Mere Rhetoric


Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and a big thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas for support for this show. Also thanks to Jacob in the booth. Today, All Hallow’s Eve is upon us and it’s been a long time since I attempted some terrible British accents, which means it’s time for the Mere Rhetoric HALLOWEEN SPECIAL [thunder sounds? Screeching cat? What have you.] But first, some background.


When you’re asked to give a description of what rhetoric is, as we did in our very first episode, What is Rhetoric?, you might say something like, “It’s the use of words to persuade someone,” and you would imagine someone in a toga standing around on a rostom shout-talking at people, but that’s not exactly all rhetoric is. Remember Kenneth Burke’s definition of rhetoric: that we can “influence each other's thinking and behavior through the strategic use of symbols.” Even Aristotle says that rhetoric is about discovering the available means of persuasion. Verbal or alphabetic rhetoric is only one of those available means of persuasion. Visual rhetoric is another.


As you might suspect, visual rhetoric focuses on other kinds of symbols than just words. Visual rhetoricians might interrogate the influence on other people of war posters, cartoons, even the layout of airport security. But visual rhetoric isn’t just about the object of study.


Sonja Foss puts it this way:


Visual rhetoric refers not only to the visual object as a communicative artifact but also to a perspective scholars take on visual imagery or visual data. In this meaning of the term, visual rhetoric constitutes a theoretical perspective that involves the analysis of the symbolic or communicative aspects of visual artifacts. It is a critical-analytical tool or a way of approaching and analyzing visual data that highlights the communicative dimensions of images or objects (305-306)


As you might imagine, visual rhetoric opens up a lot of possiblities for scholars. And those scholars will need more theories of how to approach that those artifacts. Foss herself suggests that critics look first at the elements of the object, then


Kostelnick and Roberts create canons of visual rhetoric [what do you think? The cannon sound again?] Really? As I was saying, these canons of visual rehtoric  parallel the classical canons of rhetoric. these canons can be remembered by the British-inspired acronym CACE-TE, but you have to be creative with your spelling the first C stand for Clarity, or ease of understanding for the reader. A stands for arrangement, how the visual elements are laid out; the second C (I told you that you had to be creative in how you spell CACE) is for concision with nothing extraneous; the E is for emphasis. TE is also spelled poorly: T for tone--sarcastic or sincere, loving or rageful and E for ethos--demonstrating good will for the reader. Clarity, Arrangement, Concision, Emphasis Tone, Ethos: Cake and tea.

Do you know what else is british? M. R. James ghost stories. And this year’s story demonstrates the dark side of looking too deeply into visual artifacts. And so, without futher aido, M. R. James’ 1904 story, “The Mezzotint.”

Some time ago I believe I had the pleasure of telling you the story of an adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun, during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.


He did not publish his experiences very widely upon his return to England; but they could not fail to become known to a good many of his friends, and among others to the gentleman who at that time presided over an art museum at another University. It was to be expected that the story should make a considerable impression on the mind of a man whose vocation lay in lines similar to Dennistoun’s, and that he should be eager to catch at any explanation of the matter which tended to make it seem improbable that he should ever be called upon to deal with so agitating an emergency. It was, indeed, somewhat consoling to him to reflect that he was not expected to acquire ancient MSS. for his institution; that was the business of the Shelburnian Library. The authorities of that institution might, if they pleased, ransack obscure corners of the Continent for such matters. He was glad to be obliged at the moment to confine his attention to enlarging the already unsurpassed collection of English topographical drawings and engravings possessed by his museum. Yet, as it turned out, even a department so homely and familiar as this may have its dark corners, and to one of these Mr Williams was unexpectedly introduced.


Those who have taken even the most limited interest in the acquisition of topographical pictures are aware that there is one London dealer whose aid is indispensable to their researches. Mr J. W. Britnell publishes at short intervals very admirable catalogues of a large and constantly changing stock of engravings, plans, and old sketches of mansions, churches, and towns in England and Wales. These catalogues were, of course, the ABC of his subject to Mr Williams: but as his museum already contained an enormous accumulation of topographical pictures, he was a regular, rather than a copious, buyer; and he rather looked to Mr Britnell to fill up gaps in the rank and file of his collection than to supply him with rarities.


