Ethos, Logos, and Pathos: Heidegger on Aristotle

I have been reading Deep Rhetoric: Philosophy, Reason, Violence, Justice, Wisdom by James Crosswhite in preparation for teaching it next quarter in my “Composition Theory” seminar. I have taught Crosswhite’s earlier book, The Rhetoric of Reason, for many years. In that book, Crosswhite articulates a theory based on Chaim Perelman’s The New Rhetoric that the validity of an argument depends not on true premises, sound logic and justifiable conclusions, but on the quality of the audience that will accept it. One of the interesting conclusions of this book was that most logical fallacies have to do with a particular audience mistaking itself for a universal one. Interesting stuff! In the new book, I was expecting an updated version of the same theory. In fact, there is much more and it is quite different.

Back in the early ’90’s, when I was at Cal State L.A., I did a writing workshop for the philosophy department. A member of the faculty, Henry Mendell, told me that philosophers read every word that Aristotle wrote, except the Rhetoric. I was a bit stunned because the Rhetoric was dear to my heart. I defended the Rhetoric, and finally he said, “Well, maybe Californians have to read the Rhetoric, but New Yorkers don’t because they know how to argue.” Recently I met Henry again and I reminded him of his remarks. He looked chagrined and said that he had changed his mind and that Aristotle’s Rhetoric was now read carefully. This may be because although Heidegger lectured on the Rhetoric in 1924, the lectures were not published until 2002, long after my first conversation with Henry.

Deep Rhetoric

Crosswhite’s earlier book is an attempt to reconcile rhetoric with certain branches of philosophy, especially those dealing with logic and argumentation. The new book is an exploration of what a “deep rhetoric” might be, a project that is also an attempt to reconcile philosophy and rhetoric, but on a more fundamental scale. This project is largely informed by two sources: Plato’s concept of rhetoric, expressed in the Phaedrus, as an art of leading the soul to truth by means of words, and Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, expressed in the aforementioned lectures from 1924. Crosswhite defines a “deep rhetoric” thusly:

Rhetoric is a form of human transcendence, a way we open ourselves to the influence of what is beyond ourselves and become receptive, a way we participate in a larger world and become open to the lives of others, a way we learn and change. Rhetoric is also a way the world and others become open to us, open to our giving and our participation; it is a way we teach, a way we change our common conditions, a way we form relationships and bear the lives and experiences of other people. (Crosswhite 17)

Logos

Crosswhite’s definition is a very broad definition of rhetoric. This is not Aristotle’s art of “finding the available means of persuasion.” Crosswhite uses a lot of Heideggerian terminology to expand and comment on this definition, terminology which I will try to avoid here. However, the key term above is “transcendence,” the ability to transcend our selves and know others and the world. Our ability to do this is given by logos, which provides structure and makes the world intelligible. Language is logos, but logos goes beyond language to other ways of communicating and understanding.

Pathos

In this model, logos provides structure and intelligibility, but pathos provides motive and energy. Crosswhite says, “There is no understanding without pathos” (183). Logos and pathos are inextricably linked.

For example, if I am going to say something to someone about something, I need to be interested in that something and in that person. Interest, engagement, caring, are all forms of pathos. And to attend to it, the audience has to also engage. Without pathos, nothing happens, no speech, no action.

Ethos

What about ethos? In this model, ethos does not appear to have a primary role in constituting transcendence, perhaps because the Aristotelian concept is about constructing a self, rather than going beyond the self. However, ethos functions as a complement to pathos. Crosswhite says,

What is essential for a deep rhetoric is that when it comes to being a speaker, one is a speaker as such because an audience has given this attention and the speaker has received it. That is, the being of the speaker is given by an audience. The speaker’s being circulates, is, in this process of giving and receiving between the audience and speaker. (287)

In this model, ethos is a two-way street, not just a construct crafted to persuade an audience. To an extent, the audience creates the speaker.

Pedagogical Implications

What are the pedagogical implications of this view of ethos, logos, and pathos? Well, clearly logos and pathos are not separate tools to be pulled out of the rhetorical toolbox as needed. It is also clear that pathos is not some kind of fallacious appeal to be used in dire necessity with an ignorant audience. There is no logos without interest, caring, and engagement. There is thus no understanding without pathos. We have to consider both structure and motivation.

