Brummett Variets of Rhetorical Criticism

Brummett, Barry. 1991. Varieties of Rhetorical Criticism. In Dimensions of Popular Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

In Chapter 3 we learned that critics who are trying to understand the rhetoric of popular culture are confronted with choices about the texts that they study. These critics are in search of what texts mean, and of how those meanings influence people. We have looked at some of the concerns and questions that most rhetorical critics have in common.

But within the last chapter, the choices that critics make were presented along continua, as evidence that not all critics make the same choices or study texts in the same ways. Texts inevitably have many meanings, and critics may disagree about which meanings and which influences are the most important. Similarly, critics may disagree about which meanings are most influential; in trying to explain why people do what they do and why the world is the way it is, some critics of popular culture will point to some meanings and other critics will point to other meanings. These differences reflect unavoidable differences in taste and philosophy. People simply disagree, and while some think that the world turns because of power, others think that it turns because of biochemistry, or sex, or God, Or economics, Or race, and so forth.

An Introduction to Critical Perspectives

Another way to express these differences is to say that while we were concerned with how texts mean in Chapter 3, in this chapter we will consider five different perspectives on what texts mean. There is always more controversy over the latter (what texts mean) than the former.

In this chapter we will look at five groups of critics, or five schools of thought in the rhetorical criticism of popular culture: (1) Marxist, (2) psychoanalytic and feminist, (3) dramatistic/narrative, (4) media-centered, and (5) culture-centered. You can think of these different approaches as different sets of questions for a critic to ask, different categories within which to think, different critical tools, different kinds of meanings to which critics call our attention, and different ideas of what to study in a text.

Before we start thinking about specific approaches, however, we need to make three observations about them. First, within each school of thought are wide differences of opinion, despite the sharing of a general approach to criticism. Indeed, there is not even universal agreement about the labels that are used to denote the five groups. (Works included in the reading list at the end of the book will allow you to investigate these differences further.)

Second, there is significant overlap among the five schools of thought. The fact that one critic might be labeled a Marxist and another a feminist does not mean that they are at odds. Indeed, critical studies often employ more than one approach in combination. So our first two observations could be summed up by noting that any identification of any number of approaches to rhetorical criticism must be somewhat arbitrary, and that the boundaries between various approaches are not firm.

Third, not all approaches to the rhetorical criticism of popular culture are discussed in this chapter. As suggested above, we will deal with only some of the many methods used within each particular school of thought. And some schools of thought, such as deconstruction, will not be developed here at all. Because our space is limited, we will look only at those approaches that seem most fruitful for revealing rhetorical influences, rather than other dimensions, of popular culture.

You have already noticed how important illustrations and examples are for demonstrating how theoretical and methodological concepts relate to our experiences of popular culture. In this chapter we will often use as an example an experience that is surely familiar to anyone who has lived in the United States for more than a couple of years: watching the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. That movie, broadcast every year on television and widely available on videotape, comes as close as anything to a universally shared experience of popular culture within the United States.

Marxist Criticism

Right away we are in trouble with terms and their connotations, because there is not widespread agreement about what to call this perspective. On the one hand, some people think of this school of thought solely in terms of ideological, or class and power-based rhetoric. On the other hand, Marxism has far more negative connotations for many people (bringing to mind images of people in Eastern Europe, standing in line for hours to buy bread, for example).

We align ourselves with the first group, viewing Marxism as an approach that is concerned with ideology, with class, and with the distribution of power in society. Many of the methods and assumptions with which we think about those issues were first proposed by the German philosopher Karl Marx in the nineteenth century. That is why we label this approach Marxist. The term is a handy “umbrella” word, covering all of those concerns and more.

The association of the term Marxist with repressive Communist governments is understandable, but not that relevant to our concerns in this book. The political system in the People’s Republic of China, for example (as well as those of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations), bears little resemblance to the system of government that Marx actually proposed. Similarly, there is very little connection between those specific governments or economies and Marxist theory as a way to think about the rhetoric of popular culture. Marxism, in the sense in which we will use the term, is a method, or a set of assumptions. So when we refer to Marxist critics, we are referring to people who draw on Marx’s theories (regarding class, power, and ideology) in analyzing the rhetoric of popular culture.

Actually, you have already been exposed to many of the methods and principles of Marxist criticism. This approach is one of the most common, and the most mixable, of the five that we will examine. Therefore, it is the source of many of the ideas and terms to which you have already been introduced. Some of those ideas will be reintroduced here, in the context of a discussion of Marxism as a particular approach in rhetorical criticism.

Materialism, Bases, and Superstructure

The philosophy underlying Marxist approaches to criticism is called materialism. This philosophy holds that ideas, rules, laws, customs, social arrangements–in short, everything belonging to the world of ideas or concepts–grows from material conditions and practices. That world of ideas is a vitally important one; it includes our ideas of who should govern whom, of who is more or less valuable, of law and morals, of aesthetics and taste in art and entertainment, and so forth. But materialism holds that those ideas are what they are because of real, concrete, observable actions, practices, and objects. Materialism stands in sharp contrast to idealism, a way of thinking that argues that the world is the way it is because of abstract ideas and concepts. Marxist materialism argues just the reverse.

As an example, take the idea of free choice, which many of us value and believe that we exercise. An idealist would argue that free choice is a powerful idea that exerts influence in the real world, and that because it is such a compelling idea, people come to arrange their affairs, their governments, and their everyday practices so as to make the idea of free choice a concrete reality. Marxists, on the other hand, would argue that the present economic and political arrangement of capitalism requires that individuals make purchasing decisions on the basis of their own desires, without thinking about the larger good of the community. In other words, our economic system depends on people going out to buy stereos because they want them as individuals, not because they think that doing so is good for others. Because the economic base of our society functions on that model of making “free,” individual decisions, Marxists would say that the whole idea of free choice grows out of that economic base, that it is derived from those economic conditions. Were we living under a different economic system, so the thinking goes, the idea of free choice might never occur to us, or at least not as such a powerful and central idea in our understanding of our social and economic lives.