Now, in February of last year there appeared upon Mr Williams’s desk at the museum a catalogue from Mr Britnell’s emporium, and accompanying it was a typewritten communication from the dealer himself. This latter ran as follows:


Dear Sir,


We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.


Yours faithfully,


  1. W. Britnell.


To turn to No. 978 in the accompanying catalogue was with Mr. Williams (as he observed to himself) the work of a moment, and in the place indicated he found the following entry:


978.— Unknown. Interesting mezzotint: View of a manor-house, early part of the century. 15 by 10 inches; black frame. £2 2s.


It was not specially exciting, and the price seemed high. However, as Mr Britnell, who knew his business and his customer, seemed to set store by it, Mr Williams wrote a postcard asking for the article to be sent on approval, along with some other engravings and sketches which appeared in the same catalogue. And so he passed without much excitement of anticipation to the ordinary labours of the day.


A parcel of any kind always arrives a day later than you expect it, and that of Mr Britnell proved, as I believe the right phrase goes, no exception to the rule. It was delivered at the museum by the afternoon post of Saturday, after Mr Williams had left his work, and it was accordingly brought round to his rooms in college by the attendant, in order that he might not have to wait over Sunday before looking through it and returning such of the contents as he did not propose to keep. And here he found it when he came in to tea, with a friend.


The only item with which I am concerned was the rather large, black-framed mezzotint of which I have already quoted the short description given in Mr Britnell’s catalogue. Some more details of it will have to be given, though I cannot hope to put before you the look of the picture as clearly as it is present to my own eye. Very nearly the exact duplicate of it may be seen in a good many old inn parlours, or in the passages of undisturbed country mansions at the present moment. It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend A. W. F. sculpsit was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur. What in the world Mr Britnell could mean by affixing the price of £2 2s. to such an object was more than Mr Williams could imagine. He turned it over with a good deal of contempt; upon the back was a paper label, the left-hand half of which had been torn off. All that remained were the ends of two lines of writing; the first had the letters — ngley Hall ; the second,— ssex .


It would, perhaps, be just worth while to identify the place represented, which he could easily do with the help of a gazetteer, and then he would send it back to Mr Britnell, with some remarks reflecting upon the judgement of that gentleman.


He lighted the candles, for it was now dark, made the tea, and supplied the friend with whom he had been playing golf (for I believe the authorities of the University I write of indulge in that pursuit by way of relaxation); and tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.


The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been better, and that in certain emergencies neither player had experienced that amount of luck which a human being has a right to expect. It was now that the friend — let us call him Professor Binks — took up the framed engraving and said:


‘What’s this place, Williams?’


‘Just what I am going to try to find out,’ said Williams, going to the shelf for a gazetteer. ‘Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in Sussex or Essex. Half the name’s gone, you see. You don’t happen to know it, I suppose?’


‘It’s from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn’t it?’ said Binks. ‘Is it for the museum?’


‘Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,’ said Williams; ‘but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I can’t conceive why. It’s a wretched engraving, and there aren’t even any figures to give it life.’


‘It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,’ said Binks; ‘but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure, just on the edge in front.’


‘Let’s look,’ said Williams. ‘Well, it’s true the light is rather cleverly given. Where’s your figure? Oh, yes! Just the head, in the very front of the picture.’


And indeed there was — hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving — the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.


Williams had not noticed it before.


‘Still,’ he said, ‘though it’s a cleverer thing than I thought, I can’t spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don’t know.’


Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject of his picture. ‘If the vowel before the ng had only been left, it would have been easy enough,’ he thought; ‘but as it is, the name may be anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of terminations.’


Hall in Mr Williams’s college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon; the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely bandied across the table — merely golfing words, I would hasten to explain.


