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Posted by on August 27, 2013

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Lloyd Bitzer defines rhetoric as “a mode of altering reality…by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (4). To achieve this, the rhetor—or the person composing rhetoric—must be able to connect to her or his intended audience through a shared understanding of symbols: utterances, words, graphics. This connection is essentially a shared acceptance of the meaning of the symbols being used, where those symbols create an appeal to bridge the gap between perceived individual realities.


Rhetorician Kenneth Burke essentially said that wherever there is meaning there is persuasion, and wherever there is persuasion there is rhetoric (172). As humans, we use language—symbols and utterance—to define our perceived realities, and we use rhetoric to reach agreement on what these realities might be. It’s a constant negotiation that happens every day at every moment.

So how does appeal take place? For Burke, it’s through the process of identification. The audience must be able to identify with a substance within the rhetoric: ideals, notions, characters, emotions. To “alter reality,” the rhetor must appeal to the needs of his or her audience, must use language and symbols in a way that fits the experience and understanding of the audience, that evokes imagery that they identify with.


A simple way to understand this can be through lyrical music, and I will specifically use Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” the critically acclaimed song by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails).



“Hurt” is Trent Reznor’s personal realization of consequence and regret as he struggled with drug addiction. It was the concluding track on the concept album Downward Spiral, and Reznor’s favorite song, his most personal ever written. “I’m not proud to say I hate myself and don’t like what I am, but maybe there is real human communication that ends up positive even though everything being said is negative,” he told USA Today.


Eight years later Johnny Cash decided to cover “Hurt.” This was a year before his death, and he connected to the regret that filled Reznor’s lyrics, identified with the symbolic expression of emotions, character, and reality contained within the lyrics. While Reznor closed his album with the song, Cash decided to make it opening track for American IV: The Man Comes Around.


When Reznor was asked if Cash could cover the song, he initially was flattered, but then felt angry that someone would take something that was so personal. “I listened to it,” he told The Sun newspaper in August 1, 2008, “and it was very strange. I t was this other person inhabiting my most personal song. I’d known where I was when I wrote it. I know what I was thinking about. I knowhow I felt. Hearing it was like someone kissing your girlfriend. It felt invasive.” (


Then he saw the video, and everything changed. “It really, really made sense and I thought what a powerful piece of art. I never got to meet Johnny but I’m happy I contributed the way I did. It felt like a warm hug. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend checking it out. I have goose bumps right now thinking about it.”


This is the power of rhetoric, and a great example of how the use of the personal, the “self,” can be so powerful in creating that identification that connects minds through symbols.

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