What is Rhetoric? Part 5 — It’s Art

What is Rhetoric? Part 5 — It’s Art

This is part of a presently ongoing series called What is Rhetoric?, each of which has been adapted from drafts of my next book. Each post has been made more or less self-contained, adding in references and fleshing out allusions made to things throughout the work. None are how they will appear in the final version. They can be read in any order, though they thematically still build on one another in sequence. To be notified when the book will be released, and to receive instant notifications for any other updates on the site, please head here. Feel free to give me feedback on any of them as well, either in the comments below them, or by contacting me.

What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric is guided experience.

There’s a Rhetoric of art, and it’s telling of the art of Rhetoric. It doesn’t matter what art we’re into, it’s Rhetoric all the way down.

Whether we’re in the role of making it, managing it, or marketing it, or on the other end of either criticizing or experiencing it, our artistic decisions, experiences, and discoveries are all drawn in Rhetorically red ink. norman-rockwell-self-portraitFrom every stick figure sketched to figure drawn, from every script scribed to every scene shot, from every stroke brushed to every painting hung, from every scathing article written to all constructive criticism given, the art world is an entire enterprise of Rhetoric from its foundations to its fixtures. Every constructed experience that’s ever touched us, and every theory of art ever penned, are all Rhetorical efforts to affect one another — wittingly and unwittingly — in ways that have now come to make up most of our formative experiences in life, and how we’ve come to relate on how to best live them.

All art is education, only differing in direction and degree.


Art is a Rhetorical Experience

I use the word experience here frequently because, whatever ornaments we hang off the term ‘art’, that’s what art is for everyone involved in it — a certain kind of knowledge imparted through deeply human means. Even the experience of making these experiences is an experience itself, ripe with Rhetoric.

Knowing how to make art that accomplishes certain things, whether they be as humble as bringing a smile to our faces or as ambitious as affecting an agenda, is Rhetorical knowledge. Skill in bringing those intentions to life, whether it be in drawing, designing, dance, or drama, is Rhetorical skill. Both are two-way streets, their Rhetoric affecting artists just as much as they affect anyone else, no one involved remaining unmoved once any of us decide to move forward with the exchange.

Art itself is created by those of us making it just as much as the experience of making it serves to recreate ourselves. Among the many reasons so many of us love to make art, whether our work ever sees the squint of another’s eye or is destroyed immediately after, that fact always sits high, making ‘art therapy’ both ubiquitous as a practice and redundant as a term. We usually like who we are and who we become when we make things, often unable to articulate that any other way than continually returning to it. lucy-doctorWhen we make art, we’re forced to discover, sort out, and confront ourselves and our own thinking, convictions, beliefs, ideas, tastes, abilities, relationships, and limits, as well as how they relate to and interact with the world around us. In doing so, we select, focus, and prioritize some things, while avoiding, neglecting, and devaluing others, renegotiating them all in ways we find appealing, and to whatever ends we’re after. This isn’t limited to when we make something ‘lofty’ or fit for a hipster, but happens any time we either sit down or stand up to make something. It’s always inherently social, even when we do it alone. What we have to say, and how we say it, has a lot to say about ourselves, and it’s something that comes about in our act of expressing it in context, directed at others, and my not otherwise exist. Most forms of therapy use the Rhetoric of this through other means — even many seemingly physical ones — but it’s all built into making ‘art’ in any of the ways we’ve managed to come up with.

For similar reasons, it’s unfortunately why doing anything creative can itself fill us with dread. That’s the dual sense in which art can be therapeutic, and it’s a very Rhetorical one. It’s also why it can be so hard to finish anything we start — we’re not the same person we were as time goes, and we no longer live in the same world of intentions that brought us to begin.

Understanding and animating the results of someone else’s work ourselves into an experience worth having is no different, nor are our attempts at understanding and valuing any of that as it unfolds. mccloud-gutterTrillions of us can have trillions of unique experiences, all spawned by the same work — which themselves can and do change over time as we ourselves and the contexts we live in change. Art is active on all sides, an audience filling in the blanks between panels, an artist having placed the blanks to be filled, and either employing their critical faculty to alter how any of that will play out now and in the future. The activities we artistically engage in are Rhetorical, and their results entirely emergent from that fact, not hindered or obscured by it.


The Reciprocal Rhetoric of Art

What we think about any of that matters as well. Our theories of art affect all art’s experience and creation, and accordingly, its legislation.

It’s precisely because making art is an application of Rhetoric that criticism can kill it when given too early and too often. Our ideas need time to develop before they can fend for themselves, which feedback from others — or even the mere presentation of our fledgling thoughts to others — will negatively affect. Art’s in dialog with the world before we even begin making it, which throwing it into a debate before it’s well prepared can send into unfortunate directions as we try to defend it before we ourselves have a chance to thoroughly think through what it can and will be. The gaze of others — real or imagined — limits our possibilities, putting them in a very different relationship to ourselves at a very inopportune time. Typically it makes us anxious, and accordingly less creative, committing to things too early, rigidly, and with undue depth, at a time when we should still be flexible if we’re to find and form what we’re after in the process.

Art very much is a Rhetorical process in that way, which has its own Rhetoric that we’re affected by in our experience of making it. The discourse on how any art is or should be made, what can be made, and the things we’ve experienced as having been made, all influence not only what we can and will make, but our methods of making it. academic-discussionI see illustrative examples of this a lot in the drawing classes I’ve taught. After seeing me draw for the first time, most everyone then ends up mimicking my own methods, in ways entirely unintended on their end. They’re not even aware of them as methods, and if they’ve never taken a drawing class before, what I’ve shown them becomes the entirety of what they then know about how drawing is to be done. They then go on to use those very same methods to attempt recreating works they themselves enjoy, either in whole or in part, in anything they do. They’re equally unaware that they’re doing it, that they’re employing a method at all, that the methods they’re using may not be suited to their present intentions, and above all that their intentions aren’t fully under their control.

That anxiety of influence — for reasons we’ll come to 1 — is entirely misunderstood, but is part of the discourse that’s formative of what we find ourselves creating in everything we do at a broader level. Specifically here, we can all relate to being inspired enough by something that we’d like to make anything at all, and frequently finding that what we’ve made bears an uncanny resemblance to the things motivating us to make something. Or take a passing glance at the countless stick figures we’ve all come to use as a language for forming figures when we’re either not quite sure how to draw, or looking to parody that common state we all start off in. There are countless ways to make ill-formed figures, but we all fall back on the same ones in part because of the Rhetoric running about them. In another vein of art, though equally Rhetorical, it’s a running cliché among anyone that’s taught creative writing as well that what ends up being written first and most often is almost always a thinly veiled homage to what those involved enjoyed having read.

A relevant relationship that we’ll come back to often, and delve into in greater depth as we go, is between style and substance — which we find heavily influential here for further Rhetorical reasons. The style we do something in on every level, which is an extension of the methods we use, helps form the substance that results from it. style-makes-substanceHow something is made determines what ends up happening, which extends beyond a work’s initial authorship. Our role as an audience is included in that, as we all have our own styles of experiencing, interpreting, and even criticizing things, as well as expectations stylistically set that further dictate that from both sides, which all work together to make the Rhetorically emergent experiences we have with any art. That’s the opposite of a lot of poor Rhetoric on the topic that’s lead to a belief that style somehow obscures or negates substance, but for now isn’t hard to appreciate in a limited way by simply considering that without brush strokes on a canvas or written words arranged on a page, as well as framing things on walls to be viewed and knowing how to read, there are neither paintings nor books, and certainly not the experiences we have with either.

In that way, the Rhetoric we employ when making art is predominantly influenced by the Rhetoric of the art we’ve already experienced, like picking up an accent from our peers. This includes what are more typically recognized as works of art themselves, but also extends to the discussion surrounding them that forms the bulk of theory and criticism on any particular form, which finds and forms the rules of it for us in much the same way those already present dictate the play of a pickup basketball game, and our participation beginning once we ourselves follow along. It even includes our discussions with ourselves as we go about making and experiencing any of it. All of that and more are Rhetorical forces affecting and influencing the style in which any work of art is made, and the emergent experience itself that isn’t revealed by that dance, but is made entirely of it.