If ethos is a two-way dynamic relationship between a speaker who receives speakership from an audience, our concept of ethos is much richer and less contrived. The question becomes not “What kind of speaker do I need to be to persuade this audience?” but “What kind of speaker will this audience cause/allow me to be?”

However, the most important shift in this model, in my view, is from defining rhetoric as an art of persuasion to seeing rhetoric as an art of knowing the other. I have felt for some time now that Aristotelian rhetoric was insufficient to deal with our media and our politics. In an age of media echo chambers, information bubbles, political silos, and tribalism, an art of knowing the other appears to be just what we need.  It may even save us from ourselves.

Kenneth Burke’s Pentad and Gatsby

As I was describing different approaches to Gatsby in the introductory part of the module I wrote a section called “People and Places” using the Burkean Pentad.  My goal was to introduce just enough Burke to be of use without confusing.  Apparently, I failed.  Several people told me that this was too confusing for 11th graders.  I thought I would post it here to see what others thought.

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In A Grammar of Motives critic Kenneth Burke describes a five-term system for analyzing the motivation of characters that he calls the “pentad.”

  • Act—What was done? “What took place in thought or deed?”
  • Scene—Where and when was it done? (Place, Context, Background, Situation)
  • Agent—Who did it? (What person or kind of person, what co-agents or counter-agents)
  • Agency—By what means or with what instruments was it done?
  • Purpose—Why was it done?

Burke combines these terms into what he calls “ratios.” We often think that when people do something, they do it either because of their inherent nature (agent-act) or because of their purpose (purpose-act). However, in this novel, where someone comes from, especially if they come from the east or the west, or if they come from a poor neighborhood or a rich one, makes a big difference in how other people see them. Burke would call this a scene-agent ratio. In this ratio, the “scene,” which can be a place, a culture, or a historical moment, forms the nature and character of the “agent,” the person who acts. It is also possible for the scene in which the act takes place to motivate the act. In this novel, the action moves from East Egg to West Egg, and from East Egg to New York, passing through “the Valley of Ashes.” In each place, different kinds of action occur. Burke would call this a scene-act ratio. The place motivates the kind of act.

As you read, note where characters come from and how people feel about them. For example, at one point, Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (130). That is the scene-agent ratio. For Tom, that is the ultimate insult. Also note what kinds of things people do in different locations and circumstances. For example, people behave differently in Gatsby’s party house than they do elsewhere. That is the scene-act ratio.

Composition and the Irrational: Some Lacanian Concepts

Lacanian Doge
Lacanian Doge

Note: The picture above represents an internet meme called “Doge.” This is related to the LOL Cats meme, but Doge must feature a picture of a shiba inu dog (a Japanese dog, very active and smart, I have known one), several ungrammatical phrases, usually two words, starting with “very,” “so,” “much,” “many,” or “such,” rendered in fluorescent comic sans font. See this article for more information.

Last quarter I taught a Composition Theory seminar that was heavily invested in Lacan. We began with James Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures, an exposition of an unabashedly Marxist cultural studies pedagogy aimed at teaching students to recognize the insidious influence of a capitalist/consumerist ideology and to resist hegemonic discourses. In the past I have followed this book with Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject.

Rickert’s book begins as a critique of Berlin’s pedagogy. On the first page he writes, “Sometime deep in the sixth inning of the 1990s, teaching my latest version of a cultural studies-oriented composition class, it struck me that something was awry. In retrospect, my unit on advertising seems particularly suspect. My students were becoming adept at picking apart ads and identifying their most pernicious features: the inducement to buy unnecessary, expensive items; the achievement of identity and modes of being through products; the reification of unjust class, race and gender roles; and so forth” (1). He reports that he faced little resistance from his students, and that they wrote competent, even excellent papers. Beyond that, there was little change other than growing cynicism, and they still bought the $75 jeans. He asks why “training students to be attentive critics of texts, culture, and ideology so seldom induces real transformation in their lives?” (3).

Rickert’s questions are important. Should composition instruction change not only the student’s writing strategies, but also his or her behavior? What if instruction in perceiving and understanding rhetorical appeals, instead of helping students make better choices, simply makes them cynical about all discourse? Rickert argues that what is needed is “a contemporary rhetoric that builds on the social dimension opened up by cultural studies while taking full account of the nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors that shape human conduct” (5).

