Brummett, Barry. 1991.
In Dimensions of Popular Culture. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Chapter 3


If you are an alert reader of chapter titles, you may be wondering about the title of this one. You knew that you were going to study rhetoric, but here, apparently, is a chapter that also seems to be about critical studies, whatever that may be.

There are at least two reasons for this chapter’s title. First, most of those who study the ways in which popular culture influences people are working within a general approach to scholarship known as critical studies (although not all of these people use the term rhetoric). We will look at what critical studies means in more detail a little later on. Second, what you do when you study the rhetoric of popular culture and then share your findings with others is known as criticism; you will end up writing or presenting criticism, or a critique, of the particular aspect of popular culture that you are studying. The last three chapters of this book, for instance, are examples of critical studies–of race relations in Milwaukee, visual pleasure, and Afrocentricity.

This chapter is concerned with how to think about rhetorical criticism. It should not be taken as a set of instructions for how to march lockstep through a term paper. The different sections of this chapter, for instance, are not a “step 1, step 2” guide to how to write a critique. Preparing an actual critique or a critical study is like writing an essay, and you should proceed as you would for writing any essay or report. What is more important is understanding how to go about critiquing popular culture so that you will have something to say in your critique. That is what this chapter will equip you to do.

Texts as Sites of Struggle

Before we learn more about critiquing the rhetoric of popular culture, we need to clarify two basic principles that will underlie the critical methods explained in the rest of the book. These two principles together create a paradox about the nature of texts. First, we will learn that texts wield rhetorical influence because of the meanings that they support. In other words, people make texts so as to influence others. Second, we will learn that because texts can mean different things, they are often sites of struggle over meaning (and thus, over how and what or whom they will influence). Creation of a text may be the point of rhetorical struggle. In other words, people influence each other so as to make texts. The paradox is that a text is both a means to, and an outcome of, rhetorical struggle.

Texts Influence through Meanings

We noted earlier in this book that texts influence people to think and act in certain ways. That influence is the rhetorical dimension bf texts. Here, we need to be more specific about exactly what motivates or drives that influence: the meanings that texts encourage people to accept. We think or act in certain ways, in response to texts, because of the meanings that the texts have for us, and the meanings that texts urge us to attribute to our experience.

Toward the end of a stellar career in professional baseball, Pete Rose was discovered to have gambled heavily on the game. A great deal of controversy arose over that discovery. Some argued that he should be banished from the game and sent to jail. Others thought he should be forbidden entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many thought that his gambling was a form of illness, and that he should not be punished for it in any way. Lots of texts appeared in the popular press, and the purpose of those texts was to urge people to attribute certain meanings to Rose, to gambling, to professional baseball, and to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Some texts wanted people to think that gambling was a serious offense, especially in the context of sports. Some texts wanted people to see the Hall of Fame as a shrine of purity, a place that should not be sullied by the presence of someone convicted of a crime. Some texts argued that gambling was really an illness, that Rose himself was therefore ill, and that part of the meaning of illness is that it should be cured rather than punished. Why did all these texts create all these meanings, and why did they urge such meanings upon the public? Because choices and actions that the public might adopt depend on meaning. You will not vote to keep Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame unless gambling means something criminal or wicked to you. And you will be moved to forgive and forget if Pete Rose’s actions mean, to you, simply something that everybody does now and then.

Texts generate meanings about other things in the world. Texts also have meanings themselves; for example, Pete Rose himself is a text, or at least a complex artifact, with meaning. Whatever influence texts have on people’s thoughts and actions arises from what those texts mean to them. Faced with a row of otherwise indistinguishable jugs of motor oil in a hardware store, you will buy the oil that has the most favorable meanings. Of course, advertisers for oil, gasoline, soap, and other largely similar products spend a great deal of money trying to attach certain meanings to their products, since those goods are hard to distinguish on the basis of their own intrinsic values. So if you pick Quaker State over Pennzoil, it is because advertisers have succeeded in causing Quaker State to mean something to you that you prefer over whatever Pennzoil has come to mean.

Texts are Sites of Struggle over Meaning

We now have to complicate the first principle we have learned, by turning to the other side of the paradox of texts. As we learned in the first chapter, meaning is rarely simple. Instead, what a given text means, what a sign or artifact means as the result of a text’s persuasive influence, is often very complicated. That is because, especially in the case of symbolic meaning, meaning itself is rarely simple and straightforward. You can see this complexity in our example of Pete Rose. What he and his gambling mean is being struggled over, even today, in the texts of popular culture. Within the last decade, we have seen a dramatic change in the meaning of the states of the former Soviet Union in the minds of Americans. These states have “meant” either friend or foe as governments have come and gone, rebellions and uprisings have occurred and been crushed, and relationships to the United States have varied.

The meaning of the popular music favored by young people has always been struggled over. From Elvis to Ice-T, these artifacts have meant one thing to their fans and another thing to parents, police, and pastors or priests. In other words, people struggle over how to construct these different texts in ways that suit their own interests. Making a rap artist into one kind of text or another is therefore one goal of rhetorical struggle.

These meanings are struggled over precisely because of the first principle we discussed: Meanings are where the rhetorical power lies. The meaning of a president’s decision to send troops into action against a foreign power will have enormous payoff in terms of who runs the government after the next election. Therefore, the president’s political friends and enemies will spend a great deal of time and effort urging the public to adopt competing meanings about that action. Furthermore, the meanings of the very texts produced by those friends and enemies are also at stake. The whole business of so-called “spin doctors,” or public opinion shapers, is to struggle over the meanings of texts themselves, so that texts can go on to influence further meanings. Scholars in the field of critical studies describe this state of affairs when they note that meanings, and therefore the texts that generate meanings, are sites of struggle. The idea is that struggles over power occur in the creation and reception of texts as much as (or more than) they occur at the ballot box, in the streets, or during revolutions.

The critic of the rhetoric of popular culture (which is what you, as a reader of this book, are training to become) can play an important role in those struggles. Critics are meaning detectives; their role is to explain what texts mean. Rarely do good critics claim to explain the only possible meaning that a text could have. Instead, the best and richest analyses show ranges of meanings, and may explain the ways in which certain texts are sites of struggle over meaning. Because meaning is the avenue through which texts wield influence, critics work directly to explain how it is that people are empowered or disempowered by the meanings of various texts.

To think about the rhetoric of popular culture, or the ways in which the texts and artifacts of popular culture influence us (along with our own participation in making meaning), we need to think about what popular culture means to people–the ways in which those meanings can be multiple and contradictory, and how those meanings are struggled over. Because critics are meaning detectives, a rhetorical criticism is an exercise in showing the influences exerted by signs through their meanings. There are many methods (organized, systematic, and reliable ways of thinking) for thinking about popular culture already available to you. Let’s begin to consider such methods by examining the wide-ranging, loosely connected set of methods known as critical studies.

Three Characteristics of Critical Studies

A large number of people all around the world are studying exactly what you are learning about here (see, for example, Fiske 1989a,1989b; Kuhn 1985; Nelson and Grossberg 1988). Working as university professors, as columnists and commentators, or as independent writers of books and articles, these thinkers and scholars are studying the ways in which experiences of popular culture influence people. Their work follows many different approaches and is based on some widely differing assumptions. But taken as a group, they comprise a loosely knit school of thought or way of thinking that has been called cultural studies or critical studies. For the sake of convenience, we will use the latter term.

Critical studies is not a professional or social club with its own set of rules. It is not a tightly knit, clearly defined, precisely delineated set of principles. Many of the theories and methods used by scholars in the field of critical studies are, in fact, at odds with one another on some important issues. But there are also some principles that link these theories and methods together and help to define critical studies as a school of thought. In this chapter we will examine the principles that different branches of critical studies have in common, the theories and methods that they share. In Chapter 4, we will look more closely at some differences among a few specific branches of critical studies. Now, however, we will learn that all branches of critical studies are (1) critical in attitude and in method, (2) concerned with power, and (3) interventionist.

The Critical Character

One thing that characterizes the different branches of critical studies is that they are all, unsurprisingly enough, critical. In this sense, the term critical refers both to (1) an attitude and (2) a method.

Attitude: The critical attitude is somewhat related to the everyday, colloquial sense of the term critical, though without its negative connotations. If you are being critical, you are disagreeing with, or finding fault with, something. In finding fault, you take apart or dissect another’s words and actions, to show their true (and pernicious) meanings. Now, critical studies is not exclusively negative in this sense, but it does refuse to take things at face value. It adopts an attitude of suspicion, in other words, in which it assumes that things are often other than (or more than) they seem. Again, this attitude is nor intended to be hostile or destructive; it simply means that people in critical studies want to know what else is going on besides the obvious.