Criticism Cultivates and Creates Art Forms

As we might now expect, the Rhetoric of criticism itself does much more than critique. It also affects how our art turns out, and in ways that extend beyond our merely making it. It equally affects any audience our art can ever hope to have, at times acting as a set of instructions for them to piece together an experience from what would otherwise be meaningless stimulation.

Knowledge and skill in the very same Rhetoric we use to make art is also how we navigate, resist, and make use of the discourse surrounding it, which includes any criticism being leveled our way. Criticism itself is a Rhetorical effort, but one that needs to be read well to be of any value, and can be unknowingly toxic when we don’t. navigationIf we foolishly followed anything anyone had to say, we’d quickly realize that most of us have little to say and say it poorly, often having detrimental reasons for opening our mouths at all. We unfortunately can’t ask for and rotely rely on what our audience thinks of our work either, as it isn’t an audience’s role to know what they want, and even less to know how to convey that to us in a Rhetorically sound way that has any meaning to what we make for them. We can love eating or playing video games, for example, but that doesn’t mean we know what goes into cooking our favorite dishes, or how to refer to what’s even going on when we play a game in any but loosely metaphorical ways.

The best criticism tends to be bought from relationships akin to a writer and editor, and is justifiably pricey to find because being able to give it well requires its own set of equally Rhetorical skills that need exist alongside the very same ones any artist themselves need develop. Blindly following any advice will break any work of note we might make, but it is necessary to get expert feedback if we want our work to turn out great. Others have a perspective we inherently cannot take, and one that well compliments our own if it’s backed by good Rhetoric. Nothing great was ever written alone, and if we’re not looking to make something that’s at least good, we’re likely better off not making anything at all. There’s more to criticism than direct feedback, however, despite how necessary that is and always will be.

A better part of criticism isn’t to instruct an artist or whine when we secretly think we can’t do better ourselves, but guide the affects of any art through the discourse surrounding it, and in many ways forming our perception of it. All practical and academic theory on art is implicitly critical in that way, shaping what it criticizes just as much as it’s shaped by whatever’s being made, despite only tending to be appreciated when it’s the other way around. discourseCriticism of art affects everyone involved right alongside art itself. Having a conversation with someone about their work, or those around us experiencing something, is what we usually associate all criticism with regardless of how it’s given, but it’s of a very different kind when directly publicly, and addressed to our ideas about art itself — which all theoretical discourse inherently is. It’s equally if not more impactful, however, when given well enough, when enough of us have heard it, and particularly, when left unchallenged for reasons usually not related to the quality of what’s said itself.

Simplifying a lot of what I’ve written elsewhere, the ‘high’ and ‘low’ distinctions in culture that were specifically applied to ‘art’ are emblematic of that. If it left a lot of us partly confused and insulted for attacks on our tastes, that’s because those effects were part of the point. A new market for art was argued into existence, and it was a critic’s market, placing gate keepers on taste and appraisal based on how articulate we can be, not necessarily anything inherent to any art we praised or blamed — outside of its appeal to our ability to call it critically appealing. Certain art was now ‘bad’ and we should feel bad for liking it, and certain art was now ‘good’ and we should feel great for trusting that it was. We knew the difference not based on how we felt about it, but because we were told so by someone in many cases we weren’t articulate enough to argue with. Though the original distinctions had nuance to them 2, didn’t oppose different levels of art, and were largely intended to praise works that demonstrated what I call innovative genius 3, over time that discussion developed into what I tend to argue is the end point for most discourses — assuming a Rhetorically privileged position as unquestionable authority to better attack and defend from, largely supported by pushing academic and political agendas that further secure the position from any Rhetoric that would unseat it 4.


Despite that, bracketing off art into higher and lower didn’t affect many of our tastes since the Rhetoric of it was targeted at a very select few, but it did affect what was made available for any of us to taste in the art world. The whole thing was a farce to anyone that didn’t buy into it and ignored it — which is most of us removed from the critical situation — but the sentiment lives on and is frequently revived regarding anything we can imagine as a convenient Rhetorical contrivance.

Even if we disagree with that, it serves to illustrate the same point, as it doesn’t concern any positions we might take on that, but the Rhetoric of that discussion and its effects:

Critics have a say in what gets said, exercised through their Rhetoric, and is an unappreciated reason many of them speak up and argue with one another.

The discourse on video games is a wonderful example. Many of us are either entirely closed off to them and call for bans without having experienced them beyond their cover art, or lend them our undying support while ignoring the negative potential any medium can and does have — either as a whole, or in any particular instance. video-game-discourseIt’s similar to a growing discourse on pop music that’s been around longer, which essentially argues all pop music is either artistically awesome because ‘pop’ stands for popular, or pretentious crap because it doesn’t resemble what we grew up listening to, both sides amounting to a trial of taste that tend not engage with the mediums we’re talking about, but rather rationalize why what we do or don’t like is better than what other people do and don’t like. There also aren’t any coherent boundaries to define what a video game is and isn’t in any meaningful way, meaning that calling something a ‘game’ or not to begin with is also Rhetorically reaching to predefined ends, despite delineating a good portion of what we’re talking about.

It’s tautological to say the dialog surrounding any medium forms the discussion of it, but worth appreciating when we realize that discussion is what dictates whether and to what extent we praise or regulate something — which dictates what we’re allowing to affect ourselves and future generations.

It’s telling that the natural prosecution and defense of video games both culturally and legislatively was to develop a discourse devoted to them at the academic level, the existence of which is used as a their primary legitimating factor, not their content or individual examination according to standards old and new. Though there have been and will be plenty of politicians citing ‘studies’ that ‘prove’ as little as most do to claim games will end the world when arguing their ‘lowliness’, it isn’t that much different than crowning experts and claiming video games are great because ‘we said so and have many citations no one bothers to check or read’ 5.

The “Market for Citations” — which I’ve written about in more depth elsewhere, but we’ll come back to later on — is in full effect here 6. And its effect is largely parasitic to legitimate discussions that we’d otherwise be having, as well as legitimate development of the medium.

Cold Politics and Hot Coffee

Humorously contrived as it is, the discourse on video games is in no way unique, and somewhat standard for a fledgling discussion. It does well illustrate how the Rhetoric of many different theories goes on to affect the many different experiences of art had by anyone within earshot — both of works themselves, and their role in the grander scheme of our lives.


In the nineties, as a strategy to help fight for the lion’s share of the newly revived console market reanimated entirely by Nintendo, SEGA of America pushed for ‘edgier’, often violent imagery in its games, coupled with unprecedented amounts of advertising for the industry, and in venues it had rarely been, such as the ‘then-cool’ MTV 7. That ‘fight to be cool’ had a governing affect on the games that were made, seen prominently between the two companies when Mortal Kombat 8 was released on either console of that generation. Its headline feature for SEGA’s Genesis 9 was being able to unlock the ability to see the original red pixels of ‘blood’ from the arcade version by putting in a code, while Nintendo’s SNES 10 version rendered all of that as beige ‘sweat’, and toned down the ending sequences of fights to be less brutal in similar ways. On the legislative end, to help fight political opposition to violent content in games that arose in response 11, various ratings boards came together over time — such as the ESRB in the US 12, CERO in Japan 13, and PEGI in Europe 14 — to allow the video game industry to regulate itself in much the same way the MPAA did and still does for the film industry in America 15.

To use the ESRB ratings in America as specific examples, this helped further segment the games being made into either “E for Everyone” titles, or “M for Mature” affairs, as that drastically dictated what imagery and themes were and were not allowed, both within games themselves, as well as their associated advertisements, where those ads could run, and who was able to see them. esrb-explainedThe ratings soon came to operate in part as advertisements to different market segments, “M” rated games not surprisingly being most sought after by people too young to buy them, much like anything else we tell kids they’re not old enough to try. Akin to the G, PG, PG-13, and R ratings that the MPAA stamps on most films released, the standards themselves form a reciprocal relationship with the works being made, both regulating what can potentially be made, as well as skewing the content of what will be made in order to better fit the categorical boxes the rating system itself makes in the market. They also help dictate who can buy and experience them, as well as when and where that will occur.