Rickert does a good job of raising these questions and developing, mostly through Slavoj Žižek, a set of Lacanian terms that are very useful in theorizing these pedagogical issues. (A colleague of mine said recently “Lacan is great as long as you don’t have to deal with actual Lacan.”) However, he does not deliver a pedagogy suitable for addressing these issues. For that reason, in this seminar, I chose to assign Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Construction of Desire by Marshall W. Alcorn Jr.

Alcorn says, “The central argument of this book is that in changing the subject matter we teach, in order to change the human subject we teach, we have come to adopt an insufficiently complex understanding of subjectivity ” (2). This statement echoes the pun on the two meanings of “subject” in the title of the book. Alcorn then points to a fundamental contradiction in Berlin, that Berlin’s theoretical subject is a postmodern subject constructed by ideology and discourse, but that his pedagogy appears to depend on a traditional humanist subject free to critique ideology. This is a crucial point that addresses Rickert’s concern that students are unchanged in their behavior by his cultural studies course. Alcorn argues

The postmodernist subject, unlike the humanist subject, is essentially a structure of discourse conflict; it has no mechanism or motivation for being anything other than such a structure of conflict. A teacher could never hope to change the structure of, or resolve the conflict in, a subject by merely adding more discourse or more conflict to the subject. (19)

And later Alcorn argues

Logical argumentation of the sort that Berlin wants to develop in the classroom typically does not address the real binding effects of ideology. Too often, logical and informative arguments have no effect on the commitments students have to ideology. This is true because the real binding effects between subjectivity and discourse are not made in relation to linguistic representations but in relation to structural patterns of identity that are mapped out libidinally in the body. The body operates as the deep structure for much of language, the space where adhesive attachments to discourse are made. (25)

For example, I once taught a composition class in which I assigned a piece by Kate Millet called “Manifesto for a Sexual Revolution.” Millet argued, among other things, that marriage was simply another form of prostitution. A student from Texas came up to me after class and said that his head could understand her arguments, but that his heart, and the way he was brought up, said they were wrong. This is exactly what Alcorn is talking about here.

Before the class read Alcorn, however, I wanted to introduce some basic Lacanian concepts. We read Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture by Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is a big fan of popular culture, especially movies and especially Alfred Hitchcock movies. Žižek illustrates Lacanian concepts with scenes from science fiction novels, short stories, plays, movies, and historical events. At times, it is hard to tell whether Lacan, or the cultural artifacts are the real focus, but the book is an enjoyable and informative read.

Let me outline some of these concepts.

The Real

Lacan distinguishes between “reality,” the social world constructed in discourse that we all live in, and “the Real,” the uncaring physical universe that cannot be fully represented and tends to erupt into our reality at unpredictable and inopportune times. There is always a gap between the word and the thing, an insight that goes back to the sophist Gorgias. Žižek says that the emergence of language opens up a hole in reality (13). He says, “The role of the Lacanian real is, however, radically ambiguous: true, it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it serves at the same time as a support of this very balance. What would our daily lives be without some support in an answer of the real?” (29)

For example, as I write this a Santa Ana wind is raging outside. In this area, the winds are strong enough to pick up plastic trash cans and lawn furniture and carry them over fences into neighboring yards. However, I am protected from the wind by a comfortable two-story house with thick walls, double-paned windows, tables and chairs, photographs, artwork, musical instruments, and shelves lined with books. My house is designed to accommodate human needs and I am surrounded by objects that have social meaning. The wind rages outside, but even in choosing that verb I am imputing to the wind an emotion it cannot have as part of the Real. Imagine that suddenly there is an earthquake that splits the house in two, and the wind intrudes. Am I being punished for neglecting to buy earthquake insurance? Has the wind “intruded” or is it simply flowing mindlessly where it can go? The Real erupts, but we immediately begin trying to make sense of it in reality.

The Symbolic Order is the order of signifiers, of words, of values, and ideology. This is where we live, but the Real exists. Rickert notes that nothing is lacking in the Real, but symbolization introduces a lack which extends into all of human affairs (55). The Symbolic bars us from the Real. This lack, or gap, is the price we pay for being language and symbol users. Rickert, following Žižek, says the Real “is distinguished from reality by the fact that it cannot be represented. In this sense the Real is foreclosed from direct apprehension in reality. But continuing further, Žižek reminds us that what is foreclosed always returns, just not in any direct form of representation. The Real returns in the form of gaps, errors, symptoms, slips, and other behavior idioms” (31). Language fails to capture the Real. There is always a surplus.

