Opening Statements

When I think about the arrangement of Burn’s narrative, I think about the court cases she so meticulously recounts. In hindsight, her structure is reminiscent of a lawyer presenting her case to a court–though in this case, her court is a court populated by a jury of her readers. She gives context, lays out a timeline, labors over describing every relevant conversation and relationship, provides an account of her opposing sides argument, rebuts it, and so on. I can easily see this an trial attorney’s oration.

Perhaps the most interesting and telling part of this arrangement is her consideration of the idea, both at the begging and at the end of the narrative, that this is a narrative about the justice system at large. This might be seen as the “means and motive” part of her rhetorical exercise. How is it that such a grave miscarriage of justice could have occurred? Not because of any one officer’s fault. But rather, because the justice system had the ability to create such a failure. Just as a mass shooter can’t wreak the carnage he does without an AR-15, a justice system can’t easily convict five innocent young men without systematic flaws that fail every safeguard. A prosecutorial lawyer must prove that an accused had the means to commit the crime–and this is precisely what burns arranges her narrative to prove.


Are You Convinced?

The questions that naturally follow the readings for this week are simple. Is the story told by Sarah Burns in The Central Park Five engaging and is it convincing? To a certain degree, the answers are arguable–and of course, mightn’t that be the point when dealing with rhetoric. It is easy for us to imagine how readers with different prejudices and experiences might come away with different readings. Alternately, if the rhetoric is good (whatever exactly that means), mightn’t it be enough to overcome these prejudices and experiences and have some unifying affect on the readers?

In any case, I think the question of whether The Central Park Five constitutes an engaging narrative is the easier question to address. Of the techniques suggested in the reading from Bill Nichols, I think the key on to clue in on here is the use of existing motivations and conceptions to build and move a narrative. We see Burns do this repeatedly, if subtly. In the opening to the third chapter of the book, Burns offers a snapshot of the life of Trisha Meili, the victim of the horrifying assault. This plays into our pre-conceived notions by depicting a raw, human, and tragic part of the story. No matter what your prejudices, you can probably latch onto Meili’s part in the story to some extent.

While specific techniques can be pointed to in order to show examples of an engaging narrative, it is more difficult to accurately quantify how convincing a narrative is–any narrative. I would argue that Burns is convincing. Burns cultivates a persona that is seems trusting and relatively unbiased. There is some editorializing, but most of it is subtle–set within statements of fact. In this way Burns can guide a reader towards an opinion gently. The process is not unlike learning a language by immersion. And ultimately, the fact that Burns has a point of view may be ancillary to the facts. The result of rhetoric that is sober, lucid, and direct.

The Voice of the Rhetorician is the Voice of God

Sarah Burns opens her book with a somewhat dramatic scene. A New York State Supreme Court judge had just vacated convictions for five men accused of rape and assault. Burns establishes her narrative amidst a moment of turmoil and long-overdue delivery of justice–or at least a semblance of justice. Her tone is almost, almost, reporter-ly. She delivers names and titles of those involved rapidly and matter-of-factly. We are presented with assertions of racism and deeply rooted societal injustice in a way that makes us willing to listen and believe, because her voice leaves us with little room to imagine an argument otherwise. From the beginning, Burns is making claims filled with drama and tension, and spinning them in the most believable light and the most grounded and sober tone that she can muster.

We’re presented with a different strategy from Joan Didion. Not a page into her essay, Didion suggests that the woman involved in the case was, in the eyes of the media and public at least, less of a human and more a symbol–a symbol for an ongoing social clash that was playing out in a polarized and morally suspect city. Didion plays into this by stating that few people who followed the case would remember the name of the female jogger and then proceeding not to use her name throughout a vivid account of the crimes she endured.

For this variance in rhetorical approach, neither account is inherently more or less effective. They both present the same story. The both present, largely, the same facts pertaining to that story. The difference comes from the voices with which they speak. Burns and Didion, for the similar underlying commentaries they make, have voices that seem to come from different worlds. They provide an in situ study of what Bill Nichols discusses in his chapter on the subject of the voice in documentaries. The contrast can be likened to the contrast Nichols presents between using “a voice of God to evoke as well as explain” and using “the composition and arrangement of the shots” to create the evocations explanations.

Of course, Nichols is most specifically interested in film documentaries. This does not however, diminish his usefulness to us. The overarching principle that it is not simply what is portrayed that creates the experience for us viewers/readers, can be carried over into rhetoric’s written plane.

Taking Off

Last year, I was fortunate enough to begin working for the American Birding Association. This should not come as a grand surprise to anyone. I have been involved with this organization for years and have always been deeply committed to their mission and goals. However, what might be a surprise is the role that I was hired to play.

North American Birds is about as venerable and respected as a publication in the birding world can be. It is the journal of ornithological record for North America–a repository for everything we, as birders, observe in our time in the field. How populations change, are there new hybrid populations appearing; basically, if it has to do with bird status and distribution, it has probably found its way into the hallowed pages of NAB. This is the publication I now find myself at the helm of, alongside fellow birder, Tom Reed.

