Hand and Fist: Initial Thoughts on Rhetoric and Documentary

Here are some images and initial ideas for the overlapping focal points of this course, an introduction to the “Art of Rhetoric” that will give particular attention to the “rhetoric of documentary.” This course serves the W2 writing requirement and its four learning goals as well as the English major; the course is also attached to the Journalism, Editing & Publishing minor as well as the Communication and Media Studies major. One of the key learning goals for both English and the W2 is the focus of this course: rhetorical knowledge.

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his notebook on “rhetoric” quotes the analogy from the Greek philosopher Zeno: “Logic the fist, rhetoric the hand.” The analogy was circulated in the Renaissance by way of this image:

We can begin to think about rhetorical analysis and rhetorical expression–things we can do with rhetorical knowledge–by asking: What does this image suggest about rhetoric (or eloquence, from the Latin eloquentia)? If we are using the art of rhetoric, what are we doing? If we are using logic, what are we doing? Does the image/analogy suggest that logic and rhetoric are opposed, related?

We will read and study ideas and concepts from classical rhetoric–things with Greek and Latin names, a tradition that reaches back to Aristotle and Plato. And rather than simply memorize those ideas and names, we will–in true rhetorical fashion–put them to work, apply them as a way to analyze, grasp, understand, and eventually create documentary literature and film. We will as a class concentrate in depth on two recent documentaries: “The Central Park Five” and “Standard Operating Procedure.” Later, when we explore epideictic or ceremonial rhetoric, we will also encounter documentary in print and multimedia forms: in a nonfiction book such as Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, the lyric essay Citizen, and the documentary film Time. Be advised that these various texts will include images, ideas, and some language that might disturb. We will talk more about these potential disturbances in our discussion and think about them rhetorically: are they effective and/or ineffective in terms of pathos, style, purpose, audience, decorum, kairos? These are some of the Keywords of rhetoric we will be studying and using. Stay tuned.

To start the process of learning and exploration in our first class, consider what you know (which is also to ask, what you don’t know) about “rhetoric” and about the literary and film tradition of “documentary.” How would you, right now, before we begin, define “rhetoric” and what phrases/ideas/people/texts do you associate with the word? Same question for “documentary”: what’s your definition and associations?

We can do some brainstorming for these initial definitions by using as an example the 2021 Inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb.”

As best you can, using whatever terms you know, what are rhetorical aspects of this presentation?

As you begin to think about your own documentary about any topic of interest (the final project), what would that documentary explore? At this early point, what might your rhetoric for the documentary be? How and why would the documentary be “rhetorical”?

At the end of the course–this is my contention–you will provide a more persuasive response to these questions, and that response, in true rhetorical fashion, will be enacted, not just contemplated, in your Final Project treatment for your own documentary project.

Documentary Treatment: from Invention to Delivery


We have learned about the 5 sections or canons of classical rhetoric. This was both an organizing device for the course as well as subject matter. The study of rhetoric can be broken up into five parts, but also, developing the rhetoric of a project, argument, essay, documentary, can be achieved by moving through the 5 sections: from invention to delivery. Your Final Project Treatment is built upon the 5 canons of rhetoric, and what you have learned about rhetoric and documentary over the semester. You can use the 5 sections as yet another template for developing the project. And of course, there were many other concepts, structures, and organizing principles that we studied along the way: 3 Branches of rhetoric; 3 appeals; 3 purposes (Cicero); commonplaces; fallacies, figures, and so on.

What, then, are key ideas, concepts, terms, conventions, knowledge that you associate with each of the 5 sections?

Invention: ?  Arrangement: ?  Style: ?  Memory: ?  Delivery (both vocal and video): ?

How would you apply those ideas and concepts to a short documentary such as this one, Arctic Boyhood? Or “The Butler’s Home,” a documentary by Melissa Sue Lopez about a group of Washington College Students visiting the home of the man depicted in the film (and book) The Butler. For some thoughts on how a documentarian moves from pre-production to production to post-production: Melissa explained to me that she was asked to do a 2 minute account of the visit; she began filming and discovered, only after production, what the “story” of the documentary was really about; she ended up with 8 hours of footage that she edited down to 20.

How do you plan to apply those ideas and concepts to your own documentary?

In addition to your notes from reading and discussion, you can refer to the listing of Keywords and to my Notes for class discussion. Look back on your first two writing projects and the various discussions we had (some of which is archived in my earlier posts here on Available Means). Think, also, about the additional documentary film you screened for your analysis.

