The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


Metaphors for Scholarship

Submitted by Jim Aune on December 3, 2011 - 12:19pm

I'm looking forward to doing some writing soon (after a semester spent learning the ins and outs of administrivia). Whenever I start a project I think of it as a sculptor: you're given a block of stone (or other material) with its own texture, coloring, and hidden fault lines, and if the project is successful a figure begins to emerge out of the block. (Does anyone else think of the process this way? I'm curious.)

On to the general puzzle I'm working on: what Kenneth Burke once called the "vert" family--that "turning" that happens in words like "conversion." If the study of rhetoric is to have any interpretive, explanatory, or predictive power it needs to account for those moments when some radical VERT occurs: Paul at Damascus, Augustine in the garden, Luther in the Tower, David Horowitz becoming a right-winger. I'm trying to identify what I'm tentatively called a rhetorical toggle-switch: a moment at which something "clicks" and the system as a whole changes. Perhaps this is the sort of question best dealt with ethnographically (it goes to the heart of political "science," but I can't find anything in that vast and tedious literature on the topic). For example, the old joke that a Neocon is a liberal who got mugged. Or, in my own experience, the sense that Israel is treated unfairly by the far Left as a kind of toggle switch to consider other ideological positions. <---I have no desire to argue the particulars of this point; I'm after larger game. On the basis of demographics alone, as a white, Northern European ethnic male from Minnesota, I should probably tilt center-right (roughly the political view of my parents--and parental politics remain a good predictor of their children's political views, unless there is a "switch"). My politics, though, are probably closer to my grandparents than my parents: culturally conservative but economically Left. Am I onto something here, or am I still in the preliminary stages of discerning a figure in the marble?

Submitted by Cheshier (not verified) on December 11, 2011 - 5:28pm.

The fact that conversion is so often imagined in spiritual terms, with all the attendant implications for behavioral accounts that seem to imply extraordinary interventions or "magical moments" or unknowably mystical mechanisms activated by charisma, has had some pernicious consequence for the study of persuasion. The rich traditions of religious rhetoric have plenty to offer, of course, but the persistence of thinking the paradigm case (Paul en route to Damascus and so on) as standing so far outside the normal as to be inexplicable (or only explainable via divine intervention) risks muddying our thinking. And so the alternative to think of apparently extraordinary instances of persuasion through the language of nearly-sudden "turning" ought to be welcome, I think, in part since it takes a different metaphorical architecture as its starting point.

From a social psychological perspective Kevin Dutton (I believe he's still at Cambridge) attempted a similar move in his SPLIT-SECOND PERSUASION, which starts by attending to those bizarre but not uncommon occasions when a fast spoken intervention sometimes suddenly and unaccountably turns the whole room's thinking in a new direction -- Dutton is keen on these cases because what turns the discussion or breaks the tension in an instant is often a remark that could have as easily entrenched existing views or given offense. But the target laughs instead, or changes opinion as if a switch has been flipped. Dutton's work is serious though the book was too aimed for the marketing crowd and went too far in reaching for the best-seller/Gladwell market to have dug very deeply into the harder intellectual questions.

Jim's project sounds very interesting -- I look forward to hearing more about it as the argument unfolds.

Submitted by Daniel L Smith (not verified) on December 3, 2011 - 4:48pm.

Jim wrote: "If the study of rhetoric is to have *any* interpretive, explanatory, or predictive power it needs to account for those *moments* when some radical VERT occurs..." (my emphases).


Aren't the explanatory potentials of conversion as a rhetorical phenomena unduly restricted when it is conceived as something that only or primarily occurs within the narrow temporal boundaries of "a moment," an instant when a toggle is switched from one position to another?

In other words, doesn't conversion also occur more gradually over time, a mode of conversion whose alteration(s) of subjectivity cannot be identified as occurring at any particular moment?

Indeed, aren't "gradual" conversions more prevalent than those that occur like the flick of a switch? Granted, the latter are more experientially conspicuous and salient--and perhaps that's why they're considered "paradigmatic" examples of conversion--but they don't seem common enough to say that rhetorical studies' will lack any interpretive, explanatory, or predictive power if it isn't able to account for them. (Which is not to say that that such an account wouldn't have analytical value.)

"And often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill." (Burke, 1969, p. 26).

Submitted by Jim Aune on December 3, 2011 - 9:12pm.

We know a good deal from persuasion/cognitive neuroscience about how some kinds of conversion happen (evangelicalism discovered a bit of cultural software in the 18th century that has persisted, more or less unchanged, down to the present). The conventional distinction in persuasion research is amongst response-shaping, response-changing, and response-reinforcing messages--all of which deal with different temporal horizons. Perhaps I wasn't clear, but my main aim is to figure out what particular "issues" seem to serve as switches, whether suddenly or over time. Israel is one. Homosexuality is another. I haven't found anything particularly inspiring about the Occupy "movement," for example, but most of my friends have.

Submitted by syntaxfactory on December 4, 2011 - 10:04am.

So, the obverse of a wedge issue -- a VERT issue?


Submitted by syntaxfactory on December 3, 2011 - 12:46pm.

I wonder whether your ability to account for this will be tricky because the conversion experience is, I think, too often overwritten by the conversion narrative.

Conversion narratives have been described until we turn blue, no?

...but conversion narratives never really explain the experience of the vert, right? They only allow the reader to make sense of the vert as a component of a story that requires a vert to reach the end that, morally or religiously or whetever, the author and probably the reader agrees the story was destined to reach.

Hmmmm... If that's the case, you need ethnography because self-report will only confus genre constraints for human experience. Know what I mean?

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