What Can Rhetoric Be?

As I read the first section of Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, What Can Rhetoric Be?, it seems to me that the anthologized works from the late 80s and 90s were still coming to terms with the influence of Aristotle and neo-Aristotelianism’s propagation of objective constructions of rhetoric. Although I’d like to hear more about how the authors define neo-Aristotelianism, it seems epitomized as worshipping singular texts and their intrinsic, constricted, monocultural features. In some cases, the theorists in this section used other eras of classical rhetoric to respond to said tradition (Poulakos), while others took more experimental, feminist, postmodern approaches to rhetoric, deconstructing the term via various historical tropes for women (Sutton). As the intro to this section points out, what these essays share is their approach to rhetoric as praxis; that is, as concurrently performed or embodied “theory and action” (<– tentative definition). Related to that, what I noticed in at least four of the six was a definition of rhetoric that had to similarly comes to terms with shifting contexts, an idea I explored while reading the introduction last week. While I don’t intend to anchor my definition of rhetoric to context this entire semester, I do think it’s appropriate to examine how these articles engage the idea of context.

For instance in three of the articles — John Poulakos’s “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” Michael Leff’s “The Habitation of Rhetoric,” and Thomas Farrell’s “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory” — appropriateness plays a significant role in their definitions. For Poulakos an examination of doers (Sophists) over thinkers (philosophers) leads us to understand rhetoric as an art (techne) “which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (26). Key to this understanding are the Sophists’ concepts of kairos and to prepon so that the rhetorician says the right thing at the right time. How do we know if s/he succeeds? If the audience can imagine themselves as other — if they can consider what’s possible, moving away from actuality — or if they don’t (and I’m a little confused by this), they at least critically understand their stasis as more authentic than the possibility of something else (this would describe a hipster watching American Idol, I suspect).

In seeking to negotiate the restrained rhetoric of neo-aristotelianism and the liberated rhetoric of neo-sophism that Poulakos advocated, Leff settles on a definition of rhetoric that accepts it as a form of action, but requires some kind of substance for analysis. In this way, then, decorum works as the rubric for rhetoric since it essentially requires a understanding of the context and process, but uses the product as the test: “It is the principle of decorum that allows us to comprehend a situation as a whole, to locate its meaning within a context, and to translate this understanding into a discursive form that becomes an incentive to action” (62). Using decorum to understand rhetoric is useful thanks to its flexibility.

Thomas Farrell seeks a similar flexibility to deal with what he calls a “widening circle of acquaintance”; he thus sketches the idea of a rhetorical forum, a specific location “where types of reasoning and argument are practiced” (88) and to some extent ordered. Rhetorical practice in the forum are regulated in some way. Similar to Leff, Farrell believes that rhetoric can be understood in the context of the forum so that “rhetorical practice enacts the norms of propriety collaboratively with interested collective others” (91). These norms, he notes, are always changing and difficult to pin down.

Of all the writers in the first section Michael Calvin McGee’s has been cited far more than the others — and probably for good reason. Although written in 1990, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture” attempts to get at the essence of the 90s and the end of the 20th century by calling out speech discourse as existing as fragments where “rhetors make discourses from scraps and pieces of evidence” (70). He lays out three structural elements — sources, culture and influence — and requires all three to be present in rhetoric in order for critics claim they understand its meaning. Such an approach to context is necessary because we now live in a heterogeneous culture. In this way, the structural elements are necessary just as Farrell’s forum is necessary to his theory. Evidence of such homogeneity is contrived, however, as one wonders that although the suffrage gave women a voice and Brown v BOE mixed the races, it’s not like women or African Americans didn’t develop their own discourse systems. In others words, McGee’s call for such a new theory is suspiciously WASPy. That said, he does acknowledge more instantaneous media and the “knowledge explosion” it engendered (this sounds similar to Farrell’s “widening circle”). This line, in particular, got my attention: “text construction is now something done more by the consumers than by the producers of discourse” (76). In other words, as readers or listeners we need to be prepared (or prepare our students) to be critical enough to fill in the blanks, to know how to find good information, and to understand the fragments of texts, especially their sources. The problem with McGee, however, is that he seeks to limit rhetorical criticism to speech — and increasing problem in the digital age.

While all of these manifestations of rhetoric and context seem more accurate in the 21st century, one still wonders how to develop the tools to gauge these various and shifting contexts in order to better understand them. What happens, for instance, when the context shifts but the people do not? I’m thinking here of how zine communities move from various print and digital platforms, or how someone who produced print-only publications in the 1990s explains print subcultures to students raised on Facebook. Speaking of which, can rhetoric theory anticipate contexts? Is part of their job to predict? In McGee’s case, the answer seems obvious.

I also wonder about some of the terminology in these pieces. What is the difference, for instance, between decorum and propriety? Forum and context?

And what elements of formalist study do we need to retain so that everything does not seem so relative, as one of my peers pointed out. Or is relativism and theory and rhetoric compatible?