Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers


Jodi R. Cohen

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  • Rhetoric and Society

    edited by Herbert W. Simons

    Temple University


    Michael Billig

    Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University

    Carole Blair

    Department of American Studies, University of California, Davis

    Richard H. Brown

    Department of Sociology, University of Maryland

    Rosa Eberly

    Department of English, University of Texas, Austin

    Dilip Gaonkar

    Communication Studies, Northwestern University

    James Jasinski

    Department of Speech Communication, University of Illinois

    Joyce Irene Middleton

    Department of English, University of Rochester

    Janice Rushing

    Communication Department, University of Arkansas

    Allen Scult

    Department of Speech Communication, Drake University

    This series will publish a broad-based collection of advanced texts and innovative works encompassing rhetoric in the civic arena, in the arts and media, in the academic disciplines, and in everyday cultural practices.

    Books in this series:

    Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetorics of Therapy

    Dana L. Cloud

    Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers

    Jodi R. Cohen

    Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives

    Glenn F. Stillar


    View Copyright Page


    This book is for my family: I love you.

    This book was written with considerable and considerate conceptual advice from Herb Simons and Mark Pollock, and editorial help from June Hannah and Dorothy Owens. I thank you.

    Series Editor's Introduction

    Many years ago I had a colleague at Temple University whose elective course in General Semantics closed each semester on the first day of registration with well over a hundred students enrolled. Harry Weinberg used no multimedia in his course (in fact, I believe the term hadn't yet been invented). He had a weak speaking voice, so that students in the back of the room had to strain to hear him. And he had a rather severe speech impediment. But Harry Weinberg was, by virtually all accounts, a master teacher.

    Harry Weinberg excelled as a teacher for many of the usual reasons, including great personal warmth, caring for his subject matter, and commitment to his students. Professor Weinberg also took extraordinary steps to communicate complex ideas clearly. On any given lecture period, he made sure to limit himself to a very few concepts and principles. Then he would illustrate these concepts and principles at great length, often building on examples that he'd introduced in previous periods. And he would also try to anticipate the questions and concerns of his students.

    On reading Jodi Cohen's Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers, I was reminded of Harry Weinberg's General Semantics class. Cohen has one overriding goal for you, her students: to empower you as listeners, readers and viewers of communicated messages. Toward that end she introduces a rather limited set of ideas per chapter, but the ideas build on one another so that by the middle of the book, Professor Cohen will be able to say, in ways that you will be able to understand “Once comfortable with the pentad you should gain a more practical understanding of the idea that people construct reality with communication. People interpellate themselves into ideologies through dramatic transactions.”

    This a mouthful, isn't it? In fact, many advanced graduate students in communication studies might find the concepts which I have italized extremely difficult. But because Jodi Cohen is a master teacher—because, for example, she has taken pains to anticipate your difficulties with Kenneth Burke's concept of the pentad and responded to them with clear explanations and detailed examples, you should find the concepts eminently digestible by the time you've chewed your way through them.

    For any communicative act or artifact, Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers invites its readers to consider three basic questions: (1) How does the “message” (i.e., the act or artifact) fulfill the creator's purpose? (2) Does the “message” present the world, and/or ideas about the world, truthfully and ethically? (3) How does the message shape identities, ideas, and actions? Variants of these same three questions are found at the end of nearly all chapters, so that whether you are thinking about verbal style or film and video editing, you'll have these questions to guide you. And Professor Cohen will illustrate how these questions may be answered, oftentimes with references to examples or studies of popular culture.

    The most distinctive feature of this book is its blending of classical rhetoric with postmodernism. This is controversial, and your instructor may wish to challenge Professor Cohen when she says in the Preface that “The goals of much postmodern scholarship, often considered ‘radical’ are for the most part consistent with the goals of traditional rhetoric: to gain power over our lives by thinking critically about communication.”

    This is a provocative statement and, I think, a profound one. It's provocative because we academics are often prone either to cling to tradition in the face of all newcomers, or to disparage the old in the name of progress, Wasn't it John Lennon who told us that “what's old is what's new”?

    That's profound.

