Keywords

  • Analogy
    • In broad terms, analogy draws or uncovers relations between two things that may or may not appear similar at first glance. Emerson uses the term often in his writing, to emphasize the importance for the writer, reader, thinker of relationality; in “American Scholar” he asserts that science is “the finding of analogy, identity in the most remote parts.” We could say, following him, that the essayist does this, pursues analogy, relation among ideas, particularly that might seem remote, but turn out to have some sort of insightful relation. Analogy thus is a sort of umbrella term for the use of figurative language and rhetorical figures (metaphor, metonymy, etc.). But as Emerson suggests, and as the Wikipedia entry for analogy demonstrates, analogy is used all over the place, in science, logic, philosophy–to characterize ways of thinking and even perceiving. As such, particularly for those of us wanting to pursue the essay into areas beyond the domain of conventional literature, this is a relevant concept. We are, one could say, essayists to the extent that analogy is a crucial way (so say the scientists, and so demonstrate the poets) we do our thinking.
  • Anaphora
    • A rhetorical/poetic figure in which the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of sentences or lines (in the case of poetry) creates emphasis. In nonfiction prose, we might think of this as a way the essayist can create rhythm or even rhyme at the beginning. Traced back to the Bible, and so often evokes a biblical rhythm. Put to great use by the poet Walt Whitman. John D’Agata employs this figure frequently in the essay in Lifespan of a Fact.
  • Chiasmus
    • A rhetorical figure of speech in which terms are criss-crossed or inverted. The word literally (from Greek) means crossing. A vivid example comes from Frederick Douglass: You have seen how a man was made a slave, now I will show you have a slave was made a man. As such, we can think of this inversion as having a larger rhetorical effect and purpose for Douglass, close to irony–inverting and subverting conventions and expectations, forcing one to rethink or reimagine.
  • Counterargument
    • A rhetorical element of the essay in which the logic of the argument would seem to turn toward contradiction, or some basic form of logical fallacy. What makes it rhetorical and not a logical fallacy is when this seeming contradiction is deliberately explored. A good counterargument then highlights the sort of tension/conflict/complication that makes for a good argument and essay (aspect of the dramatic qualities of the thinking and writing). It also enhances the pathos (another rhetorical element) of the essay, since the writer is admitting that there are other views out there (views that her/his reader might have), possible objections, and rather than dismissing them, is willing to explore them. In Emerson’s essays find good examples of counterargument as the dialectical tension or electromagnetic energy of his writing–moving between polarities. A counterargument that is opened but not resolved is problematic–that is closer to run of the mill contradiction. Consider this discussion of counterargument turning away from the thesis and then needing to turn back. The ancient rhetorical practice know as “dissoi logoi” can be compared to this dynamic strategy of counterargument.
      • More broadly, the essay as “dialectical” or heretical, as countering and contending with prevailing wisdom or convention (a characteristic discussed by Jeff Porter–his reference to Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating”), can be thought of as a crucial element of how an essay works, whether it is making an explicit argument or not.
  • Documentary
    • The documentary film is essentially an essay: nonfiction, factual representation of an event or an issue, but told with the rhetorical and poetic tools of multimedia film, particularly tools that emphasize the visual nature of the medium. We see that in the example of Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” The documentary power of an essay is evident in Douglass’s Narrative and Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted–and reaches forward into contemporary essayistic journalism such as Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. A classic of the documentary essay is Let us Now Praise Famous Men, an exploration of Alabama sharecropping families in the depression written by James Agee, with photographs by Walker Evans.
  • Dramatic character of the essay
    • The essay, we see, has dramatic elements. As Jeff Porter puts it: “essays are more dramatic than we might suspect.” Porter points to several elements we can associate with drama:
      • crisis: when conflict reaches a turning point in an essay.
        • in the academic essay: think of the “thesis”–a comparison that one can make between an essay and a screenplay (as I argue here).
      • persona: the narrator as character, the “I” as performed
      • recognition: as Porter suggests, “the essay’s payoff is recongition”; an insight into both the familiar and the strange. Think of this as a key rhetorical element of the essay: where readers are led by the essayist into thinking differently.