Different versions of Marxism have developed different versions of materialism. An early, very basic form of Marxism (now not as commonly held by critics) argued that a base of economic conditions (who owns what, working conditions, trading practices, and so forth) simply produced a superstructure of everything else: culture (including television, films, and books), ideological institutions (including churches and schools), politics, and so forth. The superstructure of ideas and culture was said to be determined by the economic base.

Most Marxists, however, now recognize that churches, rock concerts, schools (and all that happens there) are lust as material as the economic system is. So, for example, the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser has argued that other systems within a society (such as the political and ideological systems), as well as the economic system, operate relatively autonomously; that is, they are all material and they all generate ideas and concepts (1971). In trying to explain why people think what they do, why certain ideas become current (including ideas of who should rule, who is valuable, and so forth), Marxists now would more commonly say that those ideas are overdetermined, or caused by several material forces acting simultaneously (rather than lust the economic forces).

Today, Marxists such as John Fiske expand the idea of what is material to include all the objects, conditions, and practices of everyday experience, arguing that ideas, concepts, customs, and the like grow from the material, day-to-day experiences of everyday life (1989a, 198913). More explicitly (and more radically), some Marxists would argue that ideas themselves are embedded in, and take form in, everyday experiences. This view of ideas is essentially the position taken in this book. That is why we have been looking so closely at the “little” experiences of reading magazine advertisements, for instance: because ideas of who has power and who does not have power stem from, take shape in, and are worked out in just such “little,” everyday experiences. It is these two concerns-materiaIism, and the way material affects power–that together form the core of Marxist analysis.

Our chief example of popular culture in this chapter can help us see the kind of general approach that Marxism takes. The film version of The Wizard of Or with which we are all familiar first appeared on the screen in 1939, toward the end of the Great Depression, when economic conditions (especially in “dust bowl” states such as Kansas) were still grave. The year 1939 also saw the beginning of World War II, with Germany’s invasion of Poland and France, and the beginning of hostilities between Germany and Great Britain. The Wizard of Oz is an extraordinarily rich text, bearing many meanings within the guise of a pleasant children’s story. Let’s examine just one theme in this movie, considering how critical approaches that are specifically Marxist might approach that theme: the idea of home.

“Home” is the last word uttered in the film (“There’s no place like …”), and it is the place to which Dorothy is going at the very start of the film (fleeing the evil Miss Gulch). After her one ill-fated attempt to run away from home and her untimely return during the tornado, poor Dorothy spends the entire movie trying to get back home: trying to get into the storm cellar as the tornado approaches, and then trying to get from Oz back to Kansas. Home is a central term, or a central value, in the film.

Marxists might take at least two related approaches to understanding home in this movie. First, they would try to understand the idea of home and how it is expressed in The Wizard of Oz as a symptom or expression of the economic conditions of 1934. They might note the peculiar intensity with which Dorothy wants to return to her hardscrabble farm; she is not lured for long by the attractions of Professor Marvel’s alleged globe-trotting, nor by the technicolor beauty of Oz.

Dorothy’s desire to return to black and white Kansas would be understood by these critics as tied in with the economic difficulties of 1939. The economic system needed workers to be happy with home, wherever that was. Home is a metaphor for the established system; it is the job you have, the income you already make. It was important for the public to maintain faith in the economic system and to keep working within it, even though it had failed them. The growth of labor unions also threatened to disrupt traditional economic arrangements, as working people acquired the means to demand changes in working conditions and distribution of income. Dorothy finds out that a desire for change, ‘even from desperate conditions, results in disaster. The idea of home as the place to be, as the primary object of all desires, is an idea growing out of the established economic system’s need, in 1939, to keep workers loyal and complacent, despite an itch to “roam.”

Second, Marxists might see The Wizard of Oz as an argument for isolationism, or against foreign entanglements (such as a war in Europe); this was the official United States policy and practice in 1939, even as Hitler was gaining power. These critics would note that troubles begin when Dorothy’s dog is allowed to run wild in Miss Gulch’s yard and grow worse when Dorothy herself goes to foreign parts (Oz). Dorothy learns at the end of the movie to stay “in [her] own backyard. ” The theme of home as the confines of North America would thus be read by Marxists as emerging from the prevailing isolationist tendencies in the United States at that time.

The idea of home is part of the meaning of The Wizard of Oz, and part of how its rhetoric works. Marxists point out that any economic or political system not only produces goods, products, practices, and ideas, but also reproduces the conditions under which it produces those things. The tactics by which such an economic or political system induces people to allow it to continue as it is are clearly rhetorical. So part of the rhetoric of The Wizard of Oz is the way in which it reproduces its conditions of production–that is, the economic system of capitalism and the political system of isolationism. It encourages workers to stay on the job, dismal though it may be, and it encourages Americans to stay at home and “mind their own business” politically.

The film’s meanings are rhetorical because they work to influence the ways that workers regard their jobs and the ways that the general public regards overseas conflicts. Marxists today would argue that it is in this movie, as in countless other experiences of popular culture (on the job site, in schools) that both economic and political systems are made. In other words, foreign entanglement is the trouble that Dorothy gets into, accepted as a truth by the audience of this film, and added to other, similar meanings encountered in other everyday experiences.

