Oct 21, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha’s in the booth and we have a brand new episode here for you. If you like new episodes, or if you have an episode to suggest, you can email me and tell me. The email is just email@example.com and we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Here’s the thing, though, today’s episode isn’t on rhetoric.
It’s on rhetoricality. Psych! What, you may ask, is the difference between rhetoricality and rhetoric? Well, John Bender and David E Wellbery wrote this article in 1990 titled “Rhetoricality: on the modernist return of rhetoric” where they argue that for too long rhetoric had been deeply misunderstood and maligned and it was time to dust off rhetoric for the last 20th century.
They start with a metaphor about architecture to describe their plans. Imagine a Classical building of, say, Athens. You’ve got your triglyphs, you’ve got your stylobates. But then history keeps happening and architectural fashions change and no one is doing stylbates anymore. Then classical architecture is dusted off--literally--, and people say, “wow--let’s do that.” But don’t do that, not really, because things have changed. They have to alter the classics in order to fit a modern aesthetic. This is the difference between rhetoric and rhetoricality.
Bender and Wellbery argue a project of a Modernist reconciliation of rhetoric, as opposed to the Enlightenment and Romanticism hostility that characterized much of history. It’s funny that you don’t usually think of the philosophies of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras of having much in common: one group parades about in powdered wigs, says “what-what” and writes comedies of manners and constitutions while the other falls in love with consumptive prostitutes, wanders the lake district and dies young. But they’re both sort of anti-rhetorical. As Bender and Wellbury put it “Foundational subjectivity--be it the subject as res cogitans or as creative origin, as unique individual personality or as disinterested free agent within the political sphere--erodes the ideological premises of rhetoric” (12). So whether you’re a free spirit at the whims of the muse or a cog-like actor in the machine, there’s no place for the socially constructed work of rhetoric.
Five factors went into of the death of rhetoric, according to our authors:
During this time, rhetoric, Bender and Wellbery argue, has been “contracted” (6) from its original form because “much of the terrain over which [rhetoric] held absolute sway during … 2 millennia [...] has now been appropriated by other disciplines: linguistics, information theory, stylistics, literary criticism, sociology, communications, marketing, public relations… To classical rhetoric ...belonged the description and theorization of all aspects of discourse not comprehended by the more delimited formulations of grammar and logic, the other two divisions of the so-called trivium” (6). Rhetoric has been poached upon. What is the point and purpose of modern rhetoric, then?
But if you’re looking at that list I gave earlier, you may notice that these factors are no longer such a part of our lives any more. Because the “new cultural and discursive space is fashioned that it is no longer defined by objectivism, subjectivism, liberalism, literacy and nationalism” (23). For instance, consider point 4--the rise of print. There’s no denying that more people are literate than in Cicero’s time, but we’re beyond literate in print text. Bender and Wellbury point out the rise of television and radio and we might, rolling our eyes at the old technology of the nineties, point to the advent of internet gifs, YouTube videos and podcasts. The conditions of classical and enlightenment thought have changed. We aren’t going back to oral speeches in the forum, but neither are we dominated by only print media.
And the modernist reinterpretation of rhetoric isn’t going to resemble rhetoric of ancient origins any more than the architecture is doing to resemble the posts and lintels of greek architecture.
The past isn’t ignored, though. Rhetoric, say Bender and Wellbury is “Not just “rarified speech” but “groundless, infinitely ramifying character of discourse in the modern world” and “Rhetoric is no longer the title of a doctrine and a practice, nor a form of cultural memory; it becomes instead something like the condition of our existence” (25). The condition of our existence! Heavy stuff that. Instead of calling something rhetoric, rhetoricity is now big rhetoric, pervasive and spurred by the conditions of modern life.
They give the examples of how pervausive rhetoric is, citing Thomas Kuhn and the rise of a rhetoric of science, and a rhetoric of linguistics, psychoanalysis, and mass communication. Our man I.A Richards ushered in, according the Bender and Wellbury, the rhetoric of literary analysis, and Lakoff and Johnson--whose book we reviewed in another episode--describe a rhetoric of pragmatics. Everything it seemed, could have “rhetoric of” tacked on front because everything was rhetorical.
“We are dealing no longer with a specialized technique of instrumental communication,” Bender and Wellbury writing, “but rather with a general condition of human experience and action” (38). If rhetoricality is everything, “There can be no single contemporary rhetorical theory: rhetoricality cannot be the object of a homogeneous discipline” (38). This opens the way for all sorts of disciplines to enter into the rhetoricality bcause it’s a condition of being human.
As they say, “Modernism is an age not of rhetoric but of rhetoricality, the age, that is, of a generalized rhetoric that penetrates to the deepest levels of human experience” (25).
And that is quite the legacy for the Athenian rhetors.
If you have a favorite “rhetoric of” drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or shout out to us on the twitter device, which are both, I guess, modes of literacy, modern and post modern and very different from the print media of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras.