about thinking about texts have always asked you to keep oneeye on what is outside the text, on the real world within which texts do their work. What texts do is, aswe have discovered, very complex. All the ads that we have examined in this chapter are, forexample, trying to influence the meanings that people assign to certain products in order to sell thoseproducts. But critics, you will recall, are concerned with power and with how public business ismanaged in the rhetoric of popular culture. So, in addition to noting how ads sell cigarettes, critics willalso ask about the ways in which ads, or any texts, manipulate the distribution of power as theymanage the public business. (Recall that the management of public business occurs in popular cultureas texts influence decisions and sway the meanings of important issues). So this next group ofquestions will serve largely as a way of reviewing what you have already learned about texts. Inconsidering, generally, what influence texts have in the social and political world, you will need tochoose whether to focus on (1) metonymies, (2) empowerment/disempowerment, or (3) judgment.



You will recall that for reasons of increasing population, technology, pluralism, and perhaps most ofall, knowledge, public issues must be reduced or metonymized into the signs, artifacts, and texts ofpopular culture. Urban problems, for instance, are too complex to consider without reducing them to aseries of news stories about particular incidents in neighborhoods and on subways that capture issuesof poverty, crime, racial strife, and so forth. Only in that reduced form can people participate in themanagement of public issues by helping to determine what those issues and their components mean.Therefore, once you have thought about what the texts of popular culture mean, it is important to askhow those particular meanings metonymize public issues.

An interesting example of the use of metonymies in attempts to manage a public issue occurredduring the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Donald Trump, a red hat with the inscriptionMAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN was worn by many of his supporters, just as it was ridiculed bymany of his opponents. It became a metonymy of patriotism or of a flawed view of what a greatAmerica would be, depending on how it was used. Parodies of it were distributed by Trump’sopponents, with sayings such as MAKE ORWELL FICTION AGAIN.



The category of empowerment/disempowerment is fairly straightforward, and one we have beenconsidering all along. It asks us to consider who is empowered and who is disempowered by themeanings that might be assigned to or generated by the text. Remember that empowerment anddisempowerment mainly befall large groups of people rather than isolated individuals. Recall also thatpower is managed in moment-to-moment, everyday experiences (including popular culture) far moreoften than it is in single, grand events. How does that empowerment or disempowerment result fromthe way that public issues are metonymized?

In the 2016 campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, muchpublic discussion took place over her wardrobe, her demeanor, and her display of emotions. Peoplemight have recalled that early in the campaign of 2008, she famously choked up with tears when asupporter asked her “How do you do it?” in reference to her tireless campaigning. Clinton’s service assecretary of state from 2009 to 2013 often was discussed in terms of her demeanor and style. In2016, her followers were described by the metonymy of Pantsuit Nation in an attempt to use one ofher favorite styles as a way to characterize them. Throughout her public life, her clothing has beenanalyzed as being too feminine or not feminine enough. It was clear that the secretary was being usedas a metonymy for issues having to do with gender, gender bias, and politics. The secretary and thesuccession of episodes having to do with her appearance and emotions were used by the public asways to manage these big issues through her metonymized example. Throughout her career, powerand its distribution between men and women had to be addressed rhetorically by Clinton and heraides.

In the 1990s and 2000s, after decades of almost complete absence, gays and lesbians beganappearing on television in much greater numbers, often taking center stage in situation comedies suchas Modern Family, Will and Grace, Ellen, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Talk shows followedthe lead of the Ellen Degeneres Show and The View in addressing issues of queerness. Beyondprogramming, same-sex couples began to appear with regularity in advertisements, so much so thattheir presence hardly seems unusual by now. The cable television channel Logo offers largelygay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender-oriented programming. These television texts have metonymizedsome life experiences of gays and lesbians into sixty- or thirty-minute episodes. A number of criticshave raised the issue of whether the shows are realistic or not. But metonymy, because it is areduction, is hardly ever completely realistic. Perhaps more important questions would be, who isempowered and who is disempowered by these shows? Are they for the benefit of gays and lesbiansor of straights? Do they tend to perpetuate the established system, the way things presently are or dothey encourage alternative distributions of power? As such shows call to people to take on certainsubject positions, do those subject positions add up to changed attitudes generally?

Similarly, mixed-race couples and families used to be a rarity on television. Increasingly, andespecially in advertisements, they are not rare at all. Even queer mixed-race couples are not hard tofind. As advertisements work to condition our minds to buy products, do such images also conditionus to regard queerness and the mingling of races as, in fact, neither queer nor anything but the usualway things are?



The critic is not only concerned about power; he or she is an interventionist as well. The critic hassome purpose or goal in mind in doing rhetorical criticism—as we noted before, the critic is on amission. That means that for the critic, judgment of the text is inevitable and unavoidable.

Judgment runs throughout all the insights offered by the critic. In suggesting that a text means this orthat, the critic is also judging it. That is because to claim that a text means a certain thing, calls for acertain subject position, or encourages a certain consciousness, is to take a stand about what the textis doing in the world.

Objectivity is not possible for the rhetorical critic. That is not to say that merely expressing personalopinions is an acceptable alternative for such a critic. All the categories and questions covered in thischapter guard against making criticism merely an expression of personal opinion; instead, they leadthe critic into making well-supported judgments about the material that is being studied. Suchcategories and questions direct the critic to give reasons for her or his judgment. Thus, the choicesthat the critic makes, as illustrated in the five continua presented earlier in this chapter, are not madeat random or simply for fun. They are choices that the critic must support with good reasons andevidence in an attempt to persuade the audience who will read or hear the criticism that the meaningsthe critic asserts are in certain texts are really there.



The purpose of this chapter has been to help you learn how to think like a critic. In discussing themany things that rhetorical critics think about, we have covered quite a lot of concepts and terms.Does the critic have to use every term and concept included in this chapter in doing criticism?Certainly not. Remember, we have been explaining choices that are available to the critic. Whatshould guide those choices? The critic should ask those questions that help to reveal the meaningsthat he or she finds most interesting and important.

Critics, working as meaning detectives within the framework of critical studies, display threecharacteristics as they go about explaining the meaning. We learned that critics are critical in bothattitude and method. In explaining the meaning, the critic shows people new ways to experience lifeand helps people to expand the ways they have of finding meaning.

Second, we learned that critics have the characteristic of being concerned with power. And third, welearned that critics are interventionists; they want to change people by changing how they understandthe world and the meanings they see in the texts they encounter in everyday life.

We explored a number of choices that are available to the critic approaching the study of a text. First,we learned that the critic must position the text. This involves finding a text, for which the critic mayconsult her or his own experience or theories about texts. One major choice confronting the critic is tosettle on a text that is either discrete or diffuse, or somewhere in the middle of this first continuum. Wealso learned that the critic cannot study all the meanings of a text and is therefore faced with thechoice of focusing on either broad or narrow meanings or analyzing the text as a site of struggle overmeanings. The third choice the critic must make in positioning the text is to focus upon an original or anew context in which to place the text. We learned that the critic may study original or new contexts inwhich others have placed the text, or may propose a new context of his or her own if doing so will helpto illuminate what the text or context means. The critic’s final choice in positioning the text involvesexamining the text–context relationship and deciding whether to feature reactive or proactiverelationships between text and context, or perhaps a mixed relationship between the two ends of thatcontinuum.

Once the text was positioned, we followed the critic further “into” the text. Here we saw that the critic’schoice is whether to analyze a text’s direct tactics, implied strategies, or structure. We saw that directtactics are straightforward appeals and urgings for an audience to feel or act in a certain way. Impliedstrategies are subtler and more indirect and are revealed by asking the questions associated with thecategories of (1) association (What goes with what?), (2) implication (What leads to what?), and (3)conflict or absence (What is against what?). The structure is a consideration of the basic form orpattern of a text. Here, the critic examines both narrative and subject positions so as to reveal theunderlying structures of texts.

Has this seemed like an overwhelming number of categories and concepts to consider? It probablyhas. Yet you should remember that we have been focusing on a critic’s choices for just that reason—to illustrate the vast number of choices and options available to the rhetorical critic. No single criticalanalysis can possibly take into consideration all of the concepts we have reviewed in this chapter.Instead, the critic must make specific choices for how to think about texts and their relationship to theworld and then confront the consequences that follow from those choices.



This chapter has reflected the strong conviction that critics are deeply involved in helping theiraudiences to see certain meanings in texts. We began the chapter by arguing that meanings are thebasis for rhetorical appeal, and one clear implication of that argument is the idea that critics are alsorhetoricians.

One might finish this chapter wondering whether critics are in agreement over which meanings toreveal to an audience. This particular chapter has had very little to say about disagreements amongcritics. And although we have focused on a critic’s choices, we have not shown one of the mostimportant choices that critics cannot avoid—the choice of which sorts of “real-life” concerns andcommitments to urge upon an audience in revealing the meaning of texts. In Chapters 4 and 5, we willturn to a discussion of the particular schools of thought within which critics work. Consider thesequestions as you prepare to begin the next chapters:

1. What are the different perspectives or schools of thought that critics work within as they revealmeanings?

2. What specific kinds of changes or new meanings do some critics want to instill in theiraudiences?

3. How can criticism serve “real-life” politics and social movements so as to help people who are inneed of liberation?

Image 3.1 A simple Message on a Hat Becomes a Site of Struggle

RHONA WISE/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images


Image 3.2 Givenchy ad for Play Fragrance


Image 3.3 We Heart Weird


Image 3.4 Movado Watch ad


Image 3.5 Love Life in Your Backyard


Image 3.6 “Just Add Friends”/Greenhouse Mall


Image 3.7 A Startling Juxtaposition of Contrary and Inconsistent Images


Image 3.8 LeBron James as a Baby in a Manufactured Image AccusingHim of Immaturity


Image 3.9 “Diesel Gone Good”/BMW ad


Image 3.10 Fish City Grill ad


Image 3.11 Iron Cactus ad

Image 3.12 “The Beautiful … Countertops”/ECO


Image 3.13 The Ultimate Tasting Room/ALNO


Image 3.14 South African Airways ad


Image 3.15 Alyson Jon Interiors ad


Image 3.16 “Savouring Perfection” Beer ad


Image 3.17 Breitling for Bentley ad Showing Car and Watch


Image 3.18 A Clothing Label in the Rubble of a Third World Ffactory ThatExploded Connects Fashionable Style With Dangerous WorkingConditions


Image 3.19 D&G ad Showing Pouty Young Men


Image 3.20 Bombay Sapphire ad


Image 3.21 Condoms and Fashion Accessories Don’t Usually GoTogether, But This Image Boosts the Allure of the Condom


Image 3.23 World MasterCard ad Showing Balloon


Image 3.24 What Are Some Meanings That Can be Read Into This?

Pool/Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images


IMAGE 3.25 If You Stink…


Image 3.26 September Dining/Perla’s


Image 3.27 What is Against What; Young Children and Jail Aren’t UsuallyAssociated With Each Other



Image 3.28 Bella Dimora ad


Image 3.29 Kia ad With Peacock: How Is the Car Transformed in This



Image 3.30 “Think Indian” American Indian College Fund ad


Image 3.31 “It’s Not What We Do …”/365 Church ad


Image 3.32 You and I Are the Ones Being Interrogated







4.1 Summarize the critical perspectives introduced in this chapter.

4.2 Explain the method of Culture-Centered Criticism

4.3 Explain the method of Marxist Criticism

4.4 Explain the method of Feminist Criticism

In Chapter 3, we learned that critics who are trying to understand the rhetoric of popular culture areconfronted with choices about the texts they study. These critics are in search of what texts mean andof how those meanings influence people. We have looked at some of the concerns and questions thatmost rhetorical critics have in common.

Also within the last chapter, the choices that critics make were presented along continua, as evidencethat not all critics make the same choices or study texts in the same ways. Texts inevitably have manymeanings, and critics may disagree about which meanings and which influences are the mostimportant. Similarly, critics may disagree about which meanings are most influential; in trying toexplain why people do what they do and why the world is the way it is, some critics of popular culturewill point to some meanings and other critics will point to other meanings. These differences reflectunavoidable differences in taste and philosophy. People simply disagree, and while some think thatthe world turns because of power, others think that it turns because of biochemistry, sex, God,economics, race, and so forth.



Another way to express these differences is to say that while we were concerned with how texts havemeaning in Chapter 3, in this chapter and the next we will consider seven different perspectives onwhat texts mean. There is always more controversy over the latter (what texts mean) than the former.

Between this chapter and the next, we will look at seven groups of methods, or seven schools ofthought in the rhetorical criticism of popular culture: (1) culture-centered, (2) Marxist, and (3) feministin this chapter, and in Chapter 5, (4) psychoanalytic, (5) visual, (6) dramatistic/narrative, and (7)media-centered. You might also recall the neo-Aristotelian method that we learned in the first chapterand think of that as an eighth school of thought. You can think of these different approaches tomethod as different sets of questions for a critic to ask, different categories within which to think,different critical tools, different kinds of meanings to which critics call our attention, and different ideasof what to study in a text.

You will notice a distinction made in the subtitles of this and the next chapter, a distinction betweenintervention and understanding. Every critical method has at least these two goals: first, to intervene inthe world by making it a better place with fairer distributions of power, and second, to increaseunderstanding of how texts work. We have talked about these two impulses in earlier chapters. Butsome schools of thought will emphasize one of those goals over another. In this chapter, the threemethods we study—culture-centered, Marxist, and feminist—emphasize intervention more thanunderstanding (although by no means do they shortchange understanding), and thus this chapter issubtitled INTERVENTION-Understanding. In Chapter 5, the four methods studied—psychoanalytic,visual, dramatistic/narrative, and media-centered—emphasize understanding somewhat more thanintervention (while again, not ignoring intervention at all); thus, Chapter 5 is subtitledUNDERSTANDING-Intervention.

We have a second scheme for organizing our methodological schools of thought: methods focused onpower, methods focused on self and society, and methods focused on story. All seven of the schoolsof thought we will take up actually address all three of those subdivisions, but these headings will behelpful in thinking about emphasis. The three methods concerned most with intervention, explained inthis chapter, are for that reason the most concerned with how power is created and contested: culture-centered, Marxist, and feminist. In Chapter 5, the psychoanalytic and visual schools of thought place alot of emphasis on the creation of the self in a social context. The dramatistic/narrative and media-centered schools of thought place much emphasis on how stories have rhetorical impact in a society.Table 4.1 may help you understand the logic of organization for this and the next chapter. Let meemphasize again that each school of thought “leaks” into the others, and these distinctions are meantto be helpful but not exclusive in an ironclad way.

Table 4.1 Scheme of theories and methods

School of Thought, or Method Major Focus of This MethodCulture centered (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerMarxist (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerFeminist (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerPsychoanalytic (Chapter 5) Understanding and the self in societyVisual (Chapter 5) Understanding and the self in societyDramatistic/narrative (Chapter 5) Understanding and storyMedia centered (Chapter 5) Understanding and story

Before we start thinking about specific approaches, however, we need to make three observationsabout them. First, within each school of thought are wide differences of opinion, despite the sharing ofa general approach to criticism. Indeed, there is not even universal agreement about the labels thatare used to denote the seven groups. (Works included in the reading list at the end of the book willallow you to investigate these differences further.)

Second, there is significant overlap among the seven schools of thought. The fact that one critic might


be labeled a Marxist and another a feminist does not mean that they are at odds. Indeed, criticalstudies often employ more than one approach in combination. So our first two observations could besummed up by noting that any identification of any number of approaches to rhetorical criticism mustbe somewhat arbitrary and that the boundaries between various approaches are not firm.

Third, not all approaches to the rhetorical criticism of popular culture are discussed in these twochapters. As suggested above, we will deal with only some of the many methods used within eachparticular school of thought. And some schools of thought, such as deconstruction or fantasy themeanalysis, will not be developed here at all. Because our space is limited, we will look only at thoseapproaches that seem most fruitful for revealing rhetorical influences, rather than other dimensions, ofpopular culture.

You have already noticed how important illustrations and examples are for demonstrating howtheoretical and methodological concepts relate to our experiences of popular culture. In these twochapters, we will often use as an example an experience that is surely familiar to anyone who haslived in the United States for more than a few years: watching the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Thatmovie, broadcast every year on television and widely available on discs and online, comes as closeas anything to a universally shared experience of popular culture within the United States. If you havenot seen the actual movie from start to finish, then you are likely familiar with bits and pieces of it. Youwill instantly understand a song or a television commercial that references the yellow brick road. Youwill be able to hum along with “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” In whole or in part, most readers ofthis book will have been exposed to this film. We now turn to our review of methods focused onpower.



The first approach to the rhetorical criticism of popular culture that we will examine is relatively newand is proceeding on many different fronts. Because attention to a wide range of cultures on their ownterms is relatively new in the academy, this method is still in the process of being formulated andclarified by critics and scholars. But, by the same token, it is on the cutting edge of critical approachesand a potentially exciting perspective to work from. It is also highly interventionist, for it calls upon bothproducers and critics of texts to be sensitive to cultural differences. Whether a culture is ignored orpaid attention to is a major factor in whether that culture is empowered.


Cultures and Their Own Critical Methods

A major theme for us in this book has, of course, been the importance of culture as a source ofperspectives, thoughts, values, feelings, ideas, and ideologies. Culture comprises not only artifactsbut also ways of understanding artifacts. Since a way of understanding artifacts is essentially what amethod of rhetorical criticism is, it makes sense to say that every culture contains its own methods forunderstanding artifacts. One rather extreme example illustrates this truth: During World War II,soldiers and sailors from the United States and its allies created temporary, makeshift bases on anumber of islands in the Pacific, bringing with them a world of material goods that astonished andimpressed the indigenous people who were already living on those islands. With the end of the war,the military personnel abruptly departed, leaving behind odds and ends of military equipment. Onsome of those islands, there arose “cargo cults,” actual religions that centered around the expectationthat the GIs would return someday, bringing with them renewed prosperity. The castoff equipment thatthe military left became infused with religious meanings for the cultists.

Now, for the cultures that developed cargo cults, the helmets, jeep parts, and so forth that were leftbehind became part of the culture—but so did ways to understand them, ways to interpret them.Those ways of understanding all the castoff items were the religious systems that formed aroundthem. Were a member of a cargo cult to come to the United States, see a helmet in a military relicsstore, and assume that the store was a religious shrine, we might think that he or she hadmisunderstood the helmet and what it means. But were one of us to go to a cargo cult island, wewould be equally mistaken to identify a helmet placed in a hut as “just a piece of historical junk fromWorld War II.” Those of us living in the high-technology world of the United States today have our own“cargo cults” as well. We, too, have not only objects and actions that are peculiar to our culture butparticular ways of understanding and interpreting those artifacts, ways that might not be understoodby people from another culture. To see the truth of this claim, go to eBay and experience the vastrange of oddities and curios offered for sale.

Every culture contains its own methods of critical analysis, and its own questions and probes to bebrought to bear on the artifact that is being examined. Such methods will be appropriate forunderstanding artifacts within, or peculiar to, that culture, particularly if we want to know what thoseartifacts mean for members of that specific culture. If we want to understand what a particular kind ofLatvian hat means to Latvians, then we should look at it through Latvian eyes. Of course, thishypothetical Latvian hat will mean something to people from Japan, from Great Britain, and from NewJersey. But an awareness of cultures, and of the different methods of critical analysis that culturesgive to us, should prevent anyone from assuming that a given artifact has only and always themeaning that one’s own culture would give to it.

Ethnocentric criticism is this practice of looking at the artifacts of other cultures and judging them onlyfrom the perspective of one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism has for centuries been a major tool of racismand imperialism. Soldiers, explorers, and imperialists from European countries would travel to placesin Africa, Asia, and South America. Viewing the artifacts of the indigenous cultures of those lands fromthe perspective of their European cultures only, these European colonialists often labeled theindigenous cultures second-rate, primitive, or savage. Of course, viewing the artifacts of anotherculture as primitive and underdeveloped becomes a license for oppression. For centuries, people fromEuropean cultures used their own ethnocentric attitudes toward the artifacts of other cultures as anexcuse to dominate and exploit people of those other cultures “for their own good.” A school ofthought intended to intervene in ethnocentric criticism is thus very much concerned with power. And ofcourse ethnocentric ways of thinking, even criticism, are alive and well in many societies today.Privileged people in American culture may look askance at the cultures of different races, sexualities,and so forth if they do their looking only through their own ways of thinking.

Culture-centered criticism is not the same thing as ethnocentrism. Culture-centered criticism growsout of an awareness that cultures are best understood by using the methods of criticism andinterpretation that arise from the cultures themselves. Culture-centered criticism understands thatlooking from one culture to another requires caution about the claims that one makes and anawareness that the culture being observed might well see itself, and its own artifacts, differently.

Culture-centered criticism can, in fact, be an antidote to ethnocentrism. This is especially true when


the criticism is applied to cultures that have been oppressed socially, politically, economically, ormilitarily. Such cultures have often been analyzed only through the methods of the very cultures thatoppress them. Culture-centered criticism is therefore an important political strategy on the part ofcultures that have been oppressed and exploited to recover their own voices and eyes, both forunderstanding themselves and for understanding other cultures.



Culture-centered criticism is being developed on several fronts as Asian, Latino, and other scholarsdiscover and articulate methods of rhetorical criticism that grow out of their own cultures. An approachthat is concerned with cultures of African origin is one of the best-developed forms of culture-centeredcriticism so far. Our focus here on Afrocentric culture–centered criticism is therefore not meant toimply at all that there are not methods in place suitable for analysis of other cultures. We must notethat all the scholarly sources used for understanding Afrocentric culture in this chapter are in factAfrocentric, or African-American. This kind of culture-centered grounding is important when doing thiskind of criticism.


We noted earlier that culture-centered criticism often serves as a political tool to counter oppression.People of African origin have historically suffered much oppression, culturally and personally, all overthe world. An attempt to recapture a particularly African perspective is thus a method of empowermentfor people of African heritage, as well as a method of education to those outside that heritage. Itargues that those artifacts that are clearly part of the culture of African-Americans—such as rapmusic, the Traditional Black Church, jazz, rhythm and blues, and so on—cannot be adequatelyunderstood if analyzed from a European perspective (as they have often been). To understand whatthe call and response between a Black preacher and congregation means, for instance, we mustemploy methods of critical understanding that arise from within African-American culture.

Here we will focus on efforts in the United States to understand the culture of African-Americans asAfrican-centered. We will turn to three primary sources by scholars who articulate critical principlesthat are grounded in the culture of African-Americans. In his book The Afrocentric Idea, Molefi KeteAsante explains methods of criticism that are fundamentally African in origin. His view is pan-African,looking to that which is common to people of African heritage wherever they may be found around theworld. In The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates,Jr., argues that many methods of criticism and understanding found in the culture of African-


Americans developed as defenses against slavery historically and against racism more recently.Gates’s concerns are more specifically American, and more directly political, than are Asante’s. Wewill also examine the ideas of Jack L. Daniel and Geneva Smitherman in their article “How I Got Over:Communication Dynamics in the Black Community.” Daniel and Smitherman argue that methods ofcriticism of African-American culture should be grounded in the institution of the Traditional BlackChurch.

All of these scholars argue in favor of understanding the artifacts of African-American culture usingmethods grounded in that culture. Although these four critics do not all use the term, we will borrowAsante’s idea of Afrocentricity to refer to a culture-centered method that places “African ideals at thecenter of any analysis that involves African culture and behavior” (6). Through such a method, Asantehopes that African culture, including its manifestations among African-Americans in the United States,will become “subject and not object” (3), the perspective from which a thing is seen rather than thething that is seen from some other perspective. Developing that critical perspective is, he argues, apolitical stance as well, in that it grounds people of African heritage, who have been dispersed allaround the world, in an ancient and honorable tradition.

These authors, particularly Asante, are careful to note that they are discussing the ways in whichAfrican culture informs African-American culture today. But they do not make the claim that all Blackpeople actively participate in that culture. They are making a cultural, not a racial, argument. Theypoint out that there are also African-Americans with a Eurocentric perspective. Furthermore,Afrocentric criticism is potentially something that people of any race can engage in by remembering toapply Afrocentric standards when studying an Afrocentric culture. Afrocentricity is not an exclusiveclub; it is a perspective on how to understand a culture.



To develop any culture-centered critical method, we must ask what are the values, the ways ofunderstanding and thinking, and the aesthetics that are most characteristic of a given culture. TheAfrocentric method identifies a number of ideas, or tenets, that are especially important in Africancultures and that must therefore be incorporated into the methods used to study cultures grounded inan African heritage. One of the most important of these tenets of Afrocentricity is the value of unityand harmony.

Unity and Harmony

Unity and harmony constitute an overarching value that incorporates several component ideas. Danieland Smitherman identify, among the tenets of what they term the “Traditional African World View,” thecosmic values of “unity between spiritual and material” things and “harmony in nature and theuniverse” (29–30). Daniel and Smitherman also refer to the idea that human society is “patterned afternatural rhythms” (31), by which they mean the cycle of social and environmental experiences that areshared by everyone within the culture (rather than individual or private events). The important event ofthe day, for instance, is not what happens to you personally but what happens to your group as awhole (a town or family celebrating a wedding, bringing in a harvest together, and so forth).

Asante also notes the social value of harmony. Afrocentric rhetoric, he argues, is concerned withcreating harmony and balance in the midst of disharmony and indecision (35). According to Asante,the Afrocentric mind is highly communal rather than individualistic and has a distaste for individualachievement that is not related to collective advancement (105). Think of the rhetorical mistakes that aEurocentric teacher might make, for instance, in singling out and encouraging a student from anAfrocentric culture to do well in school so that he or she can get ahead of all the others (rather than,for example, to do well so as to make the whole community succeed); that sort of Eurocentricindividualism is the wrong rhetoric for the circumstances.



The value of social unity and harmony, of acting together, is an aspect of African culture that can beemployed in rhetorical criticism to further understanding of cultures that are grounded in Africa. In theTraditional Black Church, which Daniel and Smitherman take to be “an exemplary form of Blackcommunication” (27), a common pattern of interaction is the “call–response” in which the preacherand congregation will talk back and forth to one another in a way largely unknown among whitecongregations.

How can we understand this artifact of Black culture? Observing it through Eurocentric eyes mightlead us to see the congregation as disrespectful of the preacher, as too boisterous or ill-mannered.Such a perspective would misunderstand what call–response means in its original cultural context.


Call–response serves to create a unity and harmony between preacher and congregation; instead of aseries of interruptions of an individual sermon, it is part of an entire church service that is beingcreated on the spot. Furthermore, Daniel and Smitherman point out that the call–response form canbe found in patterns of communication among African-Americans outside the church as well, and inmusical forms, such as jazz, created by African-Americans. Participating in these various forms ofcall–response creates a feeling of satisfaction within the individual as he or she participates withothers in creating a unified harmony.

It is possible to overlook what is going on in call–response if we do not think about that cultural artifactwith the African value of harmony and unity in mind. But with such a value in mind, we might then lookat this and other artifacts of African-American culture to see that value at work. For instance,basketball seems to be much more a part of the experience of African-Americans than does golf(despite the success of Tiger Woods); could that be, in part, because golf is such an individual,isolated game, while basketball requires the close cooperation of team members—harmony and unity—to set up shots, to maintain defense, and to move the ball down the court?


Another major tenet of Afrocentricity is that it is an oral culture, grounded in Asante’s concept oforature, or the “total body of oral discourses, styles and traditions.” Historically, African cultures havecommunicated through the spoken word, and knowledge has been encoded in spoken forms ofliterature. Orature thus depends on nommo, defined by Asante as the power of the spoken word, thebelief that all power is ultimately that of oral communication (17).

This is an important concept for creating an Afrocentric understanding of popular culture. Eurocentriccultures, argues Asante, see power residing in a given text or artifact that is created by some source.To speak, perform, or present that text is merely to pass along the “substance” of the text that isalready there. People of European heritage would, for instance, see a song as essentially andfundamentally the words and notes that are written down on paper; a performer is important, but onlyfor passing the song along to a listening audience. But Afrocentricity regards the song, or any text, ascreated in its performance or presentation. It must not only be sung by the singer but also heard andreacted to by the audience. Between them, both singer and audience create the text that is the wholeexperience.

The importance of the spoken word is, of course, quite consistent with the importance, noted above,of unity and harmony. Only the spoken word creates an immediate bond between speaker andlistener. The written word, in contrast, can be a communication between even one who is dead and anaudience. But when a speaker speaks, a singer sings, or an athlete performs and the audience isthere to listen, remark, call encouragement, and make comments—in that moment the text is created,according to the Afrocentric perspective.

The importance of understanding this idea as a principle of criticism is clear. The experience of a textwithin African-American teen culture, for example, is most fully understood not by the critic simplylistening to a Migos or Drake download but by the critic seeing how that song is received and reactedto by a specific audience of listeners. The text of a gospel music service is not fully understood as thewords and music on paper, nor even as the singer’s voice alone, but rather as the singer’s voicetogether with the ways in which the audience joins in verbally and nonverbally. Any text, from anAfrocentric perspective, is “the word revealed in life” (Asante 60). Gates (Signifying Monkey) calls thisconcept the principle of “The Talking Book,” describing African-American writing as often highlyoral/aural, representing the “Black vernacular” or speaking voice in writing and inviting itself to be readaloud.


A third important tenet of Afrocentricity—signifying—is described at length, and with great complexity,in Gates’s book. Gates points to the fact that historically, in much African-American folklore, a figureknown as The Signifying Monkey appears. The Signifying Monkey, and the practice of signifying itself,


have a great deal of meaning within Afrocentricity and cannot be fully explained here. But oneinteresting aspect of it is that it is a strategy of indirection. It is saying and doing one thing whilemeaning another, with the full knowledge that one’s audience will understand the doubleness or two-facedness of what one says and does.

Gates gives as one example the practice of (in the wording of the time in which he wrote) “toasting” or“the dozens,” in which two people will try to outdo one another in heaping insults upon each other’sparents and ancestry, economic prospects, physical appearance, and so forth. The words constituteactual insults on the one hand, but on the other hand are really only a game. Gates cites anotherexample of one woman who observes another, obviously pregnant woman and remarks that the latterhas been putting on weight. The pregnant woman merely responds that she has, indeed, been gettinglarger, to which the first woman replies, “Now look here, girl, we both standing here soaking wet andyou still trying to tell me it ain’t raining” (83). Rain, of course, has nothing to do with it; it is simply away of taxing the woman with denying her pregnancy but doing it indirectly. Indirection—saying onething and meaning another—is thus an essential component of signifying (Gates 54).

Gates argues that signifying is a practice present in all African cultures and rooted in the mythic figureof “Esu,” or the trickster. The trickster figure became especially important among African-Americans,Gates claims, during the time of slavery, when resistance to oppression required an ability to say onething but mean another. Enslaved Africans had to be able to sing “Steal Away to Jesus,” which meantone thing to whites, while understanding among themselves that it meant something quite different,such as a call to a secret meeting. Signifying is thus a strategy for obscuring the apparent meaning, away to colonize a white sign and make it have a meaning appropriate to one’s own culture.

Again, the importance of understanding signifying as a rhetorical critic is clear. An artifact of African-American culture will often be most fully understood by asking whether it has a double meaning, an“in-house” meaning among African-Americans that is specifically and intentionally in contrast to, or indefiance of, the meaning that it might have for white society. Eurocentric criticism tends not to valueindirection as highly, and certainly not as a strategy of political survival against oppression. So, forinstance, a Eurocentric critic might view the scenes in the Barbershop film series, in which highlyexaggerated lampoons of inner-city life are presented, as straightforwardly funny. An Afrocentricperspective, on the other hand, might see these scenes as signifying, as having a double and indirectmeaning. Perhaps Ice Cube’s (and others’) portrayals of “ghetto” characters are in fact a burlesque ofa “ghetto” dweller as whites might see such a person and thus are not only meant to be funny for allaudiences of every color but also oppositional, set up against whites’ oversimplified ideas aboutpeople of color.

Other Tenets

Asante, Gates, and Daniel and Smitherman point to many other tenets of Afrocentricity, more than wecan consider in detail here. But we will conclude by referring briefly to a few of them.

Oral cultures will trade components of various texts back and forth, because the boundaries betweenspoken texts are fluid (unlike printed texts, which have firmer physical barriers). Therefore, Afrocentricculture expects that texts will borrow from other texts freely, using a strategy called intertextuality(Gates 60). Critics should be on the lookout for that strategy and note that it is culturally appropriateand expected. For example, much of the public speaking of Martin Luther King, Jr., was intertextual.He wove into a speech many brief passages from the Bible, proverbs, maxims, and his otherspeeches.

Asante points out that rhythm and its associated concepts, such as repetition and careful choice ofword and gesture, are highly valued in the Afrocentric perspective (38–39). The phrasing of even asingle word and the manipulation of pauses for precise effect are aesthetic choices that are not sohighly prized in the Eurocentric tradition. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, MartinLuther King, Jr., repeatedly used a formal pattern of pausing for effect. Similarly, in one well-knownpassage of the speech, the phrase “I have a dream” is repeatedly appended to the end of thesentence before it. What is happening here is a manipulation of rhythm, in conjunction with a vividstyle, that is very much in tune with the Afrocentric perspective.


Daniel and Smitherman argue that religion and its symbols hold a central place in the Afrocentricperspective (30). And Asante notes that proverbs, or repetition of the ancient wisdom of a peopleembodied in sayings, are important in Black culture. He also refers to two scholars, Vernon Dixon andBadi Foster, who have suggested seven elements of Afrocentricity. Asante lists them as

(1) the value of humanism, (2) the value of communalism, (3) the attribute ofoppression/paranoia, (4) the value of empathetic understanding, (5) the value of rhythm, and(6) the principle of limited reward. There is, in addition, a seventh element: the principle ofstyling. (37)

Asante also offers such principles of Afrocentricity as a focus on “(1) human relations, (2) humans’relationship to the supernatural, and (3) humans’ relationships to their own being” (168).

As we noted above, Afrocentricity is only one example of culture-centered criticism. We have focusedon it here because it is one of the more self-aware and best-developed forms of culture-centeredcriticism. But scholars are also exploring what it means to have a Hispanic, a Chinese, or a Japaneseway of understanding culture that is grounded in those cultures themselves. Culture-centered criticismis not negative; it is not a way to negate another’s culture. Rather, it is a very positive attempt to showhow all cultures contain within themselves the tools for their own analysis.


Whiteness as a Kind of Culture: Analysis and Examples

An important recent trend in critical studies is what has collectively been called “whiteness studies.”This approach, exemplified by Nakayama and Martin (Whiteness), argues that European cultures areoften not understood as having their own special and peculiar ways of understanding the world, justas do Afrocentric cultures. When we forget that “whiteness” is a particular way of thinking about life,culture, and history, we tend to make that way of thinking the default. That means that we regardAfrocentric, Asian-centered, or Latino-centered (and so forth) perspectives as if they were strange anddifferent because they are not Eurocentric. Whiteness studies seeks to bring what it means to bewhite, and to have a culture informed by Eurocentric values and perspectives, more into consciousawareness. Whiteness studies is an important dimension of culture-centered criticism because itidentifies values that may be taken for granted in societies where whites have dominated for a longtime. Not everyone in all cultures may share those values or grant as much importance to them. Forinstance, I once heard an anecdote of a white Peace Corps volunteer from a Eurocentric backgroundwho was observing members of an African village carrying water from a lake in a bucket brigade up tothe village. The Peace Corps volunteer told the villagers that a mechanical pump and hose would be amuch more efficient way to do this. Yes, he was told, but then they could not visit with each other asthey did in passing buckets. Here you see a Eurocentric value of efficiency and mechanization comeinto conflict with an Afrocentric value, already discussed, of unity and harmony. An important concernin this approach is to unmask some of the techniques by which the assumption that whiteness is the“center” of all things has been used as an instrument of oppression in the past. A full exploration ofwhiteness studies would take many pages, but let us look at one important tenet.

One of the most important themes that whiteness studies has exposed is the assumption of privilegethat is encoded, usually out of awareness, in Eurocentric perspectives. Texts are examined for waysin which this privilege is asserted and maintained. For instance, in the whole Indiana Jones series offilms (e.g., Raiders of the Lost Ark) and similar texts (e.g., the whole Anaconda series of films), thereis an assumption that white explorers can go anywhere in the world and find friendly and agreeable“natives” who will be at their beck and call, willing even to lay down their lives for them. Privilege is astate of affairs in which one finds that whatever group or demographic one is in is taken as the“default” or “natural” way to be. Privilege is a condition of not being questioned. In most colleges anduniversities, for instance, a white instructor will enjoy the “privilege” of there being few if any questionsraised about the instructor’s status, qualifications, credentials, and so forth upon walking into class onthe first day. A nonwhite instructor does not enjoy that privilege and runs the risk of being questionedabout credentials. Similarly, a white person who is appropriately dressed need never fear beingquestioned or turned away when entering a high-end retail store, while a nonwhite person who isappropriately dressed may well be asked what business they have there, or at the very least followed.A lifetime of small advantages like this adds up to white privilege. White privilege does not mean, forinstance, that whites get all the good jobs. It would be more accurate to see that privilege amongthose who assume that if they work hard and get an education, they will certainly get good jobs andsucceed. That kind of assumption cannot be held by nonwhites in every case. Those who studywhiteness will be interested in examining texts of popular culture that perpetuate white privilege. Howdo store employees learn to follow Latino or African-American shoppers around in fear that they maysteal something while letting white shoppers wander freely with privilege? What films, videos, andtelevision shows perpetuate that privilege?

Although we may have trouble linking The Wizard of Oz to an Afrocentric cultural criticism, surely thisone theme of whiteness studies can be shown to expose some of the rhetorical effect of that movie. IsDorothy not a parallel to the white explorer landing in uncharted territory and instantly winning theassistance of the strange and different beings she finds there? Although the skin colors of theMunchkins are the same as hers, they are obviously physically different, as are most of the otherbeings she encounters. So many of her enemies are considerably darker in color than she is: thecranky apple trees, the winged monkeys. In the end, it is the whitest (literally) character in the movie,Glinda, who tells her how to get back to white-bread Kansas. A culture-centered critique based onwhiteness studies would argue that the film reinforces in a white audience a sense of privilege, ofbeing able to command the allegiance of physically different beings, even in their own homes andspaces, as a matter of right.



At the start of this section, we are in trouble with terms and their connotations, because there is notwidespread agreement about what to call the Marxist perspective. On the one hand, some peoplethink of this school of thought solely in terms of ideological or class- and power-based rhetoric. On theother hand, Marxism has far more negative connotations for many people (bringing to mind images ofdesperate people in North Korea standing in line for hours to receive bread, for example).

We align ourselves with the first group, viewing Marxism as an approach that is concerned withideology, with class, and with the distribution of power in society. Many of the methods andassumptions with which we think about those issues were first proposed by the German philosopherKarl Marx in the nineteenth century. That is why we label this approach Marxist. The term is a handy“umbrella” word, covering all of those concerns and more.

The association of the term Marxist with repressive communist governments is understandable but notthat relevant to our concerns in this book. The political system in the former Soviet Union and EasternBloc nations, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and so forth bears little resemblance to the system ofgovernment that Marx actually proposed. Similarly, there is very little connection between thosespecific governments or economies and Marxist theory as a way to think about the rhetoric of popularculture. Marxism, in the sense in which we will use the term, is a method, or a set of assumptions. Sowhen we refer to Marxist critics, we are referring to people who draw on Marx’s theories (regardingclass, power, and ideology) in analyzing the rhetoric of popular culture.


ullstein bild/contributor/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Actually, you have already been exposed to many of the methods and principles of Marxist criticism.This approach is one of the most common, and the most mixable, of the seven that we will examine.Therefore, it is the source of many of the ideas and terms to which you have already been introduced.Some of those ideas will be reintroduced here in the context of a discussion of Marxism as a particularapproach in rhetorical criticism.


Materialism, Bases, and Superstructure

The philosophy underlying Marxist approaches to criticism is called materialism. This philosophy holdsthat ideas, rules, laws, customs, social arrangements—in short, everything belonging to the world ofideas or concepts—grows from material conditions and practices. That world of ideas is a vitallyimportant one; it includes our ideas of who should govern whom, of who is more or less valuable, oflaws and morals, of aesthetics and taste in art and entertainment, and so forth. It also includesregrettable and even destructive ideas such as racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and so forth.Materialism holds that those ideas are what they are because of real, concrete, observable actions,practices, and objects. Materialism stands in sharp contrast to idealism, a way of thinking that arguesthat the world is the way it is because of abstract ideas and concepts. Marxist materialism argues justthe reverse.

As an example, take the idea of free choice, which many of us value and believe that we exercise. Anidealist would argue that free choice is a powerful idea that exerts influence in the real world, and thatbecause it is such a compelling idea, people come to arrange their affairs, their governments, andtheir everyday practices so as to make the idea of free choice a concrete reality. Marxists, on theother hand, would argue that the present economic and political arrangement of capitalism requiresthat individuals make purchasing decisions on the basis of their own desires without thinking about thelarger good of the community. In other words, our economic system depends on people going out tobuy smartphones because they want them as individuals, not because they think that doing so is goodfor others. Because the economic base of our society functions on that model of making “free,”individual decisions, Marxists would say that the whole idea of free choice grows out of the economicbase derived from those economic conditions. Were we living under a different economic system, sothe thinking goes, the idea of free choice might never occur to us, or at least not as such a powerfuland central idea in our understanding of our social and economic lives.

Different versions of Marxism have developed different versions of materialism. An early, very basicform of Marxism (now not as commonly held by critics) argued that a base of economic conditions(who owns what, working conditions, trading practices, and so forth) simply produced a superstructureof everything else: culture (including television, films, and books), ideological institutions (includingchurches and schools), politics, and so forth. The superstructure of ideas and culture was said to bedetermined by the economic base.

Most Marxists, however, now recognize that churches, rock concerts, and schools (and all thathappens there) are just as material as is the economic system. So, for example, the Marxist theoristLouis Althusser has argued that other systems within a society (such as the political and ideologicalsystems), as well as the economic system, operate relatively autonomously; that is, they are allmaterial and they all generate ideas and concepts (Lenin and Philosophy). Althusser argued thatsocial relations create ideology as much as economic relations. He argued that a powerful institution,which he called an Ideological State Apparatus (such as family, schools, religion, media, and so forth),can be a source of instilling ideology in the public with a degree of autonomy from economic practices.In trying to explain why people think what they do, why certain ideas become current (including ideasof who should rule, who is valuable, and so forth), Marxists now would more commonly say that thoseideas are overdetermined, or caused by several material forces acting simultaneously (rather than justthe economic forces).

Today, Marxists such as John Fiske expand the idea of what is material to include all the objects,conditions, and practices of day-to-day experience, arguing that ideas, concepts, customs, and thelike grow from the material experiences of everyday life (Reading the Popular; Understanding PopularCulture). More explicitly (and more radically), some Marxists would argue that ideas themselves areembedded in, and take form in, everyday experiences. This view of ideas is essentially the positiontaken in this book. That is why we have been looking so closely at the “little” experiences of readingmagazine advertisements, for instance—because ideas of who has power and who does not havepower stem from, take shape in, and are worked out in just such “little,” everyday experiences. It isthese two concerns—materialism, and the way material affects power—that together form the core ofMarxist analysis.

Our chief example of popular culture in this chapter can help us see the kind of general approach that


Marxism takes. The film version of The Wizard of Oz with which many people are familiar firstappeared on the screen in 1939, toward the end of the Great Depression, when economic conditions(especially in “dust bowl” states such as Kansas) were still grave. The story originally began in aseries of books by L. Frank Baum written even earlier, at the start of the twentieth century, and thethemes of hardscrabble farm living in Kansas likely resonated with audiences for the first forty years ofthe books’ existence. The year 1939 also saw the beginning of World War II, with Germany’s invasionof Poland and France, and the beginning of hostilities between Germany and Great Britain. TheWizard of Oz is an extraordinarily rich text, bearing many meanings within the guise of a pleasantchildren’s story. Let’s examine just one theme in this movie, considering how critical perspectives thatare specifically Marxist might approach that theme: the idea of home.

“Home” is the last word uttered in the film (“There’s no place like…”), and it is the place to whichDorothy is going at the very start of the film (fleeing the evil Miss Gulch). After her one ill-fated attemptto run away from home and her untimely return during the tornado, poor Dorothy spends the entiremovie trying to get back home: first trying to get into the storm cellar as the tornado approaches, andthen trying to get from Oz back to Kansas. Home is a central term, or a central value, in the film.

Marxists might take at least two related approaches to understanding home in this movie. First, theywould try to understand the idea of home and how it is expressed in The Wizard of Oz as a symptomor expression of the economic conditions of 1939. They might note the peculiar intensity with whichDorothy wants to return to her hardscrabble farm; she is not lured for long by the attractions ofProfessor Marvel’s alleged globe-trotting or by the Technicolor beauty of Oz. Material conditions in1939 were such that, due to a terrible economy and drought, many families were quite anxious overlosing their homes as banks foreclosed on high interest mortgages.

Dorothy’s desire to return to Black-and-white Kansas would be understood by these critics as tied tothe economic difficulties of 1939. The economic system needed workers to be happy with home,wherever that was. Home was a metaphor for the established system; it was the job you had, theincome you already made. It was important for the public to maintain faith in the economic system andto keep working within it even though it had failed them. The growth of labor unions also threatened todisrupt traditional economic arrangements as working people acquired the means to demand changesin working conditions and distribution of income. Dorothy finds out that a desire for change, even fromdesperate conditions, results in disaster. The idea of home as the place to be, as the primary object ofall desires, is an idea growing out of the established economic system’s need in 1939 to keep workersloyal and complacent despite an itch to “roam.”

Second, Marxists might see The Wizard of Oz as an argument for isolationism or against foreignentanglements (such as a war in Europe); this was the official United States policy and practice in1939, even as Hitler was gaining power. These critics would note that troubles begin when Dorothy’sdog is allowed to run wild in Miss Gulch’s yard and grow worse when Dorothy herself goes to foreignparts (Oz). Dorothy learns at the end of the movie to stay “in [her] own backyard.” The theme of homeas the confines of North America would thus be read by Marxists as emerging from the prevailingisolationist tendencies in the United States at that time.

The idea of home is part of the meaning of The Wizard of Oz and part of how its rhetoric works.Marxists point out that any economic or political system not only produces goods, products, practices,and ideas but also reproduces the conditions under which it produces those things. The tactics bywhich such an economic or political system induces people to allow it to continue as it is are clearlyrhetorical. Thus, part of the rhetoric of The Wizard of Oz is the way in which it reproduces itsconditions of production—that is, the economic system of capitalism and the political system ofisolationism. It encourages workers to stay on the job, dismal though it may be, and it encouragesAmericans to stay at home and “mind their own business” politically.

The film’s meanings are rhetorical because they work to influence the ways that workers regard theirjobs and the ways the general public regards overseas conflicts. Marxists today would argue that it isin this movie and in countless other experiences of popular culture (on the job site, in schools) thatboth economic and political systems are made. In other words, foreign entanglement is the troublethat Dorothy gets into, which is accepted as a truth by the audience of this film and added to other,similar meanings encountered in other everyday experiences.


