Notes on Closed Fist(New Media?) Rhetoric

Corbett, Edward P. J. “The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist.” Selected Essays of Edward P.J. Corbett. Ed. Robert J. Connors. Dallas, SMU Press: 1989. 99-113. Print.

“The closed fist symbolized the tight, spare, compressed discourse of the philosopher; the open hand symbolized the relaxed, expansive, ingratiating discourse o the orator” (99).

Modern tenor-switching after Descartes makes logic for inquiry not communication: “The open hand might be said to characterize the kind of persuasive discourse that seeks to carry its point by reasoned, sustained, conciliatory discussion of the issues. The closed fist might signify the kind of persuasive activity that seeks to carry its point by non-rationale, non-sequential, often non-verbal, frequently provocative means.” (99)

emphasis on the cerebral in Renaissance discourse

the effect of print: “But the predominance of dynamic, personalizing sound soon gave way, in the academic world at least, to the frozen, silent, impersonal matrix of print.” (102).  So, persuasive discourse becomes “sequential, structured monologue” rather than the “stop-and-go, fragmentary, oral-aural dialogue” of the ancient Greeks. This reaches an ideal when combined with the  “good man skilled in speaking” ethos required as a part of rhetorical training.

Closed Fist Rhetoric:

  1. powerful embodied nature (physical, non-verbal, oral-aural, visual) of contemporary (1960s) rhetorical activity. compares to electric and expansive dimensions of what will be “new” rhetorics (lots of McLuhan refs) (105-106)
  2. “group rhetoric”; “participatory” (106), the marketplace instead of the lecture-room.
  3. “coercive rather than persuasive” (107) coercion is “nonrational” and dependent  “on ‘seat of the pants’ rather than on ‘seat of the intellect'” (107), a persuasion that limits alternatives and choices (rhetoric = choices?) and is thus violence (108) (Is there an attention economy element to this?); people resorting to “gut responses” and having “deliberate disdain for, even revolt against, truth and logic” (108)
    1. A distressing kind of “irrationality or non-rationality”
    2. “may be part of the shift to the primacy of the emotional appeal. God help us all.” (110)
  4. “non-conciliatory” (110) speakers go out of their way to alienate the audience, the potency of ethos, ignoring Burke’s lesson of “identification”

Important closing connection to “a world dominated by the electronic media” (111)

I wonder what happens (need to write on this) when we replace “closed fist” with “new media” (or something of its like)? Corbett seems to be working out a technological anxiety about multimodal rhetoric; he has an obvious and unsurprising regard for careful and sequential verbal rhetorics (i.e. the print iteration of the Aristotelian/Ciceronian/Quintillianian deliberative monologue), but has a strong revulsion for emotional appeals. We can make a strong case for the dominance of the emotional appeal in elecronic and new media rhetorics–certainly the Internet is a hotbed of pathos. He seems to see little possibility for “real rhetoric” (i.e. open hand rhetoric) in the electric future, especially if rhetorical culture involves a rejection of the open hand for raising the closed fist.

At the heart of this article, Corbett is concerned with the rise of emotionality over rationality, and doesn’t see room for rationality in new rhetorics and the media they are worked out in (physical and electronic)


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