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Encyclopedia > Contextomy

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Contextomy

Contextomy refers to the selective excerpting of words from their original linguistic context in a way that distorts the source’s intended meaning, a practice commonly (and erroneously) referred to as the fallacy of quoting out of context. Taken literally, this common phrase is absurd, as there is no contextual void in which a quotation can exist in isolation. The article or broadcast in which a quotation appears is its current context, albeit one different from the context in which the words were originally uttered. If the claim is modified to reflect this fact – i.e., one instead says the words were “quoted out of their original context” – it becomes merely banal, in that all quotes entail extracting some portion of a source’s words from their original context. The problem here is not the removal of a quote from its original context (as all quotes are) per se, but to the quoter’s decision to exclude from the excerpt certain nearby phrases or sentences (which become “context” by virtue of the exclusion) that serve to clarify the intentions behind the selected words. Comparing this practice to surgical excision, historian Milton Mayer coined the term “contextomy” to describe its use by Julius Streicher, editor of the infamous Nazi broadsheet Der Sturmer in Weimar-era Germany. To arouse anti-semitic sentiments among the weekly’s working class Christian readership, Streicher regularly published truncated quotations from Talmudic texts that, in their shortened form, appear to advocate greed, slavery, and ritualistic murder (Mayer, 1966). Although rarely employed to this malicious extreme, contextomy is a common method of misrepresentation in contemporary mass media (McGlone, 2005a, b). Julius Streicher at the Nuremberg Trials. ... National Socialism redirects here. ... 1934 Stürmer issue: Storm above Juda 1943 Stürmer issue: Satan Der Stürmer was a weekly Nazi newspaper published by Julius Streicher from 1923 to the end of World War II in 1945. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ...


Contextomy in Film Advertising

One of the most familiar examples of contextomy is the ubiquitous “review blurb” in film advertising. To create these blurbs, studio promoters dissect multiple reviews of a film and then select the most positive comments for use in advertisements. The lure of media exposure associated with being “blurbed” by a major studio undoubtedly encourages some critics to write positive reviews of mediocre movies. However, even when a review is negative overall, studios have few reservations about excerpting it in a way that misrepresents the critic’s opinion. For example, the ad copy for New Line Cinema’s 1995 thriller Se7en attributed to Owen Gleiberman, a critic for Entertainment Weekly, the comment “a small masterpiece.” One might infer from the quote that Gleiberman’s (1995) review of the film was positive. In fact, it was quite tepid. Unimpressed with the film’s seven deadly sins motif (which he characterized as “rather corny”) as well as the perfunctory performances of its lead actors, Gleiberman gave it a B- on Entertainment Weekly’s Movie Grade scale. Why then did he use the words “a small masterpiece” in his review? Not to describe the film overall, but merely its opening credits: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia” (p.45, italics added). Similarly, United Artists contextomized critic Kenneth Turan’s (1997) review of their flop Hoodlum, including just one word from it – “irresistible” -- in the film’s ad copy. Examining the sentential context of this quote leaves little doubt that Turan found the film easy (and advisable) to resist: “Even Laurence Fishburne’s incendiary performance can’t ignite Hoodlum, a would-be gangster epic that generates less heat than a nickel cigar. Fishburne’s ‘Bumpy’ is fierce, magnetic, irresistible even…But even this actor can only do so much” (p. 8, italics added). Many critics have become so fed up with having their opinions misrepresented via selective quotation that they have changed the way they write reviews. Instead of producing the punchy prose that has long been characteristic of the genre, these critics deliberately avoid one-liners, colorful similes, and effusive adjectives to thwart promotional excerpting. Howard Movshovitz, film critic for the Denver Post, succinctly described this logic when he quipped, “If I ever write a line I think can be quoted, I change it” (Reiner, 1997). A blurb is a short summary or some words of praise accompanying a creative work, usually refering to the words on the back of the book but also commonly seen on DVD and Video cases, Web portals and news websites. ... Se7en (also known as Seven) is a 1995 film directed by David Fincher. ... June 17, 2005 cover of Entertainment Weekly, featuring actor Tom Cruise Entertainment Weekly is a magazine published by Time Warner in the United States which is dedicated to the world of celebrity and popular culture. ... June 17, 2005 cover of Entertainment Weekly, featuring actor Tom Cruise Entertainment Weekly is a magazine published by Time Warner in the United States which is dedicated to the world of celebrity and popular culture. ... The current United Artists logo (a variant was used during the 1980s). ... Kenneth Turan is an American film critic, currently writing for the Los Angeles Times. ... Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix Revolutions Laurence Fishburne III (born July 30, 1961) is an Academy Award-nominated American film and occasional stage actor. ... The Denver Post is a daily newspaper published in Denver, Colorado. ...