Rather than curb the sale of violent content in the medium, the ratings board allowed it to proliferate, and helped build an audience for graphic one-upmanship. Many big game studies themselves now regularly refer to their efforts categorically by rating 16, and their biggest budgets are often devoted to games rated ‘M’17. The ‘Adults Only’ rating of the ESRB in particular has gone a long way to ban eroticism and mature themes from gaming, as no major console maker will publish any title rated ‘AO’, nor will most major retailers stock any on their shelves. Much of what qualifies a game for various ratings is also somewhat arbitrary, echoing criticisms that hold true for the MPAA as well, and have been popularized in films like This Film is Not Yet Rated18. “When you consider that sexual content shown in PG-13 movies or on prime-time television may net a game an AO rating, something is wrong.” 19

The pseudo-controversy over the “Hot Coffee” mod 20 in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 21 is a telling example. Originally, the game was released with an ‘M’ rating for the Xbox 22 and PlayStation 2 23, as well as for Windows on PCs. Like a lot of software on the market, various portions of unused assets and code remained hidden within the experience that are in no way accessible to users, much like the various sketches underneath most major paintings that didn’t make it into the final rendering, or a contractor leaving a screw driver in a wall because it wouldn’t be cost-effective to get it out once it’s already been sealed in. gta-saOn the PC version, aspiring programmers and enthusiasts found deep within the code of the game one unfinished sequence of play that was a work-in-progress sex minigame, which calling a quarter done at best would be a compliment for. Not that it mattered — no one was supposed to see it, which is why there aren’t any reasonable means for enabling it. To access the unfinished work that didn’t make the final cut, on PCs, we have to essentially rewrite part of the game with custom user modifications found on the internet, as anyone with that amount of skill is already a programmer themselves gainfully employed and well aware it isn’t worth their time. On consoles, we have to void our warranties, install new hardware, and pretty much do the same. Even then, the sequence itself doesn’t really ‘work’, as it remains unfinished. And because it only uses low quality 3D models of the characters found throughout the game, there isn’t any actual nudity in it.

I imagine most people that were interested in what all the fuss was about did what I did when news outlets starting raving about it, and looked up images and videos online to see what they were talking about, as the only way to see any of that in-game for the majority of people that purchased it on consoles is needlessly complicated and relatively inaccessible. The visuals involved are kosher enough that I’m sure recordings of it have since become widely available on YouTube, which doesn’t allow sexually explicit imagery. There is no way some unsuspecting child could ever access it within the game itself, as they would have to make a relatively adult-level of effort to modify their game console and knowingly download the code making it possible through the internet — after their parents purchased the game for them to begin with if they were under the age of seventeen. And if their parents would rather they didn’t see that sort of material — which is less explicit than drawing boobs on a stick figure — they’d do better to not give them unsupervised internet access. Porn lives there, after all.

Images of the sequence on televised news broadcasts, as well as finding videos of it online for further clarification for those of us now concerned with it through their repeated urging, were what the majority of the world did and will continue to experience about Hot Coffee, despite the controversy over it being about the ability of minors and those averse to ‘adult’ content being subjected to it, unable to keep themselves from looking at it, or otherwise happening upon it against their will — like a pornographic bear trap laid in a crowded movie theater by villainous developers twirling their mustaches with glee. Unfortunately, acquiring relevant knowledge of what the modification entailed was a lower priority than complaining about it for the majority of people reporting or commenting on the situation itself in public media at the time, as they generally Bullshitted their way through it based on further Bullshit 24. weekend-updateAccurate descriptions of the Hot Coffee modification were immediately sensationalized into obscurity, making it seem as if we only need type in a ‘cheat code’ to turn Grand Theft Auto into an X-rated sex simulator, despite the content of it being suitable on the very same networks criticizing it. As has become the standard in speedy reporting, most people on television discussing it hadn’t even played the sequence first hand to know what they were talking about, nor done their due diligence by looking into it — much like a later pseudo-issue concerning a sex scene in Mass Effect25 that was complained about most strongly by people that admittedly hadn’t seen that sequence either, and were at times only going on air to plug products alongside their faux concern 26.

Hot Coffee’s real audience became the general public due to the outcry over it, being told made-up things about why they should avoid a game few of them appear at all interested in playing, and being all the more believable because they didn’t know enough about it to believe otherwise. Though it sold far better elsewhere, the audience for the game itself on PCs was relatively small, with an even smaller amount having the know-how and inclination to access the locked-away minigame. The audience for the game on consoles was a great deal larger — though still nothing approaching mainstream film or television — but those actually willing to modify their consoles or otherwise go through all the trouble to see it firsthand is easily smaller than those brave few able to access it on PCs, based on the modest sales of components needed to do that in the western regions this most pertains to, and the simple fact that it’s largely a pain in the ass to attempt. Narrowing potential eyes down even further, those whose parents purchased the game for them but would otherwise want to keep them from seeing the sequence are an even smaller segment of that already finely sliced sliver of gaming culture.

It’s hardly exaggerating to say that the Hot Coffee mod only directly ‘affected’ a handful of players that were poorly watched by absentee parents. The only way for kids to see the sequence in-game is to have their curiosity peaked by people raving about it on the news — presumably in a self-defeating effort to protect them from it — then go pretty far out of their way to procure it after their guardians vacated all parental responsibility. For adults, going through the trouble of enlisting expert aid to unearth further R-rated content within the bowels of an already R-rated game makes us unsuspecting victims of it about as much driving a tank through highway guard railing makes us victims of either civil engineering or the modest ditch we fought hard to fall into. The content in question can only be considered ‘within’ the experience of the game if we entirely discount how and why we’re actually able to experience it. There is no way to access that material unaided and without a great deal of intention within the play of the game itself. It cannot be unknowingly happened upon. It was functionally removed from the game by its own creators, buried deep beneath a stadium’s worth of development, and entirely inert.

We don’t really have many other similar mediums to have the Rhetorical vocabulary to describe that, however, which is a common theme in many of the odd ways we discuss video games. In an entirely trivial and misleading sense that sequence is ‘in’ the game, or more accurately on the original discs and within the original downloads, in much the same way we might say there’s graffiti on a wall if we go out of our way to specifically hire someone to strip away the many layers of paint and book shelves that were used to cover it up and prevent people from seeing it. banksy-glassesClaiming a modification of a video game was part of the retail productive itself wouldn’t hold up against any other mainstream medium — we wouldn’t call for a film to be rerated if a deleted scene was leaked onto the internet, an album to be pulled from the shelves if we could read lyrics that were cut from any of its songs, or a painting to be removed if we found preliminary sketches on its canvas that we disliked as much as its painter did while they painting over them. But that’s also because those physical and digital mediums themselves don’t allow for things like that to happen. Unused footage isn’t stored on a DVD or in a video file if it isn’t meant to be viewed in some sort of ‘special features’ section, nor are unfinished rough drafts of a song hidden in the jewel case of a music CD or audio file if they weren’t intentionally placed there. It’s so difficult to piece together what’s under centuries old oil paint that we tend not to. The same can’t be said for software, however, which video games — despite the very different experiences we have with them compared to the programs and applications more commonly tied to the term — very much are.

That didn’t stop everyone that hadn’t played the game and didn’t care to from criticizing it, however, as something they were deeply concerned about. And despite how astonishingly few people would have otherwise been potentially exposed to the Hot Coffee mod — entirely of their own accord barring all but outlandish pranks — those purporting to ‘defend’ these supposedly fragile few were given the greatest say in potential regulations placed on the title. The ESRB rerated the game as ‘Adults Only’, causing it to be effectively pulling from the shelves until a functionally identical version was reprinted and released again under the original ‘Mature’ rating which had the offending material cut, after the brunt of sales had already been made of the ‘offending’ version anyway.

The Rhetoric of Ratings

The actual audience of the game purchasing it, as well as game developers and theorists, were all given a say in the discussion, but one which was entirely dwarfed by the Rhetoric of criticism that deceptively appealed to those who had little knowledge of what they were talking about. In practice, the AO rating is little more than an arbitrary insult and Bogeyman used to scare off potential catalysts of cultural and political scapegoating, it gracing a title on the rare occasions that it’s given largely being a symbolic slap to appease complainers:

The ESRB is suggesting that they may change the rating of the game to Adults Only, a category that by their own definition should see a great deal more use in a retail environment. This is great. Look at the descriptions for these.