Economic Metaphors, Commodities, and Signs

Today, Marxists look for material causes that go beyond the narrowly economic. But because thehistory of the Marxist approach began with an attempt to link ideas, culture, power arrangements, andso forth to economic conditions, Marxist critics often retain economic metaphors for how cultureworks. By an economic metaphor, I mean that the way the economy works is taken to be formallysimilar to how the rest of culture works. Understanding how we buy and sell, for instance, can be usedas a metaphor for, or a way to understand, how we relate to each other even in noncommercialcircumstances. For instance, Marxists often regard meanings as if they were commodities and discussthe ways in which they are exchanged, traded, bought, or sold. This metaphorical approach can be afruitful way to think about how artifacts of popular culture are used, since most of those artifacts are infact bought and sold and possess some dollar value. Marxists supplement the idea of the cash valueof artifacts with a notion of their value in terms of signification, or meaning.

Take, for instance, simple stud earrings. Suppose you make and sell earrings as a hobby, buying thematerials for five dollars and selling the earrings at ten dollars a pair. You are enriched by five dollarsper pair. Your customers have ten dollars less, but presumably they feel that the commodity, theearrings, is equal in value to that amount.

But consider the ways in which an earring can also pick up value as a sign, value that can then“enrich” its users socially that can even, in a social sense, be “traded.” What does it mean, forinstance, for a man to wear such an earring? The meanings are not as charged as they once were(many years ago, for example, the choice of which ear to wear the ring in was supposed to be a signof whether or not a man was gay—a system that collapsed due to widespread confusion andinstability in that particular meaning). But even now, an earring in a man’s ear picks up some addedsymbolic value. It enriches the man who wears it with different meanings: he suddenly has “daring” or“slightly different” or “stylish” added to his other meanings.

Think also about a stud earring worn in the nose. What meanings would that “add” to the “symbolicwealth” of the wearer? We can also think in terms of the exchange value of those signs (just as wemight think of the exchange value of money, of labor, or of commodities). To consider exchangevalue, think about what it would say about you if you were to date, or become friends with, someonewearing a nose ring; what meanings would you have “bought” through such an association? Ofcourse, besides having exchange value, all these meanings should also be thought of as rhetorical;you can clearly influence someone by using a sign in ways that are charged with certain meanings,such as wearing a ring in the nose. We all know that it takes “currency” or money to buy this jewelry.But think of it this way: earrings or nose studs give wearers a kind of “cultural currency,” a set ofmeanings that will “buy” them attributions of coolness, stylishness, danger, and so forth from people inspecific social contexts. This is true of most signs. You spend monetary currency to buy a businesssuit, which then gives you “professionalism” currency to spend by “purchasing” respect in a jobinterview.



What counts as cultural enrichment, “currency,” or exchange value is highly dependent on specificcultural contexts, just as what counts as monetary currency depends on which country you are in.Some prominent hip-hop artists, such as Travis Scott, Pusha T, Trick Daddy, and Tory Lanez, tryvery, very hard in their music and accompanying videos to claim the status of miscreants just a stepahead of the law, bad gangsters with dark pasts of drug dealing and violence. Of course, if thesegentlemen really were that bad, they would likely be dead or in jail rather than piling up royalties andenjoying lives of ease. But consider the enrichment that this “gangsta” capital brings these artists; inwhich “countries” can they “spend” that “currency”? What can these artists “buy” with that image? Thatimage seems to be very popular with young people, especially young males who may try to enrichthemselves by purchasing and playing this music. But that currency only works in some contexts, justas specific kinds of money only work in specific countries (e.g., euros work in Holland but not in theUnited States). Would purchasing a download of the latest Dirty South album get your grandmothervery far socially at her bridge club, for instance?

And, as a final example, the film The Wizard of Oz also contains numerous signs that have picked upmeanings that give them a kind of value. Marxists might study the film as a source of such signs, andthey might study the ways in which people appropriate those signs so as to spend them and exchangethem. The term Munchkin has been extracted from the film to serve as a derogatory term, forexample. I like to tell people that I can infallibly discover when a certain coworker will come to the


office in a bad mood by looking out the window to see if “Surrender Dorothy” is written in the sky. Incertain bohemian neighborhoods of cities like New York and San Francisco, you can find T-shirtssaying, “Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore.” And if you are going to the zoo with a childand the child asks whether you will be seeing lions, you might find yourself adding “and tigers andbears” (to which the child might respond, “Oh my!”). The list goes on and on; The Wizard of Oz is abank of signs to “spend”—to use as wit, as insult, as fun. The ways in which these meanings can be“spent,” or used strategically, are an important part of their rhetoric. Such uses are part of the way inwhich these meanings influence others.

Many Marxist critics look beyond the narrowly economic to identify the ways in which actual artifacts,objects, events, and practices influence power arrangements. Power is, then, perhaps the strongestinterest of Marxists. Marxist critics study the ways in which large groups of people are empowered ordisempowered. They assume that every society has power structures that privilege some groupswhile placing others in a relatively disadvantaged position. Such differences in power need not beintentionally planned by any group, nor do they need to be startlingly obvious. But such differenceswill be consistent throughout most of the experiences within a culture. So in the United States today,for instance, second- and third-generation citizens are relatively empowered and recent immigrantsare relatively disempowered, men are more empowered than women, and so on. These differences inempowerment are found consistently throughout the culture in everyday, ongoing experiences—because they are created there. In identifying sources of power and its refusal, Marxist critics arehighly interventionist. To some extent, by revealing power differences, they give voice to thedisempowered and marginalized when such people cannot speak for themselves.


Preferred and Oppositional Readings

More and more Marxist theorists are coming to see the practice of reading texts as a sort of materialexperience with ideological consequences. One way in which already empowered or establishedgroups and interests maintain their power is through the ways in which the texts within a given cultureare read. By “reading,” Marxist theorists mean the discovery and attribution of meaning in a text orartifact. Every text, every artifact, according to Marxists, has a preferred reading. This is a reading thatis the easiest, most obvious one—the one that seems to be common sense within a given culture.When the evening news reports that a police officer was wounded in a shootout with an armedrobbery suspect, for instance, the public is generally encouraged to assume that the police were in theright and the suspect in the wrong. The robbery suspect is likely to be presented as poor, as a drugaddict, as some class of humanity that the public is encouraged to think of as habitually criminal.Notice that this reading perpetuates a system of power in which the already empowered enjoy morepolice protection than do poor or disreputable people within that system regardless of their level ofcriminality. Louis Althusser, whose ideas we explored earlier, stressed the power of preferredreadings to create ideologies. Ideological State Apparatuses were, he argued, strongly able to imposepreferred readings on the public.

In contrast to preferred readings are oppositional readings. These are meanings found in a text thatare different from, or even opposed to, the easiest preferred meanings. Marxists identify two sorts ofoppositional readings: inflections and subversions. An inflection is a bending of the preferred meaningto suit one’s own needs and situations rather than an outright rejection of those meanings. Onepossible inflected reading of the preceding example (the officer wounded in a fight with an armedrobbery suspect) might come from a National Rifle Association firearms enthusiast who saw the storyas evidence of a need for all citizens to be armed. Such a person might “read” this story as showingthat armed citizens could have deterred the suspect in the first place or could have aided the officerwith additional firepower.

A subversion is a reversal, an active undermining or rejection, of the preferred meaning. One clearsubversion of the robbery example would be to read the situation as one in which the officer had usedtoo much force, thus obliging the suspect to defend himself. The whole structure of who is right andwho is wrong in this story is thus reversed, and the meanings upon which established views of lawand order rest are subverted. Note that no given text must be read with preferred meanings, nor mustit be understood oppositionally. Inflections and subversions are simply different ways of attributingmeanings to the signs that make up texts. Earlier in chapter three we discussed how subject positionscan be preferred or subversive. Taking such a position will depend on the reading one performs.

We have already discussed one of the preferred readings of The Wizard of Oz in terms of the conceptof home. Let us think about some of the other ways in which the movie is “easiest” to read (we shouldstress that these are but a few of the possible ways to read the film). There is a tension in the moviebetween the value of fairness and open dealing on the one hand, and on the other, a respect for lawand order. The preferred reading seems to be that law and order should be obeyed, even if suchobedience is difficult or repugnant, because fairness and honesty will eventually triumph. The wickedMiss Gulch arrives at the farm with all the force of law behind her (“I’ve been to the Sheriff…. I’ll bringa lawsuit that’ll take your whole farm!”). She has a legal instrument in hand, allowing her to take thedog, Toto. “We can’t go against the law, Dorothy,” says Auntie Em in resignation. Dorothy does try todo just that by running away with Toto to Professor Marvel’s camp, and she pays for it with an injury tothe head.

When Dorothy reaches Oz, it becomes clear that a structure of law works there as well. “Rubbish,”Glinda the Good Witch tells the Wicked Witch, who threatens Dorothy with mischief; “your magic hasno power here.” Dorothy’s companions follow the Wizard’s instructions for obtaining the broomstick,even though they seem hopelessly unfair. But the Wizard, in turn, gets his comeuppance when he isexposed as a fraud. The virtue of each of the four companions who have been following the Wizard’s“contract” to obtain the Witch’s broomstick triumphs at last. Clearly, even a grudging respect for lawand order supports the present system of power and resource distribution. Dorothy and her friendsteach the audience to respect that system, even when it puts them at a disadvantage, promising thatjustice will triumph in the end if we “don’t make waves.”


One of the movie’s easier readings sees it also as a celebration of the value of work. Dorothy issomething of a nuisance on the farm at the start of the film because she is the only one with no clearjob to do. Everyone else is running around frantically doing chores. “I know three shiftless farm handsthat’ll be out of a job,” warns Auntie Em, to spur the help on to greater efforts. The whole context ofthe action in Oz is a quest—doing something or working hard so as to earn passage home. At theend, Glinda reveals to Dorothy that she could have gone home at any time, simply by tapping her rubyslippers together, but that she “had to learn it for [her]self.” Dorothy and her three companions thinknothing of the Wizard’s setting them various tasks to do in order to earn “some brains, a heart, thenerve,” and a trip back to Kansas. Although it is in his power to grant their wishes (or so they think),they accept the need to earn those gifts. For an audience eager to find work in the Great Depression,the preferred reading of the value of work would certainly have been easy to swallow. But thecontinuation of the established capitalist economy also depended on that desire to put up with a failedeconomy until its health should be restored; thus, an emphasis on the value of work encouragedpeople to continue seeking what the system could not, at that time, give them enough of.

The encouragement of preferred readings can be a prop to established power. The Italian Marxisttheorist Antonio Gramsci argued that empowered groups and institutions based their power not somuch on physical means of rule such as the police, nor on the direct imposition of ideology, but onwhat he called cultural hegemony. Hegemony is a situation in which powerful groups and institutionscreate in those they dominate the belief that such domination is natural, commonsensical, and theway things ought to be. We would say that a group exercises hegemony in society when theirpreferred meanings, the readings of a text that would keep them in power, come to be the meaningsthat other, even disempowered, groups tend to turn to first. Gramsci argued that ideology thereforerecruits the disempowered to participate in their own disempowerment by agreeing to the hegemonicdomination of more empowered groups. When people read, or draw meaning out of, texts by drawingon a preferred reading, they participate in one of those everyday, material experiences that perpetuatethe existing system of empowerment. The tendency of people to turn first to preferred readings is aproduct of hegemony. Gramsci’s views are usually taken to be in contrast to those of Louis Althusser,whose work we reviewed earlier. Althusser places greater emphasis on the power of the IdeologicalState Apparatus to impose ideology on people. Gramsci places greater emphasis on the power ofdiscourse to coax cooperation from the public but also the ability of people to resist or inflectcooperation.

Hegemony is a remarkable phenomenon; because of it, oppressed people not only accept but oftenparticipate in their own oppression. How is it that some women go about saying that men ought to be“in charge”? How is it that some gays feel contempt for themselves and see their lives as degradedand somehow wrong? People of lower economic classes may think their status has to do with theirown laziness rather than with, for instance, the poor condition of many public schools which theyattended. Marxists critics are very concerned about examining the ways in which preferred readingsinduce oppressed people themselves to participate in such oppression.

Marxist theorists note that many of the subtlest means by which power maintains itself are disguised—that is, they do not display themselves as sources or means of power. These theorists would saythat the tools of ideology and hegemony tend to be occluded (or hidden) as such. In other words,people are not aware of the ways in which they are empowered and disempowered. Clearly, mostcasual observers of The Wizard of Oz would not be aware of the deeper meanings that it is urgingupon them or of the ways in which it supports the established system. Marxists therefore tend to behighly interventionist (as we defined that term in Chapter 3), in eager pursuit of the goal of showingpeople how empowerment works (see this discussion throughout Chapter 3 in several places).

Marxists tend to see many flaws in the established system and to seek changes to it. Therefore, theyalso try to understand the ways in which texts offer resources for making meaning differently, for beingunderstood in different ways. They do so by encouraging oppositional readings, either inflections orsubversions. When texts contain resources for both preferred and oppositional, alternative readings(as nearly all texts do), these texts can be seen as sites of struggle (as discussed in Chapter 3). Thus,a Marxist reading of the day’s economic news might point out that a preferred reading of stock marketnews is always encouraged, in which a rise in stock prices is good and a fall is bad. A Marxist readingof that news might encourage audiences to ask how news of a rise or fall in stocks affectsunemployment, or worker satisfaction, news that is not reported as frequently. A rise in stock pricesmight be oppositionally read as empowering only wealthy board members of corporations.


The economic metaphor (discussed above in our section on commodities and signs) is often used toclarify the ways in which people construct oppositional readings. Participating within an economicsystem in legitimate ways (through running a business or buying products, for example) is sometimeslikened to choosing the preferred meaning of a text. In that case, oppositional readings become a sortof “Black market” of signification, a way of “stealing” signs and using them for one’s own purposes.

For instance, there are very clear preferred meanings for a baseball cap; list a few such meanings inyour mind. Now, for a gang member to wear a cap in different positions is to “steal” that sign, the cap,metaphorically, and make it mean something else—in fact, to make it mean something specificallydesigned to offend the established order and its preferred meanings. The same is true of pop stars’use of signs such as the cross that are, in the preferred reading, religious artifacts; a star wearing thecross as a fashion accessory makes it mean something else entirely. Marxists argue that to turn signsagainst their preferred usage is a refusal of hegemony, of established power structures.

Let us think of some of the ways in which The Wizard of Oz can be read oppositionally. The film haswithin it the resources to be read in ways that are, in fact, critical of the established system. Authoritycan certainly be read as suspect in the movie. Glinda the Good Witch appears to be the onlyunambiguously good authority figure in the film, yet even she is fooled by the Wizard, describing himto Dorothy as “very powerful, but very mysterious.” Glinda can, however, be read as unfair and eventhreatening in the way she submits Dorothy and her friends to what might have been a fatal adventure(when she could have told Dorothy from the start how to get back to Kansas). Her power can be readas capricious and arbitrary, apparently exercised for its own sake.

Although there is certainly a preferred reading for male dominance, the movie also has the potentialfor feminist readings. It centers on a heroine, Dorothy. Two of the most powerful figures, Glinda andthe Wicked Witch, are female. Auntie Em is clearly in control on the farm back home in Kansas. All ofthe adult male figures in Oz are weak, silly, or incompetent. The film is about the quest of a youngwoman who finds at the end that the resources she was looking for all along were within herself. So,against the dominant male ideology of 1939, it is possible to find resources for female empowermentin The Wizard of Oz.


Subject Positions

Another important part of the meanings of texts in Marxist thought, also referred to in Chapter 3, is thesubject position. Subject positions can now be linked with our discussion of preferred or oppositionalreadings; the two concepts are connected. Just as every text has a preferred reader that it implies or“calls to” (or, in Althusser’s terms, interpellates), so there can often be subversive, negotiated, oroppositional subject positions. Marxist critics try to discover the kinds of roles or characters, or subjectpositions, that are most strongly suggested by texts, but they also try to identify the resources withintexts and within people’s experiences that would enable the construction of inflected or oppositionalsubject positions.

For example, there is clearly a preferred way to read NFL football games: you think they areimportant, you follow all the statistics, you understand when drama and conflict arise. But there is alsoa preferred subject position for NFL football games. We may call this position “the fan.” To make NFLfootball work for you, you have to take on that role. Think about the different patterns of talking,moving, and dressing that you enter into when you become a fan. But not everyone can be a fan.Some people hate NFL football, and so if they were forced to watch a game, they would take asubversive subject position, one of skepticism and grumpiness. Their reading of the text wouldlikewise be oppositional, seeing the game not as a heroic contest but as a lot of huffing and puffingand running around to no great purpose. Subject positions and readings go hand in hand.

From our discussion of subject positions and readings, it should already be clear to whom The Wizardof Oz “calls.” It is easiest to watch the movie as an honest, hard worker, as one who admires fairdealing and openness, as one who values doggedness and determination, and as a good citizen whoobeys even unjust authority. From that subject position, one does not find it strange that Dorothy risksher life to earn passage back to the dreary workaday world of Kansas. That subject position makes iteasy to despise the false Wizard at the end. The “good citizen” subject called to by this film will goalong reluctantly with the decision to hand Toto over to Miss Gulch, while hating Miss Gulch forthrowing her weight around. The “good citizen” will not be surprised when Dorothy and hercompanions sorrowfully turn to leave the Wizard’s palace after first being rudely turned away. Much ofthe rhetoric of the film lies in these subject positions; they were recognizable to much of the film’soriginal audience and easy for these people to step into. The preferred readings of the text feltcomfortable for many people, and the meanings found in those readings were easily accepted bythem.

There is much more to Marxist rhetorical criticism than we have space to explore here. The Marxistcritic is concerned with the ways in which popular culture influences people to accept establishedarrangements of power and economics, and it tries to discover ways in which people find resourcesfor influencing themselves and others to change undesirable power and economic arrangements.Some of the methods that study ways in which power and goods are distributed are visual,psychoanalytic, and feminist criticism, all close cousins of Marxist analysis.


Standpoint Theory

Standpoint theory is a perspective widely shared across many feminist and Marxist perspectives (e.g.,Collins; Hartsock; Kenney and Kinsella). To sum up a very complex and diverse school of thought,standpoint theory argues that the world may be known only in partial perspectives given to us bywhere we are situated in the world in terms of class, race, gender, geography, sexual identity, and soforth. All of these perspectives are partial, but some are more partial than others. The perspectives ofthe empowered are more limited, this theory argues, because not seeing inequality and injustice is animportant way to perpetuate inequality and injustice. The perspectives of the disempowered areusually more inclusive, not only because being able to see the world from a broader perspective is asurvival skill for those at risk but also because seeing that which power wants to hide from generalview is useful for those who seek to share that power. In other words, the wealthy and empoweredneed not be able to consider the standpoints of others if they have enough resources, high enoughwalls, and responsive enough guards or police to afford to ignore other standpoints. The poor and thedispossessed need to know how the world looks to others just to be able to negotiate that worldbetter.

Standpoint theory in general works to show how different texts are produced from differentstandpoints grounded in class, gender, and so forth, and it works to expose those different points ofview to each other. Standpoint theory exposes the partisan sources of much everyday ideology byasking whose standpoint is privileged in a particular text or image. Standpoint theory inquires as to thepoint of view assumed in a text or image, and how the object would be different were it made from apoint of view that was connected to a different ideology or way of life.

Standpoint theory could help inform the debate over the confirmation of Supreme Court justice SonyaSotomayor in 2009. During the process of debating Justice Sotomayor’s background, qualifications,and previous judicial opinions, one comment in particular that she had made was widely discussed.She had once said that a “wise Latina woman” would have more insights into injustices caused byracism, sexism, and class oppression than would someone from a different background. Manyaccused the justice of racism in that statement. But standpoint theory would confirm what she said,arguing that membership in any group that has been marginalized—whether that means being female,Latina, African-American, gay, lesbian, transgender, or the like—gives one a special understanding ofhow power and social processes work. Rhetorical critics can be enriched by standpoint theory toexamine texts from the perspective of the margin and to find the insights given in texts produced bythose who are marginalized. What this means is that if you want to know how racism works, ask thosewhose standpoint is racial disempowerment. If you want to know how homophobia works, ask queerpeople. Women can tell you more about the disempowerment of women than can men.


Varieties of Feminist Criticism

Feminist criticism is a wide-ranging group of approaches to rhetorical criticism. All feminist criticalthinking begins from the assumption that there is gender inequality between men and women,particularly in today’s industrialized economies, and thus power differentials. Feminism tries to explainhow such inequality is created and perpetuated through popular texts. But it also examines texts todiscover sources of female empowerment, to explore ways in which inequalities may be refused andoverthrown. We discovered that Marxist critics believe there is an established system of poweralready in place in any society and that the system tries to perpetuate itself even as some people tryto oppose it. Feminist critics make a similar assumption; they argue that there is a male-dominatedsystem of power in place, and they call that system patriarchy. They want to intervene in patriarchy tolevel out the playing field.

Of course, many observations about the inequities between men and women can be made on thebasis of fairly obvious evidence. In general, men are paid more, they hold more positions ofgovernmental or corporate power, and so on. The critical approach that draws attention to these kindsof inequities between men and women is often called liberal feminism. Liberal, in this sense, meansattempting to increase participation within a democratic system. Thus, the liberals of nineteenth-century politics tried to change the laws so that more people could vote within the established politicalsystem. And liberal feminists today are concerned with involving more women in the alreadyempowered echelons of business and government. Some rhetorical critics do adopt a liberal feministperspective in order to study the ways in which inequities are created and maintained in a patriarchalsystem.



But as we have discovered, critics do their most uniquely valuable work in revealing what is notobvious. And that which is “not obvious” is very often that which props up power differences,especially those founded on class differences. Marxist feminism critiques the ways in which theintersection of class and gender creates structures of empowerment and disempowerment. As wehave noted, the methods we review are often fruitfully linked to other methods, and Marxist feminismis one such example. One of the major tools of patriarchy is economic disempowerment, which isstudied by this branch of criticism. The scholar bell hooks has explored these issues in many of herworks (e.g., Where We Stand).

One branch of feminism, radical feminism, is often allied with the kind of psychoanalytic critique wewill discuss in the next chapter. Radical feminist critics point out that it matters little whether a femaleexecutive gets the same salary as a male executive if deeper inequities are built into the very socialbeing of men and women. These critics assume that the most important, and most fundamental,bases of inequities are to be found in the creation of the psyche, in the unconscious and itsrepression. Radical feminists thus use psychoanalytic theory (discussed in the next chapter) to pointout how the present system itself creates men and women inequitably. But this inequitable “creation”occurs through the repression of desire in the unconscious; in other words, it happens in ways that are“beneath the surface” and thus require the efforts of critics to reveal them.


Radical feminists may also take a biological perspective and argue that inherent biological differencesbetween males and females create unbridgeable differences that underlie social arrangements andways of thinking. These differences may be found encoded in texts and in ways of communicating aswell. This may be exemplified by a branch of feminist criticism that is not directly linked topsychoanalytic theory, a branch that might be called foundationalist or essentialist. Liberal feminismsometimes takes this form. This school of thought argues that there are a number of desirablecharacteristics that are essentially female, regardless of the culture in which one lives. Essentialistfeminists maintain that these characteristics need to be reclaimed in a world dominated by those malecharacteristics that are undesirable. They argue that it is fundamentally female to be communal(rather than individual), noncompetitive, and nonviolent; these desirable characteristics are perceivedas inborn, part of the nature of being female.

Of course, those arguments raise the issue of whether gender identity, or sex itself, is natural orsocially constructed. Many feminists have found the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacanhelpful in approaching the question of which characteristics of the psyche are “natural” and which canbe attributed to patriarchal culture. Although his work is far too complicated to explain fully here, wewill note the distinction Lacan makes between the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Imaginary is thepattern through which the psyche is organized for everyone, regardless of culture. It includes verybasic structures of perception and experience, the “mirror stage” (p. 200), in which children learn howimages and representations work, is one component of the Imaginary.

Lacan refers to the ways in which particular repressions are carried out, or the particular issues thatone culture worries about, as the Symbolic. The Symbolic varies from one culture to another. It is theset of parameters available within a given culture for making individual psyches. This concept isimportant because feminists identify all of patriarchy as being within the realm of the Symbolic. Bydoing so, these theorists are saying that an ability to recognize images, for instance, is something thatpeople in all times and places must acquire (and therefore part of the Imaginary). But the repressionof desire does not have to occur in such a way as to privilege patriarchal signs; that particular form ofrepression, a patriarchal problematic, occurs in some but not all societies (through the Symbolic of theparticular culture in which it occurs).



Another theorist who addresses the question of whether gender is biologically natural or constructedis Judith Butler (Bodies That Matter). Her view of gender as performative provides the basis for someinteresting feminist critiques. Her work traces the ways in which all of us perform our gender roles.That perspective emphasizes a discursive or textual basis for gender. That is to say, that we becomemale or female based on the discourses to which we are exposed. Remember that discourse in thissense can include film, television, and so forth. Think about the extent to which such media contenttells us how to be male or female. One implication is that how to be male or female will depend on thecultural contexts in which one experiences the discourse. If gender is textual and discursive, then it ischangeable and manipulable. Texts can be analyzed for the ways in which they show or supportperformances of gender, advising audiences on how to “do” different kinds of male or female roles.And performative roles may also blur, blend, and transgress traditional boundaries in ways that canbring about social change.


How Do Patriarchal Language and Images Perpetuate Inequality?

Feminist critics identify specific textual strategies that contribute to patriarchy. Vigilance to thepresence of these components of texts is an important task for the feminist critique of popular culture.Through identifying these strategies, critics can explain how popular culture may perpetuate patriarchybut also offer ways to intervene against it.

Language and Images That Denigrate

Often, language and images will be used in texts within a patriarchy in ways that denigrate females,often without the creator of those texts intending that result. Feminist critics argue that patriarchy maybe so deeply ingrained in a society that one need not consciously set out to disparage women for atext to be created that does so. Such denigration needs exposure. One very fertile ground for suchanalysis is today’s hip-hop music and videos. Constant use of denigrating terms such as “bitches” and“hos” and depiction in music videos of women as only sexual objects, as existing only to serve thedesires of men, can certainly be analyzed as tools of patriarchy. But less obvious and extreme uses oflanguages and images may be identified as well. Consider how the identification of films with romanticor relationship themes as “chick flicks” subtly restricts female interests to the sappy and sentimental.Consider how the ongoing use of the masculine pronoun he in application to people of both genderssubtly argues that males are the “default” gender. Feminist critics are on the lookout for suchdenigrating use of language and images across texts of popular culture. But they are also on thelookout for ways to refuse such denigration.


Texts also silence women by denying them a voice, by creating no space for the expression of thefemale experience. Feminist critics might examine the ways in which some religious texts speak ofGod as only biologically male, excluding and silencing the female spirit. Feminist critics might note theheavy imbalance of leading characters and heroes in film and television, in which most of the strongcharacters are male. That which is heroic and female, or those female traits that may be consideredstrong and heroic, are thus effectively silenced through lack of expression in texts. We noted earlierthat female sports commentators are only recently gaining more of a role in broadcasts, which isovercoming what used to be lack of a voice in those roles.


We will spend a little longer examining the ways in which feminist critics explore the patriarchal use oflack in texts of popular culture. This observation is connected to psychoanalytic criticism, which isdiscussed in the next chapter, in that it is grounded in experiences of early childhood. If one observeslittle boys and girls, it appears as if the boys, possessing external genitalia, have something that thelittle girls lack. Of course, females lack nothing in terms of reproductive organs, but this too-easyexternal physical difference can be exploited by patriarchy, feminist critics argue. The more internaland less easily observed female sexual organs do not count, so to speak, when it comes to serving assigns, simply because they are not immediately visible. Our culture, which privileges sight as a routeto knowledge, tends not to value what it cannot see, hence this symbolic strike against women. Textsthat prop up patriarchy, building on this false observation, perpetuate the myth that females lacksomething men have. The idea of a lack is then translated into other traits stereotypically attributed towomen, traits that parallel a lack. Passivity is a lack of activity, docility is a lack of initiative andcommand, and so on. Of course, these critics are not arguing that women universally or naturally havesuch traits. Rather, they are pointing out that such traits are attributed to women, or more precisely tothe female role, under a system of patriarchy.

One important way in which the myth of a lack is perpetuated is in how texts are constructed from a


male perspective. We noted above, in discussing point of view, that films suture the audience intotheir storyline by putting the camera, and thus the viewer, into the space occupied by Jack and byJane, the characters in a film. However, the audience is more often encouraged to occupy Jack’sspace. This is because, as feminist critics would note, popular culture much more often makes womeninto objects rather than subjects—and this too is the assertion of a kind of lack, for objects lack thepower of action and initiation. That is to say, women become something to be looked at, talked about,worried over, desired, and so on. Men, on the other hand, are more typically made into the lookers,the talkers, the worriers, the ones who desire—in short, into subjects. (As another way of thinkingabout this distinction, consider the grammatical roles of the subject and the object in a sentence.)

In terms of the position of the camera, the storyline, and the audience’s sympathies, movies moreoften present a situation that assumes, or suggests to the audience, that men are subjects andwomen are objects—that men act, desire, and decide, while women are acted upon, desired, anddecided about. This is true not only of film, feminists argue; feminist critics point to many different textsof popular culture to illustrate this subject–object distinction. Of course, women are occasionallyportrayed as subjects in some texts, but in these cases they are often punished for occupying such aposition.

The real rhetorical effect of this ingrained subject–object distinction, argue feminist theorists, is toencourage men to act mainly as subjects and women to act mainly as objects. The rhetoric of popularculture occurs daily, from moment to moment, as first children and then adults are taught how to bemen (subjects) and women (objects). The work of feminist critics involves locating that subject–objectdistinction (and many others as well) in the experiences of the texts of popular culture.

Feminist critics trace the presence–lack structure of textual arguments even into visual images inpopular culture. They might argue that under patriarchal systems, culture will be organized aroundsigns of empowerment that are phallic: signs that represent the penis and the male sexual function.You may have heard the term phallus, or phallic symbol, before. We refer to the phallus as a symbolor sign, rather than to the actual penis itself, as a way of referring to a wide group of signs thatrepresent the penis and the male sexual function (including, for example, rockets, skyscrapers, guns,oil wells, the Eiffel Tower, and so forth).

Signs that are phallic will be more favored or valued; signs that are linked to female sexuality will beless valued. Relationships between signs that express male or female sexuality will mirror therelationships that the culture favors between men and women. That is because those real, culturalrelationships are already in place when the infant is born, so the repression of aspects of male andfemale sexuality follows those cultural patterns. The system of patriarchy (like the economic andpolitical system as understood by Marxists) reproduces itself by creating in the individual unconsciousthe patterns of empowerment between the sexes that are found in actual practice.


How Can Texts Empower Women?

Feminist critics are not entirely gloomy. Their vigilance for texts that disempower is balanced by theirattention to resources for female empowerment and equality that may also lie in texts of popularculture. In pursuit of textual strategies of empowerment, feminist critics look for alternative rhetoricalforms and for alternative ways of seeing the world expressed in texts. Standpoint theory energizes thisgoal as well, for it argues that the worldviews of the relatively disempowered are not only different butalso often more inclusive than the worldviews of the empowered. Feminist critics look for the ways inwhich broader and more inclusive points of view grounded in female experiences and bodies provideresources for empowerment.

Alternative Rhetorical Forms

Feminists observe that patriarchy is propped up not only by what is said or shown within texts but bythe nature of texts themselves. In Chapter 1, we learned that the history of rhetorical theory has oftenignored texts that occurred in forms not used by empowered elites. This continues to be true. Feministrhetorical critics identify those texts that by their nature seem to be instruments of patriarchy, and theyidentify alternative forms of texts that have the promise for restoring more gender equality.

For example, so many texts of popular culture such as films and television shows are produced byenormous corporations that are owned and controlled by men, and we would thus not be surprised tofind that these texts often denigrate or silence women or portray them as lacking something.Hierarchical power is central to patriarchy, and these corporations are extremely hierarchical, with afew powerful individuals (usually men) controlling the production and distribution of texts from the topdown. Feminist critics might point out that women’s experience throughout history has typically beenmore democratic, more local, less hierarchical, and so they may look for textual forms that are morecongenial for those forms of experience. Feminist critics might argue that women’s rhetoric is mostpowerfully found in, and expressed in, local and democratic forms of communication, such as smallsocial clubs, reading or writing groups, performance in local and community theatre venues, thesharing of journals and poems, and so forth. Texts of popular culture are found not only at the theateror on television, these feminists might assert, but in other forms more consistent with the life patternsof many women. An excellent example of this approach is in Foss and Foss (Women Speak), whoargue that a wide range of local, democratic textual forms, such as mother–child interactions, holidaygreetings, dress, gardening, baking, and children’s theatre, are important rhetorical forms for femaleempowerment.

Feminist critics identify empowering texts also by identifying texts that embody different ways ofseeing. The French feminist Hélène Cixous, for instance, argues that the most essentially andtypically female perspective, or standpoint, is one grounded in the experience of the body (Sellers). Itis a patriarchal strategy, she argues, to foster a heightened sense of the abstract, of that which isutterly removed from the here and now. Women’s thinking must return to being grounded in the body,she argues. A feminist critic using this particular perspective and searching for empowering textsmight therefore identify texts that appeal to the physical experiences of women as texts that canarticulate a woman’s point of view.


Queer Theory

Queer theory is an interesting and relatively recent critical approach that was developed by critics andactivists in a number of disciplines, including feminism and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgenderstudies. Seminal scholars include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Epistemology), Judith Butler (Bodies ThatMatter; Gender Trouble), Sara Ahmed (Queer Phenomenology), and Judith Halberstam (In a QueerTime). Queer theory has both political and theoretical underpinnings. What is key to queer theory isexploration of the violation of tidy, established categories of social thinking.

The word queer has in the past been used as a derogatory term for those who were not heterosexual(and it continues to be used that way in some quarters). A time-tested strategy for groups that areoppressed and marginalized is to “turn” a sign of their oppression, often a derogatory term, to theirown purposes. In this way, over the last few decades, African-Americans, for instance, have turnedthe derogatory term nigger into the more empowering and inclusive term nigga. The same hashappened with queer. Within the last couple of decades, what used to be a derogatory and negativeterm has become embraced by people of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identity and used asa term of empowerment. The term has scholarly underpinnings. Feminism was an important source ofthese foundations. One could even argue that it has gone mainstream, as one can attend academicconferences or publish in scholarly journals with queer in the titles, and queer theory has become arespected way to think about some important issues. Recently there has been an explosion of queeracademic conferences and scholarly journals such as QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. In thisway, queer theory has had political underpinnings of liberation and refusal of marginalization.

The work of feminists such as Judith Butler began to question what seemed like tidy, natural, andnecessary categories of gender: male and female. Gender, Butler and others argued, is somethingthat is performed rather than a given. For that reason, a wider range of gender identities may besocially and rhetorically created, going beyond simply male and female. What is key to this theoreticalstance is a questioning of categories. If one can disturb the tidy division of male and female, one canthen interrogate all sorts of other categories, asking how alternative systems of categorization areconstructed socially and rhetorically.

Sexualities that are nonheteronormative (i.e., that do not assume that heterosexuality is normal,natural, and the way things ought to be) are by their very nature breakers of categories. In aheteronormative world, men and women are supposed to be sexually interested in each other, menpursuing women and vice versa. Men pursuing men, women pursuing women, men and womencrossing over into the other gender category as well as into other categories of sexual desire—that isa “queer” world because it destroys tidy categories that have been made to seem natural. Of course,any rhetoric of what is natural and normal is hegemonic and an instrument of power, as we havediscussed before; to assume that the world has in it unambiguous men who sexually desire womenand unambiguous women who sexually desire men empowers some groups but not others. If mostpeople can be persuaded to accept this situation, then you have heteronormative hegemony.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sexualities not only disturb heteronormative categories ofwho “should” desire whom sexually. These sexualities also disrupt gender categories and identities. InWestern cultures, at any rate, these nonheteronormative sexualities are often publicly presentedthrough manipulating categories of gender. Gay males may present a public style that may behypermasculinized or another style that is feminized. There are “lipstick” lesbians who mine signs offemininity and “butch” lesbians who appropriate signs of masculinity. Gender identity and sexualidentity are closely connected, and queerness in one set of categories is likely to entail queerness inanother.

Queer theory has evolved to a point where it is interested not just in sexual or gender queerness, butin the queerness that comes from any disturbance of normative, accepted categories. In this sense,whatever calls into question our hegemonic categories of race, class, age, and so forth can fruitfullybe understood as queer. Films that challenge assumptions that race equates with economic successor failure might be queer in this sense. One might think about beauty pageants for little girls as queerin this sense, since the behaviors one finds in beauty pageants are often more “normal” for mucholder women. The film Little Miss Sunshine and the television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo bothquestion child beauty pageants and point out their strangeness, which could then be understood as


queer. To be clear, queer theory no longer concerns itself exclusively with gender or sexuality,although those continue to be important concerns.

A critic would use this expanded sense of queer theory to study the ways in which texts of popularculture either affirm widely accepted views of what normal categories are or challenge thesecategories. In this sense, Tiger Woods and President Obama may be studied as queer, although bothare likely unambiguously male and heterosexual. But their ethnic and racial identity is queer—it defieseasy categorization. Texts in popular culture about both men are therefore going to do the work ofchallenging tidy categories of race. Woods has called himself “Cablinasian” in reference to hiscategory-busting identity of Caucasian, African-American, American Indian, and Thai heritage. FormerPresident Obama jokingly referred to himself as a “mutt” (while his family was searching for a new dogto occupy the White House). His background is Caucasian-American and African, but not African-American. He was born in the exotic and distant state of Hawaii and spent much of his youth inIndonesia after his mother married an Indonesian man. Obama defies easy categorization. Rhetoricalcritics might track struggles over defending or breaking racial categories by studying texts aboutWoods or Obama. Likewise, the singer Drake has a Jewish mother, and Judaism is passed downthrough the female line. At times, he has declared himself to be Jewish. But popular culture does notoften link being African-American and being Jewish, and so the mixture of those identities that Drakerepresents is queer.

Dr. Ben Carson, 2016 presidential candidate and Former President Trump’s first secretary of housingand urban development, is a bit “queer” in this sense in that he defies expectations (thoseexpectations being racist). He is a highly regarded physician and occupied a powerful seat ingovernment; both of those break categorical expectations that some people may have for African-Americans. A rhetorical criticism grounded in queer theory, then, is interested in the ways that textsquestion and disturb “normal” social categories.


Analysis and Examples

What would feminist criticism show us in The Wizard of Oz? A number of feminist readings could bemade of the film; let’s examine just a few examples of insights that this approach might bring us.Some interesting observations can be made about the movie by thinking about shapes: elongated orpointed phallic signs and rounded signs that remind us more of the relatively rounded contours of thefemale body (of the ova, the breasts, and so forth). Glinda the Good Witch, the ruling female of thefilm, comes and goes inside a giant round bubble, for instance. One instrument of the Wicked Witch’spower is the crystal ball, in which we see mainly women (Auntie Em, the Witch herself). The falseWizard, exposed largely by the female Dorothy, is whisked away at the end of the movie in a round,hot air balloon that he cannot control (“I don’t know how it works!”).

In contrast to these and other female shapes are the film’s phallic signs. A sign of great power is, ofcourse, the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, a possible phallic sign. The city of Oz rises up inelongated form on the horizon as the travelers draw near to it; in it they will find the supposedlypowerful male Wizard. The Wicked Witch, of course, is a somewhat problematic female. She hasstepped outside the bounds of acceptable power for women; she is bony and angular and entirelyoutside conventional standards of female beauty. Her castle is also phallic, and Dorothy and herfriends are finally trapped by the Witch’s soldiers in a guard tower, rising erect above a wall of thecastle. The ruby slippers themselves, although a blood red (menses?), are both elongated and thesource of the power that Dorothy was seeking all along. They are hollow, and containers, as thefemale body may be interpreted in patriarchy. Think for a moment about the effects or influencescreated in the audience by the interplay of these male and female symbols. What do they say aboutdifferences between men and women, and about the status of women?

Let us consider another set of signs in the film. As noted above, the tornado is rather clearly a phallicsign: long and sinuous, snaking its way across the plains of Kansas, doing violence. Dorothy is takenup into the tornado and is eventually expelled from it. She lands in a place populated by child-sizedMunchkins. Is it possible to find a link between Dorothy’s dramatic expulsion (ejaculation?) from aphallic sign and the sudden presence of children? Dorothy is the focal point of a struggle between agood woman (Glinda) and a bad woman (the Wicked Witch) for the rest of the film; but in herexperiences, she meets men almost exclusively. Those experiences constitute a quest, a yearning, toarrive at the place that she has deemed to be right for her. What can you make of this structure of thefilm as a quest story, given the signs of sexuality and procreation that began Dorothy’s journey in Oz?What meanings do these signs offer within the context of a quest? Does it mean anything that Dorothyends the film lying in a sickbed? For instance, one might read that final scene, in the context of othersexual imagery in the film, as a suggestion that Dorothy is not really sick but has experiencedchildbirth and is in bed for that reason—that the acquisition of sexual knowledge and maturity is thereal payoff of her journey.

The Wizard of Oz is certainly a queer text. Oz is a queer place. The Munchkins are not the expectedsize for adults. The Lion, who ought to be valiant, is cowardly. The Tin Man is a queer conglomerationof parts. The winged monkeys change back into people once their enchantment is ended by the deathof the Wicked Witch. The Wizard is not what he seems to be. This is a text that would benefit from adetailed study of the ways it violates expected categories. How might all these disruptions ofestablished categories affect an audience’s social and political views? I think a good case can bemade that the film gently undermines an audience’s faith in categorical divisions and in the surfaceappearances on which they are based. The Lion is not after all cowardly, nor the Tin Man without aheart, nor the Scarecrow without brains—quite the contrary. The Wizard is not a real wizard, andDorothy was not helpless all along; she need only have tapped her heels three times. If the audiencemay be led to question appearances, they may be led to question established categories generally.



In Chapter 4, we have learned about three schools of thought in the rhetorical criticism of popularculture: (1) culture-centered, (2) Marxist, and (3) feminist. Chapter 4 was about methods thatemphasized INTERVENTION somewhat more than Understanding, while not at all shortchanging thelatter. In the next chapter, we explore four more methods: (4) psychoanalytic, (5) visual, (6)dramatistic/narrative, and (7) media-centered. We should expect to continue to see both differencesand overlap in the way these schools approach their subject.







5.1 Survey the different kinds of psychoanalytic criticism

5.2 Explain the method of visual criticism

5.3 Review the different methods focused on narrative and story

5.4 Explain media-centered criticism

In Chapter 4, we learned about three schools of thought in the rhetorical criticism of popular culture:(1) culture-centered, (2) Marxist, and (3) feminist. In this chapter, we explore four more: (4)psychoanalytic, (5) visual, (6) dramatistic/narrative, and (7) media-centered. We should expect tocontinue to see both differences and overlap in the way these schools approach their subject.

Let’s return to the organizational plan for covering our seven schools of thought or families ofmethods. Chapter 4 was about three methods that emphasized INTERVENTION somewhat morethan Understanding while not at all shortchanging the latter. In this chapter, we look at four methodsthat feature UNDERSTANDING more, although all of them also provide a basis for Intervention. In thischapter, the four schools of thought are further divided into two groupings. Psychoanalytic and visualcriticism are two schools of thought that contain methods focused on self and society. These try tounderstand how individual selves are rhetorically, socially created, and then how those selves functionin society. Psychoanalytic criticism focuses a little more on the creation of selves that then function insociety, whereas visual criticism examines one major dimension of our shared social life together, andthat is shared ways of seeing. Dramatistic/narrative and media-centered schools of thought containmethods focused on story. Not only are stories widely found in popular culture, but thinking aboutmany texts as if they were stories or plays is often a useful critical method. How stories are conveyedto people as well as consumed by people is of interest to media-centered criticism, which considersthe dimension of the medium in texts of popular culture. As noted in Chapter 4, all of these methods“leak” into one another; our divisions and categories are meant to help you understand the rhetoric ofpopular culture but are not completely exclusive. Let us now move to consider our four kinds ofmethods concerned principally with understanding self and society.


Bettmann/Contributor/Bettman/Getty Images



Psychoanalysis began as a method for analyzing and treating mental illness. It was founded by theViennese psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, fewpsychiatrists use Freud’s methods as their main approach to treating mental illness, but rhetorical andcultural critics have found Freud’s approach very useful in explaining certain things about culture ingeneral. Today, the term psychoanalysis is used more broadly, in reference to a theory about how theindividual mind, personality, or psyche is constructed and then enters social contexts.

Of all the methods of critical studies, the psychoanalytic may be the most “suspicious,” for it takesnothing at face value. Psychoanalytic criticism assumes that all the artifacts of popular culture—infact, all signification—has something “behind” it, some other reality or significance beyond just itself.Those deeper meanings, the ones that psychoanalytic critics are especially interested in, have to dowith the ways in which the mind is constructed. Let’s examine a few of the basic principles ofpsychoanalytic theory.


Making Minds and Selves

A central question for psychoanalytic criticism is, how are the human mind and personality formed?The answers that practitioners of this method give define its distinctive characteristics. A theory of howthe mind is formed can be adapted to a theory of how to appeal to those minds rhetorically. Peoplewho study film especially have found psychoanalytic criticism useful. As we will see later, much ofwhat we study in psychoanalytic criticism can also be applied to the criticism of visual rhetoric. So, asnoted, all of our schools of thought connect to other approaches. You will recall that the organizationalstructure for these seven schools of thought looked like this:

School of Thought, or Method Major Focus of This MethodCulture-centered (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerMarxist (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerFeminist (Chapter 4) Intervention and powerPsychoanalytic (Chapter 5) Understanding and the self in societyVisual (Chapter 5) Understanding and the self in societyDramatistic/narrative (Chapter 5) Understanding and storyMedia-centered (Chapter 5) Understanding and story

Psychoanalytic critics assume that the mind is never formed in isolation. We become humanpersonalities in relationship to other people. The newborn infant is not yet aware of itself as a separateperson. We become fully formed personalities, we form minds, as we come to realize that we aredistinct individuals. The child must come to understand that she is not her parent; she must placeherself in relationship to her parent to become a person. This process continues throughout life as wecontinue to construct and maintain our sense of self by situating ourselves in relationship to others.

Another way to put this is to say that who we are is always defined in relationship to somethingexternal to us, specifically something that is social or that has social implications. We become peoplein relation to another. This self-creation process is carried out using verbal and nonverbal signs orrepresentations.

