Essay: Postmodern Rhetoric

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Rhetoric

Postmodern Rhetoric

Postmodern Rhetoric and "An Inconvenient Truth"

Carl Burgchardt, among others, refer to the extended perception of postmodern rhetorical criticism and the view that deconstructive and postmodern critical discourse includes cultural artifacts other than the written word; such as popular culture and the cinema. The substratum of ideological metanarratives that constitute and validate cultural norms and perceptions in modern society are often to be found in a deconstruction of modern films and documentaries. In this regard the documentary An Inconvenient Truth will be discussed in terms of the postmodern and deconstructive theoretical views of contemporary modern reality. This will include a brief analysis of the rhetoric as it pertains to the master narratives that constitute the "truth" of contemporary culture.

The title of this film brings to mind the typical Foucaltian view of modern rhetoric. "... we must call into question our will to truth, restore to discourse its character as an event, and finally throw off the sovereignty of the signifier" (FOUCAULT, DERRIDA, WOMEN'S SPEAKING JUSTIFIED AND MODELLING LEGAL ARGUMENT ) As Derrida also asserts, postmodern discourse sees a logical and one-directional relationship between the signifier and the signified as being extremely problematic. This relationship is central to the post-structural and postmodern debate about language but is also equally applicable to other forms of modern discourse, such as the cinema. This dislocation of the expected or common relationship between signifier and signified opens up a vast liminal area of critique in modern rhetoric. As will be discussed, the truth is never simple but is tantalizingly complex and the postmodern analysis of modern forms of discourse and representation exhibits certain fissures and areas of contentions in what would otherwise be accepted as culturally normative.

The above should also be related to views put forward by Foucault that intellectuals often serve as "agents' to uphold the status quo and to preserve the 'regime' of truth in the society. (Hendricks) Foucault suggests that this creates "…a system whereby '[t]ruth' is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it." (Hendricks) A central aspect that will form the fulcrum of this discussion is that as Foucault states, there is no absolute "truth." Rather 'truth' is created through power systems and their relations in a society -- in essence this means that truth is relative to the dominant perceptions that exist in society.

2. Analysis

The very title of this documentary provokes deconstructive analysis. The idea that the 'truth' is being presented in the documentary as a fixed and certain reality is one of the central facets that invokes postmodern discourse and critique. Truth, in the very first instance, is seen from a postmodern perspective to be relative and contextual. The first question therefore about the underlying rhetoric in the film is that it refers to a certain perspective on the truth that is linked to a messenger or conveyer of that truth. The second important aspect refers to the underling metanarratives that supports this alleged truth.

Therefore, from the very beginning of the documentary a number of aspects become evident that reflects the underlying ideological biases in the film. The intention and rhetorical structure of the film is very simple and straightforward. It is ostensibly a statement of concern and warning about the increased carbon content in the atmosphere that will lead in the near future to global warming on a scale that will have grave environmental and social consequences. What is important is that the rhetorical style of the documentary plays on a number of underlying myths and metanarratives that provide the persuasive impetus to the central argument.

The central thrust of the rhetoric is that unless something radical is done to curb these carbon emissions, the very future of the human species is under threat. This according to the presenter is the truth that cannot be ignored no matter how inconvenient it may be.

The figure of Al Gore is important as he brings certain elements of symbolic acceptance of his message that adds to the rhetoric. He is an intellectual and political figure of renown; as such his presence adds weight to the argument. However there are also two underlying rhetorical themes can be immediately discerned. The first is the ideology and myth of the messenger who brings knowledge that is instrumental in saving mankind. This is a mythical substructure that is deeply buried within the historical consciousness of Western culture and can be related to the Christ figure and other similar myths that have become an intrinsic part of the substratum of ideology in the West. In this sense Al Gore is a messenger who reveals to man essential 'truth' that will bring salvation to the world if it is heeded in time. This discourse is rhetorically supported by another aspect. This refers to the stress that he places on the fact that he is an "ex-president "and an ordinary citizen who is concerned about the future. This in turn refers to the everyman figure in Western culture which adds further validity to the argument that he presents.

In this regard we can refer to Foucault's objection to the prophet or philosopher leader as he is essentially opposed to any authority or institution which determines the truth and reality of others. He views the idea of the prophet in the same light as his critique of a system which inculcates ideologies and the idea of a single and absolute truth. This he sees as being essentially a process of denying the innate creativity and self-discovery of the individual. He describes the philosopher or prophet as an "agent" of the system of power and control in society. He argues that such an intellectual acts as an "agent" of the present "regime of truth." (Hendricks)

If we turn to a postmodern critique of the content of the narrative, a feature that dominates the entire film is the reference to science and scientific facts, which is couched in the accepted format of visual aids of tables and graphs. In order to understand the underlying rhetoric that is central to the argument and validation of the film we have to understand the importance of the ideology of science in the modern world culture.

Since the 19th century science as rational and objective thought and method has become the accepted arbiter and revealer of truth. Assumptions that are verified by the rational scientific method are accepted by the culture as being demonstrably true. However, in the late Twentieth century the hegemony of science was put into radical doubt by thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Deridda, as well as by scientists like Heisenberg who questioned the relativity of the absolute truth reveled by science.

Taking this into account, the film uses the authority that has been ascribed to reason and science as an underlying part of the rhetoric. The most revealing aspects of the film are the graphs and diagrams that "prove" the urgency and legitimacy of the argument put forward by Gore. For example, the graphs that so dramatically indicate the rising carbon levels over the last century are dramatic proof of the authenticity of the argument. However, this is only the case if we accept the underlying scientific metanarratives and concur with the view of science as a conclusive arbiter of the truth.

Another important aspect of the rhetoric in the film is the use of images. As one commentator has pointed out, the human mind is "…hardwired to process visually first and then verbally…" ( Womack). This refers to the impact of the visual graphs and also to the images of nostalgia that are used to emphasize the destruction of the habitat. An example would be the melting of the glaciers and the images of polar bears swimming in the open ocean in search of vanished ice. This refers to nostalgia for a world that is being lost or destroyed by global warmibg.

The last point refers to what has been termed the rhetoric of environmental nostalgia. "The powerful move back to eco-memory that Gore evokes to illuminate his points about global warming is a rhetorical strategy that seems to work both for advocates and skeptics of environmental politics." (Murray and Heumann) Environmental nostalgia as a rhetorical device is used in An Inconvenient Truth to draw on the force of pathos in the argument that is being put forward.

However, nostalgia has been heavily critiqued and deconstructed in postmodern discourse. According to the critic Kathleen Stewart, nostalgia is described as a 'social disease'. This critique is based on the view that nostalgia can be used in any argument to support various and often divergent meanings or positions and that it has no validity in itself. As Stewart states,

Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context -- it depends on where the speaker… [END OF PREVIEW]

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