Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Clarifying Ethos, Pathos, and Logos Appeals

I thought I'd pass on my response to Jason's rhetorical analysis paper. He wrote on Ultimate Destruction. Since the Hulk is such a popular culture icon, I thought my response and discussion of ethos, pathos, and logos in Jason's paper might resonate with many of you.

Pathos often is the first of the appeals to make sense. This seems odd because most of us have been trained to think in terms of logos as being the strongest of the appeals. It's certainly the most used in academic writing, where appeals to emotions are frowned on. Ethos is the hardest of the appeals to get your head around, because ethos appeals often hide in the guise of logos appeals or pathos appeals. Think, for instance, about using a particular form of documentation. When you use MLA style and write a paper in MLA format, the format and form of documentation are part of an ethos appeal. The assure your audience that you're part of the discourse community who knows how MLA style and formats work. The upshot? While citing a source is part of making a logical appeal and appearing objective (pathos is also be a lack of emotion), you are also making a subtle ethos appeal.

Now my response to Jason's paper. I hope it helps you get a better handle on ethos, logos, and pathos.


Your section on pathos was your strongest, probably because the notion of an appeal to emotion makes more intuitive sense than does logos or ethos. You were right on the money when you said, "the greatest appeal that this game offers to players is making them feel powerful." Why did this line stand out in my mind? Because it was here I saw you integrating the notion of the game authors using an appeal to have a specific effect on their audience. "Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction," as you point out, manages to create much of its appeal by building on the notion of the un-outstanding wanting to indulge a fantasy in which they are suddenly powerful.

I also liked your section on ethos. As you argue, ethos is about reputation, and the reputation of the company creating a game goes a long way toward reassuring the player that they'll be getting a quality game experience, hence increasing the game's appeal. This kind of branding through company or author name is a fairly new way for ethos to work, and I remain fascinated with it. In fact, there are some history of the book scholars who have argued that one reason the concept of the professional author developed side-by-side with the mass consumption of books was that books could be branded by their author. Just like shopping at McDonalds, we know what we're buying when we pick up a Stephen King novel. This kind of audience branding was why Author Doyle worked so hard to kill off the character of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle wanted to write historical fiction, but he was forever linked with the Holmes character and the mystery short story. The same thing happened with Ira Flemming and James Bond. I find it fascinating that the same thing is happening with companies and games.

There's another level to ethos, however, about which I'd like you to think. Ethos appeals also have a lot to do with how an author gets their audience to identify with them. In the study of rhetoric we call this kind of ethos appeal, identification. To get a handle on how this kind of appeal works, think for a moment on why players might identify with Banner. As you noted in your pathos section, one reason the game appeals is that it works on our emotions to make us feel powerful, but we identify with Banner because we too have felt impotent and wanted to let go of all our inhibitions. Like Banner we struggle with finding a balance between letting go and being innocuous and meeting social expectations.

This brings us to logos. One of the ideas behind the Hulk which makes the character so appealing is in identifying with Banner, we have to think through the basic idea behind his character. That is, we have to figure out and play with the idea of the animal side of human nature and the logical, social side. I think the Freudian terms are id vs ego. As we indulge in the fantasy, we're also living through identification with a character who, on the one hand, can assume great power but, on the other hand, can only do so via an essential loss of control. The Hulk also forces us to think about our beliefs. For instance, do we believe we have an essential nature? Is who we are tied to our brain or our heart? Is it some mixture of the two? One way logos works to make a game appealing is to present us with powerful questions, questions which compel us even if we're unaware we're thinking about them. This unconscious confrontation with ideas is one reason fiction, either in the genre of games or another form of story, is so powerful. It causes us to think under the guise of entertainment. It gets in our heads via a means against which we have very little defense.

Write with questions.


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