Friday, 17 February 2012

The Power of Literary Form

Here is a brief introduction to my master thesis topic. It is all about the persuasive power of entertainment, and how we may not recognize how what is engaging is also potentially manipulative.
In “Lexicon Rhetoricae,” Kenneth Burke seeks to uncover “the principles underlying the appeal of literature” (123). Before he begins he gives what I believe could be a working definition of the aesthetic (“Literature as art, that is, literature designed for the express purpose of arousing emotions” (123)), and rhetoric (effectiveness in literature, unintended effects as well as intended ones (123)). Thus, while the aesthetic would mainly be concerned with whether or not the work of art succeeded in appealing to the emotions of a reader in such a way as to be recognized as beautiful, rhetoric looks at effects and forms a writer must appeal to in order to reach such a stage, and what the consequences of these processes are. The tone of Burke’s writings about this topic is rather cautionary. He warns, “We must also consider the value of formal appeal in inducing acquiescence. For to guide a reader’s expectations is already to have some conquest over him” (178). The Ivory Tower of art is here quickly pulled down to the dangerous work of influence. Simply by guiding the reader’s desires the author has taken a level of control over him which the reader may not be aware of. This process of seduction and surrender is described in more detail in the following passage:          

“The rhythm of a page, in setting up a corresponding rhythm in the body, creates marked degrees of expectancy, or acquiescence. A rhythm is a promise which the poet makes to the reader – and in proportion as the reader comes to rely upon this promise, he falls into a state of general surrender which makes him more likely to accept without resistance the rest of the poet’s material. In becoming receptive to so much, he becomes receptive to still more” (141).

This is where the aesthetic becomes rhetorical. The aesthetic process of form has the rhetorical effect of making us accept the message or argument without question. We don’t want to question the process because we are enjoying the seduction. Just study how George Lucas steadily builds a rhythm of expectation to a climax in "Star Wars: A New Hope" as we follow Luke Skywalker on his assault of the Death Star

We are experiencing what Burke refers to as ‘aesthetic truth,’ which is not simply the transmission of information (revelation) but a transformative experience (ritual). This is a very potent situation for rhetorical persuasion, and the author has the home-court advantage, “By thoroughness he [the author] should be able to overwhelm his reader to accept his interpretations. For a pattern of experience is an interpretation of life” (176). We are here going into the realms of what one could almost call conversion. The reader may resist at first, but he is now in the world created by the rules of the author and operating by the author’s logic, “The thoroughness of the artist’s attack can ‘wear down’ the reader until he accepts the artist’s interpretation, the pattern of experience underlying the Symbol. He may, when the book is finished, return to his own contrary patterns of experience (but during the reading the evidence has been rigorously selected, it ‘points’ as steadily in one direction as the contentions of a debater)” (176-177). 

This ‘pattern of experience’ is often almost undetectable, but it can sometimes be observed “when an apparently arbitrary or illogical association of ideas can be shown to possess an ‘emotional’ connective” (159), and this is where my thesis comes in. Kenneth Burke developed a method of rhetorical criticism called ‘indexing’ which he hoped could contribute to make the underlying patterns of experience in texts more obvious so the audience could make a conscious choice about which influences they allowed into their lives, claiming that “nothing less than very thorough training in the discounting of rhetorical persuasiveness can make a citizenry  truly free” (“LAPE” 285). 

So there you go. My project is to make people free! Isn't that great?