I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to Williams’s rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the other particulars which we already know.


The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of some interest:


‘It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.’


‘Yes, isn’t it?’ said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky and soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to look at the view again.


It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen, he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.


I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this kind, I can only tell you what Mr Williams did. He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had undergone since it had come into his possession.


Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.


Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.20. His host was not quite dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a picture on which he wished for Nisbet’s opinion. But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught; for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.


The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for which he looked. With very considerable — almost tremulous — excitement he ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture — still face downwards — ran back, and put it into Nisbet’s hands.


‘Now,’ he said, ‘Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in that picture. Describe it, if you don’t mind, rather minutely. I’ll tell you why afterwards.’


‘Well,’ said Nisbet, ‘I have here a view of a country-house — English, I presume — by moonlight.’


‘Moonlight? You’re sure of that?’


‘Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details, and there are clouds in the sky.’


‘All right. Go on. I’ll swear,’ added Williams in an aside, ‘there was no moon when I saw it first.’


‘Well, there’s not much more to be said,’ Nisbet continued. ‘The house has one — two — three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the bottom, where there’s a porch instead of the middle one, and —’


‘But what about figures?’ said Williams, with marked interest.


‘There aren’t any,’ said Nisbet; ‘but —’


‘What! No figure on the grass in front?’


‘Not a thing.’


‘You’ll swear to that?’


‘Certainly I will. But there’s just one other thing.’




‘Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor — left of the door — is open.’


‘Is it really so? My goodness! he must have got in,’ said Williams, with great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for himself.


It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window. Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one — it was his own description of the picture, which you have just heard — and then to read the other which was Williams’s statement written the night before.


‘What can it all mean?’ said Nisbet.


‘Exactly,’ said Williams. ‘Well, one thing I must do — or three things, now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood’— this was his last night’s visitor —‘what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.’


‘I can do the photographing myself,’ said Nisbet, ‘and I will. But, you know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a tragedy somewhere. The question is, has it happened already, or is it going to come off? You must find out what the place is. Yes,’ he said, looking at the picture again, ‘I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake, there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.’


‘I’ll tell you what,’ said Williams: ‘I’ll take the picture across to old Green’ (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar for many years). ‘It’s quite likely he’ll know it. We have property in Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in his time.’


‘Quite likely he will,’ said Nisbet; ‘but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up today. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.’


‘That’s true, too,’ said Williams; ‘I know he’s gone to Brighton. Well, if you’ll photograph it now, I’ll go across to Garwood and get his statement, and you keep an eye on it while I’m gone. I’m beginning to think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.’


In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr Garwood with him. Garwood’s statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.


‘Now what do you mean to do?’ he said. ‘Are you going to sit and watch it all day?’


‘Well, no, I think not,’ said Williams. ‘I rather imagine we’re meant to see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the window being open, I think, must mean that it’s in there now. So I feel quite easy about leaving it. And besides, I have a kind of idea that it wouldn’t change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get in, but no one else.’


The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.


We may give them a respite until five o’clock.


At or near that hour the three were entering Williams’s staircase. They were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips came for orders an hour or so earlier than on weekdays. However, a surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and the next thing was Williams’s skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr Filcher (the name is not my own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found sitting on his master’s chair, or appearing to take any particular notice of his master’s furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this himself. He started violently when the three men were in the room, and got up with a marked effort. Then he said:


‘I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.’


‘Not at all, Robert,’ interposed Mr Williams. ‘I was meaning to ask you some time what you thought of that picture.’


‘Well, sir, of course I don’t set up my opinion against yours, but it ain’t the pictur I should ‘ang where my little girl could see it, sir.’


‘Wouldn’t you, Robert? Why not?’


‘No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not ‘alf what that is, and we ‘ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you’ll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know ‘ow it is with children; ‘ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don’t seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that’s liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening, sir? Thank you, sir.’


With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before under the waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.


From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further developments.