A number of psychoanalytic critics, following the work of the French analyst Jacques Lacan, argue forthe importance of visual images or nonverbal signs. Let’s remember this link to the visual in ourdiscussion a little later of visual rhetoric. Lacanian theory argues that an important stage in childdevelopment is the child’s learning about images or representations, and that one way in which thishappens is by the child’s discovering its own reflection in a mirror. The child is delighted to find thatwhen it moves, the image or representation of itself moves. In other words, the child learns aboutconnections between images and reality. Images become something the child can count on as tools ofknowledge and discovery. At the same time, the child learns about itself, about its separate existence


as a distinct human, from these external visual images. A crucial link is formed: for the rest of its life,the child will turn to those external signs to derive an understanding of self.

The process of self-creation is also carried out through the process of learning language. Here, too,the child is taught that the child and the things that are important to it can be represented throughexternal signs. When it learns the words that represent itself and its parents, its pets, its favorite toys,and so forth, it also learns what those things are, and it learns who it is. In the world of language,which is external to the child, the child comes to know itself and the things of its world.

To arrive at a sense of the self and of other things through language and images creates frustration,for signs and images also separate us from the world—and from ourselves. The child learns that itand “mother” are separate, indeed that they exist at all, by mastering words and images for self andmother—but mastering words and images for mother will never match the original closeness of thechild’s first, physical connection with mother. Forever after, the child will live in a world in which signs—words—seem much more accessible, much closer, than the things to which the words refer.

Some signs and contexts seem to promise a closer reconnection with that original state of unity thando other signs. The experience of watching a film, some critics argue, comes close to duplicating thatearly mirror or language-learning stage. The film viewer is “cradled” in a soft and comfortable chair,much like a parent’s arms. The darkness of the theater is also comforting and soothing. And finally,most films that we see today are examples of what has been called realist cinema; that is, they aredesigned to put the viewer into the actual action of the movie. You may or may not know that often amovie is filmed in small pieces at a time. For instance, if Jack and Jane are talking to each other, allthe shots of Jane’s speaking might be filmed at once, with the camera standing where Jack wouldhave been standing, and then all the shots of Jack’s speaking might be filmed with the camera inJane’s position; the film is then edited to give the illusion of Jack and Jane speaking back and forth.That technique has the effect, psychoanalytic theorists argue, of suturing, or binding, the audienceinto the actual film itself; Jack and Jane appear to be talking to you, the viewer, as well. Furthermore,psychoanalytic theorists argue that experience of finding yourself “sewn up” within these images onthe screen parallels the child’s delightful discovery of appearing in the mirror’s image; this, they argue,is why film is so rhetorically appealing and influential. We will easily see the connection betweenpsychoanalytic criticism and the focus on point of view when we get to it in visual rhetoric studies.

Just as a side note, one area of interest within the study of popular culture is the ways in which theapparatus, or specific physical means of production, of a particular medium works to create influencesand effects, and psychoanalytic theory is often called upon to explain those influences (see, e.g.,Cha). For example, television shows must be taped in a hurry to meet the industry’s voracious needfor programs, and so in the cheapest productions its cameras are often (not always) placed out front,where a stage audience would be, so that the actors can simply play their parts once through (a lot ofdaytime television or “soap operas” are shot that way; think Days of Our Lives or General Hospital).Psychoanalytic theorists argue that this kind of television is therefore less influential and lessappealing than are movies or TV shows recorded from an audience’s point of view, because theaudience is merely a spectator rather than sutured into the image itself. Note that a focus onapparatus connects to media-centered criticism, which we will study later in this chapter.

If selves are formed in relationship to external signs, then empowerment and disempowermentthrough these signs becomes crucial. This is why it is important for disempowered people to seeempowering images and stories about themselves in the media. Working to represent people of color,women, queer people, and other disempowered groups is not merely a matter of checking off diversityboxes. Diversity and inclusion in media programming creates diverse and inclusive societies as itcreates people’s minds and attitudes. By seeing images of themselves that are empowered within themedia stories, people come to think of themselves as potentially more powerful and included insociety.

In sum, the sense of self that most of us have was originally created through the painful process oflearning that we are separate from other things and people in the world, a process carried out bylearning the meanings of signs. As we continue throughout our lives, our sense of self is constantlybeing formed and maintained in external signs and representations. Those signs are powerfullymotivating, and to understand why is to get at the heart of psychoanalytic rhetorical theory. The powerof signs comes from the motivation of desire in at least two ways.



Signs appeal to us, first, because they appeal to a desire for wholeness. Remember, language andnonverbal signs create awareness of ourselves and of the world, but they also separate us from thebaby’s original sense of happy unity with the world. The most powerful signs are those that offerpeople a chance to return to that original state of being a whole, complete person, a state before weknew ourselves to be separate beings. This principle can be applied very successfully to theadvertising of many products. How is it that, upon seeing an ad for two-toned saddle oxford shoes,you suddenly conceive an intense desire to buy those shoes (when two minutes earlier you had nosuch motivation)? Psychoanalytic critics would urge us to examine the text of the advertisement forways in which it offers the customer identity, a way to be a whole person. “You can complete yourselfas [pick an identity] if only you will buy [name a product]” is how this appeal works. Think of how thatworks in your own mind: “I can be more (cool/professional/attractive/macho/feminine) if I buy that. Ican complete the person I want to become.” It then behooves critics to think about ways in which textsoffer wholeness to people. Certainly, advertising works largely on this premise. But critics might alsoexamine ways in which both empowerment and disempowerment in a diverse society are created byoffering dreams of wholeness. Are there trends in how different races, women, sexualities are giventhe promise of wholeness? Is disempowerment perpetuated when, for instance, African-American kidsare promised wholeness mainly through the dreams of hip hop or professional sports, and are nothelped to think that wholeness might come from more equal representations. Diversity and inclusion inthe media is not merely a matter of political correctness, it is a matter of making people in empoweredways.

One can also see this kind of appeal in The Wizard of Oz. The audience is, of course, invited toidentify with Dorothy, and Dorothy’s entire experience in the film can be seen as a process ofseparation and yearning after wholeness. Early in the film, Miss Gulch threatens to separate Dorothyfrom her dog, Toto. Dorothy must separate herself from her family so as to keep her bond with the dogintact. At Professor Marvel’s camp, she grows sorrowful over that separation and is determined toreturn to her family. But the tornado creates the grand separation of throwing her into Oz, and the restof the film will see her struggles to return to the wholeness she experienced back in Kansas. Eachmember of the film’s audience is, according to psychoanalytic theory, likewise yearning for some kindof wholeness, each in his or her own way. Dorothy’s experience is so appealing to so many peoplebecause it seems, at a fundamental level, to parallel the experience we all have of separation andyearning to become whole again.

A second way in which signs appeal to us through desire is through the fact that desires must berepressed. Newborn babies experience only pure and uncontrolled desire. When they wantsomething, they cry for it, reach for it, or crawl for it. They have no self-control, nor do they know aboutsocial inhibitions. When they are hungry, they want to eat then and there; when they wish to urinate ordefecate, they do so at once, no matter where they are. If they are angry, they express that angerimmediately. Infants live for gratification of desire; Freud called this characteristic of infancy thepleasure principle.

Yet from the moment of birth, social inhibitions and controls also begin to curb the infant’s actions andexpressions. The child learns that there are times and places to be fed, that not everything may begrasped, that the elimination of waste must be strictly controlled, and so forth. In contrast to thepleasure principle, the child comes to learn the reality principle: that the world will disapprove of andeven punish certain actions. And so the child comes to repress more and more of its desire forgratification so that its behavior is acceptable and it can live with others in a society. Such repressionis widely regarded as a necessary step in human development. People, being social creatures, cannotgo about seeking gratification in totally uncontrolled ways and still live with others in civilized groups. Itis “common sense” that adults cannot go about eating, defecating, and urinating whenever andwherever they please.

The psyche—the mental equipment that everyone has, the mind in all its complexity— is a product ofboth desires and the ways in which desires are repressed. Who we are, how we think, what we cometo value, and so forth are all created by what our parents and society at large tell us that we can andcannot do, think, or feel—but also by our powerful desires to do, think, and feel those thingsnevertheless.


The desire for gratification, although repressed in favor of reality, never goes away. Instead, in itsrepressed state it takes on a different form, the structure within the psyche that Freud called theunconscious. The unconscious is formed by the process of repression. The unconscious keeps tryingto make its desire for gratifications felt; it keeps trying to break through to conscious awareness andaction, all the while remaining continually repressed. Despite this repression, the unconsciousexercises enormous influence on how we think and feel, how we act, and how we relate to otherpeople.

Let us consider one example of psychoanalytic explanations for behavior. Infants, of course, want todefecate—and to be honest, the experience of defecation remains mildly pleasurable for adults aswell. But that desire must also be repressed at certain times. The question is, how is it to berepressed? Some psychologists argue that young children should be praised for the production offeces in appropriate times and places (and anyone who has raised a child knows how proud they areto be able to learn how to use the toilet). But more important, some psychoanalytic theorists arguethat this particular method of repressing desire—the use of high praise—results in adults who arehighly productive in many ways, people who freely and confidently produce whatever counts asproduction in their respective fields (sales records, art works, engine blocks, and so forth). In otherwords, the key to happiness and productivity lies in the way in which the desire to defecate wasrepressed; productivity at work is in part the result, within the psyche, of proper toilet training.

One major theme of psychoanalytic criticism is the ways in which particular, whole cultures repressdesire. Desire repressed makes up the unconscious, and much can be learned about why people dowhat they do by studying the patterns of repression that are peculiar to their particular cultures. Somecultures may disapprove more of some desires than of others, and the ways in which infants aretaught to repress certain desires will also affect the development of the unconscious.

Psychoanalytic theory strives to explain certain characteristics that seem to be common to mostmembers of a culture. Taking the idea of American culture very broadly, for example, it has often beenobserved that ours is a highly pragmatic and highly competitive culture. Getting ahead and doingwhatever it takes to maximize the bottom line is a theme that has always been strong among mostAmericans. Practical results often count more than do self-improvement, ethics, or other principles.Psychoanalytic theory would try to locate the sources of this distinctively American trait in the ways inwhich the unconscious is built out of repressed desires.

Such an explanation is also a rhetorical theory, however, for it explains what is desirable, or what issought after, within a particular culture. And of course, what is desirable and sought after is what willbe influential, or rhetorical. A psychoanalytic theory of American competitiveness, for instance, couldexplain why video games that feature aggressive, assertive behavior are so popular, games such asthe Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto series.

If you are wondering what toilet training has to do with the rhetoric of popular culture, the point is this:texts of popular culture satisfy our desires if they are successful. They take us through the routinesand processes that we have found pleasurable before. A psychoanalytic critic will want to know what aculture, what an individual, desires and why—and will then identify promises to express that represseddesire in texts.

Let’s suppose you are viewing one of the films in the long series that began with Fast and Furious andat this writing has reached F9. The theme is, of course, racing fast cars, usually on city streets, usuallyin defiance of authority both domestic and legal—what are some other consistent themes in thatseries of films (Fate of the Furious, etc.)? A psychoanalytic critic would study the ways in which thefilms appeal to the repressed desires of the audience: to rebel against authority, to extend the self intoa mechanism of great power, to conquer foes, and so forth. A psychoanalytic critic might also beinterested in looking at the expression of repressed desires from the other direction, so to speak.Begin with the repressed desire of violence: people generally cannot have tantrums and throw thingsand lash out whenever they like. All right, but then what are some texts in popular culture that giveexpression to that repressed desire? The expression of those desires is a major part of the rhetoricalappeal of such texts.

Repression and expression of desire also has much to do with empowerment, disempowerment, anddiversity. Expression and repression of desire varies from one text to another, and how different textsconnect to different categories of people may have an effect on their empowerment and


disempowerment. Consider the series of shows starring RuPaul featuring drag queens; consider thewide variety of makeover shows; consider texts about lawyers such as Suits. It may be interesting tothink about how different forms of expression and repression of desire seem more prevalent in showsfeaturing different kinds of people. When people are “shown” what to desire and what not to desire,does that vary by different categories of people? If so, the empowerment or disempowerment of thosepeople may follow. In short, what is an appealing expression of repressed desire may vary from onedemographic to another in the population, culturally influenced. Critics should not assume thatexpression works the same for everyone.

One possible explanation for The Wizard of Oz is the fine balance it strikes between the expression ofdesires the audience is likely to have and the repressions they are likely to have experienced. Thedog Toto wants to run free, even if it’s through the Gulch garden, and Dorothy wants to let him do that.Repression of those desires in the form of Miss Gulch, Auntie Em, and Uncle Henry brings the hardfacts of life and the law down upon Dorothy. Desire reasserts itself as she flees, but repression in theform of the authority figure of Professor Marvel sends her back home. In Oz, an ongoing drumbeat ofdesire to return home is constantly frustrated by the repressions offered by adversaries and thehazards of the road. The film can thus be read as presenting in archetypal form the balancing ofdesire and repression. The audience can read their own repressed desires into the film.

Psychoanalytic criticism is such a large school of thought that here we have merely scratched thesurface. If the general approach intrigues you, I encourage you to read further and learn other facetsof this method. We now turn to the second, and related, method having to do with the self and society:visual rhetorical criticism.



Of course, we are living in an increasingly visual culture and, as we learned in Chapter 2, more andmore of the management of important public decisions is carried out using images. The study of visualrhetoric has therefore become increasingly popular recently, and critical methods for the study ofimages and primarily visual texts have been devised (Barnhurst et al.; Finnegan; Hariman andLucaites). The visual is a major way in which people develop a sense of self, of who they are. But it isalso a major point of connection to society, as visual rhetoric appeals to shared visual experiences.


Images as Focal Points of Meaning Attribution

Let’s suppose I say to you, “I have a poodle dog at home.” Certainly, even such a simple statementmay be interpreted in several ways by different listeners based on their own experiences and culturalbackgrounds. But language, especially declarative, argumentative, or expositional language, has atendency to impose restrictions or parameters on how it is interpreted. Hearing my statement, you areunlikely to think I am using a metaphor, for instance, although I might be—the language simplydoesn’t appear to be asking you to think of it metaphorically. Other interpretations—that I might bereferring to my lunch, for instance—are certainly possible, but the way the language is presentedmakes that interpretation less likely also. Although linguistic statements and arguments always leaveroom for interpretation and multiple meanings, they have means to guide those readings. Now thequestion is, do visual images similarly guide how people find meaning in them?


Compare what happens when you hear someone say, “I have a poodle dog at home” with whathappens when you see a picture of a poodle. Some (e.g., Postman) argue that an image makes noassertion in the way that language does, that the picture simply “is” and for that reason cannot be partof the give-and-take of rhetoric. I believe that point of view is mistaken. Images, like language, have astructure—they appear in context—and they must be interpreted so as to extract meaning from them.Images, like verbal utterances, are focal points for the attribution of meaning. That is to say, peoplewill rarely just leave an image alone, especially one found in popular culture. We read those imagesand attribute meanings to them.

Images can also be constructed, as is the case with any text, so as to encourage certain attributionsof meaning and to discourage others. In other words, how an image is formed may strongly affect howthe audience finds meanings in it, without ever verbally asserting those meanings. A picture of astarving baby in Africa is likely constructed and presented rhetorically (perhaps by a relief agencyasking for contributions) in ways that strongly encourage some attributions of meaning and not others.Yet how images are structured may be different from the ways in which linguistic texts try to impose


certain meanings on audiences. The “control” that images possess over their own interpretations maybe much looser than is the case for verbal statements. Images may be constructed and presented inthe full knowledge that control over attribution of meaning may be less than is the case for the spokenor written word. And clearly, many images are accompanied by language that affects the attribution ofmeaning. In sum, images can certainly be part of the give-and-take of rhetoric, and they can bestructured in ways that encourage some meanings but not others. But overall, images are relativelymore ambiguous than is language. This ambiguity can be a resource for rhetoric in the hands of askillful persuader.

One cause for the relative ambiguity of images lies in their circulation. Especially in an era of YouTubeand other digital media, we know that once an image is “released” into the world of popular culture, itcan be reproduced in a dizzying variety of texts and contexts, and often not in ways consistent withthe meanings attributed to the image when it first appeared. You may be familiar with the idea of ameme. A meme is very often visual, whether a still image or perhaps a short video clip, that iscirculated, reproduced over and over. In 2011, students “occupied” the campus of the University ofCalifornia, Davis, in protest of its economic policies. A photo of a police officer in full riot gearsauntering by and pepper-spraying helpless students sitting on a curb during this occupation waswidely circulated. The image of the officer appeared over and over, sometimes in humorous contexts,sometimes to criticize the unjust use of police force in other contexts. The image was a meme. Soon,the mere fact of its circulation gave it power: people recognized it, recognized its connection to policepower, and so forth. But, on the other hand, many people in the country were opposed to thatoccupation and to similar protests. To them, the meme may not have had such sinister connotations.When images are torn from their original texts and contexts and circulated widely, their very ambiguitycan give rise to differing attributions of meaning. Think for a moment about currently popular memesand how their circulation may depend on ambiguity.

For instance, a highly popular and widely distributed meme showed Senator Bernie Sanders bundledup for his attendance at the outdoor inauguration ceremony of President Biden. Soon, memes beganreproducing that image in all sorts of humorous or ironic contexts: sitting at a folding table selling GirlScout cookies, sitting on the dance floor of a club, and so forth. This image proved highly adaptable todifferent purposes (see

Images are structured, especially those that are carefully crafted for rhetorical purposes. By structure,here you might understand everything that was said in Chapter 3 about implied strategies. The imageof the poodle is or is not paired with other images, is or is not put into conflict with other images, is oris not a keystone sign or transformation of another sign. When the critic applies those three complexcategories of implied strategies to images, she is examining the ways that the images are organized.That organization is rhetorical in that it helps to guide the attribution of meanings to the image. Is thepicture of the poodle paired with a dog show setting or is the poodle out in a hunting field? “What goeswith what” in the picture helps you to attribute meanings to it. If you have previously thought ofpoodles as having big, poofy haircuts and you see a poodle with a close trim all over, the absence ofsuch a showy hairdo will shape your attribution of meaning. If the poodle is a keystone sign in aphotograph of a luxurious apartment, then that way of organizing the image will shape your attributionof meaning to the image. Persuaders who use visual images in texts know all this, and they take greatcare to present the images in ways that facilitate preferred readings. What is key in visual images, ifthey are found alone in texts, is that they must be structured so as to influence viewers’ attributions ofmeaning without the help of language that says, “This is a pampered, spoiled poodle.” Becauseimages alone don’t have that linguistic help, they are relatively more ambiguous.

Context may be relatively more important for how we reduce ambiguity and interpret images, even asit is also important for how we interpret language. Images occur in contexts that affect the attributionof meaning to them and reduce their ambiguity. In 2017 and for a few years before, a terrible war inSyria caused a tidal wave of immigrants to flee north into Europe. Much of this news was conveyed byway of images of desperate, Third World people grieving their terrible losses, pleading for food andwater, carrying dead children. Americans, and people from all over the world, responded differently,some with donations of aid, some in fear that the refugees would swamp host countries. But strikinglysimilar photos of desperate Third World people have circulated for decades in Western media; forexample, victims of war in the Sudan. There is never any shortage of war and natural disaster aroundthe world, and we see such things daily on the evening news. So Americans were seeing images ofgreat need that were visually identical to what they had seen before. Yet viewers reacted with moreinterest and involvement, on one side or another, to the Syrian refugees. Clearly, the different context


of a sudden, dramatic tsunami with intense media coverage versus the more usual context of ongoingpoverty, war, and economic exploitation made a difference in how meanings were attributed to thesephotographs. In 2016, news media were preoccupied briefly with horrific images of a deadly fire in awarehouse housing an artists’ community in Oakland, California. Although these images were widelycirculated, they were almost always accompanied by media newspeople suggesting what the imagesmeant and how to interpret them. Those media commentators provided a context for the public’sviewing of the images, especially for those not from Oakland.

Consider the visual images we are shown of natural disasters. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005and Hurricane Ike in 2008 caused great devastation to the Gulf Coast. Katrina especially is infamousfor the destruction it brought upon New Orleans after the levees broke. In that context, charges ofgovernment inaction at all levels were rampant. National suspicion grew that relief agencies were notdoing enough. In that context, thousands of images flooded the media, especially after Katrina, andthey were manipulated to serve different purposes. Photos of evacuees in the New Orleans footballdome were sometimes put into a context of sympathy, sometimes into a context attributing criminalbehavior to those people. Filmmaker Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke makespowerful use of images in the aftermath of Katrina to indict political leaders whose actions andresponses were allegedly inadequate in the crisis.

Photographs, like language, must thus be interpreted so as to extract meaning from them. Rhetoricalcritics should not assume that an image just “is,” or that it conveys clear and obvious meanings to anaudience. Images may be thought of as placeholders for a meaning that the audience must assemble.Critics should explore the ways that images are organized, and the contexts within which they areviewed, so as to understand the interpretations that may be made of them. And, in doing so, criticsshould always be aware of the potential of images to be sites of struggle among competinginterpretations.

An important dimension of interpretation has to do with connections, or not, between the reader andthe image. News images of fire hoses and attack dogs being used on civil rights protesters from the1960s, or Black Lives Matter demonstrators more recently, may be read differently depending onwhether the viewer recognizes itself in those representations. So visual critics should always beasking, who is likely to see this image and how does that viewer’s background affect how it will beread?



Critics of visual rhetoric should identify the kind of logic or rationale behind the structure that ordersimages or classes of images, for this can tell us a lot about how the images are rhetorical. The criticneeds to ask what sort of visual world is being created and how the “rules” of that world affect theaudience. A logic of glorifying materialism seems to underlie a lot of hip-hop music videos, forinstance. A logic of beautiful violence seems to inform many video games. How images areconsistently organized in these ways across texts tells us a lot about the rhetoric of the texts. Thecritic might observe that in The Wizard of Oz, the images are organized so as to create rather starkcontrasts between Kansas and Oz. But the images are also organized around a contrast betweensimplicity and grandeur. The witch and the wizard both have grand castles; Dorothy has only a simplefarmhouse back in Kansas. Yet simplicity of image aligns here with goodness, while grandeur is eithersuspect or downright evil. How does that contribute to the rhetoric of the film?


Images as Focal Points of Collective Memory and Community

Images are in need of interpretation, and they draw attributions of motives just as does language. Animportant difference between the rhetoric of the image and the rhetoric of the word, though, is thatimages are relatively more flexible at allowing differing, even conflicting, attributions of meaning to thesame text. For example, nearly anything that someone might say about the Vietnam War is likely to becontroversial even decades after it was fought; any utterance is likely to draw sharp agreement ordisagreement. But the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, is primarily a visual text, a long,black, stark shape engraved simply with the names of those who died; no argument, no claims, noexpositional text. Unlike a statement such as, “We could have won in Vietnam” or “We had nobusiness being there,” the monument gives the public nothing to counter, nothing to object to; it simplyexists as a visual, material statement. Visitors to the memorial may come together and find commonground regardless of their feelings about the war; it is a focal point for collective remembering, andthus it can be a way to further community by overlooking differences of opinion.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, there is a museum in commemoration of District 6. District 6 was athriving Black community that was destroyed during the apartheid era of the 1970s to make way forwhite-owned businesses. The destruction was so heinous that there was very little actualdevelopment, and so it sat empty for decades, bare ground razed of all buildings (the rubble from thebuildings was dumped into the sea to create the foundation for a high end, white-owned shoppingmall). But the museum contains many images of the old neighborhood, and the floor is actually a mapof the district. Images that once might have meant “economic progress” are now a focal point forcommemoration of a terrible period in history. Former residents of the district come to the museum,often in tears, to find where their houses were on the floor map and to grieve over the oldphotographs. Clearly, the meaning of the images has been turned to something other than acelebration of progress by the context of the museum. And again we see the need to consider howdifferent audiences, different subjects, may read images, for these South Africans will likely have verydifferent readings of an image of a lost grandparent’s home than would a visitor from Ireland.

Have you ever wondered why so many old American cartoons from the early days of animation wereof animals and not people (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and so forth)? It was because portraying animalsinstead of people let Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, and other studios avoid the issue of race.Audiences of every color could go see cartoons as a shared experience because the image glossedover differences. Animal images were chosen because their ambiguity could be exploited in regard torace; they allowed people to avoid difference and controversy. The ambiguity of images thus served astrategic purpose even as it provided a way for people of all races to attend the cartoons and identifywith them. Of course, the ability of images to suggest their own interpretations still emerged. InDisney’s classic and original film Dumbo, for instance, the crows were widely understood to be (anddisparaged as) racist suggestions of African-Americans.

This is not to say that people always agree on how to interpret images; it simply means that theimages themselves can become the basis for community precisely because they allow a feeling ofshared, collective memory and common ground even when real agreement may be illusory. Imagesare relatively more ambiguous than is language, and thus images can more easily resolve conflict andcontradictions within the public. It is true to say that “the United States is a diverse nation with racialtensions,” yet such a statement expresses a contradiction: celebration of diversity and tension overdiversity are at odds. There is no shortage of images in advertisements, for instance, of a raciallydiverse group of people happily hanging around wearing the same clothes, consuming the sameproducts. In that way, images of, say, Old Navy clothing being worn by a diverse group of youngpeople become significant points of social connection insofar as they present a picture of peoplecoming together who might not do so with such enthusiasm in real life.

The rhetorical critic of visual images therefore looks for ways in which the ambiguity of images allowsappeals to social solidarity, seems to create collective memories, and resolves social conflicts withrhetorical effects. On the other hand, rhetorical critics can look for ways in which images arestructured so as to encourage more specific meanings, even meanings that may lead to socialdivisions. You may recall that Image 3.19 from Chapter 3 was organized in such a way as to conveymeanings of gay sexual identity, and that the inclusion of the keystone sign or image of the famous(and decadent) gay author Oscar Wilde helped to structure the image in that way.


Perhaps one reason for the ongoing appeal of The Wizard of Oz has been that, although it appears asif all the actors are white, the creatures they become while in the land of Oz are largely deracialized.One white actor becomes a man whose skin is made of tin; another white actor becomes a nonraciallion. Many of the bad guys are monkeys; others are cranky apple trees (although we will think of thecolors of these “villains” later on in this chapter). Compare the ongoing popularity of Wizard to that ofanother film that came out the same year, Gone with the Wind, in which racial differences are clearlyportrayed and in stereotypical ways that may be uncomfortable for today’s audiences.


Point of View

One last rhetorical strategy employed by images is the point of view they create. Just as texts callforth a subject position, so images position the viewer in specific ways. In the movie Sixth Sense, thecamera always has the psychiatrist, Dr. Crowe, in view. It is as if the whole story is told by putting theaudience in Dr. Crowe’s shoes. We take his point of view for rhetorically charged reasons: it increasesthe shock of the surprise at the end when Dr. Crowe (and we) discover that he has been dead, and aghost, for most of the movie. In movies about zombie attacks, such as World War Z, 28 Days Later,and 28 Weeks Later, the point of view is always that of the people who are fleeing or hiding fromzombies, never from the point of view of the zombies themselves. In contrast, Rob Zombie’sHalloween films shifts point of view, sometimes showing us what the world looks like through MichaelMyers’s fogged night vision. Consider television coverage of a presidential speech. If the president isspeaking from his desk in the Oval Office, the camera gives the audience the point of view of a visitorto the president, perhaps sitting across the desk in a chair. That point of view makes thecommunication seem more intimate and informal. When the president addresses Congress, thecamera nearly always gives the audience a point of view below the president, looking up at the chiefexecutive, even though many in-person viewers such as those in the gallery might actually be lookingdown. This point of view is rhetorical because it honors the office and its incumbent, putting the viewerin a subordinate stance.

Another dimension of point of view can be the difference between intimacy and distance. One effect iscreated if we see something as if from afar, another if we are up close and personal. In a film featuringlots of destruction, such as those in the Chronicles of Riddick or Resident Evil series, including movieslike Pitch Black, some terrific explosions are seen from afar. They are beautiful and artistic, and theaudience can rejoice in the image of glorious, spectacular violence. Other explosions happen in thenear vicinity of the camera, often as it puts the audience into the point of view of the hero, and thenthe explosion is terrible, something to be feared and fled from. Point of view can thus encourage theaudience to react in one way or another to the same kinds of events.

One issue in the effect of visual images on diversity and inclusion is where the image positions peopleof color, women, queer people, and so forth. One feminist critique tries to identify whether women arepositioned as (disempowered) passive objects to be looked at, or (empowered) subjects who do thelooking. Similarly, are stories including African-Americans filmed so that we see through their eyes, assubjects, or gaze at them as objects. We identify the visual with someone who is doing the looking,and that point of view is usually an empowered one.

In The Wizard of Oz, the camera nearly always follows Dorothy. The viewer is given her point of view.The audience is placed on her level, never very much above or below. In this way, we are put into themovie from her perspective and are meant to experience the wonders and dangers of the film as shedoes. In understanding any text, the critic should consider the point of view created by the image to beoccupied by the viewer.




Dramatistic/Narrative Criticism

This perspective on the rhetorical criticism of popular culture is a broad, loosely connected school ofthought. Many different critics and theorists have worked within the field of dramatistic/narrativecriticism. What unifies this approach is a shared understanding of basic human reality and motivation.

The first several perspectives that we have studied, as well as most others, carry an understanding ofwhat “makes the world go around” in terms of human reality, perception, and motivation. Culture-centered critics understand people to be motivated by their cultural contexts. Marxists see material,economic conditions as fundamental, as the reason for why we see the world as we see it and why weare motivated as we are. Psychoanalytic theorists would argue that early childhood experiences,especially those based on sexual difference, make people do what they do in later life. For feminists,many texts can be explained in terms of their representations of gender. Visual critics focus on ourincreasingly visually oriented world and how visual texts work. We will see that media-centeredcriticism is concerned with the effects of different media on how messages are received. So, what iskey for dramatistic/narrative critics? Language is the answer.




Language as Grounds for Motives

Dramatistic/narrative critics believe that language and other sign systems are the grounding forhuman reality and motivation. We have seen earlier in this book how signs, especially as they functionsymbolically, take on a life of their own. They can impart meanings that are not connected in anecessary, one-to-one relationship to any material objects or actions. Critics using adramatistic/narrative approach (which we will abbreviate as D/N throughout this discussion) argue thatwe see the world in certain ways and react to it with certain motivations because of and through thesymbols that we use. In other words, the most fundamental reality is the symbols we use, especiallythe larger structures, such as drama or narrative, into which these symbols are arranged.

Pursuing that idea further, these critics go on to examine the ways that signs (especially symbols)change, interrelate with one another, lead from one to another, and suggest or discourage linkages toother signs. They study those symbolic operations because they assume that they are the sources ofperception and motivation. They argue that the “dances” that signs go through because of theirintrinsic characteristics are the same moves that perception and motivation go through. For instance,the intrinsic similarity of the English words God, guide, and guard cause us to see them as linked interms of their meaning or motivation. The words look and sound alike in English, and hence ourmotivations concerning what the words mean might be linked as well: we see God as a guide, as aguard (as a goad, as good, and so forth).

Because language and other symbol systems are so complicated, D/N critics use many critical toolsthat call attention to the many meaning- and motive-generating functions that language performs.Here we can review only a few of the major categories of analysis. We will turn chiefly to the greatdramatistic theorist Kenneth Burke for the ideas that we will study here.

D/N critics assume that people create and use texts so as to help them understand and formulateresponses to problems they encounter in life. An author, poet, or political speaker puts symbolstogether in an essay, poem, movie, oration, or other text as a way of trying to understand and respondto certain problems in life. Once a way of understanding and reacting to a problem is encoded in atext, that text becomes a place to which others may also turn for motivation and perceptions. Readers,film and television viewers, and others who share similar problems may use the same texts for help inconfronting those problems. In Kenneth Burke’s words, D/N critics assume that “literature isequipment for living” (Philosophy of Literacy Form 293–304).

Because the source of perceptions and motivations is the symbols themselves, it is assumed thatanyone who understands the symbols and how they work within a given system will have access tothe perceptions and motivations they generate. If one is unsuccessful and unhappy with one’s presentlife, dramatists would argue, it is because one is using a dysfunctional set of symbols; the key is tofind different motivations by using a different set of symbols. To quote Burke again, “motives areshorthand terms for situations”—if you want a different situation, use different “shorthand terms”(Permanence and Change 29). The label “evil empire” for the former Soviet Union once summed upwidespread American sentiment toward that country. Descriptions of Russia or the Ukraine as“impoverished,” “struggling,” or having a “crumbling economy” are shorthand terms that describe ournew motives and new perceptions of lands that were once part of the USSR. Now, those who violentlyoppose their national governments, especially if those governments are allied to United Statesinterests, are often termed “insurgents” in the media; think about the effects, the motives generated, ofusing that term instead of such alternatives as “revolutionaries,” “criminals,” or “political activists.”

Sometimes the focus of D/N analysis is at the level of the individual symbol, sentence, or other smallunit. You have already studied some of the critical methods used by D/N analysis in Chapter 3,especially in the section on “implied strategies,” in which you were urged to consider “what leads towhat,” “what goes with what,” and so on. As we discussed in that section, the fact that a given wordleads to another word indicates that the motivations suggested by that word lead to the motivationssuggested by the next word. This kind of critical strategy is very much in keeping with the principles ofD/N criticism.

Key to the dramatistic/narrative perspective is the idea that human thought and action can beunderstood as if it were a drama, a narrative, or a story. Drama is a good metaphor for understanding


human experience, these critics argue, because what is a play but a bunch of words? Scenes,movements, and actions are all structured around language. Language is the skeleton, the framework,of stories, and thus all language, from this perspective, can be understood as if it were a play or astory.

Terministic Screens

In studying individual symbols, or sets of them, a central concept for D/N criticism is that of terministicscreens. The idea here is that the vocabularies that people typically use allow them to think and to docertain things but prevent them from thinking and doing certain other things. Therefore, a terministicscreen is, in Burke’s words, a “trained incapacity” as much as it is an enabler to see the world incertain ways (Permanence and Change 7). You can get a glimpse of the terministic screen that mostAmericans use to perceive other people if you look at the categories named in the personals ads ofnewspapers or websites. Terms for race, gender, and professional status loom large as the “boxes”within which we categorize people.

To see this point in another example, consider how, in the United States today, our ways of talkingabout the success of people or groups tend always to be embodied in terms having to do with money.The success of movies, for instance, is measured in box office sales as expressed in the total dollaramount. This practice leads us to see contemporary films such as Godzilla v Kong, Mortal Kombat, orthe Finding Nemo animated film series (with a ticket price of nine dollars or so) as doing very wellwhen compared to movies (such as Gone With the Wind) that first came out when admission totheaters cost far less. When it comes to films, we are simply not attuned to talking in terms of numbersof viewers; instead, we talk in terms of total dollars. In a related example, we are quite accustomed tomeasuring a person’s career success in terms of salary dollars, but we simply have no convenientway to talk about success in terms of personal satisfaction, low levels of stress, and so forth. We musttalk around those points, or talk about them at great length, while it is much quicker and easier for usto talk about salary figures.


When D/N critics examine individual symbols, another important concept that they use is teleology, orthe idea of the development of a symbol (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action 16–20). Teleologyrefers to the perfection of a thing—the idea that within every concept or representation of a dog, forinstance, is the concept of a perfect dog, which is the telos of that dog. One important thing that anynarrative or drama does is to develop symbols, often in the direction of its telos. The great Russianplaywright Anton Chekhov, for instance, once said that if a gun appears in the first scenes of a play, itmust be used by the end of the play. That is because a gun is not perfected until it is fired; theshooting gun is the telos of the gun lying on the table. That idea or symbol of a gun yearns to be fired.This idea of development, or teleology, comes from the characteristics of the symbol, not from anymaterial reality itself. The gun lying on a table, as far as it is concerned, can stay there until it rusts. Itis the human idea that guns tend toward a perfection in being fired that calls for its firing.

D/N critics would therefore look for key individual symbols in a text to track their developmentthroughout a narrative or drama and to show how that development happened as it did because ofteleology. Because such texts are “equipment for living,” D/N critics would explain ways in which theteleology of symbols intersects with real-life problems and solutions. For instance, nuclear weaponsare the perfection of harm. They are the worst thing that can be done to a person or people or place. Itis interesting to note the times when the texts of popular culture call for the use of nuclear weaponsagainst enemies and when they do not. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has often been viewed withdistaste by people in the United States because of its system of control over women, but no one hascalled for its nuclear destruction. Yet conflicts with Iran and North Korea have repeatedly been dealtwith in popular culture by invoking this perfect symbol of harm, the nuclear weapon.

If people get their motivations from the language and other symbols they use, then the achievement ofequity and inclusion in any society will depend on its language and symbols. This is not a matter oflinguistic political correctness. It is an understanding that how we are motivated to live with others is


entirely a result of the signs and symbols we use. In the D/N perspective, language does not reflectsome kind of social arrangement and empowerment; rather, language generates social arrangementsand empowerments.

Because we have already discussed some of the other principles of D/N criticism in relation toindividual symbols, vocabularies, and other small units of discourse in Chapter 3, here we will focuson understanding larger units of texts within D/N criticism. Sometimes D/N critics focus on the wholestructure of a text, on the forms and patterns within it, the type of text that it is, and the ways in whichthe structures within the text relate to one another. We will turn now to just a few of the majorcategories of analysis that D/N critics follow in looking at how larger structures of texts work.


Narrative Genres

D/N critics view texts as stories or dramas, even if a given text is not explicitly such, because theyargue that the characteristics of stories and dramas underlie all symbolic behavior. Stories anddramas usually occur as examples of types, or genres. A story might be a mystery, a romance, or aspy thriller, for instance. The text will include indications of which sort of genre or type it belongs to,leading the reader to have certain generic expectations. For instance, if a detective and a murderappear within the first twenty pages of a book, the book is in a way “asking” to be considered amystery. Sometimes some parts of the context of the text will alert us as to its genre or type. If you areattending a college graduation, you know that the genre of “commencement address” is likely to bethe type of speech that you will hear from the featured speaker, and you will expect the speech toinclude some sort of uplifting advice for people about to enter the world outside academia. Anotherpart of a text’s context might be the person or people who had a hand in producing it. If you hear thatStephen King has a new book out, you can make a pretty good guess as to the genre that book will fitinto.

All texts of popular culture can be viewed in this way, by placing them within a genre. It is important tounderstand that a genre describes a set of expectations that an audience might have about how a textwill interface with the audience in a certain situation. A genre does not describe a set of hard-and-fastrules that texts must follow. For instance, if you are at a dance and are told that the deejay will nextplay the latest song from Kings of Leon or Them Crooked Vultures, you will certainly expect a hard-driving, loud, heavy beat, and assertive lyrics. That is not to say that you will, without any exception,get such a thing. Suppose the song is a soft ballad done to singing violins. Go on, try to imagine it. Inthis case, the idea of genre would still be useful because it would describe the expectations that sucha song would violate. The people at the dance may find the song a wonderful and interesting change,or they may shout it down. But their reasons for doing one or the other are likely to be influencedstrongly by their generic expectations.


Comedy and Tragedy

In several of his books, Kenneth Burke takes the idea of genre a step further to argue that thestandard, classical genres of literature underlie all texts that one might encounter (even those ofpopular culture) and that those standard genres provide important but unsuspected “equipment forliving” to their audiences (Attitudes toward History, part I). Burke reviews many genres such as theepic, the satire, the burlesque, the ode, and other classical categories of literature. Two categoriesparticularly well developed in Burke’s analysis are the two broad categories of comedy and tragedy.

To understand what Burke means by comedy and tragedy, we must understand some of his viewsabout the real-life problems that people face (A Grammar of Motives; A Rhetoric of Motives). Burkeargues that people are threatened by differences. We do not like to think that others are strange andalien, and when we perceive differences between ourselves and others, we work to overcome them.The condition of being different and estranged from others is referred to as mystery, and Burke arguesthat we try to overcome mystery.


Differences are overcome by entering relationships that are organized around certain rules andprinciples; these relationships are called hierarchies. By “playing by the rules” of the hierarchy, we findcommon ground between ourselves and others and are able to keep mystery at bay. The commonground that is established in hierarchies is a way to achieve identification with others, which issomething that people generally want. For instance, the rule-bound and highly structuredorganizations within the business world provide a way for people from different racial, religious, ethnic,and age groups to relate to one another. Similarly, people may be from very different backgrounds,but if they are attending the same football game together, the structure of watching the game from the


stands is a source of identification for them. And a man and woman may be different from each other,but through the structure of a marriage they can achieve identification.

The problem is, nobody can follow the rules of any hierarchy all the time. We are always violating therules or at least thinking of violating them. Such violations create feelings of guilt, and also threaten areturn to mystery, and so the violations must somehow be dealt with so that the hierarchy may berestored. Sometimes we observe others violating the rules, and those violations must also be dealtwith so that others do not destroy the hierarchies that ground identification and keep mystery at bay.

So the question becomes how to handle the inevitably recurring guilt that comes with living inhierarchies. This guilt is an inevitable, real-life problem. For example, we may think racist thoughtsand feel guilty because we know that those thoughts violate the principles of equality that many of ourhierarchies insist upon. We realize that we are not working as hard as we have agreed to at our jobsand feel guilty because we know that we are violating the rules of that particular business hierarchy.What can we do?

Burke says that discourses (by which he means the texts of popular culture, among other things) areavailable for people to turn to in devising means of dealing with guilt. Guilt may be handled in threeways. The first way is through transcendence: to see our guilt-inducing action as not truly a source ofguilt because it is required by a different, higher, or nobler hierarchy. If you need to work late everynight of the week, for instance, your family may complain and you may realize that you are guilty ofviolating expectations that you will come home at a reasonable hour. But one way of dealing with thatguilt is to say, to yourself and to your family, that by working late you are earning more money for theirbenefit, for the greater ultimate good of the family. In another example, a president may deal with theguilt of having lied to Congress by saying that the president did so because the higher considerationsof national security compelled doing so.

A second way of dealing with guilt is to punish it in oneself. This simple and straightforward methodBurke calls mortification. Sometimes, the guilty party finds a way to punish his or her own guilt throughsome related, atoning action. This way of dealing with guilt, through punishment, is, of course,common in religious faiths; a particular sexual sin, for instance, might be punished by some form ofpenance such as fasting, prayer vigils, or giving money to the poor.

The third way of managing guilt is described as victimage by Burke; it involves finding some otherparty that can represent one’s guilt, and then attacking the guilt in that other form. (You may be morefamiliar with this general phenomenon under the name of “scapegoating.”) Of course, if one isconcerned about the guilt of others in the first place, then victimage is a convenient way to handletheir guilt as well. And now we come back to comedy and tragedy, two kinds of texts that illustrate thetwo forms victimage may take.

Comedy is a kind of text that pictures the guilty act in question (either one’s own or another’s) asbeing committed by a comic fool. The text treats this misbehaving individual as mistaken andembarrasses the fool by revealing the error of the action to all. Comedy also typically shows itsaudience that the guilty act was inevitable insofar as it was a common human failing. In this way, thecomic fool is reintegrated into the social hierarchy. But more important, if the fool’s guilt mirrors aperson’s own guilt, then by experiencing the comic text, that person has vicariously self-reintegratedback into the community, and the hierarchy, as well.

Tragedy is a kind of text that pictures the guilty act in question as being done by a tragic hero (hero issimply a technical term here and need not mean a “good guy”; in fact, some tragic heroes are ratherobjectionable). According to a tragic text, the guilty action is something that needs to be punished, as,by extension, does the tragic hero. The hero is depicted as engaging in actions that are inevitableinsofar as they arise out of situations or character flaws that members of the audience might have aswell. But instead of treating the guilty hero as simply mistaken and in need of correction, tragedytreats the hero as in need of punishment or even destruction. When audience members experience atragic text, then, they see their own guilt purged by seeing it punished and destroyed. Texts are oftenvicarious in this sense. If in some sense we feel ourselves guilty of racism then we can deal with thatin ourselves. But what popular culture so often does is to let us deal with our guilt vicariously throughpunishing a representation of that guilt in others.

This theory of comedy and tragedy, as well as Burke’s theories of other categories of literature (the


epic, the ode, and so on), may sound rather esoteric but is meant to explain how people experienceall kinds of discourses and texts, including those of popular culture. To see the relevance of thistheory, consider two ways in which the problem of racism in the United States is handled in popularculture. Racism is, of course, a violation of hierarchy by any measure; it threatens to destroy the fabricof civility and tolerance upon which life in a diverse society depends. One way to treat racist actssymbolically is to laugh at them, to treat them as absurd and ridiculous. We see this comic treatmentof racism in the comedy monologues of Chris Rock, George Lopez, and Cedric the Entertainer.Another way to treat racist acts symbolically is to punish them, having their perpetrators killed, lockedup, or defeated in significant ways. This happens to the racist characters in District 9, Monster’s Ball,and The Green Mile, for example.

A similar choice between tragedy and comedy confronts viewers of the long-term but recentlyconcluded comedy series The Big Bang Theory. The peace of the group of friends in an apartmentbuilding is constantly threatened by the social awkwardness, control mania, or eccentricity of the maincharacter, Sheldon Cooper, yet the “family” order is generally restored at the end of each episode. Butsome viewers may occasionally watch the program in an altogether different mood, hoping for themore “tragic” solution of simply whacking Sheldon a good one. Someone who yells, “Just smack him!”at the screen is not only in a grumpy mood, but is taking a tragic perspective.

In the summer of 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in his trial for the alleged murder ofTrayvon Martin in Florida. Most of the reactions to the trial were tragic on one side or the other, eithercalling for Zimmerman’s quick conviction or saying that Martin deserved death for having provokedZimmerman. Some reactions are comic, attempting to treat Zimmerman as a ridiculous fool. In eithercase, one does not have to look far to read into these reactions some expression of the public’s ownguilt at residual racism, violence, and fear of others in urban environments. The incorrigibleZimmerman returns to the news on a regular basis for some violation of the law, and similar reactionsmay be voiced about him each time.

Sometimes a guilty “sin” may seem incapable of either a comic or tragic resolution. The trial andconviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, in 2021, for the killing of George Floyd,drew very few comic resolutions. Most public reactions were tragic, calling for his conviction andpunishment. A D/N critic might be inclined to think of such reactions as an American audience that alltoo often perpetuates racism itself, finding an obvious scapegoat in Officer Chauvin, and by calling forwhat seemed like racist violence on his part to be punished, the public was actually seeking ascapegoat for their own racist violence.


The Pentad

Another major tenet of D/N criticism, particularly in Kenneth Burke’s work, is called pentadic analysis(A Grammar of Motives). We noted previously that D/N criticism argues that people formulate theirperceptions of the world through symbolic systems, especially through language. One important wayin which the world is understood through language is through the explanations we make to ourselvesfor what caused a particular situation or experience to occur. This is an important aspect of how weunderstand the world, because through these explanations we formulate our own motivations. If, forexample, someone thinks the world is the way it is because of money or economic circumstances,that person will be motivated in a very different way than will a person who thinks the world is the wayit is because of God’s will.

