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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blogging Summer Teaching -- What Is Rhetoric Then?

This course is one of four Core courses in the Rhetoric curriculum at Berkeley -- and so I will begin as I do in teaching any of these reminding students what rhetoric is about in a general sort of way. It is strange, but the common apprehension of rhetoric is profoundly paradoxical. At once, you will find both formal and practical definitions of rhetoric as the skill to communicate intentions clearly and change minds and conduct effectively. And yet, at the same time, rhetoric is treated as vacuous -- let's get past the rhetoric, to the substance -- or even suspicious -- mere rhetoric, bullshit, spin, hype, deception. How can rhetoric be at once something and nothing, at once useful and injurious? Of course, it is only when the know-how and knowledge with which rhetoric concerns itself is compared to another, presumably higher, more virtuous, more powerful standard that its substance is evacuated, its virtues are denigrated: It is mostly when it is measured against a certain philosophical conception of truth, deliberation, decision, virtue that rhetoric is found wanting. I personally think philosophy is just a literary genre -- empirically, philosophy is that genre defined by the problems and conceits and stylistic quirks of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel and those people who care about them in defiance of sense -- and it is crucial to remind people that theory is much bigger than philosophy is, just as thinking is much bigger than theory is. But philosophy in that reductive generic sense is not only preoccupied with the distinction between itself and rhetoric (or sophistry), philosophy constituted and reconstitutes itself in its ongoing distinction with rhetoric -- an operation that is actually co-constitutive of both. As it happens, the story of that philosophical repudiation of rhetoric will be at the heart of the course at hand.

Rhetoric, in my definition of it, 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. More specifically, rhetoric is an engagement in and with discourse which emphasizes three qualities: its occasionality, its interestedness, and its figurality. As we will discover in reading the classic formulations of rhetoric in Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian in our course, rhetoric has always paid attention to material specificities of the eulogy, the commencement address, the public debate, the newspaper editorial, the ad spread across the side of a bus, the ceremonial occasions of discourse, the possibilities inhering in its conditions, and the demands of meeting its situated expectations. This yields a model of discourse that arises out of material and historical situations and the significance of which is enacted collaboratively with the audiences into the hearing of which it is offered, in their material and historical situations. Rhetoric does not deny the extent to which arguments are adapted to audiences and shaped by the ends in the service of which they are made. Classical rhetoric is full of practical advice about ways to calculate effects and manipulate audiences and accomplish particular ends -- but again this advice is more than a scattered archive of pragmatic tips, but yields a model of discourse in which interest mobilizes attention, in which "disinterest" is revealed to be another strategy in the service of interests, in which knowledge is never neutral, never final, never secure however useful. And finally rhetoric pays attention to the materiality of the marks, noises, gestures, performances through which signification plays out in the world, even when rhetoricians seem to want to dismiss metaphor, arrangement, euphony, and style in argument as mere ornamental display they are obsesses with its effects and catalog its forms in exhaustive detail. Rhetoricians have always taken figurative language seriously. While some rhetoricians seem to panic about the threat of the figurative to the literal (as we shall see, this panic tends to have an insistently gendered formulation), others seem to embrace the force of the figurative as an ongoing invigoration of the literal: I would propose that this yields a model of discourse that attends to problems and possibilities arising from an ongoing traffic between the literal and the figurative work of language.

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