Discrete Metaphors

Over the past two days I’ve been going through and catching up on the readings I missed over the Christmas/ New Years break.  It’s been interesting looking through the readings and seeing the particular ways rhetoric is used in society both past and present.  The most striking use of rhetoric, in my opinion, was the way the writer of the “Rhetoric of Metaphor”  article employed it to serve his or her purpose.

The basic building blocks of rhetoric, as I discussed before, are logos, ethos, and pathos; or put another way, reason, emotion, and ethics.  The “Rhetoric of Meaphor” author employs all three elements to create an instruction manual for the technical aspects involved in “processing” a material that is never directly named or described by the author.  Any reader familiar with the basic history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust will quickly understand what the author is actually discussing in the manual: the operation of Holocaust gas-chamber vans.  Once the reader gains an accurate understanding of what is being discussed in the writing, it becomes easier to see how the aforementioned techniques are employed in the writing.

Reason and logic are evident throughout the memo, because of the subject matter and the technical processes being discussed.  However, the element of reason is deliberately overstated in the article in order to distract the reader from any emotions that would naturally arise while reading about such a gruesome subject.  A striking example of the overuse of reason is evident when the author says “…it has been observed that when the doors are shut the load always presses hard against them as soon as the darkness sets in.”

Although the author does not directly use pathos, the near-complete removal of this particular rhetorical element creates an effect in the reader through its absence.  When the author discusses subjects that traditionally provoke an emotional response, such as screaming and “alarming nature of darkness,” the reader’s attention is drawn to the missing characteristics of the memo’s subject matter.  By noticeably attempting to avoid emotional appeals the reader can infer that the subject being discussed is a very emotional one.

The author discusses the “load” in a technical way that removes all human characteristics from the subject, and also establishes a certain amount of credibility.  The focus of the writing is on efficient completion of the task at hand, and on the mechanical particulars involved in the task.  Technical diction, or jargon, encourages the reader to believe the author’s instructions without question.  The author could not make a credible appeal if he or she used a different style of writing and a more complete description; because the reader would be too distracted by the emotions associated with mass genocide.  Finally, the brief length of the memo works with the technical writing to disguise the true character of the subject matter.  Before the reader can make too many emotional connections or seriously contemplate the effects of the instructions given, the memo is concluded and signed, Just.

“Rhetoric of Metaphor” illustrates the ways that organizations can manipulate rhetorical devices to serve their purposes.  As the title of the article suggests, metaphors are powerful tools to either enhance or detract a reader’s attention to the particulars of rhetorical communication.  Metaphors, used as they are in this article, allow for the discrete discussion of sensitive subjects.  The author disguises the subject at hand in technical metaphors and avoids making any humanizing comments.  Unfortunately, the Nazi party used rhetoric and metaphor so well that millions of people simply believed the metaphors and followed the instructions of memos like this one, or they failed to intervene and stop the Holocaust for continuing as long as it did.  On the fortunate side, Nazi Germany was defeated and the Holocaust ended; today the most enduring metaphor from the WWII era is the synonymous use of Nazi and evil.


One thought on “Discrete Metaphors

  1. Josh,

    Thank you for your work on this posting. Indeed, I first read this document in an article titled “Ethics of Expediency”. It was originally posted in 1992. What an amazing piece. In almost every case, after a student realizes what they are looking at, they are astonished. What one needs to understand from this article is how language can be used to reveal or conceal. The power of language and more specifically about metaphor cannot be underestimated.

    Hitler was a genius as far as language and its ability to persuade. He also was a very rhetorically astute person because he understood the power of propaganda and how it can be used to create an emotional response from a person. Fear is an amazingly powerful motivator.

    Thanks for your post.

    Dr. Martin

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