A Slaughterhouse Somewhere in the High Plains: rhetorical analysis

Let’s do some re-reading (together), some further reading and rhetorical analysis of Schlosser’s project, by way of the opening section of chapter 8, “the most dangerous job.” Talk about immersion. Let’s see and hear (and smell) what’s going on there, rhetorically. Here is the beginning of the passage as originally published in Rolling Stone:

One night I visit a slaughterhouse somewhere in the high plains. The slaughterhouse is one of the nation’s largest. About 5,000 head of cattle enter it every day, single file, and leave in a different form. Someone who has access to the plant, who is upset by its working conditions, offers to give me a tour. The slaughterhouse is an immense building, gray and square, about three stories high with no windows on the front and no architectural clues to what’s happening inside. My friend gives me a chain-mail apron and gloves, suggesting I try them on. Workers on the line wear about eight pounds of chain mail beneath their white coats – shiny steel armor that covers their hands, wrists, stomach and back. The chain mail is designed to protect workers from cutting themselves and from being cut by other workers. But knives somehow manage to get around it. My host hands me some Wellingtons, the kind of knee-high rubber boots that English gentlemen wear in the countryside. “Tuck your pants into the boots,” he says. “We’ll be walking through some blood.”

We have the general analytical tools of ethos, pathos, logos in our rhetorical toolbox. This passage is a marvel in pathos. We can do some further analysis by way of a rhetorical heuristic or analytical device developed by Kenneth Burke, called the Dramatistic Pentad. It is a method for determining the motive or purpose behind any human behavior. We can apply this to the scene we enter in the slaughterhouse, explore the motives of that place and job; we can also use it to analyze the writer’s motive (argument) in re-presenting that scene.  Burke, you may recall, made an appearance at the beginning of this course when we first began to speak of the dramatic elements of essay writing. Burke’s basic vision is that all thinking and writing–be it in an essay or a play or a novel or a conversation–are rhetorical and dramatic. Rhetoric highlights the conflict and resolution of ideas taking place in symbolic actions. Here is the Pentad:

  1. Act: What happened? What is the action? What is going on? What action; what thoughts?
  2. Scene: Where is the act happening? What is the background situation?
  3. Agent: Who is involved in the action? What are their roles?
  4. Agency: How do the agents act? By what means do they act?
  5. Purpose: Why do the agents act? What do they want?

We can also see, perhaps with some further emphasis by way of the dramatic elements of this passage, how Schlosser acts in this scene, what his purpose is. There is, as I suggest, lots of pathos here. A rhetorical term that identifies the descriptive force of this passage and its pathos is “enargia,” language and figures that provide vivid description. Think of it as the Greek version of “show, don’t tell.” We should also recall another statement Kenneth Burke makes that I suggested, earlier in the course, could be used for a basic definition of rhetoric and its implications in any essay: Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing.

So what is Schlosser showing us here by not telling us? In what ways does this passage serve his argument?

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One thought on “A Slaughterhouse Somewhere in the High Plains: rhetorical analysis

  1. Pingback: A.S.A.P… A. | Joshua Rogers

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