Critical studies is always looking beneath the surface. For instance, a critical scholar watching an episode of the television show L.A. Law would assume that besides being a set of interrelated stories about some lawyers on the West Coast, the show has meanings and is influencing people in a number of ways. To give another example, it is not being critical to say that vampire movies, such as Dracula, are stories about the undead who go around biting people on the neck. Such a statement has not gone beyond what is obvious, or merely on the surface. It is being critical, however, to say that vampire movies help people deal with problems of conformity and industrialization (Brummett 1984). An observation like that is not obvious, but it can be an interesting insight that the critic discovers and shares with readers. So in sum, the critical scholar must be prepared to dig into texts, to think about the ways that people are being influenced as well as entertained, informed, and so forth, by such texts.

Method: Critical studies is also a method, a way of asking certain kinds of questions about whatever is being studied. These questions are about meaning, complexity, and evaluation.

A critical method wants to know about meaning. It asks, what does a text, an experience, an object, an action, and so forth mean to different people!

Rather than breaking them up into isolated parts, a critical method deals with the complexity of texts and experiences as they are actually experienced. Such a method asks, what are some suggested meanings in the text, what are some of their influences or effects, and how do these influences interrelate with each other!

Finally, a critical method seeks to evaluate that which it studies, to make some judgment about whether that object or experience’s meanings and influences are good or bad, desirable or undesirable, and so forth. The methods best suited to answering these kinds of questions are sometimes called qualitative methods (in contrast to quantitative methods that rely more heavily on experimental or survey research). Critical is probably a clearer term than qualitative, however, so we will return to that usage after the following discussion of the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods.

For an example of the difference between qualitative and quantitative approaches, let’s go back to the example of a critic studying L.A. Law. Some questions that might be asked in relation to that show are: 1) Did that aspirin commercial half-way through last night’s episode increase sales of that particular product! 2) Does the show as a whole series induce more people to pursue an education in law! 3) What are the effects of the occasional violent segments in various episodes?

Now think about the best ways to answer those questions. Questions 1 and 2 are not critical questions, by and large. They might be best answered by survey research; you could simply go out and ask people about their aspirin-buying habits or their educational plans. Or they might be answered by experimental manipulation of variables, in which you compare the aspirin-buying habits and educational plans of a select group of the show’s viewers against a control group

that does not view the show. Clearly survey and experimental research (rather than simply sitting in a chair and musing about the answers) provide better ways to answer such questions. Both survey and experimental research are considered quantitative methods because many of their findings will be expressed using numbers (the numbers of those who buy more aspirin will be compared to the numbers of those who do not, and so forth).

Question 3 is a little different; it is more complex, and might be answered in more than one way. You could answer it quantitatively, by surveying people as to their reactions, or by experimentally comparing those who saw the violence with those who did not. But if you share the assumption with which we began this chapter–that an important dimension of influences and effects is meaning-then it is clear that these quantitative methods will not answer such a question adequately.

Question 3 becomes a critical question when you start to think about what a violent episode of L.A. Law means. This is a question that the critic must address. But asking an audience about meaning is usually not sufficient. You can ask people what the violent segment meant to them and get an answer, but that is not a sufficient and efficient way to determine meaning, for three important reasons.

First, meaning is complex. We have already discussed the idea that a given text or artifact means different things as it is considered within different contexts or cultural systems. Even within a single culture, a text will usually have many different meanings. We have noted how contradictions in meaning occur for many artifacts. Opposing meanings might be found in texts that are sites of struggle. All of this means that few people who are not accustomed to thinking about wide ranges of meaning will be able to say, comprehensively, what a text or artifact means. Texts usually have many more meanings than most people are able to see.

Second, people may not be able to articulate meanings. We learned in Chapter 1 that people participate in making meanings, but that does not mean that they can always say how they do so. A meaning detective might consider asking people to say what some text means. But some people are not very good at saying what a text means to them, even though it may mean a lot. Some meanings may be nonverbal, intuitive, or emotional, and therefore not the kind of thing that can easily be put into words. It may take a critic who is trained in talking about meaning to articulate what certain texts mean.

Third, meaning is sometimes beyond awareness, so that people may not consciously know what a particular text meant to them. They may not even be aware that they are being influenced by certain texts. Participation in making meaning need not be done intentionally and with full awareness. Most people do not go through the kind of conscious introspection and probing of meaning that you are becoming acquainted with in reading this book. So for many people, artifacts may have meanings of which they are unaware, and therefore meanings that they could not report.

Critical studies is qualitative because it is concerned with qualities more than quantities–and that is another way of saying that it is concerned with meanings. The critic’s job is to explore what a text or artifact means, including its different or contradictory meanings as well as the ways that meanings are struggled over, forced upon some people, and rejected by others. As critics reveal the meanings of texts and artifacts, they are simultaneously doing two things:

1. Critics are explaining the rhetoric of popular culture, since, as we discussed above, what texts and artifacts mean are the ways in which they influence people.

2. Critics are showing how to experience life by demonstrating how texts and artifacts might be understood, the meanings that can be found in them.

We have seen earlier in this book that people make sense of, or find meaning in, signs and artifacts as they experience them. To have an experience is to organize signs and artifacts and make them meaningful. For example, take two people watching a parade go by. One is filled with patriotic fervor at the flags and bands. The other is more cynical and not very patriotic, and every flag and band prompts her to grouse about the nation and its policies. These two people are finding very different meanings in the artifacts that go past them, and it would also be fair to say that they are constructing very different experiences for themselves.

The critic’s job is to demonstrate ways of experiencing parades by explaining the different ways that parades (or films, or sporting events) mean. But the critic does not have to step into the skins of these two people and show what a given parade definitely meant to a particular person. That would be impossible to do, since nobody can see completely into another’s mind. Northrop Frye (1964, 63) makes a useful distinction that explains what the critic does instead: The critic shows what people, in general, do, not what specific people did. The critic does not say, “Here is what that parade meant to Juan on that particular day. ” Instead the critic says, “Here is one way that this parade might be experienced (might have meaning).” In doing so, the critic shows his or her reader how meanings might be constructed and how life might be experienced.

Note: You may need to break some of these questions up into issues that can be dealt with critically and issues that cannot be. To answer some questions you may have to count, compare, or observe something as well as apply critical thinking about meaning and evaluation.

Concern with power

The second main characteristic shared by most varieties of critical studies is one that you are already familiar with: a concern for power. Critical studies examines what power is or what it has been understood to be, and how power is created, maintained, shared, lost, and seized. Critical studies acknowledges that power is often secured through the more traditional routes of elections or physical force. But within critical studies there is also an awareness, stemming from the characteristic “suspicion” that we discussed earlier in this chapter, that power is seized and maintained in other, less obvious ways: in architecture, in classroom layouts in public schools, in social norms for proper behavior during movies and sporting events–in other words, in all the experiences of popular culture. As noted at the beginning of this book, the empowerment and disempowerment of whole groups of people occurs bit by bit, drop by drop, in the moment-to-moment experiences of popular culture. The rhetoric of popular culture, or the ways in which popular culture wields its influences, therefore has a lot to do with power.

In thinking about empowerment and disempowerment, critical studies assumes that although it occurs from moment to moment in the experiences of individuals, it follows a pattern set by groups. It is as large classes that people tend to be empowered or disempowered. Of course, individuals do things that empower or disempower them individually. Being elected to the U.S. Senate is personally empowering, immoderate consumption of alcohol is personally disempowering, and so forth. But critical studies assumes that most of the time, people experience power in ways that are similar to the experiences of other members of their groups. If a child is disempowered, according to critical studies, it is because nearly all children are disempowered as a group.

The major demographic categories that have most preoccupied scholars in critical studies have been those of gender, race, and economic class. There are other categories one might consider, including age, religion, sexual/affectional orientation, body type or shape, and degree of physical ability or disability. Actually, the list of such categories is potentially endless, and may vary from one time or situation to another. But critical scholars most often focus on gender, race, and class.

Critical interventionism

We have learned that critical studies are critical in attitude and method and are concerned with power. A third and final characteristic is that they are interventionist. That is to say, critical studies are explicitly concerned with intervening, or getting involved in problems in order to change the world for the better.

The interventionist nature of critical studies is really an outgrowth of its critical attitude and method and its concern for power. We noted earlier that the field of critical studies attempts to show people how to experience life, or how to find life meaningful, in particular ways. That goal implies that people have choices among different ways to live their lives. If people have choices, then they can be influenced or taught to make sense of experience in certain ways as opposed to others. The critic’s job is to show how experience might be understood, and in doing so to give people options for experiencing their lives. As a critic, you cannot help but be interventionist, because any time you show people different ways of doing things, you have intervened in their lives and changed them in some way.

For example, there are powerful social and political interests in our culture that have for decades encouraged consumption of food, fuel, consumer products, and other goods. From television ads to government and industrial press releases, we are told that it is good for the economy for us to buy as many things as we can. We are constantly urged, for example, to strive to “keep up with the Joneses.”