Economic Metaphors, Commodities, and Signs

Today, Marxists look for material causes that go beyond the narrowly economic. But because the history of the Marxist approach began with an attempt to link ideas, culture, power arrangements, and so forth to economic conditions, Marxist critics often retain economic metaphors for how culture works. For instance, Marxists often regard meanings as if they were commodities, and discuss the ways in which they are exchanged, traded; bought, or sold. This metaphorical approach can be a fruitful way to think about how artifacts of popular culture are used, since most of those artifacts are in fact bought and sold and possess some dollar value. Marxists supplement the idea of the cash value of artifacts with a notion of their value in terms of signification, or meaning.

Take, for instance, a simple stud earring. Suppose you make and sell earrings as a hobby, buying the materials for one dollar and selling the earrings at three dollars a pair. You are enriched by two dollars per pair. Your customers have three dollars less, but presumably they feel that the commodity, the earring, is equal in value to that amount.

But consider the ways in which an earring can also pick up value as a sign, value that can then “enrich” its users, that can even, in a sense, be “traded.” What does it mean, for instance, for a man to wear such an earring? The meanings are not as charged as they once were (when, for example, the choice of which ear to wear the ring in was supposed to be a sign of whether or not a man was gay–a system that collapsed due to widespread confusion and instability in that particular meaning). But even now, an earring in a man’s ear picks up some added symbolic value. It enriches the man who wears it with different meanings: He suddenly has “daring” or “slightly different” or “stylish” added to his other meanings .

Think also about a stud earring worn in the nose. What meanings would that “add” to the “symbolic wealth” of the wearer! We can also think in terms of the exchange value of those signs (just as we might think of the exchange value of money, of labor, or of commodities). To consider exchange value, think about what it would say about you if you were to date, or become friends with, someone wearing a nose ring; what meanings would you have “bought” through such an association? Of course, besides having exchange value, all these meanings should also be thought of as rhetorical; you can clearly influence someone by using a sign in ways that are charged with certain meanings, such as wearing a ring in the nose.

Another example of the exchange value of signs can be found in a rap music group that tried to achieve fame and stardom amid controversy during the early 1990s: Young Black Teenagers. The members of this group were certainly teenagers, and therefore young, but every one of them was white. But of course the sign “black” refers to more than simply skin color. As this group appropriated the sign (or took it as their own), they tried to make it refer to even more than a particular culture, narrowly defined. Young Black Teenagers tried to make the sign “Black” mean an attitude, a political stance, a set of experiences in life, certain associations with people and places. The controversy arose over their right to appropriate the sign of “Black” in that way, and to enrich themselves symbolically with meanings that they were unlikely ever to have owned in real life.

And as a final example, the film The Wizard of Oz also contains numerous signs that have picked up meanings that give them a kind of value. Marxists might study the film as a source of such signs, and they might study the ways in which people appropriate those signs so as to spend them and exchange them. The term “Munchkin” has been extracted from the film to serve as a derogatory term, for example. I like to tell people that I can infallibly discover when a certain coworker will come to the office in a bad mood by looking out the window to see if “Surrender Dorothy” is written in the sky. In certain bohemian neighborhoods of cities like New York or San Francisco, you can find T-shirts saying, “Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore. ” And if you are going to the zoo with a child, and the child asks whether you will be seeing lions, you might find yourself adding “and tigers and bears” (to which the child might respond “Oh my!”). The list goes on and on; The Wizard of Oz is a bank of signs to “spend”-to use as wit, as insult, as fun. The ways in which these meanings can be “spent,” or used strategically, are an important part of their rhetoric. Such uses are part of the way in which these meanings influence others.

Many Marxist critics look beyond the narrowly economic to identify the ways in which actual artifacts, objects, events, and practices influence power arrangements. Power is, then, perhaps the strongest interest of Marxists. Marxist critics study the ways in which large groups of people are empowered or disempowered. They assume that every society has power structures that privilege some groups while placing others in a relatively disadvantaged position. Such differences in power need not be intentionally planned by any group, nor do they need to be startlingly obvious. Put such differences will be consistent throughout most of the experiences with in a culture. So in the United States today, for instance, second- and third-generation citizens are relatively empowered and recent immigrants are relatively disempowered, men are more empowered than women, and so on. These differences in empowerment are found consistently throughout the culture in everyday, ongoing experiences–because they are created there.

Preferred and Oppositional Readings

More and more Marxist theorists are coming to see the practice of reading texts as a sort of material experience with ideological consequences. One way in which already empowered or established groups and interests maintain their power is through the ways in which the texts within a given culture are read. By “reading,” Marxist theorists mean the discovery and attribution of meaning in a text or artifact. Every text, every artifact, according to Marxists, has a preferred reading. This is a reading that is the easiest, most obvious one–the one that seems to be common sense within a given culture. When the evening news reports that a police officer was wounded in a shootout with an armed robbery suspect, for instance, the public is generally encouraged to assume that the police were in the right and the suspect in the wrong. But notice that this reading perpetuates a system of power in which the already empowered enjoy more police protection than do poor or disreputable people within that system.

In contrast to preferred readings are oppositional readings. These are meanings found in a text that are different from, or even opposed to, the easiest preferred meanings. Marxists identify two sorts of oppositional readings: inflections and subversions. An inflection is a bending of the preferred meaning to suit one’s own needs and situations, rather than an outright rejection of those meanings. One possible inflected reading of the preceding example (the officer wounded in a fight with an armed robbery suspect) might come from a National Rifle Association firearms enthusiast who saw the story as evidence of a need for all citizens to be armed. Such a person might “read” this story as showing that armed citizens could have deterred the suspect in the first place, or could have aided the officer with additional firepower.

A subversion is a reversal, an active undermining or rejection, of the preferred meaning. One clear subversion of the robbery example would be to read the situation as one in which the officer had used too much force, thus forcing the suspect to defend himself. The whole structure of who is right and who is wrong in this story is thus reversed, and the meanings upon which established views of law and order rest are subverted. Note that no given text must be read with preferred meanings; nor must it be understood oppositionally. Inflections and subversions are simply different ways of attributing meanings to the signs that make up texts.

