The Flea

Paul Hagood (wcoach@WRITEPLACE.COM)
Tue, 15 Oct 1996 10:34:08 -0700

I've been reading many of the posts regarding "uncommon language" and
"elitism" written in response to that call for articles. At first I was
put off by the language that some of the responses themselves contained -
they were, to me, equally unclear, and seemingly pretentious.

It reminded me of a Far Side cartoon on my desk: a closeup of a man's
head, with two fleas sitting around a picnic blanket on the man's scalp.
One flea is scratching his (her?) head and exclaiming, "Wow, that's
ironic. Something just bit me!"

After reading all these posts, I understand the cartoon better.

Upon further reflection, however, I thought of these discussions as a
game. To play a certain game, you learn the rules and the language. Rook.
Castle. Checkmate. Once you're a member, and know the language and rules,
it's fun to play, and the language is part of that play. And the language
is useful and even necessary to play that game. It's not elitist to use
the language, and the language is only unusual to the uninitiated, the
outsider. And, like a game, there's a certain amount of competition and
one-upmanship inherent in the activity. I realized that this was simply a
game I didn't know the language for. Ten years out of grad. school, and
the games we played have been replaced by new ones I can't always follow.

Some other examples of "unusual language" then came to mind: f-stop.
Depth of field. Focal length. Angle of light. Spotmeter. Now, with these
examples, I see the metaphor changing: language is not a game, it's a set
of tools. They help us accomplish something worthwhile, something
practical. We can use them to build things, solve problems. Work. Using
these specialized words is very practical.

And of course, words as paint, quarter notes, running water, clouds. To
the artist, the real artist, there isn't the thought of elitism or

I saw that intention was the key.

When the language is consciously used to exclude people, or to manipulate
them, or to confuse an issue, it's not a game. Then it's abuse. When a
cloud of specialized language substitutes for clear thinking and forceful
expression, that's laziness. Then we can rightly object to "uncommon

And I don't think we need to completely understand the language to be
able to tell what the intent is. And this, at heart, is what bothered me
about some of the posts. Some of the posts with technical language seemed
very honest and searching, and even though I couldn't follow them
completely, some resonance came through and I connected to what was said
and I felt I understood the heart of what the writer meant.

Other posts put me off. As I read, I felt like neither playful game nor
work nor art was going on, just some casual intellectual leg-lifting. I
just knew I didn't feel like listening to what the writer had to say, and
the words themselves seemed much more opaque, even if the language was
the same as the other posts I did seem to follow. After a while, I
realized that this kind of post was also a part of this particular
game-it just wasn't a "flavor" I like.

This experience of reading equally difficult writing and having two very
different responses to it made me think, however. Perhaps there's another
aspect to language we don't seem to talk about much, that bears some
attention. Is there a subtle level of communication that we don't talk
about much? Beyond the mental, emotional, and artistic levels?

Perhaps contemporary rhetoric has neglected the study of ethos.

I'm not talking about the outer actions of the speaker, the "ethical"
authority of someone, which sounds moralistic, but the inner ethos. A
person's intent and motivation on a subtle level. The way you instantly
have an intuitive response to someones body language and voice and facial
expressions. Someone's "flavor."

How does it affect the communication process? How much does our inner
feeling play a part in our communication? How much of it is communicated?
If we want to be effective thinkers and writers, is it more than a matter
of technique and theory and knowledge? Is there a rhetoric of the soul?
Should we study what makes us effective communicators on this level?
Should we bring up questions of motive and attitude and selflessness as
areas of inquiry? Of Teaching?

Am I veering away from the study of rhetoric here, or toward it?

Paul Hagood

"Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment"
Jalalludin Rumi
Paul Hagood
English Department
Linn-Benton Community College
6500 SW Pacific Blvd.
Albany, OR