If you were to make a documentary like Sarah Burns, or Nick Flynn, or Errol Morris, or Rory Kennedy, or N. Scott Momaday, how and why would you make it? What would the project be?

Here is an example of a documentary film Treatment and demonstration video from James Looper (former student in the course), published in the Washington College Review.

Momaday and Epideictic Rhetoric

Devil’s Tower National Monument

We are using Momaday’s book to explore the last of the three branches of rhetoric: epideictic or commemorative or celebratory rhetoric. This unfamiliar Greek word, epideictic, refers to compositions that display or demonstrate their topic, typically either for praise (encomium) or for blame (vituperation or invective).

Where do we find epideictic rhetoric in our culture? It would seem to be everywhere and anywhere on social media. It’s hard to think of Twitter or Instagram or the Kardashians without it. As you look into other documentaries, and begin to think about composing your own documentary (for the Final Project), you can consider the rhetoric of commemoration as a viable option. We will also use Momaday  to explore the final two parts of rhetoric: memory and delivery.

What makes Momaday’s literary documentary, The Names, epideictic in nature? What are its features? If you were to translate his book into a film documentary, how would you do it–what documentary modes would you use? what rhetorical figures would you employ?

N. Scott Momaday was a producer on an eight-part documentary titled The West (1996), made by Ken Burns. There is an interactive component connected to the film. And a documentary about Momaday, titled Words From a Bear, was released in 2019. Here is the trailer. You can also see the trailer for an earlier Momaday documentary, made by his daughter, Return to Rainy Mountain.

Further thinking: An example of epideictic or commemorative documentary no doubt familiar to many is a nature documentary. However, in the age of climate change and the anthropocene, such documentaries seem to be more judicial and certainly deliberative. Here is one example, the series “Our Planet,” described here.

Project 2 Guidelines

Writing Project 2: The Style of Documentary

Nick Flynn and Errol Morris both represent and document the same event, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the larger context of the Iraq War, terrorism, and the use of torture. But each representation is very different in style and mode, in how the same event is remembered, memorialized, and delivered. For this project, you will apply lessons from our study of style, deliberative rhetoric, and documentary modes in your rhetorical analysis of both texts, The Ticking is the Bomb and Standard Operating Procedure. Question (Option 1): Which documentary is more effective and persuasive in its representation of the event and its significance? What makes one (or perhaps both, or perhaps neither) persuasive? Identify and analyze specific aspects of style (both in rhetoric and documentary) to support your claim.

Option 2: Instead of comparing Flynn and Morris, you could compare/contrast Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure with the 2007 documentary by Rory Kennedy, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Same question applies:  Which documentary is more effective and persuasive in its representation of the event and its significance? What makes one (or perhaps both, or perhaps neither) persuasive? Identify and analyze specific aspects of style (both in rhetoric and documentary) to support your claim.

[To provide some context for your argument, imagine the following scenario: a professor in History or Politics is looking for a text that would help students understand the Abu Ghraib scandal and its context. Which documentary might you recommend and why? Conversely (to help focus on “problem”), if only one of these documentaries were to be used to represent the history of this topic, would that be a problem?]

  • Format: approximately 5-7 pages (not including abstract); double-spaced; title (where the rhetorical framework begins).
  • Course Keywords: As a means of extending your analysis, you must forward into your discussion keywords and concepts from our study of rhetoric and documentary. At least one from Leith/rhetoric and one from Nichols/documentary; as always, be rhetorically effective–these keywords are part of your Invention.
  • Counterargument: continue to attend to flexible, persuasive ways of doing refutation as part of the argument process and your Arrangement.
  • As with Project 1, the use of secondary material/research is optional, not required. This could include reference to the op-ed by Morris, as well as the alternative film documentary, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.”
  • Writing Focal Point: focus on the Style of your own argument, including the use of figures of speech and figures of thought to make the delivery of your argument more compelling, and your sentence style more effective. For example: in addition to talking about metaphor or parataxis, you can work on your own use of those and other elements of style.


Workshop: Eyes and Ears on Style

McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (1967)

We focus on style in project 2. Style is not just a matter for our rhetorical analysis, but also a matter for our own rhetorical knowledge. Like rhetoricians of old responding to an audience, we can think about the ways our message can better massage our readers. Here are some tools you can use to pay more attention to your style, and related elements of your language and grammar.