We have already discussed one of the preferred readings of The Wizard of Oz in terms of the concept of home. Let us think about some of the other ways in which the movie is “easiest” to read (we should stress that these are but a few of the possible ways to read the film). There is a tension in the movie between the value of fairness and open dealing on the one hand, and oi~the other, a respect for law and order. The preferred reading seems to be that law and order should be obeyed, even if such obedience is difficult or repugnant, because fairness and honesty will eventually triumph. The wicked Miss Gulch arrives at the farm with all the force of law behind her (“I’ve been to the Sheriff. … I’ll bring a lawsuit that’ll take your whole farm !”). She has a legal instrument in hand, allowing her to take the dog, Tote. “We can’t go against the law, Dorothy,” says Auntie Em in resignation. Dorothy does try to do just that by running away with Tote to Professor Marvel’s camp, and she pays for it with an injury to the head.

When Dorothy reaches Oz, it becomes clear that a structure of law works there as well. “Rubbish,” Glinda the Good Witch tells the Wicked Witch, who threatens Dorothy with mischief; “your magic has no power here.” Dorothy’s companions follow the Wizard’s instructions for obtaining the broomstick, even though they seem hopelessly unfair. But the Wizard, in turn, gets his comeuppance when he is exposed as a fraud. The virtue of the four companions who have been following his “contract” to obtain the Witch’s broomstick triumphs at last. Clearly, even a grudging respect for law and order supports the present system of Power and resource distribution. Dorothy and her friends teach the audience to respect that system, even when it puts them at a disadvantage, promising that justice will triumph in the end if we “don’t make waves. “

One of the movie’s easier readings sees it also as a celebration of the value of work. Dorothy is something of a nuisance on the farm at the start of the film because she is the only one with no clear job to do. Everyone else is running around frantically doing chores. “I know three shiftless farm hands that’ll be out of a job,” warns Auntie Em, to spur the help on to greater efforts. The whole context of the action in Oz is a quest–doing something or working hard, so as to earn passage home. At the end, Glinda reveals to Dorothy that she could have gone home at anytime, simply by tapping her ruby slippers, but that she “had to learn it for [her]self.” Dorothy and her three companions think nothing of the Wizard’s setting them various tasks to do in order to win “some brains, a heart, the nerve,” and a trip back to Kansas. Although it is in his power to grant their wishes (or so they think), they accept the need to earn those gifts. For an audience eager to find work in the Great Depression, the preferred reading of the value of work would certainly have been easy to swallow. But the continuation of the established capitalist economy also depended on that desire to put up with a failed economy until its health should be restored; thus an emphasis on the value of work encouraged people to continue seeking what the system could not, at that time, give them enough of.

When people read, or draw meaning out of, texts by drawing on a preferred reading, they participate in one of those everyday, material experiences that perpetuate the existing system of empowerment. The tendency of people to turn first to preferred readings is a product of hegemony. We would say that a group exercises hegemony in society when their preferred meanings, the readings of a text that would keep them in power, come to be the meanings that other, even disempowered, groups tend to turn to first. Hegemony is a remarkable phenomenon; because of it, oppressed people not only accept but often participate in their own oppression. How is it that some women go about saying that men ought to be “in charge”! How is it that some gays feel contempt for themselves, and see their lifestyles as degraded and somehow wrong! Marxists critics are very concerned to examine the ways in which preferred readings induce oppressed people themselves to participate in such oppression.

Marxist theorists note that many of the subtlest means by which power maintains itself are disguised–that is, they do not display themselves as sources or means of power. These theorists would say that the tools of ideology and hegemony tend to be occluded (or hidden) as such. In other words, people are not aware of the ways in which they are empowered and disempowered. Clearly, most casual observers of The Wizard of Oz would not be aware of the deeper meanings that it is urging upon them, or of the ways in which it supports the established system. Marxists therefore tend to be highly interventionist (as we defined that term in Chapter 3), in eager pursuit of the goal of showing people how empowerment works. (See pp. 76-78.)

Marxists tend to see many flaws in the present established system, and to seek changes in it. Therefore, they also try to understand the ways in which texts offer resources for making meaning differently, for being understood in different ways. They do so by encouraging oppositional readings. When texts contain resources for both preferred and other, alternative readings (as nearly all texts do), these texts can be seen as sites of struggle (as discussed in Chapter 3).

The economic metaphor (discussed on page 115) is often used to clarify the ways in which people construct oppositional readings. Participating within an economic system in legitimate ways (through running a business or buying products, for example) is sometimes likened to choosing the preferred meaning of a text. In that case, oppositional readings become a sort of “black market” of signification, a way of “stealing” signs and using them for one’s own purposes.

For instance, there are very clear preferred meanings for a baseball cap; list a few such meanings in your mind. Now, for a gang member to wear a cap in different positions is to steal that sign, the cap, and make it mean something else–in fact, to make it mean something specifically designed to offend the established order and its preferred meanings. The same is true of pop star Madonna’s use of signs that are, in the preferred reading, religious artifacts; she makes them mean something else entirely. Marxists argue that to turn signs against their preferred usage is a refusal of hegemony, of established power structures.

Let us think of some of the ways in which The Wizard of Oz can be read oppositionally. The film has within it the resources to be read in ways that are, in fact, critical of the established system. Authority can certainly be read as suspect in the movie. Glinda the Good Witch appears to be the only unambiguously good authority figure in the film, yet even she is fooled by the Wizard, describing him to Dorothy as “very powerful, but very mysterious.” Glinda can, however, be read as unfair and even threatening in the way she submits Dorothy and her friends to what might have been a fatal adventure (when she could have told Dorothy from the start how to get back to Kansas). Her power can be read as capricious and arbitrary, apparently exercised for its own sake.

