Discourse among yourselves

I just tried to tackle an article in the January/February 2006 Books and Culture written by my friend Craig Mattson. Craig is incredibly smart, and during my internship at Hope CRC gave me some of the best sermon feedback ever, which makes perfect sense since he is an associate professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College.

Because Craig in incredibly smart, it will take me a few more read-throughs, and perhaps some consultation with my incredibly smart English Ph.D student husband, and perhaps even some additional consultation with my incredibly smart Political Science Ph.D student brother (whose always handy for a philosophy tutorial) before I fully understand the article. But, I want to understand it because I found this great little section buried in there:

I listen to students for a living, as they talk in the classroom, on the sidewalk, at the coffee shop. Their vocal quality is sibilant, often nasal, with plenty of back-of-the-throat fry. Few students use their chest cavity for resonation. They often qualify their own remarks, deprecate themselves, leave sentences unfinished. Their favorite tag is some variation on “You know what I mean?” Now, you could say that all these apparantly modest habits of discourse suggest a mastery of the rhetoric of assent. But it sounds to me like a loss of rhetorical nerve, as if students have picked up (Wayne) Booth’s inflections but not his convictions. They sound like actors who have mastered a dialect but can’t remember their lines. Call it the rhetoric of accent: slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to shrug.

Here’s what I need to untangle:

  1. I don’t know enough about Wayne Booth. Erik (the smart husband) seems to recognize the name right away.
  2. What exactly does the “rhetoric of assent” mean?
  3. How does Richard Rorty fit into this? He comes up frequently in the rest of the article.

But, here’s what I already like:

  1. The insight that even the physiological act of speaking reflects our cultural ideas about communication.
  2. Recognition of the hesitancy with which younger generations speak, and in some cases act. (Craig compares the students at Trinity today to students there 30 years ago–30 years ago, burning Nixon in effigy; today, Bush-Cheney signs and a sense that they wouldn’t even know how to protest something if they wanted to.)
  3. And, of course, because this is me thinking about it, what all of this means for future generations of “church.” God’s people are called, individually and collectively, to speak, to act (speaking and acting are tightly woven together in Hebrew!). Are we coming to a time culturally when we need to learn how to do this? And, how often do I have to remove phrases like “I think” or “I feel” or “It seems” from my sermons, phrases that qualify what I’m saying, and dull sharpness of communication, phrases that verge on self-deprecation?

One Response to “Discourse among yourselves”

  1. Erik Says:

    “Rhetoric of assent” is a term coined by Wayne Booth in his Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. His main question is “whether it is possible to know, in a rational way, when we should change our minds, or how we should talk about what to believe. These are issues that require rhetoric, and particularly a rhetoric of systematic assent that recognizes good reasons of many kinds.” Booth is writing in response to the political upheavals of the 1960s and the lack of reason in many of that period’s disagreements.

    Booth’s argument is awfully complicated, but he’s interested in shifting focus from doubt to assent.

    (The quote is from The Rhetorical Tradition.)