      • scene: this is a point Gutkind emphasizes as crucial for creative nonfiction–building around scenesfor showing (not telling) information; the exposition that is important for nonfiction narrative. See Gutkind’s yellow test.
      • staging: ideas and arguments and topics in essays are re-presented (not just presented) in written form. Not everything can be included. So, the staging of an essay, or of a particular section or passage in an essay, means not just that it might be artful, but that (just as with the dramatic stage) what is not in view is also part of the story–and part of what the writer needs to consider. Kenneth Burke’s basic definition of what makes all thought and writing rhetorical, and thus dramatic, speaks to this: “Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing.”
  • Ekphrasis (or Ecphrasis)
    • A rhetorical device in which a visual work of art is represented in verbal form–or more broadly, verbal description of visual phenomena (and even more broadly in classical rhetoric, the term suggests the descriptive quality or energy (enargia) of speech/writing A famous example: The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by the poet Keats; also, consider William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” In nonfiction, you can think of the verbal description of an image, a painting (Kaysen, Girl Interrupted), or a photograph (Flynn’s descriptions of the photographs in The Ticking is the Bomb that he never reproduces) or Dillard and her focus on the total eclipse (by way of photographs) and on lenses. You may not necessarily include in your nonfiction a description of a visual work of art; however, you may well need to be more ekphrastic  (the adjective form) in your writing in places, particularly as a strategy for exposition, for witnessing, and for bringing more figuration into your work. Since the relation between how we see and what we say is often in conflict, ekphrasis can introduce tension into the writing worth exploring.
  • Enargia
    • The rhetorical figure of vivid, lively description; writing that provides the reader with a mental picture of what is being discussed or argued. Think of Eric Schlosser taking his reader into the slaughterhouse; Annie Dillard and her “Total Eclipse.”  Or Frederick Douglass and the “scene” with Aunt Hester. Links to ekphrasis and to immersion.
  • Essay
    • The noun you are familiar with, perhaps too familiar with from schooling: a piece of nonfiction writing, usually with some sort of thesis statement or argument. The verb form “essay” might surprise you: to attempt, to try–as in, to experiment, to explore. As Montaigne, the “father” of the essay puts it: I portray passing. Since the essay tradition, from classic to very contemporary, has long been interested in the verb more so than the noun, in essaying, we will give our attention to the less familiar aspects of the ‘essay’–yet recognize the ways that our understanding of the essay can strengthen our reading and writing across the curriculum and beyond the academy.
  • Exposition
    • In terms of rhetoric, exposition is a mode of discourse that focuses on information, an argument or essay that focuses on informing or explaining. We certainly engage this in our focus on the “rhetoric of the essay,” in the more documentary oriented work of Schlosser as well as the expeditionary essays of Dillard. In terms of fictional and film narrative, exposition refers to the way information is introduced into the narrative–particularly regarding plot, character, themes. One of the problems evident in film narrative regarding exposition: the information dump. This is when the information is provided by being told explicitly to the viewer, artificially dumped upon them; think of the character in a film who thinks out loud so as to tell the audience information; think of prose that reads like a resume–and then, and then, and then. The sort of autobiography we are reading, or as it is called, creative nonfiction, combines elements of both types of exposition–the rhetorical and the fictional. I think of this as “critical reflection” where personal narrative (information regarding characters and scenes and ‘plot’) reinforces the critical narrative–the argument or focus of the text. This is particularly evident in Toby Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s life. Think of all the “scenes” and moments in which things are being communicated by way of implication, shown us, but not told to us–and more to the point, shown to us as partial or fragmentary understanding. In fact, I would say we learn from that narrative’s style of exposition that Toby lives in a world of implication, of partial communication and understanding. White’s “Once More to the Lake” provides a good example of effective exposition. Gass notes that Emerson’s essays have exposition, but he lets it drift into more poetic effects. As you explore your own essay writing, you will need to think about exposition and work on avoiding information dumps.
