The Rhetoric of Carl Sagan

Okay, so Carl Sagan is not exactly a “contemporary happening,” but with Netflix’s ever increasing library of instant play documentaries, the past seems to be collapsing into the present with regard to video media. I never watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was in High School, but I remember my charismatic chemistry teacher would always quote Carl Sagan’s unique way of saying, “billions and billions,” which piqued my curiosity enough to take a look at this documentary when I saw it on Netflix. This same chemistry teacher would often perform historical moments in science, for example the invention of the television, to make it more interesting. And once, I was so bored with the homework, that I wrote the correct answers but in a humorous and creative way. He gave me an A and read it in front of class, because it made his life “much more interesting.” Perhaps these experiences represent my first recognition of the rhetorical canon of delivery. Francis Bacon’s influence can clearly be seen, using a rhetoric that relies on the use of reason to motivate the will towards a good discovered through scientific “invention” or discovery. In a sense, “poetics” becomes a way of passing on information, but if we look closely, this use of language also becomes a way of constructing the world.

As I watch this documentary, what interests me is not really the slightly outdated astronomy, but rather the rhetoric that Carl Sagan uses to not only make his topic interesting, but to construct a particular worldview that invokes humanity’s cooperation, peace, and care for the earth’s natural environment. This worldview is based on projecting astronomy as a “humbling and character building experience.” In the above clip, often called The Pale Blue Dot, he is putting human existence on earth within the context of the universe. Sagan seems particularly prone to using parataxis. For example, in this clip, he uses short disconnected phrases to describe our perception of earth, contrasting with the vision of earth in the vast universe that he is constructing: “From this vantage point, the earth may not seem of particular interest, but for us it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being that ever was lived out their lives . . .” This goes on for quite a while much like a poem, then pivots around, using a similar kind of parataxis to describe how ridiculous the violence in human history appears from this new vantage point:

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they can become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings. How eager they are to kill one another. How fervent their hatreds. Our posturings. Our imagined self-importance. Our delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe are challenged by this point of pale light.

In a Baconian sense of rhetoric, Carl Sagan is clearly trying to motivate our “will” by packaging scientific knowledge in a poetic way. But can we really say that Carl Sagan is merely packaging knowledge . . . or is he also constructing our worldview?

In this way, science is closer to religion than we are likely to admit. Consider Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion as “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (643). There is no doubt that Carl Sagan is trying to “establish a pervasive, and long-lasting mood.” Remediating Sagan’s delivery of science reveals this component even more strongly. Check out the music video below by John Boswell, created on his website “Symphony of Science,” a project “designed to deliver scientific knowledge and philosophy in musical form.” Boswell uses a pitch modulator, often used to help untalented pop singers become talented, to modulate the voices of 20th century scientists into song.

Some people claim that within new physics and astronomy, the gap between science and religion is closing . . . but perhaps that gap never existed. Just a thought.

Geertz, Clifford. The Religious Situation, 1969: The Second in a Series of Annual Volumes. Ed. Donald R. Cutler. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969.

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2 Responses to The Rhetoric of Carl Sagan

  1. Igor says:

    Large scale religions don’t allow their beliefs to be questioned. Science is all about questioning and reexamining the established theories. Science progresses when theories are proven to be false beliefs.

  2. lanceelyot says:

    I would generally disagree that there is more or less questioning in either science or religion . . . simply different kinds of questioning. Certainly, there are discourses in contemporary American culture that disallow many forms of questioning, but this is by no means restricted to religious discourse.

    This is really not the point of the post, though. Often we assume both religion and science to be distinct, monological things that have stable and distinct boundaries. In reality, what we often see as religion and science bleed together, overlap, and inform each other. For example, in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Religion, he shows how there is an exchange between sacred and secular knowledge (8). Each set of terminologies (or rhetoric) borrow from the other: “What we say about words in the empirical realm, will bear a notable likeness to what we say about God, in theology” (15-16). He extends this through “grades of representation” to the natural world. What we say about the natural world will bear similarities to what we say in religion. Using a contemporary example, why are we looking for the “God particle”?

    What interests me the most about Sagan’s documentary is that these religious intersections come to the surface. In addition to the above example, when he explains the origins of humanity through evolution, the structure of his narrative still very much reflects the story of Genesis. Most striking to me, though, is his description of the 4th dimension (linked below), which seems to rely on Christological ways of thinking:

    I will be interested to see how this holds true or doesn’t hold true in the new Cosmos series being made for Fox.

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