Booth, Wayne. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1974.
annotation by Gabriel McArthur (Theories of Media, Winter 2004)

For me, this is as much an inspirational work as anything. But how is that any different from those essays that reject the posthuman condition? In broad strokes, this book attempts to analyze modern rhetoric—the rhetoric of the every-day—in terms of modern philosophy. Booth takes a particularly strong stand against the kind of positivism which has, for all intents and purposes, given rise to post-modernism. Having been written more than 30 years ago, Booth could not conceive of how post-modernism would reshape the critical world. Booth suggests that the modern dogmas of scientism and positivism might be annulled in the constant affirmation of the post-modern, transcending, “at last, the shocks of negation that produced the modern temper” (p.201). Unfortunately, he completely missed the mark on that one. The post-modern has not only become synonymous with the affirmation of the communally good, but an abstract affirmation of every position; it is a deconstruction every moral position much more than any kind of singular moral construction.

I mention the post-modern because it seems to take a very prominent place in media studies now. There is a great deal of debate over the post-human, trying to both accept and reject those qualities we perceive to be alien. Computer consciousness, biological engineering, the mixing of the analog and the digital—they all try and command our attention. And that is why I find this book so interesting: it humanizes the communication. It tries to establish some rhetoric of assent—those things that can be resolved by common agreement—in opposition to the logical positivism which accepts all things as relative. This proposition, as the book itself claims, has no rational claim to absolute proof, just as logical positivism is unassailable by virtue of the mathematical kind of logic involved. However, rather than trying to bemoan the lack of moral compass or loss of value in modern society, Booth tries to examine the role of rhetoric in humanizing the modern discourse (he gives examples in many kinds of media, like print news, television, committee statements, literature, and even a Beatles song). Booth tries to give a humanist meaning to art in his section on ‘Art as the Changing of Minds’. He asserts that art, like all media, influences and changes the individual. Art influences. Much like Hayles’ polemic against the apocalyptic post-human in The Condition of Virtuality, trying to ‘gesture’ (Hayles, p.76) past the dark and disturbed world of post-human, Booth tries and situate rhetoric in an affirmative field of discourse, within the human.

In assessing the importance of Modern Dogmas and the Rhetoric of Assent in media theory, it becomes difficult to separate the evolving rhetoric of values and the media itself. And that is perhaps just where its importance lies. Wherein do we separate the rhetoric of a medium and the values that medium tries to hold? How do we examine the effects of a text without trying to explain how text is trying to constantly replicate itself, placing value in its own propagation through the medium? I think this book takes the important first step in helping media theory understand that one cannot separate the meaning from the medium: the medium holds certain values—those qualities it needs to have impact on the human sensorium. Why does the picture value shape and form in perception? How does a text place value on the word it tries to signify? And of the sign, which is more important (i.e. has more value), the legi-sign, the quali-sign, or the index? I think this book helps establish connections between what we perceive as the abstract qualities of media and the purely human perception of value, of importance. Through rhetoric, Booth is trying to critically return the media to the human.