On the Tyranny of Miscommunication
If I could dedicate my life to exploring one paradox, I would choose the relationship that rhetoric has to miscommunication.
Like other humans, I’ve been making sounds and hoping to be understood for as long as I can remember. Being understood is incredibly gratifying – it’s bound up in the intoxicating affair of external validation. Being misunderstood, however, ranges from merely irritating to completely horrifying. The worst experiences of miscommunication are akin to madness. Indeed, couldn’t we describe insanity as the self-fulfilling paranoia of being misunderstood?
At first blush, rhetoric might seem to pave the road to miscommunication; what could possibly be less effective than colorful or expressive language? Effective communication would seem to depend on the opposite of rhetoric. Wrong! In hinting at the possibility of miscommunication, rhetoric crucially reminds us of how important the meaningful conveyance of information actually is.
I’ve come to view miscommunication as a metaphysical kingdom, a realm that persists alongside the everyday highly functional discourses of exchange, self-expression, seduction, invention, story-telling and jurisprudence.
A taste of pure rhetoric puts us into contact with that other realm and keeps us sane.
Rhetorical flourish is our best defense against the potential tyranny of miscommunication.
Consider the example above. It comes from an automobile owner’s manual*. It’s a thoroughly unnecessary bit of extravagance in a setting one would least likely expect it, an improbable place for poetry. The laws of physics cannot be repealed. Whether the private joke of translators or an earnest remark from technical writers, it is a fine example of rhetoric because it is so thoroughly superfluous and also terrifically entertaining. The bare message is that though a fancy technology can now prevent you from skidding, you must never forget that man and his contraptions can’t defy nature.
Would that communication technologies came with such a tidy warning.
Technology exerts exogenous pressure on us to rid communication of rhetoric. Technology dazzles us with the promise of thorough, exhaustive, perfect communication. Like a system that “recognizes unstable driving conditions,” systems of communication from morse code to Snapchat momentarily purge instability. Eventually, though, as we grow familiar with the medium, we become comfortable with the art it gives rise to.
In this light, rhetoric too is a law of physics.
*Manual comes from the Latin “manus” (hand) and then “manualis” (fit for being hand-held) and has clearly given us the word “handbook.” Needless to say, handbooks exist solely for doing or fixing. Their language skips the mind and the heart and flows straight to the hands. The handbook is a conversation between two unthinking machines.