    Herbert W.Simons Series Editor

    Preface: Author's Notes on the Philosophy and Design of the Book

    Most books on critical thinking focus on research methodology or how to write formal, critical essays. My objective in writing this book is to help the reader, who may take only one communication course or read only one book about communication in their lifetime, to think critically about everyday communication.

    The book draws on a wide range of communication forms, including novels, theatre, political speeches, films, and everyday conversations. It is, therefore, an appropriate guide to thinking critically about all communication. In an effort to encompass a full range of communication, the book presents concepts for critical thinking that have been developed in a variety of fields and perspectives. A teacher's manual, available from Sage, addresses the ways Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers may be adapted to a range of courses and students.

    Although the book is broad in its presentation of communication forms and theories and intended for readers who adhere to a range of philosophies, it gains coherence from the traditional principles of “rhetoric.” Rhetoric was once a branch of philosophy dedicated to the study of oral, public communication. The field of rhetoric has changed, incorporating ideas from fields as diverse as critical social studies and social psychology. It has also broadened its subjects to include all forms of communication. The classical study of rhetoric provides the book with its goals and structure, which are herein synthesized with contemporary-critical approaches to popular culture.

    The classical goals of rhetoric are attached to the role of persuasive speaking in the development of Greek democracy. Twenty-five hundred years ago public speaking was the primary means of shaping public opinion and therefore essential to the entire democratic decision-making process. The formal study of rhetoric was important to educating the citizens of ancient Greece in how to influence others through persuasive speaking skills. Primarily developed as a practical study, the knowledge of rhetoric also protected citizens from the undue influence of others.

    Today, or 2,500 years ago, the rhetorical view of communication attempts to give people the power to affect their own lives. In contemporary American education, vestiges of the practical art of rhetoric are found in public speaking and composition courses. Some academic programs—most notably Speech Communication, Writing, English Literature, Film and Media Studies—offer courses in critical communication skills that attend to the effects communication may have on particular audiences. Many of these programs are grounded in the traditional, practical art of rhetoric.

    The classical goals of rhetoric are consistent with the perspectives and pedagogical needs of the 21st century. In the 1990s, most academic disciplines include at least a handful of scholars who believe communication has a significant, if not defining, role in creating reality. Rather than assume the world is endowed with meaning and truth that is mediated through communication, contemporary philosophies tend to blur the borders between reality, language, thought, action, and identity. Postmodern thinking, a philosophical movement evident in the arts, sciences, and humanities, considers communication to be the source, if not the essence, of who we are, what we know, and what we do. The goals of much postmodern scholarship, often considered “radical,” are for the most part consistent with the goals of traditional rhetoric: to gain power over our lives by thinking critically about communication.

    The structure of this book, influenced by the structure of traditional rhetorical studies, integrates concepts from a variety of critical fields. Unit One introduces the reader to the central role of communication in all that we do, and to a process for thinking critically about communication. The critical process is based on the neo-Aristotelian model of rhetorical criticism that emerged from Cornell University in the 1920s and was at that time central to distinguishing the study of oral from written communication. The critical method takes the critical thinker through three steps: an analysis of the communication context, an interpretation of the audience making meaning, and a judgment about that meaning. Critical thinking is described as linear and systematic but in actuality it is a simultaneous and creative process.

    Units Two through Six organize concepts for critical thinking according to whether they focus on language, structure, reasoning, character, or emotion. Each unit opens with a chapter on the neo-Aristotelian approach to the topic, followed by chapters that address contemporary-postmodern concepts and broaden critical powers from “public speech” to “popular communication.”

    Unit Two presents concepts for unraveling the role of language in meaning, beginning with the classical concept of “style” in Chapter 3, followed by “semiology” and “metaphors.”

    Unit Three presents a variety of concepts best adapted to studying the structure of communication, beginning with a chapter on the neo-Aristotelian theory of “organization.” The chapters in this unit also address the principles of visual “editing,” “narrative,” and “dramatism.”