From time to time (most recently, in the late 1960s and late 1980s), however, an ecological movement springs up that urges people to find different meanings in the process of buying and consuming. People are encouraged to see acquisition of one product after another as unnecessary and harmful to the environment. The ecologists who urge people to see consumption in this way are doing exactly what rhetorical critics do; they are saying, “Look at this plastic hamburger carton this new way, rather than that old way,” and “Buying a new car every other year means a negative effect on the environment as much as it means a positive effect on the economy. “

Good critics do lust that sort of thing. They show us how to think about and to find meaning in certain things, how to experience certain texts and artifacts; in so doing, they try to change us. It is almost always liberating to realize that you have more options in deciding how to experience life, to be able to see and understand experience in more than one way, to be able to find many meanings in a situation. For that reason, good rhetorical criticism is liberating. It liberates you, the critic, because it gives you a chance to probe into and develop some of these other potential ways of experiencing and understanding. And good rhetorical criticism liberates your readers and listeners as they share the new insights that you have gained. Rhetorical criticism is always judged, therefore, in terms of the insights it provides into how people experience the influences of popular culture, and whether it expands the options that people have for ways of experiencing that influence.

We are now ready to consider some of the ways that critics go about thinking about the rhetoric of popular culture. This chapter will soon shift into a different mode, so be warned: The following sections do not describe steps to follow in a prescribed order, nor do they give directions for writing or presenting criticism. Rather, the actions described here are ways to think about how people experience and what their experiences mean.

In thinking about such issues, critics have to make choices or decisions about what to study, what assumptions to make about what they study, and so on. Therefore, the rest of this chapter will lay out choices for you to make, but it will not tell you what to do. Critics’ choices about what to study, and how to think about those objects of study, will direct their attention in different ways, thus exposing different dimensions of meaning. Thinking carefully about these choices is especially important if the texts under consideration are sites of struggle over many possible meanings; in this case, critics must decide which of those meanings to focus upon. In the next part of this chapter we will examine some of the continua, or ranges, of choices that are available to critics.

One important thing that rhetorical critics must consider is what the object of criticism will be. By object of criticism we mean the experience that the critic wants to analyze. These objects of criticism are usually, but not always, texts rather than single signs or artifacts. The critic must identify a text and place it in context; we will refer to this identification and placement as positioning the text. Obviously, a first step in positioning a text is to find, or identify, a text that you would like to study.

Finding a Text

A fundamental choice in thinking about a rhetorical criticism is that of selecting a text. You will recall from the first two chapters of this book that a text is a set of signs that work together to influence people. Another way to think of a text would be to look for a set of signs that are taken together as creating an interrelated set of meanings. It is important for you to find a text that will be exciting for you to analyze, a text that you will be able to say something about, and a text for which you have some new insights. There are two sources of texts that you should consider.

First, consider your own experience as a source of texts. What have you experienced recently, what has happened to you, what have you seen or heard, that interests you! Have you seen a film or a television show that “turned on” your critical attitude, for instance–one in which you thought that there was something going on beyond the obvious! tan you point to some complex experience, such as going to a wedding or a commencement ceremony, that might usefully be analyzed as a text! Have any of your recent experiences seemed to have something to do with power! Could you point to some magazine article or book that you recently read that worked to empower or disempower people within its own small space of influence! Finally, have you recently experienced a text that excited your interventionist impulses, or your desire to get involved somehow (for example, did you see a movie that you thought was racist in subtle ways, so that you wanted to expose that racism)! These are questions that you might ask in relation to yourself and your own experiences of texts. Remember to look widely for different kinds of texts; we will look more closely at a range of possible choices in a moment.

A second source for finding a text is theory. This term in this context will need some explaining. A critical theory is an abstract statement about how people construct meaningful experiences. In contrast, a criticism (or critical study) is an illustration, or modeling, of that theoretical statement. A theory explains what people do in general, how they make sense of their experiences for the most part. A critical study is an application of a theory–it says, “That generalization can be seen at work here, within this limited frame of space and time.

For example, one critical study began with a theory that said, in a nutshell: Media depictions of political candidates will influence voters by way of the personal details that are revealed about the candidates; one common and important way in which the meanings of those candidates is influenced is through reporting what they eat and drink (Brummett 1981). Notice that this theoretical statement is about how people experience: It makes an assertion about what the media show people and about the meanings that those depictions urge upon the public. Notice that the theory is also abstract or general; that is, it talks about politics overall, not about a particular race for senator or governor.

The actual critical study that was based on that theory went on to illustrate, or model, that abstract statement with some specific examples from the 1980 presidential campaign. President Carter, suffering from the assignment of meanings of weakness and vacillation, was depicted as eating fruits and salads, hardly the stuff of macho images. Ronald Reagan was successful at depicting a homespun, all American image; he was reported to eat ribs, fried chicken, cotton candy, and of course, jelly beans. Intellectual third-party candidate John Anderson was shown consuming elitist foods like quiche and white wine (Brummett 1981).

A reader of that study should have been instructed by the study in how to use the theory to understand other experiences, in other contexts. After reading such a study, a reader might forever after be alert to references to what candidates for mayor, governor, or representative eat and drink, and to what those references mean. That reader will therefore experience news coverage of other political races more richly, noticing and understanding a little bit more of this aspect of life.

Too often, what you learn in one class is never called upon in other classes, especially across disciplines. But in using theory as a source in selecting a text for critical analysis, your own reading and prior education become valuable resources. In psychology, sociology, anthropology, English, and many other kinds of classes, you have doubtless read critical theories (even if the authors you read did not always refer to their works by that name). For example, some theories describe, in general terms, how people behave in businesses or other organizations; such theories might be illustrated with case studies of what happened at IBM corporate headquarters in New York, or at a Westinghouse plant in Indiana. Some theories describe how people in general understand poems, and will be illustrated by an analysis of a particular poem. Some theories describe the steps that people go through in grieving for the dead, and will give some concrete examples of the experiences of particular mourners.

Theories are a useful source for texts because they tell you how to look for a text. For instance, you may never have thought of the stages of a personal relationship as a “text.” But after reading Knapp (1984), you might well be able to see a unifying thread linking several events that have occurred in a relationship that you have had, and that unifying thread might constitute a text. Knapp argues that relationships develop or deteriorate in clear stages; his identification of those stages provides a useful system of categories for analysis. In this way, Knapp’s theory of relationship stages calls your attention to a unity of influence among signs, or a text, that you might otherwise not have been fully aware of.

Whether you find a text based on your own experience alone, or one that is suggested to you by theory, you will have some important choices to make about how to identify and understand the text. Critical scholars do not always agree about how to make these choices; we will examine some of those differences among scholars in Chapter 4. Here, however, we will examine some of the ranges of choices that are available to you. We will refer to each range of choices as a continuum.

First you must choose the type of text you want to study: discrete or diffuse. As we will see, a given set of signs could be seen as either discrete or diffuse, depending on the critic’s intentions. This choice may be represented on a continuum as follows:

The First Continuum: Type of Text


The terms discrete and diffuse should be familiar to you from Chapters 1 and 2. A discrete text is one with clear boundaries in time and space. A diffuse text is one with a perimeter that is not so clear, one that is mixed up with other signs. Whether a text is discrete or diffuse depends on how it is experienced, understood, or used. The critic must decide how he or she wants an audience to experience, understand, or use a text. A set of signs that could be seen as making up a discrete text from one perspective might also be seen as only part of a wider, more diffuse text in someone else’s experience.

We are used to choosing to see some texts as discrete and some as dif~use just as a matter of habit, but good critics always consider the full range of choice available to them. The magazine ads in Figures 3.1-3.5 (pages 105-109) are usually taken as discrete texts; it is clear where they begin and end, and it is usually assumed that they will not spill over into the rest of the magazine. But a critic could choose to see each ad as only one component of a more diffuse text, such as a text comprising a dozen ads of a similar type.

The start of school might be understood as a diffuse text, including such signs and artifacts as paying tuition, meeting new friends, finding classrooms, buying books, buying clothes, going to parties and receptions, and so forth. But the critic could choose to take only the first meeting of one class as a more discrete text in its own right. On the other hand, your sister’s wedding could be seen as a text with a rather discrete, concentrated core of signs made up of the actual ceremony and the reception afterward. But a critic may choose to include in the text some signs involved with preparation for, and aftermath of, the wedding, thus making it more diffuse.