Although there is certainly a preferred reading for male dominance, the movie also has the potential for feminist readings. It centers around a heroine, Dorothy. Two of the most powerful figures, Glinda and the Wicked Witch, are female. Auntie Em is clearly in control on the farm back home in Kansas. All of the adult male figures in Oz are weak, silly, or incompetent. The film is about the quest of a young woman who finds at the end that the resources she was looking for all along were within herself. So, against the dominant male ideology of 1939, it is possible to find resources for female empowerment in The Wizard of Oz.

Subject Positions

Another important part of the meanings of texts, also referred to in Chapter 3, is the subject position. lust as every text has a preferred reader that it implies or “calls to” (or, in Althusser’s terms, interpellates), so there are negotiated or oppositional subject positions. Marxist critics try to discover the kinds of roles or characters, or subject positions, that are most strongly suggested by texts; but they also try to identify the resources within texts and within people’s experiences that would enable the construction of inflected or oppositional subject positions.

From our discussion of preferred readings, it should already be clear to whom The Wizard of Oz “calls.” It is easiest to watch the movie as an honest, hard worker, as one who admires fair dealing and openness, as one who values doggedness and determination, and as a good citizen who obeys even unjust authority. From that subject position, one does not find it strange that Dorothy risks her life so as to earn passage back to the dreary workaday world of Kansas. That subject position makes it easy to despise the false Wizard at the end. The “good citizen” subject called to by this film will go along reluctantly with the decision to hand Toto over to Miss Gulch, while hating her for throwing her weight around. The “good citizen” will not be surprised when Dorothy and her companions sorrowfully turn to leave the Wizard’s palace after first being rudely turned away. Much of the rhetoric of the film lies in these subject positions; they were recognizable to much of the film’s original audience, and easy for these people to step into. The preferred readings of the text felt comfortable for many people, and the meanings found in those readings were easily accepted by them.

There is much more to Marxist rhetorical criticism than we have space to explore here. The Marxist critic is concerned with the ways in which popular culture influences people to accept established arrangements of power and economics, and it tries to discover ways in which people find resources for influencing themselves and others to change undesirable power and economic arrangements. One of the most important ways in which power and goods are distributed is by attention to a person’s gender. Feminist/psychoanalytic criticism is a close cousin of Marxist analysis; we will explore that approach in the next section.

Psychoanalytic and Feminist Criticism

This method of rhetorical criticism has such a lengthy name because it really begins with psychoanalysis and moves to feminism. We will make the same move, in an effort to find out what this method is concerned with and how it works.


Psychoanalysis began as a method for analyzing and treating mental illness. It was founded by the Viennese psychiatrist Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, not all psychiatrists use Freud’s methods rigorously, as their main approach to treating mental illness. But rhetorical and cultural critics have found Freud’s approach very useful in explaining certain things about culture in general. Today, the term psychoanalysis is used more broadly, in reference to a theory about how the individual mind, personality, or psyche is constructed.

Of all the methods of critical studies, the psychoanalytic may be the most “suspicious,” for it takes nothing at face value. Psychoanalytic criticism assumes that all the artifacts of popular culture–in fact, all signification whatsoever–has something “behind” it, some other reality or significance beyond lust itself. Those deeper meanings, the ones that psychoanalytic critics are especially interested in, have to do with the ways in which the mind is constructed. Let’s examine a few of the basic principles of psychoanalytic theory.

Desire and Repression:

Newborn babies only experience pure and uncontrolled desire. When they want something, they cry for it, reach for it, or crawl for it. They have no self-control, nor do they know about social inhibitions. When they are hungry, they want to eat then and there; w~hen they wish to urinate or defecate, they do so at once, no matter where they are. If they are angry, they express that anger at once. Infants live for gratification of desire; Freud called this characteristic of infancy the pleasure principle.

Yet from the moment of birth, inhibitions and controls also begin at once to curb the infant’s actions and expressions. The child learns that there are times and places to be fed, that not everything may be grasped, that the elimination of waste must be strictly controlled, and so forth. In contrast to the pleasure principle, the child comes to learn the reality principle: that the world will disapprove of and even punish certain actions. And so the child comes to repress more and more of its desire for gratifications, so that its behavior is acceptable and it can live with others in a society. Such repression is widely regarded as a necessary step in human development. People, being social creatures, cannot go about seeking gratification in totally uncontrolled ways and still live with others in civilized groups. It is “common sense” that adults cannot go about eating, defecating, and urinating whenever and wherever they please.

The psyche–the mental equipment that everyone has, the mind in all its complexity–is a product of both desires and the ways in which desires are repressed. Who we are, how we think, what we come to value, and so forth, are all created by what our parents and society at large tell us that we can and cannot do, think, or feel–but also by our powerful desires to do, think, and feel those things nevertheless.

The desire for gratification, although repressed in favor of reality, never goes away. Instead, in its repressed state it takes on a different form, the structure within the psyche that Freud called the unconscious. The unconscious is formed by the process of repression. The unconscious keeps trying to make its desire for gratifications felt; it keeps trying to break through to conscious awareness and action, all the while remaining continually repressed. Despite this repression, the unconscious exercises enormous influence on how we think and feel, how we act, and how we relate to other people.

Let us consider one example of psychoanalytic explanations for behavior. Infants, of course, want to defecate and, to be honest, the experience of defecation remains mildly pleasurable for adults as well. But that desire must also be repressed at certain times. The question is, how is it to be repressed! Some psychologists argue that young children should be praised for the production of feces in appropriate times and places (and anyone who has raised a child knows how proud they are to be able to learn how to use the toilet). But more important, some psychoanalytic theorists argue that this particular method of repressing desire–the use of high praise–results in adults who are highly productive in many ways, people who freely and confidently produce whatever counts as production in their respective fields (sales records, art works, engine blocks, and so forth). In other words, the key to happiness and productivity lies in the way in which the desire to defecate was repressed; productivity at work is in part the result, within the psyche, of proper toilet training.

