Few would deny media’s increasingly central role in the everyday lives of most individuals, particularly in first and second world countries. And increasingly, few would deny media’s rhetorical influence in how people come to understand themselves and those around them. News media shape the way individuals see their communities as well as those on the other side of the planet. Television sitcoms offer representations of individual characters that frame how one sees others of differing national, ethnic, or economic backgrounds. Movies offer narratives filled with violence and crime, which often leads people to overestimate the occurrence of such acts in real life. Media play a central role in shaping the way many people perceive themselves and the world around them.
In rhetorical studies, media have been most commonly understood as technologically mediated forms of communication. This way of defining media places an emphasis on media such as photography, radio, television, film, and the Internet. The primary reason for these media being seen as differing from other types of media is the basic assumption that the technology somehow alters communication in fundamental ways, something that the German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1968) explored over 70 years ago. In his landmark essay, “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,” Benjamin argues that traditional forms of art are unique because of the sense of awe that the individual feels when he or she directly engages them, something he refers to as its aura. The use of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin suggests, destroys the aura as the mass audience takes the place of the individual. The recording of Mozart heard on the radio by millions of listeners is altogether different from the Vienna Philharmonic’s live performance. Some may argue that it sounds the same, but few would agree that it does not feel different. Rhetorical studies have struggled to deal with these feelings created by media.
What makes media particularly unique for the field of rhetorical studies today, however, is its overwhelming emphasis on images. Rhetorical studies have long focused on the spoken and the written word. As technological advances made the production and reproduction of images easier, the symbolic force of pictures, both still and moving, became more salient for public communication. Rhetorical scholars, hitherto focused on public speaking and literature, have found this increasingly dominant form of communication troublesome to address, and long-held rhetorical assumptions dating back to Plato and Aristotle have been problematic. While rhetorical scholarship has begun to adapt to newer forms of communication, media studies have generated new conceptual distinctions.
Rhetoric has, of course, traditionally been rooted in the study of language and a rhetor’s ability to persuade or influence his or her audience, regardless of whether the rhetor’s authority was derived from emotion, character, or logic. Media’s reliance on imagery, according to some theorists, works outside these three basic rhetorical forms, something Aristotle’s model could not have anticipated. Images function rhetorically in two basic ways. First, every image is visually symbolic as it represents some original. From the movies projected on screens to the pictures accompanying a news article, images present symbolic versions of reality. As a symbolic discourse, images belong (for some, naturally) to the realm of rhetoric. Second, people’s reactions to images are not, by and large, the same as to words. Images, especially those that are mediated, function primarily through aesthetics, calling forth pleasure or disgust, hope or fear. This privileging of the aesthetic, many suggest, requires new ways of employing rhetorical criticism. While some scholars may work with both rhetorical functions of media images, the research that has emerged over the past few decades tends to fit into one of the two areas.
Approaches To Mediated Rhetoric
Those who read mediated communication as a conventional text that relies, like human discourse, on symbols, apply long-established rhetorical models. No one has been more influential in this area than Kenneth Burke. Burke understood rhetoric to be the study of symbols and their many functions, and many rhetorical critics have found it useful to adapt his critical concepts to more modern media. One such adaptation has been based on Burke’s belief that the languages people use allow them to do and think certain things and, conversely, to hide alternatives, what he called terministic screens. Through these screens, identifications with others are both created and stifled. In the aptly titled collection of essays The terministic screen: Rhetorical perspectives on film, David Blakesly notes the importance of the title when he argues that “film rhetoric – the visual and verbal signs and strategies that shape film experience – directs our attention in countless ways, but always with the aim of fostering identification and all that that complex phenomenon implies” (2003, 3). In addition, Burke’s rhetorical pentad (act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose) as a way of critically engaging mediated texts, particularly those that are narrative in nature, has also proved invaluable to the study of media.
While Burke’s pentad and other dramatistic tools are readily adaptable to media studies, other conventional rhetorical tools and methods have also been employed. Although primarily empirically based, Cappella & Jamieson’s study (1997) has shown how underlying metaphors used by news media create what the title of their book makes clear, a “spiral of cynicism” for the American electorate. While the thrust of their research is empirical, its foundation is clearly rooted in metaphorical criticism. Using the classical notion of mimesis, Trevor Parry-Giles and Shawn Parry-Giles have turned to the popular television drama The West Wing to suggest that it teaches the American public about the presidency and the nation. Mimesis, as first explored by Plato and Aristotle, is rooted in the notion that through imitation or representation rhetorical work is being done.
Employing this concept, Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles argue that The West Wing presents a rhetorical representation of the presidency that works through approximating “a reality of the presidency that is persuasive and credible” (2006, 4).
