How can we learn to “read” the voice of our culture?

A hand reaches into thin air and seems to grab and hold an invisible object.  A bare foot presses itself to the floor.  The camera pans across a woman and a girl sitting on a sofa.  Then it centers on a man, sitting on a chair in his living room, holding his hands up as if he’s driving.  He’s smiling, as are the woman and girl on the sofa.  He turns his head and looks at the girl’s, then turns again to face in front of him, and his eyes go wide, his smile falls into a grimace of fear.  The fear is on the faces of the woman and girl as well.  They get up from the sofa and go to him, the girl wrapping her arms around his middle, the woman making a strap of her arms from his shoulder to his waist.  The man jerks forward and kicks over the coffee table, sending a bowl of confetti flying, and the pieces of confetti glimmer like shattered glass.  The words “embrace life, always wear your seatbelt” appear on the screen.

This is a public service announcement from Sussex Safer Roads, in the UK.  James Fredal, Associate Professor of English at OSU, showed it to the Ministerium in March as he led us in examining the question of how we can learn to “read” the voice of our culture.  Jim specializes in rhetoric, and teaches graduate students to examine everything from television commercials to ancient texts.  He asked us to consider some contextual questions.  Can we tell, from a piece of rhetoric, who it’s meant to address.  In the case of the Embrace Life PSA, we were able to identify that its model audience is white, male, married, and middle class.  What do we know about the time and place in which a piece of rhetoric was produced?  For the PSA, this was fairly easy, but it gets much harder when one considers historical texts, or texts that speak into a deeply foreign culture.  Why was the piece of rhetoric produced, what need was it meant to speak to?  When we considered the Embrace Life PSA, we were left wondering if there was a rash of automobile deaths among middle aged men in Sussex.  What genre does the piece of rhetoric belong to?  A PSA is a very specific genre, one that’s created by government or public interest groups and meant to effect large cultural change.  All of these things help to define the purpose of a piece of rhetoric, the action that the people who produced it want (or wanted) it’s audience to take.

Like everything else in our society, our rhetoric is changing as the tools for producing it change.  A video, like the Embrace Life PSA, doesn’t lend itself to an abstract reading.  It’s images are specific.  Jim pointed out that describing the video in text, like I did at the start of this essay, could leave us with a more generalized sense of its meaning.  I didn’t say that the man in the PSA was white, that he was clean shaven and wearing a nice shirt, that his living room had wallpaper and comfortable looking furniture – all of the cues that would immediately inform someone who was watching it that it was speaking to a white, middle-class audience.  Images are often more powerful than words, but their very specificity tends to narrow their focus.  And this changes our understanding of what makes for successful rhetoric, which has often followed a pattern of starting specific, going broad, and then returning to specificities.  If everything in a video is specific, it’s hard to generalize about the state of the world.  A young, unmarried, poor man watching that PSA might have walked away thinking that there wasn’t any great reason for him to wear a seatbelt, and that he could wait until he had some money and was married with children.

At the end of Jim’s talk, we turned to a passage from Jeremiah 7.     This made many of us feel that we were on firmer ground, because it was very like the historical/contextual Biblical criticism that we were trained in while in seminary.  None of us were Jeremiah’s original audience, however, and in a very real way, Jeremiah’s rhetoric wasn’t meant for us, but for the people of Judah.  Jim told us that for every piece of rhetoric there is a second persona, whom the rhetoric is addressing directly, and a third persona, all of those who are left out of the direct address.  We are third personas when it comes to Jeremiah’s rant at the gates of the temple.  Which doesn’t mean that it can’t speak to us, only that it speaks to us in a different way, and our response to it will serve a different purpose.

Most of us, and most of the people we serve, live within a greater onslaught of rhetoric than any other people in human history.  Messages are flying around us all the time, and they’re effecting us whether we want them to or not.  Learning to critique these messages can help us to make decisions about their value to us, can help us resist those messages that run counter to our deepest beliefs, and can help us advocate for those who are being negatively effected by the rhetorical thrust of our culture.  Jim told us that he believes that rhetorical analysis is best done in groups, since groups are diverse enough to allow us to see each other’s blind spots and raise the questions that any one of us might not think to ask.  Is there a place in our faith communities for this kind of rhetorical analyses?  Will it help us to emulate Jeremiah and become prophetic voices in our culture?

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