Cultural Repressions of Desire:

One major theme of psychoanalytic criticism is the ways in which particular cultures repress desire. Desire repressed makes up the unconscious, and much can be learned about why people do what they do by studying the patterns of repression that are peculiar to their particular cultures. Some cultures may disapprove more of some desires than of others, and the ways in which infants are taught to repress certain desires will also affect the development of the unconscious:

Psychoanalytic theory strives to explain certain characteristics that seem to be common to most members of a culture. Taking the idea of American culture very broadly, for example, it has often been observed that ours is a highly pragmatic and highly competitive culture. Getting ahead and doing whatever it takes to maximize the bottom line is a theme that has always been strong among most Americans. Practical results often count more than do self-improvement, ethics, or other principles. Psychoanalytic theory would try to locate the sources of this distinctively American trait in the ways in which the unconscious is built out of repressed desires.

Such an explanation is also a rhetorical theory, however, for it explains what is desirable, or what is sought after, within a particular culture. And of course, what is desirable and sought after is what will be influential, or rhetorical. A psychoanalytic theory of American competitiveness, for instance, could explain why certain films, such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street or The Terminator, achieve tremendous financial success at the box office in this country, while films celebrating unambitious, unassuming characters–the type who would never succeed in business-often find only moderate audiences (such as Little Man Tate, or Curly Sue).

Childhood Sources of Desire:

Another major theme of psychoanalysis is a return to the experience of infancy as a source of continuing desire among adults. For the adult, the experience of desire will never be as uncontrolled and the satisfaction of desire will never be as complete as it was for the infant. Friendships will never equal the intensity of bonding with a parent. No food or drink will ever be as completely satisfying as is the milk or formula of infancy. Psychoanalytic critics argue that the appeal of many experiences in adult life, including those of popular culture, can be illuminated by showing how these experiences mirror or parallel the early experiences of childhood.

Explaining the appeal of popular culture in this way is an important aspect of the psychoanalytic understanding of the rhetoric of popular culture. For instance, a very popular use of this theory is to argue that the experience of watching a film in a movie theater is very much like the young child’s experience of discovering the mirror. Psychoanalytic theory argues that an important stage in child development is the child’s learning about images or representations, and that one way in which this happens is by the child’s discovering its own reflection in a mirror. The child is delighted to find that when it moves, the image or representation of itself moves. In other words, the child learns about connections between images and reality.

From that knowledge, the child learns how to use and understand signs, which are also images of reality. Much of the appeal of all signs, whether television, film, words, or objects, is that they remind the adult of that pleasurable mirror experience of childhood. But part of the frustration of experiencing signs for the adult is that no other signs so perfectly match the things to which they refer as the mirror image matches the original object. In other words, the sign “dog” does not match that furry thing you have at home nearly as well as the mirror image of a face matches the original face.

The experience of watching a film, however, comes close to duplicating that mirror stage. The film viewer is “cradled” in a soft and comfortable chair, much like a parent’s arms. The darkness of the theater is also comforting and soothing. And finally, most films that we see today are examples of what has been called realist cinema; that is, they are designed to put the viewer into the actual action of the movie. You may or may not know that when a movie is being filmed only small pieces of it are filmed at a time. For instance, if Jack and Jane are talking to each other, all the shots of Jane’s speaking might be filmed at once, with the camera standing where Jack would have been standing, and then all the shots of Jack’s speaking might be filmed with the camera in lane’s position; the film is then edited to give the illusion of Jack and Jane speaking back and forth. That technique has the effect, psychoanalytic theorists argue, of suturing, or binding, the audience into the actual film itself: Jack and Jane appear to be talking to you, the viewer, as well. Furthermore, psychoanalytic theorists argue, that experience of finding yourself “sewn up” within these images on the screen parallels the child’s delightful discovery of appearing in the mirror’s image; this, they argue, is why film is so rhetorically appealing and influential.

Just as a side note, one area of interest within the study of popular culture is the ways in which the apparatus, or specific physical means of production, of a particular medium works to create influences and effects, and psychoanalytic theory is often called upon to explain those influences (see, for example, Cha 1980). For example, television shows must be taped in a hurry to meet the industry’s voracious need for programs, and so its cameras are usually placed out front, where a stage audience would be, so that the actors can simply play their parts once through. Psychoanalytic theorists argue that television is therefore less influential and less appealing than is film, because the audience is merely a spectator rather than sutured into the image itself.

Sexual Repressions:

A third major theme of psychoanalytic criticism is the particular desires that are repressed by human beings, especially sexual desires. Sexual desire is among the most intense of human yearnings, and also among the most repressed. There are more social rules and taboos having to do with where, when, how, and under what circumstances, a person may gratify his or her sexual desires than for any other form of desire. Sexuality is therefore a major area of concern and analysis for psychoanalytic critics.

Furthermore, because sexuality is the source of such significant desire and repression, psychoanalytic theorists argue that differences based on sexuality are the root of some of our most important contemporary problems. Psychoanalysis observes that sexual differences between men and women are the basis for some of the strongest, most interesting, most enduring, and most troubling social and political conflicts. So critics who are interested in psychoanalysis put that interest to work in trying to show, for example, how power imbalances between men and women occur, are maintained or justified, and can be reversed.


Thus, from Freud’s interest in repressed desire we have come to sex, the repressed desire, and from sex to gender and the ways that actual men and women are empowered or disempowered. This last concern, of course, is the province of psychoanalytic feminist criticism, which draws on psychoanalytic theory to explain the empowerment and disempowerment of the sexes.