    Units Four, Five, and Six address what was traditionally studied under the heading of “invention,” that is, reasoning, character, and emotion. The book offers three ways to think critically about reasoning in communication: “rhetorical argument,” “field-dependent argument,” and “narrative rationality.” The chapters on character and emotion cover the traditional concepts of “ethos” and “pathos,” as well as more contemporary explanations of “identification,” “second persona,” and the psychoanalytic notion of “desire.”

    These units present a vocabulary for critical thinking in parallel format. Each unit introduces the topic and briefly considers the relationship of the topic under consideration to who we are, what we know, and what we do. A variety of positions is presented, but none is argued. Each chapter presents, explains, applies, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of a critical concept. The text is not advocating the use of some concepts over others but suggests that their usefulness depends upon the critic's assumptions and questions.

    The critic's assumptions and questions are the focus of the final unit, which summarizes the book by moving critical thinking into reflection. This unit suggests the critical process may begin in a variety of ways, but ultimately critics should use the critical vocabulary in ways that are best suited to their questions and assumptions. The critical questions and concepts presented throughout the book are reviewed within different theoretical perspectives, and their implications to critical powers are addressed.

    The content of this book broadens, sometimes stretches, the traditional study of rhetoric. Public communication is no longer limited to public speaking. The introduction and Chapter 1 make it very clear that, however influenced by traditional rhetorical approaches to criticism, this text is concerned with all communication. The book makes room for critical concepts associated with Michel Foucault and Karl Marx, within the classical method of critical reflection. For instance, the epistemological and institutional-economic contexts of communication are considered, along with the traditional analysis of the “rhetorical situation.” During the interpretive phase of criticism, the reader is encouraged to apply a variety of theoretical concepts. Similarly, the evaluative phase, as herein presented, invites critical questions about whether the communication is effective, truthful, and ethical, as it also probes the ideological implications of communication to social power and cultural identities.

    In review, the lay critic needs to know two important bodies of information that are rarely found in one source: the fundamental principles of communication, and how these principles have been, and can be, adapted to thinking critically about how people make meaning. The traditional study of rhetoric remains relevant to the task because its goals are consistent with contemporary concerns and it provides the most thorough, systematic, and accessible framework for the beginning student. In addition, the classical approach is flexible enough to integrate different communication philosophies and theoretical concepts into its framework.

