Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I spent last week at the Free State Festival in Lawrence, Kansas, my week-long summer camp. The festival started as a film festival, but now includes films, art, ideas, and music—a great event that helps make Lawrence a special place. The films, concerts, talks, and exhibits I attended have given me lots to talk about in future blog posts, and I’ll comment more on films and music and ideas from lectures in future weeks.
This week I want just to note how genres are named in music. I think it may be different from genre labels in text—and may be revealing about genres and individual instantiations of genres.
You’ve noticed, I’m sure, the proliferation of labels for different genres of music. So here are descriptions from the Free State Festival website of the featured band for each night. (If you link to the Festival’s description of each, which I’ve linked on their name, you’ll find a video of each group in addition to the ones I include below)
The outdoor show on Friday night included five different bands. It featured
And then there was
Can you believe what I got to experience at the Free State Festival? And that was just the featured music. I haven't even begun to rave about Wes Urbaniak or Molly Gene One Whoaman Band
I’m no music critic—to overstate my expertise—but I listen to a wide range of genres (and loved each of these shows). I can’t say I listen to every genre of music, because the genres and labels keep changing. Individual bands and musicians sometimes claim unique labels (another topic for another time).
But it’s interesting how this festival’s website, designed to attract as many audience members as possible, classified even these most innovative artists. Every artist merits both a genre label and a claim for innovation in that genre. Public Enemy may have transformed their genre, but they are hip-hop. Blind Boy Paxton gets a time label—1920s music—so perhaps that is his innovation. Kristofferson gets a clear country label, but that’s a genre he helped to redefine. The rock and roll bands get perhaps the most complex labels, putting together rock and roll with different time periods of “American” music, and each claimed strong innovative credit.
So maybe we want our music to be both clearly categorized in a genre and innovative within that genre. Certainly musicians, like writers, often resist genre labels. But the innovations here come out of the category they’re innovating within. I’ve argued before (more in Chapter 5 Creative Boundaries in my book on Writing Genres) that creativity requires constraint, that composers need the defined territory for us to notice and be able to interpret their variations from that territory. I guess I’ve written myself into another repetition of that claim. Genre is interesting for both how it creates commonalities and how it allows differences. A productive tension.
Do your favorite musicians resist their genre labels? Do you?
And don't you want to come to the Free State Festival next June? I'll be there.
Image courtesy of pixabay.com
Today I want to sketch another topic I notice—how words reflect our culture and, perhaps, shape us in return.
Later in this post, I’ll get to the news article that prompted my response today, on road safety officials avoiding calling traffic wrecks “accidents”
Words reflect our culture and, perhaps, shape us in return
This topic connects to my interest in genres, too. I keep noting that we shape genres and genres shape us. Ditto words. The words we use come from who we are, as individuals, a society, and a culture. Words reflect our values and beliefs, our ways of viewing the world. And they reflect our history, who we have been. And words may then shape our views of the world, too, influencing what we see and how we see.
Think of the words homosexual gay queer trans LGBTQ+ and slurs I won’t name
Or whether we label someone a shooter, murderer, or terrorist
Or whether someone is pro-life or anti-choice, pro-choice or pro-abortion
You might have noticed that I hedge with “perhaps” and “may” on my claims that words shape us in return. That’s because there’s a lot of scholarship on the relationship between thinking and language. Beginning with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis—a hypothesis developed by anthropologist Edward Sapir and later by linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf that language influences our thinking—researchers of cognition and the brain and of language and culture have debated whether language actually limits our thinking or merely reflects it. For example, it’s clear that language changes, so we must be able to think beyond or outside of our words. The strong version of the hypothesis, that language determines thinking, doesn’t hold up well.
But a weaker version, that language influences thoughts, makes sense. I can’t resist the notion that the words we use shape our perceptions and attitudes.
Scholars in cognitive metaphor theory, originating in the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, reveal how filled with metaphors our language is and how those metaphors come from our bodies and influence our brains. And more recent research has demonstrated that the words of body metaphors have some basis in physical reality. We connect temperatures to feelings, for example. Affection is warm, distance is cold, as in the temperature words describing people: hot-headed, cold, warm, cool and collected. It turns out that when we hold something warm, we perceive others as warmer emotionally and we’re more generous than when we hold something cold. You can hear more in this NPR All Things Considered report.
It’s a rich field of research, and I’m just barely mentioning it here. I hope to pick up on conceptual metaphors in a later post. You might want to check out George Lakoff’s video of discovering the many ways we talk about love as a journey.