Varieties of Feminist Criticism:

We discovered that Marxist critics believe that there is an established system of power already in place in any society, and that the system tries to perpetuate itself even as some people try to oppose it. Feminist critics make a similar assumption; they argue that there is a male-dominant system of power in place, and they call that system patriarchy.

Of course, many observations about the inequities between men and women can be made on the basis of fairly obvious evidence. In general, men are paid more, they hold more positions of governmental or corporate power, and so on. The critical approach that draws attention to these kinds of inequities between men and women is often called liberal feminism. Liberal, in this sense, means attempting to increase participation within a democratic system. Thus, the liberals of nineteenth century politics tried to change the laws so that more people could vote within the already established political system. And liberal feminists today are concerned with involving more women in the already empowered echelons of business and government. Some rhetorical critics do adopt a liberal feminist perspective in order to study the ways in which inequities are created and maintained in a patriarchal system.

But as we have discovered, critics do their most uniquely valuable work in revealing what is not obvious. And that which is “not obvious” is the whole business of the unconscious: Because the desires that form the unconscious are repressed, they come out in disguised form. They are expressed in behaviors, thoughts, and objects that are signs of what has been repressed and the ways it has been repressed. Therefore, many feminist critics use psychoanalytic theory to explain ways in which inequities between men and women are grounded in the

unconscious, or created in early patterns of repression. These feminist rhetorical critics, then, study the ways in which patriarchal systems in society and in politics are a product of the repression of desire and the creation of the unconscious.

One branch of feminism, radical feminism, is often allied with the kind of psychoanalytic feminism that we are discussing here. Radical feminist critics point out that it matters little whether a female executive gets the same salary as a male executive if deeper inequities are built in to the very social being of men and women. These critics assume that the most important, and most fundamental, bases of inequities are to be found in the creation of the psyche, in the unconscious and its repression. Radical feminists thus use psychoanalytic theory to point out how the present system itself creates men and women inequitably. But this inequitable “creation” occurs through the repression of desire in the unconscious; in other words, it happens in ways that are “beneath the surface,” and thus require the efforts of critics to reveal them.

Using Gender Differences in Criticism:

Let’s examine a couple of the kinds of gender-based differences that psychoanalytic feminist theorists might study. One very broad generalization that is made about women within most cultures is that they have a lack; specifically, they lack a penis. The more internal and less easily observed female sexual organs do not count, so to speak, when it comes to serving as signs, simply because they are not immediately visible. Our culture, which privileges sight as a route to knowledge, tends not to value what it cannot see; hence this symbolic strike against women. The idea of a lack is then translated into other traits stereotypically attributed to women, traits that parallel a lack. Passivity is a lack of activity, docility is a lack of initiative and command, and so on. Of course, these critics are not arguing that women universally or naturally have such traits. Rather, they are pointing out that such traits are attributed to women, or more precisely to the female role, under a system of patriarchy.

Now consider a second and more complicated example. We noted above that films suture the audience into their story line by putting the camera, and thus the viewer, into the space occupied by Jack and by Jane, the characters in a film. However, the audience is more often encouraged to occupy Jack’s space. This is because, as feminist critics would note, popular culture much more often makes women into objects rather than subjects. That is to say, women become something to be looked at, talked about, worried over, desired, and so on. Men, on the other hand, are more typically made into the lookers, the talkers, the worriers, the ones who desire–in short, into subjects. (As another way of thinking about this distinction, consider the grammatical roles of the subject and the object in a sentence, for example.)

In terms of the position of the camera, the story line, and the audience’s sympathies, movies more often present a situation that assumes, or suggests to the audience, that men are subjects and women are objects–that men act, desire, and decide, while women are acted upon, desired, and decided about. This is not only true of film, feminists argue; feminist critics point to many different texts of popular culture to illustrate this subject-object distinction. Of course, women are occasionally portrayed as subjects in some texts; but in these cases they are often punished for occupying such a position. In the film TheIma & Louise, for example, much (though not all) of the story is told from a female subject’s point of view; but the two lead women end up going off the deep end (literally) at the end of the movie. The rhetorical effect of this ingrained subject-object distinction, argue feminist theorists, is to encourage men to act mainly as subjects, and women to act mainly as objects. The rhetoric of popular culture occurs daily, from moment to moment, as first children and then adults are taught how to be men (subjects) and women (objects). The work of psychoanalytic feminist critics involves locating that subject-object distinction (and many others as well) in the experiences of the texts of popular culture.

Signs of Gender Difference:

Feminist critics argue that under patriarchal systems, culture will be organized around signs that are phallic: signs that represent the penis and the male sexual function, you may have heard the term phallus, or phallic symbol, before. We refer to the phallus as a symbol or sign, rather than to the actual penis itself, as a way of referring to a wide group of signs that represent the penis and the male sexual function (including, for example, rockets, skyscrapers, guns, oil wells, the Eiffel Tower, and so forth).

Signs that are phallic will be more favored or valued; signs that are linked to female sexuality will be less valued. Relationships between signs that express male or female sexuality will mirror the relationships that the culture favors between men and women. That is because those real, cultural relationships are already in place when the infant is born, so the repression of aspects of male and female sexuality follows those cultural patterns. The system of patriarchy (like the economic and political system as understood by Marxists) reproduces itself by creating in the individual unconscious the patterns of empowerment between the sexes that are found in actual practice.

Thus popular culture has a sort of dual function of both production and reproduction. It produces signs of the unconscious, and it comprises those signs as they are produced. But Popular culture also perpetuates culturally shared ways of organizing the unconscious through repression. As an example, think about swimwear that is intentionally designed to be sexually alluring. Skimpy men’s and women’s swimsuits are balanced finely between desire and its suppression. They do so by both featuring and hiding body parts that signal presence (rather than a lack). Specifically, male genitalia and female breasts are emphasized by tight fabric at the same time that they are hidden, or repressed, by the swimsuits.