    Jodi R.CohenIthaca College, Ithaca, NY
  • Glossary of Key Concepts

    • Assumptions Ideas (beliefs, attitudes, values) that are not consciously supported with reasons. Assumptions may be explicitly stated or implied.
    • Camera Shot One, uninterrupted sequence of action recorded with one camera; also called a “cut.” Cameras frame shots at varying distances and angles, with varying movements, and durations.
    • Character The person(s) or persona(s) shaped in and by communication. Ethos, second persona, and identification are three ways to think critically about character that are discussed in this book. See Narrative for a different sense of the concept, Character.
    • Conception/Conceptual Knowing The thought process through which people construct ideas. Conceptual knowing includes beliefs, attitudes, and values. See Perceptual Knowing.
    • Critical Thinking The process of systematically unraveling how people make meaning in communication. Thinking critically about communication involves an analysis of the communication context, an interpretation of how symbols come to have meaning in a given context, and an evaluation of the communication effectiveness, effects, truth, and/or ethics.
    • Culture The symbolic processes through which people shape, share, reinforce, change, and pass on their ideas and ideologies. Overtime, we all participate in many cultures, including ethnicity, nationality, social class, and generation.
    • Cultural Power Struggles Cultures compete for power over meaning in communication. A culture gains power when its ideas and means of making ideas dominate society.
    • Deduction Formal, logical reasoning that moves from a statement called a major premise, through a statement called a minor premise, to a conclusion. See Syllogism and Validity.
    • Desire A psychoanalytical concept that refers to a feeling of absence or lacking that turns to pleasure when fulfilled. See Form.
    • Discursive Formation A social system that constrains the production of ideas with “governing rules” that determine who can communicate, what can be communicated, and how it must be communicated.
    • Dramatism or Dramatistic Perspective A philosophical view of communication that claims people use symbolic behavior to enact the meaningful “realities” of our lives. See Pentad.
    • Editing The ways images, sounds, and words are structured. This book only addresses the physical and technical process of visual editing.
    • Emotion The feelings that are revealed, used, and/or created in communication. Pathos and desire are two ways to think critically about emotion that are discussed in this book.
    • Enthymeme A form of rhetorical argument that reasons from popular and probable beliefs (not absolute truths) to probable claims. Because enthymemes are based on widely accepted beliefs, these beliefs are often implied rather than explicitly stated.
    • Ethos The classical concept for the character of a speaker, as perceived by an audience. The concept can be used to think critically about the role of character in most communication.
    • Evidence Any idea that is used to support, prove, or justify another idea. Examples, statistics, factual data, testimony, and previously established or widely accepted beliefs are forms of evidence discussed in this book. Also called Data.
    • Example A rhetorical argument that reasons from one case to another case, through an inference that these cases are parallel. The term also refers to one type of evidence/data used in this form of argument; that is, a specific case or instance.
    • Field-Dependent Arguments Those arguments that must be evaluated within a particular field of expertise. The Toulmin model of argument (data, warrant, backing, qualifier, claim, rebuttal) is simply a way of diagramming the reasoning process so that it may be evaluated field dependently, according to the field that creates the backing for the warrant.
    • Form The psycho-symbolic process through which people use symbols to arouse and fulfill expectations.
    • Genre Any collection of communication texts which share symbolic strategies (in form and content) for responding to a recurring situation. Funeral orations, declarations of war, and torch songs are examples of communication genres.
    • Governing Rules Social rules that limit who can communicate, what they can communicate, and how they must communicate. Governing rules ultimately determine that which a society considers truthful and believable. See Discursive Formation.
    • Hailing A process of creating or imposing an identity in the ways we talk to others. For example, we hail children and adults differently; we are all hailed by friends, family, teachers, films, and books; we are often hailed according to/into cultural identities.
    • Ideas Perceptual and conceptual beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world.
    • Ideology A system of largely unquestioned ideas. Ideologies are unavoidable. Ideologies are oppressive to the extent they influence thought and action without any conscious reflection or choice.
    • Identification The process of using language to become one with one's self, the universe, ideas, and/or other people. To identify is to overcome divisions and to unify with the substance of the other.
    • Identity (Identities) Ideas we have about ourselves in relation to others and the world.
    • Induction A form of logical reasoning that moves from evidence, through an inference, to a probable claim or conclusion.
    • Inference The logical or rhetorical step in reasoning that connects one idea or statement (evidence or premise) to another idea or statement (conclusion). The study of logical reasoning distinguishes between inductive and deductive inferences.
    • Interpellated The act of adopting or assuming the subject position necessary to make sense of a text. For instance, we are interpellated into the role of a consumer in television ads.
    • Language All forms of expression, representation, or presentation (see chapter eighteen for philosophical distinctions) that come to have shared meanings for groups of people. Style, semiotics, and metaphors are three ways to look critically at language that are discussed in this book.
    • Logic The formal and abstract process of deductive reasoning.
    • Metaphor A figure of speech that states or implies that two distinct things are the same.
