Letters to Shareholders

Last night the seminar looked at Chapter 2 of Glenn Stillar’s Analyzing Everyday Texts in which he lays out a system of discourse analysis based on M.A. K. Halliday’s social semiotics. We actually had a good time.

Last time I taught this book it was pretty much a disaster. This time I did some analysis of my own to figure out why. Stillar’s text is readable at the paragraph level, but because there are lots of terms, and lots of overlap, it is hard to put the whole system together. The subhead styles used by the publisher don’t help much either. I made the students an outline. This helped immensely. And then we worked through lots of examples.

Stillar’s main insight is that texts simultaneously construct worlds, construct relationships between participants in the discourse, and create coherence by referencing things within and without the text. His top-level terms are ideational, interpersonal, textual, and contextual. Context seems to be added on at the end because for most of the chapter he is talking about three terms. Context refers to the world outside the text that activates the functions of the other three terms. Got that? To further confuse things, there are lots of sub-categories and esoteric terms under each main heading.

However, once you start thinking along these lines and looking at texts, new insights abound. We began by looking at a sign posted at Bagam airport in Mynmar. At the top it says “PEOPLE’S DESIRE.” Under that, it reads:

  • Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views.
  • Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation.
  • Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State.
  • Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Here’s link to a photograph.

The first category under the ideational function in Stillar’s system is “Process Types and Participant Roles.” We had some discussion about whether the bullet points were intended as commands to the people, or statements addressed to the foreign reader to the effect that “The People’s desire is to oppose . . .” The ambiguity is perhaps by design. It seems to work both ways. The roles of the participants are complex but clear. The writer of the sign claims to speak for the people. The foreigner is a potential disruptive element, and is being warned off.

Further analysis can tell us more about how the sign creates its world and constructs it participants. Our own reaction is interesting and complex. We resist the role constructed for us by the discourse.

We went on to discuss and analyze four other texts. One was a statement from a web site about a university writing test. Although the writer is anonymous, the essence of the message is that the Trustees and the faculty make us give this test and dictate its design, so don’t blame us. The other three were letters to shareholders from Enron in 2000, Berkshire Hathaway in 2000, and Lehman Brothers in 2007.

The Enron letter creates the impression that the company and its leaders are omnipotent, omniscient, and raking in tons of money. They have the skills and connections to overwhelm the competition, no matter what market conditions prevail. This is quite ironic because the company went spectacularly bankrupt only a few months later. The Berkshire Hathaway letter, written by Warren Buffett, is folksy and self-deprecating. He says, “I told you last year that we would get our money’s worth for stepped-up advertising at GEICO in 2000, but I was wrong.” He says they are investing in “such cutting edge industries as brick, carpet, insulation, and paint. Try to contain your enthusiasm.” Berkshire Hathaway is, of course, one of the most successful companies in the history of the world.

The Lehman Brothers letter touts the company’s strength and experience, even in difficult market conditions, its four pillars of strength, and its customer service, but finishes up by noting that the share price went down. In a few months, Lehman would be bankrupt too.

I chose these letters for analysis because the circumstances surrounding them make the rhetorical nature of the discourse more obvious. The letter writers strive to construct a world, in some cases largely imaginary, and situate themselves and their readers in their construct. Stillar helps us see how it is done. And this time around, my students didn’t complain. I think they are getting it.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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