In the first meeting of my contemporary rhetorics class this week, Kevin asked us to (1) describe rhetoric and illustrate our definition (as in literally draw it), and (2) describe our major limitations as rhetorical theorists and how we imagine negotiating them. For the first prompt I concluded (rather simply) that rhetoric is discourse in context. While unsure about the term “discourse” (fearing that a term like “knowledge,” “language” or even “literacy” might serve equally) I wanted to hang my definition especially on context because, as I put it, “it’s about who says what, where, when and why. Context is important for us if we want to respect the ability of knowledge to escape us, to shift, to reflect and awe.”
This was an ok start without having any foundation or reading to lean on, I thought, but as I mentioned in my response to the second prompt, I tend to be reductive in both my understanding and application of theory, feeling as though I sometimes selectively or deterministically use ideas for whatever agenda I’m pursuing. I tend to negotiate my misunderstanding by reading lots of head notes and secondary sources (which sometimes is the symptom and not the cause of such reduction). I attribute part of the problem to exposure — not actively reaching for theory in my own time and having a difficult time sustaining my attention as I slog through it.
It was comforting, then, to read the introduction to our course text — Lucaites, Condit and Caudill’s Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader — and know that perhaps I’ve retained more about rhetorical theory over the years than I realize. The introduction suggests that the most basic meaning of rhetoric would include “problems and possibilities of human communication” (1), a persecutive compatible with the volume’s disciplinary perspective, which comes from communication studies. Here’s a basic summary of the intro:
- The intro starts at the beginning — with a discussion of the role classical rhetoric has played in shaping contemporary theory, arguing that “rhetoric typically emphasized the public, persuasive, and contextual characteristics of human discourse in situations governed by the problems of contingency” (2; emphasis in original). This aligns with the theories and histories we read in the fall for Ancient Rhetorics, especially the idea of contingency, that rhetoric helps us understand reality in terms of probabilities and not certainties. As the authors point out, however, classical rhetoric’s focus on public communication has meant the most to contemporary theory since “once a public or the citizenry is persuaded to endorse and act upon communally shared goals that history moves forward (or backward) in significant ways” (4). After discussing context and persuasiveness further and applying it (in typical comm studies fashion) to a famous speech (Churchill’s “War Situation I”), the introduction summarizes post-antiquity rhetorical study as having been replaced by more positivist approaches. While rhetoric still existed as “the Harlot of the Arts,” dominant thinkers did not consider rhetoric’s role on the thinking they were doing; in other words, rhetoric was as Plato had originally defined it, as dressing. In other words, rhetoric was too complex for the kinds of thinking that valued universal, grand narratives.
- By the time the 1960s arrived, the authors argue, two events began to move rhetorical theory from its historical and pedagogical restrictions to accommodate more disruptive, refractive publics: television and grassroots social movements. This new focus became interested in “understanding the relationships between rhetoric and social theory” (8). A more social view of rhetoric helped question the knowledge/language problem in the field. For example, Robert Scott’s essay, “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic” argued that rhetoric is not simply a means of making the truth effective, but it is quite literally a way of knowing, a means of production of truth and knowledge in a world where certainty is rare and yet action must be taken” (9). We’ll read this essay in a few weeks. His work and others in the late 60s helped pave the way for additional social perspectives, such as Lloyd Bitzer’s concept of the rhetorical situation (which has more recently been updated with rhetorical ecologies) and arguably rhetoric’s larger place in the humanities where “to be to rhetorical was a central and substantial dimension of many facets of the human social experience” (10).
- Following this rhetorical turn in the 70s, our introduction notes, a debate between modernist and postmodernist perspectives ensued. Modernists were essentially neoclassicists who believed in knowable truths, while postmodernists believed that “struggle, not consensus is the defining characteristic of social life” (11). Rhetorical theory at this point was still concrete, not performative and thus, applied neo-Aristotelianism principles to rhetorical situations instead of calling into question the reliability of the reality being studied. Interestingly, however, the book notes that one of contemporary rhetorical theory’s major projects is to figure out what replaces modernist perspectives of rhetoric. Thus, theorists in the late 70s aimed at constructing more reflexive approaches to rhetoric, seeing, for example, audiences as “rhetorically material.” In short, postmodernity made rhetorical study theoretical by default.
When Kevin asked us to illustrate our definition of rhetoric I came up with that flow chart of sorts, which placed a generic subject in the center with arrows coming in and moving out, which represented rhetoric. Part of what’s valuable about this intro for me, then, is seeing just how my definition and perspective has been shaped by contemporary theory (regardless of how crude or reductive that perspective might be). Although I was trying to illustrate the role context plays in meaning by placing a generic subject at the center and placing basic influences on one side (parents, school, media) and tools, channels and audiences on the other (computer, friends, clothes), I was trying to get at the chaos of rhetoric. And in reflecting on my definition further here, I wonder what contemporary rhetorical theory offers us for dealing with that chaos, whether our goals are to foster social change, or to help our students understand when to talk and when to listen. More than anything, I’m looking forward to continuing to better understand a discipline I still feel outside of.