Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Challenger, Katrina, and rhetoric

I've been reading a couple of articles by Arthur Walzer and Alan Gross on the rhetoric of the Challenger disaster. One of them, "Positivists, Postmodernists, Aristotelians, and the Challenger Disaster," was published in College English in April of 1994. The other one, "The Challenger Disaster and the Revival of Rhetoric in Organizational Life," is available online.

Let me begin my discussion by focusing on a sentence from the first one: "Although there is a degree of simplification in any attempt to identify a single or even a principal cause of an accident involving a complex technology, the Challenger case is unusual, if not unique, in the annals of recent disasters in that the reliability of the component that failed (an O-ring) was questioned and debated on the eve of the launch" (420). These debates are of intense interest to rhetoricians.

In my view, these debates have much in common with the debates about the levee system in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. In each case, engineers believed that the existing system was insufficient; in each case, they presented powerful evidence; in each case, they weren't heard until it was too late. Although rhetoricians have commented widely on the response to Katrina after the disaster, they've said much less about the events that led the city to be so poorly prepared for it. So far as I've been able to find, no one has taken the sort of Aristotelian approach that Gross and Walzer took to the Challenger disaster.

This might be worth pursuing.


Blogger metablogger said...

This silence about the existing system is a good idea to pursue as, being that I am a New Orleans native I can tell you that no one is really talking about that. Pithy comments are made here and there, but frankly, we're all just too concerned with moving on, rebuilding, getting insurance money, and living life. I'm focusing on the trauma of the event and how folks turned to the Internet to vent/act out/donate, etc., but this idea as to why no one really wants to push those buttons about the weak levees is an intriguing one.

10:31 PM  
Blogger Thomas Wright said...

I find it amazing that no one is really talking about it. I can sort of understand why people didn't discuss the existing system before the disaster. It's easy to brush aside problems that haven't happened yet.

But how much more proof do we need that what we've been doing doesn't work? And by "what we've been doing," I mean not only from a standpoint of engineering and construction, but rhetoric and communication.

10:48 AM  

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