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.

the rhetoric of immersion:

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.

the rhetoric of counterargument:

Casie’s essay provides an example of the ways a counterargument adds depth to the essay–a way of immersing your reader into the complexity of the argument you are developing. In this case, this counterargument comes in the final body paragraph, leading into the conclusion. Note the simple but effective way that the counterargument is signaled to the reader: although

Although I associate both authors with being nonconformists, it is important to highlight the moments where they almost (or do) cave to meet society’s demands. For Kaysen, this occurs when she subtly describes her longing to take the medications. As earlier noted, she understands that the pills symbolize their fatal flaws, but good behavior plus medication could mean a way out. However, if Kaysen is such a nonconformist, shouldn’t she be advocating against it? Perhaps her argument would have been more valid had she pretended to take the antidepressants and watch as the world around her suddenly becomes accepting, even though she did not actually change. Rankine undergoes this same method when she conforms to the genre constraint her publisher places on her work. She strongly feels that it should be classified as poetry, but the editors claim it as a lyric essay. They are so concerned with placing at least one constraint on the piece, that they not only change the genre, but also place the distinction right on the front cover. This lost argument stares its readers in the face, taking away the validity and trust behind Rankine’s argument. More importantly, what is so different between Kaysen and Rankine from Douglass? Perhaps Kaysen and Rankine display their weaknesses as a rhetorical effect. They want to indicate the level of control society exerts, and they cannot do so if they do not conform in at least one instance. In Douglass’s case, it is likely that he has no option; he submits because he feels that he has to. For this reason, he does not address the issue in his text, whereas Rankine does. Rankine includes instances where she engages with the editor in order to demonstrate their relationship. She writes, “My editor asks me to tell her exactly what the liver means to me” (Rankine 54). In this instance, Rankine knows the answer to the question, but does not know how to say it to her. The editor symbolizes society, and the demands it exerts, whereas Rankine is herself; someone who is supposed to answer but chooses or cannot bring themselves to do so.


Writing Project Workshop: Revising and Editing for Rhetorical Effect

Rhetoric in an essay, we have seen, is not simply a matter of the product. Rather, writers build and develop the rhetoric–the ways that the essay organizes and focuses the attention of the reader–in the process of drafting, revising, editing their work. If authentic and lively essay writing is about thought thinking, then the rhetorical work of the essay needs to go through a process of continual rethinking.

Here are some approaches to rethinking to use going forward whenever you revise and edit your writing.

  1. Thesis check: What’s the Argument? Identify the critical problem and response to the problem that the essay is setting up. Suggest where that might need to be made clearer, more specific. It can often happen that the conclusion or a later paragraph in the essay has a stronger, clearer statement of the argument. Look for that and consider moving that into the introduction.

    1. Recall from last project: a good way to clarify the argument is to counter it–identify what you are not arguing, or rather, who or what argues against your claim. This is a counterargument that you can return to in the essay.
  2. Arrangement/Organization of the argument: Turn the draft back into an outline.
    1. Map out the keywords of the argument (circle or highlight)–and trace them through the essay.
    2. Show where the keywords extend from the passages quoted (interpreting not just summarizing the texts).
    3. Topic sentences and transitions: do the keywords appear and move the reader along?
  3. Editing:
    1. Specificity of language (good for ethos, logos, and pathos)–remember strong active verbs key–Writer’s Diet test. Watch out for “Zombie Nouns.” [think of Dillard and her use of verbs]
    2. Sentence Variety. For some further discussion of the grammar and syntax of sentences, see my post from English 101 on editing for sentences.
    3. Consider two basic sentence types to generate variety (and to think more rhetorically about your sentences): Hypotaxis and Parataxis.