In addition to these more traditional forms of rhetorical criticism of media, scholars have also begun to explore newer territory assuming that technologically mediated communication’s reliance on the image requires new rhetorical approaches. The first of these approaches is rooted in ideological criticism, which explores and uncovers the media’s reinforcement of hegemonic forces in society writ large. Feminist scholar Bonnie Dow (1996) has, for instance, turned a rhetorical eye on the images of female identity created by media. Examining the way in which women have been portrayed in television shows in the United States such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, Dow uncovers a number of symbolic representations of women in popular media that offer mixed portrayals of feminist ideals.
Another, newer approach that applies rhetorical methods to media emphasizes the fact that visual media do affect audiences at an emotional level. Rhetorical critic Roderick Hart made just this argument when he turned to television. Taking a broad view of television – its role as a medium and its content – Hart argues that television reaches audiences at the level of consciousness. To make sense of this aesthetic response, he uses a phenomenological approach. Focusing on the level of emotional consciousness, phenomenology walks a middle ground between the beliefs that people engage media as objective viewers or that visual media reach the individual at an unconscious level. In the end, such a rhetorical inquiry leads Hart to argue that “television makes us feel good about feeling bad about politics” (Hart 1999, 10).
The final dominant approach to understanding media rhetorically in recent years has been to dig deeply into a text to understand how its symbolic images impact audiences at the unconscious level. Such psychoanalytic criticism builds on Freud’s original models to create a theory of how media construct the individual and collective personality or psyche. Janice Hocker Rushing was instrumental in pioneering this method in rhetorical studies. In just one of many examples, Rushing & Frentz (1995) examined the cyborg in a number of American films as a heroic reworking of the Western myth, suggesting that the cyborg represents a new, “transmodern,” way of being that unites mind, body, and machine in one self. For Rushing & Frentz, the cyborg becomes a rhetorical discourse that shows audiences, at an unconscious level, how to live with new technology.
The psychoanalytic approach to rhetoric and media also represents one of the current research trajectories that continues to open up possible understandings of how media influence the way people live with and through technologically reproduced communication. Incorporating the work of Jacques Lacan and others, rhetorical theorist Joshua Gunn has begun advancing new ways of using a psychoanalytic approach to mediated communication. In one such instance, Gunn (2004) argues that a psychoanalytic understanding of fantasy offers a way to mediate the disjointed relationship between fragmented texts and de-centered subjects. Gunn’s assertion is, put simply, that the media offers dominant portrayals of fantasy that causes one to desire and, ultimately, to repress such a desire. Psychoanalytic criticism, while not an uncontested rhetorical approach, continues to offer new ways of engaging media studies.
While Gunn’s approach to rhetorical media studies seeks to penetrate media texts more deeply to see how they affect individual and collective psyches, another approach is to step back and look at the way in which media build on and work with other aspects of people’s lived experiences. One way of doing this is for rhetorical scholars to incorporate the idea of homologies. In the sciences, things are said to be homologous when they share formal structures. Rhetorical and media scholar Barry Brummett (2004) has recently suggested that homologous patterns of discourse exist across communicative texts that work to structure lives through formal patterns. In his recent book, Rhetorical homologies, Brummett explores how films can present audiences with stories and images that are homologous to lived experience, additional mediated texts, and other, larger narratives. A rhetorical criticism built from an understanding of homologies offers the possibility of bringing media more directly into connection with other human communication.
One final note on rhetoric and media studies concerns the Internet. While the Internet incorporates many modes of communication (discussed above) with more traditional print-based media, how rhetorical scholarship might engage it theoretically or critically remains to be seen. This is not to suggest that it cannot. But to begin to understand how communities of individuals on Facebook “live” together or how virtual communities (e.g., Second Life) influence the way individuals see themselves and the physical world around them will require even newer ways of understanding the use of symbols through mediated channels toward further identifications.
- Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations (ed. H. Arendt; trans. H. Zohn). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 217–252. (Original work published 1936.)
- Blakesly, D. (2003). The terministic screen: Rhetorical perspectives on film. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Brummett, B. (2004). Rhetorical homologies: Form, culture, experience. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
- Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbolic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Burke, K. (1969). A grammar of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Dow, B. J. (1996). Prime-time feminism: Television, media culture, and the women’s movement since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Gunn, J. G. (2004). Refitting fantasy: Psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and talking to the dead. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90, 1–23.
- Hart, R. P. (1999). Seducing America: How television charms the modern voter. New York: Sage.
- Parry-Giles, T., & Parry-Giles, S. J. (2006). The prime-time presidency: The West Wing and U.S. nationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Rushing, J. H., & Frentz, T. S. (1995). Projecting the shadow: The cyborg hero in American film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.