understanding media 4: enthymeme


1    marshall mcluhan's 'hot and cold media' as mapping
2    comparisons with aristotle's four types of cause
3    hot hot hot: powerpoint presentations and the easy reversability of material cause

4    the fool and the enthymeme: it's for the audience to say . . .

This essay uses a topological notation system known as 'boundary language' and a related critical system known as 'screen theory.' For background on one or both, consult the web sites.

The enthymeme is a kind of syllogism. The only thing anyone ever can remember about syllogisms is that Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, and you can bet a lot of money and even bank your retirement account that, by virtue of this first and second premise, that Socrates is going to die. Since he's already dead, you can be even further assured of a return on your gambling investment. For our discussion, the first and second premise of the enthymeme are irrelevant except for the common term they share. This common term in the Socrates example was "man," because although it appears in both premises, it doesn't show up in the conclusion. For this reason it's called the "silent term." Interestingly, the silent term is related to the issue of causality.

The "silent term" in the enthymeme is what the audience is thinking about the speaker. Not about the subject matter, which in almost every case is very little, even though the speaker has gone to great lengths to research his topic and enunciate very clearly. No, the audience is thinking about the speaker's shabby suit, the lint on his/her trousers or skirt, the strange quirk or habit of speech that identifies the speaker as a no-nothing. These thoughts are not a part of the speaker's argument, but they do form an essential part of the outcome of the speech as an event. Demosthenes and others before and after him took this silent, often irrelevant to the material at hand element, very seriously. The "silent speech" thought but not spoken out loud by the audience - unless the speaker gets to be a real problem - means that one person can tell you something and you'll believe it, and someone else can tell you the exact same thing but you'll deny it to the end of your days. There's nothing you can do about the enthymeme, but you can, as a speaker, take steps to get it to work for you.

Thus, generals wishing to urge their men to battle thoughtfully tell their soldiers to pack it in and go home, that the battle isn't worth fighting. This worked well in the Illiad, where the Greeks were beginning to get tired of living out someone else's fantasies. Told to go home, they used their negative impressions of the general to form an impression of themselves as stalwart mates ready to defend the honor of poor Agamemnon. "Who does he think we are?" was the enthymemic, silent glue of the speech that led the soldiers to decide to go and die for a very trivial reason indeed. So, take the enthymeme seriously.

PowerPoint is the enthymeme in a nutshell. Just the word is enough to set the tone for a presentation. Gone the clatter of slide trays, in with the tedium of turning on computers, of seeing a demonstration of the universal principle that those who have the best equipment seem to never read the instruction manuals.

An interesting thing happens when we compare the enthymeme to the 'screen' situation that locates hot and cold media with respect to the audience, symbolizable communications, and unsymbolizable constituents.

The audience is 'required' to reach the required conclusion by virtue of the first and second premise. Socrates is a man, all men are . . . But, of course, the silent term ('man' in this case) in an enthymeme is the audience's formation of what the speaker REALLY intends to say, but perhaps cannot in the present circumstances.

A joke passed on by Zizek. Two friends agree to write each other although one must go to Siberia, where political oppression is a fact of life. The departing friend says, "When I need to say something but can't because a censor will be reading the letter, I'll use blue ink." The friend leaves and after a few months a letter arrives. "This is a great place; I have everything I need and the people are wonderful. The only problem is that I can't find any blue ink."

Things escape or are placed into the silent realm of the enthymeme's middle term as a matter of everyday communication. A wry smile attached to a response to "how are you?" means that the answer has more to it than is visible on the surface. Interestingly, however, the major premise, which is HOT (because it is the more "objective" universal and hence public of the two) and the minor premise, which is COLD (because it is the one that ideals with the subject at hand) combine along the line of the symbolizable, but the minor premise offers up its cold 'surplus,' the silent term that suggest the speaker's other motives (related to the effective cause of the statement), and the major premise then reveals ITS SURPLUS, a hidden meaning that is the core of the 'required conclusion' and may be OPPOSITE of what is 'required'.

In this way, enthymemic meaning frequently 'overturns the verdict' of the major and minor premise.

the fool

Here's a connection that's not often made. The fool 'tradition' is an ancient one. It goes back to the belief in the need to protect important persons, kings and such, from the retribution of the 'evil eye' or some similar cosmic device designed to keep ambition in its place. A fool - typically a court jester - would 'draw off' the evil of envy and make it OK for the king to be wealthy, powerful, and wise. The notion of a balanced administration, with equal proportions of fools and wits, may be the basis of Rome's choice of 'foundation gods,' the Dioscuri (Twins), Castor and Pollux. These were brothers who were granted a 'rotating immortality.' One brother lived while the other did time in Hades, then they switched.

