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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 3, 2016



Welcome to MR the podcast about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today we’re going to be talking about what are perhaps some old ideas, but from a fresh angle. What if the way we thought about traditional rhetoric in a more modern context? But first, let me give a shout out to the Humanities Media Project, whose support lets us record these podcasts in such sound-proof-room splendor, and Jacob in the booth, who not only lets me know when I’ve muttered my lines, but edits it up so that it doesn’t sound like I did. Okay, back to the show.

Rhetoric is a field bound by tradition. And no tradition is more traditional than Aristotle’s original three appeals: ethos logos pathos. Often times I think that if my first year composition students learn one thing this semester, it is ethos logos pathos and if they remember one thing five years after this semester, it will be ethos, logos and pathos. But one of the problems with the appeals is that they are ethos, logos and pathos--weird Greek words that don’t exactly map onto English easily. I’m forever explaining that a pathetic appeal isn’t a terrible one, or a tragic one, or that logos doesn’t just mean computer-program logic. M. Jimmie Killingsworth set out to reform and modernise the appeals in his 2005 text  titles, appropriately enough, “Appeals in Modern Rhetoric:an Ordinary-Language approach.”


Killingsworth breaks down the appeals in this way: Appeals to authority and evidence; appeals to time; appeals to place; appeals to the body; appeals to gender; appeals to race; appeals to race; appeals through tropes and the appeal of narrative.


Some of these may see straightforward and ever-lasting: appeals to authority, for instance, seem as old as time and require rhetors to judiciously determine which authorities are authoritative for them as well as for the audience.   But some of the appeals restructure how we think about rhetoric. Appeals to time, for instance, is a general way to describe how Aristotle’s other division, the genres of rhetoric, relate to each other. The genres of rhetoric, you might recall, include forensic (looking at the past), epideictic (looking at the present) and deliberative (looking towards the future). Again, because these genres seem very distant to modern audiences, Killingsworth translates into contemporary business writing:” reports narrate the pass, instructions deal with actions in the present time and proposals mak arguments for future action” (38). But these genres aren’t just neutral--they may an argument to the audience. Arguing that something is modern, or urgent is an appeal in itself, as does harkening back to the halcyon days of yesteryear. Instead of thinking of genres as genres, Killingsworth encourages us to think of them as arguments.


Killingsworth also breaks down the appeal about the author into some of the key identities which modern rhetors might use: appeals to race and to gender. He also pulls a bit an Aristotle himself in classifying these appeals further. TAke, for instance, appeal to race, where he talks about the way that racial stereotypes creates an othering. Fine, we might say, we all know that racial stereotypes create a wedge between groups, and “reduce the complexity of individuals and cultural groups” (99) but how exactly does this happen? In three ways, Killingworth suggests, in true artistotlean fashion. “Diminishment of character involves the denial of key human qualities” such as assuming that a group of people don’t love their children as keenly as another or that a group doesn’t value romantic love (99-100). Dehumanization goes even further and makes the people into animals or objects. The extreme example of this is chattel slavery, which completely dehumanizes slaves. Finally, demonization is where a race is seen as superhumanly wicked. “Western devils” for instance, or Indian witches, or black devils, who only exist to perpetrate crimes against another race. (100).


Killingsworth may be straying back difficult terminology when he talks about appeal through tropes--what the heck is a trope? Well, he’s talking about the four master tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony, but he’s going to describe what they are and how they work as appeals in this way: you can identify one position with another, like a metaphor; you can associate one position with another, like metonymy; you can represent one position by another and you can close the distance between two positions and increase the distance from a third, like irony (121). Let’s give a few practical examples of how that might work. Metaphor, you might remember, is a little like an SAT verbal question. If I say “Cedar pollen smacked me in the face today,” I’m saying pollen is to immune system as fist is to face. In terms of an argument, you might say, like Martin Luther King Jr, that “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is cover up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed” and so make the comparison that activists are to injustice as doctors are to illness (125). Metonymy sustitutes the part for the whole, for example, when someone says they question the bible, they don’t question the existence of such a book, but the validity of the events narrated therein.Synecdoche looks at a critical part for the full. There might be a critical story that tells a fuller story.

For example, if I begin a paper about graduate student writers by telling about a student who was frustrated when her literature professors didn’t give her quizzes about the main characters in the books they read, I’m saying that something about this story relates to how all graduate students feel when they transition from undergraduate programs. Burke calls this the representative anecdote--a small story that represents a larger trend. Irony is, as Killingsworth says, “the most complex and diffitult of the four master tropes” (131). Irony is a beast, and we’ll talk more in-depth about irony this semester when we talk about Booth’s Rhetoric of Irony. Killingsworth here, though, points out that the “crucial elements of iron’ are “Tone and insider knowledge” (132). We come to identify with the rhetor when we hear irony because we’re both in the know.


So once I was describe satire and I described Swift’s a Modest Proposal as a magnificent work of ironic satire and one of my students sat bolt upright in his seat. “That was ironic?!” he said. “I just assumed Swift was some kind of sicko.” Really, Swift says we should eat babies, so how does anyone think he isn’t some kind of sicko? Well, partially because before I read a Modest Proposal, I knew Swift was a clergyman who worked with poor people in Ireland for most of his career, and I also knew that Swift loved satire--he wrote Gulliver’s Travels, after all. Because of my inside knowledge, I was able to interpret Swift’s exaggerations as irony. And then Swift and I get to stand together, winking at each other against the supporters of the Corn Tax. Irony unites the speaker and audience as we poke fun at the subjects of our irony (132-3).


So Killingsworth provides a review of many of the principles of rhetoric we’ve discussed in the podcast and well as a preview of things to come. Rhetoric, he proposes, is not just about stuffy terms and dead Greeks, but something that continues with us in all situations, even in the modern world.