Signposts. The arrangement of our argument/writing overlaps with style, and overlaps most effectively, when we give more attention to signposting. This is when we tell the reader where we are in the argument and where we are going at each key point along the way. One of the basic places we do this: the topic sentences at the beginning of each body paragraph. For further discussion on Topic Sentences and Signposting, consult this resource from the Harvard Writing Center.

[1]Clarity of Characters and Actions in Sentences. The chapter “Revising Style” in The Craft of Research offers several ways to diagnose and revise sentences for clarity. They have us think about the argument as a story that we are seeking to tell more clearly. For example, we know that a sentence must contain a subject and a verb; they have us think about a sentence as having a character (subject) and action (verb)–and to make sure that the character and the action in the sentence is clear. We can use Flynn as a model: he is arguing for/from/about the lack of clarity and certainty–but in his sentences, he is clear and specific (not abstract) about the characters and actions he associates with the problem of clarity–think of how specific and clear his metaphors and other figures are.

Here is one editing template they offer for revising for character and action (p. 254).

To diagnose:

  1. Underline the first six or seven words of every clause, whether main or subordinate
  2. Perform two tests:
    1. Are the underlined subjects concrete characters, not abstractions?
    2. Do the underlined verbs name specific actions, not general ones like have, make, do, be?
    3. If the sentence fails either test, revise.

To revise:

  1. Find the characters you want to tell a story about. If you can’t invent them.
  2. Find what those characters are doing. If their actions are in nouns, change them into verbs.
  3. Create clauses with your main characters as subjects and their actions as verbs. You can recast the sentences as: If X, then Y; X, because Y; Although X, Y; When X, then Y….

Richard Lanham (the editor of the Handlist of Rhetorical Terms) provides further guidance for revising sentence style for clarity, to highlight the character and action of our thought in a sentence. He offers a “Paramedic Method” for bringing a dying sentence back to life.

Joseph Williams, in his chapter on “Elegance” (from his book Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace) argues: “How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace.” He recommends “climactic emphasis,” ending a sentence with words that are heavy, deserve stress, and “carry readers toward strength.

[2]Old Before New (see p. 260 for editing strategy). This principle applies to sentences, as well as to paragraphs. Thus an effective topic sentence begins with a transition (the old) before signaling what’s new. “In contrast to _____ (issue just discussed in previous paragraph), we find a very different case in ______.”

[3]Complexity Last. Again, works on sentence level, as well as for paragraphs. Apply to the introduction–which ends with the most specific and complex statement of your claim–and to the conclusion.

Tools. A digital tool for visualizing the elements of your sentences, and in particular for getting a handle on where the action and/or character of those sentences might need revising, see the Writer’s Diet test. The creator of that test, Helen Sword, offers further discussion of the problem of nominalizations (turning verbs into nouns) in “Nominalizations are Zombie Nouns.”

A useful tool for tracking and being more specific with the language we use is the VocabGrabber, which links to the Visual Thesaurus.

The Argument in Flynn and Morris: What’s Ticking?

How would you characterize the argument of Flynn’s documentary, The Ticking is the Bomb? If you were to write an abstract for his project (identifying the Context, Problem, Response), what would it be? Which chapters would you point to as providing evidence crucial to his argument? And finally–since style plays a role in persuasion–what elements of Flynn’s style would you say are crucial to the argument and the project?

On his site, Flynn provides numerous links for further reading and discussion focused on the issue of torture, a focal point of the book. There he also provides this synopsis of the book–with some further thoughts on the arrangement and style of the project.

How would you characterize the abstract for”Standard Operating Procedure”?

Morris’s synopsis  for the film and its argument (from his website):

Is it possible for a photograph to change the world? Photographs taken by soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison changed the war in Iraq and changed America’s image of itself. Yet, a central mystery remains. Did the notorious Abu Ghraib photographs constitute evidence of systematic abuse by the American military, or were they documenting the aberrant behavior of a few “bad apples”?

We set out to examine the context of these photographs. Why were they taken? What was happening outside the frame? We talked directly to the soldiers who took the photographs and who were in the photographs. Who are these people? What were they thinking? Over two years of investigation, we amassed a million and a half words of interview transcript, thousands of pages of unredacted reports, and hundreds of photographs.