Often when we talk about teaching “critical thinking” we mean something like casting aside superstition, cultural beliefs, personal opinion, and appeals to pathos and ethos in favor of logos, some kind of rational, logical argument, grounded in reality. This distinction between reality and the Real makes it clear that this definition of “critical thinking” is either impossible or insufficient.  Language and arguments exist in the Symbolic Order.

Fantasy

We all live in a fantasy, a necessary story we construct about who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going. When this fantasy is disrupted by an eruption of the Real (the uncaring physical universe that cannot be completely represented in the symbolic) we ironically feel that the world has become “unreal.” Thus a death, a natural disaster, an illness, can dissolve our fantasy and make us uncertain about how to go on until we create a new fantasy.

Desire

Lacan says, “Desire is always the desire of the other.” This means that what we desire, we desire not for ourselves, but for how it makes us appear to others. In a classroom, this often translates into a desire to please the teacher. For learning to take place, clearly there must be desire. Alcorn says that teaching is necessarily, “a training of desire” (58).

The Big Other

Part of living in a society is a desire to please the “big Other,” which is the Symbolic Order, the language system and all of the cultural values and attitudes encoded and enforced in it. The English teacher is a representative of the big Other.

Libidinal Attachments

Alcorn says, “My central argument is that the rhetoric of discourse is libidinal” (26). He argues that some discourses are libidinal for us, eliciting strong attention and response, while others are “inert representations that we handle like packages.” Of course “libidinal” here is used in a Freudian sense in which the sex drive underlies all other drives. In this view, people have libidinal attachments to ideas, worldviews, practices, rituals, routines, etc., and are very resistant to giving them up, especially on rational or logical grounds. We could say that these things are “loved ones.” Part of teaching is breaking these attachments and encouraging the formation of new ones. However, when people break libidinal attachments, they must go through a period of mourning. This will necessarily take place in the classroom too.

Alcorn devotes a whole section of his book to mourning. He says,

All changes in deeply held beliefs involve and experience of loss or mourning. If writing teachers are to help in this activity of changing deeply invested feelings, they would do well to understand the mourning process. Too often, we consider thought as a process that can effortlessly move the elements of signification in all possible logical permutations. Changes in meaning, however, are not the effect of instant change in signification. Important changes in meaning require significant changes in feeling. These changes are not instant permutations in relationships of signifiers; they require slow changes in libidinal investments. (112)

Jouissance

People experience “jouissance” (a French word that means something like “enjoyment”) when they are doing things according to the way of being to which they have libidinal attachments. Rickert notes that strict ascetics who appear to renounce all pleasure have instead “merely redistributed their pleasures, setting up an alternative libidinal economy whereby they come to enjoy—obtain jouissance from—their renouncements” (3). Students should feel jouissance when doing classroom assignments, or they will not be engaged.

Master Signifiers

Language is a heterogeneous mass of signifiers that comes into alignment with the emergence of a Master Signifier. Mark Bracher, in Lacan, Discourse and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism, links Master Signifiers to identification. Bracher says that “when an identification becomes established as our identity, it functions to repress all desires that are incongruent with this identity,” as when a male who wants to be seen as “masculine” avoids wearing pink, drinking white zinfandel, or eating tea sandwiches. Master Signifiers are identity-bearing words, such as “strong,” “smart,” “American” or “freedom-loving” that organize other signifiers under them. Bracher says, “The way in which such signifiers function as bearers of our identity can easily be seen from our reactions when someone attempts either to damage one of our identity-bearing signifiers (e.g., disparages a signifier bearing our familial, national, ethnic, racial, or sexual identity) or to deprive us of one of these signifiers (e.g., by calling us a girl if we are a boy or vice versa)” (25).

What Does All This Mean for Teaching?

