The rhetoric coming out of this winter’s campaign season has been a playground for my argumentation classes. Political discourse offers some of the best opportunities for studying things like how arguers tailor their arguments to specific audiences, whether sympathetic or hostile; how they employ Aristotle’s famous appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos; and especially how they repeatedly commit brazen rhetorical fallacies.
In the January 2016 issue of The Wire, Stewart Smith writes of pianist Matthew Shipp’s latest album: “Of the five albums Matthew Shipp issued as leader or co-leader in 2015, The Conduct Of Jazz is perhaps the finest.” It is a fine album; I’m listening to it now, fondly remembering the sublime experience of seeing Shipp in duo with bassist Michael Bisio earlier this spring. Still, The Conduct Of Jazz doesn’t make The Wire’s year-end top 50 cut, though it does make Downbeat’s roundup. My guess is that, one way or the other, Shipp doesn’t care. “What’s the use—I’ve got too many sides out as it is,” he was quoted saying fifteen years ago, in reference to a plan to retire from recording. “I don’t feel the psychological need to continually flood the market with this material…. Embellishment for the sake of the cash advance. That’s a kind of cynicism I’d rather not get into.”
As writers we have all toured dream homes we’re too poor to afford. Maybe Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine,” for me, or Tobias Wolff’s “Desert Breakdown, 1968,” or Danielle Evans’s “Virgins.” Yes, I tour these stories and compile my greedy wish-list: a mysterious stranger, I like that; a road trip gone wrong, of course; a heartbreaking decision both right and wrong at the same time, I wouldn’t want my story to go without one of those. I put down the book and open the computer. There’s my draft, all at once in various states of disrepair. I read back over it and wonder with distaste when and how, like floral wallpaper, these sentences had ever seemed a good idea to anyone. I hold my own story against my dream stories, I hold my vision for my story against its ruinous half-state. I moan: I just can’t see it.
In her well-known TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues for the importance of a multiplicity of stories, voices, and perspectives in order to do justice to the fullest range of experience and explode reductive stereotypes of people and places. “Stories matter,” she says. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Depending on whom you ask, Brian De Palma’s 1980 thriller Dressed to Kill is either a brilliant reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or a cheap style-over-substance rip-off. From IMDb message board shouting matches to painstakingly nuanced scholarly reappraisals, the debate (as part of a larger one regarding De Palma’s body of Hitchcockian films) survives in one form or another 35 years later. Yet what interests me, having viewed Dressed to Kill for the first time only recently, is the relative (not total) and conspicuous silence surrounding what should be a more important cinematic appropriation: the film’s representation of transgender identity.