Ethopoetic Possibilities


The study of rhetoric is appreciated as an adaptable tool for understanding not only pieces of work  easily identifiable as rhetorical artifacts– speeches, op-eds, sermons– but also for understanding human thought.  Perhaps more internal to any rhetorical study is the objective to understand the rhetorician himself, in addition to his work.  The works of a creator derive from deliberate artistic choices made within constraints of both his abilities and his medium.  Understanding these choices is the closest we can come to understanding the choice-maker, for his core motivations lie beneath them.

What greater persuasive endeavor is there than self-presentation?  We each, as social beings, hold core desires for acceptance and approval.  We seek to be understood not only by ourselves, but by others.  The existential process (or in some people’s case, crisis) that is self-understanding takes extreme importance in a society that holds “knowing thyself” as a virtue.  Today, this process has become a social activity.  Our self-understanding does not have to be individually achieved, nor does it have to be complete.  We can present what we do know of ourselves, receive validation, and build from there.

Imagining a particular situation, an expert presenting a piece of work to peers, we can see the components of a self-presenting rhetorician’s ability.  Unique and perfect familiarity with the subject matter, coupled with total memory of its history, serves as an infinite and directly accessible database of information.  Ongoing first-hand experience of the subject’s development guarantees up-to-date awareness of its present state.  This expertise and intimate knowledge should warrant a great public presentation met with high regard.  “Knowing thyself” should only translate to being easily known.  However, though we are experts on ourselves, we are not all professional self-presenters.

Facebook offered us a Powerpoint template, so to speak, for the most important presentation of our lives: the actual presentation of our lives.  Given this useful medium and its easily-editable features, we become rhetoricians with leeway to maximize the effect we have on others online.

Facebook is a platform of possibilities that is governed by constraints.  We have spaces to fill with text, though there are specific places to put specific information.  Your “About” section can be filled with gibberish, but the social expectation of other users demands that you put appropriate information about yourself there.  Though your pictures can depict anything, Facebook sizes them to the 180×180 pixels of your profile picture and additionally disallows anything obscene.  Facebook also depicts your life on a line adhering to something we often wish our lives would elude: the passage of time.

And yet, with these kinds of constraints, Facebook offers us freedom through structure, broadening possibilities of social interaction.  A Jackson Pollack of a self-presentation on a blank canvas would be understood by one interpreter, but many would understand a Facebook profile with the familiar and recognizable blue-styled format.  By the constraints and through the freedom of this structure, Facebook users need only choose content selectively, share, and await recognition.  That recognition is either the jeer or the applause at the end of the presentation, and the cue for the creator to either reject or accept the piece of themselves that they shared.




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