Contextomy in Political Spin

Contextomy is also a common spin tactic among unscrupulous political journalists. Consider the yew tree controversy that plagued former Vice-President Al Gore in the late 1990’s. The trouble began when David Ridenour, a conservative columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, wrote a piece criticizing the Vice-President’s environmental policy agenda. Ridenour specifically criticized Gore’s willingness to put “environmental politics before people” as a moral failure and cited a passage from his 1992 book Earth in the Balance as evidence of this willingness. In the passage, Gore describes his stance on the preservation of the Pacific Yew, a tree with potentially important medicinal uses: |- ! Born | March 31, 1948 Washington, D.C. |} Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. ... The Austin American-Statesman is the major daily newspaper for Austin, the capital city of Texas. ... Environmental policy refers to the laws, regulations, and other policy mechanisms concerning environmental issues and sustainability. ... Earth in the Balance audio book cover Earth in the Balance (ISBN 0452269350) is a 1992 book written by Al Gore shortly before he was elected Vice President in the 1992 presidential election. ...


The Pacific Yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, Taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice -- sacrifice the tree for a human life -- until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated. (p. 119) Binomial name Taxus brevifolia Nutt. ... Paclitaxel is a drug used in the treatment of cancer. ... When normal cells are damaged beyond repair, they are eliminated by apoptosis. ...


Proceeding from this quotation, Ridenour (1998) argued that the Vice-President would rather sacrifice people than deplete the Yew population, and thus lacked human compassion. Following the publication of the article, numerous references to the quotation appeared in conservative op-ed columns, magazines, radio, and television shows across the country. A year later, it even surfaced in a discussion of environmental policy on the floor of the House of Representatives. After reading the excerpt to his House colleagues, Rep. David McIntosh(R- Indiana) took issue with the Vice-President’s apparent preference for trees over human lives: House of Representatives is a name used for legislative bodies in many countries. ...


Three trees versus a human life, three trees versus the ability to prolong someone's life who is suffering from cancer? I would pick the individual, the person, the human being who is a cancer patient and suffering from that dreaded disease and say it is clear three trees are worth it. We can sacrifice three trees to save one human life. But the Vice President apparently does not think that is so clear (109th Congress., 2nd Session, 145 Cong. Rec. H3376, 1999).


If it were merely the ratio of trees to human lives that had bothered the Vice President, Rep. McIntosh’s outrage might be justified. However, a very different picture of Gore’s concerns emerges when the excerpt is examined in the context of the words immediately preceding and following it in his book (Ridenour’s excerpt appears in bold):


Most of the [tree] species unique to the rain forests are in imminent danger, partly because there is no one to speak up for them. In contrast, consider the recent controversy over the yew tree, a temperate forest species, one variety of which now grows only in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, Taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice -- sacrifice the tree for a human life -- until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated, that only specimens more than a hundred years old contain the potent chemical, and that there are very few of these Yews remaining on earth. Suddenly we must confront some very tough questions. How important are the medical needs of future generations? Are those of us alive today entitled to cut down all of those trees to extend the lives of a few of us, even if it means that this unique form of life will disappear forever, thus making it impossible to save human lives in the future? (p.119)


In its original context, Gore’s expression of reluctance to cut down Yews does not, as his critics alleged, appear to be motivated by a fanatical pro-flora platform. Rather, it is based on the decidedly pro-person concern that toppling too many now would limit the supply available to benefit cancer patients of future generations. By strategically omitting this and other legitimate reasons Gore offered for preserving the Yew, Ridenour reduced the Vice-President’s sober assessment of the dilemma to an embarrassing blurb confirming his reputation among conservatives as a “radical” environmentalist. Bold textHello ...


For more information about contextomy, see McGlone (2005a,b).


References

Gleiberman, O. (1995, September 22). “Se7en” (film review). Entertainment Weekly, p. 45. Se7en (also known as Seven) is a 1995 film directed by David Fincher. ... June 17, 2005 cover of Entertainment Weekly, featuring actor Tom Cruise Entertainment Weekly is a magazine published by Time Warner in the United States which is dedicated to the world of celebrity and popular culture. ...


Gore, A. (1992). Earth in the balance. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Gore may refer to: Kensington Gore, English theatre slang for stage blood The depiction of graphic violence in film, TV and theatre, especially the realistic depiction of serious physical injuries involving blood, flesh and bone matter (see splatter film) A triangular segment: Gore (road), a triangular point of land often...


Looking at the record of the Vice-President, 109th Congress, 2d Sess., 145 Cong. Rec. H3376 (1999) (testimony of Rep. David McIntosh, R.- Indiana).


Mayer, M. (1966). They thought they were free: The Germans, 1933-45. Chicago, IL: U. of Chicago Press.


Reiner, L. (1996). Why movie blurbs avoid newspapers. Editor & Publisher: The Fourth Estate, 129, 123.


Ridenour, D. (1998, August 16). How would Gore fare if he were called on to serve? Austin American-Statesman, p. A15. The Austin American-Statesman is the major daily newspaper for Austin, the capital city of Texas. ...


McGlone, M.S. (2005a). Quoted out of context: Contextomy and its consequences. Journal of Communication, 55, 330-346.


McGlone, M.S. (2005b). Contextomy: The art of quoting out of context. Media, Culture, & Society, 27, 511-522.


Turan, K. (1997, August 27). Hoodlum: A fight for control of Harlem. Los Angeles Times, p.8. Turan (in Persian: ) is the ancient Iranian name for the Northeastern nomads. ... The Los Angeles Times (also known as the LA Times) is a daily newspaper published in Los Angeles, California and distributed throughout the western United States. ...


 
 

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