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Published on December 10th, 2012 | by Thompson


Gonzo Rhetoric and the Subjectivity Spectrum

As I have indicated in earlier blog posts, defining Gonzo rhetoric is really difficult, so taking a page from Lev Manovich’s book, The Language of New Media, it may be helpful to give an example of what it is not, and who better to do so than Edward R. Murrow?

Gonzo rhetoric is absent in Murrow’s educational television, though it is not absent of rhetoric. Nothing is. You won’t find Gonzo rhetoric on PBS, Democracy Now, or too many other publicly funded news organizations. Mary Bock explains in her essay that “[e]ven the CBS documentary unit headed by Edward R. Murrow, while a tremendous source of prestige, turned out to be a financial strain” (605). Gonzo rhetoric has traditionally been motivated by profit, and its users have no qualms about being subjective, unreasonable, or even fictitious. Donald M. Murray cites John Hawkes in his essay “All Writing Is Autobiography,” saying, “Fiction is an act of revenge,” and in the case of Gonzo rhetoric, using fiction in a traditionally nonfiction genre is absolutely vindictive.

Jeff Rice’s The Rhetoric of Cool makes it clear that Cool rhetoric is not governed by objectivity. “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). Gonzo rhetoric is similarly seditious, and even more so.

In my attempt to define Gonzo rhetoric, I found it difficult to do so in words, so I created the Subjectivity Spectrum to visually define the concept. The Subjectivity Spectrum is a graphical interface that compares the advancement of technology with subjectivity, and it allows us to see where Gonzo rhetoric stands amongst other rhetorical types, including dialectic, Sophistic rhetoric, and Cool rhetoric. The Subjectivity Spectrum will also be useful in classifying specific media outlets and their use of rhetoric when I investigate them for this series, which I’m calling “Gonzo Rhetoric in New Media.”

The Subjectivity Spectrum

As you can see, I’ve taken the color spectrum and flipped it, only because Jeff Rice’s Cool rhetoric seems more blue than red, as does Gonzo rhetoric. The left side of the spectrum is reserved for rhetoric leaning toward objectivity, where I’ve placed dialectic. The solid line indicates that dialectic and Sophistic rhetoric do not “bleed” into each other, as Sophistic, Cool, and Gonzo rhetoric do. You could say that Collin Gifford Brooke’s idea of ecology is at work on the right side of the spectrum, as the types of rhetoric overlap, and though “we appear willing to acknowledge that rhetorical practice changes as our technologies do…we have maintained an oddly binary vision of that change” (35). I too am guilty of utilizing a binary to display rhetorical practices, but that will change as I work through this series of blog posts.

Interactionism, or the idea that meaning is made through the interactions of people, spans the entire Subjectivity Spectrum, or “bleeds” into all forms of rhetoric. Regardless of what type of rhetoric used, meaning will be made, and since “[t]here is no statement that is ‘arhetorical’ or ‘unrhetorical'” the Subjectivity Spectrum identifies the levels of rhetoricality (48). The more Sophistic rhetoric is on the subjective side; dialectic is on the objective side. The vertical axis represents the advancement of technology, which doesn’t affect dialectic or Sophism, but does affect Cool rhetoric, as it requires new media to exist. Though Gonzo wasn’t founded until the advent of new media, the use of Gonzo rhetoric does not depend on new media. In fact, it could be argued that Gonzo rhetoric has been used since the advent of language, because we’ve always been liars; it just wasn’t defined back then.

The term Gonzo was coined by Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso in 1970 as a way of describing Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” [full text]. Cardoso said “gonzo” was South Boston Irish slang for describing the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon, and though the term Thompson preferred to describe his style was “outlaw journalism,” Gonzo stuck. Since then, Gonzo has been used to define a mode of journalism made popular by Thompson, which utilizes first-person narrative without claiming objectivity, usually features the writer as the hero of the story, and tells the reader how the author feels about the news rather than reporting the news. These novelistic tactics have been adopted by journalists and politicians everywhere, and this series of blog posts will identify particular examples of Gonzo rhetoric in new media, and how its use effects readers’ interpretations.

Gonzo journalism is all-American, and its earliest American incarnation may have been in Yellow journalism, the launching pad for the New journalism movement. Yellow journalism relied on sensationalism rather than legitimate news to sell newspapers. Karen Roggenkamp’s Narrating the News considers Joseph Pulitzer the “first practitioner par excellence” of New journalism (27). Pulitzer’s New York World was the first newspaper to feature first-person narrative and heroic reporters. The most heroic was a woman. In 1890, Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, writing as Nellie Bly, was challenged to make Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days a reality, and to do so unaccompanied. “Pulitzer anticipated that the race around the world and against time would become a race against the very idea of fictionality as well” (26). Pulitzer’s use of Bly not only as reporter, but hero, was imperative in order for the paper to succeed.  “What made journalists like Bly so admirable to their readers was their ability to be, in fact, both authors and characters” (50). The heroic actions of Pulitzer’s journalists and the exaggeration of newsworthy (and sometimes un-newsworthy) events made for a better read and a better balance sheet for Pulitzer. That is until William Randolph Hearst came along.

