Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On A Rhetoric Lesson in Johnnie Cochran's Obituary

The New York Time's obituary for Johnnie Cochran offers a nice little lesson in rhetoric:
In the trial's aftermath, Mr. Cochran's name became a sort of shorthand, but one that meant different things in different contexts. To some, it stood for legal acumen. To others, a masterly rapport with the jury. To others still, the vexing role of money and race in the justice system.
Reading that exposition on Cochran's name, I'm reminded of Leah Ceccarelli's definition of polyvalence, found in her November 1998 Quarterly Journal of Speech article, "Polysemy: Multiple Meanings in Rhetorical Criticism." A polyvalent text is one that allows different audience members to:
contest the valuation of [its] denotation ... what is under dispute is not a literal meaning of the text, but the "attached connotations" that are drawn upon when the text is judged from within particular value systems ... polyvalence represents an attitudinal gap, a break in how two or more readers feel about the text ... polyvalence is about judgment and whether or not people are persuaded by messages. (398-99)
Of course, Cochran isn't a text, but a name for a person. Still, it's clear that when most people *read* Cochran, they are quick to attach some value to it.

Interestingly enough, the LA Times had an obituary that offers an example of polysemy, a concept closely associated and often confused with polyvalence:
When it was finally over, the jury acquitted Simpson, but many in the public did not. A Times poll indicated that half the American public disagreed with the verdict. And the majority believed the defense used the issue of race inappropriately to help free a defendant whose controversial saga began unfolding when he fled police in a nationally televised slow-speed freeway chase.
In this passage, the narrative of O.J. Simpson is being read differently by the jury and other folks throughout the country. According to Professor Ceccarelli, paraphrasing Celeste Condit,
Polysemy is the condition where there is more than one denotational meaning for a text. (398)
That's sort of neat: Cochran's name becomes polyvalent, while the case that came to define his career--and name--examples polysemy.


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