It may help you in settling on a text to identify where it falls on this first continuum of discrete to diffuse. What are the consequences of choosing a more discrete or more diffuse type of text! Let’s consider discrete texts first. Discrete texts are usually easier to identify because the signs that make up the text are close together in time and space; you do not have to “hunt” for them. The signs that make up the discrete text of the him Home Alone, for example, are all right there on the screen. Because the signs are together in time and space, people are generally accustomed to identifying such a text as a text. Both the sources and the receivers of messages that are discrete texts can count on that agreement; the people who made the large poster advertisement on the side of a city bus, for instance, know that you are likely to perceive and understand it as a text in and of itself. You do not have to work very hard to convince people that the magazine ads in Figures 3.1-3.5, the television show Roseanne, or a billboard are texts, each one a discrete thing or event. In dealing with discrete texts, because people are already aware of your text as a text, the insights that you will have to offer will usually be concentrated on particular details of the text. Your criticism will point to new ways to experience that text and others like it; it will call our attention to meanings that can be found in the text.

By contrast, diffuse texts are harder to identify. In fact, very diffuse texts may be impossible to identify completely–because they are so diffuse. Your task may be to indicate most of a set of signs that seem to be contributing meanings toward the same influences, without being able to identify every sign that could conceivably be part of the set. So if your diffuse text is the start of school, you may have to give an indication of what that text is by naming several of the signs that it comprises, rather than every conceivable one.

Because you have to work harder to pull together a diffuse text, people generally are less likely to identify as a text whatever you are describing as one. When texts are diffuse, people may not be consciously aware of the unity of influence going on among the several signs scattered here and there. Everyone knows that people prepare their income taxes, for instance, but not everyone may be accustomed to seeing that activity as a unity, to seeing all the steps and experiences surrounding that preparation (over weeks or months, at home and in accountants’ offices) as a set or a text. Because seeing the preparation of income taxes as a text may be something new for people, the insights offered by your critique are more likely to be both about the text, and about the existence of the text itself. You have something interesting to say about the meanings and influences of the signs that make up the experience of preparing income taxes, but you also have something interesting to say in presenting that experience to us as a text.

We have identified a text as a set of signs that work together toward the same influences, which means toward the same meanings. Identification of meaning is central to finding a text. What makes a group of signs “hang together” as a text is the fact that you can say that they work together to offer those meanings. But who determines what meanings are! And how do we know what these meanings are! As critic, you also have choices in determining the sources of meanings that a text might have; these choices are represented on our second continuum, which illustrates the range of possible sources of meanings:

The Second Continuum: Sources of Meanings


One of the basic principles that we discussed at the beginning of this chapter is that meaning is usually complex and many-layered, and may even be self-contradictory. For that reason, it is rarely the case that a critic can completely explain the meaning of a given text. Instead, critics must narrow their focus to some of the more interesting, influential, or controversial meanings. This second continuum can help to guide a critic in making that choice of which meanings to study. This continuum reminds the critic that some meanings are widely held; we will call these broad meanings. Other meanings are held by only a few people, or arise only in particular circumstances; we will call these narrow meanings. Of course, it is important to remember that we are dealing with a continuum rather than a sharp distinction here; for most texts there is a whole range of meanings that are more or less widely shared, in the middle of the continuum.

For instance, what does the film The Silence of the Lambs mean! A critic who sets out to study that movie must choose which meanings to focus on, because they cannot all be analyzed at once. Widely agreed upon meanings would include simply what the film’s basic plot or story line is. It might be widely agreed upon as a gruesome depiction of mental illness, for instance, and attitudes toward psychotics in general might shape some of the most widely shared meanings. On the other hand, there are more narrowly held meanings that might be a fruitful object of analysis as well. Residents of Milwaukee, and others who recall the 1991 saga of cannibal serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, might see The Silence of the Lambs as relevant to the Dahmer case. Somewhere in the middle of the continuum might lie meanings having to do with the strength and responsibility of women, since it is Clarice, the character played by Jodie Foster, who solves the kidnapping case (though she must rely upon the help of the male Dr. Hannibal Lecter to do so). Such middle-range meanings might occur to a number of people, but not to everyone.

What are the consequences of the critic’s choice of meanings to analyze! On the one hand, more widely shared meanings are often more important meanings just because they are so common. It may be important to show what most people think a text means, because meaning underlies how texts influence people. More widely shared meanings are also often easier to demonstrate in a critical analysis; they encounter less resistance because they are already understood by many people. However, because such widely shared meanings are already understood by most people, explaining them further may not go very far towards changing the thinking of those who read or hear the critical analysis. People are less likely to have their eyes and ears opened to a wider range of meaning if they are exposed only to meanings that they already know.

Less widely shared meanings do have the potential to widen the horizons of people who may never have thought of finding such meanings in a text. For instance, several university and professional sports teams have for years had Native American mascots: the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Redmen of St. John’s, the Florida State Seminoles, and so on. The most widely shared meanings for the texts of these mascots were fairly innocuous: They simply “meant” the teams, and occasionally they might have served as reminders of the history of a location and so forth. But critics have begun to point out that a narrower meaning, first held by Native Americans themselves, was much less innocent. For Native Americans those mascots have “meant” racial insults and a cavalier and patronizing treatment of their cultural traditions. Through choosing to reveal and analyze these narrower meanings, critics have succeeded in persuading some teams (for example, those at Stanford University) to replace their mascots (at Stanford, from Indians to Cardinal). That critical effort was not without difficulty; many people claimed to see no derisive meanings in the mascots. In fact, one consequence of choosing to focus on less widely shared meanings is that they are harder to demonstrate to a wide audience of people. But the payoff in terms of changing potentially harmful or insulting meanings that can be attributed to some texts and signs can be greater.

Paying attention to the full range of choices available to the critic, from narrow to broad, is important in revealing texts as sites of struggle. Only by showing what Indian mascots mean (narrowly) to the Menominee or Ojibway in contrast to what they mean (broadly) to many non-Native American sports fans could critics show how those meanings are in conflict, and how Native American mascots are therefore sites of struggle. This continuum reminds the critic of a full range of possible meanings, and thus of the likelihood that those meanings will be in conflict with each other in many texts.

Defining a Context

Once a text has been found, the next choice the critic makes in positioning the text is to place it within a context.. Texts do not occur, and they are not “read,” in a vacuum. An important part of being rhetorical is existing in relation to some problem or situation. In other words, signs influence people for a purpose, to some end, in some context. Questions arise, then, of what causes people to construct texts, as well as who is influenced by the texts, why they are influenced, and under what circumstances. Answering these questions entails identifying a context for your text. Here, too, you as a critic have a choice, which is displayed in our third continuum:

The Third Continuum: Choice of Context

original …………………………………………………. new

Every text appears or is constructed during some first moment or range of moments in time and space. We may think of that moment (or moments) as the text’s original context. The people who first gathered to hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address occupied a moment of time and space that was the original context for that speech; a slightly wider, but still original, context was the nation that would learn of the speech within days by way of newspapers. The “first” use of a text may also, paradoxically, occur across many different moments of time and space. This textbook, for instance, is a text that appears in its original context every time a student picks it up to read it for the first time. The context is made up of the room or library in which it is read, the reading assignment, and so forth. This context will occur (or so the author and publisher hope) thousands of times a year, but it is nevertheless the original context each time. Original contexts are defined by the intentions of those who make or who use texts, as well as by the “real life” contingencies of when the texts, in fact, first appeared.

On the other end of the continuum, texts are often moved or appropriated into new contexts, ones that are different from those in which they originally appeared. In the film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, an “ordinary” soda bottle falls from its original context, an airplane, into the Kalahari Desert (a new context), where it is taken to be a message from the gods by the Bushman who find it there. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is now studied in public schools as an exam pie of beautiful language, succinct and efficient wording, and great ideas; the original context of commemorating a battlefield has been largely lost to the sixth grader who is being tested (that is, encounters the text in a new context) on the address next week. Of course, changing the context of a text also changes many of its meanings, though usually not all of them.

The critic has a choice that he or she must make about the context in which to position the text. The text may be considered in its original context, as it was first experienced by people. For instance, a critic might study the meanings that the Three Stooges film shorts had for their original audiences in the 1930s and 1940s. Or, there are two senses in which the text may be considered within a new context.

First, the critic might examine ways in which people, acting on their own mltlaave or through happenstance, experience. texts in new context. For example, the critic might think about how the meanings of Three Stooges shorts change as they appear in the 1990s, as television reruns or on videotape.

Second, the critic might propose a new context for consideration by the readers of the criticism, even if the text has not actually been experienced by these readers in that context. By suggesting that a text be seen in an entirely new context of the critic’s proposing, the critic can often fulfill the important function of showing people more of the ways in which life is made meaningful. For instance, the critic might suggest to her or his audience that they think about the Three Stooges reruns as political commentary on the present presidential administration. Clearly this is nothing like the original context. But if the reader begins to think about how those short features might be understood (or found meaningful) as being about the president, new insights about politics and our present situation might be opened up to that reader. The placement of the Stooges, or any text, in a radically new context like this should not be done capriciously or simply for fun. The new context and text should “fit,” and the new placement should teach us more about what both text and context can mean.

