Kirkwood argues that “all narrative may be said to disclose possibility” (p. 32) meaning that narrative should introduce new ways of being to the audience. The rhetoric of possibility is crucial for moral argument and can display different types of communication. He talks about the four problems (p. 34) of disclosing possibilities and gives ways in which they can be solved.
The four problems are:
- The possibility only existing in the narrative worlds and therefore being difficult for the audience to apply to themselves.
- The possibilities not appearing to be feasible by the audience.
- The difficulty of showing compelling performances that will illustrate possibilities to the audience.
- Ambiguity of possibilities can make it easier for the audience to apply performance to their preexisting beliefs and thereby make it difficult to access new possibilities.
We will address each problem and discuss how the solutions Kirkwood supplies to rhetors.
A solution that Kirkwood provides for the first problem is clearly showing the states of minds the character undergoes thereby showing “the conduct they enable is possible” (p. 34). He talks about nonrevealing and revealing accounts and gives an example of each (p. 35). Nonrevealing accounts do not divulge the character’s state of mind at the core of the performance and thereby does not show the virtue the audience should pursue while revealing accounts do just that, and thereby tell the audience the state of mind is feasible. This opens up the ability of a new possibility to go beyond the context and story. Nonrevealing accounts can lack narrative fidelity which occurs when values in a story are confirmed by one’s experiences (p. 30), however, because revealing accounts disclose states of mind, they do not depend on their narrative fidelity.
For the second problem, Kirkwood talks about how nonrevealing accounts that fail to disclose the reason for the character’s deed may not show the audience how they have the possibility is attainable for them because they can easily credit the deed to elements beyond their capacity. However, revealing accounts will equip the audience with the knowledge of the states of mind behind brave deeds, and potentially, they can practice the states of minds.
An example of a revealing account I thought of was Disney’s Lion King. When Nala finds Simba and tries to convince him to return to Pride Rock, he is scared and refuses to. However, after seeing Mufasa’s ghost, he remembers who he is and decides to return to Pride Rock. The audience is able to see Simba’s state of mind when he is afraid and his state of mind when he gains courage. They are able to apply the possibilities outside the context of the movie and the possibilities of bravery are more attainable to them.
For the third problem, Kirkwood gives two ways rhetors can give audiences compelling performances (p. 38). The first way is depicting other people’s performances–either factual or fictional–and giving the audience the possibility of a state of mind.
This reminds me of inspirational movies like The Greatest Showman. The movie is about a man who has faced financial hardships but perseveres to build a successful circus. Though the characters go through trials and tribulations like the circus fire that occurred before this scene, they do not give up. The lyrics of the songs–like in the video below– can call on the audience to actualize the possibilities of the states of minds in the movie. In this scene, they rebuild their circus after all hope seemed lost, potentially compelling the audience to keep on pushing through difficult situations in their own lives.
The second way of solving the problem is to call forth the compelling performance from the audience and use the performance as a transforming tool. This can be achieved in two ways:
- Provoke reaction from the audience to show response which is the possibility to be uncovered.
- Helping the audience achieve things considered impossible then revealing the effects of the performances.
Calling forth performances for the audience rather than showing a character’s deeds seems to have 2 advantages:
- The audience knows the consequences of their actions more easily.
- Performances show what the audience has the ability to do.
Next, Kirkwood provides ways rhetors can solve the last problem which is the issue of performances being too ambiguous, and thereby not challenging people’s sense of human capacities (p. 40). The two ways to resolve this issue are:
- Telling the audience the meaning of a person’s performance.
- Showing the meaning of a person’s performance.
Giving commentary to an audience can bring attention to detail of the performance that might be neglected. Also, rhetors can bring attention to the behavior of the audience. Commentary can also help strengthen a possibility that the audience already noticed and demonstrate a new way to think about the performance. The commentary can be dispensed because people can reevaluate the story and display a new state of mind. Rhetors can tell audience possibility because the possibility might not be clear. The audience judges the commentary of a new possibility and if it agrees with their preexisting beliefs, they might agree with it. If the possibility is unfamiliar, they may decide to accept the word of the commentator.
The second way to reduce ambiguity is by giving performances with little to no commentary (p. 42). When the rhetor gives key narrative details, the possibility of the story is revealed and not how true the story is or how credible the rhetor is. However, not giving commentary can lead to the inability of some listeners to identify the possibility because they do not reflect on the story. Some rhetorical advantages “showing” has over “telling” is the fact making the stories indicate the state of mind is possible and the audience discerning the state of mind demonstrates their capacity to do it. However, by giving commentary, rhetors can demonstrate that states of minds are possible and not only suggest them, and it can also evoke compelling performances from the audience.
At the end of the paper, Kirkwood mentions that making the audience aware of unknown possibilities can create problems and he gives the example of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (p. 45). There are consequences for people that accept the new possibilities and he writes that preferably, rhetors who present new possibilities will help the audience cope with the new possible difficulties of the possibilities.