MATURE Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content, and/or strong language.

Or, as the rest of our culture calls it, “Rated R.” Check out AO.

ADULTS ONLY Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity.

This can’t seriously be their distinction. The scenes are longer? I played Resident Evil 4 nearly 26 hours, all told. I’m going to say that maybe nineteen hours of it was spent looking down the iron sights at humanoids. The reality is that once a person is 18, a violent videogame is fairly minor in the spectrum of “adult” content available to that person. Looking over my collection, if the duration of the violence is the distinguishing factor, I’m trying to figure out what purpose Mature serves other than to remove the stigma from otherwise “adult” content and grease the wheels at retail. — Jerry Holkins 27

A way “to remove the stigma from otherwise “adult” content and grease the wheels at retail” isn’t a bad way to describe one of the things ratings accomplish. Though they do help us make more informed decisions about the content of any medium, so do the products themselves that are rated, and the audience they’re a part of. Gory horror films have gory horror trailers, descriptions on the back of their boxes and accompanying their digital downloads, and actual reviews that go on about their experience in brief or at length.


Probably about rainbows and holding hands with bunnies

X-rated content usually has nudity on the cover and often as a pun in the title. And it’s pretty obvious Killzone28 or Manhunt29 aren’t going to be about holding hands, even if we don’t bother to look at the many screenshots accompanying any means we have of accessing either game. When it comes to making purchasing decisions for our children, ratings arguably encourage us not to do our due diligence as parents more than they act as an aid to that. They’re often the least informative piece of information we now have ready access to when deciding whether and to what extent we feel the content of something is appropriate.

Many of the effects that the Rhetoric of ratings are partly intended to have also still occur whether or not that rating itself is what spurs them on. Despite already being shaped to fulfill ratings standards, television shows, films, and other mediums with far reaching distribution still regularly cut content at the request of their publishers and audiences in any of their various forms, which always have a strong say in what gets said, whether or not they exercise it, or choose to bow to popular politics. Their content is now more heavily crafted to appeal to their audiences than ever given the instant feedback from them now available, and advanced forms of demographic data that allows Makers of all kinds to get a personal glimpse into who’s enjoying their work without breaking any personal boundaries. Setting, meeting, and ideally beating collective expectations are paramount to the success of any work of Rhetoric, not betraying or acting oblivious of them.


E, Y, or G ratings didn’t make this family friendly

The Rhetoric of moral outrage and the market forces that sustain mass media keep something like Sesame Street30 from suddenly having violent nudity in it, not any rating stamped on it. That isn’t to say ratings themselves are worthless, redundant, or have failed, however.

Mass media is made possible by massive budgets and international collaboration which an audience of that size allows, but it’s also met with mass criticism seemingly as well funded in time and effort, both of which are relatively new for any medium. In the past, if something like a book was criticized as widely and with as much Rhetorical fire as some new media works have been, all copies would have been burned and their author’s hanged — then burned along with them. Taking up arms against works we know relatively little about for ideological reasons is as old as the printing press, and one Rhetorical consequence of mass distribution. china-burning-gamesBut it isn’t new. What’s new is the rapid pace and scale we can now gossip and organize against something, made more complicated when there isn’t any one person to pin our outrage on once it’s been ignited, and the mediums we rage in aren’t well suited to thoughtful discussion31. Ratings boards allow mediums to exist within that new and relatively unprecedented environment for art, in which finds it as both an artistic experience and a product for more people than ever before to enjoy, as well as directly taking part in a cultural conversation that’s now able to talk back to it in real time — often by seeking to silence it.

Going back to the loose standards of the ESRB in distinguishing between “Mature” and “Adults Only” Rhetoric on visual and thematic levels — because that’s what’s being rated, the affect of their narrative aesthetics, not their gameplay — rather than an error in how the ESRB handles things, it well reflects the Rhetorical reasons the ESRB and ratings boards like it exist at all. Their standards are necessarily arbitrary to allow them the flexibility to apply them in response to heated feedback and political pressure, which they were formed as a Rhetorical response to. While they do direct and at times contribute to stifling what can and will be made in the medium, they’re erected to quell popular disputes from industry critics above all else. If video games are being stifled, it’s the Rhetoric of the discourse on games that’s doing it, ratings boards merely acting as a repository of those discussions we’ve already had. The point of the ESRB isn’t to protect people from purchasing overly ‘mature’ content unaware, either for themselves or others, but to calm down the Rhetoric of critics by giving them an avenue to have their criticism become a form of legislation.

The ESRB exists to shut people up, and those people are critics. It acts as a figurative balm to sooth how bent of out shape other forms of mass media like TV news and social media now allow us to work ourselves into over games. shut-upIts existence at all, however, is a surrender in that fight, acknowledging the primacy of criticism over creation in ways that aren’t bad but reflective of the way we think on Rhetorical terms. Criticism and deconstruction will always be easier and more impactful than creating something that can survive either on its own merits, which is part of the reason any art that criticizes or deconstructs something itself easily garners critical praise. The enthusiastic market for a work isn’t used to determine its legitimacy, but popular opinion on it is — which is a volatile Rhetorical component of more things than we’d like to believe.

In that way, despite the ESRB forming to allow the game industry to police itself, the developers and consumers that make up the industry in practice have little say in those regulations. As we’ve been over, they partly weren’t intended to. Because of their own initially impoverished Rhetoric in dealing with criticism against a newly forming medium, games were continually made martyr in various ‘culture wars’, which for the most part they lost, keeping Mario from eating the mushroom that would allow him to grow up in the public eye. This in turn went on to allow regulations being placed upon the Rhetoric of video games in their entirety, which acts as a catch-22 that prevents them from ‘proving’ themselves as an art form by not allowing them to develop as an art form:

I would be happy if in games we could talk about homosexuality, but we’re not even at the point where we can admit that humans have heterosexual relationships, and that is a real problem – and it tends to show that games are not being seen, even by our own ratings boards, as an artform. — Julian Eggebrecht 32

If video games aren’t widely seen as an art form, it isn’t because they can’t be artful, but because the Rhetoric of efforts arguing in their favor hasn’t been convincing enough, both of the relative handful of those critically supporting them, and those involved with developing games themselves.

It’s all a fitting example of how Rhetoric relates to art in ways we’ve already gone over. The mediums themselves — in this case video games — have their own Rhetoric of affecting us, which we both intentionally apply to elicit those affects, and are subject to experience. They exist in a broader set of ongoing conversations and experiences that we have — those too having their own Rhetoric — whose Rhetoric affects either end of our making or playing games. media-intersectionThe Rhetoric of all mediums, particularly the ones we’re most familiar with at the moment like the written word, films, and television, form the grander context of Rhetoric being applied in any one of them, and tend to be drawn on when a medium’s in its infancy because we don’t really know what else to do with it at that point but what’s been done before and presently happening. Institutions help shape that context, like government agencies, retailers, ratings boards, and educational programs teaching us how to make games, but so do individuals, and anyone else that can garner an audience and apply their own Rhetoric well enough to affect a significant number of us.

Critics play a large role in that dance, directly engaging with the Rhetoric of the already immense totality of that towards their own intended ends. Sometimes it’s to help us experience things that would otherwise be hard to appreciate in games without the requisite knowledge and skills. Sometimes it’s to help game makers make better games by giving them constructive and articulate feedback that’s otherwise hard to come by. Sometimes it’s to express concern about the ambiguous affects games may have on us, and question our relationship with them. And sometimes it’s just to make a profit by riling us up, or pushing a political agenda.

It’s all a big convoluted web that loops back in on itself again and again because it’s an organic, evolving body of conversations made of Rhetoric we all take part in, just like the conversations we’re more casually familiar with. If we all stopped talking about it and removed all records of it, it’d gradually cease to be. Along with it, so would what we were talking about. window-into-a-bookAs weird as it may sound, works made in the medium itself wouldn’t survive as things we could coherently experience, as we’d all then point to them with a raised eyebrow and say “what the hell is that?” before moving on to other things without that conversational context supporting them. It’d be like doing away with all monitors for computers — they’d immediately become pieces of junk. We don’t necessarily have to be consciously aware of it when it happens, but any form of art affects us by being more like a window we see through into that big mess, rather than something we look at through it. That’s the quality of things that make them artful, and it’s a Rhetorical one.