Burke argues that when people explain the world to themselves, and thus formulate motives for actingin the world, they do so by anchoring their explanation in one or a combination (a ratio) of five basicterms, called the pentad. The five terms of the pentad are

1. act (actions, things that are done, willed or intended undertakings)2. agent (people, groups, beings with the power to choose and to act)3. agency (the means, tools, or techniques with which something is done)4. scene (the physical or social environment, or context, for action)5. purpose (the guiding ideas, goals, or motives for choice and action)

Pentadic criticism operates on the assumption that texts, and authors of texts, will tend towardexplaining the world consistently by using one or a simple combination, or ratio, of these five terms.Texts as a whole are studied for the ways in which they tend to suggest that the world is the way it isbecause of a term or ratio between terms. The overall vocabulary of a text, the development of ideasor plot, the kinds of events that occur, key signs—all are studied to discover an underlying, and oftennot obvious, tendency to key an explanation of the world to a term or ratio.

For example, a concern for many people these days is that some children do not acquire skills inreading by the time they graduate from high school. The oft-repeated question “Why can’t Johnnyread?” is a question of why this aspect of the world (reading skills) is the way it is. But in answeringthat question, people will also formulate motives for responding to the problem. One answer thatpeople might give is that Johnny can’t read because he is in a poor or underprivileged environment,surrounded by noise and squalor, exposed to few positive role models; this is a scene explanation.Another answer is that Johnny can’t read because his kind of people just can’t, that there is some sortof inbred genetic or dispositional deficit preventing his reading; this is an agent explanation. One mightgive an agency explanation, answering that Johnny can’t read because he has not been given booksthat would interest him, or that he is being exposed to the wrong agencies (e.g., video games), whichdo not encourage reading. One could give a purpose explanation, arguing that Johnny can’t readbecause he is simply not motivated and has no inner drive or desire to read. Finally, perhaps Johnnycan’t read because he has never been taught because nobody has ever done anything to instill in himan ability or desire to read; this would be an act explanation.

Burke argues that the great philosophies of the world are complex ways to explain experience and toformulate motivations by using the terms of the pentad. Charles Darwin’s concept of survival of thefittest (which argues that adaptation over the long run to the environment determines which creaturesare fittest and therefore more likely to survive) is scenic, for instance. Mystic explanations of the world,including those of many religions, are purpose-centered, argues Burke. Because people constructsuch explanations of how the world operates for themselves, they respond favorably or unfavorably tosimilar explanations that are offered in discourse, including the texts of popular culture. A pentadicanalysis can therefore be a useful explanation of the rhetoric of popular culture; the public may or maynot respond to a text of popular culture because of their acceptance or rejection of its key pentadicterm or terms.


Analysis and Examples

The Wizard of Oz is a text that can be analyzed through the methods of D/N criticism as well. Here,we will try out two of the methods suggested above. First, the movie offers a good illustration of howguilt is dealt with in both comic and tragic terms. Note that both the Wicked Witch and the Wizard arehierarchy breakers. The Witch is guilty in all particulars, acting against all the rules of the societies ofMunchkin land and Oz. The Wizard is guilty in terms of the society of Oz and the pact that he makeswith Dorothy and her companions. The Wizard is treated as a comic fool, however. His guilt isunmasked, literally unveiled, as Toto draws the curtain away from him while he works the controls ofthe machines of deception in his palace. It becomes clear that he is not who he claims to be andcannot do what he claims to do. Once the error of his ways is revealed, however, he is restored to thecommunity. In fact, he and Dorothy together plan to journey back to Kansas, but his incompetencegets the better of him in the end as the balloon takes off with him helplessly inside.

The Wicked Witch, on the other hand, is treated tragically and is destroyed in the end. It is inevitablethat she does what she does, being a wicked kind of witch. But it is precisely her guilty acts that areher undoing; if she had never trapped the four companions in her castle, Dorothy would not have beenthere to throw water upon her, thus melting her.

Remember that in handling guilt comically or tragically, The Wizard of Oz was vicariously handlingguilt for the audience through victimage. Consider the sorts of guilt that the Wicked Witch and theWizard could represent for the audience. Perhaps one reason for this film’s enduring popularity is thatthe guilts that are handled comically and tragically are really very ordinary and very common guilts.Many of us claim to be what we are not and would like to hold power over others despite our failings.The temptation to strut and posture, and to impress others with empty phrases and bluster, is strongin many of us. These are the Wizard’s failings, and we see our everyday selves in him. Similarly, fewguilts are more common than a lust for power, for control over others, for getting our way, for having acastle full of possessions and an army to defend them. These are the crimes of the Wicked Witch, andthese darker guilts are shared by many in the audience. In understanding how guilt is handled throughthe texts of popular culture, D/N critics must always ask how the audience for the text is being givenequipment for living through their own particular guilts.

The Wizard of Oz can also be examined using pentadic analysis. One possible argument, forinstance, is that the film is agent-centered. Let us examine several components of the movie to seewhy that may be so. Notice that between Kansas and Oz, each of several characters reappears indifferent disguises but as essentially the same person (and portrayed in the film by the same actor). Itis as if the underlying person, the characteristics of the agent as agent, is strong enough to survive thetransition from reality to fairyland and back: Professor Marvel and the Wizard are both genialhumbugs; each of the farmhands seems to lack what the corresponding Scarecrow, Tin Man, andLion lack; and Miss Gulch is as evil and grasping as is the Wicked Witch.

Another aspect of the agent-centered quality of the movie is the centering of the plot around ways inwhich the four companions are deceived about who they are and what powers they have and howthey overcome those deceptions. Dorothy has the power to go back to Kansas immediately by tappingthe heels of her ruby slippers three times, but she must discover that about herself. It is clear thateach of her three companions already has the personal characteristic that he thinks he lacks. TheScarecrow thinks he needs brains, but it is he who invents a plan to get into the Witch’s fortress. TheLion thinks he lacks courage, but he leads the charge in the ensuing battle. The Tin Man thinks helacks a heart, but he has to be admonished not to cry for Dorothy, “or you’ll rust yourself again, andwe haven’t got an oil can.”

When they finally return to the Wizard, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are each given what theaudience knows to be a meaningless trinket; yet through that trinket, each suddenly “discovers” thething he or she was “missing.” It was there all along, as Dorothy discovers of her own heart’s desire;what they have found is not brains, heart, courage, or home, but themselves. So the movie seems toadvise the audience to look within themselves, to the kind of people (or agents) that they are, todiscover the truth about the world.

D/N criticism, then, looks to the ways in which symbolic systems, and especially language, work. It


assumes that motivations work the same way, insofar as they are derived from those symbol systems.The texts of popular culture are studied in order to determine how the signs they are made of “work,”interact with one another, and create motivations within themselves that are then available foraudiences to use in confronting real-life problems. In focusing on language, D/N criticism takes thestance that language use is inherently dramatic or storylike and can best be analyzed from thatperspective.



You will have noticed that, as predicted in Chapter 4 and also earlier in this chapter, strict lines ofseparation among the schools of thought studied here have not been possible. We discussed somefeminist ideas when considering Marxism, for example. The next perspective we will discuss, that ofmedia-centered criticism, has also been alluded to earlier in this chapter within the discussion ofpsychoanalytic criticism. You may recall that we considered the ways in which experiencing a filmduplicates the mirror stage of childhood, and the argument that this duplication of a pleasurableexperience in childhood is one reason for the rhetorical effectiveness of film, for why it is so popular.That argument is a good illustration of media-centered criticism. Just as culture-centered criticism(which we discussed in Chapter 4) argues that texts of popular culture should be analyzed usingconcepts taken from the culture in which they occur; media-centered criticism argues that texts ofpopular culture should be analyzed using concepts that take into consideration the medium in whichthe component signs of the text appear. Because mediated communication in popular culture so oftentakes the form of stories, the question of how media interact with stories rhetorically is central to thisschool of thought.


Here we will focus on three media. We will look at the medium of the computer for obvious reasons: itis the medium of the century, a technology of communication with which everyone is familiar. We willstudy the interconnected medium of handheld devices such as smartphones. We will also examinethe medium of television because television is clearly a popular and important medium in the UnitedStates, Europe, and even most of the Third World today. Much of popular culture comes to us throughthe “tube,” and that which does not is often obviously influenced by television. For instance, thenewspaper USA Today (founded in 1982—well into the television age) is designed to be highly visual,with bright colors and many graphics, and it is sold on street corners in a box that looks like atelevision set. Media-centered criticism would therefore caution critics to consider the characteristicsof television as a medium and to show how those characteristics affect many other dimensions of howtexts are created and received.


What Is a Medium?

We must first understand what is meant by media. A medium is sometimes defined as a channel ofcommunication, a way to move signs from one person to another, or as the material in which the signsof communication are manifested. The book you are holding is a medium through which some signsthat your author has made have come to you. Sometimes medium is defined more narrowly as atechnology of communication, such as television, radio, or film. A more inclusive definition, one thatunderlies media-centered criticism, sees a medium as a technology of communication in combinationwith its typical social uses. According to this definition, a medium is both (1) a means of producing andreproducing signs and (2) the ways in which a given society or culture typically makes use of thatmeans of production.

For instance, television in the United States is a medium that comprises not only a certain technology(the screen, cable hookups, Internet connectivity, stereo sound, sometimes a Blu-ray or video gameplayer, Netflix, and so forth) but also a certain pattern of usage: televisions are usually found in thehome, and if not in the home, then in enclosed places of informal social gatherings (such as a bar).We are so familiar with that way of using television that we may lose sight of the fact that the sametechnology could have been paired with very different social uses. In the very early days of television,for instance, Adolf Hitler planned to place large sets on street corners and in other public places inGermany as a means of official propaganda; in this case, there was no intention to have people keeptelevisions in the home. You can see how different television as a medium would be today were thetechnology with which we are familiar put to that different social use. To see a medium as bothtechnology and social usage requires the critic to examine the ways in which technologies are used inculture and in the everyday lived experiences of people.

The computer is a medium that is used in particular ways. In the early days of the personal computer,many new machines were plugged in and never used because people could not imagine significantuses for them. All that changed, and largely through the Internet, which now anchors computerapplications of all sorts. The Internet is a particular way of using this machine, but it would not have tobe that way; computers could be used only for word processing, only for calculating numbers, and soforth. But since people all over the world use the computer to access the Internet, then the socialconnections inherent in the Internet become integral to the computer as a medium.


Media Logic

Media-centered criticism can take any medium as its focus, showing how the medium influences thetexts it carries and the audiences it addresses. Since many if not most of those texts in popular cultureare stories, the questions we are asking are how media logic shapes stories and which stories dobetter in certain media because of their logics. Many scholars are working on developing media-centered criticism, but two of the most interesting critics in this area are David Altheide and RobertSnow (Altheide; Altheide and Snow; Snow). Altheide and Snow use the concept of media logic toexplain what media-centered criticism is attempting to do. Underlying the idea of media logic is theassumption that as people become accustomed to a technology and to the social uses to which it isput, they internalize certain ways of thinking and perceiving. That internalization is much of the effectof media on audience. And the internalization also shapes and influences the effects that a text canhave.

For instance, suppose you spend most of a day downloading music onto a device such assmartphone. Suppose that at the end of the day, you turn on your broadcast or XM radio and hear asong you particularly like. You start to reach for the right button so you can hear it again and arecaught up short because of course radio does not have an ability to repeat or rewind as part of its“logic,” as the smartphone does. What has happened, say Altheide and Snow, is that you haveinternalized the smartphone logic, so much so that you come to expect to find replays everywhere. Ifyou really have internalized that logic completely, you may even start looking for “skip track” or“delete” buttons as you read boring textbooks!

Media logics can become deeply sedimented in our consciousness. There are several softwareprograms that allow you to download audio or video files onto your computer or smartphone and playthem back. The screen that comes up on your monitor for most if not all of these programs isdesigned to look exactly like an old-fashioned audiotape or videotape player, with the controls onemight have found on such a machine. The “play” button, for instance, is usually an arrow pointing tothe right, as it was for these older tape machines in which the tape went from left to right to play. Takea look again at Image 3.2 from Chapter 3 to see an example of how this logic is perpetuated even inproducts having nothing to do with music. Fewer and fewer people have anything to do with audiotapeor videotape machines, but the logic of their controls is being continued beyond the actual existenceof the machines.

Think for a moment about how consumption of stories might be affected by different media logics. Thearrows on old tape machines give a linear sense to consuming stories. The arrow points us throughthe story to the end. And, sure enough, years ago people used to attend to stories straight throughfrom beginning to end with relatively less variance or interruption. One reason for that was that stories,for instance, on broadcast television, were not under control. We could not replay them. Today, withtechnologies like the computer or the smart television remote that do not have the “arrow” logic,people are much more likely to jump around, to consume bits and pieces of the stories they encounterin the media, to assemble their own kinds of stories. These differences are relative and not absolute,but they are surely influenced by the different media logics many of us use to access stories now.

Of course, we do not always “transfer” the logic of one medium to another. But one medium does tendto become dominant in any given society. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century inthis country, the dominant medium was print (books, newspapers, letters, magazines, and so on). Inthe latter half of the twentieth century and to some extent today, television has been the dominantmedium, affecting the ways that people habitually think about their everyday problems andexperiences. Today, however, the computer is becoming a dominant medium, especially insofar as itis connected to the Internet. Notice how media-centered criticism describes media as the fundamentalfactor in culturewide perceptions and motivations, just as Marxism identified the material andeconomic as fundamental, and feminist criticism identified sexual difference as fundamental.


Characteristics of Television as a Medium

Media-centered criticism is not restricted to television or the computer, but we will focus on those twobecause of their importance to our culture. Media-centered television criticism tries to explain somecentral characteristics of each as a medium (in terms of both technology and social use together). Letus briefly consider some of the characteristics of television that this approach has identified.


One characteristic is commodification. A commodity is a good, something that is bought and sold,something with intrinsic value that can be traded economically. There are several reasons whytelevision in the United States today has a logic that includes commodification. The first and mostobvious reason is that television broadcasting is a commercial enterprise and is constantly sellingcommodities to the public. Television programming is saturated with advertisements. Often,advertisements blend into the regular programming because (1) ads have production values that areas high as or higher than the shows themselves, so that the ads are interesting and eye-catching andtherefore resemble the program; (2) the same actors will appear on both programs andadvertisements, thus linking the two (actor Dennis Haysbert appears as a strong and authoritativesalesman for insurance services in television commercials and also portrays strong and authoritativecharacters in many of his film and television roles); (3) ads and programs often employ the sameformats, such as that of a music video, thus blurring any clear distinctions between the two; and (4)ads and shows are interspersed with each other with increasing frequency. The end result is that theselling of commodities becomes increasingly inseparable from what one sees in general in watchingtelevision.

Another reason why television is heavily involved in commodification is that the audience itself is acommodity. We do not often think of ourselves as commodities, but in a sense we are. Television asorganized in our country depends on advertiser support, and advertisers are more interested in buyingtime during programs that have large audiences. For that reason, programmers are able to “sell” anaudience to a commercial sponsor. We as that audience are, in a sense, sold to an advertiser forfifteen seconds at a time on the expectation that we will be there in front of our television sets to watcha commercial at that time.

Television also commodifies because, increasingly, the content of the shows themselves displays the“good life” as one that is rich in material goods (or commodities). Murder mystery shows will almostinvariably involve the death of a rich and famous person. A story about the murder of an ordinary fileclerk living in an upstairs duplex in Cleveland is unlikely to become a TV episode because it does notgive programmers a chance to show fine furniture, Waterford crystal, oil paintings on the walls, and aRolls Royce in the garage. We have shows about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, not the middleclass and obscure.

Finally, television commodifies because the set itself is an owned commodity. It is something that theviewer holds as personal property and is thus a sign of one’s economic status. It is interesting to notehow all these forms of commodification interrelate. For instance, television sets were initially sold soas to provide an audience for commercials. In other words, ads came first, and people wereencouraged to buy sets so as to become audiences (commodities) and be sold themselves toadvertisers.

The impact of commodification is that it creates an intense concern for commodities in the minds ofthose who use television a great deal. Material goods come to be considered one of the mostimportant things in life. People may come to think that having a lot of material goods (like the peoplethey see on TV) is the natural way to live and may therefore think that poverty is somehow unnaturalor a moral defect. Media-centered critics would examine texts of popular culture, especially those ontelevision, to trace the effects of commodification in the perceptions and motives those texts offer.



Another important characteristic of television is its realism. This characteristic has been well explainedthrough George Gerbner and his colleagues’ work with the concept of cultivation (Gerbner et al.).Cultivation refers, in this sense, to the ways in which television cultivates perspectives on what theworld is like.


Television cultivates a sense of its own reality in viewers. It seems to be a window on reality for atleast two reasons. First, it is a visual technology, and in our culture, seeing is believing. Televisionshows us pictures of things, and many Americans think that pictures cannot lie. Thus, what we see ontelevision, we assume to be real. We may know that a drama is staged and being presented byactors, but the distinction between drama and real life is increasingly blurred on television. Newsbroadcasts, for instance, may present pictures of a prison hostage crisis that look exactly like thefictional drama on the same topic that you saw the night before.

A second reason why television seems to be so realistic is that it is so much a part of our lives. Wegenerally take it for granted, regarding it as a part of our homes, located in our everyday surroundings.We would never question the reality of what we see out our living room windows; in the same way, wetake television to be a realistic window on the outside world. In fact, television has become aguarantee of reality. “How do you know?” we might ask of a friend who has told us an unbelievablestory. “I saw it last night on TV,” the friend responds, thus clinching the argument. Much television is infact about real life; we are used to live broadcasts and video journalism bringing actual happeningsinto our home, making these events much more present and alive than any newspaper article could.

Television is becoming increasingly intertwined with reality (or at least the claim and appearance ofreality) through shows like Pawn Stars, Survivor, Top Chef, Cops, Naked and Afraid, Chopped, andCold Case Files. These are programs that merge dramatic reenactments or staged talking head shotswith candid videos of live action. Because television seems so realistic, the perceptions andmotivations portrayed in its programming cultivate a similar sense of reality in viewers. Gerbner andhis colleagues have found, for instance, that people who are heavy viewers of police shows ontelevision come to grossly overestimate the amount of violence that actually occurs in theircommunities (Gerbner et al.). The world looks more violent than it actually is to them because theythink that they are seeing that real world on television. Media-centered critics would look at these andother perceptions and motives offered by television and identify ways in which they cultivateunrealistic or distorted views of reality. These critics would study the “world” that television createsand then judge the effects of that world on the larger society.



We will examine one more of television’s central characteristics: intimacy. Television is highlyconcerned with that which is small, personal, and person-oriented. Furthermore, media-centeredcritics would argue that television serves to make these small, intimate concerns paramount in manyaspects of our lives.

As we have noted, television is a technology that is interwoven with our personal lives because of itsplace in the home. Many people have more than one set so that they can watch TV wherever they arein their homes, even in their bedrooms. The home setting of most television viewing would naturallymake it an intimate medium. But of course we often read books and newspapers at home, also. Tounderstand television as an intimate medium more fully, we need to think about what kind ofprogramming tends to succeed on television.

Most television screens are rather small compared to film. Big HDTV sets are becoming moreavailable and cheaper, but even the largest screens are small compared to film. For that reason, largeand complex images do not work as well on television as they do on film. What television does best isto show relatively simple scenes with only one or a few objects on which to focus. Thus, televisiondoes very well in showing people. The human face is a relatively uncomplicated thing to watch, and itdoes not require a large screen to be seen. In fact, some of the extreme close-ups that we see ontelevision would not work well on film; nobody wants to see a face that is thirty feet across, pores andwarts and all. But the human face and form do well on television because the small screen keepsthem human sized.

This suitability for portraying individual people helps to explain the specific ways in which televisionportrays events. Notice that some scenes that you would not ordinarily think of as involving shots ofindividual people often do just that. If a car chase scene is depicted, for example, television will keepreturning to show the faces and bodies of people in the car as much as or more than it will show thecars themselves. Sports provide another example. Television actually does not do very well inshowing two opposing strategies in football as they unfold across a one-hundred-yard field. That iswhy the camera will focus on individuals as much as possible, following receivers as they rundownfield or backs as they run with the ball. In between plays, the camera will zoom in for extremeclose-ups of players as they walk back to huddle or writhe in pain on the field. So when television isportraying panoramic action, it keeps pulling back from the broad view to show what it shows best: thepeople within the action.

Because of its location in the home, and because of what its size and technology can do best,television calls our attention to people. Furthermore, it focuses on people’s concerns, experience, andproblems. In this way, it is an extremely intimate medium. Joshua Meyrowitz has shown persuasivelyhow television has robbed public figures of truly private lives (No Sense of Place). Because TVdemands a focus on the person and the personal, it is good at showing—or at pretending to show—the intimate facts of the lives of those whom it portrays. In an age of television, we know all about thepresident’s colon and kidneys; such a state of affairs was unknown in the less intimate age of print.

Furthermore, television’s intimacy tends to turn public attention toward the personal dimensions of anyevent of great public importance. Hostage crises do very well on television because they are aboutpeople; the larger political and social issues behind the hostage taking, however, are likely to gounexplored on television. The reasons why various factions in the Middle East are constantly at warwith one another is difficult to explain on television, but if a US citizen is taken hostage in the MiddleEast, the person’s grieving family can be interviewed intimately, even in their homes. Thus, televisionwill opt for the latter far more often than the former. To cite another example, conflicts in countries ofthe Middle East such as Israel, Syria, Iran, and Iraq are very complex and may be hard to portray or tounderstand on television. Therefore, a news special on those changes will likely focus on one or a fewindividuals, showing what their everyday lives are like and the problems they face.

Media-centered critics argue that the American public increasingly tries to understand public problemsby examining the experiences of individuals, and that this shift to the personal is a direct result of thedominance of television in our culture. Critics would examine texts of popular culture to show the waysin which complex political and social issues, especially when portrayed on television, are transformedinto personal images. The problem of Mexican nationals crossing into the United States for workbecomes the story of Raoul and his family; the problem of toxic wastes becomes the experience of


Betty, who lives within a mile of a dumping site; and the problem of the homeless becomes the plightof Amos, a man who sleeps on hot air grates in the sidewalk. (Recall that in Chapter 3 we describedthis as a process of understanding complex problems through metonymy.)


Analysis and Examples

The Wizard of Oz, though originally a film, is actually a fruitful example for thinking about media-centered criticism, particularly criticism that addresses the effects of television. Interestingly, the moviedid not do as well as a film as it has on television. It did not win any major Academy Awards, forinstance, and was widely discounted as merely a children’s movie by the critics of the late 1930s.Twenty-five years later, however, it was firmly established as a television institution, being broadcastonce a year to enormous family audiences clustered around the set. Now it is broadcast even moreoften on a variety of cable channels, and it is widely available on DVD and streaming services.Although this is certainly not the only question that a media-centered critic would ask, it would beinteresting to consider why The Wizard of Oz has done so much better on television that it did as afilm.

We might consider the characteristics of television in answering our question. First, the movie isvisually lush and splashy, especially when the Oz scenes are contrasted with the dull black and whiteof Kansas. Of course, many movies that do well as movies are colorful and gaudy, but it could be thata television audience, attuned to commodities, will better understand how commodity-rich Oz might bea place of wonder to Dorothy Gale from Kansas (“Can I even dye my eyes to match my gown?” “Yes.”“Jolly old town!”). Good and bad in the movie seem to be aligned, respectively, with commodificationand a lack thereof; the Wicked Witch’s palace, although huge, is a bare and spartan place, while the“best place,” the city of Oz, is encrusted with precious metals and jewels. In fact, the companions’ firstexperience in Oz appears to be an enrichment with commodities, as the Scarecrow is restuffed withthe finest straw, the Tin Man is waxed and polished, and the Lion and Dorothy have their hair andnails made beautiful.

Power is also signaled by commodities. The audience does not see where Glinda the Good Witchlives, but the other two most powerful figures—the Wicked Witch and the Wizard—have enormouspalaces. The Witch’s commodities are ugly and not anything we would want, but it is clear from thesheer bulk of her castle that she is rich in commodities. And the (seemingly) powerful Wizard’s palacehas enormously high ceilings and halls that stretch for miles.

Can we say that The Wizard of Oz did better on television because of television’s realism? Notice that“real life” in the movie—the scenes in Kansas—are in unrealistic black and white. The realism of livingcolor does not appear until Dorothy gets to Oz. Your author is of an age to recall when color televisionsets began to replace black-and-white sets as standards in American homes. Like a slow tide, theacquisition of color sets spread across a neighborhood. And I can also recall from my youth theanticipation with which the first color viewing of The Wizard of Oz was awaited because now theaudience could participate in the Kansas-to-Oz transition (the move from black and white to color) withDorothy. The family with the new color set had in fact gone from Kansas to Oz (no matter whichprograms they were watching) when they bought their new set.

But even for viewers who did not experience that transition from black and white to color, television’srealism may in fact provide a more satisfactory answer for what is, after all, a central question in TheWizard of Oz: was it real? Did Dorothy really go there or was it all a dream? It is easy to imagine thatOz is a fictitious place as you leave the movie theater, because after all, you leave the movie behind.But the television stays right there in your home. It has been showing you realities all along and thusmakes it easier for the young at heart to imagine that Oz was, in its turn, real.

Finally, consider the heavy emphasis in The Wizard of Oz on characters, on people, andpseudopeople. Practically all the action is portrayed through close-up shots of people and creatures.Furthermore, these characters are all extremely telegenic and interesting in close-ups. The mythicalcreatures, such as the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Wicked Witch, need to be seen up close andpersonal so that the realism of the makeup jobs can be appreciated. On the other hand, especially forchildren, a Wicked Witch the size of a movie screen might well be overwhelming. In sum, The Wizardof Oz found its right “size” on the television screen.

Media-centered critics study the texts of popular culture with an eye toward the media that presentthose texts to the public. In many cases, these critics would argue, the characteristics of a particularmedium itself may be more important than are the texts displayed through that medium. Media-


centered critics trace the effects of the medium that may be found in an audience’s ways of thinkingabout and processing stories.


Characteristics of Handheld Devices as a Medium

It sometimes seems as if our everyday lives are completely dominated by handheld devices.Increasingly, that means smartphones. Observe any large group of people walking around, saydowntown or at a college or high school campus, and the odds are good that most of them will havetheir eyes glued to the phone in their hands. The phenomenon is even coming to be seen as a socialdanger, and many cities and states are passing laws against using such devices while driving a car.

The uses for these devices are many: checking email, sending texts, Twitter, Instagram, using GPS tonavigate, and so forth. Smartphones perform many of the functions of computers, and yet they aresmall and powerful enough that we can carry them around with us. Together with their content, or thekinds of things you can do with them, handheld devices constitute a kind of medium. Theircharacteristics blend with some of those of the computer and Internet, as discussed in the nextsection, but let us consider some key characteristics found most clearly in handheld devices. We willfocus on connective power and context mobility.

Connective Power

A smartphone connects you to global information resources. No longer do you need to wonder whowon the 2021 World Series; you simply look it up. Navigating streets and cities with which you areunfamiliar need hold no terrors; you simply call up the GPS application on your device. You can talk toanyone in the world, and if they don’t answer you can leave them text messages. Your author visitsthe People’s Republic of China regularly to teach and lecture, and his smartphone has the WeChatapp that lets him send texts to friends all over China. If I need to speak to someone in my office while Iam away, I can reach the person in seconds. Sadly, my dean can reach me in the same amount oftime!

This kind of connective power creates a new sociality, or a new way of being social with others. Manypeople would rather send texts than telephone someone because it is time consuming and uncertainto call; perhaps nobody will pick up. We have instead become accustomed to asynchronousinteractions in our social world with others, whether friends, acquaintances, or online sources ofinformation. The days of having to go see someone to make a connection or ask a question are longover. You make connections in a virtual world that is now disconnected from time. Power no longercomes from who you know but from what you know about making connections. Since the connectionsare asynchronous, you make the connection or seek information or leave a message on your time.You rarely need to find a time to talk that is mutually agreeable. So the kind of connections given byhandheld devices at least create a feeling of personal empowerment. Whether the empowerment isreal may still be a matter for debate.

Context Mobility

It seems obvious to say it, but handheld devices give the user total mobility. With the exception ofairplanes or tunnels in which signals are lost, there are few places where one cannot connect, seekinformation, and communicate. What this means is that context is less important as part of theprocess of communication. People are freed from their contexts in ways they were not even just a fewyears ago.

Suppose you are having dinner with friends. Are there some topics that are considered inappropriatefor that context? Of course there are. But if you get a call in such a context, the phone allows you toexcuse yourself and step away from the table to take the call. The device allows you to create yourown context. Of course, we all know people who will not leave the table or a meeting but will continueto talk about their latest medical results as if other people were not there. This practice, whileoffensive to many, is another kind of context creation. The handheld device allows the user to imaginethat a new context has been carved out around her, specific to usage of the device. The contextdissolves when the call is ended. To take another example, people can seek refuge from boring


meetings by surreptitiously turning to their smartphones so as to check email, send and receive texts,even do some online shopping while the speaker up there finishes the quarterly report. These arecontexts easily dissolvable by turning from the device to the physical context at hand.

Power lies in the ability to control context. Those who want to control others will control context, asprison wardens have understood for years. On a less drastic terrain, teachers, lecturers, and businessexecutives conducting meetings will often demand that handheld devices be put away or turned offbecause they want to shape the context for themselves and their audiences. With handheld devices,the ability to create context is movable. It goes way beyond the control found in, say, the ability todecorate your own apartment. You can create your own context anywhere.


We may be hard-pressed to link The Wizard of Oz to a medium like handheld devices that wasscarcely yet imagined when it was filmed. But we see evidence in the movie of a yearning for that kindof connectivity. Professor Marvel pretends to be able to access information from a distance with hiscrystal ball. The witches, good and bad, likewise use crystal balls or devices like them to see eventsfrom afar. In handheld devices we see an early culmination of a human yearning that has been aroundfor a long time.


Characteristics of the Computer and Internet as a Medium

As noted earlier, to think of any technology as a medium, one must think of it as it is used socially.Computers, of course, are a cluster of technologies with wide-ranging applications. But here let usconsider the medium the computer has become insofar as it gives access to the Internet. Peopleaccess the Net constantly from home and work, for business and personal pleasure. What are some(we cannot explore them all) characteristics of that experience’s media logic? Bear in mind that we willsee some overlap here with other media, especially handheld devices.

Concern is often expressed over a gap in access to computers in this country between the poor andmiddle or upper classes. Gaps in achievement between different economic groups of children may bea problem. We should consider that the problem is not only the possession of or access to acomputer. If one group of people is not being trained in the media logic of a dominant medium, it maybe at a disadvantage relative to other groups who do have that media logic and will know how to use itacross many applications.


One of the most striking characteristics of the Internet is its fluidity. Regardless of which URL (orwebpage) you are currently using, you are usually at most but a couple of clicks away from anotherwebpage, and another beyond that, and then another. Most pages have several links that will take youto different sites, where of course there are links to take you to other sites, and so on.

Think about how the fluidity of the Internet compares with reading a book. When you read a book, youare in a sense immersed in the “space” of that text. Of course, you can put the book down and dosomething else, but the idea of instantly going from a novel to a mathematics textbook to a book ofpoems is completely foreign to the book as a medium. The Internet offers a completely different feel offluidity, of ease of movement across texts. That means, of course, also a fluidity across subjectmatters. You can read about the history of the West and go instantly to a site selling boots and thenimmediately to a history of shoemaking and then to a site on exotic leathers. If this way of movingacross texts becomes habitual, then so does the way of thinking that comes in its wake. On thepositive side, does the fluidity of the Internet contribute to creative ways of thinking “outside the box”?On the negative side, does it create an inability to focus, to dive into one subject and one text forhours (as one does while reading a book)? What kinds of stories are best consumed through such afluid medium? These are questions that will need attention as the Internet develops as a medium.

Speed and Control

Earlier we referred to the work of Altheide and Snow. An interesting concept they have called ourattention to is the centrality of the keyboard as a kind of super-medium, cutting across many differenttechnologies. Telephones, blenders, food processors, remote controls, and computer keyboards—these are members of that family of technologies. What they have in common is that they allow instantcommand over processes that are sometimes quite powerful. The fingers push a few buttons andgreat machinery starts to grind. You simply press your thumb on the remote control and a whole worldof entertainment flashes by you. Keyboards give us very quick control over experience.

Surely the computer is among the most common keyboards in use today; only the smartphone maysurpass it. The ease of access granted by manipulation of the fingers makes speed and control acentral characteristic of the computer. The processes controlled by these manipulations are the fluidmovements across sites and texts. This is also speed of shifting from one interest to another; it isspeed of access to information. In the days before computers, if you wanted to know who the sheriffswere in the state of Idaho, you would have to take a trip to the library and spend some time huntingdown that information. Any reasonably competent user of a computer today could get that informationwithin five minutes maximum, even if their server were having a slow day. This creates expectationsfor speed and control that may apply beyond the world of the Internet. As more and more functions of


everyday life fall under the control of the Internet, we may become less and less patient with whatseems like endless waiting in lines or with being placed on hold while phoning.


With so much power at the fingertips of computer users on the Internet, it is not surprising that anothercentral characteristic of this medium (the last one we will review here) is that it disperses people awayfrom physical, social contact into another kind of social contact facilitated online. It is not the case, assome might allege, that computers on the Internet isolate people at home in front of their own tinyscreens. Those people may well be making contact with others across the globe. Virtual communitiesspring up in bulletin boards, instant messaging connections, and Usenet groups. Bloggers become thecore of communities that may be truly global as they report on political crises or natural disasters intheir own parts of the world. Virtual communities centered in games such as World of Warcraft sproutup across the Internet.

But note that these communities are dispersed communities. They situate the individual in connectionto others through technology. Whereas people used to gather in physical spaces to meet and talk,now people are dispersed into physical isolation at the same time they experience social connection.We are only now beginning to understand the new, wider ways of thinking that the dispersal of thecomputer and Internet create, ways of acting that continue as a media logic once we turn thecomputer off. But is it any wonder that increasingly people wander around among strangers talking topeople they know on smartphones? That phenomenon looks strange to people whose patterns ofthought equate physical proximity with social connection, for here is a person next to me talking intoempty space and not talking to me! Social observers are increasingly concerned with the ways thatthis technology isolates people from interaction with the diverse contexts they enter, for one canalways escape to the contacts list.


Analysis and Examples

It would be difficult to apply the Internet-connected computer’s media logic to The Wizard of Oz, sincethe film has been so little viewed as an entire text online; we watch it at home on TV. Instead, wemight think about ways in which this medium contributes substantially to the nature of another kind oftext. Consider, then, what becomes of the experience of going shopping (which can be thought of andanalyzed as a text) when it goes online.

Shopping malls and stores contain a kind of fluidity already, but it is a fluidity across categories ofmerchandise rather than within a category. If you are physically in H&M store looking for shirts, youhave the fluidity of going to the undergarment section a few steps away and the overcoat section afew steps from that. But there is likely to be only one shoe department per store and certainly only oneprice per type of product. You can go to a different store, but now it gets to be more difficult, for youmust walk or drive to the nearest competitor.

But online shopping adds a much greater amount of fluidity to that experience. You can click links thatwill take you from one shoe site to another. If you use some online services such as QVC or Bizrate,you can move quickly from one merchant to another who is selling the very same shoe. One effect ofthis fluidity is to concentrate on the task at hand at the expense of inattention to the context orsurroundings of the task. Fluidity creates, as Meyrowitz noted early in the days of the Internet, “nosense of place.” In person, shopping or any other task must usually be considered in connection to itscontext, but online the task stands nearly alone. Consider how useful an effect this is for marketers asthe consumer becomes a floating consciousness, freed of the constraints of context and free to focusonly on the task of buying a product.

The speed of online shopping should also serve the interests of business. Speed and ease arecombined in the ability to purchase items after entering only a few numbers from a credit card or, ifone is using PayPal or other payment services, just clicking a few links on the screen. Notice that thespeed of online shopping is all at the point of purchase. Once the product is purchased, it may take aweek or more for it to actually arrive at your doorstep. Consumers become trained to wait patiently forthose products. Thus, online shopping flips the usual expectations in which it takes time to shop butyou have the product instantly. Again, this new structure of expectations benefits business entirely, asthey have your money immediately, and as long as you do not complain, and you rarely do, businessdoes not mind if you wait for the goods.

Finally, notice that the experience of shopping in person is often social. Hanging out with friends ofteninvolves hanging out at the mall. Online shopping disperses people into solitary consumers. Suchdispersal may well also benefit business, as we have no friends around to curb our impulse buying orto keep us from becoming fashion victims. Lost alone in the hyperstore of the Internet, the consumersconsults only their desires in making purchases.



We have studied seven schools of thought, or approaches to criticism, in this chapter and in Chapter4. It is important to realize, however, that in many ways the things you have learned in this chapter areless crucial than the things you learned in Chapter 3. By that we mean simply that the particulars ofany given approach are not as important as the act of criticism itself—the act of revealing, through anyapproach, that which is not obvious about texts.

In these two chapters, we have learned about different perspectives on what texts mean. In a sense,we have reviewed differing views on which meanings critics should look for as they study texts. Webegan with three “warnings” about the critical perspectives we would discuss: (1) there are differencesof opinion within perspectives, (2) there is agreement among perspectives, and (3) not allperspectives are covered here.

With those warnings in mind, we began by organizing our seven schools of thought into those thatemphasize INTERVENTION over Understanding, and those that emphasize UNDERSTANDING overIntervention, although all our perspectives are concerned with both. Chapter 4 focused on threeschools of thought or methods concerned with power: culture-centered, Marxist, and psychoanalytic.Those three methodological approaches heavily emphasize intervention. Chapter 5 looked at fourschools of thought that heavily emphasize understanding. It began with two schools of thought thatattempt to understand the self in society: psychoanalytic and visual criticism. This chapter ended withtwo schools of thought that attempt to understand story in popular culture: dramatistic/narrative andmedia-centered.



In the Looking Ahead sections of the first three chapters, we formulated specific questions. Here, onlyone question really remains: How does the critic use these perspectives in actual critical practice? InPart II of this book, you will read some critical studies that apply the methods and techniques youhave been learning to actual texts of popular culture. Thus, you will find several examples of how to“do” criticism. One thing you should note as you read these studies is how they make use of the ideasheld by the different approaches to criticism described in this chapter.

Remember that no one study is limited or restricted exclusively to one approach. Your goal should beto explain the texts of popular culture, not to establish some sort of orthodox plan for following aprepackaged form of criticism. An approach to criticism that rigidly applies the terms of a singlemethod or perspective to a text is sometimes referred to as a “cookie-cutter” approach. Always try toavoid an inflexible, cookie-cutter approach to rhetorical criticism. Instead, let the methods andtechniques you have learned guide you in generating your own insights about a text. And as you readthe following studies, note that while they are linked to the perspectives you have studied, they avoida rigid application of the methods of any one perspective.

Chapter 6 applies techniques of the dramatistic/narrative perspective to an historical study of mediacoverage of two disastrous house fires in Milwaukee. We will see how some unavoidablecharacteristics of rhetorical texts themselves create paradoxes for how we talk about social relations.Chapter 7 uses psychoanalytic and visual rhetoric perspectives to study the rhetoric in the experienceof attending gun shows. Chapter 8 uses culture-centered and feminist critical techniques in ananalysis of the film Groundhog Day. Arguing that a major characteristic of American culture is apreoccupation with simulational experiences, the chapter studies the movie as a commentary onsimulation. It also shows how attitudes toward women are struggled over in that text. Chapter 9 is amedia-centered and visual-centered critique of the popular aesthetic and cultural phenomenon ofsteampunk. The chapter shows how some texts of steampunk manage power by subjugatingindividuals to state and corporate power, or on the other hand put that power within the imaginedgrasp of the individual. Chapter 10 combines dramatistic/narrative criticism and media-centeredcriticism with a bit of culture-centered critique to study the phenomenon of the “bad resurrection” inAmerican life and culture, in which evil beings, objects, and events that we thought we had defeatedand banished nevertheless return, more powerful than before.


PART II APPLICATIONIn this section of the book, we will apply some of the critical methods we learned in Part I. As you willsee, sometimes a rhetorical critic focuses on one of those methods, and sometimes the critic will use

a few in combination. Generally, the idea is to understand how the text influences people and tosuggest an intervention if that is your goal. If methods are used in combination, they should fit

together, and there should be a good reason for the combination. You will also note that we do notuse every part of any given method. To do so would be to use a “cookie-cutter” approach, the lockstepapplication of a method without using good judgment as to what works. Let these serve as examples

of how you might do your own rhetorical criticisms, for class and in life.




1 Source: Adapted from Brummett, B., Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture, copyright ©University of Alabama Press. Reprinted with permission.




6.1 Identify the difficulties of personalizing large and complex issues

6.2 Examine how the context of race relations in Milwaukee contributes to the problemsthat have been occurring since the 1940s

6.3 Explain the consequences and ethical implications of metonymizing tragedies

6.4 Analyze the paradox of identification and how it impacts your view of a situation

6.5 Explain what is meant by the paradox of action

6.6 Consider how to minimize the paradoxes and identification and action

One idea that you should have gained from reading Chapters 4 and 5 is that criticism is not meant tobe a cut-and-dried, lockstep procedure. You do not conduct, say, Marxist criticism by slavishlyfollowing the “five easy steps to a Marxist analysis.” In fact, the best critical studies will be those inwhich the critical machinery is not too obvious. You should use the concepts and categories that atheory or method offers, but you should not feel that you cannot bend those rules. You want yourreader to learn about your subject matter and the insights that you bring to that subject. Whencriticism too obviously announces, “Now I am doing the first thing you do for feminist criticism; now Iam doing the second thing,” and so on, its power to change people’s perceptions is diminished. Thereal payoff of criticism is insight into what texts mean. Critical methods should serve that end.

Also, as we noted in Part I, schools of thought in criticism cross over into each other, borrow fromeach other and often work well together. It can be unnecessarily limiting, therefore, to determine inadvance that criticism must be only dramatistic or only media-centered. On the other hand, somefocus of attention is needed in criticism, too, so that the critic can help the reader to focus on certainissues.

In this chapter, the focus of the critical methodology will be largely dramatistic/narrative. We will beconcerned with some of the motivations that arise out of some of the operations that public discourseperforms. We will begin by thinking about what happens when we personalize any important, wide-ranging social issue; in this case, the issue has to do with race and race relations. Since we cannotengage big social issues in their entirety, we must use textual, discursive means to approach thesubject. Personalizing a current social issue is one way to do that: we turn an abstract issue into onewe can personally relate to, and we do that through texts, through talking about it. However, when wepersonalize, that kind of discourse inevitably involves paradoxes that can derail our efforts tounderstand. This chapter illustrates dramatistic/narrative principles in that it looks at the textual,linguistic, and discursive mechanisms of personalization and the paradoxes that arise from that use oflanguage.

Let me also note that the events occurring in this chapter took place some time ago. One might evensee this as a historical study. Sadly, the problems of race relations and the personalizations we use toapproach that issue are ongoing. This study, therefore, illustrates how timeless rhetorical criticism canbe, and how relevant it is to long-term problems. I am certain you can hear today’s news stories inmuch of the story that follows.



One of the most serious problems that democracies face today is a gap between the locations ofdemocratic decision-making and the problems about which such decisions are made. Increasingly,events that powerfully affect individuals are occurring at an international level. For example, today,decisions about world trade tariffs made in the U.S. Congress may very well have profound effects onshoe factory workers in both Italy and Massachusetts. And the good people of Anytown, USA, may beasked to vote on the performance of their senator regarding arms treaties with Russia and humanrights in China.

The average citizen is required to make decisions about a wide range of issues today. Thosedecisions are either made directly, as in voting on referenda or indirectly, as in voting on theperformance of elected leaders. In either case, the citizen must find ways to understand problems thatmay be distant (possibly even international in scope) and are likely to be extremely complex for thatreason. Perhaps two hundred years ago, the citizens of Bent Whistle could concern themselves onlywith local politics and affairs. But those days are gone. A French conglomerate is thinking of building afactory in Bent Whistle, and if the citizens are to be certain about whether or not they want thatfactory, they must acquire an understanding of business and international commerce, environmentalimpact, and many other issues.

The challenge for the average citizen today, then, is to personalize large and complex issues in waysthat make them understandable without distorting those issues so much that good decisions cannotbe made. We personalize issues when we translate vast and impersonal problems into smaller, moremanageable images, stories, and texts. Personalization, in other words, is a strategy of textualizationor narrative. We understand the problems of the Middle East by seeing them compressed into storiesabout specific hostages who have been kidnapped, or by making certain leaders the embodiment ofgood or evil (depending on our politics). The kind of textual strategy that is used in personalization iscalled metonymy, or metonymization. Metonymy occurs when something complex is reduced to amore manageable sign of that complex thing, as when the complexities of the British government arereduced to the public figure of the prime minister or the reigning monarch.

Any public issue is in principle personalizable (or not); whether or not an issue becomes personalizedis an entirely subjective, perceptual matter. I may know that environmental problems are important butbe unable to personalize that issue for myself; that is, I may be unable to imagine what ecologicaldisaster would mean for me, and what choices I might make now to undertake direct action (bystocking food or boycotting certain products, for example) or indirect action (by voting for senators onthe basis of their ecological records, for instance). So I may avoid personalizing that issue and insteadremain at the fringes of the issue, as a spectator.

On other issues, I may be motivated to personalize a public problem to a much higher degree. Itwould be possible to feel closer identification with war victims in El Salvador, for instance, if we sharedthe same religion. I might try to understand a conflict in Central America by personalizing it intoimages of its victims—by reading all I could about them and by forming my attitudes and opinions fromstories about them. If we are able to personalize a distant and confusing issue, we are then in a betterposition to participate in decision-making about that issue.

In the United States, people have often personalized race relations. Race relations is both a vast andcomplex issue and one on which every person is required to participate in decision-making. Evenwhite people who actually encounter Black people in the flesh no more than once a week may stillentertain the most passionate and vocal opinions about them, while Black people and other nonwhitepeople are understandably sensitive to the ways in which public issues near and far might affect theirpersonal abilities to get and keep jobs, live comfortably and with dignity, and so on. And all of us“encounter” different others in media—film, television, Internet—on a regular basis. Ours is a veryrace-conscious society. The issue of race relations, therefore, provides particularly good examples ofthe ways in which large public issues are personalized or brought to a more manageable size.

The personalization of race relations must be done textually, through discourse or narrative, by way ofmetonymy. Someone who wants to understand his or her place in any large public problem cannothave immediate access to the whole of that problem. Instead, that person looks for ways in which the


problem is expressed in texts and narratives. Someone who wants to understand the problem ofpollution cannot examine all pollution; that person must turn to texts that personalize pollution andexpress it in a manageable way. In this chapter, we will see that the strategy of personalizationgenerates two troubling paradoxes. These paradoxes arise from the very act of personalizing vast,abstract problems; they arise as those problems are textualized and dramatized in metonymy.