James Berlin’s approach could be seen as the unmasking of Master Signifiers through a process of rational, logical argument. We can see that this does not usually produce change in the student subject, as in the case of my student who understood Millet’s arguments about marriage and prostitution, but could not accept them as part of his belief system. If teaching necessarily involves breaking libidinal attachments and forming new ones, simply making logical arguments and supporting them with evidence will be ineffective. This is clearly illustrated in our current political discourse about climate change, gay marriage, or even Christmas. Alcorn puts this well, saying, “Rational truth claims can be changed by knowledge, but symptomatic beliefs cannot” (39).

This fact alone is enough to make us consider teaching, as Rickert suggests, a rhetoric that takes into account nonrational, affective, and unconscious factors. Perhaps even a small step in this direction will result in less student resistance to teaching, and fewer cynical non-resisters. It’s worth a try.

Works Cited

Alcorn, Marshall W. Jr. Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire. Carbondale: Southern Ill. Univ. Press, 2002. Print.

Berlin, James. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Lauer Series in Rhetoric and Composition. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press 2003. Print.

Bracher, Mark. Lacan, Discourse, and Social Change: A Psychoanalytic Cultural Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. Print.

Teaching Toulmin Argumentation

In previous posts I have argued that argument is a part of persuasion and that Aristotle’s three appeals (ethos, logos, pathos) and the Toulmin model are, in fact, compatible in that they are alternative solutions to the same problem: most audiences are unwilling or unable to follow long chains of logical reasoning. In this post, I want to discuss teaching the Toulmin model in greater detail.

Toulmin’s model is often presented as a list:

  • Claim—an assertion.
  • Data—evidence, i.e. facts which support the assertion.
  • Warrant—justification for a connection between data and claim, i.e. a rule, principle,or pattern.
  • Backing—principles or body of knowledge that lie behind the warrant, usually belonging to a discipline or field of endeavor.
  • Qualifiers and Rebuttal–conditions, exceptions, qualifications to the claim.

The model is dialogic. We have to imagine an assertor and a questioner. When a claim is made, and questioned, the assertor will produce data or evidence. If the evidence is challenged, not in terms of its facticity, but in terms of its relevance, a warrant will be produced to connect data and claim. If the warrant is challenged, the assertor refers to a body of knowledge, a system of principles or accepted wisdom, or disciplinary practices, to give backing to the warrant.

In explaining his model, Toulmin imagines the claim “Harry was born in Bermuda so he is a British subject.” If the questioner asks, “How do you know?” the warrant is “People who are born in Bermuda are British subjects.” If the questioner asks further, “Why is that so?” the backing for the warrant will refer to particular statutes in British law. Of course, Harry might have become an American citizen through naturalization. Thus, qualifications and possibilities of rebuttal are built into the system as well (Uses, 93-95).

It all seems simple and useful, a handful of terms that have great explanatory power. However, the model was clearly designed as a tool for analyzing arguments, not creating them. Can it also be used as a heuristic for helping writers generate valid arguments? And if so, what is the best way to teach it?

Claims

The first step is recognizing when a claim is being made. In Rhetoric of Reason, James Crosswhite notes that recognizing a claim is not a trivial act.

Every teacher knows how profoundly difficult it is for some students to locate the claims a writer is making. The challenge in such instances is to help to make the claim come to life as a claim for a person who cannot hear a claim’s being made. The person who cannot hear a claim’s being made in a piece of writing is in an important respect insensible to writing as writing. The problem is that the unclaimed reader has not questioned the writing in a way that would allow the claim to come forth as a claim. Until an assertion is understood as something questionable, its being a claim stays closed off to us. (Crosswhite, 90)

We should also note that unless a claim is questioned, in this model of argumentation, there is no call for evidence. In many circumstances, a claim such as “Harry is a British citizen,” would simply be accepted as fact. Whether or not a reader questions a claim depends on many factors, including the ethos and authority of the person making the claim and the habits of mind of the reader. For many students, the mere fact that an article has been printed in a book or newspaper gives it such authority that the claims it makes are accepted without question.

The first step, then, is to work on recognizing claims and looking for evidence. Will giving the students all the terms in the whole model at once in a list or chart help them recognize claims? Or will it shut down the process of recognizing claims too early?