Hearst took Yellow journalism to a whole new level. He started in San Francisco, but his dream was to undermine Pulitzer’s success while giving him a taste of his own medicine on steroids. He moved to New York and started the Journal, selling issues for a penny creating a price war. Karen Roggenkamp’s essay “The Evangelina Cisneros Romance, Medievalist Fiction, and the Journalism that Acts” explains that “Hearst’s Journal was perhaps the penultimate example of late nineteenth-century ‘new journalism,’ an innovative, commercialized, and above all sensationalistic newspaper style” (25).

Hearst took Pulitzer’s body of work and pushed its limits, just as Thompson pushed the limits of Hearst’s body of work. “Making no attempt to discern truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, the Journal published story after unauthenticated story of fierce battles, daring exploits, and – Hearst’s favorite – Spanish atrocities against innocent Cuban maidens” (27). Cisneros, the imprisoned Cuban maiden, was hardly innocent. She was imprisoned for attempted murder, but Hearst and his New York readers had little interest in her criminal record.

In 1897, Hearst sent Karl Decker, writing as Charles Duval, to Cuba to free her and bring her to New York. He did. And he wrote what may be the most sensational and fictitious news story ever published – and it worked. “Hearst encouraged his writers to blend the apparent facts of the news with specific literary vocabularies, creating a meta-fiction that Journal readers consumed voraciously…Hearst created the meta-fiction because he wanted his readers and the government to act, just as his was ‘the journalism that acts'” (25). This meta-fiction, this rhetoric, is where Gonzo rhetoric all started.

Daniel Jason Grubb states in his thesis, The Rhetoric and Role of Hunter S. Thompson, that through his fictitious persona, Raoul Duke, “Thompson can paint a portrait of someone who never existed or something that never happened in order to provide an image of what is going wrong in America—as Picasso called it, ‘A lie that makes us realize the truth'” (11). Gonzo rhetoric actively utilizes fiction in nonfiction genres – genres traditionally accepted to be objective – like journalism and autobiography.

Gonzo rhetoric is an effective use of language and images, utilizing tactics (usually politically motivated) made popular by Hunter S. Thompson, including, but not limited to, first-person narrative journalism reflecting upon the reporter’s personal experiences, emotions, exaggerations, and even fiction, in an attempt to persuade an audience. As you can see, this rather vague definition made it necessary for the Subjectivity Spectrum, but I think it still helps create an outline (or lack of one) for what constitutes as Gonzo rhetoric.

Rice contends that “[w]e built the wrong outline…In fact, we shouldn’t have built an outline at all because the outline has kept us too structured and focused on an outdated (even for its time period) status quo” (25). Thompson effectively tore down this outline, and with the boundaries falling, media outlets and politicians took the bricks and mortar and created their own fortresses out of the rubble left in Thompson’s wake. “Defiance is an apt term for Thompson.  He defies his editors’ choice of assignments. He defies core standards of journalism and rhetoric such as appearing reliable and staying on topic. Finally, he defies critics’ attempts to place him in a genre” (Grubb 64).  Gonzo rhetoric is not governed by genre, medium, or mode. It’s an outlaw, just as Thompson was.

Thompson’s Hey Rube: Blood Sport, the Bush Doctrine, and the Downward Spiral of Dumbness, a collection of blog posts for ESPN’s Page 2 (now Playbook), investigates the similarities between politics and sport.  It was the last thing Thompson published before his death in 2005. With it, Thompson warns of the competitiveness of political races and the rhetoric that goes along with them.

“‘Hey Rube’ is an old-timey phrase, coined in the merciless culture of the Traveling Carnival gangs that roamed from town to town in the early 20th century. Every stop on the circuit was just another chance to fleece another crowd of free-spending Rubes – Suckers, Hicks, Yokels, Johns, Fish, Marks, Bums, Losers, Day traders in Portland, fools who buy diamonds from gypsies, and anyone over the age of nine in this country who still believes in his heart that all cops are honest and would never lie in a courtroom” (xix).

Sound familiar? “Most stadiums are sold out every Sunday. But only rich people can afford to attend the games in person. It’s not much different from getting involved in National Politics” (26). Political campaigns and media outlets have adopted this Barnumesque rhetoric and applied it with incredible effectiveness.

My next blog post in this series will investigate the use of Gonzo rhetoric on television, the most obvious and exemplary new media featuring Gonzo rhetoric. As the series continues, I will examine other forms of new media that feature Gonzo rhetoric in less obvious ways.

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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.

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