The vehicle for our exploration of race relations in this chapter will itself be personalization, based onthe author’s experience. We will focus on race relations during the 1980s in the greater Milwaukeearea and on the relative economic, social, and political status of African Americans and whites livingthere. I am white and used to be a resident of the Milwaukee area. I lived in a western, largely white,suburb close to the center of the city, and I drove to work at a university on the other (eastern) side oftown, situated next to another suburb. My route to and from work took me through the part of town inwhich most African American residents of Milwaukee live (some 97.5 percent of African Americans inthe greater metropolitan area lived in the inner city at that time). Many of my personal friends werewhite (although many were not), so I could observe the general tenor of discussion in the community.My situation, therefore, paralleled that of many white Milwaukeeans; I was placed in a good positionfor understanding how many people in that city (or in other similar cities) might use texts tounderstand the large, confusing issue of race relations. Therefore, I will self-consciously assume theposition of a white person exposed to an average mix of texts in the city of Milwaukee, and I willattempt to show how whites might personalize race relations there. Although the incidents reportedhere happened some decades ago and in one particular city, many of the racial dynamics studiedhere are still with us, and not only in Milwaukee. You may think as we go about more recent parallelsthat you have experienced. I keep up with news from Milwaukee, and I fear that the news, stories, andthe talk about them that we are about to study recur on a regular basis, even now.

In considering both the theory and the ethics of personalization, I will explore some paradoxes ofpersonalization that arise specifically in the area of race relations (though I think these paradoxes maybe generalizable to other public issues that entail personal involvement). I will focus specifically on theways in which the complexities of race relations in Milwaukee were metonymized in the publicdiscourse revolving around two disastrous, fatal house fires within the African American community.One of these fires killed twelve people on the night of September 30–October 1, 1987; the secondkilled six people on the night of October 14–15, 1987.

I began gathering public discourse from the press concerning these two events and for a period ofabout two months kept track of stories with any mention of the fires, African Americans, or racerelations in general in Milwaukee. My research led me to take note of a great many texts, not all ofthem explicitly about racial issues, but all of them “fuel” for metonymizing complex racial issues. Mostof my material is taken from the print media, especially newspapers. Although some televisionbroadcasts are included in the texts I examined, logistical problems involved in obtaining ephemeralnews broadcasts kept those texts to a minimum. I believe, however, that the printed material Igathered is representative of material found in other media as well.

Finally, I want to be very clear that the personalization—the metonymies—that I construct are from myassumed position as being representative of other whites; I do not attempt to say how October andNovember of 1987 looked to African Americans in Milwaukee. Therefore, what follows is areconstruction of how race relations probably look to most whites in Milwaukee; you may take nearlyevery sentence as preceded by, “In one likely white perception of events…” The conclusions I reachwill be directed at how whites might reevaluate some of the ways in which we understand personalroles in race relations through metonymy and personalization. Let me now don the persona of theAverage White Observer and begin.



The context of race relations in Milwaukee is a particularly rich one, drawn from vivid memories andmuch public discussion of problems between African Americans and whites. One does not have to livein Milwaukee very long to get a sense that African Americans here face economic and political trouble,largely perpetuated by a white power structure and that racial strife is a decades-old context forpresent woes. Longtime residents remembered the racial discord of the 1960s, in which actual armedtanks rumbled through the suburban streets and Father James Groppi led African Americans onprotest marches into predominantly white (and violently outraged) residential areas. Within the recentmemory of residents was the controversial tenure of a “law-and-order” police chief who was notoriousfor organizing squads to investigate political activists and dissidents, especially civil rights activists.Within the two years prior to these incidents came indictments of numerous real estate agents forpracticing racial discrimination by attempting to protect traditional racial boundaries betweenneighborhoods.


Problems in the African American Community

Milwaukee’s sizable African American community was lured to this town of Germans and EasternEuropeans by the growth in industry in the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike African Americans in otherNorthern industrial cities like Chicago, African Americans in Milwaukee have no long-standing politicalbase. Furthermore, the construction of Interstate 94 in the early 1950s destroyed the core of what hadbeen a vital African American business and residential area. Consequently, the failure of the Rust Beltindustry in the 1970s and 1980s has had exceptionally severe consequences for the African Americancommunity. A Milwaukee Urban League study released during the period under study here details theresulting unhappy statistics: 77.6 percent of African Americans born in Milwaukee in 1986 were bornto single mothers, and 29.9 percent of the African American population lived below the poverty line,with an unemployment rate of 25.9 percent (Cole; McCallister).2 Furthermore, these figures do notreflect the widespread underemployment and inadequate compensation of those African Americanswho were employed.

2 I have observed a special convention for references in this chapter. All of the articles here are soshort as to be no more than one or two pages; therefore, I have not included page numbers in thecitations within the text. (Page citations for all print references do appear in the bibliographic listings atthe end of the book.)

In addition, residents of Milwaukee have available to them countless press reports of crime from theAfrican American community that seem to outweigh stories of disturbances anywhere else in the city.It is the policy of the major newspapers, the Journal and the Sentinel, not to specify race in any newsstories unless it is relevant to the issue. But race is often implicated by other information provided instories. Milwaukee is a “city of neighborhoods,” a euphemistic way of saying that it is highlysegregated. Therefore, any address from or reference to the north, near north, or northwest side ofthe city may be read as likely to involve African Americans, while references to the south side (exceptfor the near south, which is heavily Hispanic) and suburbs will suggest conservative, blue-collar whitesand references to the east side will hint at more liberal, white-collar whites.

Also, Milwaukee’s ethnic makeup is such that some names are highly identifiable as white names;Hyrniewicki, Czysz, Kuemmerlein, and Anagnastopoulos, for example, are names that prompt readersto view their owners as Central, Eastern, or Southeastern European in origin. In general, of course, nosuch marker exists for African Americans, except for those few names that seem to have beenassociated somewhat more frequently with African Americans than with whites in recent years(Jefferson and Washington, for instance, were two family names of persons killed in the fires) ornames that seem to be chosen strategically as alternatives to traditional European names (Shanika,Shavonda, and Sharinda were names of children killed in the fires). Therefore, the seemingly neutraltexts provided in crime stories are often racially marked or at least racially suspect and thus guide theways in which people personalize the environment of race relations. If Anton Drabowicz runs amokwith a meat ax on the south side, one is likely to read that as a story about a white. James Jonesmurdering his mother downtown is hard to peg, but Chavarte Jefferson assaulting his wife on the nearnorth side will quite probably be read (correctly or not) as an African American crime.

In sum, then, the media feature many crime stories that point—by way of location or, less often, byway of name—to the African American community, thus facilitating the perception of AfricanAmericans as living in a violent context. So it was around the time of the two fires in the fall of 1987.For instance, one story depicts a struggling family on the near north side in which the mother wasfound by the father shot to death; according to the father, “it was like walking into a nightmare, onlyworse” (Sykes). A picture some weeks later confirmed the race of the family as African American. Thecontinuation of this story on an inside page accompanies another story, with a picture, of an AfricanAmerican woman who was slain at home (“Funeral Set”).

News reports on the day of the second fire include a story about African American suspects arrestedfor killing a white ice cream delivery man (Gribble) and another about Milwaukee Brewers’ player GarySheffield, an African American, who was arrested for drunkenness and violence in New York (Faust).Other prominent news reports around this time included renewed interest in a recent killing of anAfrican American child by African American children in nearby Beloit (Ward), another story of astabbing in the African American community (Cuprisin and Lisheron), and the tale of a mother in the


same neighborhood who was so incapable of caring for her children that she did not understand howto flush a toilet (Knoche). In short, the picture painted by the press about life among AfricanAmericans is grim and unflattering. Thus, the social context for the period under analysis here is likelyto be perceived as one of poverty, violence, and failure for African Americans.


Violence Against African Americans

African American crime and hopelessness did not make up the only ongoing story at this time.Violence and discrimination against African Americans and other minorities by whites was also aprominent story. On the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, recent racial incidents hadprompted a march by three hundred protestors (Esposito, “300 Protest Racism”). The issue was notresolved, and doubts persisted about the ability of the university administration to control racistfraternities and curb individual acts of racial violence (Jones, “UW Dean”). Other press reports (Jones,“Dean Defends,” “Racial Incident”) cited long lists of insults and attacks—both verbal and physical—on African Americans and Jews in Madison, a town and campus that had always prided itself on itsliberal atmosphere. One African American parent was prompted to wonder in print, “Is my child evensafe at that place?” and called the incidents in Madison an “unconscionable blight” on the state(Short). Also prominent in the news at this time was an ongoing attempt in the United States Congressto allocate reparations to Japanese-Americans who had been stripped of property while in internmentcamps during World War II (Cunibert), which added to the context of racial tension and white guilt.


The School System

Another important part of the racial context was concern over the quality of the Milwaukee publicschool system, which was widely perceived to be failing, especially in its work with minority students(Bednarek, “Education of Minorities”). A long-standing and costly lawsuit among several parties hadraged for months over the issue of how to arrange court-ordered busing for integration. The suit wassettled amid mistrust and suspicion on all sides during the two-month period studied, furtherintensifying the focus on racial issues (Bednarek, “Integration Lawsuit Settled”).


White Political Attitudes

A final factor in constructing the context for the fires is the taxation and social service mix in the cityand state. Milwaukee and Wisconsin have traditionally been high-tax, high-service, liberal Northernpolities. But an election the year before the fires had replaced a liberal Democratic administration atthe state level with a moderate Republican one. This change was based largely on the mood reflectedin a letter to the editor of The Milwaukee Journal complaining that middle-class people “haven’treceived raises in years and some of us have taken huge cuts in pay…. Without our hard work therewould not be money for welfare, food stamps, or heat assistance” (Dlugi). Another disheartenedtaxpayer complained that “it just is very disturbing to me and my husband, as taxpayers who haveworked continually for 32 years, to read in the newspaper about a 38-year-old woman who has 13children and five grandchildren…. I am really getting fed up with going to work every day, paying myfederal and state income taxes, and for what?” (Conrad).

Stockbyte/Getty Images

This resentment of welfare recipients and the poor—specifically, resentment at having to support themin the midst of a faltering Rust Belt economy—led to such measures as Republican governor TommyThompson’s “learnfare” proposal, which would have tied welfare payments to regular attendance byschoolchildren (Schultze). Although the plan was defeated by the legislature during this time (Gill andRomell), it highlighted the issue of public support for social services and an attitude toward the poorthat was frequently expressed at the time. (A revised version of the plan was later passed.)



Into this scene of texts featuring images of African American oppression, failure, violence,disadvantage, and plain hard luck came two events that could serve as centers around which a text ofrace relations in Milwaukee could be written. The first was the worst house fire in Milwaukee’srecorded history: Twelve people, ten of them children, died during the night of September 30–October1 (Romell). Most of the victims were members of an extended family living in the house, though somewere merely guests for the night. A little more than two weeks later, six children in a family were killedin another house fire less than a mile from the first (“Six Children”). In this fire, the oldest victim was ateenage sitter who was caring for five children while their mother was in the hospital giving birth toanother child. The fact that all victims were identified as African American (actually, five of the secondset of victims were biracial; more on this in a moment), the close proximity of the houses, and thelong-term economic problems of both sets of victims allowed the two fires to become a metonymy forthe problems of African American Milwaukeeans in general.


Metonymizing the Tragedies

It was clear from the start, even before the second fire, that the potential for metonymizing complexsocial problems through the image of this disaster was great. A newspaper report of the first fireclearly linked the general state of African Americans in Milwaukee with these particular victims: “Thepre-dawn fire Wednesday that killed 12 people, 10 of them children, is tragic evidence of Milwaukee’sneed to do something about decaying Inner-City housing and hard-core unemployment, officials saidWednesday” (Romell). A newspaper headline following the second fire further signaled a clear patternof metonymy: “Diverse Social Ills Had Role in Tragedy” (Gill and Romell).

Soon articles discussing the trend among poor people of doubling up on housing, with resultantdangerous overcrowding, began to appear (Hajewski). Noting that “the similarities are chilling”between the fires—among them that “the families in both fires were on welfare”—another articlereferred to the deteriorated condition of inner-city housing (Kissinger). Some letters to the editor usedthe two sets of victims as symbols for the effects of Governor Thompson’s cuts in welfare (Deshotels).Although it was apparently not the case that playing with fire caused either blaze, an article discussingpyromania in children also appeared, explicitly linking the two fires with a larger social issue in itsstatement that “many of these [pyromaniac] children come from chaotic families or single-parenthomes” (Wilkerson).

Even articles not directly linked to the fires could nonetheless be incorporated into a metonymy insofaras they bolstered the distorted image of African Americans as poor, wretched, violent, or victimized.One article reviewed the centrality of “suffering” in the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.(Kren). Another article described a group home for delinquent teenage boys, and the accompanyingpictures showed only African Americans (Norris). According to this article, these unfortunateyoungsters seemed not to have much going for them: “Bill… is struggling with deep psychologicalhurt. Jerome uses joking to cover immaturity and insecurity. Robert angers quickly and is given tolying.”

Telecasts concerning the second fire followed that story with one segment after another depictingfailures and heartbreaks that could be read as hardships specific to the African American community.Channel 12’s story (Ten o’Clock) was on a “scared straight” program at a local jail, featuring footageof (predominantly) African American inmates bemoaning their wasted lives. Channel 4 emphasizedthat the fires were within the same neighborhood, thus implicating the African American communitydirectly as a site of tragedy (News 4). Channel 6 (News at 6) covered the failure of the NationalFootball League strike, including footage of its unsuccessful (and African American) leader, GeneUpshaw. In short, it was apparent that the fatherless family configuration and economic suffering ofthe victims of these two fires were being used to symbolize widespread concern over illegitimatebirths, high crime, and welfare dependency within the African American community.


Metonymy and Paradox

Let us consider metonymy itself a little more closely. Metonymy can be either positive or negative. Forinstance, a single person can be made to stand for whatever is good or bad about an entire group ofpeople. Thus, metonymy is clearly a rhetorical strategy; indeed, it is one of the “four master tropes”explained in Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. When metonymy moves broad public issuesinto images of and about people, the metonymy has the effect of personalizing. When metonymymotivates individual actions and attitudes, it also serves to personalize. And when metonymy turnspeople into icons toward whom one may act, that is personalizing as well.

In short, the issue of race relations in Milwaukee became symbolized in the image of these particularfire victims, who became a set of signs around which all the other discursive texts of violence,economics, and so on revolved. Milwaukeeans participated in that metonymy by reading press reportsor viewing telecasts and then formulating actions and attitudes for their own lives in response to whatthey saw and read; in this way, race relations became personalized for many white Milwaukeeans inthe fall of 1987.

What happens when personalization occurs through narratives of metonymy? Some paradoxes areinevitably entailed when such metonymy takes place—paradoxes with ethical implications.



Public problems often involve large groups of people, and to the individual person those groups caneasily remain faceless. A nuclear accident in the Ukraine or a chemical accident in India is a terriblething, but the individual American can easily remain aloof from such a problem that confronts peoplewho are foreign and anonymous. The same is true of problems that the ordinary white person willperceive as afflicting African Americans in Milwaukee. In the absence of close personal contact withan entire demographic group, the response to stories of hardship and crime is likely to be along thelines of either (1) “What’s the matter with those people?” or (2) “These people are in serious trouble.”Neither response, however, is likely to call up much personal involvement or action or any realunderstanding of the complex issues involved (though it may motivate calls for collective action; moreon this in a moment). For the average white person, formulating some sort of response to theperceived problems of African Americans is much like formulating a response to the problems ofnuclear power, the destruction of the rain forest, or acid rain. Many such problems remain beyond theken of individuals; that is, they seem too bewildering or complex for us to understand.

The complexities of drought and political oppression in Ethiopia remain beyond the understanding ofmost people, too. But television footage of starving Ethiopian children in the 1980s galvanized publicresponse, motivating personal and individual action in response to a public issue. One of the mostimportant ways in which contemporary public discourse metonymizes complex issues is by presentingthem in images with which the public can identify. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke argues thatidentification fuels all motivation; showing the public the ways that they as individuals can connect tobroad social issues is, therefore, a primary way of mobilizing motivation for individual action. Whenpeople identify, they make a link between the self and the other. That link also calls forward a politicalstance toward such larger issues as nuclear power, discriminatory practices in South Africa, andenvironmental destruction.


Identification and Race

So it is with the issue of race relations. To the extent that whites can identify with the travails of AfricanAmericans, whites will be motivated to overcome their own racism. Clearly, then, identification is alsoa strategy with ethical implications insofar as it enables or discourages moral choices. As Burkereminds us, identification will occur if people see that they are like other people, that their interests arejoined.

Resources for identification were present within the wider context surrounding the Milwaukee housefires in 1987. For example, much of the discussion over the racial incidents on the Madison campus ofthe University of Wisconsin at the same time offered the possibility of motivation through identification;a number of images of African Americans and of their motives that enabled white identificationemerged from that discussion. An African American writer of a letter to the editor noted that theheartache of racism

comes from your child’s description of the knife held to his throat by a white bully in gradeschool. It comes from watching your baby struggle proudly to pronounce the “big words”someone painted on the front of your house during the night: filthy epithets! It comes fromwatching that person you love dearer than life get passed over and put down and treated asif her skin were the only part of her that matters. And even with these realities, your child stillearns a 3.0 and he still makes the football team and he still beats out the others to play firstchair in the high school orchestra. (Short)

It would take an alienated heart indeed not to identify with the universally relevant anguish and pridein that letter writer’s powerful sentences. The racial problems in Madison were similarly metonymizedin the plaint of Geneva Brown, a first-year student at the university: “To have someone physicallythreaten me just because I’m African American is something I’ve never [before] encountered” (Jones,“2 Stories”); most whites have also probably never before been threatened on the basis of their race.Racial problems are represented in Charles Holley’s statement that racism “hurts down deep,because I’m a human being” (Esposito, “2 Stories”); it would, presumably, hurt whites as well.Similarly, the pain of racism is evident in this excerpt from an interview with California congressmanNorman Mineta, a Japanese-American who recalls being separated from his family during the time ofthe World War II internment camps:

“I didn’t want to be separated from my parents,” Mineta said, faltering. He had beenrecounting the story over lunch in the House members’ dining room, but stopped altogetheras he started to cry. Listening in, one of his young congressional aides also started to cry.The congressman composed himself. “We should have done this in the office,” he said.(Cunibert)

These examples from the period under study illustrate the ways in which complex issues, such asracism on college campuses and reactions against Japanese-Americans in World War II, aremetonymized into issues—the anguished parent, the frightened child, the shock of unexpectedindignities—with which whites can identify.

But the particular issues that the victims of the two house fires stood for highlighted certain problemsfor identification through metonymy, which become clear as we move from context to more focusedtexts relating to the two disasters. Metonymizing a complex problem into a concrete symbol can givethe public something with which to identify, but if the metonymy involves the strange, foreign, orfrightening, it may also give the public concrete images that threaten identification. The first fire victimswere presented in terms that placed them on the knife’s edge of this paradox of identification. Enoughfacts about the victims were provided to allow a middle-class white audience to identify with them toan extent, yet enough difference (especially difference based in race) was still evident to forestall acomplete identification.


Enabling Identification

Let us consider the texts that served as resources that enabled identification first. The victims of thefirst fire were portrayed positively and along many dimensions with which whites could identify.Morvay writes of one victim, “‘Thomas was a church-going man,’ his niece said.” We are told thatThomas worked for the city, and a picture of a loving extended family is painted. We learn that thefamily spoke by telephone every evening with a grandmother in Miami. This same grandmother isquoted as piously avowing, “I know God took my grandchildren and my daughter right on back toheaven. The Lord is too wise to make a mistake.” And the distraught mother of two other youngvictims is quoted as saying what any parent would say under such circumstances: “Let me go see mybabies… just let me go. I’ve got to see them.” Christopulos quotes another grandmother in mourning:“Why couldn’t it have been me instead of my poor little baby?… When I got there, I kept prayingAnthony would be all right.” A white audience can sympathize with such grief, and with the rudenessof a funeral home representative who interrupted the interview to force a card on the bereavedwoman. We can also sympathize with the heroic efforts of neighbors to rescue the children, whichwere foiled by the intense flames (Romell).

Reports of the second fire also contained material encouraging identification by way of the childrenwho died in the fire. All three evening news telecasts interviewed teachers and principals of thechildren, who gave sincere and positive praise for them, and printed news reports typically gave brief,upbeat biographies of each child (Ahlgren). Channel 12 focused mainly on the impact of the children’sdeaths on their neighbors (Ten o’Clock). One neighbor was quoted as saying, “They need to dosomething for these kids, these people, or there’re gonna be a whole lot more bodies to come get.”This was the only station to report that neighbors could hear cries for help coming from the house, ahorrible fact that must surely have drawn universal sympathy. Channel 4 (News 4) described thehuman face of “people who are stunned, who want to do something”—as the white audience surelywould.

The metonymizing of human misfortune into heartbreaking images of children was the best chance foridentification offered by coverage of the second fire. An older brother of the victims is quoted assaying at the funeral, “Each of them was going to be somebody. They were just beginning. Not a oneof them had a chance for nothing” (Mitchard, “Rise Up”), displaying a kind of pride and sense of lossthat people of all races could understand. Mitchard (“Grief Will Come”) quotes a Sunday schoolteacher of the children who had seen them only that evening: “‘The big kids were on the porch lastnight with the babies at 9 p.m.,’ she said reasonably, ‘and so they can’t take them… you can’t spare…you just can’t….’” The collapse of this woman’s narrative into anguish speaks eloquently of the pain oflosing children. Mitchard quotes another neighbor who showed the kind of shock with which manycould identify when she said, “It’s a strange thing when children perish and you cannot cry. I woulddearly love to cry, but I can’t.”

Other stories focused on the predominantly white firefighters who had dealt with both blazes, and theeffects the fires had on them were forcibly presented to a white audience as the reactions theythemselves might have had (Kissinger and Rummler). They quoted one firefighter: “All I could think ofwas ‘not again.’ It’s harder this time, when it happens so close together.” Gleisner, who had a nine-month-old son at home, said, “The first thing I did was that I went out and bought four more smokealarms.” Finally, a photo essay (“A Time”) showed pictures of the funeral, of the lost children, and ofweeping family members.


Forestalling Identification

But consider how fine is the knife’s edge of identification, for texts that allow identification may quicklyturn into texts that discourage it. Gilbert’s story (“Fire Victims”) of the funeral for ten of the victims, heldin Miami, begins on a theme inviting universal identification: “A mother and nine young cousins killedlast month in Milwaukee’s worst house fire were laid to rest….” But the story then moves on to adescription of the funeral service that marks it as appropriate for a traditional African American churchservice—and therefore unlike anything that most staid whites (and Milwaukee is heavily staidLutheran and Catholic) observe on Sunday morning. Gilbert describes the funeral as “a searingservice marked by raw grief and uncontrolled outburst” and “a roller-coaster, gospel gathering,elevated by passionate displays of faith and family togetherness.” Whites are further reminded of thedifference, or otherness, of these metonymized people by their nontraditional, non-Anglo names, suchas Shanika, Shavonda, and Sharinda (Romell).

Many reports of the second fire also provided ample symbolic resources for tilting the paradox ofidentification in the direction of differences. Although there was much to spark white identification withthe victims of the second fire through a metonymy of tragedy and loss, such positive texts werecountered and overwhelmed by the spectacle of the victims’ unfortunate mother, who was giving birthto her thirteenth child at the time of the fire. This poor woman and the family’s general circumstancesbecame a metonymy for white resentment of what is perceived as African American welfaredependency, high illegitimacy rates, and other problems noted earlier. The family is depicted byRomell and Gill as “plagued by poverty”; their article chronicles a dreary history of the father of most ofthe children as an unemployed alcoholic and child abuser. The mother, Diane Washington, was athirteen-year-old runaway when she first came to live with this man, and since divorcing him she hadbecome attached to the father of the rest of the children, a man from Chicago who had been arrestedon felony firearms charges. One child described the quality of life in the Washington family as“baloney and crackers… It wasn’t all the time, but sometimes we ran short of food, you know.” Thefamily is described as moving at least once every year because of their inability to meet the rent. Themother is said to have no intention of marrying again. Her desperate circumstances lead her todescribe her life in ways with which no middle-class white person could identify. “I live the life I want tolive,” she is quoted as saying, “and go and come like I want to.”

This mother in particular became a symbolic lightning rod for white frustration stemming from thecontext of the fires, a metonymy for allegedly self-inflicted problems that befall many poor AfricanAmericans. Ahlgren depicts Mrs. Washington as producing one child after another with recklessabandon and declaring at one point, “Now I guess I’ll quit. I have my football team and my basketballteam.” News reports noted that the family was eligible for government aid that could have paid theirgas bill, but that for some reason this help had not been requested. Payment would have allowed thegas company to resume service, thus doing away with the need for the space heater that had causedthe fire. Clearly, the implication was that the mother was not even capable of obtaining the welfare towhich she was entitled (Kissinger; Ten O’Clock News).

Press reports concerning Mrs. Washington were riddled with seemingly unintended irony. The childborn just before the fire was named Passion’ate Love (Mitchard, “Rise Up”), and Gill and Romell quoteher as saying, in all innocence, “Like my mother told me one time, I made my bed; I have to lie in it.”The temptation in both cases, for any reader not inclined toward identification with her, is to say inexasperation, “Yes, that’s just the trouble.”

As a metonymy for poor and helpless people, Mrs. Washington clearly encouraged reactions thatwere the opposite of identification. As one letter complained, “she loved children and wanted her ownfootball team. I find my senses reeling!… The problems of poverty that embrace so many of ourneighbors are certainly not helped by increasing the numbers of a family” (Richfield).

Another letter similarly noted,

Diane Washington “loves” children and so do I. But how, in all justice to the children, can shekeep producing, while her children are at the public’s mercy? Her 16-year-old pregnantdaughter, with a 9-month-old baby, is following her mother’s example. When will this end?



Resentment was also expressed in this landlord’s complaint:

There is absolutely no justification for 13 or 14 people living in a two-or-three bedroom home,using a penny for a fuse. You can rest assured that the landlord did not know they all livedthere. (Thomas)

Mr. Thomas’s letter is clearly metonymizing general problems into the images of the fire victims, forthe actions he describes match neither set of fire victims; yet he is explicitly writing about the fires.


The Persistence of Race

An important dimension of the texts of race relations is the role of race itself as a fundamentalcategory for classifying humankind. It must be said that in most of the United States, and perhaps inMilwaukee particularly, race is a factor that will always interfere with identification on the part of somepeople, no matter how much material there is to foster identification. Race is a marker of a differencethat will make all the difference, and for these people, the racial category into which a person falls willcolor, so to speak, any and all of their judgments about that person.

At precisely the time of the second fire, unrestrained identification occurred with another child in direstraits, young Jessica McClure of Texas, who was being rescued from a well over the course of two orthree days (News at 6). Although she was farther away, concern for this white child among whiteMilwaukeeans was undiluted. But as noted above, sympathy was not so unreserved for those involvedin the two fatal fires. Thus, racial prejudice led to a judgment structured by the rhetoric of racialcategories, illustrating the fact that in the United States today, any discourse with racial components isa discourse that will divide people.

Another interesting dimension of the texts of racial categories is that for many whites, and perhaps forAfrican Americans as well, an individual falls into the category of African American for possessing anydetectable amount of African American racial makeup at all, sometimes for merely associating withAfrican Americans. In this case, the work of the texts of racial division is also extended to those whoare white but who have very close connections with African Americans.

In the case of the Milwaukee fires, there were two instances in which the public was allowed, perhapseven encouraged, to think of individuals as African American because of their involvement with peopleof that racial category rather than on the basis of their own physical appearance or heritage. It turnsout that Diane Washington, the mother of the second victims, is identified (in only two instances) asactually being white (Romell and Gill; A Time). And Jill Schreck, mother of some of the first firevictims, bears a name that sounds German (in this town of German heritage); she also looksCaucasian in a picture published in the newspaper (“Survivor”). Yet the overwhelming sense createdby press reports about the fires was that everyone involved was African American—despite thepresence of whites, and despite the fact that the children in the second fire were as white as theywere African American. Diane Washington’s own identification with African Americans puts her on that“side of the fence”; she is able to stand in for irresponsible African Americans even though she iswhite. African Americanness seems to be a difference that cannot be overcome by similarities.

The peculiar rhetorical insistence in the available texts upon the importance of the category of AfricanAmericanness is also echoed in other news stories that were linked to the fires. On the very day of thesecond fire, a white Milwaukee alderman was convicted of accepting a bribe from an African Americanattorney, a story carried immediately after coverage of the fire on all three television stations. And anewspaper article about the alderman’s downfall at the hands of the African American attorney(Bargren) appeared on the same page as (1) an article about African Americans who had slain an icecream delivery man and (2) a story about the firefighters involved in both disastrous fires. All threestories were continued together on the same inner page. In short, the introduction of AfricanAmericanness into a mix of texts such as this turns it into a category that, for many whites, will be aninsurmountable barrier to identification.

In sum, the identification engendered by images of dying children might easily have been outweighedby the persistent accumulation of press reports depicting Mrs. Washington as an irresponsible bearerof children at the taxpayers’ expense—as the very epitome of the hopeless and incorrigible welfaremother. In the case of the second fire, metonymy may have countered, rather than furthered,identification. Metonymy is thus a risky strategy for motivating personal involvement in public issues. Ifyou make what is abstract, or far away, more concrete through images of a child, a fire, or a welfaremother, you either court identification with the image or you risk the confirmation of your audience’sworst fears about “those other people.”

The person attempting to metonymize complex issues into an understandable text is therefore facedwith a choice about how to see “those people” and how to place ourselves in relation to them. This isan ethical choice insofar as it concerns how we treat and define others. When we metonymize, we are


responsible for the outcome. Identification is therefore not a passive occurrence but a chosen action,and management of the paradox of identification is an ethical choice.



We have been considering connections between broad public problems and personal implications ofthose problems. To move from the public to the personal requires a risky metonymization that may, inthe end, scare the personalizing individual back to considering problems impersonally; the personmight then see problems as interesting but not personally relevant, just as we might know, forexample, that election results in France will affect us in some way but not in a way that will motivateus to see any kind of personal involvement in the matter. Another route of movement from the publicto the personal can be seen in the distinction between public initiatives or legislation and individualperceptions or action. It is one thing to think to oneself that “there ought to be a law,” another thing togo out and actually do what one thinks needs to be done, or to alter one’s deep-seated opinions andprejudices. You might think that the state should finance soup kitchens, for example, but simplythinking that is different from volunteering to work in a soup kitchen. The latter is a form ofpersonalization.

The two fires in Milwaukee often called forth the first, nonpersonalizing kind of response in the form ofdemands for legislative action to address a particular problem. The city council quickly passed a lawrequiring landlords to maintain smoke detectors in rental property, and U.S. senator Robert Kastenfired off a letter to the newspaper announcing legislation to help the poor heat their homes in winter(Kasten). And around the same time, in response to the racial incidents on the Madison campus, aplan to grant free or reduced tuition to minorities was introduced (Deger).

But the disasters also called forth texts that enabled personalization, urging specific personal actionand a change in attitudes. One writer of a letter to the editor, who was from an almost entirely whitesuburb and bore an Eastern European name (Jankowski), described her own experience as avolunteer at the second funeral; she also called for individual involvement in the long term, writing,“We as a community should experience the grief and work toward improving Inner City life so thisneed not happen again.”


Personal Action and Loss of Vision

The paradox of action lies in the fact that the shift from a public policy to an individual action cansometimes be accompanied by a loss of the political vision, available at a broad and public level, thatshould guide individual action. To think in terms of broad sweeps of history, the relations of largegroups of people, and of economic and political trends, is to think in terms of underlying causes formisfortune and oppression. Institutionalized racism, for instance, is not something that can be graspedby looking just at this or that specific example, isolated instances can almost always be rationalized ona case-by-case basis. Institutional racism is grasped by thinking at precisely the level of broad, publicissues, to see how thousands of acts of oppression (by the police, by the class system, by theschools, by other institutions) cumulatively take their toll on shaping broad patterns of social relations.That is a kind of understanding that simply cannot be grasped if I restrict my vision to a particularAfrican American woman, no matter how many insults and slurs she may suffer; one cannotunderstand her experiences as embedded in broad patterns of oppression unless one backs off toconnect her experience with that of millions of others.

The paradox at the broad, public level is that political action and involvement can then take the form ofsimply “letting Congress do it,” thus refusing individual responsibility and involvement. The paradox atthe level of personal decision and action is that such involvement may proceed in ignorance of thebroader forces that have caused problems to occur in the first place. And the risk of that kind ofignorance is that it can turn political action and involvement into patronization. Action directed towardthose less fortunate than ourselves, if uninformed by the causes of those misfortunes, can turn into akind of “alms-giving” that soothes our consciences but blinds us to our implication in those causes formisfortune. The paradox of action, then, can threaten to paralyze us, preventing the ethical choicesinvolved in metonymizing complex issues into the personal.


The Paradox in Milwaukee

One can see this paradox occurring at the level of individual action and attitudes in Milwaukee. Arepresentative anecdote of such a paradox is the story of a white woman who was going to buy somecigarettes with two dollars and heard of the second fire (Gill and Romell). This woman went directly tothe neighborhood of both fires, knocked on the door of a complete stranger, and gave the two dollarsto the African American woman who answered the door as a token of her concern. One cansympathize with the motive for personal, individual action in response to this tragedy, not as anisolated instance (in which case the donation would be irrelevant) but as a metonymy of long-termracial problems. Evidently, it was the metonymization of social problems into particular people living ina specific neighborhood that gave the cigarette smoker a place in which to act. But one can also readin this story (though I found no direct acknowledgment of it in the newspaper article) how patronizingthe woman’s action was—how little it cost her, how proud she may have felt about her “gift,” and howthat gift may have served to blind her to her own involvement in the broader forces that led to the firein the first place.

Of more concern, however, is the implication of African Americans themselves in such patronization.For it turns out that the African American woman favored with the two dollars was touched by thegesture: “That $2 meant more than the smoke alarm legislation,” she said (Gill and Romell). Theparadox is that on the one hand, the public policy action of the smoke alarm legislation stands a goodchance of saving lives, yet it invites no personal action to overcome problems; on the other hand, thepersonal action of giving two dollars may seem more involved, but it is also too easy and leads to anavoidance of uncomfortable questions.

A similar example reported at about the same time described a white man who sought to dosomething to help untrained and jobless African American teenagers. He hired a skilled AfricanAmerican carpenter to remodel inner-city houses while simultaneously teaching his skills to thoseteenagers. On the surface, it seems like a worthwhile, concrete action on the part of the white man.Yet it was reported that “Wigdale [the white man] believes that young African American men don’thave enough role models and recognized one in Coleman [the African American carpenter]” (Lynch).Disturbing questions arise in response to such a statement: How can Wigdale know what it’s like to bea “young African American man”? Who is he to judge that Coleman would make a good role model forthe young men? Will Wigdale then hire those young men once they are trained? What responsibilitiesfor African American joblessness must be borne by the construction industry in general, and howmight Wigdale’s actions allow him, and others, to overlook those responsibilities?


African Americans “In Need of Help”

The paradox of action at the personal level is intensified by news reports of African Americans “inneed of help,” particularly reports that portray such help as coming not from African Americansthemselves or from within African American culture, but from the white community. One telecastconcerning the second fire (News 4) featured an older brother of the victims who turned directly to thecamera and instructed the viewing audience to avoid space heaters at any cost. He claimed personalresponsibility for having turned off one of the smoke alarms and absolved the white landlord from anyblame in the fire. Such claims, even if true, hide the broader forces, such as unemployment andsubstandard housing, that led to this family’s problems in the first place.

Even more pointed was an interview during this time period with a group of African American studentswho were attending a predominantly white school on the south side of the city, far from their homes.One student described her previous, neighborhood school as “too roguish. It’s bad.” Another said thatteachers in predominantly white schools “are more educated,” while another claimed thatpredominantly African American schools are “a lot of trouble” (Gilbert, “Blacks Count”). The messageof this interview was that African Americans are in need of whites, an attitude that intensifies thepatronizing stance of some who would become personally involved in racial issues. Within such acontext, even those arguments for self-help made by African Americans themselves become fodderfor those who would focus more on the idea that help is needed. As one African American leader isquoted as saying about his own culture’s statistically lower performance on tests of academicachievement, “it has nothing to do with ability. It has to do with work. We watch more television thananyone else in America” (Mulvey).

The specter of African Americans “in need of help” extended beyond Milwaukee in the discourseavailable at the time of the fires. During this same time period, Michael Jackson’s album Bad wasreleased, as were numerous publicity photos depicting the startling changes that had been wrought inhim by cosmetic surgery. In short, Jackson’s appearance had taken, since his early days with theJackson Five, a marked turn for the Caucasian. Guensburg reported the shocked reaction of AfricanAmerican teenagers in Milwaukee: “He looks like a ghost. He looks like the bogeyman” and “He’s lostsome of his soul.” Famous African Americans such as baseball player Ozzie Smith were quoted assaying, “I don’t mind a guy trying to look different, but Lord, there’s got to be a limit.” African Americanpsychologist Diane Pollard noted, “I find it psychologically interesting. It’s really eccentric behavior. Itdoes send a negative message about being African American” (Guensburg). An accompanying articledescribed Mr. Jackson’s eccentricities, including sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber andattempting to buy the bones of the “Elephant Man” (De Atley).

Stories about Michael Jackson, like the story about the African American teenagers attending a whiteschool, portray African Americans “in need of help”; such stories also suggest that African Americansget that help not from themselves or their culture but from whites and white culture. Such anundercurrent supports a stance of condescension and patronization by whites who might becomepersonally involved in racial issues; in turn, any action taken by these whites becomes a missionaryinvolvement—a stooping to conquer, a “giving of alms” to those who have no other resources. Such isthe stance created for those who would metonymize racial problems into images of desperate,incompetent, or eccentric African Americans who seem incapable of succeeding without white help.



The problems of identification and action, and the paradoxes one encounters when attempting topersonalize broad public issues, are complex. Such problems are closely connected to the ways inwhich people order the world for themselves. Certainly, other people may be constructed as “like me”or “unlike me,” thus aiding or hindering my identification with them. But because people are complexsources of texts, the ways we construct others as like or unlike ourselves include how we constructstances, or roles, for others and for ourselves.

Let us now consider how the paradoxes of identification and action may be minimized through aconscious awareness of how people, whites in particular, understand the general public problem ofracial issues and construct a personal role for themselves within those issues. I believe that with thisset of problems, as with any others, an awareness of how we use the texts of popular culture—and ofother ways in which we might order our experience—is liberating and subversive. And as argued inChapter 3, that is the highest calling for the critic and teacher of rhetoric: to make people aware ofboth how we now, and how we might in the future, understand complex problems (in this case, thoserevolving around race relations).


Reciprocal Personalization

Racial issues tend to be reciprocal. That is to say, what one says about African Americans can andshould imply actions or attitudes appropriate for whites. But that reciprocity does not always occurexplicitly, consciously, strategically. What happens in the readings of the fires offered above is that thefire victims are metonymized as certain images, but those doing the metonymizing are not. Whitesconstruct explicit positions for African Americans as victims—as helpless, violent, and irresponsible—yet they construct no explicit positions for themselves. Whites are implicitly constructed, then, aspatrons or superiors, as those who can give alms or advice, like benevolent aunts and uncles. Whitesconstructed Michael Jackson as a dancing bear, but they did not consciously see that they mustreciprocally define themselves as bear baiters.

It is this willingness to metonymize others, combined with a failure to see oneself as a metonymy (asymbol of larger forces and issues), that contributes to the paradoxes of identification and action. Inregard to the paradox of identification, for example, when others become metonymized images thatare strange and different, the strangeness is always in relation to an idealized vision of the self that isvery likely an unexamined one. To look to my own side of the equation or inequality requires me to“unpack” that vision of myself—to confront it and make decisions about whether I wish to retain it ornot. The ethics of creating one stance or subject position or another are in that way brought to myattention, and I am able, then, to make a conscious ethical choice.


Metonymizing Yourself

In regard to the paradox of action, individual action is divorced from larger social issues if I refuse tosee myself as acting as a metonymy, a metonymy in relation to the metonymy that I construct forAfrican Americans. For to see myself as a metonymy would require me to ask, “A metonymy of what?”With the particular issue of race relations, constructing a position for myself within a metonymy mightlead me to see that I too am implicated in the social conditions that I metonymize into concrete imagesof African Americans. Since those are the images that will guide and motivate my action, anawareness of my implication in them could preserve a useful tension between my own individualaction and my social awareness.

Such an awareness, and such a tension, might lead me to realize that I benefit from reducedcompetition for adequate housing, for example. I also benefit from inadequate wages paid to producethe products I buy and the stores that I shop in. I benefit from the excess profits made at the expenseof workers and the poor by companies, the stocks of which support my universities and retirementfunds. I benefit from a pool of cheap, even desperate labor willing to do jobs that I would not do underany circumstances. Among some of the people I identify as family and friends are people whoseracism contributes directly to the oppression of people of color. I have received the benefits of adisproportionate allocation of public school resources to the schools I attended and to the almostexclusively white college preparatory courses in which I was enrolled within those schools.

None of these reflections need lead to guilt on my part, since I did not cause or initiate the system thatbrought them about. These reflections should, however, spark a crisis of ethical decision about theextent to which I participate in reproducing such a system. I did not invent racist oppression, but I canbecome aware that I lie safely cradled in its benefits to whites. To see myself as having something todo with the death of more than a dozen people crowded into a house that burned in the inner city, andto see myself as implicated in some of the reasons why Diane Washington could not pay her gas billand had to rely on a faulty space heater, can lead to a change in my ability to identify with the peopleinvolved in the fire. And it can also change the role of my personal political action from somethingdesigned solely to help them into something designed to help me as well.


Metonymizing Others

A second strategy for minimizing the paradoxes of identification and action is to metonymize morestrategically, more carefully, and with more awareness. One of the prime ways to do so is to findimages that correspond to smaller and more carefully differentiated groups. Very few of the pressreports I studied during the period under analysis attempted to differentiate among African Americanseither explicitly or implicitly. Heightened public awareness of the problems befalling African Americansin the inner city focused on poor, inner-city African Americans as stand-ins for a whole race, an entiredemographic category. The overcrowded household in the first fire and the large and seeminglyirresponsible Washington family in the second fire came to represent not just the limited category ofimpoverished African Americans but African Americans in general.

When one over-metonymizes in response to the two fires, such over-metonymizing exacerbates theparadoxes of identification and action. It is difficult to identify with entire social groups. If an entiregroup is metonymized with a negative image, the public is left with few symbolic resources forlocalizing the damage—that is, for understanding that the group is actually complex and that only oneaspect of it is represented by the present image. Recognizing that such an image is limited can meanthat failure to identify with the image will then not be read as a failure to identify with an entire group;in this case, hope for future identification with other parts of the group may be kept alive. Actionsdirected toward specific images or situations may be less likely to be turned into patronization ifpeople remain aware that the action is directed toward a limited goal and that other people who arelike the target of this action in some ways may not be in need of help, may indeed be in a position togive help as well. If my actions are no longer perceived as “helping African Americans” but instead areunderstood as helping a specific group of people, then I am less likely to see my actions in agrandiose light. But I am also aware, then, that there remains a large group of other AfricanAmericans, and the resources of African American culture itself, that my actions do not affect. Andthose other resources may then be seen as vaster and more meaningful than my own efforts in thisone isolated case.


Resources for Careful Metonymy

Some articles available to the public at the time of the fires did provide the potential for remindingreaders of such differentiation among African Americans and, consequently, of the potential for self-help and resourcefulness within the African American community. A historical article by DonaldJackson describes an African American dean at Boston University, representing a more restrictedgroup of well-educated urban African Americans, moving into an area of Beacon Hill (a neighborhoodin Boston) that was populated by African Americans in the eighteenth century. The move is areclamation of African American history, by African Americans. Closer to home, St. Mark’s AfricanMethodist Episcopal Church in Milwaukee is portrayed as a strong, financially secure institution thatserves the community and is a bastion of self-help and self-reliance within the inner city (Breyfogle).

As construction of images moves toward smaller and more differentiated categories, metonymymoves toward synecdoche—that is to say, from reduction toward representation. Synecdoche is atrope of representation rather than reduction. The Washington family as a metonymy of all AfricanAmericans must always remain just that, a metonymy. But it may very well work as a synecdoche forpoor, divorced, biracial families in the inner city if that kind of representation is the only symbolic taskto which it is put. Synecdoche gives way to metonymy when our images stand for issues or problemsthat, in their entirety, are too large to comprehend from any perspective. Breaking up those issues intomanageable categories that can then be represented through synecdoche may be the best symbolicstrategy to pursue.



Let me now step back and become critically self-conscious for a moment: What good has this criticismdone? If these reflections on the paradoxes of identification and action seem sensible to you, thenyour ability to see how some texts work in popular culture has been expanded.

Students want relevance in their education, though they may not often have an explicit desire to bechanged by relevant education. From the perspective of rhetorical criticism, relevance in educationhas to do with showing students how they are constrained culturally in the ways they experience thetexts that surround them. Relevance means showing students alternative ways to remake the worldinto something fairer, more just, and more equitable. Ancient rhetoricians trained their students tomanipulate meaning in the forums of the day. Today, meaning is managed on many fronts besidesthat of the public speaking platform.

Meaning is managed by the people of Milwaukee as they read their newspapers and watch theirtelevisions. How that meaning is managed will affect, I think, whether we sit passively and allow ourexperience to be shaped for us, whether we rouse ourselves to give two dollars to African Americanstrangers in the inner city, or whether we see the real possibilities for change in ourselves, in how weexperience our lives, and in the worlds we make together. The equipment for living that you asstudents have is not neutral machinery. It is morally and ethically loaded, and critics who study howthe rhetorical dimensions of popular culture work as that equipment serve as symbolic engineers.

We might also think of how the criticism in this chapter has used the dramatistic/narrative criticalperspective. You will recall that the key idea to that approach is that discourse itself will generatecertain motives as a result of how language or other signs work within the discourse. In other words,the dances and moves that words go through are actually what motivate the users and receivers ofthe words. In this chapter, we have noted that to personalize public issues requires turning thoseissues into discourse, or “textualizing” the issues. We have to talk or write about complex issues suchas race relations in order to get a handle on them. But what happens in the talking or writing? Whenwe squeeze real life into metonymies, what do the metonymies do to how we think about and react toreal-life situation? This chapter has shown how paradoxes arise, not just from “real-life” experiencebut from the textual, discursive act of metonymizing itself.






7.1 Analyze the culture-centered criticisms of “gun culture”

7.2 Identify the visual rhetorical criticisms of attending a gun show

This chapter makes use of two kinds of methods. The first might be obvious: culture-centeredcriticism. The chapter does that in complex ways. You may sometimes hear the expression “gunculture” applied to those who own, collect, appreciate, and use firearms in the United States. A centralaspect of gun culture is the gun show. The chapter is also culture-centered in that it examines thespecific culture of Texas and its relationship to guns, as experienced through gun shows. A secondkind of method is visual. Note the use of images, the reporting and critique of what it looks like toattend a gun show, and the meanings facilitated by those images. With these two methods in mind,let’s begin.