Because of that, though we all inherently participate in it, all of it can be very hard to talk about and comprehend, which creates consequences and opportunities that I can’t stress enough. It’s to the point that meaningful innovation in either the art of making video games or the art of discussing them — or any art form for that matter — often occurs through simply being able to understand and articulate part of that in novel or accessible ways, what’s accessible being relative to the audience and medium33. A big part of making any art is understanding the mediums we’re using, which we also use Rhetoric to do. Rhetoric both governs and is the vocabulary of a medium — on its own and in relation to all else we involve ourselves with. We pick, chose, and adapt things in Rhetorical ways to create art in the same way we do it to think or speak, both of which we’ll come back to later on. When we lack the words to talk about any of that, we lack the means to think about any of that, and we end up doing and saying many a thing that aren’t very well thought out.

One of the many reasons it’s so easy to get worked up about video games in popular discourse is that they’re presently the most engaging medium we have, they’re relatively new, and we don’t understand them or their Rhetoric very well. We understand them so little that we don’t even realize that we’re rarely referring to them when we talk about them. We’re lost in their Rhetoric so thoroughly that we grasp onto anything familiar to find our way through them, unaware that we go out of our way to avoid dealing with them in the process.


Closer to the experience of playing a video game than most criticism

That’s a less appreciated aspect of the discourse on video games that the many political pseudo-controversies that have arisen around them have further obscured. They’ve helped to shift the discourse on video games to focus entirely on things bearing a family resemblance34 to things we talk about in other mediums, like their aesthetics, which have long since become the primary focus of critics — not the actual experience we have while playing video games.

That matters a lot when part of the experiences we have with any medium, and how we feel about their affects on us, exists entirely by virtue of the Rhetoric of their criticism.


We don’t see this on TV and tell people we made a turkey

The Metaphorical Discourse on Video Games

It’s a testament to how engaging the Rhetoric of video games can actually be that we refer to our experiences with them almost entirely using transparent metaphors for real-world events. We don’t see a car chase on TV and tell people we were racing around the freeway. We don’t refer to someone in a portrait we’re viewing by name and address them as if we’d really met. We don’t consider conversations on the radio as if we had participated in them. We don’t read a novel and talk about the time we spent in the Shire before traversing Middle Earth. We don’t listen to rap music and tell others what just happened to us at ‘the club’ through the sheer weight of our towering headphones.

Part of the reason for that is certainly convenience. “How else would we talk about them?” is a difficult question to answer if we’re trying to do something as seemingly simple as discuss something, so we may just avoid it. But the phrasing we use to reference games remains consistently engaged through the many metaphors we throw at our time with them. When speaking of Grand Theft Auto, we refer metaphorically to what we can or were doing in the game, not with the game, the latter of which is the common phrasing for most, if not all, other mediums. We also still maintain that level of intimacy and immediacy in our relationship with them when examining them in depth, like many did and continue to do whenever a particular game comes under fire. ‘Sex simulator’ isn’t something I could see being used to describe films or books, even if they’re fully intended to simulate the act of sex or teach it. We don’t even call pornography a sex simulator, but the second sexual elements at all enter into our experience of playing a video game, we can’t help but elevate our description of it to that level of Rhetoric in very telling ways.

Video games can be undoubtedly impactful, and we can be hit so hard by them that we can’t help but liken them to other lived experiences. It isn’t something common to many other forms of games or play either. confusionWe can listen to someone else talk about them without ever having seen or played a single one ourselves to know that. How we regard them embodies it.

We’re so taken with video games that we don’t even realize we’ve been abducted, and are Rhetorically ill equipped to see where we’re headed together. As I tend to put it, language doesn’t scale very well, and games generally exploded our understanding of all art and media relatively quickly, leaving us at such a loss as to how to approach them that we’ve largely done our best to keep our distance from them. That’s not to say we haven’t tried, however.

As a general rule in Rhetoric we’ll go into more later 35, when we want to overcome a discursive challenge, we tend substitute a simpler one and pretend we did. It isn’t always intentional, and usually goes unnoticed, but the Rhetoric of it frequently has more impact on our perceptions and subsequent conclusions than anything else.

Sometimes the problem to begin with only pertained to how we felt about something in service to making related decisions36, and it works well enough in those cases because we were more or less the problem. Many of the political issues we’ve gone over regarding games are of this kind, as whether and to what extent video games affect us in better or worse ways than other mediums, the problem with something like Hot Coffee was the media-fueled popular uproar about it. At issue wasn’t a game but how we felt about games, the answer being that the fact we don’t understand much about them scares the crap out of us, so we needed a nightlight to sleep well.

Many issues are more accurately called discoveries, however, which our feelings certainly affect, but are no substitute for. crossroadsIt’s easy and natural to have problems like those get papered over with figurative language like pot holes on a crowded road, only to cause us to wreck as we confidently drive over them again and again at high speed in conflicting directions 36. We usually deal with either decisions or discoveries by resorting to models and metaphors to help think things through together. Both are deceptively useful, as they’re the basis of productive thinking, and in some cases as close as we’ll ever get to it. They’re also easily confused with it, however, and at worst begin to derail it.

In economics, the idea of efficient and predictable markets is a good example, held firm by most hedge funds as they efficiently fail in predictable ways. In physics, M-theory, string theory, and whatever else develops there usually amounts to throwing math at epistemological modesty in similar ways, bouncing off what we’re trying to explain as if it were an under inflated balloon hit with their broad bluntness, rather than piercing it to reveal what’s inside. In what I usually call the sort of ‘Pop Feminism’ the internet’s allowed to proliferate, theories about ‘Patriarchy’ and its widespread — as well as apparently invisible — effects developed along similar routes, departing from its starting point as a Rhetorical deconstruction for further inquiry about sex differences, and ending in wonderland once millennial students took over and brought the discourse of it to social media for political ends — not that feminism ever wasn’t necessarily political. All are examples of more or less leaning on flimsy and simplistic metaphors so strongly that we sink down into them, losing sight of reality instead of solving the meaningful problems that brought us to try. At a certain point we drown in them and make everyone else worse off by attempting to drag them in along with us.


The Seriousness 37 of that sort of Rhetoric feels great. Simplistic theories38 give us the feeling of being in control through a coherent and explanatory understanding of troublesome things, almost like a cheat-code for life made entirely of information and what we believe we can do with it. And in many cases like the above examples, belief in a theory we can well articulate gives us a measure of control over everyone else that likewise believes — like a preacher to their choir or the Pied Piper if he was a well-spoken rat. If what we’re dealing with concerns ourselves and our actions above all else — having no clearer external point of reference than how we all feel about it and our ability to convey that — that isn’t the same as being right, but it can still affect us as if it were. It’s very similar to being right, and far easier, both of which are part of its appeal.

Rhetoric like that makes reality appear more knowable, rather than subject to human nature, limitations, and living in a world relatively unconcerned with us, at least regarding what most concerns us. Metaphors like that give us what we want and would like. They set a compelling expectation and then meet it, if only we’ll take their word for it. It’s only natural to get attached to things like that, as well as be burned by them when we get caught up in it unaware as what we’re referring to moves along like a train with our discursive ties stuck in the door.

We usually resort to redefining the world as our theories fail the harder we hold onto them, rather than changing or addressing our theories, but that’s only after we’ve realized we’re floundering around in misleading metaphors to begin with. draper_odysseus_sirensThat moment is usually the starting point of any discourse, or rather when it really takes off to become something productive, not merely seductive. It isn’t always a singular event, and at times needs realizing again and again as we find ourselves continually veering off in unfortunate directions despite our good intentions. Sometimes that process can take a long time to start, however, when we’re still not sure how to deal with what we’re talking about in any other way, and have become invested in defending positions we’ve only taken in opposition to others.

‘Video Games’ as a term has come to be the broadest medium at present, collectively standing in for realizing that we don’t even know what to call most of what we’re now able to make and experience using digital tools. One reason for that is the nature of games as software that we went over prior, which allows for recursive experiences within them. We can’t have a song within a song, a film within a film, or a painting within a painting, but we can have songs within games and even entire games within games, whether or not we know how to talk about that. That makes it difficult to know where to draw any number of helpful discursive lines that allow us to think and speak about games. In our prior discussions on mediums of art, the mediums themselves more or less handled drawing those lines for us through physical constraints. What’s considered a painting ends at the edge of its canvas, films at the end of their reels, and songs when their last note is struck, but a video game is a whirlpool of multimedia that doesn’t even have an original for the rest of its iterations to be considered copies of.

