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Sunday, August 31, 2008

What Is Rhetoric

Here's an off-the-cuff formulation defining "Rhetoric" that I offered up at the end of my first lecture in the Rhetoric of Argument last week.
Rhetoric is at once the facilitation of efficacious discourse as well as the critique of the terms under which discourse comes to be and fails to be efficacious.

I don't know that I would want to be held to that as a formal definition, but it does seem a pretty good point of departure for grappling with the subject. I like that it captures the sense of rhetoric as a constellation of critical thinking and writing skills -- at least genuflecting in the direction of an historical understanding of rhetoric as practical and persuasive arts -- while at once connecting rhetoric explicitly to the archive and practice of contemporary critical theory which is so central to rhetoric as it is taught in the Department at Berkeley at any rate (another, possibly better, way of making this latter point would be to insist on the indebtedness of critical theory to the rhetorical tradition, and then to propose that the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley is one of the places that properly registers that debt). Whatever its limits, certainly this is a better definition of rhetoric than the one most people seem to hold, even if they keep it to themselves when I'm around. You know, rhetoric as bullshit.

6 comments:

Steven Holmes said...

"Rhetoric is at once the facilitation of efficacious discourse as well as the critique of the terms under which discourse comes to be and fails to be efficacious."

Why not: "Studying rhetoric is learning to communicate clearly."

"the facilitation of efficacious discourse" seems so inflated.

For the second half of the definition, "the critique of the terms under which discourse comes to be and fails to be efficacious." It seems to me that critical theory is more than just a critique of the "terms" under which discourse comes to be effective.

So, how about: "Rhetorical theory is the critique of people trying to speak well."

No need to conflate two unrelated practices. Maybe the rhetoric department at Berkeley should be called "Rhetoric and Rhetorical Theory" instead of just rhetoric; or if it is just rhetorical theory, it should say so.

Dale Carrico said...

Hey, Steve, how are things?

It won't always be those who communicate their intentions clearly who best achieve their argumentative ends, it seems to me. And the point of the second half of the formulation for me is precisely to inquire as to the conditions under which we take discourse to be "speaking well" after all, not simply to assume we already know what this is. We speak well -- with an eye to an end, in a particular situation, under a certain aspect. Not to mention -- given the theoretical commonplace that discourse encompasses more than speaking, including things like arrangements of objects in a shop window or features of a building, and other such things, probably I wouldn't want to reduce it to a matter of "speaking" in any case (even though it is common enough to hear speech treated in this more capacious way in theoretical discourse, so I take your point).

Dale Carrico said...

And I think it is fruitful to treat these two dimensions of rhetoric as inter-implicated. I don't think that is quite the same thing as conflating them. To call them "unrelated" seems hard to swallow.

Steve said...

Hey Dale,

I'm doing well. Over this last summer I did some tutoring, and in doing so I came face to face with trying to convey the ideas of academic writing to students just entering academia, and idiosyncratic word use really came up a lot.

Why would opt for the more convoluted definition if what you're trying to do is get the idea across. Dictionary.com defines rhetoric as, "the study of the effective use of language." If you want to include the arrangement of objects in a shop window as part of "language", then that works just as well.

Why use discourse instead of speech or language? We might define discourse as "communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation." Discourse implies speech not implied by mere sound utterances, but in the actual formation of words. In linguistics, from what I understand, discourse is speech that is generally longer than a sentence. I know that academia has taken up "discourse" to mean something other than that, but I don't know why and I feel that, out of sake of making sense, they should probably get another word.

Don't let classes get you down! Stay healthy!

JD Tuyes said...

"Whatever its limits, certainly this is a better definition of rhetoric than the one most people seem to hold, even if they keep it to themselves when I'm around. You know, rhetoric as bullshit."

Is this what you mean?
Sarah Palin during her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention:
[Obama] is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting and never use the word victory except when he's talking about his own campaign. But when the cloud of rhetoric has passed , when the roar of the crowd fades away when the stadium lights go out and those styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some Hollywood studio lot, when that happens what exactly is our opponents plan, what does he actually seek to accomplish, after he's done turning back the waters and healing the planet. . . the answer is to make gvt bigger and take more of your money and give you more orders from Washington to reduce the strength of America in a dangerous world . . America needs more energy."

Dale Carrico said...

It is crucial not to limit our understanding of discourse to speech nor our understanding of discursive efficacy to "effective communication" -- because it is not only language systems that are discursive (the articulation of space in a theme park or in an Ikea are discursive) and it is not only "communication" that affects conduct or engages in what Adorno called the "spiritual constitution of the masses."