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Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World

David Slayden and Rita Kirk Whillock
Sage Publications: London
1999
0761908722 (pb); 0761908714 (hb)
14.99 (pb); 33.00 (hb)
312

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A soundbite is a spoken text that is short and easily assimilable. The whole thing can be understood in one go, much like casting your eyes over an image and recognising what it is about. The advertisement slogan is the archetypal soundbite; the text, whe ther spoken or written, is designed to communicate its message simultaneously with the reading of an image. The catchphrase, tag, hook and punchline are forms of soundbite that, like the slogan, communicate their message in one go without appearing to nee d the linear, cumulative form of language. This book has a title that works well as a soundbite but it is definitely discursive between the covers. The editors and many of the authors are rhetoricians - a distinctly American academic discipline in its ana chronicity, also called 'applied communication studies'. They study the form and content of public discourse; the utterances made to many at once with particular intent. Technically their concern is how language is used effectively, but hidden in the mean ing of 'rhetoric' is the idea of language that sounds good but is lacking significance.

The thesis of the book is succinctly contained in the title. It is expanded in the introduction to explain that their concern is with changes in public communication that have led to a breakdown in a true exchange of ideas and meanings. Soundbite Culture, describes the "re-emergence of engaged public discourse in public life" while showing how "widespread is the absence of genuine dialogue" (xii). In the first chapter, written by one of the editors, this argument begins to take a substantive form:

To protect themselves in this entertainment sphere, public figures have become increasingly reliant on public relations consultants to guard their images, monitor the environment for potential traps, and take proactive stances to bolster their public images. Indeed, over the last few decades, spinmeisters have come to dominate the political arena, and they are good at it.
(Whillock in Slayden and Whillock 1999: 16)
The 'wired world' is primarily that of television but does of course extend to include other media, not only the new media of chatrooms and the internet, but also films, newspapers, artworks, shock rock and graffiti. The content of most of the contributio ns is directed to public debate, including pedagogic discourse, in the USA on political matters - party politics, racism, the position of disadvantaged groups. Two running concerns are with who is speaking (in terms of their social location) and how argum ents are constructed.

However, I was surprised by how loose the analysis is. The papers in this collection are discursive rather than systematic and seem to follow the style of an informed magazine piece with the addition of some references; to published speeches, to historica l sources, and to academically respected commentators on culture (Walter Benjamin, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, Marshall McLuhan, Stuart Hall and many others). The concern with rhetoric revolves around politics but it is unclear whether these pieces are analysing political discourse or contributing to it. The various authors establish a political position (appropriately anti-racist, anti-sexist, left-leaning) from which to discuss political discourse. The tools that they then bring to bear on that di scourse are borrowed from a range of places (sociology, cultural studies, history, political theory) without much concern about how they fit together. For example, Peter McLaren discusses the way that colour and ethnicity is debated in a series of texts i n his paper "Resisting Whiteness". He points to the limitations of the public utterances of republican politicians (including Pat Buchanan, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich but here, specifically, William J. Bennett former US Education Secretary writing in the Los Angeles Times) in terms of how they "miss the point" and display "false assumptions" (118) employ "faltering rhetoric" and "specious logic" (120) in their comments on civil rights. Against the rhetoric of such political pronouncements he deploys conce ptual tools such as the "ideology of colonialism" (118), follows Alex Callinicos in associating modern racism with "global capitalism" (130) and discusses the impact of Cornel West's "three white supremacist logics" (132). At the end of the piece, by way of concepts that include "postcolonial hybridity" and "revolutionary multiculturalism", we arrive at the author's fundamental concern which is presented as:

... organizing revolutionary praxis and social transformation productively around the revolutionary pivot points of anticapitalist struggle in which agency is not limited to - but neither does it exclude - agential spaces of ethnic struggle.
(McLaren in Slayden and Whillock 1999: 147)
The effect is to make the commentary seem like a contribution to the debate that tries to raise the standard somewhat. This involves bringing ideas to bear which are not in themselves new or significantly developed but would not normally be part of a publ ic, political debate.

The writing in many of the pieces displays a self-conscious style that shows some skill and awareness about the process of writing but rapidly becomes tedious. There is some reflexivity about the type of scholarship involved - Peter Kellett and H.L. Gooda lls' paper on "The Death of Discourse in Our Own (Chat) Room" uses the standards of good communication taught in the classroom to analyse a set of contributions to a chat room by teachers and scholars of communication. Taking the collection as a whole how ever, there seems to be no consistent set of theoretical principles that connect the papers.

The most interesting piece in the book, "Reading the Writing on the Wall", has pictures and is written by Les Back, Micheal Keith and John Solomos - the only contribution from English Universities. They look at how graffiti works as a form of public commu nication that is simultaneously aesthetic and political. In particular, they look at how graffiti is implicated in the sphere of the urban politics of difference, identity and racism. The piece works so well because the examples show how very simple state ments are addressed to a particular audience and how they elicit a response. The context of the graffiti as text in a public space is clearly theorised so that we understand how these utterances contribute to public discourse. The place in which the words are painted, drawn or erased becomes a part of the text, linking it to the speakers and to the arena of their discourse. This piece linked image to text in a way that began to demonstrate why soundbites work.

I did not much like this book and feel that it has little to offer the British reader interested in sociological research. On the other hand the book is at least easy to read and make sense of. I would have no hesitation in letting first year undergraduat es loose on it and there are a number of times when interesting issues are raised; the book could for example provide a good resource for stimulating seminar discussions. Most of these interesting points surrounded the nature of racist discourse in one wa y or another and the political dilemma thrown up by rules that say 'no platform for racists'. In the United States there is a straightforward legal problem when institutional rules contradict the First Amendment:

... in an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable values of free discourse and 'civil' discourse, many universities have enacted codes prohibiting speech or conduct or both that demean persons on the basis of, for example, race, gender, religi on, ancestry or sexual orientation. The constitutionality of these codes is, at best, suspect ...
(Charles Davis in Slayden and Whillock 1999: 205)
Most of the things that these chapters have to say could have been said in a quarter of the space and yet there was hardly any discussion of what a soundbite is or what a discourse is. Discursivity is alive and well in this book... rather than such string y narratives, I would have preferred a few more soundbites to crunch on.

Tim Dant
Manchester Metropolitan University

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