Monday, January 2, 2012

Some more thoughts about technai and 2012, in what may be my driest and most academic post yet, or ever


Whether or not the post is, I'm pretty sure this will be my dullest lede ever:

I mentioned when I was talking about hornets and bulls that I think many of the ways we communicate with each other politically are technai (teck-nigh)that’s the plural of techne (teck-nee), the Greek root from which we get technology, technique, and technical, usually translated as “art” but in modern English “art” has come to mean several other things, “method” is too small in scope, and “craft” and “skill” miss some of the key elements of the idea, so many rhetoric teachers just say “techne” rather than translating it and dragging in baggage.*

To the Greeks, the difference, approximately, was that a techne was what you did to do something well, and various other terms —episteme is the one most often cited —were ways to do something good. A master of the techne of puppy-kicking may be able, from a standing start, to send a beagle puppy screaming through the exact center of a third-floor window, and we can agree that he did it well, but what he did was not good.** A psychotic who climbs a tower and begins shooting people may have studied exactly the same techne of sniping as the police sniper who stops him; the techne of preparing pork strongly overlaps the techne of cooking people; the techne of making very sharp pieces of metal is equally applicable to guillotines and scalpels.

So all the way back at the beginnings of recorded rhetoric and communication theory in Western thought, there’s a split between people who think that rhetoric is (or should be) a way to find the truth, and those who think it’s merely a the techne for getting one’s way by persuasion rather than force. Socrates, at least as Plato reports him, was on the “a good speaker is one who tells the truth” side, and so were most of the Cynics and Skeptics; Aristotle, and most of the other schools of philosophy, tended to the view that rhetoric was a techne, i.e. “a good speaker is someone who is good at speaking. ” I usually side with Aristotle on this, but I sometimes slip in side dish of Cynicism (as is appropriate for a guy who named his self-pub press after Metrocles).

Most situations that are at all interesting are on the borderline, and this time out I’m going to talk about one of them. One of the traditional areas of concern for rhetoric is organization; two particular organizations are overwhelmingly common in broadcast advertising and political speaking today: Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, and something called Burke’s organization.

Alan Monroe, back in the 1930s, came up with a five step organization, which you can read all about in speech textbooks, if you didn’t already learn how to do it in school. I’m more interested in its psychology today. The Monroe Motivated Sequence has five steps:
•The Attention step is some version of “Listen up, this is important because …” which might be an interesting story, statistic, or something of that sort. (Martin Luther King, in the “I have a dream” speech which is a nearly perfect MMS, began by pointing out that since he was speaking from the Lincoln Monument, he was standing in Lincoln’s shadow; John F. Kennedy linked “Civis Romanus Sum” to “Ich bin ein berliner”***).
•The Need step is the “something’s the matter here” step (King’s note that 100 years later they were still waiting for full rights, Lyndon Johnson’s quick capsule history of prior efforts to end segregation in his signing speech for the Civil Rights Act).
•The Satisfaction step is “it could be better.” That’s where King said he refused to believe that the Bank of Justice had insufficient funds; in Robert F. Kennedy’s Indianapolis eulogy for King, it’s the section that begins with “We can do well in this country.”
•The Visualization Step, I used to tell my unfortunate students, was originally called the Vision step; sadly, it had to be renamed, I suppose because we have become the sort of world where people visualize more than they envision. It’s the step where you tell them that it’s not just meeting this one need, now, it’s the whole world becoming better. That is of course the point where King told his audience that he had a dream, where JFK told the Rice University audience “We choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy but because it is hard,” where RFK quoted Aeschylus about making gentle the savage heart of man.
•Action is just “so let’s do it!”, is usually very brief, and is frequently omitted if it’s obvious. The only modern speaker I know of who tended to long Action steps was Jimmy Carter, because he’d wade into uncontrollable wonkery at that point.

There are a lot of bastardized and watered-down versions of Monroe’s Motivated Sequence out there, but done well and rigorously, it’s a kind of poem: a smooth glide from hey-look to uh-oh to fixable to the key to everything. It takes your inner not-yet-King-Arthur and sends him running to get a replacement sword for Sir Kay’s first tournament, to seeing a simple solution (“I’ll just borrow the sword from this war memorial”) to the moment when he pulls that thing out and becomes King. Since I recently wrote about this over at CMOSite, and some readers read both blogs, I’ll also point out that it’s the rhythm of the first Kia Hamster commercial: attention, we’re all just hamsters in treadmills, we need to be something else, look, we could satisfy our need by driving Kias! And in our Kia’s we’d have music and friends and the car would go somewhere—what a vision!

