Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, oh my! Literature Classics and Film Appropriation

This past Thursday, I attended a film screening of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the latest film to be adapted from a book....that was itself adapted from a different book. I remember when the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out, and I thought the book might lure unsuspecting youth into actually enjoying a literary matsterpiece and classic. I greatly enjoyed reading the original and admit that I snubbed the pop culture revival. Upon given the opportunity to go to a screening, however, I put my skepticism aside. As a film, I thought PPZ was excellent, extremely entertaining and just enough of the original to be a humorous homage. I have to say that Lily James and Matt Smith stole the show and created exciting and entertaining characters. This blog is not simply about movie reviews, however, so I feel compelled to discuss some elements of communication and rhetorical theory that, in this case, heightens my enjoyment of the film, and one cautionary note. I will first address what I felt were positive feminist inversions in the film through perspective by incongruity before discussing the future of orality and literacy. Suffice to say, this post will have comments about specific elements of the film. You have been warned.

Image retrieved from this site.
Although many of the fighting scenes became repetitive, I never tired of the many scenes of the Bennet sisters pulling knives out of garter belts or revealing hidden weapons from underneath their dresses. The Bennet sisters were trained as Chinese warriors and often came to the aid of their family and male counterparts. In discussing these scenes, I am reminded of Kenneth Burke's perspective by incongruity, by which two disparate things are united to highlight the differences between them. In PPZ, I found this concept in play along multiple dimensions. The weaponry along the exaggerated feminity of the time period. Large skirts and corsets are made to restrict the movements of ladies, and yet the Bennet sisters move seemingly without pause to eliminate dozens of potential zombie threats. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of 19th century language and style with a contemporary horror fascination reflected the movie's unique narrative. One of my favorite parts was the puppeter-style history book that explained the relationship between the plague and the zombie outbreak - fascinating legitimization of a decidedly impossible occurrence.

Image retrieved from this site.
Perspective by incongruity also laid a stark humor over the entire novel. The imminent zombie horde emphasizes how absurd the choice of husbands for Elizabeth is and the amount of time and attention given to such occasions. Even with zombies attacking and killing people at the balls, Mrs. Bennet and many of the people present are preoccupied with marriage and inheritances. The incongruence of these simultaneous acts highlights the odd traditions of the past and reignites the agency of Elizabeth in choosing her husband, despite the risks. I have recently paid much attention to the rise of feminist themes in horror movies (such as Teeth, It Follows, and Crimson Peak). I am happy to find these themes traversing genres and emerging in a more mainstream film. I hope these themes do not become overblown and trite, and keep their sincerity and calls for reconsidering the roles of women in narratives.
Image retrieved from this site.
I did enjoy PPZ and found many instances of progressive film-making. I do wonder, however, if the creation of such films do not damage readership. When I first encountered the novel, I thought at least people would still be reading - what is there now? I do not mean to undermine film as a medium of communication, but I wonder what the long term effects are of children brought up watching the Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Roald Dahl novels, the Great Gatsby, and Bride to Teribithia. Furthermoe, what happens when these film adaptations are perversions of the original text? Excellent movies, to be sure, but I wonder what components of visuality and literacy, minus orality, are lost on the current generation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Communicating about Climate Change: The Technical and Public Spheres

This semester, I'm teaching COMM499: Public Controversies, a class that I started as a part of a Provost's Fellowship. As a part of the foundational theory weeks (before we delve into specific topics and controversies), we are discussing sphere theory. Sphere theory involves categorizing different arenas where communication occurs. G. Thomas Goodnight theorized three communication arenas, the public sphere, the private sphere, and the technical sphere. I will first briefly explain these concepts before exploring a recent news article that caught my attention on the complexity of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) environmental reports. I argue that these reports are not targetting their intended audience, the public, and are instead retaining too many characteristics of the technical sphere. The UN needs to better bridge the gaps between the technical and the public sphere to increase public understanding of the severity and risks of climate change. Removing jargon and becoming more accessible can help remove the stigma of elitism from science and encourage people to engage themselves more with the science.

For additional discussion of the spheres and climate change, look up Mosley-Jensen's book.
The public, private, and technical spheres have their own standards for engagement with communication and often happen with different scopes, effects, and speakers. The public sphere is so named because it is the arena where the public, people, and politicians communicate about topics in general, accessible language. An example of a communication activity in the public sphere would be President Obama's State of the Union, which is a speech given to the general public about topics of great impact. The private sphere involves more intimate communication between smaller groups of people often not accessible to the public. Conversations between couples, family members, or employees and bosses would be considered private, because they have limited public impact. These conversations may also include situation-specific language, such as inside jokes or personal references. The technical sphere is made up of experts that have a standard, formalized discourse that often includes specified jargon and expectations. Legal jardon and law journals are an example of technical discourse, aimed at a specific, expert audience with advanced knowledge of a particular field.

Cartoon retrieved from this site.
In writing climate reports aimed at the general public, the UN is participating in what I call "bridging," where technical knowledge is translated into public discourse. Information created and anlayzed in the technical sphere is transferred to the public sphere. The article in question summarizes the conclusions of linguistics scholars Barkemeyer, Dessai, Monge-Sanz, Renzi, and Napolitano in their 2015 analysis of UN reports between 1990 and 2014. The analysis focused on the readability of the summary section of the reports aimed at policymakers and the public. The authors focused on the complexity of the vocabulary and sentence structure as potential barriers to public understanding. Compared to the readability of tabloid papers (50+ on their scale) and even scientific magazines (30+ on their scale), no IPCC reports surpassed 30 and the most recent barely hit 15. There is evidence that these reports have become increasingly unreadable, making it difficult for the general public to understand the IPCC's analysis and its implications.

Retrieved from Tollefson from the original article in Nature

The article noted that the IPCC is considering adding more members to the board to improve readability or potentially providing better communication training for the summary's writers. In my graduate research on the rhetoric of science and scientific controversies and membership in the Earth Sciences Communication Intiative, I have found that scientists are often more concerned with their own analysis instead of making the content accessible to the public. The jargon used can be off-putting and even unintentionally misleading. For example, my partner is a graduate student in physics and I am often asked to edit his papers. One example of jargon that has repeatedly stuck out to me is the use of "trivial." When my partner calls a result "trivial," he is indicating a specific standard of statistical impact, whereas I read the term with a disparaging and dismissive tone. Because these articles are often written with experts in mind, they also often gloss over important background knowledge or comparative statements that would elucidate the importance of the results. This writing style is appropriate for the technical sphere, but could potentially lead to misinterpretations by the public and can become fodder for climate skeptics.

Image retrieved from this site.
Scientists should pay more attention to how they communicate. Whether that involves creating stronger bridges and training people to go-between, or including communication courses in science programs, Even including more sign-posting types of summaries, such as the chart above, would help clearly and succintly communicate the important take-a-ways for the reports. I think more problems would be minimized if attention to the ways people understand and process information were increased.