Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Mere Rhetoric

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

Sep 18, 2015

The classic, the first episode in better form! (Except this transcript is a little was-translated-by-someone-unfamiliar-with-rhetoric-and-American-politics. Thanks, Fivrr!)


What is Rhetoric?




            Welcome to MereRhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movement that have defined the history of rhetoric. Sponsored by the University of Texas Student Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America.


I'm Mary Hedengren at the University of Texas Austin and thank you for joining us on our inaugural podcast. Today, we're going to talk a little bit about "What is Rhetoric?"


            "No more rhetoric," says a politician or "Let's stop the empty rhetoric. It's time to cut the rhetoric and get to action." These are expressions that we hear all the time. Rhetoric is one of the only fields that's consistently used as a pejorative. We know better than that though. We know that rhetoric is a dynamic field with really important thinkers and a lot of contributions to a lot of other disciplines.


            But do we actually know what rhetoric is?


            It's hard for us to define what rhetoric is when everybody seems to think that it's something like rhetricory,to use Wayne Booth's term. So what is it? How do we explain to our potential fathers-in-law, aunts at family reunions or hairdressers? What it is that we're doing with our time and our money?


            Actually, the history of defining rhetoric is the history of rhetoric. This is a question that's been plaguing people for a really long time. I'm trying to figure out what it is that we're doing and how to describe it becomes an obsession of a lot of the greatest thinkers.


            Today, we're going to talk a little bit about some of these thinkers; some of the ways that rhetoric has been defined historically and some things that might be useful for us now as we seek to find an answer to that pesky question, "What is it that you're doing?"


            One of the biggest ways to sort of think about rhetoric is through metaphors and we'll talk more about metaphors and the powers that they have in a later podcast. We might think about some of the ones that Plato brings up when he's talking about them in Gorgias. Is rhetoric sugar for medicine? Spoonful of sugar that makes medicine go down; that's able to sort of lighten the load of the hard truths of philosophical or scientific inquiry?


            Is rhetoric like fighting in boxing and when we teach people rhetoric, we're only giving them a neutral skill that could be used for positive purposes or negative purposes. These are a few of the many metaphors that come up to sort of try to describe what is that rhetoric is about.


            Now, some of the different definitions that have come up have been sort of through the western tradition. Plato for example called rhetoric the art of winning the soul by discourse and we sort of think of Plato as being sort of back and forth from how you felt about rhetoric. Sometimes he seems to think that rhetoric is a really bad idea; other times, he's more concerned about how it can be done well and defining rhetoric can something that can be useful.


            So when he says winning the soul through discourse, he's really concerned a lot about how you can talk to somebody who you really love and care for and know a lot about them and sort of have responsible good rhetoric. Aristotle on the other hand – instead of thinking about winning the soul by discourse is more about finding the available means of persuasion.


            This is kind of a different switch from Plato where instead of rhetoric being something that you use as an instrument, you have what could really be called defensive rhetoric. Just discovering. It's an act of invention. You sort of see what could be possible.


            This is going to be important for a lot of rhetorical history especially if pedagogs you are people are starting to think about how do we do exercises were people try to find all of the available means of persuasion. What could be done? What could be effective? Instead of thinking as purely it’s something that's practical.


            You may get this a lot when you're talking to people at parties. Is rhetoric something that you just teach people so that they can use, so that they can give a good speech or give a good presentation? Or is rhetoric also something that you want to study so that people aren't taken in byhuxtorsor are able to weigh an argument, be more balanced about it.


            This is a pretty big definition and it bears more conversation than we have time for here but we'll probably talk about that in a later podcast. If not, I encourage you to go through and sort of think about how that definition is going to impact the way that you give an answer and the way that you direct your own work. Now, Cicerodid a lot of different definitions of rhetoric and he's one of guys who's most famous for sort of breaking up this one big art, rhetoric, into these several different sort of sub purposes or canons.


So we have things like invention as being part of rhetoric and all the way back to memorizing the speech and giving a good delivery, pronouncing the words that you say. All of these things, Cicero says, are part of rhetoric.


            These distinctions can be important for us as we try to define our own definition of what rhetoric is. Are we going to say that rhetoric is about finding the information? Does it include the research that we go to? Does it include the things that impact the way that we do the research we do? What kinds of inquiry are appropriate through the kind of product that we want to produce?


            On the other side of things, how much of rhetoric is delivery? Is the performance of it? In recent times, we sort of stepped away from thinking about performance too much as opposed to sort of what Cicero was thinking about what was actually an oral performance where you stand up and entertain people and sort of get up; many different sort of public speaking elements that you can or sort of hold their interest.


            And this becomes something that we could really think about especially this one with whether invention is part of rhetoric. Back in history, this is going to be a big question to sort of define what our field is. Some people are going to put Peter Ramos as sort of the bad guy in the story as somebody who says, "Maybe rhetoric doesn't have to do with invention. Maybe rhetoric is just this other half, this delivery; how you polish it up," Is rhetoric just a pretty face that we put on a good piece of philosophy?


            This definition may remind you a little bit about Plato's idea that this is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. But in another sense, it's really taking out any sort of invention and put in that more sort of the business of science as opposed to [00:06:57] philosophy which I think is where some of these other bacon and [00:07:03] are sort of taking it.


