Published on December 14th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Defining Gonzo Rhetoric through Literary Theory
Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo journalism is obviously autobiographical, but what art isn’t? You may say, “Journalism isn’t an art and should conceal the author,” but when was the last time you read anything that concealed the author?
Thompson noticed the same thing. So why conceal who he was when no one else would? This could be another reason behind his use of first-person narration — to separate his writing from the pack.
First-person narration helps build a trusting bond between reader and writer. It’s why people get sucked into novels (see Proust). It gives the writer validity as long as the writer is honest.
Jim W. Corder explains in his essay “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love,” that “our narratives are the evidence we have of ourselves and of our convictions. Argument, then, is not something we make outside ourselves; argument is what we are,” and that goes double for Thompson (415). His career was many long arguments that still aren’t decided and never will be, but at least he portrayed himself honestly.
Donald M. Murray’s brief essay “All Writing Is Autobiographical” supports Corder’s claims and explains why everything we write, say, or do is unavoidably and noticeably tied to us.
“My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken” (67).
In using autobiographical tactics like historical reference, first-person narration, and calling upon personal experience, Murray draws plenty of attention to the autobiographical nature of writing in order to back his claim — and Murray’s openness only works in his favor. Explaining the “multiple contexts” from which we all write from, Murray’s apparent validity increases. He, in effect, gives us no reason not to trust him.
Thompson also gave us no reason not to trust him. His honesty, and at times, downright maliciousness, only increased his validity among readers — because he wasn’t attempting to conceal the man behind the typewriter — because he knew it was impossible.
Not at all ironic, the title of Murray’s short essay is a quote from film director Federico Fellini, and writing for an audience that watches isn’t much different than writing for one that reads. Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media explains how cinema mirrors all writing.
“Just as in cinema, ontology is coupled with epistemology: the world is designed to be viewed from particular points of view” (82).
Thompson’s point of view was arguably the most interesting in the United States at the time, and through the use of Gonzo rhetoric, Thompson gave arguments validity they never had, and created a loyal following in doing so. Sound familiar Fox News?
Thompson fittingly quotes Pablo Escobar in Kingdom of Fear that “[t]he difference between being a criminal and an outlaw is that an outlaw has a following,” and Thompson certainly had a following (35). He single-handedly created Rolling Stone‘s circulation among political buffs with his coverage of the 1972 Presidential Election (not to discredit the work of Timothy Crouse).
Though Murray, Corder, and Manovich were probably not direct influences on Thompson, their work only supports the creation of Gonzo rhetoric, helps define its parameters, and gives reasons for its existence. Perhaps the best way to define Gonzo rhetoric is to compare it with a similar rhetorical scheme.
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.
Gonzo rhetoric is cooler than Cool rhetoric. In fact, it’s ice cold. “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). 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 her point across. The point is only vaguely related to the news being covered, and is generally a position held outside the status quo.
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).
By creating a fictitious hero, Thompson can manipulate that hero in novelistic ways not available in genres governed by objectivity. His hero can be more than himself – more sensational, more emotional, more interesting. Thompson knew the attention span of his audience was dwindling, and he acted accordingly. If the audience wanted to be entertained, they would be entertained, but Thompson’s message lost no traction among readers despite the introduction of fiction to his journalism.
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.