In a more serious vein, it would be interesting and insightful for a critic to ask readers to think about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as being about the Persian Gulf War of 1991–the desert battlefield of that particular war, and those who fell in that conflict. The critic can, in a sense, ask Lincoln to ~speak across the years and miles to a new context. We might learn a great deal about what war means to Americans and how Americans experience war, by placing that text in this new context. Correspondingly, we learn more about the text of the speech itself by observing the additional dimensions of meaning that are highlighted in a new context. For many people, the meaning of the speech’s original purpose (dedicating a battlefield) has been lost; meaning might be restored to the speech by repositioning it in relation to a new battlefield.

Choosing to place a text at one end or the other of the continuum, or somewhere in between, entails certain consequences. To consider a text within its original context, the critic must do some historical work first, by discovering what the source of the text (the writer, speaker, film producers, and the like) and the original audiences were thinking about. If we are to think about the film Gone With The Wind as a rhetorical text in its original context, then we will have to look at the concerns of American moviegoers in 1939 and examine the meanings that the film may have had in that context. It may be illuminating, for instance, to think about the characters and events of the film in light of growing fears over war and destruction in Europe and Japan, and to ask how the film influenced the audience through the meanings it offered, given the context of the outbreak of World War II.

A second consequence of~placing a text within its original context is that historical accuracy becomes an important criterion for judging a criticism. Whether a criticism faithfully reports the meanings that a text had in its original context is an important consideration when that context is where the critic places the text. Today’s readers of the criticism will learn about how to experience and to find meanings in life if they can understand the patterns of meaning that were followed at different times in the past.

If the critic chooses to place a text in a new context, especially if it is a context entirely of the critic’s choosing, different consequences result. The context will be suggested more by the critic and the critic’s insights than by historical research. Historical accuracy becomes much less of an issue, and instead, the quality of the critic’s insight becomes a criterion for judging the criticism. What does it teach us, one might ask, to think of the Three Stooges films as being about today’s political context? Clearly, accuracy is not the issue in that case, as no one is claiming that those films either addressed, or intended to address, today’s politics. What matters is whether or not there are insights to be gained; unless placement of a text in a new context is enlightening, it becomes just a game that is best avoided by serious critics.

The last issue that we will consider in thinking about how to position a text is the relationship between text and context, and how that relationship works. There is no single way to view that relationship; the choices that are available to you are explained in the fourth continuum:

The Fourth Continuum: Text-Context Relationship

reactive …………………………………………..proactive

Sometimes, texts may be analyzed for the ways in which they react to a context, which is the left side of the continuum. People have a clear perception that certain challenges, problems, or possibilities exist (creating a context), and that texts are devised so as to react to that context. People may be out of work, racial tensions may be high in a certain locale, perhaps there is a hole in the ozone, and so forth. Under such circumstances, texts are designed or are used so as to react to these perceptions of a preexisting difficulty. For instance, during a period in which there was great international concern over apartheid in South Africa, the film Cry Freedom appeared and attempted to influence many people to oppose apartheid, to assign negative meanings to that system. A presidential election is a clearly perceived context for most people, many of whom choose texts in the forms of lapel pins, bumper stickers, and yard signs that react to that context and urge certain meanings upon others.

At the other end of the continuum is the possibility that texts might be analyzed for the ways in which they are proactive–that is, the ways in which they create their own contexts. That is not to say that these texts appear spontaneously or for no reason. Rather, the most important or interesting context within which to consider them is the context that they create themselves. Much advertising works this way. For example, many products, such as the Frisbee, hula hoop, or Salad Shooter, are simply not needed; they respond to no real life problems. Instead, they create a context of need for themselves, proactively.

Politics often generates texts that are most interesting for the contexts they create. In the 1992 Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for instance, issues of Justice Thomas’s character and integrity were, by and large, not part of the context–until Professor Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment were made public. Hill’s text of harassment instantly created a context of concerns over Thomas’s character. What was especially interesting about this event was the proactive creation, through Hill’s text, of a national context of anger, concern, and discussion over the problem of sexual harassment in general.

Most texts in and of themselves are both reactive and proactive, just as a debater’s speech both responds to an earlier statement and in turn becomes the basis for the opponent’s reply. A critic must choose which sort of text-context relationship to feature in his or her analysis. But an analysis might address a mixture of both kinds of relationships (a point in the middle of the continuum).

For example, racial conflict is usually a preexisting context of some level of importance in our country, although it varies in terms of immediacy and the amount of attention paid to it. Since the late 1980s, a series of films, such as Do the Right Thing, Mississippi Burning, Driving Miss Daisy, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Falling Down, have both responded to that perennial context and ignited a new and intensified context of racial concerns. This new context has generated more widespread public discussion of racial issues. The consequences of choosing whether to identify texts as reactive or proactive to their contexts are important. As a result of that choice, the critic must look either backward or forward–back to a context to which a text or texts react, or forward to determine new contexts that texts create.

We have discussed ways to find a text and a context. This has been a process of both discovering a text and positioning it so that we can think about it more usefully–think, that is, about what the text is, what it is trying to do, and the things to which it responds. In every case, the critic must make choices about the most interesting questions to ask about texts in context. Now we are ready to think more carefully about the text itself, and about how its component signs work together; for that, we must go further “into” the text.

“Inside” the Text

How can we think about what a text is doing! How do texts urge meanings on people, and how do people accept, reject, or struggle over those meanings! We will build our discussion of the dimensions of the “inside” of texts around three categories: (1) direct tactics, (2) implied strategies, and (3) structures. These three categories can be usefully displayed as ranging across our fifth, and last, continuum :

The Fifth Continuum:

From Surface to Deep Reading

Direct tactics …………….. Implied strategies……………………….. Structure

A word of explanation regarding this continuum is in order. This continuum, like the others, represents choices that a critic can make in thinking about critiquing a text. This fifth continuum represents whether, or how far, a critic wishes to go beyond studying the explicit and straightforward appeals that a text makes, into an analysis of more indirect and less obvious appeals.

Most texts make certain explicit appeals, which we will call direct tactics. Texts also have implied strategies, which are subtler and not always consciously intended or perceived; these implied strategies are often the implications of some of the direct tactics that are used. And finally, any text is put together or organized in certain ways, and its various parts have relationships among themselves. These parts and their relationships make up the text’s structure. Direct tactics, implied strategies, and structures are the sources or storehouses of meaning in a text. Which of these levels of appeals will the critic focus on! That is the choice offered by the continuum. The choice is a continuum because, although we have identified three levels at which texts appeal, the levels are not radically distinct; rather, they merge into each other.

Direct Tactics

Direct tactics reveal the system of meanings, the consciousness, offered by a text most explicitly. A direct tactic is any straightforward request or prompting for you to think or behave in a certain way. It is often accompanied by a reason or rationale for you to think or act as urged. If someone says to you, “Order the steak; the lobster isn’t fresh,” it is clear that a direct attempt to influence you is being made. The direct tactics used in the rhetoric of popular culture are, in many ways, closest to the reasoned arguments of expositional texts that we studied in Chapter 2. Explicit claims, reasons given in support of the claims, visual images with a clear message in terms of what you are being asked to do or not to do these are all direct tactics that you might find in popular culture.

Our fifth continuum represents a range of appeals that the critic would choose to analyze. Of all the possible choices on the continuum, direct tactics are probably the easiest appeals to find within a text. Many advertisements are full of direct tactics. A rap song urging people to fight oppression, or a rock and roll song telling people to stay off drugs, is also using direct tactics.

But not all texts have direct tactics, whereas all texts do at least have implied strategies and structures. In fact, some texts seem almost devoid of direct tactics. We have all seen our share of ads that make no explicit claim upon us, ads that comprise nothing but a brand or company name and an ambiguous visual image. Many soft drink commercials show only the product and images of happy people having fun. Similarly, a street gang’s preferred hat style is usually devoid of direct tactics.

Perfume advertisements provide especially vivid examples of this lack of direct tactics. Among the examples included in this chapter, the Tiffany ad in Figure 3.4 comes closest to a complete lack of direct tactics. This ad shows a group of desirable products, but no argument is offered as to why one should buy them.

Because direct tactics are on the surface of the text, the critic who chooses to focus on them should first simply note what the appeals are, make a list of them, and identify what is being urged and why. The critic should think about what support or reasons were given for the direct appeals, remembering that such support might be visual as well as verbal or expositional. Finally, the critic should think about the most likely audience for the appeals, and then assess the likelihood of the appeals succeeding with that group.

Implied Strategies

If critics are not satisfied with examining direct tactics alone (or if few, if any, such direct tactics exist), other choices are available to them. They can examine the implications of the signs, the relationships among them, how they are arranged, and so forth. It may be a little difficult to understand exactly what critics are looking for in examining implied strategies, and how such strategies differ from direct tactics. Perhaps a hypothetical example will help. Suppose you had a friend who was working at a bank. Suppose that every time you met that friend, his conversation would be punctuated by statements such as, “Embezzling really isn’t such a bad thing”; “Gee, I think they probably don’t catch embezzlers very often, especially if, you know, they don’t really take very much”; “I’ve often thought that really smart people could get away with taking their employer’s money”land the like.

