A Letter Concerning Agency

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

After a whirlwind weekend of conferences at the Eastern Communication Association in Baltimore and the Midwest Political Science Association in Chicago, I have been reflecting on my research and the underlying assumptions that I bring to it. Sitting in a Borders Books currently overlooking a rainy Chicago street, I am currently contemplating the disciplinary and theoretical underpinnings of my research in media and politics, political communication, and presidential rhetoric. Not that I am going through some existential crisis about my research, but these conferences and the accompanying remarks have got my intellectual gears turning.

Presenting research on the metaphorical construction of economic reality by the Obama administration in Baltimore, a professor of communication and rhetoric remarked that my research should take my inferences about the president’s language one step forward and call out his rhetoric as rather common and boring. Sitting in my Chicago session, a professor of political science told me to scale back my assertions about Obama’s deliberate (or not so deliberate) use of language. We have, in this occurrence, a classic case of stasis – a collision of arguments and a similar collision of disciplines.

The professor in Chicago brought up what the professor in Baltimore was potentially thinking – where does agency impact one’s use of language. Is all language use (and misuse), particularly by a president, a conscious construction based on the poll tested results of particular language?Or is it an unconscious reflection of cognitive world views and structures for which the speaker has little control? I sound like a sociologist asking this question. My response is that it is somewhere in the middle and based on inferences drawn from data and assumptions about language use and cognitive structuring.

There are a couple of assumptions that one can make about anyone’s language use, whether it is the president, a media elite, or citizen Jane. First, once you speak, you own the language. I often hear that I cannot properly analyze the views of a president through his rhetoric because he did not write the speech. While it is true that the ghostwriter has been an executive institution since Franklin Roosevelt’s administration (see White House Ghosts (new window) by Schlesinger), it is also true that a president immediately achieves ownership (and thus agency) for the words immediately upon their u

tterance. Let us remember – it was not Peggy Noonan who was praised for “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” so much as it was Reagan exhorting his audience to remember the D-Day invasion. Secondly, the underpinnings of rhetorical, linguistic, and discursive analysis presuppose that language reflects a worldview, both conscious and unconscious. Structured structures exist (what Bourdieu called the habitus) that allow for language to be constructed in recurring patterns. After consulting with several of my mentors about this, I understand that agency can exist within these cognitive structures. Active choice occurs sometimes, while at others, more unconscious structures can predominate.

So we have a chicken and egg problem here. Which came first – the construction of a particular metaphor/frame or the poll-tested wordsmithing that developed the metaphor/frame? The two are not mutually exclusive and here’s why. Let’s assume a president constructs the economy on paper as a person, a building, and a journey (see my Fall 2009 gnovis paper for future references). These constructions are then poll-tested with an audience to analyze their effectiveness. Let’s also assume they are effective. The reason is simple: the same structures exist within the president’s head as that of his audience. This is how the rhetorical art of enthymemes is created – arguments get filled in by an audience, allowing for self-persuasion. Whether one comes before the other is a moot point. These common structures and ways of thinking about the world, including the economy, mean that an unconscious structure suddenly makes for a conscious construction.

Kenneth Burke studied this area quite closely while trying to understand how a critic can uncover the motives of a particular communicator. One can never know the true motives of a communicator, but one can formulate inferences by examining the language and looking for the clues – whether it is temporal signaling, pronoun usage, or a creative way of employing adjectives. This may make social scientists weary, but it should not. Much as quantitative data provide the underpinnings for inferences about the world (which can never fully be generalized), similarly the words and language become the data for analyzing a particular set of circumstances (which can also not be fully generalized).

In his “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke notes “The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.” While I am not arguing about differences of religion, I believe the same principle applies to academic approaches – one must understand the disciplinary assumptions and practices of others in order to tolerate other bodies of research. My letter concerning agency surrounds this point. As a student of political communication, I have had to familiarize myself with the practices of both political science and communication. Research in these fields can run the gamut from the strictly quantitative to purely critical. All is enlightening in its own way. All is credible so long as it does not violate the assumptions of the method employed. To dismiss the research out of an unfamiliarity with the assumptions of alternative approaches runs counter to the principles of toleration for differing views and approaches that has made academia a refuge for both popular and marginalized ideas.

**I would also like to congratulate and commend the gnovis team on a job well done presenting on academic blogging at a panel sponsored by the Eastern Communication Association. It is a continual pleasure working with you all.**