We don’t have to consider any of that to enjoy games, but when we stop to think about it, it is bafflingly weird.

Language takes time to develop diligently, which is why ‘new media’ broke our means and methods of talking about it almost immediately with its rapid introduction, advancement, and mass proliferation. recursive-mona-lisaThat’s made it convenient to lump the lot of our new media in with Super Mario and Pac-Man because they’re at least familiar and friendly faces — which is preferable to looking into a big gaping void of our understanding that can make the best of us frown. It’s because we’re at an entirely Rhetorical loss of how to deal with any of that we largely rely on metaphors to refer to them at every level, and in ways even those apparently devoting their lives to making or criticizing them are usually unaware of.

As we’ve been over, it’s convenient to call something a ‘Murder Simulator’39, for example, but video games ‘simulate’ homicide about as much as a character dying in a novel does, albeit in different ways. No one is ‘killed’ in the process of our playing video games, particularly not when we play, nor is that experience in any way simulating what it’s like to murder, or how we might go about it. Unless thematic depictions of and references to death count as murder, in which case the nightly news has been simulating murder at unprecedented rates for years, and the internet’s basically a corpse factory. Taking a step back and looking at what we actually do when playing a video game, a great way for any of us to develop a complete inability to fire a gun is arguably to spend a great deal of time clicking mouse and controller buttons in any of the innumerable grey and brown ‘shooters’ presently saturating the market.

We can coherently call games murder simulators because they use narrative tropes, visual cues, and other aesthetic elements borrowed from other mediums resembling stimulating things like sex, violence, sports, and more whimsical activities. Though it’s inaccurate as a description, we don’t need any help understanding it as a figurative reference. We now experience this every day, but it’s a surreal thing to appreciate that we can look at flashing pixels on a screen or strokes on a canvas and see things that are not there and are not happening, but appear as if they were and at times feel as if they are.

Aesthetics in games are largely what we’ve taken the time to develop because it’s the easiest aspect of them to address and discuss.


This isn’t death or killing, but what is it?

The mediums the discourse around them rides on relying on stimulating imagery themselves to attract an audience makes it a further focal point of anything they reference. But aesthetics are rarely the most impactful part of the experiences we have when we play video games.

We don’t run, jump, swing, stab, dance, or even ‘beat’ most games — which is why those we actually can dance and jump in service to playing have understandably done quite well for those making them, and happens far less often. The level of immersion something like that can offer easily trumps spending millions to make something look a dirty and pixelated version of ‘real’, and because of that typical relies on visual means that are meagre by comparison. What we’re immersed in while we play any form of video game is still up for debate, however. What we ourselves actually do with a game — assuming we’re not making, managing, or marketing them — is click and make decisions in cultivated Rhetorical contexts, all of which are inherently social despite the antisocial stereotypes associated with people enthusiastic about games. As we’ve seen, they can often be so engaging and engrossing that we can’t help but referring to our time with them as in the game, which isn’t a phrasing we use for many other mediums. That, coupled with the popular discourse on games being entirely focused on their aesthetics, only obscures any inquiry into how they actually affect us either as a whole or in particular instances. Though this isn’t true of all of them, much of their thematic elements are entirely fungible for anything visually coherent and informative, while those deeper levels of engagement that distinguish them as a medium are not.

That’s still what we largely focus on when discussing games, however, which is well reflected at the academic level of both learning how to make a video game or what we pay attention to when talking about digital play. The two main schools of thought there roughly break down into what I usually call “The Narrative School” and “The Ludic School,” both of which are equally abstract in that they don’t actually refer to what goes on when we play a video game as an experience, only models and theories we’ve made to deal with that. The Narrative School’s likely the most familiar to everyone, and one the examples we’ve gone over have largely been drawing on.


The Model of modern cinema

It’s had effects similar to what Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey40 continues to have in film, further popularized in works frequently fallen back on to teach screenwriting like Robert McKee’s Story41, and is largely responsible for why most big budget Hollywood films all tend to be story-driven by the same basic plot42 — narrative’s easier to understand and talk about, so many games and criticism of games focuses on just that. Our rules and Rhetoric for handling that have had thousands of years to develop, and can be applied with a comfortable familiarity to pretty much anything, even if that leads to necessarily ignoring the grand majority of the experiences we’re examining in the process. As I tend to put in when I teach it, stories don’t have a plot, we plot a story. Our various theories on narrative in art say more about the way we understand, communicate, and think about things than they do the mediums we apply them to, which is a valuable concept we’ll come back to later on. Because of that, we then go on to teach various theories of what goes into making a good film great, which in turn are applied by most of us that are looking to make great films, an aspiration naturally applying to most budding filmmakers. Here again, we see the reciprocal relationship between art and the discourse on art — the Rhetoric of how we discuss an art affecting what art will be made, the methods employed, and how it will be taken by an audience through the expectations that sets, and their own available means of appreciating and interpreting their experiences.

Diametrically opposed to deleteriously focusing on narrative in the arts is “The Ludic School.” Despite the term ‘ludic’ originally referring to play in a more holistic sense, this camp tends to focus on viewing video games by the abstract mathematical models they’re made with, as well as those that can help better define choices made within them, and usually results in teaching hopeful game designers to make their own flavor of what amounts to ‘Excel Spreadsheet: The Game’.


Very unlike a video game

Unlike The Narrative School, this one is less familiar and accessible, so more of us simply tune its way of approaching video games as an experience out, much like we would if someone tried reading us the musical notation of a song rather than singing it, and claiming that was the real song there on the page, not the one we hear and experience as it’s played into our ears and vibrated beneath our feet. Like The Narrative School, this school of thought says a lot more about ourselves and the way we think than it does about any medium it’s applied to, likely more than any works made in the mediums themselves ever could43.

In many ways, the Rhetoric of methods like those are entirely necessary to dissect and discuss games, as well as learn to better understand and make them. At the same time, they quickly distance us from engaging with games themselves. We lose that holistic sense of play we go to video games to experience when we try looking at that experience through various lenses that largely operate by filtering things out44. In the process, we’re Rhetorically mislead by the ways we go about doing that as we begin using models and metaphors so frequently that over time we can’t help but mistake them for the real thing — the core experiences we have with any medium, and what, if any, affects they have on us at the time and thereafter.

Even our abbreviated references to video games as ‘games’ is a misleading effort to make sense of something we don’t Rhetorically understand. There’s clearly a lot to them and their Rhetoric that’s nowhere to be found in what we’ve traditionally considered games, some of which are those very narrative elements that tend to overshadow all else in our discussions.


What’s the story here?

The only thing common to everything we dump into the video game landfill like so many copies of E.T. 45 has remained what I’ve written about extensively elsewhere as digitally facilitated play46 — play itself having a very storied and ambiguous Rhetoric which we’ll come to back to as well 47. And as we’ll come to prior to doing any of that, the Rhetoric of the discourse surrounding how to define video games is itself a game that can’t help but play with the perceptions and experiences possible within and without them, along with how they’re made.

All of this has happened before concerning other mediums, and will continue happening at an accelerated rate as we’ve become able to make things so rapidly that we’re quickly running out of things to call them, and along with that, productive ways of thinking about them together. As they’ve developed, comics have been called ‘kill manuals,’ musical genres have been labeled ‘Satanic’, and film is often referred to as ‘smut’. For Rhetorical reasons inherent to televised news and social media31, everyone attacking new mediums and genres unfolding therein thus far have tended to be Bullshitting 24 — just as much as anyone defending them. And it isn’t because we don’t always mean well on either side when we do it, but because when the sides are starting to form, none of us are quite sure what we mean, let alone how to have a conversation about it in forms ill-suited to it.

