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Who are We Talking To? : Alec Baldwin, Netflix, and the Difficulty in Locating Audience


Submitted by John W. Pell on September 30, 2011 - 6:24pm


In the last two weeks I noticed that a number of bloggers, journalists, and executives have released statements via the internet in order to clear up what they perceived to be public misconceptions about their person or corporation. Two of these instances provide excellent material for exploring with undergraduate students the complicated nature of "audience," a term both fraught with uncertainty and essential to the study of rhetoric.

The first is an interesting letter issued by Alec Baldwin through The Huffington Post following the Emmy Awards (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alec-baldwin/alec-baldwin-emmys_b_970323.html). While there are a few television programs I enjoy, I don't really have any clue as to when the Emmy Awards are held. Therefore, when I read Baldwin's post, I found myself unconvinced that many Emmy viewers were actually as concerned about his absence from the show as he perceived.

I come to this conclusion based on Baldwin’s own words. In the statement his issued, Baldwin explains that before the award show he filmed a commercial spot for the telecast in which he made a remark about the recent phone-hacking scandal involving NewsCorp owned News of the World. After they completed filming, producers were informed that FOX would not allow the commercial to air, at which point Baldwin, in his own words, “asked that the entire piece be omitted, as I felt the joke was, perhaps, the funniest thing in [the commercial].”

What I find so interesting about this Baldwin’s public text and also why I think it provides a wonderful, contemporary example of the problematic nature of audience for students, is the ways in which audiences are simultaneously addressed and created. First, Baldwin seems to be addressing an audience of viewers that watched the Emmy Awards, or to be more specific, an Emmy-watching bunch that also peruses the pages of The Huffington Post. What is problematic about this perceived audience, however, is that they could not know that Baldwin was missing because they saw his commercial with Jane Lynch and assumed he would be attending the awards ceremony—the commercial was never aired. Baldwin’s intended audience, or at least the audience intended by the language of the letter, could have only been made aware of his absence through the Emmy telecast. For example, when he did not appear in a live shot as his name was announced for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. That is to say, there would have been no way of knowing of the controversy between Baldwin and NewsCorp from just viewing the award show.

Moreover, Baldwin clarifies that he missed the Emmy Awards not because of an artistic feud between himself and NewsCorp; rather, Baldwin was attending a charity event to which he committed before the Emmy broadcast changed airdates. Thus, if we as readers try to imagine the “ideal audience” for Baldwin’s statement, we run into a real problem: it doesn’t seem possible for them to exist, or in the very least, his audience would have to be one that was doing quite a lot more than just watching the Emmy Awards on a Sunday night.

It seems reasonable to suggest that Baldwin is using his relationship with the Huffington Post to take jabs at NewsCorp (a practice often engaged by bloggers on the HuffPost website). And, it seems clear that the audience addressed in his statement is actually a fiction. That is, and here is where students begin to perk up, the imagined audience of devoted Baldwin followers that watched the Emmy Awards are not an audience but an occasion for Baldwin to address an entirely different group of readers—the sympathetic readers of the Huffington Post who also dislike what they perceive as NewsCorp’s journalistic tyranny.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings used a similar rhetorical tactic in a blog post entitled “An Explanation and Some Reflections” (http://blog.netflix.com/2011/09/explanation-and-some-reflections.html). Here Hastings offers an apology to Netflix members about the “lack of respect and humility” Netflix exhibited when they separated their DVD by mail business from their streaming service and began to charge for each. What is fascinating about this public text, with regards to audience construction, is the fact that Hastings seems to believe that customers have a desire to hear “a full justification” as to why Netflix is separating DVD and streaming.

When examining Hastings’ blog/letter the cynic in me finds it is hard not to read this text as a desperate plea to shareholders not to abandon ship (a plea, I might add, that did not work given the losses Netflix stock sustained following Hastings’ announcement). That is, students and I find it hard to believe that anyone cared about Netflix’s reasons for raising prices – we only care that the prices were raised. Thus, again, a “public” figure is constructing an audience as an occasion to speak to another audience altogether.

These examples, while seemingly trivial, provide students with accessible cases through which to explore just how difficult it is to articulate a clear description of a speaker’s perceived audience. As Mary Jo Reiff notes in Approaches to Audience, there is quite a difference between an ideal audience and a discourse community. In both of these examples it is easy to see how Hastings and Baldwin address something akin to Perelman’s notion of the “universal audience,” a group with relatively similar discursive experiences in the world as a result of their shared humanity. However, the issues and context to which these authors are responding reminds us that they are in fact addressing a particular discourse community, which as Jack Selzer reminds, is quite different than a universal audience. Discourse communities are often comprised of textual exchanges that incorporate specialized language and specific shared conceptions. That is to say, a discourse community more nuanced then say “those people that watched the Emmy Awards.” Or, to put this idea into terms that might provoke student discussion, these examples demonstrate for students how the polis a speaker addresses is often no more than a trope (or fiction) that creates the occasion to address another audience altogether, one to which the polis may have no access.