In many if not most cases, even the fool and king switched (Mardi Gras is an important example). On special holidays, such as Saturnalia, servants were allowed to order their masters around. This notion of rotating folly and wisdom is ancient, and the implications for the hot-and-cold model drawn from McLuhan are clear.

The speaker in the enthymeme case plays two roles. In a manner of speaking, the speaker is both king and jester. As king, s/he is the 'straight man' who delivers the facts. As jester, s/he winks and nudges the audience to come to its own conclusions. What does this tell us about PowerPoint presentations? We have to go a bit deeper into the fool tradition to discover that.

The psychological construct of 'the stable personality' is an amalgam of traditions about psychological structure. Our view of ancient beliefs is clouded by 19c. mysticism, which subsituted pop cultural cross-contaminated versions of traditional themes and beliefs. 'Ectoplasm' would be a good example. Born possibly from the phenomenon of the photographic double exposure, 'soul' got associated with a foggy presence found on the photographic plate. Later, it was fashioned as a gelatenous substance that could spring from the interior of the body at strategic points. Ectoplasm's scientific-sounding name responded to the public desire for the 'psychic experiment' to 'prove' the existence of the spirit world.

The idea that a person can be 'taken over' by a spiritual entity is, however, somewhat different. Metempsychosis was Madame Blavatsky's term for the transmigration of souls, something that happened on a 'regular basis' in some cultures. Souls were valuable for what they knew of the underworld and the strategic position they occupied. Hence, to govern, the living king had to have a counterpart who was, in some senses, dead. This was a collectivization of the family lares and penates, the gods of the hearth who, in turn, collectivized the clan's ancestors. With 'friends in low places' a family could be assured of luck and wealth. Similarly, a king would need the collectivized good will of all of these ancestral dead, including those of his own family. Hence, the civic or national alter ritualized the collectivization and was the site of divination, or, gathering of the signs from the dead to the living.

Divination, or auspices, is the original 'cold message.' Fraught with ambiguity, its authenticity is based on its ability to suggest many things. Its lack of clarity is based on the notion that the chasm between the dead and living is primarily intellectual - the living CANNOT UNDERSTAND the set-up of the dead. Death is the limit and defining horizon of thought. So, the cold message from the dead - really cold! - tells us more about thought and life itself through its NEGATIVE qualities.

This explains why certain figures of rhetoric work well as cool speech: aposiopesis in particular can get the audience to 'think of what the speaker would like to say but can't.' Aposiopesis can be miniaturized in such Ciceronian phrases as, 'my opponent's faults are too numerous to mention' or the more subtle 'I can't agree that my opponent is a total idiot.'

It's easy to see how the sacred function of the 'foolish' speech of the dead in divination is secularized into the use of negation, silence, incompleteness, and fragmentation in ordinary communication. The key is the relationship between the speaker's obligation to be clear (a HOT function) and his/her need to be silent (a COOL function).

Here's the thesis:

In PowerPoint, the accessibility of the COOL function of communication depends on the use of the screen in a way that creates discontinuity with the literal words of the speaker. This can use incompleteness, reversal, or negation, or it can simply be a certain non-parallelism.

The performance artist Linda Montano has used masks, audience options (they control her 'personalities'), and background 'irrelevant' data to destablize the conditions of public speaking. Wearing a rubber witches mask at the opening of her talk makes the audience wonder whether they will witness a performance or a scholarly presentation. When the mask is removed, the latter seems the choice, but the background video, until it's referenced, gnaws away at that conclusion. The decisive factor is the audience's ability to manipulate the speaker's voice and 'personality' by, at random moments, raising signs the speaker has passed out. The signs direct the speaker to 'shift gears' by adopting the persona described: 'French,' 'British,' 'demented' . . .

Less ambitious forms of this kind of enthymemic expansion of the PowerPoint presentation are available:

  1. Using hyperlinks to allow the audience to control the direction of the presentation
  2. Using the illusion of error or disorder in the slides
  3. Disjoining the talk and the visual presentation

In short, the speaker 'plays the fool' to introduce this customary enthymemic ('magic') and very cold element, related to the ancient practice of communicating with the dead.


For selections from McLuhan's Understanding Media go to:


© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved