Friday, October 14, 2011

Rhetoric, I Swear


I swear.  I swear pretty much every day.  Sometimes it's for a stubbed toe, other times, a forgotten homework reading.  But sometimes I swear to make a point.

Rhetorical swearing works on several levels.  First, it is an attention getter.  Second, swearwords are often the most intense word for a thing ("shithead" is way grosser and meaner sounding than "poopyhead"), or they can be used to modify a word to make it more intense (not just "crazy," but "fucking crazy").  Third, swearwords can express a sense of humor about a serious subject -- which can either lighten the mood of a piece, or make it irreverent.  This third use is probably the most complex.  (As we talked about in pedagogy class today, we are not allowing our students to write on a funny ad when they write their essay about a commercial.  Funny is too hard.) 

I use swearwords on this blog in all three of those ways.  Although, I probably avoid the attention-getting tactic unless the attention-getting obscenity ties in with the tone of the piece. (I was going to title this "Some Fucking Rhetoric" or something like that, but decided to play with words instead.) The Onion uses attention-getting swears in article titles all the time.  When the rest of the article keeps up that tone it works, and it does not seem out of place.  This is true for the recent Steve Jobs obit, "Last American Who Knew What the Fuck He Was Doing Dies."

I can't think of an example that uses attention-getting swears without going for humor.  I don't know if that tactic would even work for intelligent people.  I'm mostly talking here about what works in essays and articles. But rhetoric is for everyone. So, to take it to the streets, "REPRESENT, BITCHES" probably gets more attention than "DO WHAT IS RIGHT, WOMEN" when someone wants to be persuasive within a group of she-thugs.

The second use of swearwords is pretty much the standard one.  They enhance our message, making it more intense, and more "colorful," as the prudes like to say.  While I do that all the time here, and everyone already knows how to do it (if you do need a swearing lesson, I can probably hook you up), there is still a rhetoric to swearing this way.  The most important thing to do is to build up to the dirty words.  If you haven't set a tone with a title like "Comma Splices: An Asshole's Delight" then you haven't yet let on that you are among the potty-mouthed.  This is good -- you have a rhetorical ace in the hole!  When your reader can't see that "FUCK!" coming at the end of an exasperated sentence, it is a pleasantly unpleasant surprise.  "Jeepers, this writer doesn't like to curse, but this thing makes'im mad enough to kick a cat by golly! Must be important!" (Says your newly-convinced reader.)

Swearwords as humorous interjections or humorous modifiers in an essay create a complex system of truth combined with hyperbole, seriousness combined with refusal to take things seriously.  I try to use my swears like this as much as possible. It's a goddamn bitch to pull off sometimes, but so fucking worth it.

So I write this because I have a serious (serious!) problem with people who think swearwords have no place in an argument, i.e. an article, blog entry, etc.  A commenter on my Jimmy Buffet post from a couple years back said:

"I doubt if you were face to face with a parrot head (or me) you would use poor language like that, but I suppose you feel safe behind your computer sweety. What next, going to call us "retards?" To think, this whole time I thought liberals were supposed to be politically correct."

I had used the word "dumbasses" to describe a bunch of drunken parrot heads spilling margaritas all over themselves. She took it quite personally.  Poor language? Some of the best words are swears!  And somehow, since I am educated I'm not allowed to use bad words.  And somehow, she thinks swearing is politically incorrect.  I'm not sure how her logic got her there, but there she is. When people get offended, they say all kinds of stupid shit.

And there is the KEY WORD!  Offended.  The possibility of offending is the number one reason some people think that cussing is off limits for educated people, even when they're writing down to earth stuff.  Well, it offends me that someone would be offended by a swearword.*  In the class I'm teaching, we read a story entitled "All Beings Are Interconnected."  The author uses humor and ethos (among other rhetorical strategies) to tell a story of demoralizing captivity.  He makes up funny words for gross things, like the Unfortunate Mess Rag.  One of my students wrote on this story, and she said his essay was effective because he made up those words to make sure he didn't offend anyone!  I think she used the word "offend" about five times.  I wrote on her draft that she was missing the point.  Since when does an author write a story about something so important and life-changing, and stop to change words so that they don't offend someone?  He chose not to use swearwords, but I'm pretty fuckin' sure that's not why.

