Classical Rhetoric Up In Smoke: Cool Persuasion, Digital Ethos, and Online Advocacy

by Mark D. Pepper | Utah Valley University

cigarette butt getting put out
Burning Cigarette

Does Cool Work?: Does it Matter?

Ultimately, "does it work?" is probably the wrong question to ask, at least in regards to cool as a rhetorical tactic. Yes, cool persuasion is a deliberate attempt. I think it's clear that thetruth has made many choices in trying to construct the digital ethos of their interface. They are certainly trying to be persuasive, albeit while trying not to look like they're trying. But once the decision is made to bet on cool, the rhetor, and anyone analyzing their intent, can no longer rely on the assessment methods of rhetorical theory as historically conceived.

Cool Resists Rhetorical Commonplaces

this website is deadAs of this writing (June 2013), thetruth organization has 5,000 followers of their Twitter account. They have over 2 million "likes" on Facebook. These are not numbers to scoff at. However, Alexa, the Web Information Company, suggests that 69% of the site's visits consist of a single page view. The average time spent on the site is less than two minutes. Though too much shouldn't be made of Alexa's uncertified metrics, it seems safe to suggest that most visitors don't agressively explore the site. When visitors do stay (perhaps to leave a comment on an infographic), it's rare to find more than two or three comments attached to each one. Often, the comments are more trolling than productive. For example, one of two comments on an infographic explaining how nicotine reaches the brain in ten seconds reads, "That's bullshit, I want my nicotine NOW!" Is it possible that truth isn't as cool as they think they are? The harsh reality of cool is that it's never guaranteed; cool depends on the meta-awareness of the audience's attention. Someone can build the most "generous interface" in the world, but that's no guarantee someone will want to use it; and, it's certainly no guarantee that the persuasive message will come across.

Recognizing that these numbers can only tell us so much, do truth's tactics actually work? Heck, I don't know. Curbing teen smoking is hardly a goal worth criticizing; I'm not exactly rooting against them. The answer to this question moves this analysis into a more general discussion of how subjectivity itself operates. I have already referenced Jodi Dean's (2009) suggestion (and others) that online advocacy often fails to move into non-digital life. Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr. (2002) suggested that any attempt to change subjectivity through logic while thinking of subjectivity as amoeba-like, "absorbing all discourse it encounters," must understand that subjectivity is "more like an insect with a hard exoskeleton that protects its inner structure from penetration, from the hostile invasive facts and discourse that threatens its image of contained and harmonious self-identity" (p. 18). From this point of view, it's clear why hard facts and pictures of blackened lungs might not work. After all, are there really any smokers who don't know the exact dangers of their habit? They know and they do it anyways. Call the mindset denial, repression, willful ignorance, or good old fashioned not caring; in the end, the mind has an amazing ability to filter out facts and discourse that would rationally suggest we stop doing (or believing) something we're otherwise invested in.

Or take affect theory, which authors like Brian Massumi (2002) and Teresa Brennan (2004) have taken entire books to sketch out the complexities of its very definition and historical trajectory through the works of Spinoza, Freud, and Deleuze (so please excuse my brief paragraph). Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (2010) defined affect as "visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion that can serve to drive us toward movement, toward thought and extension, that can likewise suspend us . . . across a barely registering accretion of force–relations" (p. 1). In short, theories of affect suggest humans are often driven towards ideas and actions less because of the conscious reasoning we use to consider them and more so by the pre-conscious, embodied intensity that surrounds them in our lived encounters. Humans don't decide to act or feel a certain way by putting their conscious intentions in motion; the body prepares us for action and emotion by adding a level of intensity to the situations/contexts the mind and body find themselves within (often the transmitting affect from other people's bodies). Both the aforementioned psychoanalytic-flavored quote from Alcorn (2002) and the ramifications of affect theory suggest that reasoned discourse has an uphill battle. Humans can (and often do) consciously avoid facts that are hostile to their drives, and/or they are primarily driven by forces that rely on logics of pre-conscious intensity versus conscious deliberation. To the extent that any of this is accurate, truth's tactics could be seen as the cutting edge of persuasion in their attempt to downplay reason and emotion while focusing on the anti-information created by a cool interface and the intensity of digital place that such an interface creates.