The story of Abu Ghraib is still shrouded in moral ambiguity, but it is clear what happened there. The Abu Ghraib photographs serve as both an expose and a coverup. An expose, because the photographs offer us a glimpse of the horror of Abu Ghraib; and a coverup because they convinced journalists and readers they had seen everything, that there was no need to look further. In recent news reports, we have learned about the destruction of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation tapes. A coverup. It has been front page news. But the coverup at Abu Ghraib involved thousands of prisoners and hundreds of soldiers. We are still learning about the extent of it. Many journalists have asked about “the smoking gun” of Abu Ghraib. It is the wrong question. As Philip Gourevitch has commented, Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun. The underlying question that we still have not resolved, four years after the scandal: how could American values become so compromised that Abu Ghraib—and the subsequent coverup—could happen?


Interview with Errol Morris about “Standard Operating Procedure,” including discussion of his use of reenactments or illustrations in the film:

Is there a difference between your use of what I would call “forensic” reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and the kinds of reenactment you created for SOP?
Yes and no. I have used reenactments in all of my films. I hear a line in an interview and it suggests an image. In The Fog of War, McNamara discusses his work at Ford on automobile safety. Padded dashboards, collapsible steering wheels, seat belts, etc. He suddenly, unexpectedly tells a story about dropping skulls–padded and unpadded–down a stairwell at Cornell. I thought to myself, what an image! McNamara even when he’s trying to save lives is dropping stuff from the sky. O.K. I “illustrated” the line. It is a way of directing or re-directing attention to a specific thought or idea. In Standard Operating Procedure, I do something similar, but the “illustrations” direct attention to moral quandaries, disturbing details–and many of them involve the photographs. Tony Diaz, an MP, discovers that al-Jamadi is dead. Diaz didn’t kill him, but he helped suspend al-Jamadi in a Palestinian hanging, a stress position, not unlike a crucifixion. He describes how a drop of blood fell on his uniform. He tells him himself that he is not involved, but he knows he is involved. I illustrated the falling drop of blood. It takes us into Diaz’s moral quandary–I am not involved but I am involved–and our own.

And regarding the distinctive “style” of his documentary filmmaking:

You have established a distinctive style as a documentary filmmaker, linking it to fictional genres like film noir and horror. Can you define the basic rules and methods that govern your style? Do you have a list of dos and don’ts? A theory of documentary?
Well, I have a theory of art: set up an arbitrary set of rules and then follow them slavishly. Documentary can be anything–that’s what I love about it. However, there has to be one underlying intention, one underlying goal–to find out something about reality.


Flynn, Morris, and the Modes of Documentary

A depiction of the “Interrotron” used by Errol Morris

What’s at stake in Flynn’s story? What’s his project, his argument?

Although it seems unconventional to consider The Ticking is the Bomb a documentary and to juxtapose it with Eroll Morris’s “Standard Operating Procedure,” Flynn himself points in this direction. Here he is talking about the origins of his memoir:

NF: The book started as a meditation on the Abu Ghraib photographs. I sort of had done all the research and written a draft of a book. But I sensed that I hadn’t quite followed it deep enough. Since this isn’t journalism, it’s not just about what happened; it’s really about why this thing that happened is affecting me. That’s what a memoir is: an individual’s interpretation of events, rather than just what happened.

When I started looking into why these images snagged so deeply in my subconscious, I followed those threads back, and they led back to stuff I had touched on in the first memoir — my father’s time in prison, my mother’s suicide — but they went more deeply into them. In my father’s case, he had been tortured in federal prison; he’d been experimented on. And he would tell this story quite often. He was sleep-deprived, had been put in isolation and sexually humiliated. And as I was writing the book, I started realizing that these were the things that also were talked about at Abu Ghraib.

One of the books I read was by the historian Alfred McCoy. It details the CIA’s involvement in developing the torture techniques we saw at Abu Ghraib. They had a 50-year program to develop those techniques. McCoy talks about how the federal prisons had been the site of early experimentation of these torture techniques. And some of those prisons were prisons that my father was in. So his stories suddenly took on this other resonance.