Warrants

If many claims go unquestioned, it is even rarer in public discourse that someone requests what Toulmin calls a “warrant”: a clear explanation of the connection between the claim and the evidence that is offered to support it. A scientific paper that asks a research question, proposes a methodology, presents data, and draws conclusions from that data, might spend considerable time discussing the connection between the data and the conclusions. In fact, if the project is groundbreaking work, the “warrants” might be the most important substance of the paper. However, whether such warrants are requested has much to do with the relationship between the writer and the reader. If the writer and the intended audience are part of the same discipline engaging in similar work, the connections may be obvious and go unquestioned.

If we imagine a student trying to provide evidence to support a thesis statement, does the concept of “warrant” help students discover such evidence? Does it help them evaluate the ideas they come up with? What passes for evidence in most school essays is inductive examples. Will students be able to use the concept of “warrant” to discern the weak connection between their claim and the evidence?

Backing

For lawyers, the backing is the law. For physicists, it is the laws of physics and the discipline itself. In most cases, if the backing is questioned, the argument is in real trouble. This is probably most common in cases where someone in a discipline or professional field is making a claim to someone outside that field. The debate over climate change is a good example. Perhaps 97% of climate scientists make two claims: 1) The Earth is warming. 2) The warming is caused by human activity. If we challenge those claims, scientists will present large amounts of data of various types as grounds for their claims. If we question the connection between the grounds and the claim, as warrants they will present climate models and historical events. If we question the warrants, they will fall back first on their discipline and finally on science itself, as backing. Climate change deniers question the validity of science itself, either by saying that the scientists have ulterior motives and thus their disciplines are corrupt or by saying that science itself is irrelevant because it is all in God’s hands. Either way, the questioning has gone beyond backing and thus beyond Toulmin.

Conclusions

The Toulmin model is simple, elegant, and useful. It was designed to analyze arguments and is probably best used to locate where an argument is being challenged and what might be done in response. Students need to practice recognizing and challenging claims in real world texts before they begin applying these concepts to their own writing. And when they do apply them, they need to imagine the questioning reader implied by the model and anticipate questions about warrants and backing.

The question I have been hinting at from the beginning of this post is “When does a heuristic become an obstacle?” The Toulmin diagram looks like it is representing the necessary parts of an argument. However, what is actually happening is that each term drills into a different layer of social organization, from an individual questioner (evidence), to common sense and shared rules (warrants), to entire disciplines and practices (backing). As a heuristic, it generates epistemological questions about audiences and discourse communities, not logical pieces of an argument. If teachers present the model to students as a parts schematic when it is really something very different, students will become confused, especially if the model is presented as fill-in-the-blanks instructions for making an argument.

What is also very clear about this model is that it is rhetorical. The validity of an argument depends not on a reference to absolute truth, but to a socially-situated body of knowledge and practices which Toulmin calls “backing.” In actual practice, whether a claim is questioned at any level depends as much on the relationship of the person making the claim and the audience than on anything else.

In this post, I have not dealt with qualifications and rebuttals, another interesting part of this model.  I will save that for a future post.

Works Cited

Crosswhite James.  The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

Toulmin, Stephen E.  The Uses of Argument. Updated Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003.

Analyzing Everyday Texts

English professors spend a great deal of time and energy teaching and analyzing complex literary texts.  Rhetoricians often focus on great speeches delivered on momentous historical occasions.  However, the vast majority of texts produced in our society are ignored by scholars.  Such texts facilitate the business of the world, yet are considered too ordinary, uninteresting, and mundane for study.  One of the goals of my “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar is to change that view.

This week I succeeded in doing so, at least for my 22 students.  I gave them an official letter written by Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. to Toyota owners about hazardous floor mats.  I divided the students into groups and asked them “What is going on in this letter?  How does it work?” and lively discussion ensued.  We ran out of time before we could discuss all of the insights we had about this letter.  More about this letter below.

