The Blogora: The Rhetoric Society of America


Magnum P.I. and Rhetorical Theories of Time

Submitted by John W. Pell on September 21, 2012 - 2:09pm

I chose Rhet/Comp as a field because I loved the ways in which rhetorical theory problematized the affective dimension of poststructuralist literary theory. Or, as I often tell my students, “Aristotle and Foucault have very different epistemologies because they have very different views of an author’s importance.”

Attempting to integrate rhetorical theory into undergraduate writing courses, or at least theoretical approaches beyond Aristotle’s appeals or Burke’s Pentad, can be a challenge. I particularly feel these challenges when discussing the temporal dimension of invention: Kairos.

While kairos is a theoretically rich term for our discipline, I am primarily thinking here about helping students understand the idea that an effective rhetor can create moments into which his or her utterances register with the audience as timely, important, and necessary. In other words, how do speakers create a space within an argument that seems to call out for their input?

Every year, however, the task of articulating how we might employ the notion of kairos as an invention strategy becomes more complicated as the types of texts students produce become more diverse. The website, the CV, and the research(ed) essay all have distinct audiences and different purposes, so it easy to show students how each carries a different notion of “opportunity

That being said, (and I may or may not be channeling the young expressivist that still hides within my cynical rhetorician’s soul) it “feels” like we know when a text is working. Whether we are looking at website, hearing a speech, or reading an essay, embodied responses occur, and in the moment those embodied responses to a speech, website, or essay seem, if not identical, nearly indistinguishable. Certainly, we want students to understand the complex relationships in which texts are bound, but there is something to be said for helping them “cultivate their gut reactions to a text.” That is to say, helping them see that their initial responses to a text are not irrational, unchecked emotional responses; rather, our initial reactions, if examined, often lead to very interesting discoveries about our orientations toward particular ideas and objects. Orientations, that often stem from our prior experiences and interactions with others in a shared physical world.

Of course, the above description might be a bit of an adult dose of rhetorical theory to drop on first-year writers. Which, is why, following a sleepless Wednesday night, I have decided to have Tom Selleck (as Magnum P.I.) do most of the heavy lifting for me.

The iPad and too much coffee have led many of us to watch programs on Netflix that we would otherwise avoid. So on Wednesday night, when I could not sleep, I reached for my iPad and opened the Netflix app. Sure, I thought I would turn to something like Breaking Bad or something from the BBC – one of those “culturally significant” programs we proudly suggest to our students in the hallways. But instead, there in my “Suggestions for John” was Magnum P.I. (I do not want to give the impression that this suggestion was out of left field – I am an avid connoisseur of all things 80s and my love of Cheers and Murder She Wrote apparently led Netflix to offer up the mustachioed Selleck as a potential viewing treat. While I haven’t quite cracked the algorithm, I believe that Netflix is suggesting that Tom Selleck is a function of an Angela Lansbury - Ted Danson hybrid.)

So, being the discerning consumer I am, I began watching the first episode in what I can now only refer to as “The Series.” Almost instantly my head began spinning. This is not to disparage the show (as if such a thing were possible), but instead to point out that everything about it was wrong. To be clear, I am not one of those TV watchers that fancies himself as a kind of misunderstood auteur who if given the chance could create the next Sopranos (you mean mobsters have mundane family commitments, breathtaking)—I will pretty much watch anything. So, when I say everything was wrong, I don’t mean the plot or characters, the setting or even the premise.

Rather, the timing was wrong. The opening credits ran for nearly a full minute; the panning shots of car chases are too drawn out, and the witty repartee between characters was a half-beat too slow. And this is to say nothing of the dated gags that involve landline telephones. I remember watching Magnum P.I. with my Dad and loving it. But now as sleep-deprived junior faculty member, I found watching to be a laborious task. My exposure to TV over the years had recalibrated what I saw as being the appropriate timing for a procedural, crime drama. I no longer found the twenty second shots of Hawaii as charming and mysterious as I once did, nor was Tom’s half-turned, head cocking, wry grin as magnetic as it was in my youth.

Simply put, it felt off. And, once I paid attention to this feeling I was able to catalog all of the reasons why these feelings emerged. My students, most of whom wear their mustaches in an ironic nod to 80s masculinity, have no clue who Tom Selleck is and are particularly disturbed by his handler, Higgins, who appears to be some sort of safari guide in search of his pith hat. Yet, when I showed them a few clips from The Series, our discussions of kairos began to make more sense…often our initial reactions to a text are the result of breaks in our expectations of time: discursive events, whether ideas in an essay or images in a digital texts seem out of order or paced ineffectively.

Certainly its tongue-in-cheek fun to examine Magnum P.I., but I also think these little exercises help students explore the felt experience of discourse. And, hopefully, introduce them to the idea that these felt incongruences stem from complex relationships that can be explored systematically and rhetorically.

Submitted by Luke Lockhart (not verified) on September 23, 2012 - 6:02pm.

Not being versed in affect theory, but being familiar with this feeling of out-of-touchness with old film/TV, my perspective would be that this is more an issue of different topoi - that is, the visual and auditory commonplaces and references are unfamiliar. This is also why some older films - STAR WARS, for instance - don't bother me, despite using many of the same out of date stylistic elements as other visual media of the time. It's purely an issue of familiarity.

Interesting reading, particularly the material about introducing these ideas to undergrads.

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