  • Immersion.
    • This has become a keyword in creative nonfiction, a key term for how nonfiction immerses the reader in its focus and setting, and how, by extension, the writer immerses himself/herself in what the essay explores. In this sense, immersion breaks through traditional views of objectivity that would keep the writer out of the topic and scene. Thus a term for a contemporary form of reporting in which the reporter is part of the story, or at least not completely removed from it, is known as “immersion journalism.” We see examples of immersion in Dillard, in Douglass, and in Michael Moore’s documentary. In terms of rhetoric, we can think more about immersion in terms of pathos, and enargia, among other ways of appealing to a reader through vivid, graspable, imaginable, or emotional styles and structures of writing.
  • Irony
    • A rhetorical figure in which the writer explores and puts to use some separation between appearance and reality, some sort of multiple meaning–saying one thing and meaning something else. [an ironic phrase would be considered poetic; irony used to organize a larger portion of an essay or an argument would be rhetorical] Since irony derives from the Greek for “dissimulation,” we would tend not to associate it with nonfiction, with narratives based in fact (see it more in fiction and drama–the most famous case, the dramatic irony of Oedipus). But in nonfiction, which has we see is also dramatic in its effects and interests, irony emerges as some level of distance between the writer/essayist and his or her topic/subject. Susan Sontag emphasizes the significance of irony in the rhetoric of the photographic portraits of Arbus–and suggests its absence in the portraits of a photographer such as Walker Evans. Frederick Douglass identifies the irony complicating the slave songs–and by extension, any expression emerging from slavery: the “unmeaning jargon” to some is “full of meaning” to others.  We can ask the same question about the rhetoric of the essayist’s portrayal: is there distance between what the writer (or narrator–another possible mark of distance, if the persona is not the same as the writer) says about the subject and what she thinks. The characteristics of the Alanis Morisette song “Ironic” are not, by the way, good examples of irony. However, the fact that a song about irony gets the examples wrong is wonderfully ironic. This reminds us that irony is a powerful rhetorical tool when–like all other matters of rhetoric and poetics–used deliberately; irony by accident is problematic for the writer. Just ask Oedipus.
  • Juxtaposition
    • Placing two or more things side by side. In writing, we can think of the effects of this in terms of basic comparison and contrast, extending to rhetorical figures such as irony and chiasmus. Think of Douglass juxtaposing slavery and Christianity, for example. Michael Moore employs juxtaposition frequently in transition from one scene to another.
  • Lyric Essay
    • A category of creative nonfiction–and possibly, a synonym for the notion: for nonfiction that crosses boundaries of fact into imagination, creativity, fiction, poetry. For a discussion of the ‘lyric essay’ of the poet Claudia Rankine, see my post on lyrical autobiography.
      • John D’Agata, a contemporary nonfiction writer and scholar of the essay (we read him at the end of the course), expresses several of these qualities in his definition:

        The lyric essay, as some have called the form, asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem. What happens when an essayist starts imagining things, making things up, filling in blank spaces, or–worse yet–leaving the blanks blank?What happens when statistics, reportage, and observation in an essay are abandoned for image, emotion, expressive transformation?… What’s a lyric essay? It’s an oxymoron: an essay that’s also a lyric; a kind of logic that wants to sing; an argument that has no chance of proving anything. [D’Agata, The Next American Essay, 436-7]

  • Medium
    • The media theorist Marshall McLuhan defined “medium” (and broadly speaking, technology: which comes from the Greek meaning “art) as any “extension of some human faculty–psychic or physical.” He writes that in The Medium is the Massage, where he argues his most famous point: the medium is the message. When we think about the poetics of the essay, and in particular, consider poetics from the vantage point of new media (electronic, digital, audio, video), we are thus not only looking ahead to new forms, we are also looking back at the basic form of the essay, the media of language, writing, print–but not taking the medium for granted.
