Submitted by Jim Aune on November 6, 2007 - 8:18pm
We know that our students' (and our own) attention spans are much shorter than they used to be (compare the 60 second commercials from the 1960's with 15 second ones now, for a simple example). Do we know anything about what audiences "felt" like during a lengthy Puritan sermon, or during, say, Everett's long speech at Gettysburg that preceded Lincoln's (apparently disappointingly) brief address? What about Cubans listening to Castro's long speeches? Were they as bored as we would be? Are Eastern or Oriental Orthodox church services--or the agonizing long Jewish services on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah--as long as they are because they have a pre-modern sense of temporality?
Judge Richard Posner makes the argument in The Economics of Justice that rhetoric is dependent on relative costs of information. Rhetoric, in the traditional sense, is more important in societies that lack many competing sources of information (audiences have more incentive to listen, because they have few other messages to attend to), while the modern glut of sources of information makes rhetoric less relevant (Posner lacks a sense of rhetorical invention here, but I think he's dead-on right that changing senses of rhetorical time are dependent upon changes in technology and other sources of information that reduce information costs).
I have read audience accounts of Patrick Henry's and Jonathan Edwards' speaking in which they are said to have fixed their eye contact on a single spot in the back of the room. What I am not familiar with are any historical accounts of the length of speeches/sermons, and the (surely?) boredom that ensued. Anyone know?