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Comprehending audiences

Any student of public persuasion encounters an immediate and intractable problem, namely, the impossibility of acquiring a full comprehension of how audiences are actually moved.  The mind remains a black box, memories of the persuasive encounter are invariably imprecise and often otherwise undocumented, and even well designed experimental conditions reproducing the speaker/audience relationship will fail to account for the complex dynamics of historical contingency, momentary charisma, and listener receptivity that produce the rare but epochal shifts in public consciousness that in turn play a role in reshaping history or a society’s sense of the moment.  It is hard to muster agreement about the nature of John McCain’s audiences last week (were the individuals screaming words about Obama like traitor and socialist typical or unusual for those rallies?), let alone reach agreement about the dynamics at work in the congressional chamber when Daniel Webster deliberated or the conference hall when Audre Lorde advocated for marginalized women.

These difficulties are compounded when one wants to concentrate on historically significant public address where the records are lousy, documentation perhaps totally absent apart from an often partial or unreliable text, and where apparently significant effects may only have emerged over time.  Matthew’s Gospel and other sources say Jesus of Nazareth attracted huge crowds, and this is an indication that he was having an influence, but were the people who assembled to hear his Sermon on the Mount actually persuaded by his words then and there, or did the sermon have its first influence later, when those words were reiterated by his disciples?  How many of the thousands gathered there could even physically hear his words, spoken as they were in the absence of amplification systems? Do eloquent presidential inaugurals shape public conceptions of their times, or occurring as they do after national elections, do they merely place a post hoc rhetorical stamp on national judgments already formed?  And how can we account for the fact that any given successful speech will win over some or many, but some smaller number in the audience will not only be unmoved but will invariably leave more committed in their opposition than ever before?

In the 2,300 years or so since Aristotle wrote his Rhetoric, an early and enormously influential handbook of oratorical practice and a sort of early psychology of crowds, considerable efforts have been made to understand how speech is made compelling and messages persuasive.  The social scientific revolution that arose in the field of speech communication scholarship after World War II (which occurred in concert with research projects underway in social psychology, such as that done by Leon Festinger, whose account of cognitive dissonance held sway for some on the last question I mentioned above) now combines with a wide range of rhetorical theories to make sense of large scale persuasion.  The rhetorical tradition that for many still starts with Aristotle, and the Sophists he and his teacher Plato opposed, is among the richest in all the humanities.

And yet no definitive consensus has been reached about the mechanisms of persuasion.  That surprising statement is confirmed by the still hit-or-miss nature of public communication campaigns underwritten by multimillion dollar advertising budgets (presumably arranged and offered by the best minds in the business) and also by the now proliferated number of theories seeking to explain the most historically significant instances of public address, not all of which share consistent underlying assumptions and sometimes outright contradict.

What made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” so persuasive to its audience?  Some say that King’s words rearticulated America’s mythology for Americans already socialized as children to agree with its essential terms, and so he extended a well established foundation and made viewers see the connection of that foundation to contemporary civil rights circumstances.  Some find rhetorical force in King’s evocative but not too threatening use of the call-and-response patterns typical of the African-American church.  Others point to King’s effective use of metaphor – for some rhetorical scholars metaphor is the most powerful persuasive technique since its use invites audiences to participate in meaning-making (a listener is thought to be more open to persuasion when she is contributing in this way, by puzzling through with the speaker the question, for example, of how the present civil rights situation is like an unpaid check or how justice is like a mighty river).  Still others point to the close symmetry in King’s citation of geographical vistas and the visual markers of diversity shown by the television cameras panning the Mall.  Some, following Aristotle, will point to King’s use of logical exposition, emotional appeal, and evoked ethos in explaining its force.  And others will argue that the speech, while it seems on the surface to challenge an American ideology that for centuries has excluded and marginalized persons of color, actually operates at a deeper level to reinforce that ideology, seeking step-by-step reformism masked by a rhetoric hinting at urgency that seems to demand more.

Perhaps there is some truth in all these accounts, and maybe these theories of rhetoric (based in narrative, metaphor, genre, Aristotelian, or ideological accounts of the persuasive act) form a kind of playbook, and King succeeded with an all of the above strategy.  But that answer seems unconvincing.  Other speakers also tried all of the above but failed to offer a message that resonated with the wider public.  And not all these accounts are consistent, a fact brought into plainer view when one asks, which of these strategies best explains the rhetorical effectivity of the Dream speech?  Did the speech mainly succeed because King conformed with the generic expectations of sermon or the American mythology or because he violated them?  Did his words persuade because King spoke from within the mainstream traditions of American majoritarian public address or because he challenged that mode of address by bringing minority speaking practices characteristic of the black churches into wider national view?  Did the speech move audiences because of the radical nature of his urgent demand for justice or because it made a more timid accommodationist demand on the polity compared to the stronger calls then starting to be articulated by others?

