Saturday, September 1, 2018

An analytical poke

Every now and again I come to think of the big disconnect between the act of performing rhetorical communication and rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical communication happens any time you strategically choose your words to get someone to do something (from passing the salt to approving a bank loan). Rhetorical analysis is the act of looking really closely at some sort of rhetorical communication and analyzing what's going on in it. The communication usually happens very fast, and the analysis very slowly. That's the disconnect.

The disconnect is, of course, inevitable. An analysis has to perform many tasks, and be explicit about most of them. It has to provide context, justify the significance of the communicative act under analysis, and describe it in sufficient detail to convey to readers what's going on. This takes quite a number of words, even if only performed with the minimum of surplus verbiage. Even after subsequent revisions with the explicit intent to reduce word count, there will by necessity be a substantial amount of words to it. It goes with the territory.

The communicative act, on the other hand, only has to do what it set out to do. Once done, it's over, and other things can commence. In trivial cases, it literally takes seconds - the salt is passed. In other cases, it can take a bit longer, but tends to be limited by the physical constraints of the human body. A speech can only be so long. All said and done, other things happen. Life goes on.

Thus, analyses tend to end up being much ado about seemingly nothing. On first glance, you might wonder how it is even possible to write thousands of words about something that takes seconds to perform. Then you dig into it and discover that there's a lot going on in that one moment, which indeed needed all those words to unpack. Worse, you begin to look at similar situations for similar implications - the analysis continues inside you. Further communicative acts require at least some thought before they become routine again.

The power of rhetorical analysis lies in this disconnect. A good analysis will disconnect you from a situation, and then force you to reconnect to it in a new way. You think you knew what's going on, but looking back on it you realize that, no, there's more to it. Your perspective has changed, and so you must pay attention to the differences made visible. You have permission to be perturbed.

In all this, life goes on. But you still have to reconnect.