Gravel, concrete, and discouraged patches of grass turning to mud… an armada of pickup trucks andSUVs… men in denim and camo jackets. This is what you see as you drive up to Texas gun shows.You may find such shows offered on a monthly or bimonthly basis in cities and burgs all over theRepublic. From Odessa to Houston, no matter the size and wealth of the city, the gun shows arepretty much the same. They will be in old, converted warehouses, failed K-Marts, or third-tier localarenas. Faded paint announcing businesses of yesterday are covered over by big temporary bannersdeclaring “Gun Show today!” The shows are remarkably the same. The look and feel of a Texas gunshow reflects a consistency of the culture that supports them. What is that culture?



That culture, which just for convenience we might call gun culture, is as strong in Texas as anywhereelse in America, maybe stronger. The popular image of the pickup truck with the shotgun rack overthe rear window, of the shirt bulging with the concealed weapon underneath, of rifles standing inside


closets and revolvers on the nightstand, may be more widely true in the Lone Star State than in anyother. Never mind that some of that lore happened in Arizona or Minnesota; get on a horse with a gun,you are in Texas. This is the state where country singer Billy Joe Shaver could shoot a man in theface in a bar and get acquitted on what is popularly known as the “some ol’ boys need shootin’”defense. How guns work in American culture may be well and fairly assessed by coming to groundzero of firearms and their culture, Texas.

Gun culture nationally, in an important sense, is Texan. When cowboys ride into the sunset on theirhorses, six-gun securely holstered on a hip and a lever-action Winchester housed in the saddlescabbard, when the wind whistles down the sendero and coyotes howl, when this vision plays out inmovies, television, country-and-western songs, or daydreams, the location is Texas, never mind whatthe official plot says. Cowboys roamed the Badlands of the Dakotas and the prairies of Kansas, theOK Corral was in Arizona, but in a sense they were all Texans. The armed cowboy, the tall, leansheriff, the desperado, the small rancher defending his land (it’s always a “he”), these images allmerge into Texas identities.

There are very few real cowpokes still around, and some of those may be found in Texas, but they areas rare as a live armadillo by a highway. Most people don’t run into them much anyway. Oh, you cansee the guy in the Levi’s and Western-style shirt with the big belt buckle and the cowboy hat in storesand such, especially in the South and Southwest, but real cowboys doing cowpokish things… not somuch. One can see movies—mainly old movies—of the cowboy life, and country-and-western songsstill echo with the scream of the wild cougar, but to really be immersed in the fantasy that is the armedcowboy, one has few places to go. But you can go to the gun show to get as close as never mind.

Clearly, the gun is key to the cowboy image. The gun may morph into the black rifle of today’s militaryconflicts, into the snub-nosed revolver of film noir or the various weapons of first-person shooter videogames, but their common ancestor is the cowboy gun, whether six-shooter pistol, double-barrel coachshotgun, or lever-action rifle. Every modern gangsta film like Scarface is the shootout at the OK Corralin drag. Some people who collect (or accumulate) guns specialize in one genre or another, but I thinkmost gun enthusiasts will have a variety of types. As dogs are all basically wolf, from Shih Tzu toGreat Dane, so guns are all essentially where they began in modern form, and that is, especially inAmerica, with the post–Civil War cowboy and buffalo hunter guns. What that means is that there is aunity of feeling and affect in guns, and resonance with one is at some level resonance with them all, ofall eras and circumstances.

Probably the central gun culture consistency I want to stress is that the cowboy myth and its variationsare all working class. Likewise, gun culture in the United States is working class. Certainly, people ofmeans have firearms, but the popular imagination puts guns in the hands of poor and middle-classworking people. This is consistent right across the range of gun-representing popular culture. Thecowboy in fact and on screen is not wealthy, in fact is little more than an itinerant seasonal worker.The marshall or sheriff is not wealthy and is likely to sleep in the back room of the jail. Rarely one willsee a person from a wealthy or privileged background (e.g. in the film The Ghost and the Darkness[Hopkins]) connected to guns, but it is usually in a context of work and poverty (e.g. building a railroadin Africa). The title character in Scarface (De Palma) lives by the gun and becomes wealthy, but hebegins life in poverty and his riches buy him only wretchedness. Guns in the American imagination—and I think likely in fact—are connected to the working class.

There are two paradoxes in gun culture today that I want to mention. The gun is deadly for real and inearnest; these things are meant to kill something, and they do. However: Hunting, yes, often. Butpeople, bad guys, them varmints, not so much. When it comes to the killing associated with thecowboy (or gangsta, etc.) myth, the gun is a contradictory bundle of restrained potential. It fairly humswith the power for dealing death and the realization that you’d better not do that. This country surelyhas more gun violence than is tolerable, but as a percentage of guns available for carnage, it’s notwhat it could be. For all the violence in the media, and in particular for people linked to the gun cultureat gun shows, these instruments of death that are found everywhere hardly ever deal death althoughthat’s their main purpose.

A second, related paradox is that gun culture, in particular as found at gun shows, is both performativeand simulational. By performative, I mean people are projecting an image. It may be a true image, butit’s a carefully crafted image, just as the manager of an office may perform a managerial role. If youget up and put on certain kinds of clothing to project an image, if you walk and talk in a certain way, if


you groom yourself in predictable ways, then you are performing an identity, even if that identity reallyis “you.” And by simulational, I mean that much of the performance of gun culture is sort of like a videogame in that it isn’t “real.” It’s a simulation. You may be performing a cowboy, but odds are that youare not really a cowboy. This loops back to the idea that guns are deadly serious instruments of deathbut hardly ever used for that purpose on other people. The gun enthusiast who collects six-shootersand cowboy coach shotguns will never face down Wild Bill in the street, but be assured that a fantasyof doing so plays through that person’s head regularly. The doomsday prepper who arms for thezombie apocalypse will likely never experience that catastrophe but nevertheless invests a lot ofthought and emotion in planning and mentally rehearsing for it. These fantasies make gun ownershiphighly simulational. We have the expression, “All hat and no cattle” to describe this widespreadsimulation.

Put these observations together with my claim that gun culture is working class, and we see strongparallels between that class position and gun culture. Working-class people are likely to experiencelife in terms of frustrated potential, the first gun paradox I discussed above. Many of the working classthink with good reason that they could have been contenders, but circumstance and class restrictionsprevented them from doing that. And when these working-class people go to gun shows, where theymay display their tail feathers for their kind to see, it is the working class that they perform. This is trueno matter how much they may have in the bank, and so often the performance of the working-classstatus is simulational. To participate in American gun culture, you need to be willing to project somekind of working-class image and perhaps even identity.

Everybody has opportunities to perform the dimensions of their identities that are most important tothem that seem central to who they are or want to be. Think of the gun show, in Texas or elsewhere,as a mini convention for performance and simulation of the cowboy, working-class identity. The oldboys who go there perform their knowledge of guns. If they are veterans, they wear insignia to let youknow that. Jeans, cowboy hats, gimme caps, belts with big buckles, Western shirts, the whole nineyards, you find it here. It would take special circumstances and a hard skin to show up at a gun showin a suit and tie; probably nobody would say anything to you, but you would know you were performingthe “wrong” identity for this occasion. As people perform these cowboy identities, they do so in asimulated environment that is sealed off from the twenty-first century outside. Nowhere else will youfind so many guns, knives, holsters, and scabbards or so much camouflage gear and clothing, militarysurplus, tooled leather, and the like. To enter the gun show is to enter into a simulation that, while youare there, is encompassing. By way of illustration, let me walk you through what you might experienceat the gun show in Texas.

But first, who am I to be walking you through a gun show? I don’t have the knowledge or discipline tosay that I collect guns, but I accumulate them. I have more of them than I can use. I hunt. I was a LifeMember of the NRA until I resigned over what I took to be its racist actions. I have a concealed carrypermit in the state of Texas, and I carry whenever and wherever I legally can. As a youngster, Idreamed of being a cowboy, a fantasy fueled by my father’s origins in the panhandle, and was neverwithout a cap pistol. I am a gun nut. You are in good hands.



I have never been to a gun show in a new, tidy, well-kept facility. Without fail, these shows are inminor, failing local arenas, or in defunct big-box stores and warehouses opened just for the event.Parking lots are fields of broken concrete. In a real sense, this is the lone prairie transferred to thecontext of cities and middle-sized towns (it seems not to be worth the while of gun show operators tohold events in small rural areas, despite the rural resonances of the cowboy image). It is a low-overhead environment entirely in keeping with a working-class sensibility.

Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty Images News/Getty Images

You park your car and walk through the rank-and-file of pickup trucks and utility vehicles. If gun showpatrons own sports cars, Teslas, or hybrids, they don’t drive them to the shows. Many of these truckssport stickers and decals expressing memberships in sports or firearms clubs, conservative politicalopinions, or military experience. You will find a few men—and it’s almost entirely men who come tothe shows—in the parking lot coming to and from the venue, sometimes with sons in tow. Some ofthem carry guns they want to sell into the building; some are coming out with the day’s haul.

People at the gun shows dress in working men’s garb: denim, overhauls, cowboy hats or gimme capsadvertising agricultural or firearms products, belts with enormous detachable buckles, and so forth. Onthe way in, a few take some last pulls from their cigarettes and leave them in the sand buckets by theentrance. Signs generally forbid even legal concealed carry, likely for insurance reasons since theclientele are surely offended by such notices. If there is an election pending, there will be campaignsigns here and there as you enter.

You walk in and pay your fee, usually around five dollars or a little higher, and get your hand stampedas proof that you have paid so you can get back in if you leave the building temporarily. A tablenearby is manned by police officers who are inspecting guns that people bring in, usually for sale ortrade, to make sure they are not loaded. Here and there other police officers stand by, friendly and


watchful—they seem not to be expecting any trouble.

And so you are in, and the world of the gun show lies before you like the pleasant land ofCounterpane. Tables displaying goods for sale are laid out in long blocks stretching nearly the lengthof the hall. To work a gun show systematically, you start on one side and walk up and down betweenthe blocks. Vendors sit in folding chairs within these blocks. They are there for the long haul and havebrought coolers, boxes, and cases for selling their wares. Many have dogs. These vendors form acommunity within the community of the gun show. Most are friendly with one another; most will watchanother’s table if someone needs to go to the bathroom. They have paid a modest fee for the right torent tables, usually for two days. Many of these men have wives or daughters with them, but it ispredominantly a male group of vendors. If you ask a question of a woman, she may call to the man incharge. She is there mainly to take money and make sure nothing gets stolen.

Many of these vendors are federally licensed dealers. Some are ordinary citizens who may sell theirguns legally so long as they are not making a living at it. (That may change by the time you read this,as legislators discuss the wisdom of such laws.) Thus, you will find the fellow who is retiring ordownsizing a collection or moving house, and wants to shed some guns, knives, gunleather, oddlyassorted ammunition, knives, and such. The licensed dealers must follow all the rules any otherdealer does, including requiring firearms buyers to fill out federal forms and wait while the informationis phoned in to Washington. A private individual is not bound by these rules and may sell to anyone hethinks could otherwise legally buy a gun—but this assumption is never really checked on. This is theso-called gun show loophole, which is a misnomer. You may go next door in most states and buy agun from your neighbor without having to pass a background check so long as your neighbor is not alicensed dealer. All a gun show does is bring together such private individuals for greater convenienceof sale. It is in that sense a market but not a black market. The gun show is thus a mishmash ofauthority and legal constraint and individual citizen action on the edge of the law. In that sense, itsomewhat resembles the Wild West.

Most of the tables at a gun show display—who knew?—guns. But many of them display knives, somemixed in with guns. There are some larger knife dealers with extensive displays of only knives,machetes, and so forth. There will be several tables displaying military surplus clothing andequipment: boots, jackets, vests. Some tables will have trays of surgical equipment, no doubt for saleto doomsday preppers equipping themselves for amateur bullet extractions. Some tables will sellholsters of leather or synthetic fabric for pistols or long guns. Some of these will sell bandoliers forcarrying lots of readily available ammunition across the chest or in belts. A few vendors will sell booksof militaria, cowboy history, gun lore, and so forth. Perhaps the most marginal of the vendors stilllinked to gun culture per se are those who sell bumper stickers and posters, all of them of aconservative bent—castigating President Obama, declaring an intention to shoot trespassers, and soforth.

A feature of every gun show I’ve ever seen, which I can’t claim to comprehend fully, is the presence ofdistinctly non-gun vendors. Someone is usually selling roasted nuts or candy, jams, meat jerky,homemade honey, and such. Reliably you can find at least one vendor offering porcelain figures orwomen’s jewelry, and a more out-of-place commodity for a gun show can scarcely be imagined. Arethese gifts to take home to placate a spouse for yet another gun purchase? Are they an echo of thecivilizing touch the schoolmarm brought to the frontier town? Your guess is as good as mine, but theconsistency with which you find these unicorn vendors is remarkable.

The aisles between the blocks of tables are packed tight with gun enthusiasts threading their wayslowly past the displays. This is no stroll through luxurious surroundings; it is more like the crowdedsaloons of the Westerns to which the dusty cowboy goes after a season in the wide-open spaces.Gun people are fond of repeating the old chestnut that an armed society is a polite society. We hope itis true, at any rate, but some attention to manners is required as one winds through these tightspaces. Every now and then passage must be created for a man in a wheelchair, maybe a veteranfacing long recovery from wounds. One constantly begs pardon for the inevitable jostling needed toprogress through the crowd. This physical proximity to others reinforces a sense that there is nothingfancy about those in attendance. You will never smell cologne. You will from time to time get a whiff ofbody odor or clothing that has been worn to work in. You will physically encounter people up closeand personally.

If manners are expected to be performed while squeezing through the aisles, a more rigid code of


conduct is in force for interaction with the vendors selling merchandise, specifically those selling guns.Sometimes these rules are expressed in signs that are posted; more often they are just commonlyunderstood. Chief among them is that one should ask permission of the vendor to pick up a gun ondisplay. Vendors selling guns, especially the licensed dealers, will have scores of pistols, rifles, andshotguns on display, sitting in boxes if new, sitting out on the table if used. It is considered a bad formto simply pick up a gun and examine it. Sometimes it’s not physically possible to do so because asecurity cable will be running through many of the guns and must be disconnected before anexamination is even possible. One may be reprimanded if one forgets to follow this rule.

If the dominant performance of gun culture is working class, then it is white working class. That is byfar the overwhelming demographic of the shows. Occasionally one will see an African-Americanperson or Asian person. In Texas, one will see Latino people not infrequently, but still not in proportionto their share of the state’s population. This demographic fact is consistent with the cowboy myth if notthe cowboy reality. In fact, many historical cowboys were African-American or of Mexican heritage buttry to find those groups represented in classic Western movies. It’s all white cowboys and their deadlyenemies, the Native Americans, with the occasional tragic half-breed to spice up the plot line. I havenever seen outright racism or microaggressions at a gun show, but the performative message isstrong that this is a white-dominated culture.

The buzz of conversation at the shows is in earnest. Accents are Southern or Southwestern in Texas.Even in the North, accents will never be perceived to be upper class. The vocabulary choice also isworking class, simple and straightforward. I don’t at all mean to imply that people at the shows areunlearned; I am friends with a Mensa member and organization officer who frequents the shows andpoints out to me vendors from that group. It’s that people express themselves plainly and simply. Youwill hear snippets of hunting stories as you walk along. Some buyers or vendors may be discussinghunting dogs they are training, selling, or buying. A few are growling out conservative political views,which is consistent with the bumper stickers and posters available at some tables, which dish up a fairbit of vitriol toward Presidents Obama and Biden, the United Nations, Michael Bloomberg, and thelike. They love Donald Trump beyond all telling. These are good ol’ boys, and they talk like that.

When you do hear a specialized talk with technical vocabulary, it will be in discussions of the gunsthemselves. Most of the men here, whether show patrons or vendors, have some kind of specializedknowledge of history, firearms, or ammunition. It is genuine knowledge, carefully assembled from alifetime of experience and learning about the subject. You will hear historical stories of particular guns,of notable feats of marksmanship, of the use of certain guns in war or law enforcement or on thefrontier, and so forth. You will hear the technical merits of different guns and cartridges discussed inexquisite detail. Some of this talk is the performance of expertise and knowledge, a display of masterywithin a very specific field of knowledge. Here, the old and middle-aged are generally in their glory,drawing on lifetimes of experience and learning to create performances of expertise.

The gun show is an escape from restrictions and conformities of big business, in many ways. If onegoes to a brick-and-mortar store for firearms, the selection is inherently limited. Most such stores willbe stocking dealers for the big names in firearms manufacturing: Ruger, Browning, Glock, and thelike. There may be many varieties of guns offered, but they will all be what is current and newlyavailable on the market. Gun shows, on the other hand, draw private individuals who have combedthrough their closets to find old, strange, discontinued guns, obsolete cartridges, and so forth. The“kitchen table” licensed dealers who show up are always doing business on a much smaller scale thanare their brethren in the big-box stores, and so they must supplement their stock in trade with a widerange of used guns taken in trade or purchased used from customers. In fact, you can always findcustomers walking the floor who are selling their own guns, and they wear signs advertising the fact.What this means is that the odd, strange, wonderful, and even legendary in guns, cartridges, and gearmay be found at a gun show much more commonly than at a regular store. You will simply notpredictably find an old Colt Peacemaker revolver in a regular store, but you can at a gun show. Youwill find obscure guns brought back from the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, or theKorean or Vietnamese wars, and you will be able to talk to the veteran who brought them back—butyou can’t do that at a regular store. The gun show is, therefore, a site of the unique, the individual, thestoried. To reference a distinction made by Walter Benjamin, you will find guns that began asmechanical reproductions but have through age and history and association become nearly uniqueworks of art (Illuminations). The gun show is a kind of museum, an archive, of individuality anduniqueness that I think can speak very strongly to the working-class individual who dreams of ridingfree through the Western wilds. It is a kind of escape from the regulation and repetitive drudgery of


most workplaces today.



If I attend a gun show with someone I know personally from other contexts, I am always impressedwith how that person and I manage to conform ourselves so as to belong to the crowd. Whether or notone is “fronting,” though, I claim that the gun show is perhaps the most simulational and performativefocused site in the country. A parallel example might be the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, SouthDakota, in which all manner of uppermiddle-class professionals perform outlaw motorcycleness alonewith the “real” outlaw motorcycles. That is performative and simulational. But, for the most part, thegun culture crowd is always performative and simulational because those firearms are so rarely pulledout and used.

We may then think of the gun show as a great site of yearning: yearning to be a cowboy, a Texan, arude mechanic, or a member of the working class. People yearn to master the power and violence ofthe gun. They yearn to fling defiance in the face of authority. Yet none of this really happens at thegun show. It is highly performative and bound within the parameters of a simulation, much likeHelmglot’s apocryphal porpoise (Brummett et al.). It is a place where grownups can go to exercisetheir imaginations, but imaginations only.

Perhaps in some way this truth informs us of other dimensions of Texan culture. Much of what we dowhen we barbecue, ride pickups, wear the cowboy gear, pile our hair up like beehives, is a yearningfor an identity that is hard if not impossible to actually achieve. The fatuous threats and hints thatTexas may secede and become its own republic again are understood even in Texas to be so muchhot air. This is Texas: We have our dreams, and they are strong ones, but the dreams do not alwayssurvive the morning light.



Columbia Pictures/Photofest COPYRIGHT_NOTICE: © Columbia Pictures

1 Source: The World and How We Describe It, Barry Brummett. Copyright © 2003. Reproduced withpermission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.



8.1 Explain what is meant by the word simulational in relation to culture

8.2 Identify the simulational elements of the movie Groundhog Day

When we discussed techniques of culture-centered criticism, we learned that any particular scheme ofanalysis uses only a partial list of the characteristics of a culture. Earlier in this book, we also learnedthat cultures are complex and overlapping and may be defined in different ways. In this chapter, weconsider culture in a very broad sense that is nevertheless historically specific. Industrialized cultureswith capitalist economies that have a heavy dependence on electronic media for entertainment—cultures such as those in the United States, Western Europe, Japan—share a significantcharacteristic, and that is that they are increasingly simulational. The simulational nature of suchcultures, including the broad, national culture in the United States, affects how texts are understoodand the impact they have. In fact, it is as a component of capitalist cultures today that simulation hasbecome so powerful. Simulations are integral to these cultures.



What do we mean by the simulational (Brummett, The World)? A simulation is an experience that isself-contained, referring mainly to itself. The classic case of a simulation would be a video game. Toplay a video game, you must enter the world of the game. There you will see many signs that havesome sort of reference to objects, ideas, stories, and so forth outside the simulation, but the mainpurpose of these signs is not to tell you something about what is happening in that “real world.” Youmay see a sword in a simulation, for example, and know that the image of the sword represents thatcutting instrument in the real world. But the sight of a sword in a simulation is meant to be taken onlyon its own terms within the context of the game. Nobody assumes that it has reference to some realsword someplace and that you are receiving information about that sword.

A video game is a world unto itself into which we enter when we play it. When we are done, we turnthe game off and it goes away. Anything that happens in the game stays within that little world. Thatsealed, self-referential nature of an experience is key to simulations. Because a self-contained worldmay be repeated over and over, the ability to make copies of an experience is also key to simulations.Hitting the reset button on a video game gives you a copy, if not of the same events then of the samelittle world. You may have that same world over and over again as often as you wish.

A number of observers (Brummett, The World) have argued that a key characteristic of industrializedcultures, including that of the United States, is that they are becoming increasingly simulational. Forinstance, the enormous preoccupation with sports that one finds in so many countries today remindsus that a given game has to do with very little outside the game itself. Sports itself is highly political,but the games themselves are relatively simulational. What happens on the field or in the arena staysthere and “goes away” once the game is over. Clearly, spectator sports are highly simulational today.People who live their lives for sports may thus be said to spend a lot of time in a simulational world.And to the extent that a whole culture is preoccupied with sports (Super Bowl, anyone?), we may saythat simulation is becoming a cultural characteristic. Let us recall that although our fourth chapterfocused on culture-centered criticism in terms of racial categories (e.g., Vietnamese culture), cultureneed not be seen as defined exclusively by race or color.

Similarly, a lot of leisure environments are created these days that are little worlds unto themselves.Theme parks, water parks, amusement parks, even shopping malls are environments we enter andenjoy while we are there, but they have little connection elsewhere and outside. Inside thesimulational environment, little else matters. When we are done, we leave the world with fewconsequences. The ability to have roughly the same experience reliably, as copies, is a big part of theappeal of these simulational environments.

A society that is engrossed in entertainment generally may be said to be simulational. Think of theencompassing nature of movies, for instance, with lavish special effects and surround-sound systems.A little world is created into which we enter, and whatever happens in the theater has very little effectonce the film is done. And if you go see the movie again, you will see an exact copy of the experience,which is simulational. In short, we live increasingly in simulational environments. Film, in general, getsmore simulational as its technological excellence increases. We are only a few years away from theStar Trek holodeck.

This chapter studies a film that rhetorically critiques the simulational nature of culture today, and thuswe need to look at it with an understanding of that cultural characteristic. As it makes that critique, italso has some things to say about how women are regarded, and especially how women might beregarded within a simulational culture. The movie studied, Groundhog Day (Ramis), is not a new one,but it is evergreen and well worth watching if one has not seen it. References to the movie stillcirculate. If you are in an endless, repetitive meeting, you might email a colleague and call it aGroundhog Day meeting, and she will know exactly what you mean. If you want to suggest that yourlife is merely going in circles, you crack the joke that “I’ve Got You Babe” wakes you up on the radioevery morning. People will know what you mean. This chapter, thus, combines culture-centered andfeminist techniques of rhetorical analysis to study the message this film brings us about oursimulational world. From a feminist point of view, the film offers female empowerment as an antidoteto an obsession with simulation.



Clouds roll across the sky, taking shapes in which one can see dogs, elephants, or what you will.Clouds are among the earliest venues of simulation for us, pictures that are not pictures, shapes thatmorph into other shapes. These instruments of fantasy stream by in fast motion, animated bycinematic technology.

What better way to begin Groundhog Day, a film that depicts and critiques the never-ending loop of alife into which a self-centered denizen of postmodern culture has magically fallen. This film suggeststhat many of us are Narcissus and in danger of falling into that pool. Using the rhetoric of simulation(although never using that term), the film is a metaphor for a life of social disconnection and self-absorption. A simulational culture is built upon, and builds, the simulational self, the film tells us, anduntil we can break out of that self-referential loop, we are doomed to the same old, same old everyday.

Pittsburgh television weatherman Phil Connors makes clouds his business. We find him doing aweathercast with animated gestures in front of a totally blank blue screen. His demeanor suggests afascination with high-pressure systems and a comradely bonhomie that seasoned televisionaudiences have been taught to wink at. He stands in profile and talks about things that the audience,in reality, cannot see. It is not until the film screen fills with another smaller screen, that of a television,that we see the technologically created fantasy in which he works. A map of Pennsylvania appearswhere once we saw only blue, and it is busy with moving weather symbols. Connors mimes blowing,and clouds move in response across a map of the Northeastern region, an approaching storm inmicrocosm. An icon for a cold front appears, which he refers to as “one of those big blue things.” Philknows he is in a fantasy world. It doesn’t matter to him, nor to us, for we are used to this simulation,we understand this world and its larger context: “Coming up next: sex and violence in the movies,”says the news anchor. The media report on the media. This “news” will be no more real than theclouds.

The anchor reveals that Phil and a technical crew will travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the nextday, Groundhog Day, to report on the annual emergence of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog ofGroundhog Day. Phil has done this several times, he tells the producer, Rita, and a hint of leadendesperation is clear in his voice. He has a running start on the repeating loop that the next day willbecome—and we may recall that endless, closed repetition is a characteristic of simulation. Phil willwake up the day after Groundhog Day and discover that it is still Groundhog Day—and similarly theday after and the day after. That is the whole premise of the movie: how do we live a day—a life—thatis a never-ending copy? It is a question that a culture might face that is becoming deeply entrenchedin simulations.



Off camera, Phil’s good humor dissipates like a cloud, showing him to be bad-tempered, ironic, andcruel. He is especially and pointedly cruel toward women in this film. An important part of the rhetoricof this film is to link denigration of women with a simulational environment. As long as Phil lives asimulational life, taking nothing seriously, a major symptom of his malaise is that he does not takewomen seriously either.

Examples of Phil’s bad humor, especially toward females, abound. He insults the anchorwoman.Phil’s assistant weatherman promises him “excitement” in his trip to Punxsutawney, especially sincehe will be going with Rita, a new producer at the station: “You guys are gonna have fun,” the assistantsays, to which Phil sarcastically replies, “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun. I won’t be there for fun.”Whether he has fun or not, the valorization of entertainment as the main issue in anticipating their tripis characteristic of a world of simulation, and it is linked to the insulting of women.

Phil and his crew pile into a high-tech van loaded with the latest equipment. Simulation often dependson today’s advanced technology, and they have plenty of it—they are an ark of simulation. On theway, Phil complains bitterly about their assignment and says, “Someday somebody will see meinterviewing the groundhog and think I don’t have a future.” That, of course, is precisely what willhappen; Phil’s confrontation with the groundhog will bend time from a straight march into the future toa circle turning back upon itself. Besides being a closed loop, a simulation is endless repetition, andso are both the annual emergence of the groundhog and Phil’s pilgrimage to cover the event. Thetechnician in the van fondly recalls earlier assignments in which he covered the yearly return of theswallows to Capistrano, which he compares to the groundhog’s yearly emergence. A template ofendless return has been established, and Phil is going to join it.

Who is this Phil Connors, weatherman, who is heading toward a day that will cycle and recycle forwhat may well be decades, even centuries? He is the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, who comesback year after year. Punxsutawney Phil is, of course, a fantasy, a simulation. He is the “same”groundhog, and has been the same groundhog, for decades as well. The occasional deaths of thereal material groundhogs involved are irrelevant. There is no Phil IV, Phil V, or Phil XXIII. Every year,the reset button is hit on this particular video game, and the simulational rodent emerges from his den.This fate is awaiting Phil Connors. In case the film’s audience doesn’t get this equation, on the firstday of repetition Rita will call a bewildered Phil by name, which prompts the response by two localmen nearby, “Phil?! Like the groundhog Phil?” Another sign that Phil is the groundhog is that on thefirst, “real” Groundhog Day, as the officials prepare to open Phil’s den, the film audience can barelyhear the crowd chant “Phil! Phil! Phil!” But the next day, the first day of the repetition, the film audiencehears that chant much louder—for now the crowd in the movie is calling to Phil doubled, man androdent merged.

The Phil Connors, who is about to enter the loop, is a thoroughly unpleasant person. He is completelyself-absorbed. All his conversation is about himself, his career, his prospects in life. He cares little forothers and insults people habitually, carelessly. If he approaches women, it is for his personalgratification. His exploitive stance toward women is clearly linked to his heedlessness ofconsequences generally. The dominant trope in his life is irony, which detaches and distances himfrom others. This is the kind of life the film comments upon. Showing the dangers of such a life is thepoint toward which this critique of simulation is directed. Groundhog Day will depict self-absorption assimulation, and simulation as bad. It will connect both self-absorption and simulation with themistreatment of women. It is only as Phil learns to turn out of himself that he escapes the cycle at theend.

Comes the dawn of Groundhog Day, and the camera shows the digital clock at Phil’s bedside clickover to 6:00 A.M. “I’ve Got You Babe” swells up from the radio, and two jolly, chatty radio deejaysbanter about the day and the weather. We are seeing the props for the temporary eternity that Phil willspend here, and intimations of an endless cycle emerge early: “It’s cold out there,” says oneannouncer, to which his partner replies, “It’s cold every day; what is this, Miami Beach?”

Phil, lodged in a large bed-and-breakfast, goes downstairs to eat. Mrs. Lancaster, the kindly oldlandlady, says, “There’s talk of a blizzard.” Phil goes right into his television act, standing at rightangles to an imaginary screen and gesturing, running through his spiel, the gist of which is to deny


that there will be a blizzard. It is a telling act, for it highlights both the technological and simulationalnature of Phil’s professional life and the disconnection that his constantly ironic demeanor brings tohis life. He is mocking the bewildered Mrs. Lancaster’s well-meant social comment on the weather,but her polite comment will turn out to be more true than his mockery. Refusing that social connection,he then asks her if she really wanted to talk about the weather. She asks if he is departing that day,and he replies within the frame of his television discourse to tell her the chances are one hundredpercent, as if giving a prediction of rain. We see the link between an age of simulation and an age ofirony in the distance, both create from real connection with others.

As Phil begins to move through the day, we encounter more of the pieces of the scene in which he willbe trapped. Insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, who knew Phil in high school, accosts him on thestreet. Phil’s first and instinctual response is to assume that people relate to him not at a personallevel but in terms of his fame within the simulational world of television: “Thanks for watching,” hetosses out and keeps on walking. Ned will not be put off and begins ticking off reasons why Philshould remember him, punctuating each reason with “Bing!” Ned, like many members of the televisionpublic, like the film’s audience, is so accustomed to living within a simulational world of special effectsand video that he must provide sound effects for his discourse.

Arriving at the scene of the groundhog’s emergence, Rita greets Phil with, “This is fun!” expressing adominant value of simulation. Phil is rude to all and sundry. He behaves himself on camera: “Once ayear, the eyes of the nation turn to this tiny hamlet in western Pennsylvania to watch a master atwork”—as if it were the same groundhog, over and over, year after year. And off camera Phil theweatherman grumpily expresses that very sentiment: “Then it’s the same old shtick every year.” Backon camera, he lapses into his habitual, detached, ironic mode: “This is one time when television failsto capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

The high-technology van heads back to Pittsburgh, but the scene quickly grows colder and snowier asthey proceed. Eventually they are stopped just outside of town by state troopers who tell them that theroad is closed and they must return to Punxsutawney. “Haven’t you listened to the weather?” asks theofficer. An outraged Phil replies, “I make the weather!” and once again goes into his on-camera act,gesturing at a nonexistent weather map and predicting that the storm will blow over, despite the factthat he is shaking with cold and dusted with the falling snow. He simply cannot escape what is clearlyprofessional engrossment in a simulation, disconnected from the real blizzard that rages around them.Back in town at a gas station telephone, Phil gradually gets closed off from any outside reality: “Comeon—all the long-distance lines are down? What about the satellite? Is it snowing in space?”Technology cannot free him from the closed world he is entering, nor can his manufactured celebrity.Pleading that the phone company must keep some lines open for celebrities and emergencies, hedeclares, “I’m a celebrity in an emergency.”

At this point, a passerby with a snow shovel whacks Phil on the head; is this his entry into simulation?Is this the window blowing in on him that will send him to Oz? The film never says, and there is nevera point of awakening from a coma late in the film that would bracket the endless cycle of GroundhogDays as a hallucination. The film gives a nod to this standard cinematic/televisual convention ofputting a character into a simulation but refuses to separate that entrance into fantasy from everydayexperience. In this way the experiences of Phil Connors that are about to unfold become acommentary on all our everyday experiences and a warning to be alert for their simulational dangers.Back at his bed-and-breakfast, a grumpy and ironic Phil is last seen heading for his room after a coldshower—which should have awakened him from unconsciousness if anything could.

Comes the dawn and the bedside clock is seen ticking over to 6:00 A.M. “I’ve Got You Babe” awakensPhil. Is the song speaking to his childish ego now? “They say we’re young and we don’t know, won’tfind out until we grow.” He notices the similarity in this morning’s radio patter to yesterday’s andexpresses it in technological terms: “Hey, storm boys, you’re playing yesterday’s tape.” He clearlydoesn’t think much of their dramatic inventiveness. Phil anticipates their lines already and calls themout: “chapped lips!” But he soon starts to recognize the scenes he sees as yesterday’s experience:“What the hell?” he cries upon seeing a snowless street from his window. “Didn’t we do thisyesterday… what day is this?” he asks a man on the stairs whom he encountered the day before. Mrs.Lancaster asks him the same questions and makes the same comment on the weather. In reply heasks, “Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?” On the first, real Groundhog Day, he had told herthat his “chances for departure” were one hundred percent. Today he is not so sure and responds toher query about his plans by downgrading it to eighty percent.


As he moves toward the broadcast site of the groundhog’s home, he meets the same people—a bum,Ned Ryerson—and he steps in the same puddle of water. He tells Rita, “Something’s going on; I don’tknow what to do.” Rita asks, “Are you drunk or something?” Phil replies, invoking The Main Value ofsimulation, “Drunk’s more fun…. I’m having a problem—I may be having a problem.” His on-cameramonologue begins more tentatively, with dawning awareness of his fate: “Well, it’s Groundhog Day…again.” The film quickly cuts to Phil back in his room that evening, still trying to phone out and beingtold that service will be restored tomorrow. “Well, what if there’s no tomorrow?” he replies. “Therewasn’t one today.” Any character in a video game might say the same.

The bitter truth is made clear to Phil as he awakes the next morning to the same day. Arriving at thegroundhog site, Rita tells him, “You’ve got work to do.” “No, I don’t,” he replies, “I’ve done it twicealready.” He tries to explain the situation to Rita later in a restaurant: “Rita, I’m reliving the same dayover and over. Groundhog Day. Today.” Nobody understands him. He goes to a psychologist whosays, “I think we should meet again. How’s tomorrow for you?”

This day will be pivotal in Phil’s understanding of his simulational circumstances. Later, drinking in abowling alley with Gus and Ralph, two down-and-out locals, Phil recalls an idyllic day he once spent inthe Virgin Islands with a beautiful woman. “That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that dayover and over?” His stance toward his recurring day, just like his stance toward life, is entirely selfishand hedonistic. Fun is the only value by which he judges life. Phil poses a question to his drinkingbuddies: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same andnothing that you did mattered?” Ralph burps, stares into the middle distance, and says, “That sums itup for me.” It sums it up for many in the film’s audience as well, who may be as detached, self-absorbed, and caught in a pointless loop as is Phil.

The conversation leads Phil to pose what may be the key question for the whole movie to thesefriendly philosophers: “What if there were no tomorrow?” One of his new friends gives the key answer:“No tomorrow… that would mean there would be no consequences, there would be no hangovers, wecould do whatever we wanted.” And one truth about what simulation really means dawns on Phil:“That’s true, we could do whatever we wanted.” Before long, he takes a first step in exploring thishypothesis by leading the local police on a merry, drunken chase in Ralph’s car.

Why should a simulation appeal to people? Why would it be “fun” to live in a world withoutconsequences, in which pushing the reset button or waiting for 6:00 A.M. makes all things new? Whatprompts the film’s audience to escape real life and sit for two hours in a simulation? Careening aroundtown in Ralph’s car, Phil articulates a vision of control and order from which one might well flee intosimulation’s total freedom: “It’s the same thing your whole life: clean up your room, stand up straight,pick up your feet, take it like a man, be nice to your sister.” He runs the car onto the railroad tracks,police in hot pursuit. “I’m not gonna live by their rules anymore! You make choices and you live withthem”—and in this last assertion he must be referring to real life because as he will discover, youmake choices in simulation and you need not live with them at all. Swerving off the tracks in front of anoncoming train, Phil knocks over a giant plywood groundhog on his way to crashing into some parkedcars. If he is the groundhog, he has knocked any firm foundation out from under himself in hisdecision to live life without rules and consequences. He enters simulation in spirit as well as in fact.The police descend upon Phil and his friends, and his stance is still ironic: he orders hamburgers as ifthe officer were a waiter. Predictably, control and order reassert themselves. The final scene of thisday is of a forlorn, doubting Phil behind iron bars.

But he awakens the next day to an awareness that his recklessness of the night before indeed has noconsequences. “Yes!” he cries, pumping his arms as he springs out of bed and launches into a day ofpure piggish indulgence, which at a spiritual level is exactly what he has been doing all his “real” life.The obnoxious insurance salesman, Ned Ryerson, gets punched out cold. We see no evidence at allthat Phil showed up to give his on-camera monologue. He sits in a café behind a table groaning withpiles of fattening, greasy food and tells an astonished Rita, “I don’t worry about anything anymore.” Hebegins a recurring pattern of asking women for information about themselves that he can use the“next day” to make it seem as if they have some connection from the past—all this in aid of seducingthem. His only approach to relationships with others, given his new freedom, is selfish andmanipulative.

A pattern begins in which Rita, the female lead in the film, becomes his sounding board for histroubles. Several times he will try to persuade her of the impossible situation in which he finds himself.


Later in the film he will devote all his days to seducing her. The film positions the female in theempowered position of being able to validate his experience. It is only toward the end of the movie asPhil moves from attempts to control women to a more equal and loving relationship that Rita comes tobelieve him. It is that equality that will save him. The film thus positions authentic relationships withwomen as an antidote to a simulational obsession. In this way, the film not only questions the culture’ssimulational obsession but offers a reexamination of attitudes toward women as a way to overcomethat obsession.


The next day Phil puts his plans for seduction and exploitation of women to work, approaching awoman (Nancy) as if he knows her. He uses the information he got the day before to act as if theywere in high school together. His strategies work. But we see his real desire; as they tumble about onthe sofa, he calls her Rita both before and after he offers up this lie: “Nancy, I love you. I’ve alwaysloved you.” When he does make human connection, it is with the “wrong” person.

So for a while we pursue this rake’s progress, beginning with the alarm at 6:00 A.M. every morning.The film never indicates that Phil dreams. Instead, he seems called from a sound sleep intowakefulness. But perhaps by beginning each new/old day by pulling Phil from sleep, the film presentsits action precisely as if it were a dream; it is only on the last day that 6:00 brings a true awakening.

The film ceases to document each specific day’s pattern of recurrence (for he will be here for yearsand years) and instead points to the fruits of his piggish labors: he robs an armored car because hehas had days to study its patterns and pick the right moment of lapse in security. With the proceedsfrom this theft, he plunges even deeper into simulational fantasies: he buys a Rolls Royce andemerges from it dressed as, and imitating, a Clint Eastwood cowboy character, with an attractivewoman in tow. Phil is playing out other simulational fantasies within his simulation, and perhaps theaudience envies him. He is in a cycle of complete self-absorption and indulgence, which is the fate of


those in simulations, the film would seem to say.

Turning his attentions to the real object of his desire, he asks Rita, “Rita, if you only had one day tolive, what would you do?” She doesn’t know how to respond, so he asks her an important question:“So what do you want out of life, anyway?” It is a question he needs to ask himself since a never-ending life is all he has, but he is squandering this opportunity and pursuing personal gratification andsexual seduction instead. He is seeking information about her personal preferences and longings ashe did with Nancy and will use them in an attempt to get Rita into bed. The film continues to showPhil’s dependence on women for wisdom and understanding, yet his inevitable failure to attain wisdomand understanding as long as he exploits women.

We begin to see one iteration after another of Phil’s ever more manipulative strategies with Rita. Hetakes her to a bar and discovers her favorite drink, and so we see the same scene the next day inwhich he surprises her with ordering her favorite drink but then he must discover her favorite toast,which he offers up the next day—and on and on. The audience, as is Phil, is treated to one copy afteranother of the same scene, each one altered only slightly as he attempts to get it right. We seecalculating looks in Phil’s eye as he salts away one new revelation after another about what willplease and seduce Rita, to be used the “next day.” At one point, ironically, Rita asks Phil, “There issomething so familiar about all this. Do you ever have déjà vu?” Is the power of his simulation leakingover into her real life? Ever distanced by irony, Phil replies, “Didn’t you just ask me that?” When, backin his room, she says that she should go, he applies to her the standards of his own life: “Where wouldyou go? Why?” But sooner or later she detects his strategy every day and in each repetition: “Is thiswhat love is for you?” Phil relies on a false rhetoric of reality: “No, this is real, this is love.” Rita replieswith the main truth: “Stop saying that! You must be crazy. I could never love anyone like you, Phil,because you’ll never love anyone but yourself.” We are shown a long, long series of failures for Phil toachieve his goal of seduction, metonymized by a quick series of slaps she gives him at the end ofeach day. Rita has named the very problem that keeps Phil in a simulational loop and that may welltrap a narcissistic audience as well: he loves only himself. An important way in which that ismanifested is in his exploitation of women. The simulational closed loop of self-centeredness is clearto Rita, but it may be something experienced by many in the audience as well, and the film warns usof its consequences.

What would count as success for Phil in his pursuit of Rita? Even sexual triumph would not be thelove, the personal connection, that would spring him from his prison. The burden of endless repetitionwith no real consequences weighs heavily on Phil. A close-up of the digital clock’s clicking over to6:00 makes the stroke of that hour seem like a massive wall falling, with appropriate sound effects.Phil looks haggard and desperate. Unable to orient his life to any meaningful purpose and unable toseduce the woman he really wants, he spends his days watching endless television, participating inthe pointless, simulational cycle of recurring shows to which so many in the audience subjectthemselves. Sitting in a forlorn living room with a group of aged pensioners, he appears to know everyanswer to the quiz show Jeopardy—which earns him polite applause.

Anger at his simulational prison begins to take over. He tries smashing the bedside clock to no avail.He gives his on-camera monologue in rage and bitterness, speaking of his own eternal repetition:“There’s no way that this winter is ever going to end. As long as this groundhog keeps seeing hisshadow, I don’t see any other way out.” What is it to see one’s shadow? In the context of thissimulation, it is a preoccupation with the self and the self’s dark representation. Note that the legendholds that if the groundhog sees its shadow, bleak winter will continue for six more weeks. Only if thegroundhog does not see its shadow, is not given a token of itself, and can thus look to other matters inthe world around it, will there be an early spring.

But both Phils are still locked into the eternal contemplation of their shadows, so Phil Connors decidesto take matters into his own hands. “He’s gotta be stopped,” Phil says of Phil, “and I’ve gotta stophim.” Phil kidnaps the groundhog, steals a pickup truck, and leads the police on a chase to a quarryoutside town. Phil Connors is still in the simulational world of fantasy, television, and entertainment,for he tells his victim, “Well, we mustn’t keep our public waiting, huh? It’s show time, Phil”—and drivesinto the quarry’s abyss, plunging into the bottom in a fiery explosion. The rest is silence. But Phil hasonly ended until the tape can be played again. Phil despairs when he awakes, alive, and well andback from the dead, the next morning at 6:00. There follow several ingenious attempts at killinghimself, by electrocution, stepping in front of a truck, and leaping from an upper story. These suicideshave no more consequences than do anything else he has ever done in this simulation.


So Phil tells Rita, “I’m a god… not the God, a god… I’m immortal.” He shows her that he knows eachdetail of what will happen in the café they sit in, who people are, their sexual orientations and lifehistories, who will say what, when a dish will fall, and so forth. He knows her in detail and tells her allabout her own life and hopes. But it all seems like yet another show, an artifice, to Rita: “How are youdoing this?” she asks in wonder, as if viewing a magic trick. Phil replies, “I told you, I wake up everyday right here, right in Punxsutawney, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” They spend the daytogether discussing his plight. Rita has a naïve view of how to see simulation: “Maybe it really ishappiness,” she says tellingly, for who in the film’s simulation-sodden audience would not grasp forthe same irresponsible existence? Who in the film’s audience did not delight at Phil’s ability to stuffhimself without shame or to pursue seduction like a single-minded goat? It seems as if it ought to behappiness, but the film is showing us it is not; it is pointlessness because it is simulational.

Phil begins to feel some genuine closeness to Rita. As they sit companionably on his bed, Phil tries toteach Rita how to toss cards into a hat, and lets it be known that he has spent six months, four or fivehours per day, doing nothing but perfecting this dubious virtue. “Is this what you do with eternity?” sheasks. What else would he do, having tried self-indulgence and death? His greatest sadness, Phil tellsRita, is that she will not remember this day tomorrow, but “it doesn’t make any difference. I’ve killedmyself so many times, I don’t exist anymore.” Rita replies, “Maybe it’s not a curse; just depends onhow you look at it.” It’s an offhand comment, but key. She is inviting him to live his recurring life in away that will break the simulational loop. She prepares to leave, saying it was a nice day. “Maybe if it’snot too boring, we could do it again sometime,” she says, not quite having understood Phil’s situation.But tiredness overtakes her. She falls asleep next to him in bed, but for once he does not try toseduce her. It is an important first step in his recovery. He tells her sleeping form that she is the“kindest, sweetest” person he knows, and he expresses love to her, but she is asleep and does nothear. Awaking suddenly, she asks, “Did you say something?” But he only replies, “Good night.” Philhas come close to breaking away from his self-preoccupation. But the words he has spoken that cantake him out of simulation and into real relationship were spoken to a sleeper, perhaps one in adream; he could not say them to a real person, fully awake.

