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Published on November 12th, 2012 | by Thompson


Gonzo Rhetoric vs. Cool Rhetoric

If you don’t mind, and since you’re forced to read this, I’m sure you might, I’d like to take this blog to hammer out an “answer” to a question quite relevant to my final paper in this class and my professional paper topic, “Gonzo Rhetoric in New Media.”  The question is, “What is Gonzo rhetoric?” and how does it differ from Jeff Rice’s Cool Rhetoric?

This question had me nervous (until I read Rice) because there is very little help out there on the information superhighway about Gonzo rhetoric.  Wikipedia doesn’t have a page, it’s not defined in any academic paper I can find, and when you Google that shit this is what you get.

Gonzo Rhetoric Google Search

The first listing is my blog post for last week, (and, as I hope you can see, the personal results button is turned off) so this question has now been plaguing me for more than two weeks and for good reason – no one that I can see is taking up this issue (though I do have a friend in the UK that talks me through a lot of these issues who has been very helpful).  For the most part, I’m alone out here in this swine-infested world of Gonzo rhetoric, but Jeff Rice calmed my nerves like the first drag of a cigarette, or a neat few fingers of 15-year-old Scotch, or shooting heroin, I imagine.  Well, maybe not heroin, but you get my drift – I’m cool now, and so is Jeff Rice.

The second half of Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool, really sparked my interest, and for obvious reasons.  If you haven’t noticed, my URL is, and Rice was working with the Beat generation, specifically William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, who also influenced Gonzo journalism, or New Journalism.  Burroughs was a primary influence of Hunter S. Thompson, and his work certainly echoes that influence.

As I mentioned last week, Wysocki insists the “design must fit a viewer’s expectations,” but a “push” on the medium is not only forgivable, but expected (172).  Last week I felt Pulp Fiction was exemplary of the Cool because it was nonlinear, but tonight I’m torn.  As Rice quotes and expands on McLuhan’s Understanding Media, “Film…both in its reel form and in its scenario or script form, is completely involved with book culture.  This involvement is not the replication of print-based rhetorics but an expansion of the organizational methods print teaches” (78).  I have a vague recollection of us speaking of experimental film as being representative of the Cool, and Rice certainly believes this to be true, but he also says, “Anger and Smith do employ organization in order to ‘make’ films…But each film’s organization depends on a logic quite different from Braddock and colleagues’ ‘meaningful whole.’  That logic (whether deemed ‘creative’ or something else), whose basis is in commutation, is essential to new media writing” (103).  The absence of a ‘meaningful whole’ is the rhetorical coolness Rice is after, “Because cool depends on utilizing multiple meanings, what a term refers to (its referent) becomes dynamic and changeable.  It also becomes indeterminate and less permanent than we traditionally expect writing to be” (96).  So, I’ve come to the conclusion that Pulp Fiction is still cool, but for a different reason.  Multiple meanings can be drawn from the film.  For instance, we never find out what’s in Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, and whatever the viewer allows to creep into that briefcase could change the way she feels about Wallace at the end of the film.  Is it gold, heroin, a human body part?  I certainly don’t wish sodomy on the man given what Tarantino offers in the film, or anyone for that matter, (besides, maybe, a few particular Catholic priests), but I could see something in that briefcase that could offer even a little justification.  See, that’s cool and “provides layered meanings within a composition” (101).  Though it may not be representative of the Cool, Pulp Fiction is still on the cooler side of the spectrum…or pillow if you will.

Gonzo journalism is similar in its coolness.  The actual news is rarely ever the message, and the “hero,” who doubles as the author, uses personal experiences, exaggeration, and even flat-out lies to get their point across, and the point is only vaguely related to the news being covered.  “Rhetorical output related to cool seems uninterested in rationality or reason, as it works to manipulate audiences to adopt positions outside of the status quo” (100).

Though Gonzo journalism is certainly cool, I’m not so sure Rice would define it as such only because it’s still based on narrative form, and first-person narrative form at that, though it is a broken narrative fraught with the impulsive ranting of Thompson.  Some of that broken narrative may even be evident in this blog.  This limitation is required by Thompson’s discipline and audience.  Carroll Arnold touches on this in her introduction to Cahim Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric.  “Since we argue for people and not machines, we must recognize that an audience’s choices and judgments are affected not only by their knowledge and experience but by their situations at the time of confronting our arguments.  Thus methods of arguing must shift as the nature and conditions of the audience shift” (xii).  Hunter Thompson certainly changed the method of argument, and I’ll be arguing in my professional paper that FoxNews and the network formerly known as NBC, then MSNBC, and recently back to NBC, have taken only the rhetoric from Gonzo journalism and left most of the journalism behind.  They’ve done so in a particularly deceptive manner, much like the advertisers have done with Rice’s notion of cool when he discusses 1960’s album covers.  The media has now fully adopted cool rhetoric marketers were exploiting for years.

But what is Gonzo rhetoric?  The question remains.  It seems to be a derivative of the cool, certainly, but is it the son of cool, the grandson, or distant cousin of cool?  I guess if I had to define Gonzo rhetoric (which I most definitely do), I’d say it’s:

An effective use of language utilizing tactics made popular by Hunter S. Thompson, including, but not limited to, first-person narrative journalism reflecting upon the reporter’s personal experiences, emotions, or exaggerations in an attempt to persuade an audience.