Ultimately, "does it work?" is probably the wrong question to ask, at least in regards to cool as a rhetorical tactic. Yes, cool persuasion is a deliberate attempt. I think it's clear that thetruth have made many choices in trying to construct the digital ethos of their interface. They are certainly trying to be persuasive, albeit while trying not to look like they're trying. But once the decision is made to bet on cool, the rhetor, and anyone analyzing their intent, can no longer rely on the assessment methods of rhetorical theory historically conceived. As a strong summary of rhetorical theory's intent problem, I quote at length from Thomas Rickert (2013):

Speakers or writers may well understand themselves as working with conscious intent, yet the intention may be casually irrelevant to the effects produced in an audience. Rhetorical theory tends to assume that intent equals result: a rhetor wants to persuade a group of people to vote a certain way, the rhetor succeeds, and therefore the rhetor's intent is held to have been successfully realized through his or her rhetorical art . . . curiously, however, intent is rarely called into question when a rhetorical message goes awry; rather, the issues becomes a matter of technique . . . failure results because one's message was not sufficient for the intent, because one was unprepared for the specific audience, because one made a mistake, and so on. There is no leeway for accidental persuasion, for persuasion at odds with or in spite of intent or even the artistry of rhetorical work. (p. 35)

Cool seems to provide (even account for) this leeway that Rickert was interested in exploring. It's not so simple to ask if cool persuasion "worked." Worked how? Worked in persuading a group of people towards action (like not smoking) or worked in getting them to pay attention to their own attention? Cool doesn't seem to preference one over the other because coming off too adamant about a specific outcome threatens the delicate balance that cool depends on. Is gaining attention enough? Again, this feels like the wrong question. Enough what? These often productive questions betray the obsession with specific intent and conscious outcome that Rickert critiqued. If we suspect cool persuasion doesn't work then, as Rickert suggested, our go-to result/explanation would usually involve questioning the technique used. Although we may question whether or not striving for cool was the best rhetorical decision, any attempt to actually critique whether or not cool itself is effective will be rendered moot by cool's built-in safeguard. Using cool as a persuasive tactic is to say that you ultimately realize you can't control how an audience will react to potentially influential information because that potentiality can only be recognized by an individual's subjectivity. Cool's rhetorical focus is not on providing persuasive information; cool's rhetorical focus is on creating the pleasing condition of information meta-awareness.

If persuasion happens . . . cool. If it doesn't? Cool . . . didn't matter much anyway. At least, that's the stance cool will take, even if the perpetuator of cool actually cares about results to his or her core. How does one assess that? If we had to talk in the language of intent and results, the best we could say is the ultimate, contradictory irony of cool as a rhetorical tactic is that cool is more successful the more unsuccessful it appears to be. For cool to work it has to not work. If cool information actually becomes useful, then it's no longer cool, for cool simultaneously celebrates the attention given to its uselessness.

But as Rickert (2013) suggested, we don't have to talk solely in the language of intent and results, and doing so may in fact hamper rhetorical theory. And it's important to dig deeper, lest we write cool ethos off as a mere annoyance that cheapens the value of information. Cool, as I've tried to show, is more complicated than that. If cool as a rhetorical tactic seems off-putting, perhaps it's because cool unapologetically disregards so many rhetorical commonplaces: logic, credibility, influence, directness, etc. Rhetorical cool is more about using style, design, and flattery to establish a place where persuasion may or may not emerge. It's the suggestion that subjectivity is best changed either by the subject herself or through indirect emergence. It's about how individual rhetorical agency is not truly restricted as long as there exists selections of information. It's about opening a place for someone to look upon himself through a lens of subjective information and, through seeing himself differently, creating a social connection to others who might see it similarly. It's not anti-caring; rather, it is the notion that concealed care can be more powerful than care worn on a sleeve. To suggest any of this makes information or knowledge somehow less valued or serious is to miss the point that cool suggests information and knowledge are worth more if people recognize that their own awareness of that knowledge makes it more valuable.

Finally, whether it "works" or not, the anti-rhetoric rhetoric of cool is uniquely suited for digital environments. Imagine thetruth's website personified and invited to a high school assembly. Although at some point this speaker would cover some facts about tobacco, he or she would also be ranting against adults, talking about competitive eating, showing some video games, and maybe spraying the auditorium walls with some cool tags. Maybe the teens would love it. Maybe they would think the speaker was trying way too hard. The school administrators probably wouldn't invite the speaker back. Cool has a difficult uphill battle in face-to-face situations, simply because the coolness is completely tied to a speaker (much like traditional ethos). The moment of meta-;awareness will always be hampered by the fact that there's another person there competing for the focus of attention. Our beloved computer or tablet screens (still mostly interacted with alone even if the activity is social) create the perfect vectors of attention maximized to focus attention back on the self. Although we encounter other people's sites, write email to other people, and explore people's profiles, we are ultimately, at that moment, encountering them as potential information. From the positioning of our body, to the scrolling and swiping movements of our hands, to the awareness of the degree and focus of our attention, computer interfaces are only immersive for so long. Eventually physical and mental awareness occurs. When that meta-awareness finally emerges, cool is there to welcome it with a friendly: "Hey, you could be anywhere else. Thanks for being here."

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