Or this animated depiction of the ways our bodies lead us to see life as a journey moving forward, by Charles Forceville
One use of language that has been discussed vigorously is the use of the word “survivor” for people who have had cancer. The whole “cancer is war” metaphor pokes its head through when obituaries note that someone “battled” cancer, or “fought hard” or “lost the battle.” Not just words but whole genres shape our actions in dealing with cancer. Judy Segal has written great stuff about the “breast cancer narrative” genre and what it leads us to expect of cancer patients (I can link only to an abstract).
In the past week, the Kansas City Star published a report by Miranda Davis headlined in the print version, “Don’t call it an accident, road safety officials say."
Instead of “accident,” highway patrols and safety agencies are using the words “crash” and “wreck.” According to Mark Rosekind, director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like God made it happen.”
Instead, humans cause most wrecks through their risky behavior—drunk driving, speeding, distracted driving, or not wearing a seat belt. But if you say it was an accident, it makes it seem unavoidable. The Kansas Department of Transportation is trying to change the mindset by changing the words they use. The Missouri Highway Patrol now files “crash reports” instead of “accident reports.” As Rosekind says,
In our society, language can be everything.”
Everything? Maybe not, in the more complex scholarly research society. As academics say about every subject, it’s complicated. (Or maybe that’s just me) But words, at the very least, give us a way of noticing or pointing out our attitudes and limited perceptions. Distinguishing between genuine accidents in the world and things people cause can help us change behavior, the safety officials hope. New models of cancer treatment will need to shift patients from “survivors” of a war to cohabiters or roommates, people “living with” cancer long-term. For rhetoricians and writing teachers, it helps to have a model of argument not just as war (winning an argument, defending a point) but instead as finding common ground, as Carl Rogers and others would have it.
I’ll keep noticing words that are shaping our attention one way or another and hope to write more about particular sets of words in future posts. What words have you noticed that might shape our view of our worlds?
In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, and after the initial shock and horror and heartsickness, I’m going to expand a bit on my last post, Hating Categories. Initially, I wanted to leave the last post as my only comment here. I still feel such horror and grief and anger that I don’t want to respond to it as a thinker. But those emotions also carry me into seeing the suffering that people cause through their categorizations. So I’m adding some quick perceptions about the negative side of categories.
Since I write about genres, I write about categories. In some ways I’m a defender of genres and other categories. Yes, they normalize behavior, but that’s good as well as bad. Yes, they constrain writers and readers, but without such constraint there can be no creativity. All topics I’ve written about in scholarly works quite a bit.
But the categories work against us, too. In the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016, that terrorist act targeted a category of human beings. Categories have very real consequences in our very real worlds.
Photo scene of Orlando nightclub shooting: Credit Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
So, without over-intellectualizing and distancing from the emotional pain of that horrible event, I want to return to the conclusions from psychological research that I posted about earlier. Based on the New York Times article by Tom Vanderbilt, I summarized points on The Psychology of Genre, repeated below. My additions below each point in that bulleted list today: What can be the painful results of categorizing?
Sorting the world into patterns that are easier to read allows us to ignore the information that doesn’t suit us, or the information that contradicts those categories. “Ah, some people are gay” (probably even ignoring the more complex category of LGBTQ). A category that sorts individual human beings becomes “those people.”
Once we have sorted people into categories, those people “become more alike in our minds.” Forget all the variations that are humans, “those people are all alike.”
We don’t know enough yet about the shooter in Orlando or his groups, but if it turns out, as initially reported, that he at least identified with ISIL, then he would be a part of a social group that perceives and condones violence against the categories of Americans he perceived, regardless of the reality of who might have been in that club.
Obviously, haters and terrorists don’t perceive their targeted groups positively, so any distinctions within the category they hate are lost. Their categories become large and all-consuming, deliberately masking subcategories and differences within. They maintain the hate by maintaining the rigidity of categories. They don’t change.
So much lies outside the perception of those who hate and those who hate by categories. The category allows them to keep from perceiving what they don’t want to perceive, to keep from generating “cognitive disfluency” that might make them question their perceptions.
To move beyond adding anger and violence to the world requires moving beyond rigid categories and limited perceptions.
For hate not to win, we must remember.
In my post on the Psychology of Genre, I shared the informative article on psychological research into categories and how they influence the ways we think and act. One discovery is that people hate what they can’t categorize.
Well, people hate what they can categorize, too.
Categorizing people allows some to stereotype, to divide us from them, and to sweep individuals into masses—masses that can be hated, feared, and murdered. Categorizing can blind some to shared features that cross categories—like humaneness, individuality, and being loved by family and friends.
I’m heartsick over the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, USA. I don’t want to intellectualize such terrorism. At the moment, I just need to acknowledge it and recognize the damage that categories can do in a very real way to very real people.
New York Times: "worst mass slaughter shooting in American history"
Lawrence Journal World AP story