Let me know what you think of this definition, por favor.  And I hope you didn’t mind what I did with the blog this week.  I wanted to emulate Rice a bit, and I think my “thread” was effective in finding some kind of answer.  Whether it’s a correct answer is really up to everyone who reads it, I guess, and I’m more interested in its levels of truthiness right now.  I’ve been waiting to use that all year now.  “Levels of truthiness.”  It’s got a nice ring to it.

P.S.  Though “truthiness” is a term coined by Stephen Colbert, “levels of truthiness” is a phrase coined by my friend, Grant, in a personal interview about rhetoric over boilermakers.  Cheers.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

3 Responses to Gonzo Rhetoric vs. Cool Rhetoric

  1. jenny thornburg says:

    Okay, had to actually look up Gonzo journalism: “Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more gritty, personal approach—the personality of a piece is just as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.” Wikipedia
    I think Erica is right about the satire, and it does seem to be a cross-breed of traditional(narrative, linear) and cool(avante garde, subjective, irreverent). I think it’s ‘cool’ that you evaluated your favorite genre in terms of our week’s readings. When we actually apply what we learn, it sticks, and expands.
    Regarding how to figure out the familial relationship of Gonzo to Cool: have you ever heard the song, I Am My Own Grandpa? Ha. How do you feel about Erica’s conclusion, it’s the bastard child of old and new rhetoric? I think it’s hilarious…

  2. Erica says:

    I don’t know if I understand Gonzo rhetoric enough to really know for sure what I’m talking about, but I’ll give it a shot.

    You say in Gonzo journalism, “The actual news is rarely ever the message, and the “hero,” who doubles as the author, uses personal experiences, exaggeration, and even flat-out lies to get their point across, and the point is only vaguely related to the news being covered.” That to me sounds a lot like satire. How satire and rhetoric relate…hmmm, not sure. Something about content vs. form there, I think.

    But it also sounds like something that would be highly intertextual. It’s based on narrative form, but maybe because the content is what I’ll just keep calling satirical, meaning is easily commutated. So maybe Gonzo is a strange cross breed of traditional and cool. The bastard child of old and new rhetoric.

    Is it structured/presented with the strategies and tools of “traditional rhetoric” (whatever that is exactly)–perhaps the structure of a persuasive argument, use of pathos?–but breaks away from that because the content draws on many intertextual sources and openly allows meaning to be reversed, exchangeable depending on the context….? Does that even make sense what I just said? It would be interesting to choose a few different theories/approaches to rhetoric–Aristotelian, Cool, and the theory of one other–break down their main points and see how Gonzo compares and contrasts. Maybe it can find a home.

    I think it would be helpful if you clarified your definition a little. What “language-utilizing tactics” exactly? Is there a certain topic that Gonzo journalism usually revolves around underneath the exaggerations and personal narratives? Political? Social?

    I’m also confused about the form. Earlier in your blog you say Rice might not define Gonzo as a relation to Cool because it is based on narrative form; however, in your definition towards the end, you say it includes, but is not limited to, narrative form…so how much wiggle room is there? Could something like what Rice suggests have a place in the Gonzo setting?

    • Thompson says:

      I do find your comment a bit difficult to follow, except at the beginning and end, so I’ll start at the beginning and work my way through to the end. I like that you compare Gonzo rhetoric to satire, but Gonzo is not always satirical. At times it can be a very serious, consisting of personal attacks, name-calling, etc., and hardly serves as social criticism. When it is no longer critical of society but of individuals, it is no longer satirical. When Thompson was calling Nixon swine, it wasn’t satirical; it was a personal attack on Nixon and a personal conviction of Thompson’s (that ended up being correct in the eyes of many). I think my professional paper will uncover the fact that news outlets have made the satirical aspects of Gonzo rhetoric mute because the audience takes it so seriously now. They actually believe the shit Bill O’Reilly is spitting, and our arguments have devolved to personal attacks that were common to Gonzo, but no longer lead the reader to a deeper truth or understanding. I do like how you call it the “bastard child of old and new rhetoric,” which I think does apply to Gonzo at its best (1960s and 1970s).

      It’s difficult to clarify the definition because Gonzo is applicable to just about anything. Though, Thompson’s bread and butter was politics, he was also a sports writer, so I don’t know that we can redefine Gonzo rhetoric using a genre to clarify it. However, even Thompson’s sports writing drew on political events, especially Hey, Rube!, a book comparing the addictive and competitive nature of sports and politics. Perhaps I should reconsider clarifying through stating a specific genre, but I’ll need more feedback.

      I’m not sure if Rice would find Gonzo rhetoric cool or not, but it certainly applies more than one of his suggestions for cool writing, and though I find it very difficult to incorporate every suggestion he makes (appropriation, commutation, juxtaposition, nonlinearity, and imagery) in a written text, I think Rice’s ideal of the coolest writing would do so. So Gonzo is cool, and a child of cool, but not that cool.

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