  • Metadiscourse
    • Writing or more broadly langugae (a word, a phrase, a sentence, a conversation) that reflects in some way on itself as an act of writing or discourse. “Meta” in Greek means “above”: so, discourse about discourse, including the disourse at hand. An example from Frederick Douglass: whenever he turns the reader’s attention from a scene he is describing to the act of writing–a reminder that he is writing (and that the writing is no small part of his narrative, shouldn’t be taken for granted).
  • Metaphor

◦  A poetic and rhetorical figure or figure of speech–that is, a figurative or symbolic use of language–in which an idea or concept is expressed by comparing or transferring it to another idea/concept that is different from it, but has some resemblance or similarity to it–usually a visual similarity. For example tears are not raindrops, but resemble raindrops. One could write: Their eyes rained a monsoon (simile, related to metaphor, would be: their eyes were like monsoons.) In addition to being a specific figure of speech, metaphor can be viewed more broadly as a way we conceptualize the world in language, by way of making comparisons and analogies based on similarity. In terms of imagery, metaphor works something like a surrealist painting, or a montage in film. In literature, it tends to be associated more with poetry and symbolism.  Examples: Wilbur’s house as ship, the injured bird (starling) in “The Writer”; Woolf’s moth.

◦  A poetic and rhetorical figure or figure of speech–that is, a figurative or symbolic use of language–in which an idea or concept is expressed by renaming it with another idea/concept that is related to it in terms of context or (usually) some sort of physical or temporal connection or association. A classic metonymy: to refer to or discuss a writer or his style in terms of the “hand” or “pen” of the writer–that is, a tool of writing, related to the context of writing and physically connected to the writer .  In addition to being a specific figure of speech, metonymy, like metaphor, can also be viewed more broadly as a primary way we conceptualize the world in language, name it, by way of words connected to, or part of, what we are talking about. In this sense, where metaphors can be very effective in being abstract (we might think of that as being highly symbolic), metonymy often works by way of concrete or realistic images. In terms of imagery, think of cubist painting or a close-up in film. In terms of literature, we tend to find metonymy more in realism. Examples: Williams’ car wheels (and everything else in that song); White’s lake (and its related, contiguous elements).

  • Nonfiction
    • Representation of a subject, in writing, film, art or other form, that the author bases on fact; in some sense, anything that is not fiction. Important and related categories of nonfiction are: autobiography, biography, documentary, memoir–and perhaps as the bedrock for all, the essay. More recently, to characterize the emergence of nonfiction writing that was literary and that borrowed tools from fiction (figurative language, narrative techniques) even while remaining based in fact, the term “Creative Nonfiction” (with related terms: literary nonfiction; New Journalism) emerged.
  • Nonlinear narrative.
    • In terms of writing, nonlinearity is most often used to refer to nonlinear narrative: a technique used in literature, film, and particularly digital hypertext, where narrative proceeds out of chronological or linear order. But we might also think of nonlinearity more broadly, and even more interdsiciplinarily, given its importance in the sciences and mathematics. Emerson, it would seems, is thinking of a nonlinear understanding of thinking and writing with his idea of circles; and it is one that he sees iterated in the natural world.
  • Paralipsis
    • Introducing an idea (usually negative) into discussion in the very process of claiming that you won’t do it. “Unlike my opponent, I won’t stoop so low and tell you that he is a scoundrel and a horrible person. It wouldn’t be nice to say that, so I won’t.” D’Agata does a version of this. A related rhetorical figure: apophasis.
  • Parataxis.
    • Jeff Porter in “A History and Poetics of the Essay” refers to the “paratactic structure” of essays, “favoring breaks and digressions over continuity,” in contrast with the more familiar linearity of a novel. Parataxis is a grammatical and syntactical term for shorter, simpler sentences that are connected with coordinating rather than subordinating conjunctions. Think of sentences with lots of “and”s–and think the ways, when deliberately done, this affects not just the poetics, but also the rhetoric and philosophy of the writing. A famous example from poetry–a characteristic that we might call essayistic: Walt Whitman’s lengthy lists or catalogs of desrcription, often the lines beginning repetitvely with “And.” [The opposite of this sentence structure is known as hypotaxis].