What, then, is Flynn’s story? There’s a lot going on–in the life, and in the story–that much we know. In “the uses of enchantment (flying monkeys)” [p. 219-220] Flynn suggests that the story is about “story”: “the story we tell ourselves.” Here is another moment of a documentary in the reflexive mode. The documentary, the book, in some measure reflects on the conditions of its making. And the way Flynn goes on to talk about “story” suggests another, related mode: performative. A story is one of the ways we perform ourselves. We carry stories with us, Flynn writes; they structure our identity and our ideas. This reflection crosses over into performance when Flynn, after referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, wonder if the “reenactment” of a particular story, a “redemption narrative,” is “now being used, by some, as a justification for the use of torture” (220). This raises the implication that Flynn is arguing about the idea of torture not just by meditating upon it (in the expository or observational modes), but that he is reflecting the issues–like a shadow projected onto a wall?–onto himself, his own making of the narrative.

Lingering Questions:

What, in the end, is Flynn’s argument? Do we get clarity? Think about the components of an effective peroration (epilogue): summation, amplification, pathos.

Are there other examples of this performative style of Flynn’s text? I would turn back to the allegory of the cave, for one. And to the section that repeats the title, “the ticking is the bomb,” where readers are commanded, just like Plato’s Socrates does, to “imagine this.” What follows is what Flynn calls a “thought experiment.” A performance of transformation in thinking, carried by the allegory of Proteus.

And of course, Flynn is also an active participant in this story. Is it possible to consider all 6 modes of documentary in relation to Flynn’s text? In comparison or contrast to Errol Morris, what modes are evident in “Standard Operating Procedure”?

One way we might recognize elements of the performative mode in Morris’s documentary concerns his unique style of filming an interview. He created a device called the “Interrotron,” which allows the viewer to have direct eye contact with the person interviewed. This allows the filmmaker, as Morris puts it, to become one with the camera:

Q: Is it true that you interview people using a machine?

A: Yes, the (patent pending) Interrotron. It’s a machine that uses existing technology in a new and novel way. When I made my first film, Gates of Heaven, I interviewed people by putting my head right up against the lens of the camera. It seemed as though they were looking directly into the lens of the camera, but not really. Almost, but not quite. Of course, they were looking a little bit off to the side.

Q: What’s wrong with that? What were you trying to achieve?

A: The first person. When someone watches my films, it is as though the characters are talking to directly to them… There is no third party. On television we’re used to seeing people interviewed sixty-minutes-style. There is Mike Wallace or Larry King, and the camera is off to the side. Hence, we, the audience, are also off to the side. We’re the fly-on-the-wall, so to speak, watching two people talking. But we’ve lost something.

Q: What?

A: Direct eye contact.

Q: Eye contact?

A: Yup. We all know when someone makes eye contact with us. It is a moment of drama. Perhaps it’s a serial killer telling us that he’s about to kill us; or a loved one acknowledging a moment of affection. Regardless, it’s a moment with dramatic value. We know when people make eye contact with us, look away and then make eye contact again. It’s an essential part of communication. And yet, it is lost in standard interviews on film. That is, until the Interrotron.

Q: I don’t get it.

A: I got tired of sitting so close to the camera. (In my early films, my cameraman would grab the back of my head and pull me back because you could see the side of my head in the lens. When he yanked me back, it often hurt.) And I started to wonder, what if I could become one with the camera. What if the camera and myself could become one and the same?

The Allegory of the Cave

Given the poetic mode of Flynn’s text and the various elements of style we have only begun to track in the opening sections of The Ticking is the Bomb, and given that we are confronted by a memoir that reads as both a documentary and a long, wandering, lyrical essay about torture, it makes sense for us to do some close reading.

[Note about my sentence style: that first sentence is an example of hypotaxis. If I were to shift toward the sort of parataxis we find in Flynn, I could rewrite it, taking out the subordination and letting the sentences run, perhaps even taking out the coordination: We have begun to track various elements of style in The Ticking is the Bomb. We are confronted by a memoir that reads as both documentary and long, lyrical essay. It makes sense for us to do some close reading.]

Let’s re-read the chapter titled “the allegory of the cave” (62-65). In rhetorical terms, allegory is an extended or continued metaphor. From the original Greek, it means to speak in another or different way. Silva Rheotricae links it to the figure of perumtatio and parabola; it also can be compared to analogy. This understanding of allegory as a rhetorical strategy for speaking in other ways recalls our initial discussion of Flynn’s style of wandering and running, his digressio and circumlocutio and parataxis. “I’ll try to say this in another way,” Flynn writes, introducing within one of his short chapters a sub-section that takes up the point from another vantage (50). Perhaps we could think of each chapter in this way, each an allegory, an attempt to “say this in another way.” The most widely-read allegory in English is Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which allegorizes ideas from the Bible. The story, told by “Christian” and subtitled “In the Similitude of a Dream,”  begins: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.”