This starts to become little bit more upended mostly in the 18th century. We have people like George Campbell who said rhetoric is an art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are enlightening the understanding, pleasing the imagination, moving the passion and influencing the will. These four ends of discourse become really important; they sort of trickle down a lot through textbooks during this period.


            Is rhetoric something that is going to be involved with literature? And fiction? And pleasing the imagination? Is it going to be something that moves our passions? Changes our emotions? Like a passionate appeal for a political change. Is it going to be something that enlightens the understanding? Do textbooks have rhetoric?


            These are some questions that sort of Campbell, his definition, are really going to influence with us. Now, let's move finally to the 20th century and some of the definitions here. Kenneth Burke sort of changes our idea of what is rhetoric. He sort of says, "Rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself; a function that is wholly realistic and continually born anew."


            The use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings by nature respond to symbols. This is kind of a step away from some of the things that even George Campbell was saying. What if rhetoric isn't just about persuasion? What if it isn't just about getting people to think the way you do? What if it has to do with any sort of cooperation based on symbols?


            This is a huge break. This sort of breaks away from this idea that it has to be linguistic or that it has to be about achieving some end like George Campbell said. It's an exciting development and we'll talk a lot more probably in an upcoming podcast about Kenneth Burke. By the way, this is a really cool place to start push rhetoric in another direction.


            Finally, moving in to people who live today. This is not like we've settled the question of what is rhetoric. There's still lot of people who are trying to figure this out and put different definitions of it. The great leader in composition Andrea Lunsford says that rhetoric is the art, practice and study of human communication.


            This is an interesting definition that might come up when you're talking with people. This is really hard problem because sometimes, we're really good at the study of human communication. But as rhetoricians, are we responsible to think about the practice of human communications? How well does rhetorician do standing up in front of an audience talking about their research?


            This is something that's making me super self-conscious as somebody who's put in together a podcast. But how much of what we do is sort of divorced from this level where a sister I was talking about it as a performance, a practice; something that's sort of happens out there as delivery. Another major of trend that seems to pop up with a lot of these modern definitions of rhetoric is thinking about what the goal is.


            For example, Charles Chuck Bazerman talks about how rhetoric is the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry out human activities. This is something about getting it done. Another definition that's sort of focuses on this is Gerard or Gerry Hauser's definition where he says, "Rhetoric is an instrumental use of language."


            One person engages another person in an exchange of symbols to accomplish some goal; it is not communication for communication sake. Rhetoric is communication that attempts to coordinate social action. For this reason, rhetorical communication is explicitly pragmatic. Its goal is to influence human choices on specific matters that require immediate attention.


This is a really interesting idea and it's what that [00:11:09] thinking about when you're defining rhetoric for your friends and then for yourself. Do you see rhetoric as something that accomplishes goals? Can good rhetoric be ineffective?


            A lot of times, people think about this in terms of Edmund Burke who is this great thinker and a fantastic writer. Someday, we'll talk about him. I'd like to think so. If not, go online and check out some of the speeches because this guy is on fire. He's like one of the best speakers to ever come out of England. And he gave one of his like creme de la creme speeches and a really strong one saying, "Hey England. Let's not go to war with America," but what happened, right?


            So here's a guy who's really good at what he does and really one of the top retorts but when he speaks, he doesn't bring about change. So, was that good rhetoric? Or bad rhetoric? Does rhetoric depend on its efficiency with audience? Is it all about the ends? Or can it be good rhetoric that does everything that rhetoric should do and is a shining beacon but nonetheless, fails to convince its audience.


            Another way to sort of think about this – one of my favorite examples is Eminem's song Mosh. Do you remember that? This is from the second election of George W Bush. It was awesome and passion rap song; sort of tells people to go out and let's not re-elect Bush and let's show him how angry we are. It's such an awesome piece of music.


            But you know what, Bush didn't win. And me? I still think Eminem is a great rapper.


            So in sum, we've talked about a lot of good questions that you'd think about and making your own definition of rhetoric. Is rhetoric something that you practice? Or is it something that's studied? Does it include invention and coming up with ideas? Does it include delivery and how those ideas are actually presented?


            Is rhetoric dependent on being language? Or does it work with any symbol? Does rhetoric always have to involve persuasion? And if so, does it depend on whether or not the goal is achieved; whether or not that was good rhetoric?


            As we continue to define and find sort of a definition of rhetoric, the purpose of this podcast is going to be sort of expand on some of these questions about what rhetoric is doing. We're going to talk about some of the most important ideas; some of the most important figures and some of the most important theories and movements that have shaped through rhetorical field.


            Decide for yourself. What is rhetoric? Why is rhetoric important to you? What sort of advances in rhetoric are going to be the ones that you want to contribute? You could think for yourself but one sort of one liney, piffy definition of what rhetoric is may be coming from some of these theories.


            Practice it for yourself a few times and that way next time, when somebody at a party asks you what it is you study, you could have a good comeback instead of just staring at your punch glass for a few more minutes.


            Thank you for joining me today – our first episode of Mere Rhetoric. If you have any questions or suggestions or things that you really would like to hear more about, feel free to email me. My email is And I'll try to take some of yourquestions sometimes. Thanks for joining us and remember, rhetoric is not just a pejorative.