I have a great deal of thoughts on what this means for me, for NAB, and American birding-at-large. But for now, turn to some thoughts I shared in this recent profile published by Washington College, where I am now entering my final semester as a student:

Good birding!

A “Where I Came From” Story

It’s the end of October, and that means that I’m spending most of my nights sitting in the tin-roofed-shed that houses our bird banding station. A loudspeaker broadcasts the monotonic and musical notes of the Northern Saw-whet Owl and offers a steady drone of white noise. My coworker Maren and I have wide-ranging discussions full of long quiet pauses and startling non-sequiturs. Our conversation reminds me of Savoy and her writings, in a way.

In the chapter “Migrating in a Bordered Land” of her book Trace, Savoy jumps around in physical location—from the National Archives in DC, to Arizona, to the San Pedro River basin, to Fort Huachuca itself. Throughout this, there is a relatively common thread for her discussion, though. She is tracking her history, hunting it almost. She follows her mother and through the land and through the history of people, both her people and others (whether those people are Americans, or African-Americans, or others).

I see Savoy’s task as very autobiographical. I suppose that, as we’ve discussed before, essays may be inherently autobiographical. But I almost feel something of Kaysen in this. It’s a tracking of a history of self and family. It may be more nebulous than Kaysen’s story, but it’s similar. It’s a “where I came from, how did I get here” story, just like Kaysen’s. And like Kaysen, the non-linear discussion reflects this. She’s still putting pieces together, working on her past like a jigsaw puzzle.

On the Moveable Rocks

“First there was nothing”; the words which Annie Dillard chooses to open her essay “Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos” could not get very much more evocative. In the same sentence, Dillard suggests that nothing is relatable to something more tangible to us “the Pacific”. And so begins the essay that perhaps best illustrates Dillard’s project in Teaching a Stone to Talk.

Dillard spends much of the “Life on the Rocks” section of her book doing what she does best—weaving narratives about her explorations and experiences in nature together with the natural histories of the animals and geological characters in the those narratives and then relating them to bigger world. Even being familiar with Dillard and her propensity for doing this, “Life on the Rocks” is a particularly impressive bit of writing. Perhaps this is partly because, in addition to being excellent example of her characteristic writing techniques, it is also her book in miniature. What I propose is that in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard is commenting on the reflections—or perhaps, misreflections—of the natural world in what she observes in society.

From a deep discussion of the science of evolution and natural uniqueness of the Galapagos, Dillard turns to a discussion on how human society has corrupted the science of evolution. From the fundamentalist Christians who “of course, still reject Darwinism” to the “even less appealing… social Dawinists”, Dillard devotes a fair amount of time to discussing how society has misread the science of Darwin and an understanding on the fundamentals of natural history as well.

In this book, I think Dillard’s greatest goal is to show the similarities between nature and humanity and also highlight where she sees we seem to have lost sight of our own natural history. In this, “Life on the Rocks” is the epitome of the argument. “The mountains are no more fixed than the stars”, she writes, explaining how everything, from the geology of the earth, to the existence of the species we see around us everyday, to our own thoughts and ideas and societies, are subject to changeability. In placing the discussion of the social Darwinists and their ilk among the narratives of the moveability of life on earth, I think she also stressed the futility of humanity’s own thoughts on the matter. However much we may rail against the turning of the tides, “the very landscapes heave; change burgeons into change”.

Essaying with Shields

I think there is something fundamentally essayistic happening in the writing of David Shields. Perhaps this is self-explanatory and redundant given that he is writing essays. Nevertheless, the fact that the entirety of his book is a long experiment, an artistic and philosophical exercise, there is something fundamentally essayistic happening. What I mean to say is, he isn’t just writing an essay and the pieces within the book are not simply essays in and of themselves.

If the point of an essay is to attempt or to (verb) essay, then David Shield’s writing might as well be the Montaigne and the Emerson of our time. His philosophical argument is essentially that nonfiction writing should break with the conventions set out for it in the past centuries. There are most specific ways of looking at this—one can view it through the lens of property laws, originality and the use of quotations, and many more. But it really boils down to discarding with old conventions. How is this more or less radical than what Montaigne did in coining the essay? Or what Emerson did in suggesting that to be great is to be misunderstood?

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”, King Lear asks in the eponymous play, written by Shakespeare. “Who is it than can tell me who I am?”, Shields asks in his book, his essaying essay. The question is fundamental to humankind. Not a one of us exists who has probably not wondered this question. And while we might all try to propose an answer, I doubt there’s a one of us that can really answer the question satisfactorily.

Originality is a funny thing that way. We all want to claim it and yet none of truly can. I think that this is a fundamental idea behind the essay, and one that Emerson in particular understood well. As much as we are essaying and hoping for answers, its for our own gratification alone. We’re not going to answer even the basest of questions for those that come after us. We all have to answer these questions however we may, and Shields is proposing one such way. It is up for us to decide how far we’re willing to follow him.