But what is Flynn trying to say? What’s his argument? In the allegory of the cave Plato argues in an extended metaphor for the difference between true ideas that only a few have access to, and the world of their illusory copies, the world of shadows. Philosophy, as the education or leading forth of the soul, provides the access to the truth; but the world we must live in is a world of shadows. Notice what Flynn, in his closer reading of this famous allegory, draws out and borrows: the words and images of dreams, prisoners, and torture. The allegory becomes another photograph of a dream that Flynn adds to the pile of images in this text. And more than that, it becomes an image of the source of those images–the effects of their shadows. Plato’s allegory is in part an argument against the danger of images, their potential to misguide us from the truth. In this sense, Plato aligns images with the open hand of rhetoric, subject to manipulation and contrasts both with the certainty of logic, the fist of philosophical truth. But note how Plato presents his philosophical truth: rhetorically, using the images of allegory, ecphrasis, enargia, etc. This rhetorical use of the allegory begins “Imagine this.”

Flynn uses that same phrase, and guides us to do the same: Imagine this (133). Here, then, is my interpretation, my extended reading of Flynn’s interest in the allegory of the cave. We can think of Flynn’s short, imagistic chapters as shadows on the wall of the cave. He is, like the philosopher, looking for a way out, struggling to find the truth behind or within the images. The struggle, in the end, seems to lead us not out of the cave, into the light of truth, but deeper within. Much like the struggle with Proteus, another classical allegory of interest to Flynn, a figure that might be “simply another name for ‘shadow'” (75).

In this way, we could think of the “allegory of the cave” as a figure with multiple effects, along the lines of the four categories of figures we are studying with our Keywords (part 2): figures of amplification, contrast and parallelism, disruption, and repetition.

Further reading: In the terms of our study of documentary modes, is it possible to view Flynn’s project as not only in the poetic mode, but also performative, reflexive, participatory, and expository? We can thus think about Flynn’s style by looking for parallels and contrasts in the documentary films we will be exploring.

Oratorical style: high, middle, low

Discussion of 3 levels of style at Silva Rhetoricae:

Roman Levels of Style
English Term Latin Names Greek Name Rhetorical Purpose
High Style or Grand Style supra, magniloquens adros to move
Middle Style aequabile, mediocre mesos to please
Low or Plain Style infinum, humile ischnos to teach


Below are some examples of oratorical style. These are related to the discussion of the three levels of style in Words Like Loaded Pistols and also at Silva Rhetoricae. While observing characteristics of style in The Ticking is the Bomb, recognizing their effectiveness and purpose in Flynn’s project, while also noting the elements of style in other texts you can think of, as well as in documentary films, let’s practice. [The first two sentences of this paragraph are examples of parataxis and the “running” sentence style; the last sentence is an example of hypotaxis and a “periodic” sentence.]

For the high style of classical oratory (with periodic sentences and hypotaxis), consider Edward Everett’s 2-hour speech at Gettysburg in 1863. He was one of the most famous orators of the day, and was the headliner. The opening sentence is a good example of a periodic sentence:

STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

Much less famous at the time was the 272 word speech given by a guy named Abraham Lincoln, and an example of the middle style. Note the paratactic sentence structure of the second paragraph:

 Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

And for an example of the low style, we can return to the speech by President Trump that John McWhorter analyzes as an example of parataxis. And remember that “low” here means “plain,” not necessarily improper or vulgar in our use of the word. It was a style used to inform or teach.

Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at M.I.T.; good genes, very good genes, O.K., very smart, the Wharton School of finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you’re a conservative Republican they try – oh, they do a number – that’s why I always start off: “Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune”– you know I have to give my life credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged – but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me …

What’s the difference, rhetorically? In other words: what’s the effects of these elements of style?

See this discussion for review of Hypotaxis and Parataxis (the two main sentence styles). For a place to apply these stylistic concepts to Nick Flynn’s writing, revisit “who died and made you king?” (pages 36-38 in The Ticking).