Accounting for Differences:

There is a branch of feminist criticism that is not directly linked to psychoanalytic theory, a branch that might be called foundationalist or essentialist. Liberal feminism sometimes takes this form. This school of thought argues that there are a number of desirable characteristics that are essentially female, regardless of the culture in which one lives. Essentialist feminists maintain that these characteristics need to be reclaimed in a world dominated by undesirable male characteristics. They argue that it is fundamentally but in these cases they are often feminist theorists, is to encourage female to be communal (rather than individual), noncompetitive, and nonviolent; these desirable characteristics are perceived as inborn, part of the nature of being female.

Psychoanalytic feminist theory, in contrast, maintains that every different society creates people in its own image, by way of the powerful unconscious, and that noncompetitiveness, for instance, is a female trait only if a society creates that trait in women. Psychoanalytic feminism could be said to be concerned with how men and women are created as male and female by different social systems.

However, the arguments of essentialist or foundationalist critics do pose some challenges for feminist criticism. One challenge is whether to account for sex-specific actions and behaviors as a product of cultural conditioning or a product of nature, Answering this challenge involves trying to determine whether there are characteristics that are common to all men and to all women in every culture; if there are, such characteristics must be physically or genetically based. For example, are women everywhere and in every culture more nurturing, more supportive of the young, than are men? If so, that suggests that there may be some physical basis for differences between male and female psyches.

Psychoanalytic feminism must also clarify two other issues. First, while acknowledging that it owes much to Freud, psychoanalytic feminism must determine whether Freud’s ideas about how the psyche is formed apply universally to everyone, or are true only for the society in which he lived. Freud was, after all, a rather sexist individual living in a sexist society. Feminists who admire psychoanalysis often argue that some of the sexist elements in Freud’s theory are there because of the patriarchal society that created Freud himself. But Freud presented his ideas as universally true, and not specific just to his cultural context.

Finally, psychoanalysis has a lot to say about how the psyche is created in childhood. But feminists are interventionists as well: They want to change people. So psychoanalytic feminism must also try to sort out which elements of the psyche are permanently etched during childhood and which are still changeable in adults. None of these challenges or issues has been adequately answered yet.

The Imaginary and the Symbolic:

Many psychoanalytic feminists have found the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan helpful in settling at least the question of which characteristics of the psyche are “natural” and which can be attributed to patriarchal culture. Although his work is far too complicated to explain fully here, we will note the distinction Lacan makes between the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Imaginary is the pattern through which the psyche is organized for everyone, regardless of culture. It includes very basic structures of perception and experience; the “mirror stage” (referred to on page 123), in which children learn how images and representations work, is one component of the imaginary.

Lacan refers to the ways in which particular repressions are carried out, or the particular issues that one culture worries about, as the Symbolic. The symbolic varies from one culture to another. It is the set of parameters available within a given culture for making individual psyches. This concept is important, because psychoanalytic feminists identify all of patriarchy as being within the realm of the symbolic. By doing so, these theorists are saying that an ability to recognize images, for instance, is something that people in all times and places must acquire (and therefore part of the imaginary). But the repression of desire does not have to occur in such a way as to privilege phallic signs; that particular form of repression, a patriarchal problematic, occurs in some but not all societies (through the symbolic of the particular culture in which it occurs).

What would psychoanalytic feminist criticism show us in The Wizard of Oz? A number of psychoanalytic feminist readings could be made of the film; let’s examine just a few examples of insights that this method might bring us. Some interesting observations can be made about the movie by thinking about shapes: elongated or pointed phallic signs, and rounded signs that remind us more of the relatively rounded contours of the female body (of the ovum, the breasts, and so forth). Glinda the Good Witch, the ruling female of the film, comes and goes inside a giant round bubble, for instance. One instrument of the Wicked Witch’s power is the crystal ball, in which we see mainly women (Auntie Em, the Witch herself). The false Wizard, exposed largely by the female Dorothy, is whisked away at the end of the movie in a round, hot air balloon that he cannot control (“I don’t know how it works !”).

In contrast to these and other female shapes are the film’s phallic signs. A sign of great power is, of course, the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, a possible phallic sign. The city of Oz rises up in elongated form on the horizon as the travelers draw near to it; in it they will find the supposedly powerful male Wizard. The Wicked Witch, of course, is a somewhat problematic female. She has stepped outside the bounds of acceptable power for women; she is bony and angular and entirely outside conventional standards of female beauty. Her castle is also phallic, and Dorothy and her friends are finally trapped by the Witch’s soldiers in a guard tower, rising erect above a wall of the castle. The ruby slippers themselves, although a blood-red (menses!), are both elongated and the source of the power that Dorothy was seeking all along. Think for a moment about the effects or influences created in the audience by the interplay of these male and female symbols. What do they say about differences between men and women, and about the status of women!

Let us consider one more set of signs in the film. As noted above, the tornado is rather clearly a phallic sign: long and sinuous, snaking its way across the plains of Kansas, doing violence. Dorothy is taken up into the tornado and is eventually expelled from it. She lands in a place populated by child-sized Munchkins. Is it possible to find a link between Dorothy’s dramatic expulsion (ejaculation!) from a phallic sign and the sudden presence of children! Dorothy is the focal point of a struggle between a good woman (Glinda) and a bad woman (the Wicked Witch) for the rest of the film; but in her experiences, she meets men almost exclusively. Those experiences constitute a quest, a yearning, to arrive at the place that she has deemed to be right for her. What can you make of this structure of the film as a quest story, given the signs of sexuality?