When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray’s Guide to Essex the following lines:


16–1/2 miles, Anningley . The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tomb of the family of Francis, whose mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in the year 1802. The father, Mr Arthur Francis, was locally known as a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son’s disappearance he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of considerable rarity.


This looked like business, and, indeed, Mr Green on his return at once identified the house as Anningley Hall.


‘Is there any kind of explanation of the figure, Green?’ was the question which Williams naturally asked.


‘I don’t know, I’m sure, Williams. What used to be said in the place when I first knew it, which was before I came up here, was just this: old Francis was always very much down on these poaching fellows, and whenever he got a chance he used to get a man whom he suspected of it turned off the estate, and by degrees he got rid of them all but one. Squires could do a lot of things then that they daren’t think of now. Well, this man that was left was what you find pretty often in that country — the last remains of a very old family. I believe they were Lords of the Manor at one time. I recollect just the same thing in my own parish.’


‘What, like the man in Tess o’ the Durbervilles ?’ Williams put in.


‘Yes, I dare say; it’s not a book I could ever read myself. But this fellow could show a row of tombs in the church there that belonged to his ancestors, and all that went to sour him a bit; but Francis, they said, could never get at him — he always kept just on the right side of the law — until one night the keepers found him at it in a wood right at the end of the estate. I could show you the place now; it marches with some land that used to belong to an uncle of mine. And you can imagine there was a row; and this man Gawdy (that was the name, to be sure — Gawdy; I thought I should get it — Gawdy), he was unlucky enough, poor chap! to shoot a keeper. Well, that was what Francis wanted, and grand juries — you know what they would have been then — and poor Gawdy was strung up in double-quick time; and I’ve been shown the place he was buried in, on the north side of the church — you know the way in that part of the world: anyone that’s been hanged or made away with themselves, they bury them that side. And the idea was that some friend of Gawdy’s — not a relation, because he had none, poor devil! he was the last of his line: kind of spes ultima gentis — must have planned to get hold of Francis’s boy and put an end to his line, too. I don’t know — it’s rather an out-of-the-way thing for an Essex poacher to think of — but, you know, I should say now it looks more as if old Gawdy had managed the job himself. Booh! I hate to think of it! have some whisky, Williams!’


The facts were communicated by Williams to Dennistoun, and by him to a mixed company, of which I was one, and the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology another. I am sorry to say that the latter when asked what he thought of it, only remarked: ‘Oh, those Bridgeford people will say anything’— a sentiment which met with the reception it deserved.


I have only to add that the picture is now in the Ashleian Museum; that it has been treated with a view to discovering whether sympathetic ink has been used in it, but without effect; that Mr Britnell knew nothing of it save that he was sure it was uncommon; and that, though carefully watched, it has never been known to change again.



Direct download: 16-07-13_-_Mere_Rhetoric_Halloween-First_Pass.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 6:02pm CST

Shout out to Daniel T Richards to wrote in to me asking for a podcast about Rhetorical Situations. Couldn’t be more pleased to oblige a fan, if you have a request for an episode or a question or comment, feel free to email me at and I’d love to see what I can do, but Daniel asked for rhetorical situations and there’s no time but the present, eh?

so let’s get it started with a couple of clips, eh?

Churchill, Henry V, and Aragon. Why are these such great speeches so good?

Qtd Churchill There comes a precious moment in all of our lives when we are tapped on the shoulder and offered the opportunity to do something very special that is unique to us and our abilities, what a tragedy it would be if we are not ready or willing.”

This moment is part of what L B in 1968 calls the rhetorical situationation. More fully: A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.


OK, let’s break this very dense quote apart. First there is exigence, which is a problem that exists in the world. It may be pressing, like an upcoming battle, or it may be gnawing, like an increase in teen violence or campus discrimination. It may even be potential: Henry V didn’t have to go to France, but there was a potential there. The key thing for Bitzer is that this exigence can be affected by discourse. So you may not be able to talk the orcs away from being evil, but you can talk the men fighting them into being brave. A speech churchil makes to parlement won’t make the Nazis retreat, but it may shore up patriotic interest.


