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Style Wars

OK, “style wars” is dramatic. But I want to make some comments about two dominant styles of media speech, which I’ll call the raw and the cooked. The raw = disfluent; unmonitored, unscripted, unedited, underedited, and perhaps unrehearsed. The cooked = fluent, ideally uninterrupted, usually because it’s scripted; faster (more words per minute & less pausing); edited. “This American Life” has always been an island of raw in a sea of cooked, though to be honest, it’s a deliberate rawness. It’s High Raw.

Nancy Franklin, in a New Yorker review of This American Life’s tv version, is a fan of the cooked, and she thinks the cult of the raw is too popular. She criticizes TAL host Ira Glass for avoiding, and dismissing, “the familiar orotundity that we all think of as the proper way to address an audience,” then goes on to say:

This business of keepin’ it real—it can be carried too far, and it can come across as arrogant. Real is earned: Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” sets up a fictional world that is so fully imagined that it seems as real as the one we actually inhabit—precisely because he’s performing, and not just “being himself.”

Admittedly, drawing the line between the raw and the cooked isn’t easy sometimes. But “arrogant”? I don’t see that as the reigning impact of the purveying of rawness. Let’s put aside the obvious fact that Franklin isn’t part of TAL’s audience. The raw has become associated with specific aesthetic values, such as spontaneity and authenticity, and economic values, such as the small-scale, independent, and open source. (Not to be forgotten, the cooked is associated with aesthetic and economic values of its own, many of which don’t become clear until the raw emerges.) If you’re not part of the intended audience, you won’t key into those values.

Let’s also put aside Franklin’s obvious elitism about who will determine who has earned what and how far is “too far.” That’s her role as a critic speaking. That she chooses Garrison Keillor as her champion – Keillor, the poster boy of the empty nest set – is the second indicator there’s a generational thing going on. I don’t actually know how old Franklin is, but I bet she’s a baby boomer. “Keepin’ it real” also sounds like a catchphrase from another era.

And that brings me to the doorstep of ethos and style. Ethos, a term from classical rhetoric, refers to the character and credibility of the author/speaker, and it can be real or constructed. It’s both what allows one to “get away” with a certain style, as it is constructed and signaled through the use of a style. Style is reflective of and constitutive of ethos. As Franklin notes, ethos can be earned from an audience. But – and this is a point I hope she gets around to making at some point – it can also be bought, stolen, and gifted. It can be manufactured. And imposed. The raw emerges, as a style, and as a very powerful style, at the place where the ethos of the cooked starts to crack, where the automatic benefits of the cooked stop accruing. Whatever the cooked confers should be earned. But it often seems earned only because it has marked out, pushed out, rubbed out the raw.

High Cooked. High Raw. Low Cooked. Low Raw. Now I’ve gone and done it – made a matrix out of things.