The next morning he awakes again in the same day, but he has turned a corner. He walks through lifewith a new purpose, keyed to helping others, to reaching out of his loop into the lives of those aroundhim. He gives money to a beggar he has passed thousands of times. He buys his crew coffee andpastries, is helpful and kind to them. He reads literature and takes piano lessons, learns Italian,masters ice sculpture, and is generally pleasant to everyone. We see the new Phil getting better andbetter at his piano lessons and sharing that skill with others.

The hard realities of the actual world begin to draw Phil out. He discovers that the beggar he hashelped is doomed to die in the evening of that day from old age and long dissipation. He pursuesmany strategies to help the man, feeding him and even giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation whenhe finds the man dead in a trash heap. He takes the beggar to a hospital, but nothing helps; the GreatReality is too strong. “Sometimes people just die,” says a nurse, consoling him. “Not today,” Philreplies bitterly, although his resolve is still not enough to save the man. This confrontation with areality beyond himself changes Phil even more. He delivers a stirring, eloquent on-camera monologueon life and winter that draws the entire assembly at the groundhog’s den to gather around him inprofound respect and admiration.

Phil now spends his days helping people, being on the spot to change tires for elderly women in cars,catching children falling from trees, giving the Heimlich maneuver to a man who chokes on steakevery night, and playing the piano for parties. We know he has studied the pattern of the city and itsresidents for a long time so as to know when to be on the spot with a helping hand. Phil’s new way ofliving is entirely selfless, for he cannot benefit from any of his actions. To some extent he is still stuckin a simulational loop, though, for his actions cannot ultimately benefit those he helps, either. The boywill fall from the tree again tomorrow, the tire will go flat, the diner will choke. Phil has not taken thatlast step out of himself to establish true connection with others. His simulational self helps but thenmoves on. He is a hit-and-run philanthropist. He has emerged from his own preoccupations but hasnot yet crossed over deeply into others’ lives. It is clear that he has lived in this limbo for a long time,as he shows mastery of medicine, foreign languages, and arts to a degree that bespeaks decades ormore of study.

Then comes yet another iteration of the dance held on the evening of Groundhog Day, and this timehe dances with Rita as many people come up to thank him and praise him for the help he has


rendered them that day; two of them call him “Dr. Connors.” An astonished Rita asks, “What did youdo today?” To which he replies, “Oh, same old, same old.” A bachelor’s “auction” ensues, and Ritabids all the money she has in her wallet to “buy” Phil. As they leave the hall, Ned Ryerson runs up togush about all the insurance Phil has bought from him. “This is the best day of my life,” he says, andboth Phil and Rita respond, “Me, too.” This particular Groundhog Day has been the best of Phil’s life,for he is finally learning to reach out in real love to others. Phil tells Rita, “No matter what happenstomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now, because I love you.” This time he means hisexpression of love, and she responds, “I’m happy, too.”

The next morning the clock ticks over to 6:00 and “I’ve Got You Babe” comes on as usual. Thedeejays inside the radio are stuck inside that musical loop. But Rita is lying in the bed with Phil! He’sgot her, his Babe. “Something is different,” he says slowly. “Anything different is good. This could bereal [pause] good.” He is right, it is real good, and good because real. He turns to Rita: “You knowwhat today is? Today is tomorrow. It happened. You’re here.” Her being there, the human connectionhe made and maintained, has pulled him over into February 3. Rita says that last night he just fellasleep, even his old plans for seduction were set aside. He asks her, “Is there anything I can do foryou—today?” He is oriented toward another person and her needs now. And what he does for hertoday will be real, it will make a difference. They go out and he says, “It’s so beautiful. Let’s live here.”And then, thinking again: “We’ll rent for starters.”



Groundhog Day enacts a rhetoric of simulation, showing the audience Phil Connors and his life as amirror for so many of us. People today are preoccupied with self and selfish interests, obsessed withentertainment and its technological underpinnings, unable to make real human connection. Thatproblem is particularly highlighted in terms of dysfunctional relationships between men and women.Groundhog Day is this predicament carried to its logical conclusion, a simulational paradise with noconsequences in which total selfish piggishness is possible. But the film uses the most negativemeanings of simulation to advise its audience that such a life, if possible, is not desirable. Nor isselfish exploitation of women by men desirable. The real harm of patriarchy and simulation, it argues,is loss of real human connection through inauthenticity of being, refusal of love, ironic detachment.And for a culture lost in simulation, the film advises a recovery of that connection and authentic being.

Although produced some years ago, the film continues to be popular and is widely available on discand online. Just as its popularity has continued so have issues of simulation and relationshipsbetween men and women continued to be important in American culture. The continuing popularity ofthe film may have to do with its relevance to these issues of enduring importance.




1 Source: “Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small,”by Barry Brummett; originally appeared in Clockwork Rhetoric: The Language and Style ofSteampunk, edited by Barry Brummett, published by University Press of Mississippi, 2014.




9.1 Outline the rhetorical effects Steampunk texts have for different contexts andaudiences

Steampunk is an aesthetic style grounded in the Victorian era or the age of steam. It borrows theclothing of that era, but what is most reliably distinctive is its use of a machine aesthetic based onsteam engines, locomotives, and early electrical machinery: gears, pistons, shafts, wheels, inductionmotors, and so forth. The aesthetic was first articulated in literature during that period in the works ofJules Verne and H. G. Wells. The American West has contributed images to the aesthetic, many ofthem grounded in the revolvers, locomotives, and rifles of the second half of the nineteenth century. Ithas found common aesthetic cause with Goth style among young people. Steampunk images arefound widely in the films of Tim Burton, such as Edward Scissorhands and Coraline, in the film andtelevision series The Wild, Wild West, and in many iterations of the television series Doctor Who. Inmany ways, it imagines what our world might look like if the internal combustion machine had neverbeen invented and instead steam power had been refined over two centuries. Steampunk thus makesuse of public memory through its appropriation of images of the past, but it changes those memoriesin its rhetorical applications.

Steampunk has wide popular appeal, even among people who may not have heard that term. AGoogle search for “Steampunk” generates on average over twenty million entries each time. There isalso a budding scholarship on Steampunk, some examples of which may be found in the onlinejournal Neo-Victorian Studies ( There are several studies on thesubject, including Etienne Barillier’s Steampunk!, Art Donovan’s The Art of Steampunk, JayStrongman’s Steampunk: The Art of Victorian Futurism, and Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers’sThe Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles,Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature. Here, I invite you to think about the rhetorical appeal ofSteampunk. Steampunk is a unique popular culture phenomenon; it is also a unique opportunity forrhetorical criticism. The overall question arises, what rhetorical effects do Steampunk texts have fordifferent contexts and audiences?



In this chapter, we will combine elements of the visual rhetoric and media-centered critical approacheswith a nod to some dramatistic/narrative considerations. A recurring characteristic of Steampunkartifacts is that they often “jump scale” from the original grounding and size of steam engines andrelated machinery, and the process of jumping scale in this particular aesthetic form is usually visual.Often, scale jumping is accomplished either through manipulation of images or through the productionof actual objects whose visual appearance, whether outsized or tiny, is key to the rhetorical effect.

Steampunk is conveyed through images in a highly visual medium. It is meant to be seen. Itspractitioners are very much into cosplay conventions in which they dress up in Victorian trappings offactory or empire with the express purpose of being on display in public. Artists produce highlycolorful, elaborate images of futuristic airships powered by steam, and so forth. Steampunk dependson the creation of visual simulations, that is to say, imaginary worlds in which the viewer can “get lost”in the image, becoming engrossed in terms of the spectacle that is presented. For that reason, in thischapter we focus on the media characteristic of the visual that is the creation of simulations. A highlyvisual medium is designed to pull the viewer in as if she were actually there.

Steampunk imagines the steam engine grown tiny or huge. Michael Nevin Willard has developed theidea of jumping scale as a useful analytical instrument. “Whenever a place is constructed—botharchitecturally and socially—” he explains, “scale is also produced” (466). We see this on many levels:“Scale is open-ended and extends in an indefinite series of nested levels from the smallest scale ofthe body to the largest scale of the global” (466). Scale has rhetorical power, as those in positions ofpower, in designing public and private spaces, “produce scale that limits the extent of [thedisempowered’s] social activity and everyday life” (466). Therefore, to jump scale can be a way tochallenge the social, physical, geographic arrangements made by people and institutions in power.Jumping scale is a way to claim a different identity and a different social organization from that whichhegemonic power has assigned:

Jumping scale is a process of circulating images of self and community that can be castbroadly to the rest of the social hierarchy. This is the basis for the production of larger scalesthat insure continued inclusion in, and ability to shape, urban spaces. (Willard 467)

Willard’s specific concern is with urban skateboarders, who refuse the scale that urban planners haveassigned to their activities and may be found skating in a wider, expanded space, in places forbiddento them.

Beyond the example of skateboarders, one can see jumping scale as a way to claim an identity andsocial construction, sometimes by the empowered and sometimes by the disempowered. The hugewriting of graffiti in public spaces, beyond the scale of the human body writing on paper or a computer,jumps scale. The political leader who constructs enormous statues of himself, who speaks in halls andon podiums far larger than needed for the human frame, has jumped scale. The typical consumerdelights in the arc of electronics development that produces telephones and computers and so forththat are by now so much smaller than their originals that they have practically jumped scale.

We see many examples of jumping scale in Steampunk. An eBay search for “Steampunk wristwatch,”for instance, generates quite a few collections of tiny, used watch mechanisms and parts, evidently foruse in making jewelry such as cufflinks (also for sale on eBay, or on Etsy). The watches themselvesare made with tiny (often fake or nonfunctional) tubes, hinges, cogs, and other apparatuses copiedfrom the era of enormous steam machinery. Such a search also reveals “skeleton” watches in whichgears, levers, and springs that one may find on a much larger scale in steam engines are visible asthe clockworks of these watches. On the other side of jumping scale, the aesthetic of a geared engineblown to enormous proportions may be found in the eponymous film Howl’s Moving Castle. The filmfeatures a steam-powered machine that is as large as a castle. The Corliss Engine for the CentennialExhibition in Philadelphia of 1876 was based on an ordinary-sized steam industrial engine (largeenough on its own terms) that was blown up to tremendous, monumental size. This working enginecould be walked through by those attending the Exhibition, and reportedly caused the faint of heart to


swoon. Such an effect could not be achieved except through the power of visual images thatfacilitated a simulational experience in the viewer. The aesthetic for both the enormous and smallimages noted above is clearly Steampunk.

What is the rhetorical significance of jumping scale? How does it work rhetorically to influenceaudiences specifically in Steampunk? These are the questions I will address in this essay. To do so, Iwill engage in a close reading of several elements of the film Brazil that are clearly Steampunk andhave jumped scale “up” to a size beyond the human, beyond the activities contained within them(Gillam). And I will examine some products offered on eBay that are explicitly identified as Steampunkbut have jumped scale “down,” shrinking the world of massive steam machinery to the human scaleand below. Let me begin with a brief consideration of the aesthetic dimensions of Steampunk so wecan know how to understand what happens when scale is jumped.


The Aesthetic of Steampunk

I have previously published a book studying the rhetoric of machine aesthetics (Brummett, Rhetoric ofMachine Aesthetics). Unaware of Steampunk as a distinct aesthetic at the time, I described theaesthetics of what I call mechtech. Clearly, this aesthetic, although it goes beyond Steampunk,subsumes it:

… a machine aesthetic keyed to gears, clockwork, lawn mowers, revolvers, pistons, hardshiny metal, oiled hot steel, thrumming rhythms, the intricately choreographed blur of aspinning camshaft, and the utilitarian shafts and pipes running through the steel box of afactory. (29)

Several dimensions of mechtech aesthetic are found in Steampunk (Brummett, Rhetoric of MachineAesthetics 33–48). The first is a “dimensionality” of depth and surface together. One can see into amechtech machine, can see its inner workings. I argued, “Mechtech dimensionality is the machine incontext, gears and pistons within the frame of their housing, the dialectic between them being a part ofthe aesthetic” (34). Key to this aesthetic is knowledge of how something works, for “seeing past theskin and into its depth is a revelation, an epiphany, an avenue to knowledge” (34). Therefore, “as apath to knowledge, the dimensionality of mechtech is also a means to order…. Knowing what is insidesomething is an act of ordering what is inside” (34). One may not actually understand the engine, butthe ability to see into it with depth gives the illusion of knowledge, and at an aesthetic level gives anillusion of understanding the machine. This illusion of knowledge may be understood as a kind ofsimulation dependent on manipulation of images.

Another dimension of the mechtech aesthetic is the sense of personal empowerment one gets fromoperation of a machine. Given the great potential for power in most mechtech—and Age of Steam—machines, the operator of the machine must perforce exercise a great deal of kinetic andpsychological identification with the machine. Anyone who has operated heavy machinery knows thefeeling of power that comes from merging with the machine, being as one with it, in a kinetic way thatis rarely found when operating, say, a computer. Another aesthetic dimension has to do with themechtech machine as object. It is an object of precision, its beauty is geometric; there is nothingambiguous or biological about an Age of Steam machine. A steam engine, unless it malfunctions,does thus and so in precisely the same way each time. This is the ethos of the factory, which is theimaginary context for the mechtech machine, where efficiency and precise procedures rule.

The ideal of production in mechtech aesthetics is that of fragmentation and precision: the machine isdesigned to perform one part of a larger overall process of production, but to do that one function withgreat precision and power. Uniformity and reproduceability of the product are important componentsof this dimension. Finally, in explaining the mechtech machine, I pointed out that machines aregendered with typical gender roles under patriarchy, and that the engenderment of the mechtechmachine is male, with the persona of the operator being that of a warrior. Think of John Henrywielding a hammer. Think of the male driver of a battle tank. Having noted these aesthetic dimensionsof mechtech, let me also point out that another kind of machine aesthetic I described as chaotech, orthe appeal of the decayed machine, overlays much of Steampunk. There is a light wash of decay overthe Steampunk machine as object. Many of them show or simulate signs of long use. They are just abit rusted, just a little brown from age and pollution. Often, this chaotech dimension serves as thebona fides of actual use or its simulation; the machine looks as if it has been in hard use for a longtime. The Steampunk machine is thus an aesthetic object of great power with a hint of corruptionabout it that may reinforce an aesthetic sense that it is a real machine that actually works. Thecorruption reinforces the sense of reality that is key to creating a simulational experience.

To sum up, insofar as Steampunk machines are what I described as mechtech, they are sources ofknowledge and personal empowerment, especially on a male dimension and of the persona of thewarrior. A Steampunk aesthetic is one of precision and great power at doing very specific tasks. Addto that a hint of decay, a whisper of rust and age as the bona fides of actual use, and you have theaesthetic potential of the steam engines, locomotives, old revolvers, and so forth that Steampunkborrows from the Age of Steam. I now want to take up the question, what happens to these aesthetic


dimensions when scale is jumped? What are the rhetorical effects of a text that shrinks theSteampunk machine and its parts down to a human scale or below to a scale of easy personalappropriation and use? What are the rhetorical effects of a text that blows up the Steampunk machineto gargantuan proportions, raising these aesthetic dimensions to monstrous size? I take thosequestions up first in an analysis of two Steampunk wristwatches and a set of cufflinks and then in ananalysis of scenes from the film Brazil.

One more observation before I begin, keyed to the dramatistic/narrative approach. In A Grammar ofMotives, Kenneth Burke observes that the scene of an interaction, of a drama, is powerfully definitiveof what happens and what may be found within it:

Using “scene” in the sense of setting, or background, and “act” in the sense of action, onecould say that “the scene contains the act.” And using “agents” in the sense of actors, oracters, one could say that “the scene contains the agents.” (3)

When we jump scale, we shift scene. In what follows, I want to keep in mind the idea that jumpingscale down makes the human and human uses of objects the scene for “tiny” Steampunk. Andjumping scale up makes the Steampunk machine or object itself the scene for the human and humanactions. This distinction will prove to be useful in understanding the different rhetorical effects ofjumping scale.


Jumping Scale Down

If you go to eBay and do a search on “steampunk wristwatches,” “steampunk clocks,” “steampunkcufflinks,” “steampunk jewelry,” and the like, you will find hundreds if not thousands of items on offeridentical or similar to those that form the texts I am examining here for jumping scale down. In thissection, the first photo is of a pair of cufflinks I purchased from eBay; as you can see, they are oldwatch movements, case, face, and hands removed, otherwise very little altered other than to be gluedor soldered onto a cufflink base. The middle and bottom photos are two wristwatches I purchasedfrom eBay. These are works of art that are somewhat more manipulated than the cufflinks. They areactually working watches in a manufactured setting cleverly designed to look like Age of Steamengines and mechanical parts. The middle photo in particular shows tiny, entirely fake, hoses, gears,dials, metal tubes, and the like as if the watch were powered by, or were part of, a tiny steam engine.Both watches are truly tiny, the watch face in the middle photo being smaller across than a dime, thewatch face in the bottom photo being about the area of a nickel.

Barry Brummett


Barry Brummett

An aesthetic experience is more than merely representational; it is simulational. To hear thethunderstorm passage in the William Tell Overture is not simply to be told of a passing storm; it is tocreate a simulational experience for the audience. Nonprogrammatic music perforce creates asimulational experience, evoking emotions apart from a direct connection to an external context.Aesthetic experiences are powerfully moving, and thus powerfully rhetorical, and this is in large partbecause of the highly simulational nature of the aesthetic experience. We take moving passages inliterature not as factual references to war, love, loss, and so forth; we enter into the experiencesaesthetically.

In this way, the aesthetic dimensions of mechtech machines, Age of Steam powerful engines,locomotives, and so forth are re-created simulationally through the visual power of Steampunkartifacts. When the Steampunk object jumps scale downward, through images it puts the power ofthose aesthetics within a frame of the human scale. Clearly, an engine the size of a watch face wouldin actual experience, were such a thing possible, make very little clatter, roar, and commotion. But theaesthetics of Steampunk jumped scale down to the tiny puts the power, energy, precision, and other


dimensions of the large mechtech engine simulationally within the human scale and under the controlof, in the possession of, the human agent.

The aesthetic of precision in a mechtech/Steampunk engine is paradoxically amplified by jumpingscale down. The dead clockworks in the top photo in particular show tiny little gears and cogs, allfitting tightly, all the works tightly packed into a small space. Even this dense array of mechanicalsgives some depth of perception, as we can see into the machine somewhat even if we cannotunderstand how it works. A dense thicket of otherwise incomprehensible parts is made morecomprehensible precisely by the shift of scale that puts the complexity of machinery into a tinypackage that can fit on the human wrist. It is ours and we subsume it, which gives a kind of masteryover it even in the absence of actually understanding how a clock mechanism works. In ourpossession and shrunk to a scale where people are the context for the machine, the clock mechanismof the cufflinks gives a simulation of actual use. One is using it, even if only to close a shirt sleeve, andthis aesthetic use is then a simulation of the sense of power that would come from an operatorbecoming one with a powerful, throbbing machine. Notice too that in the cufflink, on the left in the topphoto, a faint hint of decay seems brushed over the mechanism. This clockwork is just a bit rusted,not burnished as brightly as the one on the right in a place or two. A hint of use amplifies thesimulation of a machine that is powerful and actually harnessing vast energy. A touch of decay tells usthe machine has been used and is thus usable and that bolsters a simulation of power. The effect isthen one of the power of the Age of Steam machine jumped down below the human scale and put atthe simulated disposal of the human. The rhetorical effect is a feeling of micro-empowerment.

If the cufflinks in the top photo show a dusting of age and wear, the two watches in the middle andbottom photos have been on the railroad to Birmingham and back for decades. The bona fides of rustand use, telling of a “real” machine in real use, lie heavy on the scuzzy surfaces of these watches.Unlike the cufflinks, however, both are actually working watches. Battery run, they tell time perfectly.Thus, every time the wearer checks the time, the wearer is performing a tiny simulation of the mergerwith the machine that is key to the mechtech aesthetic. The aged appearance of each watch is, ofcourse, entirely simulated. Although each is made by hand in limited lots, each is completely new. Butthe simulation created by the appearance of age is of a machine in long use, generating great powerat the hands of the user for decades.

The aesthetic of surface and depth, of an ability to peer into the machine and achieve someunderstanding of its parts, is greater in the middle and bottom photos because they are moresculptural than are the cufflinks of the top photo. The actual watch part of the bottom photo iscantilevered at an angle up off the plane of the watch band. One wears it so that it sits at about aforty-five-degree angle facing one. One can see beneath and around the actual watch. The plane ofthe base for the watch, beneath it, is a simulation of hoses, tubes, pipes, steam pressure dials, andthe like. None of these actually work, of course, but they contribute to a simulation that one can seeinto a machine and know how it operates. The watch in the bottom photo has hands that actually tellthe time, but the cogged, barred plate over the face makes telling the time quite a feat. One must peerfrom more than one angle and discount the movement of the second hand to make out that it might be2:15. It’s not an easy machine to use, and in that way simulates the difficult mechtech engine barelybrought under the control of the operator. An effort must be expended, and the effort is then rewardedby knowledge. If the knowledge is of the time rather than of the engine that gives the time, closeenough; a simulation of the mechtech engine is maintained. The watch of the bottom photo, incontrast to the complicated simulated machine of the middle photo, is fairly simple. An impression iscreated that the whole thing is one gear, a part of a larger machine pulled out and functioning on itsown.

In summary, the sense of controlling and understanding powerful machines that one may obtain bymastering a mechtech engine is made easy, and brought within the scene of human operation, byjumping scale downward in the top through bottom photos. Simulations of tiny, workable parts—thefact that some parts do work, productively—and the appearance of age and use are simulatedguarantees of an actual, productive, mechtech machine. Yet this machine, by jumping down in scale,is brought entirely within the scene of the human agent. In simulational rather than real terms, theeffect is an impression that one has the power of the locomotive, of the steam engine, literally onone’s wrist or in one’s hand. The rhetoric of Steampunk aesthetics in jumping scale down is thereforebound up in simulations of empowerment.


Jumping Scale Up

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil is surely one of the most prescient movies ever made. Sixteen yearsbefore 9/11 and its aftermath, it depicts a society obsessed with terrorism, dominated by tyrants,where the greatest threat to life and happiness is an overreaching, inefficient, and highlybureaucratized government. Despite its age, the film speaks to us in our circumstances.

Low-level technocrat Sam Lowry realizes that one Harry Buttle has been wrongly arrested, tortured,and killed on suspicion of terrorism—all caused by an insect crawling into the creaky works of agovernment machine, thus creating an error. As Lowry works to right this wrong, he himself, and thewoman of his dreams (literally), themselves fall under suspicion of terrorism. Lowry is arrested andtaken to the torture chamber, where the stress is too much and he loses his mind. Images of thissociety wracked by pollution, never-ending war, willingness to settle for cheesy simulations, andcorrupt politicians, might be taken from today’s headlines.

Steampunk images, grounded in a mechtech aesthetic, are plentiful in Brazil. The film is constantlythreatening to jump scale up. Excess and hyperbole lie around every corner. Everything is bigger thanit needs to be. Everything is clunky and mechanical, a society developed in a mechtech rather thanelectrical direction. It is eerily reminiscent of our world, deviated in the direction of Steampunk a fewdecades ago. First, I will review the ubiquity of Steampunk images in the film. Second, I will point tomany cases of excess in the film, which are consistent with a theme of jumping scale upward, even ifthey are not technically such a move. Finally, I will point to the clear cases of jumping scale upward,and the meanings created by such a move.

Steampunk images permeate the film. If there is one image that dominates, it is that of the duct. Old-fashioned, clunky television sets in a shop window all show advertisements for ducts in the openingscene. Ductwork snakes through every room, every building. Ducts are all over the key Ministry ofWorks and the Department of Information Retrieval. Otherwise elegant salons have ducts runningthrough them. When walls and ceilings are cut into, coiled ductwork bursts out of them like theintestines of a beast. When Lowry goes back to his apartment after work one day, an apartment thathas been sabotaged by a vengeful Central Works team, he finds it unlivable, festooned with ducts ofevery size and condition so that one can hardly move through it. The cleaning machines in theMinistry of Information are trailed by enormous long ducts.

Computers are mechanical-electrical devices; the screens are distorted magnifying lenses over small,old-fashioned television picture tubes. The keyboards of these computers are from old-fashionedtypewriters, and one can clearly see into the works of the computers. But these works areunambiguously in a Steampunk register: pipes, hoses, tubes, dials, pressure chambers, and the likeprotrude from behind the keyboard and beneath the monitors. Often the monitors are held up byclunky iron brackets. Nothing looks quite new, quite shiny; these “electrical” machines seem at leastas much mechanical, and they have seen hard use.

Clothing and decoration is from the late Age of Steam, reminiscent of a range from Edwardian timesthrough the 1930s. The bureaucrats wear suits that could be found any time during that range. Theclerk who manages the abduction of Buttle early in the film has an Edwardian bowler hat and a suitfrom that era. But the police all wear goggles, a key Steampunk accessory, and their uniforms arecovered on the outside by pipes and tubes. The heating and cooling anarchist engineer, Harry Tuttle,is likewise dressed in clothing laced with pipes, tubes, and small ducts. When Sam dreams of himselfas an avenging angel, his costume and wings are actually supported by a scaffolding of brackets andsteel girders. Similarly, the secretary in the outer office of the torture chamber, typing the screams andcries of the victims as fast as she can, has her hands encased in a scaffolding of steel to enable fastertyping. Clothing and the coverings of bodies are often clearly Steampunk. Living quarters oftenreference Victorian through prewar times as well. Old Mrs. Lowry’s apartment is floridly Edwardian.Even the humble Buttle flat looks turn-of-the-twentieth-century. Central to the aesthetic of mechtech,shared by Steampunk, is the image of the male warrior, and the film is simply full of such beings ingaudy and exaggerated military uniforms. The Ministry of Information’s basement floor is populated bymen in exaggerated Nazi uniforms. Women seem largely to have the task of shopping and getting anelective plastic surgery. This is a male, and thus a mechtech/Steampunk world.


The film is a riot of excess and exaggeration, which is akin to the spirit of jumping scale upward, evenwhen scale is not actually jumped. Images of Steampunk of ordinary scale, or of other mechanicals,abound, and always just on the edge of bursting out of scale into enormity. The terrorist bombingcampaign that is the context for the society of the film is in its thirteenth year, but they are stillexperiencing, as a deputy minister says, “beginner’s luck.” Breaking into living quarters to abductresidents, as with Buttle at the start of the film and Sam Lowry himself near the end, is way overdone:not only are doors rammed in but holes are cut through ceilings, and police slide down firemen’s polesas well as bursting through doors and swinging in through windows. Harry Tuttle, the guerrilla heatingexpert, comes and goes by sliding down buildings on a zip line instead of simply knocking on doors.Going to the Information Retrieval office for the first time, Lowry observes a surreal stampede ofbureaucrats following their leader at a run up and down the corridors of the building while he barks outorders at a staccato pitch. Horrific explosions from terrorist bombs are taken by the characters in theirstride; the wounded and bleeding writhe on the floor while the Lowrys and their guests continue todine in the restaurant that just blew up. In short, everything is just about to burst from absurdity, fromexcess. Even when the film is not jumping scale physically, it is doing so discursively withexaggerated and ridiculous scenes.

When the Steampunk images truly jump scale upward, the rhetorical effect is clear. The humancharacters are swallowed up in the belly of the beast, and it is a mechanical beast. Steampunkpushes your face in its mechanicals; when the mechanicals are gigantic then Steampunk inserts thehuman into the aesthetics of Steampunk. The control, the power, the precision of Steampunk is thusascribed to the state, and the person is consumed by it.

The Ministry of Information, which seems to be the very seat of government, is in a building that isenormous, monumental beyond all telling. In the basement of the Ministry are the biggest ducts of theentire film, watched over by the men in Gestapo uniforms. Twice Sam must creep along through thiswonderland of fantastically large ductwork. Upstairs, walls of television monitors are found within thelobby, and it also crawls with machines of surveillance. These machines are clearly Steampunk,exposing their inner workings as much as any Tim Burton film does.

Sam Lowry rides in a ridiculous little car that is hardly larger than he is on an errand to the Buttles’apartment complex, and it is nearly run off the road by enormous, grungy vehicles fitted out withducts, hoses, and pipes. It is in one of these vehicles that he attempts a getaway with Jill Layton, thewoman of his dreams, and they are swallowed up by the obvious, visible mechanics of the gargantuanvehicle. Driving into the countryside, we see that the human scale is dwarfed by acres of enormouspipes, tall industrial towers, and huge storage containers, all of them as rusty and used-looking as thevehicles.

At the end of the film, Sam Lowry is captured and winds up in the mechanical belly of the beast. He islocked in a padded cell that is so huge we cannot see the ceiling. Then he is taken to the torturechamber, a wonder of Steampunk jumping scale up. The distant walls of this chamber look like theinside of a machine, and they show signs of industrial use and wear. Here also, the ceiling is so highwe cannot see it. A single catwalk crosses acres of scaffolding out to the platform on which the victimsits strapped into a chair, machines and instruments of torture with their workings, hoses, pipes, andgears clearly visible. The victim is inside a machine, and the machine is the state. Such is theaesthetic power of this image that many of the victims die or, like Sam Lowry, lose their minds in fearand desperation.



Steampunk shares the aesthetics of what I have described as mechtech, an aesthetic of power, ofknowledge of the means of power, of control and precise production, of male and military domination.Steampunk uses that aesthetic in two ways: it gives a simulated, entirely aesthetic feeling ofdominance and mastery over that power when it jumps scale down and puts simulations of Age ofSteam mechanics literally into or on the hands of people. And it cows, warns, and frightens the viewerwhen it puts the ordinary human into the jumped-up scale of truly monumental, enormous aestheticsimulations of that power, knowledge, mastery, and domination. The aesthetics remain fairly constant;the differing results come from the direction in which scale is jumped. Therefore, part of the news ofthis essay is to stress the importance of jumping scale, and the direction of the shift, in creatingrhetorical effects.

This essay may have served to clarify some of the rhetorical effects of the aesthetics of Steampunk. Ihope I have also illustrated the utility of thinking about shifts in scale, and the varying meanings thatall sorts of aesthetics and simulations might have as they jump scale up or down. Further researchmight consider the effect of jumping scale on other aesthetics: Christian, Art Nouveau, and so forth.And further research might consider other examples of jumping scale in Steampunk, and the differentrhetorical effects created by shifting scale in other contexts.



© / Nastco



10.1 Examine how the Bad Resurrection pattern underlies the experience of cancer inAmerican culture.

10.2 Identify the ways the Bad Resurrection crosses over from experience to texts andback again in the Fast and the Furious movie franchise.

10.3 Highlight the Bad Resurrection patterns in the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies.

Our lives are patterned. Were that not so, we would be constantly exhausted by the pressures ofadapting to constantly new situations and challenges. We could not rely on any habits, any previouslysuccessful ways of negotiating life. Life itself would be chaos.

We see the truth of that claim in small ways. If you move to a new city and find yourself driving onunfamiliar streets, you know how stressful that can be until you fall into a “rut” of going to work orschool, coming back home, and so forth. When you travel to a foreign country, especially if it is yourfirst visit, you know how hard you have to work to manage the language, the money system, localcustoms in shops, and on the street. Stay there a while and you find you are settling into somepatterns that make life easier.

We might call these patterns forms. Forms in life help us get through the day. There are forms in textsalso as we discovered in the third chapter. We know how to communicate, enjoy music, watchmovies, and so forth because very few such experiences are totally new each time. They followpatterns. Sometimes we know to avoid certain texts if we know we are not fond of the pattern runningthrough it. These patterns may lie beneath the surface of a text—a surface we can call content orinformation—and cut across a wide range of texts even outside our awareness. Sometimes patternsare of types of texts like fairy tales, sometimes of certain patterns within stories, such as the recurrentpattern of Helmglott’s apocryphal porpoise, “which rises only to rise and rise again” (Brummett et al.,“NSFW”). There is a pattern in texts we might call the “Romeo and Juliet” pattern in which two loversfrom very different backgrounds come together, often with disastrous consequences. Movies fromWest Side Story to Avatar and beyond embody that pattern. Yet how many people watching 2005’sGuess Who (Sullivan) were consciously aware that they were watching the pattern of Romeo andJuliet?

The same patterns running across different texts may also run across real-life experiences. Perhapssome of you have experienced the Romeo and Juliet pattern in your own lives. Shared patterns are amajor way to link texts with experiences. In fact, patterns in such cases may be a major rhetoricalresource because a text (say, a movie) that follows the same pattern that someone encounters ineveryday life can rhetorically advise that person as to what to do. One movie following the Romeo andJuliet pattern may finish it out as in the original Shakespeare with death and destruction, thus warningyou against such an entanglement in your personal life. Another might vary at the end into a happyending, encouraging you to go out and find your Romeo or Juliet. A pattern that cuts across texts andexperiences is called a homology. Some critics have made successful use of the idea of homology(Brummett, Rhetorical Homologies). Homologies are especially useful in helping a reader to thinkabout hidden patterns, perhaps hidden just because they underline so many different texts andexperiences (Brummett, Rhetorical Homologies).

A homology is a formal parallel across different objects, actions, modes of experience, and so forth—depending on the sort of homology one is explaining. Mathematicians (Atiyah), literary scholars(Goldmann), anthropologists (Leach; Lévi-Strauss), and scientists (Lorenz) all use the idea ofhomology as a speculative instrument. Lévi-Strauss, for example, identified formal parallels amongmyths across cultures around the world. In my own book on the subject, one homology I identified wasa shared formal pattern of ritual injury across professional wrestling, Laurel and Hardy films, tales ofsaints’ martyrdoms, and so forth (Brummett, Rhetorical Homologies).


People identify homologies, although likely not by that name, in their everyday lives. It may seem toyou as if your supervisor at work acts like a queen. That suggests a formal parallel between what yoursupervisor does and what a queen does. Many of us may identify family patterns recurring acrossgenerations and locations. Perhaps some of your relatives seem to act like queens as well. Note thatthese homologies are formal; they are patterns rather than assertions of literal equivalencies. You arenot suggesting, probably, that your supervisor or grandmother goes around in an ermine robe and acrown as queens literally do (I suppose), but rather that a pattern of behavior connects how he or sheacts at work to what we think of as patterns undergirding queenly behavior. In the same way, RobertHariman’s excellent study of political style suggests that recurring, formal patterns of behavior inleadership may be found across government, business, and beyond.

What is key in using a homology is identification of the mechanism creating the formal parallel. Sowidely different cultures share similar patterns to their myths: Why? What creates that homology?Different scientists and scholars will give different answers to the question about the homologies theystudy, depending on their disciplines and the conceptual tools they are using. Maybe myths sharesimilar patterns because human brains are hardwired similarly; maybe because human experiences(life, death, the seasons, etc.) are fundamentally similar; maybe because linguistic structures recur indifferent languages. Different scholars of homology identify different engines of similarity creatingthose forms.

When one is studying a rhetorical homology (Brummett, Rhetorical Homologies), the mechanismcreating the formal parallels is the nature of discourse. This idea is grounded in much of the work ofKenneth Burke. In rhetorical homologies, experiences and texts follow formal patterns inherent inlanguage and its systematic use. Characteristics of discourse itself create a form that generatessimilarity across the variable content of different experiences and texts. Enough formal similaritiesamong members of a homologous set must be established to persuade an audience of reasonablereaders that a form rather than mere chance underlies the similarities. Once a homology isestablished, the critic can then dig down into some members of the homologous set to see whethernew characteristics that are discovered may also be found in other members. In this way, homologicalcriticism may be a way of understanding wide ranges of texts and experiences. For instance, if youfind your supervisor’s and a queen’s behavior to be formally similar then unpacking more dimensionsof queens may suggest that you look for the same dimensions in your supervisor—and you may learnmore about queens by digging down into your boss’s patterns of behavior.

To pay attention to the form of a discourse is very much within the dramatistic/narrative school ofthought in rhetorical criticism. It argues for the rhetorical power of the text itself and of the forms withintexts. Especially when the critic reveals a homology underlying texts and experiences in unsuspectingways, dramatistic/narrative thinking can be powerful in helping audiences come to an understandingof how they might be influenced in ways beyond their conscious awareness.

Media, especially entertainment media, can play a major role in linking texts to experienceshomologically, and that is because the media of film and television especially do not call their ownoperations to the audience’s attention. Audiences are supposed to lose themselves in film andtelevision, in the high-quality simulations they present, and so movies and television shows try to beengrossing to audiences without revealing their own constructed, artificial nature.

The main method used in this chapter is therefore dramatistic/narrative, and when we turn ourattention to film, as we will a fair bit, we are also attending to that medium’s ability to createengrossing simulations for people to enter uncritically. Thus, we use some media-centered methodshere also. The homology we will track down here I will call “the Bad Resurrection.” I want to show inthe pages that follow that quite a few texts and experiences in American life and culture follow aparticular recurring form. The experience is common, but the form is likely out of the consciousawareness of most people experiencing it, whether in texts or in life. When studying a homology, itcan be useful to pare the form down to its bare bones, its most abstract description. Then, armed withthat description, the critic can show her or his audience how the form underlies the texts andexperiences in which it emerges and which it ties together.

So, what is the Bad Resurrection? To put it as formally as I can, there is some evil entity (a person, aspirit or demon, a monster, a group, an affliction) that threatens vast harm. Conventional authoritiesseem powerless against the threat. The threat must be opposed unconventionally. A small butpowerful agent takes on the threat and appears to defeat it. But no matter how thoroughly vanquished


the threat may be, there is a Bad Resurrection: it comes back, sometimes more powerful than before,and so the cycle must be repeated. I will show how, in American culture, this pattern underlies textsand experiences of cancer, terrorism, certain movie series such as Halloween and Friday theThirteenth, and the Fast and the Furious series. In this list, if I mention an experience (cancer), therewill be texts about that subject that follow the pattern. If I mention texts (The Fast and the Furious), itcan be shown that those texts follow some common, shared experiences in American life. The onehomology of the Bad Resurrection cuts across them and advises audiences on how to respond to theunpleasantnesses we encounter.



Of all the diseases that people can get, cancer is one of the—if not the—most dreaded, and it isperhaps the disease most likely to recur after it seems to have been suppressed. It is universallydemonized and moralized. Susan Sontag argues that it is the foremost moralized disease of thetwentieth century (Illness as Metaphor). If you hear that someone has lung cancer, or esophagealcancer, one is likely to ask what the person did to bring the disease on. In this sense, cancer matchesother instances of the Bad Resurrection in that it is supremely evil, regarded as almost anautonomous threat, and is very much connected to moral issues. Sontag notes the persistentmoralization of cancer at least throughout the twentieth century, and one could argue that this remainstrue today. Having cancer was in many ways thought to be shameful, a sign of some character flaw ormoral failing. Your author’s maternal grandmother died of ovarian cancer in the 1960s, and the familywas strictly forbidden to tell her what was ailing her for fear that the shame would be too great aburden. We have not far to look for other attributions of evil to cancer, such as, “But have you everthought that there are cancer diseases caused by evil spirits? You may not believe it but there reallyis!” (Takano). Agency or planning, a prerequisite of moral accountability, is ascribed to cancer bycalling it an “evil genius” (Walsh).


One may think of other diseases as cured or as chronic, but nothing tops cancer for being a diseasethat often might seem to have disappeared but in fact can recur, and when it does, with devastatingconsequences. As one website reports, “there’s no way for doctors to know that all of the cancer cellsin your body are gone, which is why many doctors don’t use the word ‘cured’” (WebMD).

A sense of recurrence in a cycle, of the reappearance of evil to blight hope, is expressed exquisitely inthis passage from an article by Sean P. Smith:

Half of all men in the developed world are destined to end up with some kind of cancer. A


coin toss. Most cancers are treatable; others, you’re doomed from the start. My father’s four-year “battle” was a familiar story: An operation. Convalescence. A fishing trip where we haveto turn around before we get to the river. Metastasization. Impossible hope in somecelebrated new technology. A flight and a hotel and a hospital. A thank-God-we-have-insurance treatment. Home. Recovery. Remission? A fishing trip. Shit, he threw up on the flyrods. Another doctor, this one with pill—lots of them; better get one of those weeklyorganizers with the little boxes labeled M, T, W, …. Wait. Metastasization. Let’s try radiation.Don’t worry about his hair; it didn’t grow back after the operation. Fishing? We wish we coulddo lunch. If he’s awake by then. Bedtime is 6pm. Let’s just try walking by a river. OK, thepark. The goddamn backyard. Metastasization. (29)

Cancer is also a threat that, while advances have been made in conventional modes of treatment, isoften addressed in nonconventional ways. Despairing of the ability of medical authorities to prevent itsrecurrence, patients often turn to treatment modes found in other parts of the world, or modesgrounded in unconventional spiritual systems. One patient reports:

I live in Southern California and I’m very blessed to be alive today. I certainly wouldn’t behere today if I took the medical advice of my conventional oncologist. He simply saidoncology couldn’t do anything else for me because of my near death reaction to theirpoisonous chemotherapy. (Cancer Research Awareness)

A Swiss center for alternative cancer treatments says:Conventional medicine concentrates mainly onthe removal of the tumor and on so-called pre-screening methods while largely forgetting the primarycauses of cancer. But it is known to us that the development of cancer is associated with chronicinfection and inflammation. (Paracelsus)

Cancer is a paradigmatic example of the Bad Resurrection. It is highly moralized and often regardedas an enemy with active agency. People despair of the ability of conventional authority, in the form ofthe medical establishment, to counter the threat. And so people turn to alternative sources of medicalcare for help. And it returns, implacably. “Remission” is often the best hope that is offered to cancerpatients, and the word “cure” is rarely used.



It should come as no surprise that American culture often speaks and thinks of terrorism as a kind ofcancer.

Surely terrorism is, metaphorically and so far, the cancer of the twenty-first century. Like cancer, itmay well be caused by an external agent but is in many cases an experience of the body—the bodypolitic—gone badly wrong. One medical doctor declared, “Invading, spreading and destroying:Terrorism is cancer. A malignant growth, it corrupts healthy cells, yielding fear, pain and death. It layswaste to resources and lives. Every place, every organ of every society, is threatened” (Salwitz). Oneneed not look far to find discussions in popular culture equating terrorism to cancer (Sharira;Westphal). One source compared campaigns against cancer with campaigns against terror:

For example, some of the current approaches to terrorism, such as large-scale militaryaction, stigmatize large populations of innocent civilians in order to target terrorists harboredin their midst. This kind of broad-based attack often harms both the terrorists and theinnocent civilians who surround them. So it was with the first effective chemotherapeuticsused to attack cancer: The toxic drugs did not discriminate, but killed both normal andcancerous cells alike. In essence, these drugs targeted rapidly proliferating cells, and thatmeant they also killed normal, fast-dividing cells throughout the body. The result wasmodestly improved patient survival at the cost of terrible side effects. Even worse, originalchemotherapeutic drugs often induced secondary cancers because of the very nature of theirtoxic effects on normal cells. Similar broad-based responses to terrorism have in some casesled to radicalization of small subsets of local populations exposed to systemic retribution.(Westphal)

And it is a given that terrorism, like cancer, is uniformly and without exception bad and oftenmoralized. There will be no usage whatsoever claiming that terrorism is anything but evil. If one thinksa given act is not evil, one will not call it terrorism.

It is significant that the “doctors” treating terrorism are no more successful, perhaps even less so, thanthose treating cancer. Officialdom pours billions if not trillions of dollars and thousands of lives into thefight and still the bombs go off in the great cities of the West. In 2003, President George Bush stoodon the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare, infamously, “mission accomplished” in the war againstterror in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president was so disastrously wrong that the expression hasentered culture as a kind of joke, a way to declare an utterly forlorn confidence in success against ahard adversary. In 2016, for instance, a web article argued that a high percentage of prisonersreleased from the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorists return to their assaults (Hoft).

Today, we have no confidence that terrorism is in any place defeated or even defeatable. Again,parallels to cancer abound. A loose but invisible cluster of cancer cells is the Bad Resurrection waitingto happen, and is it merely coincidence that popular usage describes small and hidden groups ofterrorists as “cells”? Note the emphasis on invisibility in that wording, which is key to the BadResurrection, for the evil is as potent and present as it is hidden in every example of that form.



The public hears from time to time of unofficial, mercenary forces involved in the fight against terror,but of course we don’t hear much. After almost two decades of trying, conventional authority in theform of national governments and armies seems to be making little headway. Terrorists wage war insouthwest Asia and launch attacks in major cities, and there seems to be little visible progress. This isconsistent with the Bad Resurrection’s despair in the effectiveness of conventional authority.

The best we can hope for is local remissions. Note our recurring experience of being exhorted topractice a kind of alternative medicine, the medicine of citizen vigilance. One cannot sit in an airporttoday for five minutes without being urged to report suspicious occurrences, abandoned items, and soforth. We may have little faith in the reporting of abandoned briefcases as effective in the fight againstterror, but this kind of alternative medicine seems at least no more ineffectual than the efforts of theauthorities, who appear to be helpless to stop recurring terrorist attacks all around the world.Meanwhile, doomsday preppers and local militia stockpile guns and durable foodstuffs in preparationfor when evil will come to their cities. Terrorism is a prime example of the Bad Resurrection playingout on our screens every day.

We have studied the Bad Resurrection in two “real-life” kinds of recurrences, cancer and terrorism.But we find the form across many kinds of discourse as well. In the next two sections, we look atexamples of the Bad Resurrection in movies. Its popularity in popular culture, not only in experiences,tells us something about how widely recurrent the form is in American life and culture. And we maybegin to consider how films that follow the pattern may speak rhetorically to our real-life experiences.


The Fast and the Furious Movies

The Fast and the Furious films are a series that chain out a long and loosely connected story. At thiswriting, Furious 7 (Wan) has been out for two or three years, with an eighth installment, Fate of theFurious, due to be released soon, and more to follow. We will focus on Furious 7, then. As indiscussing terrorism we pulled forward some parallels with cancer, so it is that terror is central to thedevelopments in Furious 7. The Bad Resurrection crosses over from experience to texts and backagain. Part of the importance of identifying homologies is to note that rhetorical texts such as film can“speak to” real-life situations that are formally similar and can advise audiences as to how to confrontreal-life situations.

©Universal Pictures/Photofest

The themes of terror and resurrection intertwine throughout the movie. And the themes stretch backinto previous installments of the franchise. In the previous film, Fast & Furious 6, for instance, thegirlfriend of Dom Toretto, Letty, presumed to have died in an even earlier installment, was resurrectedin a sense. It was revealed that she actually escaped death, despite the apparent evidence to thecontrary of a grave and headstone. She continues in 7. In 7, she and Dom go to visit her supposedgrave, and Dom wants to destroy her headstone, but she prevents him from doing so. She is morepoignantly a resurrection as she stands there looking at an indication, however false, of her death.

In the sixth film, Dom and his crew of hired mercenaries had foiled the efforts of what is described asan “international terrorist” in the form of Owen Shaw, who was not killed despite appearances to thecontrary but is found at the start of 7 in a hospital bed, watched over by his equally evil brotherDeckard. His improbable if tenuous survival is a kind of Bad Resurrection. Deckard vows revenge onDom and his crew and stalks out of the hospital, threatening the doctors and nurses with violence ifOwen should die.

