Essay: Neo-Aristotelian Criticism

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Neo-Aristotelian Criticism

In September 2005, Jane Fonda gave the keynote speech, entitled "The New Feminism: Reuniting the Head, the Heart & the Body," at Women & Power, a three-day conference hosted by the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, an organization oriented towards "focusing on health and wellness, spiritual growth, and self-awareness, as well as V-Day, "a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls ("About Omega," "About V-Day"). Fonda's speech was significant in terms of feminist theory and discourse, because as the title suggests, she was attempting to outline a feminist praxis that might transcend the various "waves" of feminism concerned with "replacing one archy with another" (Fonda 2005). However, the speech is important for the study of rhetoric as well, because the particular context, content, and intention of the speech almost demand that it be approached from a Neo-Aristotelian perspective in order to determine how effectively Fonda used the various tools available in her attempt to call her audience to action so that they might be "an army of love," confronting long-held paradigms of gender and power. Ultimately, while Fonda is successful in her use of ethos, pathos, and symbolic language, the effectiveness of her rhetoric is undermined by what can only be called failed appeals to logos, as she includes two examples of supposed sympathetic power near the end of her speech that undermine the rhetorical force. However, when considered in the context of the Women & Power conference (and especially considering that one of the sponsors was the Omega Institute), these logical failures, though glaring in hindsight, likely did not reduce the rhetorical effect at the time of the original performance.

Before analyzing Fonda's speech in detail, it will be necessary to provide some background information on both Fonda herself, the conference, and its sponsors. As a longtime actor and activist, the connection between the content of Fonda's speech and her personal history is inextricable, and indeed, her time spent in both Vietnam and the acting world play an important part in establishing her credibility during her speech. Formally trained as an actress, and frequently seen agitating and protesting, Fonda is well trained in the delivery of lines, if not public speaking more specifically. As she notes in her speech, she has been active as a self-described feminist for many years, although in her speech she claims that for much of that time, she "thought [she] had it in [her] heart and [her] body," when really her work was nominal at best (Fonda 2005). Nonetheless, Fonda has ample previous experience with both the subject matter of her speech and the medium itself, and she claims to be motivated by a genuinely felt desire to effect a kind of balance that might distribute power more equitably among the sexes (and in turn, among all people regardless of demographic classification). Due to her long history of feminist activism, Fonda likely enjoyed a good reputation with the audience, which would likely would have been extremely receptive to both her and her message.

When attempting to consider Fonda's 2005 speech in context, it almost more important to consider the particular occasion, setting, and audience than Fonda herself, because while Fonda is a well-known public figure who has spent decades addressing audiences both on film and in person, the Women & Power conference represents a somewhat curious combination of ideologies and interests. On the one hand, it was sponsored by V-Day, an organization solely dedicated to stopping violence against women and girls across the world. This takes the form of benefit performances and screenings of plays and documentaries, educational workshops, festivals, community meetings, and conferences such as Women & Power. For the most part, V-Day's involvement in the conference is straightforward, and any influence its involvement might have had on Fonda's speech would be negligible, as one can presume that both would already be arguing for roughly the same ideals: "solidarity, justice, equality, and non-violence" (Kelly 124).

The Omega Institute, on the other hand, feels somewhat arbitrary, as there is not an obvious dovetail between holistic studies and feminism (other than a general desire for wellness overall). The conference actually took place at Omega's headquarters in Rhinebeck, New York, and the centrality of Omega to the conference is important to note here because as will be seen in the subsequent analysis, the weakest portions of Fonda's speech are precisely those which cater to the holistic wellness audience by mentioning two different experiments widely regarded as pseudoscience by the scientific community but which have been embraced by proponents of metaphysical health therapies. As mentioned above, however, it seems entirely reasonable to presume that these logical failures did not reflect poorly on Fonda or her speech in the eyes of the audience, because that audience very likely included a number of people willing to believe in these unverified, alternative therapies. While it remains difficult to ascertain whether or not Fonda included these portions solely for the sake of these audience members and the particular context of the conference, it is worth pointing out that these portions are not integral to the larger point of Fonda's speech.

Neo-Aristotelian criticism is the ideal tool with which to approach Fonda's keynote speech, due to the equal focus Neo-Aristotelian theory places on all of the various elements of a rhetorical performance by applying "the five canons of classical rhetoric": invention, organization, style, delivery, and memory (Foss 30). While the latter two are somewhat less important in an age when few rhetors recite their speeches from memory, Neo-Aristotelian theory remains particularly effective for analyzing speech because it builds on classical studies of rhetoric while remaining flexible enough for widespread application and adaptation. As with Aristotle's original formulation, Neo-Aristotelian theory views the study and analysis of rhetoric as the attempt "to acquire a working knowledge of the instruments of persuasion," and thus each element of the rhetorical artifact is analyzed according to this standard (Hoffman 112). This is the reason for the substantial introduction and contextualization above; as the goal of this essay is to ascertain Fonda's success in persuading her audience, it is necessary to first highlight any variables which might effect that success such as setting, history, and the makeup of the audience.

After addressing the context of the rhetorical artifact under discussion, Neo-Aristotelian criticism proceeds by applying the five canons to the speech, with each canon corresponding to a number of different questions that might be asked of the artifact. The first canon, invention, is perhaps the most well-known in the study of rhetoric, as it involves actual content of the speech, divided between the use of logos, ethos, and pathos. In the case of Fonda's keynote, ethos, meaning an appeal to the rhetor's character and credibility, is visible both in her personal history and reputation with the audience, as well as certain portions of the speech that highlight the most salient points of that history and reputation. Fonda notes that she "brought gender issues into [her] movies roles," and also "helped women make their bodies strong" in her role as a fitness guru, thus establishing some credibility both with audience members associated with V-Day and those more closely aligned with the interests of the Omega Institute (Fonda 2005). After discussing her film career again in the context of the Norwegian healthcare system, Fonda brings up the subject for which she is perhaps most famous aside from her acting career, which is her time spent in Vietnam during the 1970s. While both anecdotes are the basis for a larger point Fonda is making, they serve to subtly establish her credibility and reputation with the audience by reminding them of why she is famous in the first place. These are only two examples of the appearance of ethos in Fonda's speech, because these mentions of her famous career appear throughout the speech, so that her larger argument is peppered with appeals to her status as a celebrity and famous activist. That these mentions of her past undoubtedly affect the audience's reception of her speech is evidenced by the fact that each story, while more or less interesting, is not actually necessary in order for her to make her point. Put another way, the same arguments could be made with any other generally suitable anecdote, but because these anecdotes are being told by Jane Fonda about her life, they are imbued with some extra layer of meaning in the eyes of the audience.

More than anything else, Fonda relies on pathos in order to persuade the audience, meaning that she appeals to their emotions in order to lend her arguments extra weight. She literally begins her speech by stating that:

This has been an emotional three days. I don't think I'm the only one that has been filled with tears. They are tears of joy. When our bodies become tuning forks, vibrating with words spoken by sisters that enter us and hum with truth. Tears of realization not only that we are not alone, but that we… [END OF PREVIEW]

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