The direct tactics,” so to speak, in the text of your friend’s conversation are rather straightforward; these are simple statements about the subject of embezzling. But if you only considered direct tactics, you would probably miss something else that is going on with your friend. Most people would probably realize that the implications of your friend’s words are far-reaching; they might mean that your friend is swindling the bank where he works (or at least considering doing so), perhaps that he is even in serious trouble. You would arrive at that conclusion because your friend is saying things that you would not ordinarily expect, and repeating certain things more than is quite normal for conversation. There are oddities and peculiarities, interesting things that call attention to themselves, in what your friend is saying. So acting as an everyday rhetorical critic in this situation, most of us would probably do an informal critique of this friend’s text and either warn him sternly or turn him in to the police.

Every text has similar interesting quirks and peculiarities-things missing or things too much in evidence–that convey meanings in and of themselves. A critic must choose to focus on these implied strategies. Following the work of Kenneth Burke, we will look at three categories of implied strategies, each of which suggests a question that you can ask about texts: (1) association (What goes with what!), (2) implication (What leads to what!), and (3) conflict or absence (What is against what!). These categories overlap somewhat, as we will see. The three questions accompanying them are the basis for how a critic probes a text for implied strategies.

Association: What Goes with What? In answering this question, the critic considers the signs that are linked together in a text. Such linkage may occur when signs are placed in the same place or within the same image, so that they seem to go together naturally. The linkage may also occur when signs appear together repeatedly; every time one sign occurs, the other sign occurs as well. For signs that are linked in such ways, the meanings that would usually be assigned to one sign are transferred to the other, and vice versa. Linking signs becomes a strategy of borrowing meaning, of moving signification from one sign to another.

Implication: What Leads to What? Often, several of the elements of a text will suggest, or lead to, some other element. That element may not even be the most frequently recurring sign in the text, so long as the other signs consistently imply, suggest, or refer to it. We call that a keystone sign within a text, and close examination of that sign can tell us a lot about what the text in general means.

For instance, Bart Simpson seems to be a keystone sign in the television show The Simpsons. The show’s attitude and many of its plot developments lead to Bart Simpson, and they keep returning to him as a key figure. Bart’s contrary

character can then be taken as an indication of the tone of the show and of why it is popular. In a sadder example, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, killing all aboard, most of the texts commenting on the disaster seemed tobe keyed to the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was on board. The nation’s sense of tragic loss, and of an end of innocence in what had been a largely accident-free space program, was reflected in texts that were keyed to this particular passenger.

Another way in which one sign leads to another is by way of transformation, or the “standing in” of one sign for another (this transformation can be detected in the iconic, indexical, and symbolic meanings of signs, discussed in Chapter 1). In thinking about the meaning of these signs within the text, the critic should ask why one sign was chosen to stand in for another in the first place, and what meanings are conveyed by such a transformation. For instance, a recurring feature of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty~Harry” movies was an enormous Smith and Wesson .44 magnum pistol, with which the character Dirty Harry dispatched his victims. The gun was of a size and clumsiness to make it an unlikely “real life” police weapon. So the question arises, what was such a gun doing in the films-why was that gun used and not a more realistic one! A critic might propose that the gun was really standing in for an intense hatred of criminals on the audience’s part, and a desire to do such criminals great harm; the gun looked awesome and destructive enough to be a transformation of that desire. In the movie laws, most of the film’s action leads to the shark. It is also interesting to ask what the shark is standing in for in the film. Various critics have suggested that the shark actually represents fear of the forces of nature; others point to concerns over crime and lawlessness.

Conflict or Absence: What Is against What! The critic who asks this question looks for ways in which the text keeps certain signs apart. Texts do this in two ways. First, texts may omit certain signs. To locate such omitted signs, we ask what the text did not say and compare that with what it did say. We look for what is missing, especially for signs that should be there but are not.

Second, texts may show certain signs in conflict. Within such texts we see explicit pairings of concepts in opposition to each other. Sometimes those oppositions are in the form of contradictions, such as include signs that would not typically go with the other signs that they appear with in the text. Note that in texts of this kind, signs which are usually against or apart from each other have been paired; this unusual combination prompts us to think about the meanings that the odd pairing generates.

Almost any night of ordinary television viewing will yield many examples of “what is against what” in the first sense of certain signs that are omitted. For example, women are routinely omitted as players or commentators from professional sports broadcasts. Thus, over time the meaning that “Women are not athletic” is built up. Consider also the relative absence of people of color on your television screen. Gradually, more African Americans are appearing on television, though their representation is still low overall. Think about the virtual absence, however, of Asian or Hispanic people on television, despite their rapidly growing populations in this country. When texts rarely link people of color with everyday roles such as store clerks, business office workers, plumbers, and so forth, such texts serve to further a false image of nonwhites as uninvolved in the everyday life of our country.

In other words, if ninety-nine percent of the successful professionals in the

United States (such as doctors and lawyers) are not African-American, Asian, or Hispanic (as television shows would seem to indicate) what does that seem to say about realistic career aspirations for people of color! As the public increasingly depends on television for entertainment-indeed , for a description of reality-what meanings does such an under-representation of people of color convey to the public! What effect might those meanings have on the members of minority populations themselves!

One major absence on television is a realistic concern about money. On most television programs, you will notice that when people are finished eating in restaurants, they simply get up and leave. In reality, however, people in restaurants divide the bill among themselves, argue over who ate what, ponder about the tip, and so forth. When the people on television programs do pay for something (such as when they are getting out of a cab), it is done with a hurried grab for whatever is there in their purses or pockets. In reality, of course, people count their bills carefully, rub them to make sure two are not stuck together, wait for change, and so forth.

Television’s silence about money becomes most obvious in commercials. Commercials are rarely specific about what anything costs; in fact, most of the time the fact that a product costs anything at all is simply not mentioned. There seems to be an assumption that everyone can afford anything; all sorts of products are depicted as being affordable by people from all walks of life.

The second way in which signs are placed against other signs, the depiction of conflict, is clear and straightforward. Dramatic television series almost always depict certain groups as in conflict. Terrorists are nearly always presented as Middle Eastern (specifically Arab or Palestinian) and are shown in conflict with Europeans or Americans. The popularity of Iranian or Iraqi “bad guys” on television has grown as the plausibility of Russian enemies (a former TV favorite) slips; spies on television shows now come from the Middle East instead of from the former Soviet Union. Such oppositions, or conflicts, urge upon the television audience a particular view of how the world order is structured.

The unexpected conjunction of signs that would usually be set apart from or against each other is also fairly common. In any election year, for example, we see powerful and wealthy politicians don overalls and flannel shirts to show up at county fairs and eat fried chicken and corn on the cob. The president rarely goes to 4-H shows in Duluth, Minnesota; thus, when he does attend such a show, the intended meaning becomes interesting and noteworthy. Television commercials often show cheap and ordinary products in contexts of great wealth. Consider the series of commercials for Grey Poupon mustard, in which the occupant of, let us say, a Bentley limousine leans out of the window to ask the occupant of a Mercedes-Bent limousine for the loan of some Grey Poupon. Here, then, is an ad for a product that is assumed to be affordable for all, being sold with the argument that it is desired and purchased by the very rich.

We have been learning about three implied strategies: (1) association (What goes with what!), (2) implication (What leads to what!), and (3) conflict or absence (What is against what!). It may have already become clear to you that these categories sometimes overlap or blend into one another. One thing might “go with” another thing by “leading” to it, for instance, and being “against” one thing will often imply being “with” another thing. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, the categories and questions presented in this chapter are ways to think about the rhetoric of popular culture, and such thinking about real experiences rarely falls into tidy categories. Returning to our fifth continuum, we will now turn to the third choice critics make once “inside” texts: whether to analyze those texts’ structures.


When a critic chooses to analyze a text’s structure, he or she is dealing with the pattern, the form, the bare bones or organization of that text. Recall that we are considering choices, on the fifth continuum, from surface to deep reading. With structures, we have arrived at the level of form or pattern. Here, we do not ask what is said or shown in the rhetoric of popular culture, but rather what forms or patterns we can discern beneath the things that are said and shown. At this end of the continuum, signs and texts are examined to discover the most fundamental patterns that organize them, and the broad categories to which their elements belong. There are two concepts that a critic might choose to focus on that have to do with structures: narrative and subject positions.