Everything affects us — even our beliefs about what affects us — and it’s both scary and liberating. It’s also in no way obvious which affects actually unfold and for who, particularly not when we’re being affected from all angles, each with our own unique temperaments and histories that themselves affect how any of us can be affected. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try figure any of that out, that the effort to isn’t valuable, or that it can’t be done, but that it’s something that actually needs ‘doing’, and takes some Rhetorical savvy.


The worst way of learning how to kill someone

It certainly doesn’t look like guessing or announcing we’ve authoritatively decided what’s true after putting on a name tag we wrote ourselves, hoping the intoxicating smell of Sharpie will be enough to subdue naysayers. If the Rhetoric of video games were as straightforward as wanting to kill one another after hitting a button to see that play out on screen, we’d all be dead by now, and there would be no need for discussion. Productive inquiry into the Rhetoric of any artistic medium begins and develops from the discourse on it, however, which itself is Rhetorically ruled by the most articulate in the conversation, growing in whatever directions they dictate. And along with that, so do the mediums being discussed, if at all.

Art’s a broad Rhetorical whirlpool all the way down, and it should be — it’s one of the few things whose point is to affect us. Art is like bracketing off the Rhetoric of something as its focal point and reason for being. That’s why art’s such an effective means of exercising Rhetoric, as the many mediums we throw the term at have some of the most effective Rhetoric available. The point at which a medium or work is called art is usually when it’s applied precisely to Rhetorical ends, and to the extent it reaches those ends, it’s usually said to be good art.

If we don’t agree with that, we’d still need Rhetoric to argue it as being any other way.


Political campaigns can be won with a single poster, religions can inspire awe with a single image, and some mediums are so complex we’re still figuring out what to call them, but how they all operate is always ever Rhetorical. From their creation to their regulation, art’s a glorious Rhetorical mess.

Rhetoric’s all of art, criticism, and the naysayers of either.