*(OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE is another thing entirely.  Language that is meant to do harm to or to make generalizations about women, African-Americans, gays, or other groups [excepting parrot heads] should not be tolerated by any educated person.  But saying "Fuck" is not the same thing.)

To provide some support for my offensive arguments, I can point to many examples of swearing in very popular, widely read, and even incredibly intelligent magazines and websites.  I mentioned The Onion, but another favorite of mine is Rolling Stone magazine.  That's the first place I ever saw the "f" word in print.  I was fucking flabbergasted. Every issue drops f-bombs I'm sure.

To go beyond the printed word, since rhetoric is a spoken thing too, a colleague of mine mentioned today that she counseled a student with this advice: "You'll really have to bust your balls if you want to get caught up."  She wondered if that was okay.  I assured her there is a rhetoric to swearing, and that she had pulled out a crude turn of phrase at just the right time.  That student needed his attention grabbed, and he needed to know that she A) is taking his absences seriously, and B) still has a sense of humor with her students, even when they fuck up. That one little obscenity took care of all that rhetoric!

I could continue with anecdotes (like one of my pedagogy instructors nodding his head vigorously when I suggested some of my "rhetoric of swearing" in class), but anecdotes (and my own attempts at rhetorical swearing here) are all I have.  I could not find an article that argues what I am saying here.  There is plenty on the cultural value of swearwords, on the linguistics of swearwords and how they can be just about any part of speech (or even in-fixed!), and even on how swearwords can help relieve pain!  But no "Rhetoric of Fuck."  Maybe I should formalize this and do it up proper. (Without removing the swearing, of course.)

You'll notice I never swear when I'm writing a piece on Milton.  That's one fucker I do not wish to offend.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Colonoscopy? (or, another look at the colon)

If you remember last year (I hardly do), I wrote a little article entitled "Against the Titular Colon."  Read it, if you would like to continue reading this with some knowledge of my particular anti-colon arguments.

(Sorry for telling you to go read it.  If you read blogs on shit like this, you've probably already clicked the link.  Can you tell I've been teaching freshmen?  Can you tell they don't do their readings?)

Well, I received one of the nicest blog-related emails I've ever had the pleasure of reading from one Vivian R. of the American Musicological Society.  According to Vivian, a "major newspaper arts critic excerpted about 35 paper titles from our forthcoming national meeting program and published them without the post-colonial  (i.e., intelligible) portions."  In other words, only the part of the title that came before the colon (what would be the "real" title of, say, a book with a subtitle) was printed.  Can you imagine?!  This colonic oversight led to a firestorm on the AML listserv discussion. (Yes, apparently those are still a thing.) Wow!

But really, what do colon-dependent paper writers expect?  Why would someone write a pre-colonial gibberish title?  The part after the colon should illuminate, not be the final result of some colonic process. Writers should not expect the colon to fix their bad titles by digesting them. You put in crap you get out crap.

SHITTY TITLE  :  EXCREMENT OF SHITTY TITLE

So it doesn't magically make your title good.  And, if you already have a good title (the "post-colonial," "intelligible" bit -- it sounds like some of AML's truncated titles must have been good before the critic chopped them), don't cheapen it by putting it on the back end of a colon!  You know what's on the back end of a colon, right?

First, I have to give Vivian major props for that colon pun.  Post-colonial!  Ha!  Most colon jokes (and most of my colon jokes) tend toward the scatological.

Next, I have to thank Vivian for sharing me with the AML listserv.  She forwarded my humble blog article, offered up as an end to the discussion: "This should settle for all time what a proper title should look like," she tells the list.  Thank you Vivian.

Hear that? (Read that?) No more colons, because I said so.

Last, I have to excerpt here Vivian's discussion on why we should try not to make so many poop-related colon jokes.  She did some nice etymological detective work for the list:

"Bad puns invoking medical procedures and body-parts abound. The most interesting was "colotomic structure" [...] The medical definition of "colotomy" is an incision into the colon. "Stoma" is not the removal of an organ, but the creation of an artificial "mouth" to take over the function of the organ altered or removed. Thus, all the "colostomy" jokes about punctuation are misguided."

Darn! Oh well.  I was just about to make another one.