Multiple accounts persist, even when their impulses are contrary one with the other, because we don’t have convincing access to the interior thinking of listeners on the Mall or watching on television.  And, of course, many audiences were listening, each perhaps moved by different mechanisms.  Maybe King succeeded because his speech was just radical enough to rev up African Americans for whom change was long promised and overdue, just conservative enough not to sound threatening to rural white Southern audiences, and so on – but this leads us back to a view of persuasion that sees it best accomplishing its purposes when it lays out a Goldilocks “the-porridge-is-just-right” mix that doesn’t seem adequate to the historical consequence achieved by King that day.

For scholars of public address, the problem I’ve identified has been handled in many ways.  One response popular with some is to deny an interest in persuasive effectivity altogether.  Conceding up front the impossibility of getting inside the heads of the crowd assembled to hear FDR’s second inaugural, some study the speech not to discover what actually worked that day but as a mechanism for expanding the enumerated repertoire of techniques that might explain its effectiveness, or to simply appreciate its artistry.  Some others defend a multi-methodological approach, where insights derived from the limited historical record might be confirmed or denied in experimental settings.  Others remain committed to theoretical perspectives, where the proof of the pudding resides not in the historical evidence connected to a speech as much as in the coherence yielded by a rich macro-theory (e.g., Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, narrative, mythological, or the work of other theorists such as Kenneth Burke or Chaim Perelman) that seems pragmatically useful in understanding the broader mechanics of public discourse.

Many others accept the final impossibility of knowing for sure how a particular historical address succeeded (or failed), but defend the idea that the speech text itself operates as a reasonable proxy measure of audience reaction.  This view can be defended because we know that speeches are drafted with audiences in mind, and since speakers want their ideas to convince audiences the texts they produce can shed important light on the norms of a given period’s rhetorical culture.  When we discover, for instance, that Biblical references are pervasive in nineteenth century oratory, this fact conveys something important about what audiences from that time apparently expected and found moving or even comprehensible.  Such a view is, I think, intellectually defensible, but one has to be exceptionally careful lest rhetorical analysis not be reduced to tautology – if one starts with speeches that apparently succeeded, then it can be hard to rule out any clever reading of the text, and this challenge is compounded given the difficulty of doing comparative work across multiple speech texts given the historical particularities of creation and context.

A number of projects are exploring these matters from different and interesting interdisciplinary perspectives.  One has been underway for several years now at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Carolyn Marvin, and involves an attempt to gather together all the visual (photographic) images available of audiences and crowds, with the idea that audience behaviors can be better understood by noting changes in photojournalistic depictions over time.  I’m currently reading Stefan Jonsson’s Brief History of the Masses:  Three Revolutions (Columbia UP, 2005), which closely reads three now-historically significant paintings that portray the masses, with the goal of better understanding how collective action can be conceptualized through the eyes of a period’s most notable artistry (the paintings were those done by Jacques-Louis David, James Ensor, and Alfredo Jaar).

These topics were also evoked recently for me because of a talk the department of communication at Georgia State University hosted, given by Richard Maltby, a leading advocate of attending to actual patterns of reception within the scholarly world of cinema studies.  The case for focusing on what Maltby defended as “a cinema studies without films” has been made and persistently defended by film historians for some time as a counter to the impulse (similar to the rhetorical scholarship impulse just discussed) to end up only talking about a given film text as an aesthetic artifact or within tightly circumscribed domains of critical reaction.  Maltby argued that a film textual approach does not make sense when it comes to apprehending the scene of cinema reception typical of the early 20th century.  Then, moviegoing was often a weekly entertainment, where the particularities of a given feature mattered less than where one sat or how the neighborhood businesses tied their marketing to the theatre or what one wore or which friends one saw in the front row every Friday.  Can one really talk about a particular audience response to, say, a Roy Rogers film when that single viewing experience so quickly blurs into the films shown in subsequent weeks?

In some respects a stronger case exists for a “cinema studies without movies” than, say, a “rhetorical studies without oratory,” in part as a simple consequence of the available historical data.  Film exhibition is an industrial practice, and so those in the business had a specific financial incentive to carefully document audience going, to tally such information over time, and to carefully attend to modes of marketing and reception.  Detailed box office information and legal contractual texts are thus available to the modern researcher, and although such information offers a fairly narrow window into the viewing experience, it does provide a point of alternative entry that is seldom available to a scholar interested to know who attended a particular convention speech or Walt Whitman’s eulogy of Lincoln or a speech given in the middle of a three day rally in Washington, or with what effect on underlying attitudes and values.  But the call it makes, to pay as much attention to context as to text, may serve as an important corrective to a tendency to simply treat speech texts as symptoms of the wider culture.

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