Salting Boyland’s Wound: “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”

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Apr 182012

Social media—From Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic) —and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill. A report on what the epidemic of loneliness is doing to our souls and society.

I thought this article published in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic (and, lucky for you, online as well) may be of interest, particularly for those who use Boyland’s “Confessions of an Instant Messenger.” Stephen Marche (culture columnist for Esquire) answers the question: Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

And, I must add: the five-part dramatic structure of this inquiry-driven essay is great. It could even be part of a rhetorical conversation, considering this is a longish piece, even for a magazine like the Atlantic (takes up 8 editorial pages, sans 2 full page ads that interrupt the piece) and needs to sustain the momentum of the inquiry—one many readers may be passionately defensive about—through a good bit of (digressive) research on: America’s facination with loneliness (ie., the Pilgrims, self invention, “Song of Myself,” “Self-Reliance,” Moby Dick, astronauts, etc.); the development of digital technology, virtual realities, and social media; the neuroscience of loneliness; and more. The dramatic five-part structure: 1) development, 2) historical digression, 3) complication, 4) crisis and climax, 5) resolution. Oh so good. (Oh, and I should note: those descriptions of each part of the structure come from Doug Whynott.)


Václav Havel

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Dec 192011

Learning this morning of Václav Havel’s death forced me to revisit his “The Power of the Powersless.”  I fondly remember his discussion of a greengrocer and ideology (excerpted below), which I initially read as an undergraduate, as an early encounter with the notion of what I now call rhetorical situation.  Thanks Gillian Gane! 


Obviously the greengrocer . . . does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe. . . .

Iraq Casualties by State and Scientistic Writing

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Dec 142011
One of the kinds of suggestions that always sets my teeth on edge when I see it in student peer reviews is, "Your argument would be strengthened if you provided more statistics, facts, etc."  While of course there are times when certain kinds of information are absent in student writing, often this advice seems to come from the assumption that arguments presented in a scientistic or statistical manner have more authority or legitimacy or are simply "truer" than other ways of knowing.

Thus,  I think it would be interesting to use this map from The Guardian to talk about scientistic writing and knowledge in 121.  The kind of knowledge generated by this text is very ambiguous, despite the clarity a brief glimpse might imply.  The color key, for example, suggests that California and Texas (mournfully shaded black) have suffered the most, whereas the proportional information you get when you click on a state reveals that not very populous states like Montana and my home state Maine (shaded a festive light pink) have endured significantly higher proportions of casualties and injuries.  
Oct 142011

Of course the recent protests and the signs they have produced provide an excellent opportunity to discuss rhetorical notions like exigence, audience, and rhetorical situation with students.  Finding topical examples always helps to reinforce the idea that rhetorical analysis is something that can help us make sense of the world.  The Christian Science Monitor recently posted a "Best of" roundup of protest signs.  My students felt that number four failed to produce a coherent message because he misinterpreted the rhetorical situation by making unreasonable assumptions about his audience.

Introducing Ethos, Pathos, Logos

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Nov 112010

I've attached two readings, one a pdf file available on Marc Prensky's website that describes digital natives and digital immigrants (and how the latter should educate the former) and the other website that discusses internet addiction (and how parents can identify it in their children and seek help).  In the past, I've used these texts to introduce the concepts of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos to my 121 students.  It's instructive to have two readings that address the same topic, but which have very different agendas and styles.  Discussing these concepts as they relate to these articles tends to lead fairly organically to conversations about exigence and rhetorical situation.  It also tends to lead to criticisms of the terms, particularly the assumption that an immigrant is somehow inferior to a native.  Also, of course, students enjoy talking about how educators are ill-prepared to educate them.

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