At the core of a good Monroe Motivated Sequence there’s a movement from the mundane desire for things to get better to the overarching vision**** of a world made better and of dreams fulfilled.

Hang onto that vision a moment because now we’re going somewhere ugly …

Burke’s organization is unfairly named for the same reason that Hansen’s disease is: you shouldn’t name diseases after the people who try to cure them. Kenneth Burke was one of the more amazing minds of the twentieth century and there isn’t room here to begin to cover all the interesting things about him. (And again, a point I often repeat since quite a few nerdly types read this blog, and some of them are given to posing online and at science fiction conventions: having read what follows does not mean you know Burke any more than reading a Sherlock Holmes story means you know London!)

Burke started out by looking at fire-and-brimstone preacher speeches, and then looked at speeches by such folks as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, and observed a four-part structure:

•Guilt/shame: You, my follower, are a loathesome bag of scum.
•Victim: But only because you have allowed The Bad People (or the devil, or the low-priced deodorant) to make you into a loathesome bag of scum.
•Redemption: Rise up and slay The Bad People (or cast out the devil, or stop buying that nasty stuff).
•Salvation: A world without Bad People (or where you are free of the devil, or using better deodorant) is a far better world.

It’s the script of a ghastly little well-meaning song that I am forced to admit I learned all the words to in my extreme youth, One Tin Soldier. It is, as you might expect from where it was found, Hitler’s script, and Stalin’s, and the script of every major genocide of the past century. It’s all those weight-loss and cosmetic-surgery commercials that make women scream and throw things at the television. And it’s used all the time to drag alleged sinners back into the clutches of an angry god —because that’s the only kind it can sell. Abusive partners use it (you’re a miserable little sack of shit, but honey, you know I love you and it’s not your fault, it’s your shitty friends and family. Promise me you’ll never see them again and we’ll have such a happy little home).

Now, on to the point, however slowly… if rhetoric were purely a techne, then the choice between the Monroe Motivated Sequence and Burke’s organization would be purely a technical matter —what do you want people to do and which is likelier to get them to do it?

But the two approaches are utterly different at the heart. Monroe depends on a good vision, and although there probably are some twisted shits out there whose faces light up with an angelic glow when they imagine exterminating their enemies, for most of us a good vision has something or other to do with brotherhood, prosperity, freedom, maybe peace and love among humanity, that kind of thing. Something I pointed out to my students, again maybe too often, is that the underlying message of a Monroe Motivated Sequence is We can take a step toward the Kingdom of God, right here and now, and you are worthy to take that step. To the white people of America (by far the majority of his audience for the “I Have a Dream” speech), King implied despite all of history, you are worthy of the honor of being the generation that ends segregation. Kennedy implied we were good enough to go to the moon; and his brother, in that must-have-been-pretty-scary situation in Indianapolis (most of the crowd heard that MLK had been murdered in that speech; Kennedy begins by telling everyone to lower their signs, quiet down, and listen to the terrible news), implied you are strong enough to bear this, go on, and do the right thing. There’s no way to know whether that was why, of course, but it is true that Indianapolis was the largest American city not to have riots that week.

Monroe offers not just the hope of heaven, but the hope that we’re the people who can build it.

Burke, on the other hand, has a target at its heart. It demands, not only a villain, but one evil enough to be annihilated, one responsible for everything the hearers feel is wrong. One of those useful self-help formulas is Hurt people hurt people, and Burke’s organization wounds the listener, to get the listener to wound someone else. (This, incidentally, is why I’m ambivalent about putting most of talk radio in as an example of the Burke organization. There’s certainly plenty of scapegoating but for the most part talk radio hosts affirm rather than degrade their listeners. They certainly encourage anger and polarization, but to really get your followers to hurt people, you’ve got to really hurt your followers. (A secret known by too many sergeants and football coaches). If one of the big name talk radio types begins to start programs by laying into the listeners for their weakness, ineffectiveness, and cowardice —and then adds that what has made their mostly middle-aged white male listeners become such feeble cowards is those Democrat liberals and treehuggers and feminists —that is the time to catch the plane out of the country.)

Despite my theoretical leanings, I find it hard not to see a moral difference between Monroe and Burke. Yes, if someone’s value system is warped enough so that the vision that makes their heart leap up is a vile one, you could use Monroe’s Motivated Sequence to manipulate such a person to do greater evil; sure, if the people you’re addressing really have become miserable pathetic wretches under the iron heel of their oppressors, you could use Burke’s organization to make them rise up (but even then it seems to me you’re asking for a Reign of Terror if the revolution wins). So reluctantly, I’m forced to say that some of those choices are just not technai ….

