The French composer Claude Debussy is quoted as saying that, “Music is the space between the notes”. I think that’s a very apt recognition of the shared responsibility between artist and audience in unearthing the latent content of any piece of art, and I very much like it. Make your work too overtly programmatic, and you end up with stale self-parody, a la Norman Rockwell. Overburden it with too many layers of obscure, self-referential ciphers, like Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”, and risk alienating your most enthusiastic audience.
But if you have a lot to say, it can really be difficult to avoid the “Finnegan” trap. The very fact that you are capable of generating enough observations worthy of communication, of making very fine distinctions in kind and degree, springs from a hypersensitivity that can seem emotionally overwhelming, and very much at odds with one of the inviolable principles of effective communication itself: clarity.
This is where a solid understanding of the rhetorical ecology will come in handy. In order to be truly effective, you need to be able to “play the music between the notes”, which is to say, have an appreciation for the various types of person who will read your work the context in which it will be read, today, tomorrow and 200 years from now, and what they will be looking to draw from it. And you need to accept the fact that some of your strongest, most affecting points will not be articulated by you, but by your critics.
A lot of creative types say that they never read critical reviews of their work because it over-intellectualizes the process and drives from them the passionate commitment they need to perform with conviction. That may be their reasoning, but I say it’s a pretty sad commentary on their perspicacity and emotional stability. Rather, I would ask them, “How can you claim to be committed to your craft if you don’t care how it’s interpreted?” On the contrary, I say that artistic conviction itself is not possible without engaging a work’s limitations and repercussions. The relationship between the critic and the artist is ultimately symbiotic, not adversarial.
The same applies to polemical speech, although it seems not to be generally understood or acknowledged. Many poor fools have allowed themselves to be deluded by the outwardly combative character of electoral politics into believing that all one can hope to achieve from the analysis of political speech is a depressing laundry list of nominal yet irrelevant “facts” that come no nearer to establishing any objectively true proposition other than the speaker is determined to capture your vote. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You, as critic, play the most vital role in forming the prism through which the prevailing discourse is viewed. And you have some powerful yet deceptively simple techniques close at hand and totally free of charge. For example, the technique of focused absurdity.
By imagining a statement that anyone can agree WILL NEVER BE SAID in the context portrayed, you, as critic, contribute to the civilizing of mankind, identifying, revealing and rolling back the limes of dark misunderstandings cast by society’s “leaders”. An artistically cast bit of unadulterated critical blasphemy is probably your best opening gambit to establish what yer man did NOT mean to say–and thereby better define the limits of what he DID mean to say.
Just how long it takes you and your interlocutor to decide precisely how much of this “non-statement” is due to objective falsity or strategic opacity will depend on your creativity, generosity and intelligence–but at least you will have established one incontrovertible point of agreement. And acquired an appreciation for the wealth of complementary and sometimes counterintuitive rhetorical tools available to you.
So in this spirit, I offer to you, a small sample of sh*t which I personally guarantee you will never EVER hear said aloud:
“I am personally responsible, as an individual, for foisting a dishonest criminal governor upon the state of Wisconsin. I should have realized that my critics were right–I am a bland, insincere drone next to whom a flabby, balding felon like Scott Walker seems positively glamorous. There is a reason I received no major union endorsements during the primary–because I actually used Scott Walker’s law to undermine the public union workers whose cause I unconvincingly co-opted in an attempt to advance my personal career. I should have known from the beginning that my candidacy would be seen by Wisconsin voters as the betrayal of what had been a populist uprising on behalf of workers’ rights into a cynical rehash of my perennial failed partisan ambitions.”
– Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee and three-time losing gubernatorial candidate
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