Narrative: A number of scholars have suggested that texts can be usefully studied by thinking of them as narratives, or stories (see Jameson 1981; Fisher 1984, 1985). This is obviously true for texts that do in fact tell a story, as most films do for instance. But clearly, a number of texts (perhaps most of them) are not narratives or stories on the surface. So what can these scholars mean by suggesting a narrative approach to the criticism of these non-narrative texts!

They mean that critics can treat these texts as if they were narratives. For texts that are not narratives on the surface, this means that the deeper form or structure of the texts should be analyzed, because it is at that deeper formal level that the characteristics of narrative will be found. What does the critic look for in examining a text for its narrative qualities!

The essence of all narrative is form, pattern, or structure. The phrase “The proud African warrior” is only the germ or nub of a story because it does not flow forward; it suggests but does not follow through on any pattern. But, “The proud African warrior looked out across the grasslands as he set out on his quest” is already patterned, in two ways. First, it follows a syntagmatic pattern. A syntagm is a chain, something that extends itself in a line. We can think of syntagmatic patterns as horizontal, as moving in time and space. That kind of movement is what narratives do; a plot is nothing but a pattern chaining out horizontally in time and space, a series of expectations that arise and are either met or frustrated. Our sentence about “the proud African warrior” asks us to start imagining that warrior as being on a journey, in pursuit of some noble goal. We might imagine what that goal is, foresee dangers, and so forth. These expected developments will be revealed to us (or not) as the story moves on.

A second kind of pattern that this sentence follows is called paradigmatic. In contrast to syntagmatic structure, paradigmatic structure is vertical; it looks at structures or patterns derived by comparing and contrasting a given sign or text with other signs or texts that are like it. We already know that our African warrior is in a quest story; thus his story can be compared to similar quest stories: (medieval knights in search of the Holy Grail, astronauts going to the moon, and so on). Much of what this African warrior means comes from that sort of implied comparison.

In a baseball game, to take another example, what develops when first Smith goes up to bat, then Jones, then Brown, will follow a syntagmatic pattern; events will follow each other in a forward-moving narrative sequence. But when a given batter is up, we might compare that batter’s statistics to those of other batters, to see how this batter’s performance fits into the pattern of other hitters. That second kind of pattern is paradigmatic; we are considering the paradigm, or category, of batters.

There are really two levels of paradigmatic form, and one of them we have already examined in considering direct tactics and implied strategies. When we took a given sign and asked what it went with or went against, we were thinking paradigmatically. A second level of paradigmatic form is the level of structure. We can identify the flow, or pattern, of a given text syntagmatically. But we can also take that pattern as a unified whole and move vertically, to comparing and contrasting it with the patterns underlying other texts so as to construct a paradigm. For instance, one can examine any television newscast syntagmatically to identify the pattern that is followed: headline story, remote broadcast from a reporter, next news story, personal interest story, the weather, and so on. But we can also compare the entire pattern of a particular station’s news broadcast paradigmatically with those of other stations, in an effort to identify the overall pattern or structure that tends to underlie all newscasts. Often, this construction of a paradigm or vertical form is also referred to as the construction of a genre.

Identification of form or structure entails asking the sorts of questions that we might ask of good stories:

1. Is the pattern cohesive, and if not, why not! What influence or meaning occurs when the pattern is broken! Humor is often the intended result of deliberate disruptions in narrative patterns that seemed to be following the accustomed groove; examples of such humorous disruptions can be seen in many skits on the television shows Saturday Night Live and In Living Color.

2. Is the pattern recognizable! What other texts seem to follow the same pattern, and what does their presence in that genre, group, or paradigm tell us about the meanings and influences of particular texts! A number of observers noted, for instance, that the texts of the speeches, press conferences, and photo opportunities generated by President Ronald Reagan followed the form of the movies in which he had starred in his early life. These critics might have derived a way to understand Reagan’s presidency by analyzing his various texts within the paradigm of Hollywood (see, for example, Rogin 1987).

Suhject Position

The Marxist scholar Louis Althusser (1971) and others (for example, Hall 1985) have argued that texts ask those who read them to be certain kinds of subjects. To be a certain kind of subject is to take on a sort of role or character; these theorists argue that rather than having any single, stable, easily located identity, we do nothing but move from one subject position to another. In a sense, then, the power that a text has over you has a lot to do with what kinds of subject positions it encourages (or forces) you to inhabit.

Whether or not you agree with such a claim, an interesting question that can be asked of texts is, Who was this text made for–who would fit into the role of audience for this text most easily! Note that a subject position is not a character in the text itself. Instead, a subject position is who the text encourages you to be as you, the reader or audience, experience that text. Rarely will a text explicitly announce its preferred subject position for the members of its audience. Instead, a subject position, like narrative, is part of the structure of a text. You can think of a subject position as the missing perspective, the point of view, required for the text to make sense.

You can also think of some subject positions as subversive stances, positions taken deliberately by the reader in opposition to the “preferred” subject position suggested most strongly by the text. For instance, almost without exception, old “Cowboy and Indian” movies strongly encourage a white, law and order-based, pro-establishment subject position–in other words, one that will root for the cowboys. It is easier to see such films from this perspective; the films are structured toward that end. But one can also root for the Indians by refusing that subject position and taking an alternative, or subversive, one. In this way, subject positions can often become sites of struggle.

Another instance of the possibility of a subversive subject position can be seen in relation to the film Fatal Attraction. Clearly, the viewer of that film is intended to see the film from a male perspective, one in sympathy with the lead male character played by Michael Douglas. It is easier to see Fatal Attraction from a position of growing outrage, even hatred, toward the female lead character, played by Glenn Close. But it is also possible to see the film fr~m the subversive perspective of that female character herself–to become angered by the leading male character’s assumptions about relationships and his attitudes toward his own responsibility for her pregnancy. Depending upon how deeply you inhabit this alternative subject position, you may even identify with the female character’s attitude toward the safe, sanitary nuclear family unit in which the male character seeks security; that is, you might see that family unit as founded on hypocrisy and deserving of disruption. Furthermore, if you pro-choice-choice on the issue of abortion and are frustrated by the ways in which many men feel entitled to force their own reproductive preferences on women, you might also relish the ironic turning of the tables in this film, in which the man desperately wants an abortion to take place and the woman refuses to let him disengage himself from the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy. ..

Now the film itself appears to be trying very hard not to allow you this alternative position; by the end, the filmmakers have pulled out all the stops to make you see the female character as evil incarnate, someone who richly deserves a violent death. But because every text has a preferred subject position in which it is trying to place you, it is always possible, at least in principle, to find an alternative one. Doing so may yield some interesting insights into that text.

Subject positions are defined by the type or category of person that is called to by the text: male or female, old or young, and so on. Subject positions also imply certain characteristics, such as happy or unhappy, active or passive, and the like. Finally, subject positions imply a consciousness, which, as we learned before, is a system of meanings linked to a group identification. Thus there is a feminist subject position that entails the adoption of a feminist consciousness, for example.

We have already considered some of these issues earlier, in our examination of the idea of context, or audience, for the magazine ads in Figures 3.1-3.5 (pages 105-109). Recall that we asked who the ads seemed to be speaking to, but we also considered alternative, or oppositional, stances that an audience might take. For instance, it seems clear that the Tiffany ad in Figure 3.4 (page 108) is calling to a financially comfortable person, probably a male. That would appear to be the preferred subject position, the one most obviously and easily entered into, in order to read this text. But with some effort, one could take an oppositional subject position in order to read this text. How, for example, would someone who adopted the subject position of advocate for the homeless read this text differently than someone who adopted the preferred subject position!

We have been learning optional ways to think about texts, once you, as a rhetorical critic, have positioned them. The kinds of close and careful examinations of texts that we have demonstrated in this chapter have provided choices in considering direct tactics, implied strategies, or structures. Only one more set of choices is necessary to consider before you can begin to produce the actual rhetorical criticism. We will now consider different ways to step back out of the text and to think about how the meanings you have discovered do social and political work.

The Text in Context: Metonymy, Power, Judgment

Actually, the ways that we have gone about thinking about texts have always asked you to keep one eye on what is outside the text, on the real world within which texts do their work. So this next group of questions will serve largely as a way of reviewing what you have already learned about texts. In considering, generally, what influence texts have in the social and political world, you will need to choose whether to focus on (1) metonymies, (2) empowerment/disempowerment, or (3) judgment.


What texts do is, as we have discovered, very complex. All the ads that we have examined in this chapter are, for example, trying to influence the meanings that people assign to certain products, in order to sell those products. But critics, you will recall, are concerned with power, and with how public business is managed in the rhetoric of popular culture. So in addition to noting how ads sell cigarettes, critics will also ask about the ways in which ads, of any texts; manipulate the distribution of power as they manage public business. (Recall that the management of public business occurs in popular culture as texts influence decisions and sway meanings about important issues.)