So not every situation is a rhetorical situation, but only what Bitzer calls “finest hours” (3) when discourse can DO anything about it. As he says, a “mode-altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (4). Reality-changing discourse. That’s a pretty awesome power for rhetoric to have.

But that’s not to say that Henry V or Churchill or Aragon can say whatever they want. In addition to the moment, to exigence, the rhetorical situation relies on an audience. When the men of the west or of England are standing at the start of a battle and can fight half-heartedly or lion-heartedly, they are able to be mediators of change. It wouldn’t do much good for Aragon to be giving this speech to Frodo or Sam—for one thing they aren’t men—but for another they aren’t an army. The army can fight one way or another and that action can impact the way the battle goes. For Bitzer, the audience must be agents of change.

Finally, there are constraints. These are kind of the downers of the rhetorical situation. Contraints include what Aristotle calls artistic and inartistic proofs—things you can change and things you can do nothing about. So Henry V can’t talk more English solders into suddenly appearing in his army, he can’t talk the French into being weaker, and he can’t talk swords into tennis balls, but he can change beliefs and attitudes about the slim chances of success.

These three elements: the moment, the audience and constraints, all combine in a delicate balance for the rhetorical situations. Bitzer points out Rhetorical situations can be mature or decayed, dissipate audience, lose to completing forces, etc (12).

The rhetorical situation is a helpful way to think about seizing your own “precious moment” and a good way to analyze historical and fictional bits of rhetoric. But there are plenty of questions So does the rhetorical situation just alight on one? Would anyone have made the same speech at Henry V, or Churchil or Aragorn in the same situations? Maybe. John Patton says that there’s a two-sidedness to the rhetorical situation. You have to see it and also respond to it. As he says, 'the meaning of rhetorical situations is a dual process, partly a matter of recognition, i.e., clarity and accuracy of perception, and partly a matter of intentional, artistic, human action.' Some folks like Scott Consigny feel like Bitzer is a little fatalistic, suggesting the stars just align and suddenly you’re Churchill promising to fight in the streets. Richard Vatz also objects to the idea that exigence just sits out there, compelling a rhetor. Instead, Vatz suggests that the rhetor almost always creates the exigence. The rhetor is not pushed around by the rhetorical situation, but creates them. It might be hard to see this when you’re looking at an army in front of you, but remember when Henry V started this war? Yeah, when he, searched for legal claim to France, sent demands, was rebuffed with tennis balls and then gave this answer?


Henry V started this war. He put together the army and by doing so made France put together its army too. He created the rhetorical situation that led to him having to give the St. Crispin’s speech. It’s easy to spin around like this in circles: speech creates the situation (and the contsraints) which create the speech, but the key thing to remember about Vatz’s criticism is that elements of the rhetorical situation, exigence, audience, constraints, are always social constructions rather than objective realities.

, So next time you’re addressing an army, ask yourself this question: did I make this situation or did this situation make me?





Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_The_Rhetorical_Situation_alternate.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CST

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and outsider about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today we’re going to talk about the method to the madness, if madness were writing studies research. That’s right, we’re going to talking about a little edited volume called Writing studies Research in PRactice and you never knew methodology could be so fun.


But first, if you’re a regularly listener to the show, can I recommend you get on iTunes or whereever you find your podcasts and give Mere Rhetoric a review? It doesn’t have to be long or laudatory, but it would be nice for when I prepare reports for folks like the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas. This way I can let them know that people like the show and want it to continue.


Or if you want to, you can email us at and a word about that: sorry! I recently realized that my email forwarding on that gmail account wasn’t correctly forwarding to my personal email, meaning that many of the lovely email people had been sending hadn’t been getting to me! As you can imagine, I am properly mortified, and I will begin to respond to the backlog and get on people’s requests for episodes as I respond. I thought no one had been writing! But now that I know, I’ll be (1) a lot more satisfied with the lovely responses and (2) getting back to everyone who emailed by didn’t get a response.