Submitted by syntaxfactory on October 3, 2011 - 9:04am.

...in part because (a) I just finished teaching Speech Act theory in my soph class and part of me wants to read this the way my wife and I execute all sorts of speech acts at couples' dinners that aren't for us, but for the others at the table. That is, moments when I talk to my wife but I'm really making a point to the other couple, for example.
"Honey, can you believe how awesome this homemade pie is?"
...is a performance for the cook, though allegedly aimed at my wife.

AND yet: I'm talking to John Pell, one of the few folks in rhetoric who "gets" Donald Davidson, who was deeply skeptical that the "force" of speech acts could be "calculated" by appeal to the language or the context.

In short, part of me thinks I get you, and part of me thinks this is part of a larger, Fu Manchu-like masterplan to rethink audience that I cannot see the contours of.

Submitted by Jim Aune on October 1, 2011 - 11:41am.

I'm not sure I agree with the arguments presented in this interview, on purely practical grounds, but it's clear something is changing/must change in academic publishing: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/30/planned_obsolescence_by_ka...

Once again the means of production are advancing faster than the relations of production.

Submitted by syntaxfactory on October 1, 2011 - 10:14am.

...and I wonder how it relates to academic publishing, as well. There are days when I wonder whether, in writing a journal article, we are writing to an actual discourse community or whether (as people come to journals less and less via subscription and membership in associations and more and more via simply database query) we are fictionalizing a journal's readership in some substantial way.

Phrased differently, readers of regional journals in Communication used to have to be members of CSCA, WSCA, etc. Readers of Phil & Rhet had to send a check to Penn State UP and wait for the journal to show up in their mailbox. This created a real "discourse community" -- a community in dialogue with each other and with material/political/geographical interests aligned in ways that reinforced participation in the discourse community.

But maybe that's a thirty-year old model for a journal's readership that we have already moved beyond, materially, and our writing practices have not. I haven't paid for P&R or RPA in a long time, Databases, man. I still read them, but I read them differently. Am I alone in that change?

Saul Carliner recently suggested that journal impact factor measures actually discourage citation of articles previously published within the journal to which you submit. But citing previous articles was a clear and measurable way to say "my article is participating in your discourse community."

Is the journal readership, as a genuine discourse community, evaporating? And if it is, when we pretend to address a journal's readership as if it were a discourse community, when in fact it's an "audience invoked," whom are we actually addressing when we write, by your thinking, John?

This is a powerful heuristic. How far can I take it?

Submitted by John Pell (not verified) on October 4, 2011 - 4:48pm.

David,
I wish I had an answer for you provocative questions. The issue of audience, particularly for an interactionist like myself, is one that often brings to the surface the clear distinctions between classical rhetoric and a Davidsonian understanding of discourse.

Using your pie illustration for example, I would argue that an interactionist account of discourse is one that recognizes that layers are always present within discursive interactions - even though a singular set of symbols (marks, noises, and gestures) are employed. So, your wife understands that your interactions are simultaneously intended to work as signal to your her that you are hoping to move into a discursive exchange with pie-maker and a means of drawing the pie-makers attention. (Note: there is certainly not enough professional discussion on the art of pie-making).

What is complicated about Davidson and applying his theories to rhetoric, however, is that he would suggest that such layers of discourse exist insofar as they are understood in light of their material consequence - persuasion is a type of intention, but the "reality" of what a rhetor intends emerges via discourse (This is a very brief paraphrases of Davidson's notion of prior and passing theories). That is, the pie-maker may believe that you have no idea who did in fact bake the dessert and therefore responds "Oh, why thank you, you're sweet to say so." Or, perhaps you are on the outs with pie-maker and he simply responds to your well-timed remark with a simple eyebrow raise that you notice from across the table and thereby know he received your compliment. Both, are reasonable inferential responses, but the "meaning" of your initial remark, from Davidson's perspective, does not emerge until both interlocutors engage in the necessarily inventive exercises of responding to one another's expectations.

Now, in terms of your more provocative question - how does the notion of audience invoked correlate to scholarly publication? My initial thoughts would be that our "audience" for scholarship is perhaps best understood as the objects to which we ascribe power. Rhetorical power, as Stephen R. Yarbrough explains, stems not from what a rhetor can actually accomplish, but from what a rhetor can convince others that she can accomplish through yet another audience of others: "a speaker gains power to the extent that others credit her ability to persuade still others to credit her with force, rhetorical or actual" (After Rhetoric 29). When applied to scholarly publication, I would suggest that the "audience" to which we aim our writing is in fact the tradition to which we, the writer, ascribe power. That is, there are no "people" per say; rather, there is a scholarly tradition, a set of conventions and attitudes that need to be managed in order to be successful. Identifying these traditions and traits in order to succeed at publication requires rhetorical savvy to be sure, but it is also what makes innovation and creativity so difficult: we are always running up agains the power of legacy.

I hope this keeps the conversation going.

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