    • Motive A concept used by dramatistic critics to describe a communicator's philosophical view of a situation. Critics uncover motives by first doing a pentadic analysis of communication and then determining which elements of the pentad control the drama. See Dramatism and Pentad.
    • Myth The concept is used here as it is in semiotics; the pattern of beliefs, values, and/or attitudes that explain how a culture attaches a second order sign to a first order sign. For instance, a myth would explain how a culture attributes images of babies with purity.
    • Narrative The structure of storytelling, typically ordered in time and may include a narrator, characters, setting, events, climax, and resolution. It is also a concept used by critics to interpret stories stated or implied in almost all communication. See Narrative Rationality.
    • Narrative Rationality A term used to evaluate stories as reasoning, according to whether the stories are internally and externally consistent (narrative probability), and whether they are loyal to social values (narrative fidelity).
    • Organization The classical concept for how people arrange ideas to effectively inform and persuade others through speech. The concept can be used to think critically about structure in most communication.
    • Pathos The classical concept for the emotional dimensions of meaning. The concept can be used to think critically about emotion in most communication.
    • Pentad A model used by dramatistic critics to interpret the ways people use language to construct a meaningful reality. The pentad, consisting of five parts (agent, act, scene, agency, purpose), is best used to examine the dramatic reality created by communication. See Dramatism.
    • Perception/Perceptual Knowing The sensory processes through which people construct ideas. Perceptual knowing is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Perceptual knowledge is commonly assumed to be factual knowledge. See Conceptual Knowing.
    • Point of View The psychological perspective(s) through which the audience makes sense of a narrative. Often narrative structure invites the audience to identify with the point of view of a character in the drama. See Viewer Positioning.
    • Reasoning The process of moving from one idea (evidence or data), to an unknown or unrecognized idea (claim or conclusion), through a third idea (inference or warrant). Rhetorical argument, field-dependent argument, and narrative rationality are three ways to think critically about reasoning that are discussed in this book.
    • Rhetoric The formal and systematic study of persuasive, oral communication as it was developed in Classical Greek times (500 B.C.). Theories of rhetoric have been adapted to a variety of forms of communication since Classical times. The term rhetoric also refers to persuasive communication.
    • Rhetorical Argument The classical concept for how people use reasoning to persuade others through speech. All rhetorical arguments are concluded with probability rather than certainty. The concept can be used to think critically about reasoning in most communication.
    • Rhetorical Situation The context of purposeful communication. Rhetorical situations include exigencies that give rise to the communication, an audience that can potentially resolve the exigencies, and constraints that help or hinder the effectiveness of the communication in resolving the exigencies.
    • Scene A shot or series of shots taken at the same location. See Pentad for a different sense of the concept, Scene.
    • Second Persona The ideal audience (its attitudes, beliefs, and values) that is implied in communication.
    • Semiotics The scientific study of language as systems of signs. See Sign.
    • Sequence Two or more scenes that are linked by narrative theme, character, action, and/or time.
    • Sign The concept is used here as it is in semiotics; A unit of meaning constructed of a signifier (image, color, sound, etc.) plus a first order (the symbolic, indexical, and/or iconic meaning attributed to the signifier) and second order (the valuative meaning attributed to the signifier) signified. Signs combine into systems of meaning, also called myths and ideologies.
    • Structure The ways people put boundaries around ideas and/or things, and draw relationships between and among them. Organization, editing, narrative, and drama are four ways to look critically at structure that are discussed in this book.
    • Style The classical concept for how people use words to effectively inform and persuade others through speech. The concept can be used to think critically about most communication.
    • Subject Position A social and ideological identity that one must assume to participate in specific communication texts. Communication invites people to adopt a variety of subject positions. See Hailing, Interpellating, Viewer Positioning, and Point of View.
    • Supertext The history of communication texts that become relevant to how people make sense of a text in a particular situation.
    • Syllogism The formal structure of logical reasoning that moves from a statement about all cases, called a major premise; through a statement about all cases, called a minor premise; to a statement about a specific case or cases, called a conclusion. Syllogisms are concluded with certainty if the premises are true and the structure valid.
    • Terministic Screen A filter that directs and deflects our perceptions and conceptions. All language is a terministic screen.
    • Valid/Validity The formal consistency of syllogisms. Formal consistency or validity is determined by a set of universal logical rules.
    • Viewer Positioning The way(s) in which camera shots, and editing, position the audience (in time and space) in relation to the images. Viewer positioning is a physical and technical process, but it often entails a social position.

    About the Author

    Jodi R. Cohen is an associate professor of speech communication at Ithaca College where she teaches courses in the practice, theory, and criticism of public communication. She received her B.A. and M.A. from Colorado State University in 1976 and 1979, respectively, and completed her Ph.D. at The Pennsylvania State University in 1984. Her research interests are communication and culture, communication and democracy, as well as critical studies of specific texts. Her works may be found in Qualitative Inquiry, The Journal of Communication, Quarterly Journal of Speech, and Critical Studies in Mass Communication.

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