Okay, now on to the show. Writing studies research in practice is a relatively new book, published in 2012 and edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P Sheridan. It would be a nice addition to a doctoral course on composition research and methods, or for an advanted graduate student who is beginning to think about the kind of research she wants to do to approach a new project. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a straight-up novice in research in compositoin. And here’s my reasoning why: this book mostly complicates some of the “traditional” methods of composition research, which might be a little disorienting for someone who isn’t familiar with the tradition. It’s a little like getting a triple-cake-chunk pineapple swirl mix-in sundae for someone’s first introduction to ice cream.


It consists of three main parts: part one “reimagining traditional research practices” talks about strategies we think we know well, like narratives or ethnographies.Part two, revisioning research in composition looks at controversal strategies like teacher research and autoenography, and part three reconceptualizeing metholodology and sites of inquiry. So you can hear how this text emphasizes the variation rather than the plain ol’ vanilla of research. There is a feminist methodology bent, which probably isn’t surprising because Sheridan and Nickoson are great feminist researchers and they themselves recognize that there are a few big, meaningful gaps in their book, including, like case study-research and surveys. Pretty much it leans heavily on lived research, like ethnography.


Here are some of the highlights of the text. First off, Doug Hesse, one of my favorite human beings and the reader on my dissertation has this fantastic chapter on “Writing Program Research” where he tells the story of how, plagued by the rumblings on campus that “students can’t even write a single correct sentence,” he “analyzed errors in a random sample of 215 papers selected from a corpus of 700 papers written by first-year students” and discovered “at least 85% of sentences were error free”--empirical proof that students can, in fact, write many correct sentences (144). But writing research isn’t just about snarky research design to stick it to your supercillious colleagues. Writing program research, like its cousin teacher research, seeks to advance actual practice as well as knowledge in the field. As Lee Nickoson puts it, “Teacher research is the study of a writing class conducted by one who teaches it with the ultimate purpose of improving classroom practice” (101). That means you care intimately about the results and you aren’t willing to sacrifice quality teaching for research, but that you create a holistic identity as teacher and researcher (105). You are always still a human being. That theme is also at the heart of Suresh Canagarajah’s chapter. We’ve done an episode on Canagarajah before and how deeply I love that man, so I refer you to it, but in this collection, he talks about autoethnography, an “emic and holistic perspective” where researchers “study the practices of a community of which they are members and they are visible in the research” (114).


Quick sidebar to define one of the terms there. Emic, means insider, and it’s opposed to Etic, which is outside. Etic is the traditional perspective of ethnography: some white guy, probably British, and I’m thinking with a pith hat and a monocle, goes to Papua New Guinea or somewhere and frowns disapprovingly and makes notes in a notebook while the native eat bugs. Emic is about coming from the inside, where traditions and culture are part of the researcher’s understanding, so the research isn’t just observations and interviews, but also their own understanding. Autoethnography is the ultimate in this emic perspective, where researcher and subject are the same person.


For narrative research, the individual is often also tied up. Debra Journet objects to the perspective that “narrative has sometimes been presented as a n almost direct way to represent qualities of personal experience” (15)--there are, she argues, many times of narrative that aren’t just personal, but a whole “range of narrative genres” (16). Cynthia Selfe and Gail E Hawisher, for instance, in their chapter about interviews point out that “we had grown increasingly dissatisfied with containing our questions to a standard set of prompts that elicited information but did not easily encourage follow-up questions and did not always encourage the kinds of narrative responses we found so richly laden with information” (39). These narrations don’t always come when the same list of questions are applied to each interviewee as traditionally happens in interviews. And because it’s Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher, you know technology is going to come into play, and indeed, they talk about how participants in their interviews often supplement their answers with digital media, and how publishing should also include video clips and sound as well as alphabetic and static image representations (44-45).