You will recall that for reasons of increasing population, technology, pluralism, and perhaps most of all, knowledge, public issues must be reduced or metonymized into the signs, artifacts, and texts of popular culture. Only in that reduced form can people participate in the management of public issues, by helping to determine what those issues and their components mean. Therefore, once you have thought about what the texts of popular culture mean, it is important to ask how those particular meanings metonytmize public issues.

An interesting example of the use of metonymies in attempts to manage a public issue that occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign. Vice President Dan Quayle, attempting to win conservative, family-oriented voters, criticized the television comedy series Murphy Brown for its positive portrayal of an unwed mother (Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen). Later that fall, the series aired an episode in which the fictional characters responded to the “real life” attack by Quayle as if the show itself were real, as if Quayle had attacked a real television newscaster who was unwed, and not simply a television production.

This remarkable exchange illustrates .metonymies. The problem of unwed mothers, or fatherless families, has received a great deal of public attention in recent years. By featuring Murphy Brown’s unwed state, the show metonymized that complex problem within its own narrative. Brown and the other characters could then urge the audience to adopt certain meanings and attitudes about unwed mothers. The vice president wanted the public to attach different, more negative meanings to unwed mothers; but it is significant that Quayle, too, metonymized the problem by picking the television character Murphy Brown as the focus of his remarks, rather than by discussing the vastly more complex “real life” problem. The show’s response to the vice president was a commentary on its own and Quayle’s metonymies. Real life and fictional representations of real life intertwined in a clear illustration of how popular culture uses narratives to manage the meanings of complex or sensitive issues to the general public.


The category of empowerment/disempowerment is fairly straightforward. It asks us to consider who is empowered and who is disempowered by the meanings that might be assigned to or generated by the text. Remember that empowerment and disempowerment mainly befall large groups of people rather than isolated individuals. Recall also that power is managed in moment-to-moment, everyday experiences (including popular culture) far more often than it is in single, grand events. How does that empowerment or disempowerment result from the way that public issues are metonymized?

In the case of the Murphy Brown controversy, it would appear that the vice president found it worth his while to criticize a television show precisely because, in his view, the effect of the show would be to empower family units that do not conform to the traditional, nuclear, two-parents-plus-offspring model. The thrust of such empowerment would be to make divergences from that model seem more “normal,” more a part of the mainstream, and less a cause for shame than Quayle’s conservative constituency thought suitable. Certainly, the creators of Murphy Brown took Quayle’s attack as a blatant attempt to disempower not only themselves, but single mothers everywhere who might find strength in Murphy Brown as a role model. Producer Diane English said as much during a speech she made while accept~an Emmy award for the show. “To all you mothers out there who are raising your children alone either by choice or necessity, said English, “don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a family.

Of course, it was also noted at the time (even by some who disagreed with Vice President Quayle) that the character Murphy Brown was a well-paid media professional in a financial position that would allow her to raise her child comfortably–hardly a realistic picture of single motherhood for most women. However, realism may or may not be the most important issue here.

After decades of almost complete absence, African Americans began appearing on television in much greater numbers during the 1980s and 1990s, often taking center stage in situation comedies such as The Cosby Show and Family Matters. These television texts metonymized the life experiences of African Americans into thirty-minute episodes. A number of critics raised the issue of whether the shows were realistic or not. But metonymy, because it is a reduction, is hardly ever completely realistic. Perhaps more important questions would be, Who is empowered and who is disempowered by these shows? Are they for the benefit of blacks or of whites! Do they tend to perpetuate the established system, the way things presently are, or do they encourage alternative distributions of power!


The critic is not only concerned about power; he or she is interventionist as well. The critic has some purpose or goal in mind in doing rhetorical criticism–as we noted before, the critic is on a mission. That means that for the critic, judgment of the text is inevitable and unavoidable.

Judgment runs throughout all the insights offered by the critic. In suggesting that a text means this or that, the critic is also judging it. That is because to claim that a text means a certain thing, or calls for a certain subject position, or encourages a certain consciousness, is to take a stand about what the text is doing in the world.

Objectivity is not possible for the rhetorical critic. That is not to say that merely expressing personal opinions is an acceptable alternative for such a critic. All the categories and questions covered in this chapter guard against making criticism merely an expression of personal opinion; instead, they lead the critic into making well-supported judgments about the material that is being studied. Such categories and questions direct the critic to give reasons for her or his judgment. Thus, the choices that the critic makes, as illustrated in the five continua presented earlier in this chapter, are not made at random, or simply for fun. They are choices that the critic must support with good reasons and evidence, in an attempt to persuade the audience who will read or hear the criticism that the meanings the critic asserts are in certain texts are really there.

Summary and Review

The purpose of this chapter has been to help you learn how to think like a critic. In discussing the many things that rhetorical critics think about, we have covered quite a lot of concepts and terms. Does the critic have to use every term and concept included in this chapter in doing criticism! Certainly not. Remember, we have been explaining choices that are available to the critic. What should guide those choices! The critic should ask those questions that help to reveal the meanings that he or she finds most interesting and important. Let’s go over some of the more important ideas in this chapter once more in a quick summary.

We began by reviewing two basic principles: that texts wield their rhetorical influence by affecting the meanings that people attribute to the world, and that because meaning is complex, texts are often sites of struggle over what the world means. Therefore, critics are meaning detectives, and their chief task is to show what signs and texts mean, and the meanings they urge upon their audiences.

Critics, working within the framework of critical studies, display three characteristics as they go about explaining meaning. We learned that critics are critical in both attitude and method; that is, they refuse to accept easy answers to the question of what texts mean, and the kinds of questions they ask about texts generally are not best answered through quantifying social scientific methods. We learned that because meaning is complex, difficult to articulate, and often beyond awareness, the specially trained critic is in the best position to say what texts mean. In explaining meaning, the critic shows people new ways to experience life and helps people to expand the ways they have of finding meaning.

Second, we learned that critics have the characteristic of being concerned with power. And third, we learned that critics are interventionist; they want to change people by changing how they understand the world and the meanings they see in the texts they encounter in everyday life.

Having arrived at an understanding of what critical studies do in general, we explored a number of choices that are available to the critic as she or he approaches the study of a text. First, we learned that the critic must position the text. This involves finding a text, for which the critic may consult her or his own experience or theories about texts. One major choice confronting the critic is to settle on a text that is either discrete or diffuse, or somewhere in the middle of this first continuum. We also learned that the critic cannot study all the meanings of a text, and is therefore faced with the choice of focusing on either broad or narrow meanings, or analyzing the text as a site of struggle over meanings. The third choice the critic must make in positioning the text is to focus upon an original or new context in which to place the text. We learned that the critic may study original or new contexts in which others have placed the text, or may propose a new context of his or her own if doing so will help to illuminate what the text or context means. The critic’s final choice in positioning the text involves examining the text-context relationship, and deciding whether to feature reactive or proactive relationships between text and context, or perhaps a mixed relationship between the two ends of that continuum.

Once the text is positioned, we followed the critic further “into” the text. Here we saw that the critic’s choice is whether to analyze a text’s direct tactics, implied strategies, or structure. We saw that direct tactics are straightforward appeals and urgings for an audience to feel or act in a certain way. Implied strategies are subtler and more indirect, and are revealed by asking the questions associated with the categories of (1) association (What goes with what?), (2) implication (What leads to what!), and (3) conflict or absence (What is against what!). Structure is a consideration of the basic form or pattern of a text. Here, the critic examines both narrative and subject positions so as to reveal the underlying structures of texts.

Has this seemed like an overwhelming number of categories and concepts to consider! It probably has. Yet you should remember that we have been focusing on a critic’s choices for just that reason–to illustrate the vast number of choices and options available to the rhetorical critic. No single critical analysis can possibly take into consideration all of the concepts we have reviewed in this chapter. Instead, the critic must make specific choices for how to think about texts and their relationship to the world, and then confront the consequences that follow from those choices.

Looking Ahead

This chapter has reflected the strong conviction that critics are deeply involved in helping their audiences to see certain meanings in texts. We began the chapter by arguing that meanings are the basis for rhetorical appeal, and one clear implication of that argument is the idea that critics are also rhetoricians. Rhetoricians argue for particular perspectives and views, often against other perspectives and views.

One might finish this chapter wondering whether critics are in agreement over which meanings to reveal to an audience. This particular chapter has had very little to say about disagreements among critics. And although we have focused on a critic’s choices, we have not shown one of the most important choices that critics cannot avoid–the choice of which sorts of “real life” concerns and commitments to urge upon an audience in revealing the meaning of texts. In Chapter 4, we will turn to a discussion of the particular schools of thought within which critics work. Consider these questions as you prepare to begin the next chapter:

1. What are the different perspectives or schools of thought that critics work within as they reveal meanings!

2. What specific kinds of changes or new meanings do some critics want to instill in their audiences!

3. How can criticism serve “real life” politics and social movements, so as to help people who are in need of liberation!

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