Footnotes and Citations

  1. This is a reference to a concept developed by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973 Book) that I take issue with later on in the book regarding how arts advance from the point of view of the artist, which in Bloom’s case was literature. I counter views more or less in line with that, which I label as derivative, by examining what I call ‘Innovative Genius’. The latter half of the book is about Rhetoric’s role in doing things like making great art, businesses, politics, etc., and how we can make use of that effectively to be successful at it. It’s a process that can be understood, and Rhetoric’s key to that on all sides, and our only real method of navigating and accelerating it. 
  2. Though the term had more history as developed in Europe, it began being popularized by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (1869 Book of Collected Essays) to English speaking audiences as simply ‘culture’, which is where it developed into what it more commonly references from there. In most early uses, such as Arnold’s, it was meant as a way to distinguish older works in newly changing cultures as worth preserving and cherishing, and was largely an argument for traditionally valued works to remain supported as canon. It was a conservative argument in the sense that now means today, not the radically liberal stance it has since developed into. 
  3. This is a concept I spend the latter half of the book developing about how we actively use Rhetoric and rules to make things that are so impactful in any field that they fundamentally change the way those fields operate, usually bringing massive success and recognition to those involved. Those ‘things’ are the product of innovative genius, innovative genius itself being how we knowingly cultivate ourselves into being able to go about doing that, rather than hoping lightning will strike. This certainly happens in the arts as referenced here, but also applies to business, law, management, science, politics, and any human endeavor ruled by Rhetoric for reasons I also address, which have a lot to do with the way we think and operate in Rhetorical terms. 
  4. Another concept I develop later in the book, but one core to Stanley Fish’s arguments in works like Doing What Comes Naturally(1989 Book), which extends claims made by Richard Lanham in The Motives of Eloquence(1976 Book) that criticize two opposing views of Rhetoric’s relationship to reality. As I myself extend it, among other things, this is the point the Rhetoric of any discourse will naturally reach when, rather than advancing through continued developed, it instead sustains itself by fighting off reasonable scrutiny by attempting to rule over the discourse itself. In practice this looks like fascism with words, but more innocently tends to stem from the conflicting world view’s differing in the role of Rhetoric in our lives and its relationship with all else that I develop later, on based on Richard Lanham’s distinctions that I call ‘Rhetorical Man’ and ‘Serious Man’. Assuming a privileged position above all others happens in the Rhetoric of pretty much everything in direct proportion to how impactful it is and across as many areas it can be — usually dragging down the good the discourse had to contribute along with. For reasons I also develop, this can and will happen with any discourse precisely because it’s Rhetorically constituted, and is an important tendency to deal with. 
  5. I’m not saying all studies are inherently bad or useless, but good ones are increasingly hard to do, which is why they’re valuable when they’re not themselves ‘reaching’ to the point of ridiculousness. Regarding video games in particular, there’s a tendency for their own context to betray their lack of content. Video games of the kind we have now haven’t been around for very long, making any claims to their ‘long term effects’ both limited to a short term period, and relatively without control since we don’t place their subjects in a box to be affected by and interact with little else. Those conducting them make about as little attempt at defining their variables in any but the same metaphorical ways their proponents do, equating what we do as we sit on a couch clicking a button as ‘killing’ someone with actual murder and manslaughter in ways laughable on their face. The ones promoting video games aren’t much better, and both have generally maintained the trend of paying college students to do random crap for beer money, then making universal claims based on them in ways consistent with a modern form of voodoo. 
  6. Simplifying quite a bit that I’ve written elsewhere, the need for academic ‘backing’ for talking points in televised news, newspapers, and social media has had a huge affect on the type and content of studies and endeavors that get made. Anything in Academia needs funding to exist, which heavily influences what gets made according to the needs of markets like that. The mediums themselves they’re cited in also don’t lend themselves well to reasoned discussion or inquiry, so we end up with an entirely agenda driven market of academic work that’s all taken at face value and to sensational ends, the purpose of many studies now being to support a sound bite if they concern anything of public interest. We’re encouraged to say whatever we’d like if someone is willing to pay for it, so long as the burden of proof is passed onto someone else, and checked by those of us with no position or desire to read it. It’s one of many examples of a Rhetorically created moral hazard that proliferates when the audience for these works themselves don’t have the Rhetorical knowledge and skills to be able to see through them and question anything, defaulting to treating it all as entertainment, which we’ll come to in the next section on News. 
  7. Harris, Blake. Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. (2014 Book) 
  8. Midway Games & Acclaim. Mortal Kombat. (1992 Video Game) 
  9. Sega Genesis – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  10. Super Nintendo Entertainment System – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  11. Mortal Kombat wasn’t the only game in question that prompted the hearings held by the then Senator Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl in the early nineties. It was certainly the headlining title, however, as not only was it a popular arcade game, but a major and highly publicized release on both major consoles at the time. 
  12. ESRB Homepage 
  13. Computer Entertainment Rating Organization Homepage 
  14. PEGI Pan European Game Information Homepage 
  15. Motion Picture Association of America Homepage 
  16. There are no shortage of examples of this. For example, Yves Guillemot here categorically refers to his company’s games by rating, in this case ‘Mature’, in development considerations, the validity of his claims in doing so notwithstanding: Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot: ‘Nintendo Customers Don’t Buy Assassin’s Creed’ – News – www.GameInformer.com. This is more or less a continuation of the narrative started by Sega against Nintendo, positioning Sega itself as a maker of ‘Mature’ titles while Nintendo only produces ‘Kiddy’ affairs, also detailed in Console Wars for anyone that’s interested. Prior to that, the majority of game developers strived to be as open audience as possible, as that meant a bigger market. The reason I bring this up is because, in addition to Sega’s early efforts to safeguard themselves and their ‘edgy’ marketing strategy from public legislation by starting their own ratings board before the ESRB came into being, the Rhetoric of their market strategy and games more or less made the mold developers still operate in thereafter, reviving the same narratives and oppositions time and again because they work. This is also the point at which Sega itself started the trend of shifting the discourse and development of video games to focus on aesthetic elements borrowed from other mediums, everything Nintendo does remaining a good contrast with that. 
  17. For examples see: Study: M-rated games sell best – GameSpot, Games Rated ‘Mature’ Are Made Less, Bought More – TIME.com, Console Intelligence Briefing 2007 
  18. Dick, Kirby. This Film Is Not Yet Rated. (2006 Film) 
  19. “Factor 5 CEO blasts the ESRB at GCDC, and he’s right”. Ars Technica
  20. See Hot Coffee mod – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia for more information on the context of this. 
  21. Rockstar North. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. (2004 Video Game) 
  22. Xbox (console) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  23. PlayStation 2 – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  24. I develop this term specifically in a part I’ll link shortly that’s in dialog with others, but for now, I use Bullshit to mean anything were things like substance, truth, quality, and ethical concerns are aggressively absent from our intentions in what we say, think, or do. Distinct from lying, when we Bullshit, not only can we be wrong, or malicious, but we really don’t care, instead pursuing an agenda and self-serving outcomes above all else to the detriment of us all. Rhetoric is both what allows us to do that, as well as what allows us to identify and safeguard ourselves from it, even when we find ourselves to be the ones stinking up the place. 
  25. Bioware. Mass Effect. (2007 Video Game) 
  26. While this one was part of the game itself, it was far more tame and tasteful than that found in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and is likely available widely on websites that don’t allow explicit content as well. If it were in a film it’d be rated PG-13, despite the game itself being rated M for that and other reasons. That didn’t stop many people publicly condemning it as porn that admittedly had not played it, however, and who almost universally changed their minds upon actually seeing it, such as seen here: Fox News’ Expert Backs Down From Xbox ‘Mass Effect’ Sex-Scene Attack – MTV 
  27. Penny Arcade – On Euphemisms 
  28. Guerrilla Games. Killzone. (2004 Video Game) 
  29. Rockstar North. Manhunt. (2003 Video Game) 
  30. Sesame Street 
  31. This is a topic taken up in the next section on TV News in greater depth, particularly regarding the Rhetorical affects that the constraints built into different mediums and their uses has on what we use them to say and how we go about saying it. I’ll link it once it’s up. 
  32. Ratings board doesn’t take games seriously – Eggebrecht — Eurogamer.net 
  33. This is something the latter half of the book is concerned with, examining how we actually go about learning, understanding, and applying the knowledge of this in ways that never cease to make everyone involved a lot of money, change the world, or generally make a large Rhetorical mark on our collective humanity. 
  34. Though it makes enough sense colloquially, I’m referring specifically to family resemblance in the Wittgensteinian sense popularized posthumously in Philosophical Investigations(1973 Book), a short example of which can be found here: Family Resemblance in Wittgenstein { Philosophy Index } 
  35. I plan to put up a draft pertaining to this, and will link it once I do. Prior to that, however, it isn’t that hard to get a feel for what I mean here if we think about what it is we do when we solve problems. We need frame things to question or understand them, which necessarily requires leaving out a lot of things that we’ve assumed or decided prior are not relevant or important. When the questions concern things we don’t understand all that well to begin with, it’s pretty rare that we’re not at least in part wrong about what we’ve decided isn’t relevant and important. Further, once we’ve formed and framed models and questions to help solve problems or figure out something perplexing, it’s only natural to lose sight of what those models and questions were made to address in favor of them. Those models also become far more appealing to deal with than the problems they’re made to solve, as well as convenient. All of this is a Rhetorical pitfall in the way we think that even the best of us can’t help but fall into again and again. 
  36. This is a distinction I come back to continually and develop throughout the book as two competing modes of engaging with reality that we use Rhetoric to do, using Ronald M. Green’s discussion of the boundaries of what we consider to be both living and a person with rights in The Human Embryo Research Debates: Bioethics in the Vortex of Controversy (2001 Book) as a primary example of how we use Rhetoric to go about making social reality in ways most of us are used to calling ‘political’, but extends to many things not typically thought of as political. I’ll link that section once it’s up, but until then, discoveries are akin to fact-finding, and in line with John Searle’s notion of brute physical facts. Decisions are akin to fact-forming, and in line with John Searle’s notion of social facts. Both are developed in his work The Social Construction of Reality (1995 Book). I argue the distinction between them isn’t mutually exclusive when it pertains to anything we care about, and is a Rhetorical dance that never really ends, only growing more complex over time with far reaching impact. 
  37. This is in reference to a concept also developed throughout the work, taken from Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally as he developed it from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence on competing world views regarding Rhetoric. Until I get that part up to link on what I reframe things as ‘Rhetorical Man vs Serious Man’, Seriousness is a world view that more or less believes in a singular, unified, rigid, and privileged way of looking at and dealing with reality that transcends all things and operates by belittling and silencing all discourse to the contrary. An extreme example would be someone believing that there’s some hidden equation to all things that we only need figure out to live in a completely deterministic universe where we are the masters of all we can see. This is in opposition to a Rhetorical world view, which is more or less us all going around bound up in our shared human nature and doing the best we can, but never really stepping outside of that, the best we can do being to acknowledge and make use of that, not pretend it were any other way. 
  38. Another concept I’ll link later on, but in reference to what I usually teach as “The Appeal of Simplistic Systemization”, using the acronym ‘A.S.S.’ for short, playfully alluding to the immense appeal simplistic and systemic models of things are, and how we tend to look and act like an ass the more we buy into them. 
  39. I’m O.K – A Murder Simulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  40. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (1949 Book) 
  41. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. (1997 Book) 
  42. George Lucas has been pretty open about this on multiple occasions, as is anyone else that bothers to examine his films, such as in The Power of Myth, an interview with Lucas himself in Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind where he stated: “it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…so that’s when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and I started reading Joe’s books. Before that I hadn’t read any of Joe’s books…. It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs” (541). For anyone that’s interested, Star Wars Origins – Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey has a nice write up explaining how that actually played out in the films for the unfamiliar. 
  43. Another part developed further on in the book that I’ve written on elsewhere. Until that’s up to be able to link it, in brief, I oppose them as two competing schools of thought that pop up in the discourse on many things that are heavily concerned with Rhetoric, are more reflective of the complementary ways we go about making sense of things with language, and are accessible ways I use to teach how we think in Rhetorical terms. Key here is that they do have a tendency to get in the way of productive discussion when they get out of balance with one another. The latter half of the book is concerned with examining what a ludic view of things has to offer in Rhetorical terms that we can and do regularly apply in most of the situations that garner big financial and social success for those involved, which in simpler terms is more or less talking about how Rhetoric works, how we learn and improve our Rhetorical abilities, and what that actually looks like in practice when we do, ‘lifting the veil’ on what I term innovative genius. 
  44. This is alluding to a concept I teach that I’ll probably have an article up at some point on after I adapt it from other things I’ve written. Core to what I call “Productive Prejudice” is a criticism of the idea that we do well to identify and get around things like ‘biases’ and ‘fallacies’. Much like what I’ve written on Seriousness and the Privileged Position, I argue that we never actually step outside of human nature and various ‘prejudices’ that we have either innately or developed, but rather make productive use of those if we’re to make sense out of anything at all. An analogy would be looking into the sun. In a view now more common, we strip away everything blocking our view until we can see the true, unfiltered rays if we want the truth. Counter to that, I’m more or less arguing that if you look straight into the sun we don’t really see anything, look around blinded afterwards, and need wear appropriate sunglasses and look at things from appropriate angles if we’re to be able to see anything at all. 
  45. Atari video game burial – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 
  46. For lack of a link, one way of thinking about this is to say that video games are a lot more like a toy than they are the experiences emergent from them, just as ‘football’ isn’t a ball, no matter what shape it is. Further, the rules of most video games in how we experience them are also emergent ones we tend to form ourselves as we play, not necessarily what’s hard-coded into the software facilitating that, though those separate rules to help cultivate the context for that. That’s part of the reason games like those in the Grand Theft Auto franchise and Minecraft have been so popular — they really push that aspect unique to the Rhetoric of video games that distinguishes them as a medium, letting us direct our own experiences with them in ways that have a lot more autonomy than other genres, despite all genres of video games still allowing for that. 
  47. Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. (1998 Book)
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Steven Rhyse has spent a great deal of time working in many colorful variations of Maker, Marketer, and Manager on a freelance and consulting basis, doing everything from editing to art on all manner of projects. His clients range from market leading companies and startups to small business owners and individuals. Designing, planning, and implementing new media solutions to business and marketing problems tend to be his primary roles, but he regularly makes use of his strong production and teaching background. Business, Entertainment, and Technology tend to be the industries he frequents most, often finding himself in the realms of Education and Health as well. He's also found great success as a private educator servicing all of the occupations and industries he just mentioned, among many others.

He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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