Much of what my students had to say derived from a book I regularly assign in this seminar: Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, by Glenn Stillar.   This is a short but very ambitious book.  Stillar’s analysis triangulates linguistic theory derived from M.A.K. Halliday, rhetorical theory from Kenneth Burke, and social theory from Pierre Bourdieu.  Stillar’s task in the book is to explain how each theoretical perspective works and fit them together into a complementary whole so that we can understand the linguistic, rhetorical, and social functions of any text we encounter.  The presentation appears to be orderly and logical, but there are some problems.  Stillar’s structure is essentially that of an outline, but in presenting an outline in prose, it is hard to maintain the different levels of subordination.  That problem is hard to fix.  Another problem is that Stillar shifts the order of topics without apparent reason or warning.  For example, the subtitle of the book is “Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives,” and indeed that is the order of presentation in the book.  However, on page 10, as he summarizes his approach, he discusses rhetorical theory first, then social theory, and then discourse.  This kind of shifting about happens several times.  A third source of confusion derives from shifting  between Halliday’s terms and his own.  Stillar says that a text performs three functions: organizing, representing  and interacting . Halliday calls these functions “textual,” “ideational,” and  “interpersonal.”  Stillar uses both sets of terms.

Confusion about levels of subordination, shifts in the order of presentation, and shifts in terms, especially in the early chapters, make this ambitious book a difficult read for students.  However, it is well worth the effort.

I ended up making an outline of Stillar’s theory of discourse analysis so that my students could keep the categories straight.  The chapters on Burke and Bourdieu are less problematic.  In fact, the Burke chapters gather together into one discussion useful concepts from a number of important books, no easy task as Burke has new theories in each book.  More about this in a future post.

What I would like to do in this post is work toward a presentation of some of the basic insights of Stillar’s adaptation of Halliday that would allow undergraduate students to use these concepts.

What Stillar calls the “organizing” function is mostly about devices of cohesion and coherence, things such as article usage, pronoun reference, and demonstratives that make text stick together.  Let’s put that aside in our focus on teaching undergraduates.  Stillar is building a set of tools for research in discourse analysis.  In our pedagogical orientation, we want to focus on what students can be taught to notice, and what they can do in responding to a text and in their own writing.

Stillar says of the “representing” function that a text is “about” something in that it “names and arranges participants, processes and circumstances” (18).  The “interacting” function constructs “forms of interaction between an addresser and an addressee in particular social roles” (19).  Exploring these functions is clearly relevant to teaching students to understand and deploy the rhetoric of everyday texts.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of the letter from Toyota:

This notice is being sent to you in accordance with the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. Toyota has decided that a defect which relates to motor vehicle safety exists in certain 200_ through certain 200_ model year [name of model] vehicles. The defect is the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position. Toyota has determined that this defect does not exist in vehicles in which the driver side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.

The first sentence indicates that the letter is being sent in compliance with a law. Toyota does not want to write to the addressee, but is being compelled to do so by another agent, in this case the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  This statement “arranges” the participants: the NHTSA as the coercive authority, Toyota as the unwilling correspondent, and the car owner as the hapless addressee.  Stillar suggests that in determining “what is going on” in a text, we first look at the main verbs, which he says will represent action processes, mental processes, or relations.  The “action” in this sentence is cast in passive progressive, “is being sent,” making the grammatical subject “this notice,” clearly reducing Toyota’s agency in this matter.  The two verbs which do have “Toyota” as subject, “has decided” and “has determined,” represent mental processes rather than actions.  The “defect” which is the motivating theme of the letter simply “exists” without cause or culprit.  Stillar would characterize this use of “exists” as relational, although it represents a non-relation more than any relation to any participant.

The final sentence of the paragraph indicates that the defect does not even “exist” in vehicles with the right floor mats properly secured.  Up to this point, the text has done everything possible to keep Toyota from being a responsible agent.  This last sentence begins to renegotiate the interaction among the parties.  If the defect does not exist in vehicles with floor mats of the right type properly installed, but does exist in some vehicles, then the defect is caused by whoever installed the floor mats.  That is likely to be the car owner.

Toyota is in a difficult rhetorical situation.  They don’t want to be responsible.  They want to blame the customer, but they can’t do that overtly without potentially losing future sales.  This leads to a very carefully constructed letter, in some ways as rich in complexity and nuance as a literary text.

I think that this sort of analysis reveals more about the rhetorical effect of a text than what is offered by the tools that students are normally taught, such as the Aristotelian appeals and Toulmin argument.  More on this in future posts.

Note: I created a “Document Analysis Checklist” that draws mostly on the traditional rhetorical categories of audience, purpose and form, but includes a “Stylistic Choices” section at the end that draws on insights from the Stillar book.  I wrote questions that are designed to help students do the kind of analysis I did with the Toyota document above.  I will test it this quarter in my English 301 course.