And lest you think digital research is going to be 100% easier than other types of research Heidi A McKee and James E Porter present “the ethics of conducting writing research on the internet” The internet is such a strange space for research because it isn’t entirely anonymous and it isn’t entirely private. When you study a text on the internet, some are obviously public, like a professional blog, but others have an expectation of privacy, or at least a limited audience, like the forum posts on a website for recovering alcoholics. Many people may feel like they are interacting in a space of limited publicity when they send text messages or post in a forum or even join a game like World of Warcraft, and they feel this way despite any small print on the site to the contrary. So even if sometime is technically permissible by your IRB department, you will want to considerate about consulting with representative audiences, being open about being a researcher online, and being aware of the regulations and laws of the online spaces you research (256).


No matter what kind of research you do, the volume as a whole seems to say, be thoughtful about the participants you involve, the audiences you are writing for and your own involvement in the subject. Things aren’t always cut and dry in research and what starts as, for example, a survey, may end up expanding into a series of interviews or ethnographic observation. Research in writing studies is so variable and there are so many ways to do it, from discourse analysis to autoethnography. We study texts and we study people. We want to make sure that we do it responsibly, thinking about how what we claim to be studying will impact the folks we study, the folks we’re writing to and, ultimately, to us ourselves as researchers.

Direct download: 16-07-22_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Writing_Studies.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CST

Welcome Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today's episode is brought to you by the Humanities Media Project and viewers like you, because today is a listener-suggested topic.

Today we’re going to talk about Longinus, which is to say we’re going to talk about On the Sublime,which is to say we're going to talk about the sublime. We don’t know anything about Longinus except that he wrote On the Sublime, and, if we’re going to be strictly honest, we don’t know whether the author of On the Sublime  was actually named Longinus. So we have this key rhetorical text and the only thing we know for sure about its author is that they wrote this key rhetorical text.


Maybe that’s over-stating it. Maybe this was Dionysies of Halicarnassus. You remember him, Greek fellow, loved Romans? Maybe it was Hermagoras, whom you might remember from the stasis episode. Or it was this other bloke, Cassius Longinus. It’s all very confusing, and you’d think the Roman empire could come up with a naming system that didn’t rely on like the same four names and a series of embarrassing nicknames, but evidentally not. Also, authorship wasn’t so well documented. So all of this is conjecture, but  for the sake of the podcast today we’re going to say that Longinus was the author of “On the Sublime“ and leave it at that.


Historical vaguaries aside, in “On the Sublime,” Longinus advances a poetics that is rhetorical not in the sense that he expects poetry to develop and elaborate explicit persuasive claims, but rather seeks “to transport [audiences] out of themselves” (163). You may be familiar with a bastardization of the word “sublime” that talks about sublime chocolate or music, but the idea of the sublime is that it’s such a consuming process that you lose yourself completely. The chocolate becomes your entire experience.This  “irresistible power and mastery” has greater influence over the audience than any deliberate persuasive argument (163). Is the sublime, then a competitor with rhetoric or is it a mode of rhetoric? Is the sublime just high-falutin’ flowery language or something more? Longinus is vague about this point.


While the sublime comes from the world of poetry, it doesn’t exclusively reign there. Longinus may keep a traditional view of persuasion out of the sublime, but he does allow for sublime moments in traditionally persuasive orations, including legal discourse. Yes, in addition to waterfalls and chocolate, legal briefs can be sublime. I knew that, but then, I watched a lot of old school Law and Order. In such cases, when a sublime visualization is “combined with factual arguments it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them” (223). Both poets and orators, then, can use the sublime to control an audience and “carry the audience away ” (227). With such incredible power, sublimity seems to be the ultimate skill to develop.