It should be pretty obvious that for the last few elections, presidential candidates have usually flown high and Monroevian and left the Burkean dirty work to the vice presidential candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama beat a pretty Burkean Clinton campaign with something very Monroe, and then Monroe’d the rest of the way to the White House past McCain’s inept Monroe and Sarah Palin’s incomprehensible goulash.

This time around, if we’re talking about speeches anyway, Romney and Paul have been relatively Monroevian …. and other than those two, the Republican field has gone solidly for the Burkean dark side, with Rick Perry’s “Strong” being just about one minute of solid Burke. It’s kind of fun to watch the ‘pubs use it on each other, in the sense that watching two cats shaken in a pillowcase is fun if you’re basically evil.

At a guess, once he’s really running, Obama will try to go the Monroe route again —he’s never done anything else, and he’s certainly good at it.

Except, I was just kind of thinking, there’s a much older organization, called Corax’s organization because the Greeks said he codified it (little survives of his writings, and the one story about him involves a lot of slick wordplay and general cheating of the type that would seem to indicate that Corax was on the techne side if anyone was).

The Coractian method works like this:

•Introduction: Why I’m here and what I want to do
•Narration: Here are the facts as I see them.
•Argumentation: Here is how I assemble the facts to arrive at my conclusion.
•Refutation: Here is how my opponents came to mistakenly believe something else, and why they are wrong.
•Conclusion: So we should do that thing.

It’s not poetry at all, neither the soaring poetry of Monroe nor the bloody war-drum of Burke. It doesn’t invite us to go straight to heaven or straight to the other direction. It just makes a case that we ought to do something. Attorneys still use it in criminal cases, constantly:

I’m the prosecutor and I’m here to ask you to send this guy to jail
 here’s what the witnesses say he did
here’s the law it fits under
here’s why the defense is misleading you
now jail him.
Hello, I’m the defense attorney and I want you to set this man free
 here’s what the witnesses (or some different witnesses say)
here’s why that doesn’t prove he did it or why it wasn’t actually against the law or both
here’s how the prosecutor is trying to trick you
 please let this guy go.

Some other very fine 20th century speakers were fond of Corax; the American masters of it were Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Malcolm X.

And here’s what I’m thinking; Corax is the organization you use when you want the listener to follow, not their passions (noble or base), or their hopes or fears, but their heads: it asks that they see things the way you do and reason as you do, and presents that as a choice. In that sense it is respectful of the listener (although the argumentation and refutation can certainly be twisted into aggressive and corrupt forms; what I mean is, it doesn’t require the listener to become naïve and trusting, as Monroe does, or paranoid and enraged, as Burke does). You can still lie and advocate absolute evil with Corax’s organization, but it doesn’t require it; you can still get people carried away by irrational hopes and dreams, but it doesn’t require that either. Perhaps Corax is the one that is truly a techne —a morally neutral means to an end chosen for (we hope) moral or ethical reasons.

And I find myself thinking … I would really like to have a chance to vote for someone I agreed with who used the Corax organization habitually. I might even be tempted to vote for someone I didn’t always agree with if they used Corax enough. Because honestly, in the current best and worst of times, I don’t actually want to go straight to heaven, or directly the other way. I’d kind of like a president who said, “Here’s my best guess; if you back me, let’s do it.”

*As an example, if for some reason the works were translated into classical Greek, The Techne of French Cooking, Zen and the Techne of Motorcycle Maintenance, Djikstra’s A Techne of Programming, and Le Guin’s Steering the Techne would all make sense (though the last would lose its pun). But Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Technai, Stanislavski’s My Life in Techne, McCandless’s A Techne of Lighting the Stage, The Techne of the Peaceful Warrior, and The Druidic Techne of the Wise would not make sense.

**At least I hope we all agree on that. No doubt I shall be the object of vituperation on the puppy-kicking blogs.

***Yes, by now, thanks to the endless-echo of the internet, we all know it should have been Ich bin berliner. It is exactly the mistake that, for example, a Dane, speaking English to an American, might make if he said “I am a Danish.” We shall not here contemplate how the inhabitants of Hamburg or Frankfurt are supposed to explain themselves. Now go back to the main text, that’s where the good stuff is.

**** never should have given up that word, Alan! Since your passing the world has filled up with visualizers and suffers a genuine dearth of visionaries.