Robin Williams and Immersive Invention

This New York Times article about Robin Williams's habits of preparation for engagement with audiences raises a lot of interesting ideas when rhetoricians talk about invention - the art of coming up with what to say, or as I like to call it "putting something together." I often talk about argument construction in terms of assembly, and it seems Williams had created quite the assembly method for his own practice of inventio.

Rhetoricians most regularly teach invention when they are teaching debaters or when they are teaching a course such as public speaking, or another "performance" course, as some in the field call them. We generally seem to teach a trajectory where we claim that rhetoric is a powerful, meaning-making field that is capable of creating everything from emotion to fact. Then we turn around and deduct lots of grading points off of student work that doesn't include "quality" citations or information. That information needs to come from good sources, which, according to our own rhetoric, come from somewhere other than rhetoric. This can leave an aftertaste in students' mouths that rhetoric is something of a servile art, something that dresses up information that is determined to be valid and meaningful elsewhere, through other methods that are far removed from the rhetorical world.

Contrast this approach to how Williams created his rhetoric. He immersed himself in topical readings and held conversations with many people. He secretly polled the audience for their pathos, yet at the same time respected the ethics of the Perelman/Olbrechts-Tyteca Universal Audience - making sure that his words were not just pandering to those who might uncritically accept them. What's missing from this article is how Williams decided to combine what he was reading with what would get his audience to adhere or assent to his desire - he wanted them to laugh, to "get it" whenever he would perform, I am assuming. Perhaps an explanation is the ancient rhetorical method of copiousness - surrounding and immersing oneself in topoi in order to have the invention come out of the soup, so to speak. But it seems Williams was much more selective than that. He chose his books, moments, and topics with precision, based on the situation he was facing, and the issues that the public were attuned to.

Tribute after tribute to Williams indicates his ability to very quickly generate relevant, effective material that did not rely on old jokes, or previous methods to get a laugh. This might not be the marker of genius, which is what CNN and other news outlets call it. Genius might be the pathos we feel as the result of watching a master of invention display the results of the immersion-invention he spent his life developing. I see it as an excellent model for teaching invention to those who wish to be constantly engaged with audiences in ways that parallel the work that Williams was doing.

What would public speaking be like if we assigned each student to become immersed in a relevant, topical issue facing the public which we imagine they will be addressing in life? Would each student come up with a different way to generate new material week to week about the same thing? Instead of the horrible public speaking textbook, why not require them to spend $80 to $100 on books about their issue? Have them keep a notebook, digital or otherwise, where they are engaged and combining this material to keep the class interested and excited about their weekly presentation? Could examples such as Williams finally push public speaking out of the delivery business, as formal and cold as the scientific facts that is supposedly services in our classes and into the warm world of ancient rhetoric, where it was not only the source of knowledge, but provided the boundaries for the recognition of knowledge as such?

Another way to ask that last question might be - Would we recognize Williams as a genius without his method of invention, uniquely his, but something we identify in our responses to his rhetoric?