  • Persuasive Appeal: Ethos, Logos, Pathos
    • A method or device for discovering (inventing) or analyzing the ways a writer appeals to or rhetorically organizes the attention of her/his audience. That appeal can be based on one of three things: the credibility or standing of the writer (ethos); the evidence the writer presents and argues (logos); the emotional and imaginative connection the writer makes with the reader (pathos). A persuasive argument or essay has elements of all three, in strongest cases, working together.
  • Rhetoric
    • Traditionally, the study of the art of using language (oral and written) to inform, persuade, and delight; this study in classical Greece or Rome (or Washington College in the early days) would have included things such as rhetorical figures and patterns for organizing and practicing an argument. We will think of the rhetoric of an essay as the choices a writer makes to present and organize the ideas and argument of the essay, and thereby to shape its reception by the audience. One definition for this broader sense of rhetoric comes from Kenneth Burke: “Every way of seeing is a way of not seeing.” So, any writer or speaker is being necessarily rhetorical when she says–look here, see this, understand it this way, don’t look there or see it this other way.
  • Satire
    • A type of literature that engages in social criticism, often using humor to explore, parody, ridicule, or otherwise critique ideas or people.  Key rhetorical elements of satire, as found for example in Thurston’s How to Be Black: irony, hyperbole (exaggeration), litotes (understatement). The most famous example of satire in essay form is Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” One could argue that the satirical in nonfiction lives on today most prominently in new media forms such as The Onion (on the web), shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” as well as in stand-up comedy.
  • Specificity
    •  It is something of a truism of writing advice to “be specific.” The gurus in this are Strunk and White, who say: “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.” The key to being specific is particularity; think particulars. Another writing teacher, Natalie Goldberg, describes being specific as giving things the dignity of their names. A good example of writing into, and through, specificity: N.Scott Momaday’s The Names. And even though Nick Flynn lays great emphasis on bewilderment, on the confusion of getting lost, we recognize the specificity with which he reads and writes his way into that bewilderment. We can add Annie Dillard to the list. Specificity immerses readers into the material. Immersion, one of Lee Gutkind’s 5 R’s of creative nonfiction (real-life experience) thus emerges from the writer’s work in being specific.
  • Style
    • In studies of literature and writing, we generally think of ‘style’ as the characteristics of a piece of writing that distinguishes the writer, that in some way identifies the writer. In this sense, style can be thought of as a marker of the writer’s identity, his or her autobiography, so to speak. However, style at the same time carries implications of conformity–characteristics or conventions of writing that a writer must follow or conform to. You know these the best with reference to citation formatting: MLA or APA style. And by extension, style can also be somewhat of a synonym for styles and conventions of editing, grammar, usage. A famous book by Strunk and White is titled The Elements of Style. The word itself derives from stylus, a tool used in early writing–for making marks on clay tablets. So, there is a tension and contradiction between style as unique and style as conventional. Style will be an element in considering the poetics as well as the rhetoric of essays–and to some extent, it will also factor into the philosophy of the essay.
  • Synaesthesia
    • A term from aesthetics that identifies the production of multiple sense experience, or using one sense experience (say, seeing) to produce or associate with another (say, hearing or smelling). This is an aesthetic/poetic experience that is particularly evident or available to newer, multimedia forms of the essay, such as the video essay.
  • Uncanny
    • Porter describes the complication of the essay’s interest in estranging the familiar, or defamiliarizing what we (think) we know well in terms of Freud’s concept of the uncanny or “unheimliche’–in which the familiar and strange are in some way intertwined.
  • Vernacular (and related: Vulgar)
    • language use and style, and also topics, associated with the “common people.” Originally in ancient Rome: language that originated from the common, in contrast to Latin, which was language of the educated and high castes. Associated directly with the essay in Montaigne–who writes in French, not Latin; also with Emerson’s interest in “the philosophy of the street,” in topics that emphasize “the low, the common, the familiar.” We might think of an essay, then, as an exploration that tries to “sit at the feet of the familiar,” lower itself to view something from a different, lower angle.

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