In one scene after another, Dom and his crew attempt to secure a vastly powerful piece of softwarewhile Deckard and his explicitly terrorist allies try to reach the software first. It is worth noting that oneof Dom’s crew is portrayed by the actor Paul Walker, who died in an automobile accident just asfilming was ending (a kind of real-life parallel to the ubiquitous fast and dangerous driving throughoutthe entire series). A few of Walker’s scenes had to be finished through digital graphics, and so hisvery appearance in the film is a kind of resurrection, and the movie was explicitly advertised with thatfeature. The ability of film as a medium is clearly shown here, for the movie includes a final scene inwhich Dom and the resurrection of Walker drive off together, looking at each other with brotherly love—but the images of Walker are created by digital manipulation of Walker’s actual biological brother tocreate the illusion.

We must note that Dom and his crew are acting as mercenaries, not legally constituted authorities.They are aided by what seems to be a shadowy government agency, but our heroes do all the work.


Any time the police or any other conventional government forces appear, attempt to intervene inmayhem, to restore order, they are utterly defeated. This follows the pattern of the Bad Resurrectionbeing beyond the control of conventional authority.

The terrorists, Deckard and his allies, are the personification of evil and threat. The most prominentterrorist is African and so activates any audience dread of the foreign Other. This fellow has a hard,implacable look, as terror might were it to take on a human face. References to previous, famous actsof terror abound. In one improbable but exciting scene, our heroes steal a flashy sports car being kepthigh in a skyscraper. They drive the car out of the skyscraper, and it zooms through the air into theskyscraper just like it is right next door. In other words, we have an airborne machine crashing into theTwin Towers. Where have we seen that before? Note that the high-tech ability of films to portray suchan improbability is key to the effect of the text. This and other references to 9/11 are a kind ofresurrection, a recycling of that pivotal event in American history.

The film builds to a final climax with a terrific fight on top of a building between Dom and Deckard.Dom’s crew manages to destroy the building with explosives, and although Dom escapes, we seeDeckard sliding down with the wreckage of the building into its foundations below. It is clearly a kind ofburial. But lo and behold, in following scenes we see that Deckard has been resurrected, seemingnone the worse for wear, and is being locked away in a super-maximum-security prison kept wayunderground (burial again). Smart money is on Deckard’s resurrection from this grave in a futureinstallment, and sure enough, he appears in a sequel.



Two of the most successful and oft-repeated film franchises in American culture are those related tosome variation on the titles Halloween and Friday the 13th. The films themselves are thus a kind ofresurrection; whether it is bad or not depends on one’s tastes. I find them remarkably similar in formand remarkably consistent with the pattern of the Bad Resurrection. The Wikipedia page for theHalloween franchise lists ten films between 1978 and 2009 (“Halloween (Franchise)”). Twelveiterations of Friday the 13th between 1980 and 2009 are noted (“Friday the 13th (Franchise)”). TheFriday the 13th page also suggests that the film was inspired by the slightly earlier Halloween, so anyformal resemblance between them should not be surprising.

The general idea behind Friday the 13th, founded with the original 1980 version, is that a child namedJason was drowned in a lake at summer camp in 1958. This death is morally weighted, as the twocounselors assigned to watch him were engaged in a sexual escapade at the time. Some peopleattempt to reopen the camp in 1979 after previous attempts thwarted by fires and bad water. But as asmall group of counselors work in the camp, a killer stalks the grounds. There is suspicion that this isJason, returned.

The luckless counselors trying to open the camp are killed one after another. Then a strange womanarrives, who reveals that she is the mother of the boy who drowned and is seeking revenge on thetribe of counselors. The counselors attempt to kill her but, after seeming to have died, she rises upand must be decapitated before she stays down. At the end of the film, the decomposing body ofJason emerges from the lake to finish off the luckless crew. The police finally arrive to a scene ofcarnage and one surviving counselor.

This basic story is, of course, full of the elements of the Bad Resurrection. There is a resurrection ofthe bad luck at the camp, more than once, as disaster besets every attempt to open it. The tragedythat was Jason’s death returns in the slayings of the counselors. Jason’s mother is a kind ofresurrection or return of Jason. And then, most horribly, the animated corpse of Jason resurrects toattack the remaining counselors. The ineffectuality of officialdom is also present in the arrival of thepolice only at the very end. To the extent that they can protect themselves at all, the counselors mustbecome the only authorities in the isolated camp.

Other iterations of the film show the same patterns of Bad Resurrections, with changing contents.Friday the 13th: A New Beginning begins with a young boy walking through a graveyard and seeingtwo grave robbers digging up the corpse of Jason Voorhees (of course, he was floating about in thelake in the first film). The corpse comes to life (so it is an actual resurrection) and kills the graverobbers. The sight of this so shatters the boy that he spends years in an asylum before being releasedto a halfway house, another kind of resurrection. The halfway house is a regular den of sexual activityamong some of its residents, which moralizes the murders, and moralization of evil is a component ofthe Bad Resurrection. Soon townspeople are being murdered. The chief of police in this small towntells the mayor he believes the culprit is Jason, resurrected, but the mayor discounts the story anddoes not support the chief—another case in which conventional authority is ineffectual.



In the end, it appears as if one of the residents of the house has been impersonating Jason. He iskilled. But Tommy is shown putting on a mask and assuming the persona of Jason at the end—yetanother resurrection, and a setup for a sequel.

As noted, the original Halloween, from 1978, emerged only two years before the first Friday the 13th,and some argue was the inspiration for it. Halloween became the theme of several films, each oneformally similar to the first. The original film begins with a masked figure stalking a teenage couple asthey (here’s your moralization again) have sex in a house. The figure stabs the couple. The owners ofthe house arrive, and it is revealed that the murderous figure is Michael Myers, the six-year-oldbrother of the stabbed girl, who appears to have become catatonic and empty from the experience.

The boy is put into a mental asylum, a kind of burial away from the world. Fifteen years later, heescapes, and for what seems like an eternity he leads the little town a merry chase, killing andmurdering as he goes. His rampage is intertwined with more moralization in the form of teenagersmaking out and smoking pot shortly before they get it in the neck. All this time, the town’s chiefphysician, Doctor Loomis, and the police seem totally unable to find or restrain Michael. It is civilianswho eventually (if temporarily) kill him. But in the final scene, Michael is resurrected and rises upominously from the ground, promising more murders and sequels. And indeed, in all of those sequels,Michael Myers comes and goes, is put down, and then resurrected in an ongoing cycle of BadResurrections. Throughout the film, the ability of the camera to play with light and dark, with scenespartially in focus and partially out, makes good and scary use of the mechanism of films.



When a homology crosses texts and experiences, we might look for ways in which the texts advisepeople as to how to confront those lived situations. All of us experience Bad Resurrections beyondthose described here in one way or another,. Some of these Bad Resurrections are major, someminor, but they are a recurring part of life. Perhaps you or a friend has the Bad Resurrection ofrecurring cycles of addiction and cure. Maybe there is a love interest who cycles in and out and in andout of your life, with disastrous consequences. Maybe there is some crushing and burdensome task atwork that you think you have finished and put away for good, but no, it reappears in some form. Wemay not all face cancer and terrorism, but the Bad Resurrection is in ways large or small a recurringfact for most if not all of us.

Texts can offer at the very least the consolation of learning that Bad Resurrections are inevitable.Even terrible experiences may become more bearable if we can place them through art and culture, ifwe can see our suffering articulated at least on a formal level in films, television, literature, and art.Just as there are experiences of Bad Resurrections beyond cancer and terrorism, so there are thesecultural forms beyond the two movie series described here that may advise audiences as to how toconfront Bad Resurrections. As rhetorical critics, we can study those texts to learn what advice theymay have for our own Bad Resurrections. As for the two film series here, we must conclude that theyinstill in audiences a mistrust of authority and conventional wisdom. Police, sheriffs, doctors, andcommunity leaders are at a loss as to what to do. At the same time, the films reinforce authoritarianand conventional moral precepts, for it seems as if the most mundane moral failings lead in shortorder to a violent end. These films, if not every text involving Bad Resurrections, therefore seem to cutacross American culture on the angle of rugged self-reliance coupled with repressive morality. Theyfurther develop a Little House on the Prairie morality, a morality of the doomsday preppers who layplans to go it alone in times of peril while often articulating the most stringent ethical principles. It canbe through exploring texts and experiences in American culture that we find these interestingconnections among seemingly unrelated artifacts.


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Frow, J. Marxism and Literary History. Harvard Uinversity Press, 1986.


Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith,International, 1971.

Grossberg, L. “Strategies of Marxist Cultural Interpretation.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication,vol. 1, 1984, pp. 392–21.

Gurevitch, M., et al. Culture, Society and The Media. Methuen, 1982.

Hebdige, D. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Methuen, 1979.

Lentricchia, F. Criticism and Social Change. University of Chicago Press, 1983.

McGee, M. C. “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric.” Explorations in Rhetoric: Studies in Honor ofDouglas Ehninger, edited by R. E. McKerrow, Scott, Foresman, 1982, pp. 23–48.

McGee, M. C. “Power to the People.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 4, 1987, pp.432–37.

Morley, D. The “Nationwide” Audience: Structure and Decoding. British Film Institute, 1980.

Nelson, C., and L Grossberg, editors. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. University of IllinoisPress, 1988.

Riedner, R. C. Writing Neoliberal Values: Rhetorical Connectivities and Global Capitalism. PalgraveMacMillan, 2015.

Ritzer, G. The McDonaldization of Society. Pine Forge, 2000.

Seabrook, J. Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing and the Marketing of Culture. Vintage, 2001.

Williamson, J. Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture. Marion Boyars, 1988.


Feminist Rhetorical CriticismBeauvoir, de, S. The Second Sex. Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

Chavez, K. R. Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. UrbanaUniversity of Illinois Press, 2013.

Cloud, D. L. “Foiling the Intellectuals: Gender, Identity Framing, and the Rhetoric of the Kill inConservative Hate Mail.” Communication, Culture, and Critique, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 457–79.

Connell, R. W. Gender and Power. Stanford University Press, 1987.

Foss, K. A., and S. K. Foss. Women Speak: The Eloquence of Women’s Lives. Waveland Press,1991.

Foss, K. A., et al. Feminist Rhetorical Theories. SAGE, 1999.

Foss, K. A., et al. editors. Readings in Feminist Rhetorical Theory. Sage, 2004

Freeman, E. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke University Press. PerverseModernities, 2010.

Gilligan, C. In a Different Voice. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Irigaray, L. This Sex Which Is Not One. Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jagose, A. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press, 1997.

Keohane, N. L., et al. editors. Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology. University of Chicago Press,1981.

Kuhn, A. Women’s Pictures. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.

Lockford, L. Performing Femininity: Rewriting Gender Identity. AltaMira, 2004.

Pomerance, M., editor. Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls: Gender in Film at the End of theTwentieth Century. State University of New York Press, 2001.

Probyn, E. Outside Belongings. Routledge, 1996.

Rand, E. J. Reclaiming Queer: Activist and Academic Rhetorics of Resistance. University of AlabamaPress, 2014.

Ryan, K., and N. Meyers. Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. SouthernIllinois University Press, 2016.


Young, I. M. Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory.Indiana University Press, 1990.


Psychoanalytic CriticismDavis, D. “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2,

2008, pp. 123–47.

Deleuze, F., et al. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Penguin, 2009.

Freud, S. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. W. W. Norton, 1990.

Gunn, J. Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century.University of Alabama Press, 2005.

Gunn, J. “For the Love of Rhetoric, with Continual Reference to Kenny and Dolly.” Quarterly Journal ofSpeech, vol. 94, 2008, pp. 131–55.

Hall, C. S. “A Primer of Freudian Psychology.” Mentor, 1954.

Johnson, K. A., and J. J. Asenas. “The Lacanian Real as a Productive Supplement to RhetoricalCritique.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 43, 2013, pp. 155–76.

Lacan, J. Écrits. Translated by A. Sheridan, W. W. Norton, 1977.

Lundbergh, C. Lacan in Public: Psychoanalysis and the Science of Rhetoric. University of AlabamaPress, 2012.

Nichols, B. Ideology and the Image. Indiana University Press, 1981.

White, M. Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television. University of North CarolinaPress, 1992.

Zizek, S. The Essential Zizek: The Complete Set. Verso, 2009.

Zizek, S. How to Read Lacan. W. W. Norton, 2007.


Visual Rhetorical CriticismAtzmon, L. Visual Rhetoric and the Eloquence of Design. Parlor Press, 2011.

Benson, T. W. Posters for Peace: A Reader in Communication and American Culture. PennsylvaniaState University Press, 2015.

Brennan, T., and M. Jay, editors. Vision in Context: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives onSight. Routledge, 1996.

Evans, J., and S. Hall, editors. Visual Culture: The Reader. SAGE, 1999.

Finnegan, C. A. Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs. Smithsonian, 2003.

Gries, L. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Utah StateUniversity Press, 2015.

Handa, C. Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004.

Hariman, R., and J. L. Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Icon Photography, Public Culture, and LiberalDemocracy. University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Hartley, J. The Politics of Pictures: The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media. Routledge,1992.

Hill, C. A., and M. Helmers. Defining Visual Rhetorics. Routledge, 2004.

Kuhn, A. The Power of the Image. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Olson, L. C., et al. editors. Visual Rhetoric: A Reader in Communication and Visual Culture. SAGE,2008.

Prelli, L. J. Rhetorics of Display. University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

Rybczynski, W. The Look of Architecture. Oxford University Press, 2001.


Dramatistic/Narrative CriticismAden, R. C. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages. University

of Alabama Press, 1999.

Biesecker, B. A. Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change.University of Alabama Press, 1997.

Blakesley, D., editor. The Terministic Screen: Rhetorical Perspectives on Film. Southern IllinoisUniversity Press, 2003.

Brown, R. H. Society as Text: Essays on Rhetoric, Reason, and Reality. University of Chicago Press,1987.

Brummett, B. “Burkean Scapegoating, Mortification, and Transcendence in Presidential CampaignRhetoric.” Central States Speech Journal, vol. 32, 1981, pp. 254–64.

Brummett, B. “Burkean Transcendence and Ultimate Terms in Rhetoric by and About James Watt.”Central States Speech Journal, vol. 33, 1982, pp. 547–56.

Brummett, B. “Electric Literature as Equipment for Living: Haunted House Films.” Critical Studies inMass Communication, vol. 2, 1985, pp. 247–61.

Brummett, B. “Symbolic Form, Burkean Scapegoating, and Rhetorical Exigency in Alioto’s Responseto the ‘Zebra’ Murders.” Western Journal of Speech Communication, vol. 44, 1980, pp. 64–3.

Burke, K. Counter-Statement. Reprint, University of California Press, 1968, Originally published in1931.

Burke, K. The Rhetoric of Religion. University of California Press, 1961.

Campbell, K.K., and K.H. Jamieson. Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action. SpeechCommunication Association, 1978.

Cawelti, J. The Six-Gun Mystique. Popular Press, 1973.

Chesebro, J. W., editor. Extensions of the Burkeian System. University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Coupe, L. Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology. Parlor Press, 2013.

Derrida, J. Writing and Difference. Translated by A. Bass, University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Goffman, E. Frame Analysis. Harper Colophon, 1974.

Goffman, E. Strategic Interaction. Ballantine Books, 1972.

Hawhee, D. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke on the Edges of Language. University of South Carolina


Press, 2012.

Rogin, M. P. Ronald Reagan, the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology. University ofCalifornia Press, 1987.

Warnick, B. “The Narrative Paradigm: Another Story.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, 1987, pp.172–82.

Wolin, R. The Rhetorical Imagination of Kenneth Burke. University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Worthen, W. B. Drama: Between Poetry and Performance. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.


Media-Centered CriticismBennett, W. L. News: The Politics of Illusion. Longman, 1988.

Blumler J. G., and E. Katz, editors. The Uses of Mass Communications: Current Perspectives onGratifications Research. SAGE, 1975.

Braudy, L., and M. Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brooks, C. G. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media. Hampton Press, 2009.

Brummett, B.“The Homology Hypothesis: Pornography on the VCR.” Critical Studies in MassCommunication, vol. 5, 1988, pp. 202–16.

Chesebro, J. W. ““The Media Reality: Epistemological Functions of Media in Cultural Systems.”Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 1, 1984, pp. 111–30.

Gumpert, G., and R. Cathcart. Inter/Media. Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gumpert, G., and R. Cathcart. “Media Grammars, Generations, and Media Gaps.” Critical Studies inMass Communication, vol. 2, 1985, pp. 23–5.

Handa, C. The Multimediated rhetoric Of the Internet. Routledge, 2013.

Hartley, J. The Uses of Television. Routledge, 1999.

Haynes, W. L. “Of That Which we Cannot Write: Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Media.”Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 74, 1988, pp. 71–01.

Kaczmarcyk, L. C. Computers and Society: Computing for Good. CRC Press, 2011.

Levy, M. R. “VCR Use and the Concept of Audience Activity.” Communication Quarterly, vol. 35,1987, pp. 267–75.

Mander, J. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. William Morrow, 1978.

McGonigal, J. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How They can Change the World.Penguin, 2011.

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Morley, D. Understanding Computers in a Changing Society. Cengage Learning, 2012.

Newcomb, H. Television: The Critical View. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1982.

O’Donnell, V. J. Television Criticism. 3rd ed., SAGE, 2016.


Piccirillo, M. S. “On The Authenticity of Televisual Experience: A Critical Exploration of Para-socialClosure.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 3, 1986, pp. 337–55.

Rosengren, K. E, et al. editors. Media Gratifications Research. SAGE, 1985.

Slayden, D., and R. K. Whillock, editors. Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World.SAGE, 1999.

Vande Berg, L., et al. editors. Critical Approaches to Television. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Warnick, B., and D.S. Heineman. Rhetoric Online: The Politics of New Media. 2nd ed., Peter Lang,2012.

White, S. A., editors. Participatory Video: Images That Transform and Empower. SAGE, 2003.



Absence, 115–117, 117 (exercise)–118 (exercise)

Addison, J., 22

Adorno, T., 87


association, 112

commodification, 217–218

meaning and, 85

Afrocentric culture–centered criticism, 158

The Afrocentric Idea (Asante), 32

Afrocentricity, 158–159, 158 (figure), 160 (figure), 161–162

Agent, 212

Age of Reason, 21

Alms-giving, 247

Alternative rhetorical forms, 182, 183

Alternative ways of seeing, 182

Althusser, Louis, 167, 174

Alyson Jon Interiors ad, 139 (figure)

Amazon, 80

American Indian College Fund ad, 150 (figure)

Antidote, 158

Aristotle, 12, 18, 19, 23

Arrangement, 39, 47


characteristics, 60

defined, 26, 53–55

group identifications, 57–60, 60 (exercise)

population and exposure to, 27


Association, 112–113, 112 (exercise)

ASUS ad, 144 (figure)

Athens, 9–10

public speaking, 11

Attitude, 89–90, 89 (figure)

Attributions of meaning, 197–200, 198 (figure), 201 (figure)


commodification, 217–218

Groundhog Day, 272

neo-Aristotelian criticism, 36–40

traditional texts and, 12–14

Bad resurrection

cancer, 294–296

Fast and the Furious films, 298–300, 298 (figure)

Friday the 13th, 300–301

Halloween, 300–301

overview, 292–293

terrorism, 296–298

Barbershop, 163

Barnard, M., 78

Beautiful Countertops ad, 136 (figure)

Bella Dimora ad, 148 (figure)

Biden, J., 44, 75

The Big Bang Theory, 210

Birmingham School, 87

Black market, 174

Black or White, 76

Blair, H., 22

Bloggers, 30


BMW ad, 133 (figure)

Bombay Sapphire ad, 142 (figure)

Brady, T., 85

Breitling ad, 141 (figure)

Bryant, D. C., 25

Buddhist, 67

Burke, K., 111

Cable TV, 59

Call of Duty, 66

Calvin Klein jeans, 58

Campbell, G., 23

Cancer, 294–296

Cargo cults, 157

Carlson, T., 49

Catholic Church, 20

Chekhov, Anton, 206

Children in jail image, 147 (figure)

Christianity, 69–70

365 Church ad, 151 (figure)

Cicero, Marcus Tullius, 19

City-states, 8–9

Clinton, H., 49

Collective memory, 201–202

Comedy, 208–211

Comic books, 80

Commercials, 47

Commodification, 217–218

Commodities, 169–171, 170 (figure)

Communication, 17, 30, 183

transportation and, 66

Community, 201–202


Computer, 224–226

analysis and examples, 226–227

control, 225

dispersal, 225–226

fluidity, 224–225

speed and control, 225

Condoms ad, 143 (figure)

Conflict, 115–117

Connective power, 222–223

Consciousness, 67–70, 70 (exercise)–71 (exercise)


choice of for critical study, 102–105, 105 (exercise)

defined, 102

mobility, 223–224

text-context relationship, 105–106

Convalescence, 295

Conventional authorities, 294

Coolio, 108

Cooper, Sheldon, 210

COVID-19, 115

Cowboy myth, 257, 262

Criminals, 205

Critical character, 89–93

Critical methods, 156–158

Critical studies

attitude and, 89–90, 89 (figure)

characteristics of, 88–95

context choice, 102–105

critical character of, 89–93

judgment and, 127


as method, 90–93

metonymy and, 125–126

overview, 84–85

power and, 93–94, 93 (exercise)

text-context relationship, 105–106

text selection for, 95–102, 96 (figure)

Critical theory, 96

Criticism, 84. See also Critical studies

defined, 23

neo-Aristotelian criticism, 36–40

Cultural artifacts, 53. See also Artifacts

signs and, 60

Cultural currency, 170

Cultural hegemony, 173

Cultural studies. See also Critical studies

Culture, 5. See also Artifacts; Popular culture; Signs

artifacts as building blocks of, 53–60

changes in, 25

as complex and overlapping, 65–67

defined, 6, 7, 61–65

elitist meanings of, 61–62, 63 (exercise)

as ideology or consciousness, 67–70, 70 (exercise)–71 (exercise)

popular meanings of, 63–65, 64 (exercise)

signs as building blocks of, 47–53

text and, 71–75, 73 (exercise)–74 (exercise)

Culture-centered criticism, 157. See also Groundhog Day; Texas gun shows

afrocentricity, 158–159, 158 (figure), 160 (figure)

analysis, 164–165


critical methods, 156–158

examples, 164–165

harmony, 160–161, 161 (figure)

orality, 161–162

other tenets, 163–164

signifying, 162–163

unity, 160–161, 161 (figure)

whiteness as, 164–165

Curry, S., 49

Darwin, Charles, 212

28 Days/Weeks Later series, 76

Definitions, power and, 5–7

Delivery, 39

Democracy, 8–9, 11, 15

Desire, psychoanalytic criticism, 194–197

D&G ad, 142 (figure)

Diamond mining, 132 (figure)

Diesel gone good ad, 133 (figure)

Diffuse, 98–100, 99 (figure)

Direct tactics, 109–110, 110 (exercise)–111 (exercise)

Discrete, 98–100, 99 (figure)

text, 13

Disempowerment. See Power

Dispersal of people, 225–226

Distance and intimacy, 219–221

Dixon, D., 114

Drama, 206

Greece and, 16

Dramatistic/narrative criticism. See also Bad resurrection; Race relations in Milwaukee;Steampunk


analysis and examples, 212–214

comedy, 208–211

language and motives, 204–205

media-centered schools, 155

narrative genres, 207–208

Pentad, 211–212

teleology, 206–207

terministic screens, 205

tragedy, 208–211

DuBois, W. E. B., 79

ECO ad, 136 (figure)

Economic metaphors, 169–171, 170 (figure)

Edifying impulses, 61

Empowerment. See Power

Ethnocentric criticism, 157–158

Evaluation, neo-Aristotelian criticism, 37


association, 112 (exercise)

conflict or absence, 117 (exercise)–118 (exercise)

consciousness, 70 (exercise)–71 (exercise)

context, 102–105, 105 (exercise)

direct tactics, 110 (exercise)–111 (exercise)

group identifications, 60 (exercise)

ideology, 70 (exercise)–71 (exercise)

intertextuality, 107 (exercise)–109 (exercise)

keystone signs, 113 (exercise)

method and, 90 (exercise)–91 (exercise)

popular meanings of culture, 64 (exercise)

power and, 93 (exercise)

texts, 73 (exercise)–74 (exercise)


Exigency, neo-Aristotelian criticism, 37–38

Expositional text, 12–13, 75

Facebook, 72

Factory explosion, 141 (figure)

Fahrenheit 9/11, 105

Fast and Furious movies, 114, 298–300, 298 (figure)

Feminism, 184

Feminist criticism. See also Groundhog Day

alternative rhetorical forms, 183

analysis and examples, 185–186

empower women, 182–183

patriarchal language and images, 180–182

queer theory, 183–185

varieties of, 177–179, 178 (figure), 180 (figure)

Fences, 98, 115

Fields, W. C., 104

Finding Nemo, 206

Fish City Grill ad, 134 (figure)

Fiske, J., 78, 168

Floyd, G., 87, 211

Fluidity of Internet, 224–225

Forestalling identification, 243–245

Forms, 292–293

Fragmentation, 283

Frankfurt School, 61, 62, 87

Freestyle label, 141 (figure)

French Revolution, 21

Friday Night Fights, 61

Friday Night Lights, 76

Friday the 13th, 300–301

Frye, N., 92


Function, rhetoric as, 12

Gaga, L., 23

“Gangsta’s Paradise” (Coolio), 108

Gates, B., 44

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sexualities, 184

Gender, 47

Generic expectations, 207

Gerbner, George, 218

Gettysburg Address, 103, 104

Giuliani, R., 49

Givenchy ad, 129 (figure)

The Gods Must Be Crazy, 103

Godzilla v Kong, 206

Golden Age of Athens, 9

Gone with the Wind, 104

Gorgias (Plato), 11

A Grammar of Motives, 283

Great Plains family, 30, 31


Athens, 9–10

legacies from, 12

overview, 7–10

pluralism and, 32–33

public speaking, 12

rhetorical legacy, 14, 15

Grimes, R., 114

Groundhog Day, 84

audience, 272

fantasy stream, 267

hallucination, 271


link denigration of women, 269

simulations, 266–277

technical crew, 268

Group identifications, 57–60, 60 (exercise)

Gun culture, 256–259, 257 (figure). See also Texas gun shows

Halloween movies, 113, 300–301

Handheld devices, 222–224, 224 (figure)

connective power, 222–223

context mobility, 223–224

Harmony, 160–161, 161 (figure)

Harrison, G., 57

Hartley, D., 23

HDTV sets, 219

Henry, John, 283

Heteronormative hegemony, 184

Heterosexuality, as privileged, 47

Hierarchies, 209

High culture, 6

Hip-hop, 171

Hispanic Roman Catholic church, 67

History, 6. See also Greece

after Plato, 18–21

eighteenth century, 21–23

knowledge growth and, 34–36

pluralism in twentieth century and, 30–33

population changes in twentieth century and, 25–27, 27 (exercise)

power management, 14–17

technology changes in twentieth century and, 28–30, 29 (exercise)

Hitler, A., 6


Hitler, Adolf, 215

HIV, 115

Homologies, 292–293

Hulu, 59

Iconic meaning, 49–50

Idealism, 166

Ideological State Apparatus, 167

Ideology, 67–70, 70 (exercise)–71 (exercise)

“If You Stink” ad, 146 (figure)

Illness as Metaphor, 295


visual rhetorical criticism, 197–200, 198 (figure), 201–202, 201 (figure)

Imaginary, 179

Implications, 113–115, 113 (exercise), 114 (figure)

Implied strategies, 111–124, 205

Indexical meaning, 48–49

Inflection, 172

Information technology. See Technology

Instagram, 222

Institutes of Oratory (Quintilian), 19

Insurgents, 205

International terrorist, 299

Internet, 29, 224–226

analysis and examples, 226–227

control, 225

dispersal, 225–226

fluidity, 224–225

speed and control, 225

Interpersonal Communication (Knapp & Vangelisti), 97

Intersectionality, 66


Intertextuality, 106–108, 106 (figure), 107 (exercise)–109 (exercise), 163

Interventionism, 94–95

Intimacy, 219–221

Invention, 38–39

Iron Cactus, 135 (figure)

“It’s Not What We Do” ad, 151 (figure)

Jackson, Michael, 249

Jail image, 147 (figure)

James, L., 49, 133 (figure)

Jews, 6

Judgment, 127

Just Add Friends ad, 132 (figure)

Kasten, Robert, 247

Keep Austin Weird ad, 130 (figure)

Keith, T., 23

Keystone signs, 113

Kia ad, 149 (figure)

Kinneavy, J. L., 25

Knowledge, 34–36

Lack, in feminism, 181–182

La La Land, 76


dramatistic/narrative criticism, 204–205

motives, 204–205

Law and Order, 49

Lebanon bologna, 59

Lee, R., 44

Lennon, J., 57

Liberal feminism, 177

Lift Every Voice and Sing, 107


Locke, J., 23

Lopez, George, 210

The Lord of the Rings, 100

Love Life in Your Backyard ad, 131 (figure)

Lowery, R. J., 107

Make America great again slogan, 129 (figure)

Manifestation, rhetoric as, 12

Martin, S., 52

Marx, G., 50

Marxist criticism

bases, 166–169, 167 (figure)

commodities, 169–171, 170 (figure)

economic metaphors, 169–171, 170 (figure)

materialism, 166–169, 167 (figure)

preferred and oppositional readings, 171–175

signs, 169–171, 170 (figure)

standpoint theory, 176–177

subject positions, 175–176

superstructure, 166–169, 167 (figure)

Marxist feminism, 178

Marx, Karl, 166

MasterCard ad, 145 (figure)

Materialism, 166–169, 167 (figure)

Matrix trilogy, 115

McCartney, P., 57

McKinnon, K., 49


broad versus narrow, 100–102, 101 (figure), 102 (exercise)

complexity of, 53

continuum of, 100–102, 101 (figure), 102 (exercise)


iconic, 49–50

indexical, 48–49

shared, 56–57

symbolic, 50–53

texts influencing through, 85–86

Media-centered criticism, 214 (figure). See also Steampunk

analysis and examples, 221–222, 226–227

computer, 224–226

handheld devices, 222–224, 224 (figure)

Internet, 224–226

media logic, 216–217

medium, 215–216

television, 217–221

Media logic, 216–217

Medium, 215–216

Metastasization, 295–296


critical studies as, 88, 90–93, 90 (exercise)–91 (exercise)

culture-centered criticism (See Culture-centered criticism)

dramatistic/narrative criticism (See Dramatistic/Narrative Criticism)

feminist criticism (See Feminist criticism)

Marxist criticism (See Marxist criticism)

media-centered criticism (See Media-centered criticism)

overview, 154–156, 155 (table), 190–191

psychoanalytic criticism, 191–197

visual rhetorical criticism (See Visual rhetorical criticism)

Metonymy, 125–126

others, 251–252

popular culture and, 75–76


resources for, 252

tragedy, 239–240

yourself, 250–251

Middle East, 57, 75

Minds, psychoanalytic criticism, 191–193

Monday Night Football, 99

Mortal Kombat, 206

Mortification, 209

Movado watch, 110, 130 (figure)


hip-hop, 108

sampling, 108

struggle over texts and, 72, 86

Myers, M., 113

Myth of a lack, 181–182

Narrative genres, 207–208

Narratives, 75, 118–121, 119 (figure)

Nazis, 6

Negro National Anthem, 107

Neo-Aristotelian criticism, 36–40

Neo-Aristotelian method, 154

Netflix, 59, 65

New versus original context, 102–105, 105 (exercise)

Nobody Knows (Nelly), 108

Nonhierarchical message, 14

Nonverbal text, 75

Norwegian Minnesotan, 64

Obama, B., 44, 87, 107

Of Oratory (Cicero), 19

Old Spice ad, 146 (figure)


On Christian Doctrine (St. Augustine), 20

Oppositional readings, 171–175, 172

Orality, 161–162

Original versus new context, 102–105, 105 (exercise)

Other tenets, 163–164

Overdetermined, 168

Oxford English Dictionary, 61, 62

Packer Backers, 58

Pandering, 11

Paradigmatic, 119, 120 (table)

Paradox in Milwaukee, 247–248

Paradox of action, 246–249

in need of help, African Americans, 248–249

Paradox in Milwaukee, 247–248

personal action, 247

vision, loss of, 247

Paradox of identification, 240–246, 241–242

enabling, 242–243

forestalling, 243–245

race, 241–242, 245–246

Passivity, 181

Patriarchal language and images, feminist criticism

denigrate, 180–181

lack, 181–182

silencing, 181

Patterns forms, 292

Pentadic analysis, 211–212

Performance, 262

Performative gender, 179


Perla’s ad, 147 (figure)

Persistence, race, 245–246

Personal action, 247

Personal empowerment, 282

Persuasion, 5, 11, 18, 25

Phaedrus (Plato), 11

Plagued by poverty, 244

Plato, 10–17, 16 (exercise)–18 (exercise), 18–21

Play fragrance, 129 (figure)

Pluralism, 30–33

Point of view, visual rhetorical criticism, 203

Police image, 151 (figure)

Political activists, 205

Pollard, Diane, 249

Popular culture, 5, 23

meanings of, 48–57

overview, 44–47, 45 (exercise)–46 (exercise)

power and, 78–80

Population changes, 25–27, 27 (exercise)


arrangements, 47

critical studies and, 93–94

definitions and management of, 5–7

disagreements and struggles for, 7

pluralism and, 30–33

popular culture and, 78–80

in traditional texts, 36–40

Precision, 283

Preferred reading, 171–175

Priestley, J., 23


Privilege, 47

Proactive versus reactive texts, 105–106, 132 (figure)

Professionalism, 170

Psychoanalytic criticism

desire, 194–197

minds, 191–193

selves, 191–193

Psychology, 22–23

Public speaking, 10–12, 17

discrete text, 13

expositional text, 12–13

verbal text, 12

Quakers, 58

Qualitative methods, 90

Quantitative methods, 90

Queer theory, 183–185

Questioning of categories, 184

Quintilian, Marcus Fabius, 19

Race relations in Milwaukee

African American Community, problems in, 236–237

African Americans, violence against, 237

criticism, 252–253

metonymizing others, 251–252

metonymizing yourself, 250–251

metonymy, resources for, 252

paradox of action, 246–249

paradox of identification, 240–246

problem of personalization, 233–235

reciprocal personalization, 250


school system, 237–238

tragedy and metonymy, 239–240

white political attitudes, 238, 238 (figure)

Racism, 79, 210

hierarchies, 209

paradox of identification, 241–242

persistence, 245–246

Radical feminism, 178–179

Ramus, P., 20, 21

Reactive versus proactive texts, 105–106, 132 (figure)

Reading, 74

Real Housewives, 89, 91

Realism, 218–219, 218 (figure)

Reciprocal personalization, 250

Religion, 164

Remission, 296

Republic (Plato), 11

Revolutionaries, 205


after Plato, 18–21

Aristotle on, 12

in Athens, 9–10

defined, 5, 7

democracy grew up, 8–9

eighteenth century, 21–23

Plato on, 11

popular culture and, 5

power management, 14–17

Sophists on, 11

Rhetorical homologies, 292–293


A Rhetoric of Motives, 241

Rhythm, 163

Richards, I. A., 24

Rock, Chris, 210

Roman Catholic Church, 52

Roman Republic, 19, 20

Saint Augustine, 20

Sampling, 108

Saturday Night Live, 49

Savouring Perfection, 140 (figure)

Scared straight program, 240

Scene, 212

Scientific and technical knowledge, 35

Seinfeld, 56

Selves, psychoanalytic criticism, 191–193

September dining ad, 147 (figure)

Sexualities, 184

Signifying, 162–163

Signs, 6, 47–53. See also Artifacts

Marxist criticism, 169–171, 170 (figure)

Silencing, 181

Simulation, 258–259

Situation, neo-Aristotelian criticism, 37

Smart money, 300

Smartphones, 28, 29

Smith, Sean P., 295

Smoke, indexical meaning, 48

Sniper Ghost Warrior, 16

Social media, 4

Sophistry, 10

Sophists, 10–17, 16 (exercise)–18 (exercise)


South African Airways ad, 138 (figure)

Speaker, neo-Aristotelian criticism, 37

Speech, neo-Aristotelian criticism, 37

Spin doctors, 86

Standpoint theory, 176–177

Starr, R., 57


aesthetic of, 282–284

clocks, 284

clothing, 288

computers, 288

cufflinks, 284

decoration, 288

Google search for, 280

jewelry, 284

jumping scale, 280–282

jumping scale down, 284–287, 284 (figure)–286 (figure)

jumping scale up, 287–289

simulation, 281–283

wristwatch, 281

Strategy of indirection, 162

Structures, 118

Subject–object distinction, 182

Subject positions, 121–124, 122 (exercise)–125 (exercise), 175–176

Subversion, 172

Superstructure, 166–169, 167 (figure)

Symbolic, 179

meaning, 50–53

wealth, 170

Syntagm, 119, 120 (table)


Systematicity, 68

The Talking Book, 162

Technical and scientific knowledge, 35


changes in, 28–30, 29 (exercise)

pluralism and, 30

Teleology, 206–207


analysis and examples, 221–222

commodification, 217–218

homologies, 294

intimacy, 219–221

media-centered criticism, 217–221

realism, 218–219, 218 (figure)

The Wizard of Oz, 221–222

Terministic screens, 205

Terrorism, 296–298

Texas gun shows

experience of, 259–263, 259 (figure)

gun culture, 256–259, 257 (figure)

performance, 262

Text-context relationship, 105–106

Texts, 17

culture experienced through, 71–75, 73 (exercise)–74 (exercise)

defined, 6

discrete versus diffuse continuum, 98–100, 99 (figure)

nontraditional, 30

power and, 78–80


struggle and, 85–88

Textualization/narrative, strategy of, 233

Thermometer, indexical meaning, 48

Think Indian ad, 150 (figure)

Thompson, K., 49

The Three Stooges, 61, 103

The Tonight Show, 57

Touched by an Angel, 123

Toulmin, S., 25

Traditional Black Church, 159, 161

Traditional texts, 12–14, 36–40. See also Greece

Tragedy, 208–211

metonymizing, 239–240

metonymy, 239–240

Transcendence, 209

Transformation, 113

Trudeau, J., 145 (figure)

Trump, Donald, 87, 106

context created by, 106

make America great again slogan, 129 (figure)

public speaking and, 13

with Trudeau, 116, 145 (figure)

Twin Towers, 299

Twitter, 44, 222

Ultimate Accessory ad, 143 (figure)

Ultimate Tasting Room ad, 137 (figure)

Unity, 160–161, 161 (figure)

University of California protest, 198

Verbal text, 12


Vico, G., 21

Victimage, 210

Video games, 80

Vietnam War Memorial, 201

Vision, loss of, 247

Visual rhetorical criticism. See also Steampunk; Texas gun shows

attributions of meaning, 197–200, 198 (figure), 201 (figure)

collective memory, 201–202

community, 201–202

images, 197–200, 198 (figure), 201–202, 201 (figure)

point of view, 203

Visual technology, 218

Voting, 233

Walker, Paul, 299

Walking Dead, 49, 76

Washington, B. T., 79

Washington, D., 115, 245

Washington, G., 53

WebMD, 295

Welcome Back, Kotter, 108

Western civilization, 7

West, K., 56, 57

Whately, R., 21

Wicked Witch, 213

Williams, R., 61, 63, 67

The Wizard of Oz, 156, 165, 174–176, 185, 213, 221–222

Women empowerment, 182–183

Working class gun culture, 257

World MasterCard ad, 145 (figure)

World of Warcraft, 226

World War II, 156–157


XM radio, 216

YouTube, 30

Zero Dark Thirty, 105

Zimmerman, George, 211


ABOUT THE AUTHORBarry Brummettis the Charles Sapp Centennial Professor in Communication Emeritus of the Department ofCommunication Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. He received his PhD from the University ofMinnesota in 1978 and taught at Purdue University and the University of Wisconsin before coming tothe University of Texas at Austin in 2001, retiring in 2022. Brummett has authored, coauthored, oredited numerous articles, scholarly essays, and books, including Rhetoric of Style, ClockworkRhetoric: The Language and Style of Steampunk, Contemporary Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Techniques ofClose Reading, Rhetoric of Machine Aesthetics, and The Politics of Style and the Style of Politics. Hisresearch pursuits include the rhetoric of popular culture, epistemology, and the theories of KennethBurke.


  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I Theory
    • Chapter 1 Rhetoric and the Rhetorical Tradition
      • Definitions and the Management of Power
      • The Rhetorical Tradition: Ancient Greece
        • The Rise of the City-States: How Democracy Grew Up With Rhetoric
        • Rhetoric in Athens
      • Plato and the Sophists
        • Two Legacies of the Greek Rhetorical Tradition
          • Rhetoric Is Conventionally Equated With Traditional Texts
          • Rhetoric Is Paradoxically Linked to Power Management
      • Definitions of Rhetoric After Plato
      • Rhetoric in the Eighteenth Century
      • New Theories Emerge in the Twentieth Century
        • Changes in Culture in the Twentieth Century
          • Population
          • Technology
          • Pluralism
          • Knowledge
        • Managing Power Today in Traditional Texts: Neo-Aristotelian Criticism
      • Summary and Review
      • Looking Ahead
    • Chapter 2 Rhetoric and Popular Culture
      • The Rhetoric of Everyday Life
      • The Building Blocks of Culture: Signs
        • Indexical Meaning
        • Iconic Meaning
        • Symbolic Meaning
        • Complexity of the Three Kinds of Meaning
      • The Building Blocks of Culture: Artifacts
        • An Action, Event, or Object Perceived as a Unified Whole
        • … Having Widely Shared Meanings
        • … Manifesting Group Identifications to Us
      • Definitions of Culture
        • Elitist Meanings of Culture
        • Popular Meanings of Culture
      • Characteristics of Cultures
        • Cultures Are Highly Complex and Overlapping
        • Cultures Entail Consciousness, or Ideologies
        • Cultures Are Experienced Through Texts
      • Four Characteristics of the Texts of Popular Culture
      • Managing Power Today in Texts of Popular Culture
      • Summary and Review
      • Looking Ahead
    • Chapter 3 Rhetorical Methods in Critical Studies
      • Texts as Sites of Struggle
        • Texts Influence Through Meanings
        • Texts Are Sites of Struggle Over Meaning
      • Three Characteristics of Critical Studies
        • The Critical Character
        • Concern Over Power
        • Critical Interventionism
      • Finding a Text
        • The First Continuum: Type of Text
        • The Second Continuum: Sources of Meanings
      • Defining a Context
        • The Third Continuum: Choice of Context
        • The Fourth Continuum: Text–Context Relationship
          • Intertextuality: When the Context Is Another Text
      • “Inside” the Text
        • The Fifth Continuum: From Surface to Deep Reading
          • Direct Tactics
          • Implied Strategies
          • Structures
      • The Text in Context: Metonymy, Power, Judgment
        • Metonymies
        • Empowerment/Disempowerment
        • Judgment
      • Summary and Review
      • Looking Ahead
    • Chapter 4 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: INTERVENTION-Understanding
      • An Introduction to Critical Perspectives
      • Culture-Centered Criticism
        • Cultures and Their Own Critical Methods
        • Afrocentricity
          • Unity and Harmony
          • Orality
          • Signifying
          • Other Tenets
        • Whiteness as a Kind of Culture: Analysis and Examples
      • Marxist Criticism
        • Materialism, Bases, and Superstructure
        • Economic Metaphors, Commodities, and Signs
        • Preferred and Oppositional Readings
        • Subject Positions
        • Standpoint Theory
      • Feminist Criticism
        • Varieties of Feminist Criticism
        • How Do Patriarchal Language and Images Perpetuate Inequality?
          • Language and Images That Denigrate
          • Silencing
          • Lack
        • How Can Texts Empower Women?
          • Alternative Rhetorical Forms
        • Queer Theory
        • Analysis and Examples
      • Summary and Review
    • Chapter 5 Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism: UNDERSTANDING–Intervention
      • Psychoanalytic Criticism
        • Making Minds and Selves
        • Desire
      • Visual Rhetorical Criticism
        • Images as Focal Points of Meaning Attribution
        • Images as Focal Points of Collective Memory and Community
        • Point of View
      • Methods Focused on Story
        • Dramatistic/Narrative Criticism
        • Language as Grounds for Motives
          • Terministic Screens
          • Teleology
        • Narrative Genres
        • Comedy and Tragedy
        • The Pentad
        • Analysis and Examples
      • Media-Centered Criticism
        • What Is a Medium?
        • Media Logic
        • Characteristics of Television as a Medium
          • Commodification
          • Realism
          • Intimacy
        • Analysis and Examples
        • Characteristics of Handheld Devices as a Medium
          • Connective Power
          • Context Mobility
        • Characteristics of the Computer and Internet as a Medium
          • Fluidity
          • Speed and Control
          • Dispersal
        • Analysis and Examples
      • Summary and Review
      • Looking Ahead
  • Part II Application
    • Chapter 6 Paradoxes of Personalization: Race Relations in Milwaukee
      • The Problem of Personalization
      • The Scene and Focal Events
        • Problems in the African American Community
        • Violence Against African Americans
        • The School System
        • White Political Attitudes
      • Tragedy and Metonymy
        • Metonymizing the Tragedies
        • Metonymy and Paradox
      • The Paradox of Identification
        • Identification and Race
        • Enabling Identification
        • Forestalling Identification
        • The Persistence of Race
      • The Paradox of Action: The Public and The Personal
        • Personal Action and Loss of Vision
        • The Paradox in Milwaukee
        • African Americans “In Need of Help”
      • Some Solutions
        • Reciprocal Personalization
        • Metonymizing Yourself
        • Metonymizing Others
        • Resources for Careful Metonymy
      • Stepping Back From the Critique
    • Chapter 7 Notes from a Texas Gun Show
      • Texas and Gun Culture
      • At the Gun Show
      • Conclusion
    • Chapter 8 Simulational Selves, Simulational Culture in Groundhog Day
      • Simulation
      • Simulation and Groundhog Day
      • Conclusion
    • Chapter 9 Jumping Scale in Steampunk: One Gear Makes You Larger, One Duct Makes You Small
      • Steampunk and Jumping Scale
        • The Aesthetic of Steampunk
        • Jumping Scale Down
        • Jumping Scale Up
      • Conclusion
    • Chapter 10 The Bad Resurrection in American Life and Culture
      • Cancer
      • Terrorism
        • The Fast and the Furious Movies
      • Halloween and Friday The 13th Movies
      • Conclusion
  • Works Cited
  • Suggested Readings
    • Culture-Centered Criticism
    • Marxist Criticism
    • Feminist Rhetorical Criticism
    • Psychoanalytic Criticism
    • Visual Rhetorical Criticism
    • Dramatistic/Narrative Criticism
    • Media-Centered Criticism
  • Index
  • About the Author
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