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.


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