           But while Longinus advises us in methods to improve our likelihood of sublimity (choosing weighty words for weighty topics, considering the context, borrowing from the greats, etc.), ultimately he gives us no great writer, nor any great work, as a model of constant sublimity. The sublime comes rather as “a well-timed flash” or “a bolt of lightning” that “shatters everything […] and reveals the power of the speaker” (163-4). This lightning bolt metaphor highlights some of Longinus’ difficulty in teaching someone to be sublime: sublimity is sudden, short, and almost divine in origin.  As you put it, the sublime “takes you out of this world into a heavenly life” (22/02/2011).


           But just as we aren't so sure whether Longinus wrote On the Sulime, we also seem to be constantly redefining what the Sublime is and how much we think Longinus' conception of the Sublime should set the tone for every else. Pretty much, everyone wants to redefine the sublime. The modern mania for the sublime started in in 1671 with a translation of Longinus into the French. But the real break for Longinus in the modern work was Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in 1757. That date make clue you in that this is the Burke who was a politician in the late 18th century, not the 20th century rhetorician. This Burke, Edmund, defined the sublime a little more narrowly: the sublime is “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger.” I can see where Burke is coming from on this--what takes you away from the every day and focuses your attention more than the threat of imminent danger? Still, it somewhat restricts what the sublime can be. Now rather  than just a “bolt of lightning” it’s a bolt of lightning on a dark and stormy night.

           This broodiness led to the sublime being picked up by all those romantic poets fifty years later, who loved to stand on top of Alpine cliffs in the fog and stare into the abyss and all that. Wordsworth, who was always have out-of-body sublime moments, wrote in “Tintern Abbey” about “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood/ in which the burden of the mystery/ in which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world”--certainly solemn stuff. Wordworth’s sister, Dorothy, made fun of some tourists who were unforuntate enough to talk with Coleridge at a waterfall. She relates “Yes, sir’, says Coleridge, ‘it is a majestic waterfall.’ ‘Sublime and beautiful,’ replied his friend.” Coleridge thought this was the funniest thing ever and straight away ditched the tourists and came to his poet friends to laugh about how people were overusing the word “sublime.” Jerk move on Coleridge’s part, but gets to the point of how the “sublime” was becoming a specific term for the Romantics.

           This isn’t to say everyone in the 18th and early 19th century had one idea about what the sublime is. Kant, for instance, found the sublime not in nature, but in the “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason.” Yes, while Longinus describes the sublimity of language and the Romantics found the sublime in nature, Kant can be carried away by an abstraction. For Kant, the sublime isn't just about aesthetics, but about the contrast between something very big and grand and the littleness of man—you can try to comprehend something incomprehendable when you encounter the sublime. That's heavy stuff.

           The sublime has continued to fascinate modern rhetoricians and thinkers. More recently, in the 1980s Suzanne Guerlac has contended that Longinus' “On the Sublime" “has traditionally been read as a manual of elevated style and relegated to the domain of the 'merely' rhetorical. The rhetorical sublime has in turn been linked with a notion of affective criticism in which analysis of style and expression centers upon questions of subjective feeling and emotive force” (275). Instead, and remember this is the 80s, she salutes “on the sublime” as being an assault on simple subjectivity, disrupting binaries like form/content and means/ends (276). The sublime in Longinus is about being sincere, but a sincerity that can be forced.  This isn't the only contradiction, but one that is representative of the paradoxes of art. " The Longinian sublime implies a dynamic overlapping, or reciprocity, between the orders of the symbolic and the imaginary" writes Guerlac (286).

           The little essay that maybe Longinus wrote, or maybe someone else wrote, has had a big influence in art, literature and rhetoric. Also, evidentally, waterfall-watching.  Do you know what else is influential? Email I get. Even those I don't respond to for like, more than a year.  That's my bad. Mike Litts wrote in asking for an episode on the sublime back in 2015, but here we are, a year and a half later and by gum, we've done an episode about the sublime. If you like delayed gratification, please feel free to write in to and suggest your own favorite topic. No, I'm just kidding. I think I fixed my email problem, so if you write in, I'll respond in less than a year. And won't that be sublime?




Direct download: 16-07-22_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Longinus.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:56am CST