The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Not the book, the movie. It's not great, it's not brilliant, but it's definitely funny.

But that's not why I wanted to post on it. As I was watching the movie I kept thinking about how the screenplay (and, presumably, the novel) make a fascinating argument about rhetoric in America, and about how these lessons would be useful as a very cynical corrective at the end of a college first-year writing class. My class is grounded in very traditionally liberal, Habermasian concepts of a public sphere in which responsible voices express themselves are are considered by an informed and interested populace, but we also use the idea of the rhetorical triangle to discuss how deceptive appeals based in a speaker's credibility and an audience's emotions can be effective. THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, with its lead character (a public spokesman for the tobacco industry), depicts how successful such deceptive appeals can be in the U.S., but its lead character is also quite reflective about the craft of rhetoric and about the nature of argument. In a black-and-white argument, he makes clear, you don't have to prove yourself to be right in order to win--you win when you shift the grounds of the argument and merely prove that your opponent isn't right. (See 2004, when the Bushies didn't bother to defend Bush's discredited character and just undermined Kerry's appeal to credibility.) THANK YOU FOR SMOKING will be an interesting end to my class--after talking all semester about the rules by which public arguments are conducted and judged valid or invalid, we'll finish with a movie about the ultimate success of groundless, amoral arguments.


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