Nick Flynn’s Rhetoric of Style: photographs of a dream

nickflynn_blogIn the first part of the course we focused on the first two canons or departments of rhetoric, invention and arrangement. We learned of strategies and structures the writer-orator-documentarian can use to develop and organize an argument; we analyzed, in the case of Sarah Burns’s Central Park Five, the ways that rhetoric engages with logic and re-presents the truth of a story persuasively, which also means approximately and arguably.

As we turn to Nick Flynn’s The Ticking is the Bomb, a hybrid memoir-lyric essay that we can also read as documentary nonfiction, we will continue to engage with rhetorical truth and to consider its invention and arrangement.  For the sake of argument, and for the sake of our juxtaposition of Flynn’s book with the documentary film “Standard Operating Procedure” by Errol Morris, I will describe the topic or subject of Flynn’s documentary to be (among other things) a meditation on the problem of torture as it comes to light during the Iraq War, specifically with regard to the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

The book is, clearly, more than that, even as it engages in what seems to be an expository mode of documentary and deliberative rhetoric, which we associate often with politics, with moving people to take action. And so it also presents us with an opportunity to expand our focus on rhetoric to consider its poetics, not just its use of logic. In a word, we can investigate the canon of style: elements and figurations of language, imagery, diction, and sound that we might normally associate with poetry–and Nick Flynn is also a poet–but might not associate with essays, argumentation, or documentary nonfiction. Classical rhetoric reminds us that style matters in delivering persuasion.

You can read and learn more about Flynn’s poetry here. We can begin to think about his poetics, and its rhetorical uses in his nonfiction, by remembering that classical rhetoric loves to identify, categorize, and put to use an inordinate number of rhetorical figures. A figure such as metaphor or simile (no doubt very familiar) which offers a poetic, imagistic way of presenting an analogy: such as, “as if I were holding a photograph of a dream” (1).  A metaphor is a figure of comparison and difference, a way to invent an argument, not just a way to be poetic with our language. There is also the figure of description known as enargia, which refers to writing that is visually descriptive and lively; this rhetorical method of description was practiced in the progymnasmata (one of the 14 exercises). A related figure of vivid description is know as ecphrasis (or ekphrasis). In the poetic tradition, this comes to us as the verbal description of a visual object–often a famous painting or art object; thinks Keats and the Grecian urn, or William Carlos Williams and “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (about the painting by Brueghel). We can also think of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in this way–with many layers of irony and complexity issuing forth. Plato warns of the fallibility and falseness of images, in contrast to the philosophical ideal, yet he does so by using a visual analogy. It strikes me that Flynn’s interest in the poetics of enargia and ecphrasis–with photographs in particular on his mind–makes his documentary at least in part in the reflexive mode. [And also, since photographs physically relate to the story of the prison scandal and the torture, we can also recognize here the poetics of metonymy–remember the ticking clock in Central Park Five.]

There is the figure of order known as parecbasis, which is in effect a figure of digression, a way to present an argument by way of its apparent wandering. In Words Like Loaded Pistols, Leith identifies related figures known as digressio and circumlocutio (in English, digression and circumlocuation). Might these figures of style help us make sense of Flynn’s interest in getting lost and in bewilderment? Perhaps we can read his stylistic digression as a poetic and performative characteristic of his documentary. This is the way his mind works.

Parataxis provides another concept from classical rhetoric to think about Flynn’s style of thinking. It is highly associative: within each chapter he moves from one idea to the next, following a chain of association, just as the chapters move back and forth through associations within each section of the book. Consider, as one example, the chapter “who died and made you king” (36-38). What makes the sentence style paratactic is the way it moves or runs through ideas by juxtaposing them, without subordination or hierarchy. All ideas seem equal and somehow related (perhaps). Hypotaxis is the other sentence style that contrasts with parataxis: this structure provides clear relation through subordination; it is known as the periodic style. See this helpful discussion of the difference by parataxis and hypotaxis.

Some links related to The Ticking is the Bomb, provided by Nick Flynn, including letters he wrote critical of “Standard Operating Procedure.”

And also from Flynn’s website, links to collaborative projects he has done–which suggests some ideas, perhaps, for thinking of an interactive documentary.

Here is one of the photographs Flynn is thinking about and, notably, doesn’t reproduce.  And this is the New Yorker article (mentioned by Flynn) that first broke the story about the photographs.

What do you think about Flynn’s choice not to reproduce this or any of the images he mentions?