Project 2 Follow-up: rhetoric of the essay

In focusing on rhetoric in the second writing project, we explored the ways that the rhetorical work of an essay organizes and develops its argument. The assignment challenged you to think about this as a critical reader, and to work through this as a writer in developing your close reading of the texts and the rhetorical elements within them.

Emily’s essay, “Immersed in Ideology,” provides a good model of close reading in action: effective in taking time with the argument, creating longer body paragraphs that unfold the argument, provide complications but also clarity. In fact, as you will see, Emily argues for the rhetorical significance of “immersion,” and I would say this essay is strong rhetorically in the ways it immerses its reader in that argument.  Here are the first two paragraphs:

Claudia Rankine, Baratunde Thurston, and Frederick Douglass all share a common feature in their essays: immersion. Douglass writes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave and intensifies the topic through his powerful autobiographical anecdotes that ultimately criticize the enslavement of African Americans. In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, a lyric essay,Rankine overwhelms the reader in her thoughts and ideologies in order to communicate her notion that the media negatively affects individuals’ lives. Thurston, in How to Be Black, uses his humor to reinforce the necessity to re-complicate stereotyping. By anecdotes and irony, all three authors immerse the reader to convey their various opinions.

Immersion keeps the reader engaged in the text; Frederick Douglass’ text had the potential to be an utterly uninteresting litany on why the institution of slavery ought to end. However, rather than hurl facts and figures at the reader, Douglass gains the reader’s attention by communicating the horror of his life in slavery. Douglass explores this immersion all throughout his text and uses it to persuade his audience of the necessity to abolish slavery and to feel the sense of familiarity with the readers that he never got to feel as a slave. Douglass employs the horrific stories of his life to intensify the plot. He describes his Aunt Hester’s punishment in appalling detail, “She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes… [A]fter rolling up his sleeves, be commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor” (Douglass 7). The reader senses the loss of dignity that Hester endures through this experience and the terror that Douglass feels as the onlooker. His description of the scene from the point-of-view of his young self compels the reader to suffer a similar loss of innocence and painful companionship with the young Douglass that hides in a closet, looking on. Douglass’ depiction of Hester’s pose also gives the reader the entire effect of the situation as Douglass witnessed it. Her outstretched position illustrates the complete vulnerability that Hester must suffer through. Then, his interrupter, which includes Hester’s screams and her attacker’s swearing, demonstrates the passivity that these horrifying details receive in such a situation. The fact that these moments do not even deserve their own sentences leads the reader to the realization that these occurrences appear utterly normal to the child. This notion appalls. When one considers such atrocities ordinary, a serious problem afflicts the system. Douglass clearly communicates this by his parenthetical statement. Therefore, we, as the audience, feel panic and pity for the writer, Hester, and all slaves. By playing on this horror, Douglass convinces the audience to accept his view that slavery negatively impacts the country and ought to be abolished completely.


This idea of “immersion” will continue to be important, particularly as we head into the final project. It is something to take up as we explore the poetics of the essay, as well.


Essay as Poetics as Hacking: Ander Monson

Ander Monson’s “Essay as Hack” is a sort of hypertextual, new media essay about the essay as hyperactive text. He writes print essays that are in some ways, minimally, linked to the web. This one, you notice, has a hyperlink to another essay from his first book (Neck Deep), that is now included in a website that is somehow (not entirely clear) part of those essays. He does something similar with his recent book Vanishing Point–a print book of essays with adjoining or complementary or further reading available on the web at his main site, Other Electricities. But Monson has in mind not just the essay in new media forms, the essay updated for new technologies. He is thinking about the essay itself as a technology for thinking.

And so the futuristic and new in Monson’s mind returns us to the old medium of Montaigne’s essay, theater of the brain, thought thinking. For example:

Each essay we read is as close as we can get to another mind. It is a simulation of the mind working its way through a problem. This is not to suggest that every essay is good, revelatory, successful, fruitful, interesting. But stepping into an essay is stepping into the writer’s mind. We are thrown into the labyrinth, a huge stone rolling behind us. It is a straight shot of the brain in all its immediacy, its variety, strands of half-remembered text, partly-thought-through ideas, images below the surface of memory. We are thrown into process: of thinking, which is like an algorithm, a machine for replicating or simulating thought….

The essay is a thinking and writing machine; or more to Monson’s point, to essay is to hack one’s way through the process of thinking: the essay as hack is a technology repurposed to solve a sort of problem. Monson’s essay returns us to our starting point: the essay on the essay, the philosophy of the essay. But it also pushes us forward in developing its rhetoric, the effects of its argument, by way of its  poetics. The essay as technology or machine or hacking of our thinking machinery emphasizes the importance of the “process” by which essays are made. Process, as we have been hearing, is a keyword and interest of the new media essay. And it is what Emerson has in mind, surely, in “Circles,” where every truth written is a witness to its process of becoming undone.

And so, for the experimental third writing project, the purpose is for you to explore and consider more directly the process (and by extension, the processing) of the essay. For a complement, to Monson’s sense of the essay as hypertext, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay on hypertext narrative (she’s the author that writes the hypertext memoir, “My Body”).

My hack of Monson’s hack as essay (my digital annotations) is available here.