Source on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies by James Jasinski

How words can change the world

Sourcebook on Rhetoric

Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies James Jasinski, associate professor of communication and theatre arts 643 pages, reference

Jasinski’s book is a reference work—a glossary of concepts—for students and anyone interested in the academic field of rhetorical studies. After an explanatory introduction, the book is arranged like an encyclopedia, defining the major issues, themes and arguments of rhetorical terms, from “accent” to “vernacular.” Jasinski explains important concepts, gives examples of their use, cross-references related terms and guides readers to outside sources, allowing them to easily grasp a wide range of theoretical and practical concepts. Readers can apply these concepts, gaining interesting insight into the ways rhetoric shapes our lives. The following in an excerpt from the introduction.

By James Jasinski

Excerpt: Defining rhetoric

Rhetoric has, and seems to have always had, multiple meanings. Variations in the meaning of rhetoric often reflect different attitudes toward language and linguistic representation and, even more particularly, the use of language for persuasive purposes. One common sense of the term, constituting a tradition of thought stretching from the Greek philosopher Plato to our contemporary world, links rhetoric with artifice, the artificial, mere appearances, or the simply decorative. For Plato, rhetoric was a pseudo-art and, like poetry, an ignoble public practice. Numerous contemporary expressions such as the phrase “mere rhetoric” or the customary opposition of someone’s “rhetoric” to their actions or deeds continue the Platonic denigration of rhetoric. The Platonic tradition’s negative or pejorative sense of rhetoric is intertwined with a marked ambivalence toward language. Ambivalence toward language, the feeling that it is both beneficial and dangerous, a tool for building human community and a device for tearing it apart, a medium for representing knowledge (or, in more common parlance, “stating the facts”) and a vehicle for distorting or deceiving, is a key element in the thought of most of the major early modern philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Kant. The concept of rhetoric, what it might possibly mean, is entangled in this persistent ambivalence toward language.

If Plato, and the many thinkers who followed in his path, were inclined toward a negative view of language, a considerable number of other thinkers over the years have leaned in the opposite direction. A more positive understanding of rhetoric emerges within the writings of those individuals who stressed the beneficial capacity of language, speech, and discourse. Isocrates, one of the early Greek thinkers in the sophistic tradition, believed that language, and especially persuasive oratory or rhetoric, was a force for civilization and human advancement. In a famous speech titled “Antidosis,” Isocrates maintained: “[T]he art of discourse . . . is the source of most of our blessings. . . . [B]ecause there has been implanted in us the power to persuade each other and to make clear to each other whatever we desire, not only have we escaped the life of wild beasts, but we have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts; and, generally, speaking, there is no institution devised by man [sic] which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.” Isocrates’ celebration of language and rhetoric developed into a tradition of thought that extends from Aristotle and the Greek Sophists, through Cicero and Quintilian, into the humanist movement of the European Renaissance, and continues today in the work of numerous theorists and critics.

While sketching the antagonistic traditions of thought about language and rhetoric helps to reconstruct the intellectual context in which rhetorical thinking has occurred, it does not provide an adequate understanding of the substance of rhetorical thinking. For over two millennia, philosophers, teachers, scholars, and citizen advocates have discussed the concept of rhetoric and formulated definitions of it. Looking back on this multivoiced tradition of thought, Douglass Ehninger has written: “The continuing dialogue on the question, What is rhetoric? except as an academic exercise, is largely profitless. If there is no one generic rhetoric which, like a Platonic Idea, is lurking in the shadows awaiting him [sic] who shall have the acuteness to discern it, the search for a defining quality can only end in error or frustration.” Ehninger’s observation guides the discussion that follows. The aim is not to uncover an absolute or final definition of rhetoric. Rather, the discussion will try to outline some of the key issues involved in the activity of trying to define rhetoric. Reflection on these issues should provide readers with an introduction to the conversation that is contemporary rhetorical studies.

Donald Bryant identifies both a problem and a place to begin this undertaking. He writes: “Over the centuries one great trouble with the term rhetoric has been that it is used loosely for the art, the artifact, and a quality of discourse; and often the reference of the designation is quite unclear.” Other disciplines such as literary studies have evolved “a full complement of useful differentiating terms for artist, art, and output”: poet, poetics, and poetry. But “[w]ith rhetoric,” Bryant notes, “we are in something of a mess.” Rhetorical studies lacks the differentiating terms found in literary studies for the artifact or the product and the theory or the art; the term rhetoric is used to refer to both a particular type of practice and a theory that tries to guide and/or explain that practice. …

But what specific types of discursive practice are rhetorical? What constitutes a theory or art of rhetoric? These questions need to be considered more carefully. …

The inability to establish clear, immutable distinctions between different forms of language practice has led large numbers of scholars to abandon any effort to locate or identify essential forms of communication. This approach, an outgrowth of the expansion of rhetoric discussed above, is sometimes referred to as the undifferentiated textuality thesis. Adherents of the thesis maintain that all linguistic and discursive practices—scientific reports, poems, newspaper articles, political speeches, philosophical treatises, legal contracts, corporate advertorials, radical manifestoes, advice columns, the list could go on, it is virtually endless—are essentially the same. They can have multiple functions, appear in different contexts, be produced by one person or prepared by a committee, and written in any of a number of idioms or combinations of idioms. But despite these apparent differences, all these discursive practices result in a “text.” They consist of words, the words combine into sentences, the sentences into paragraphs; the words, sentences, paragraphs cohere into structures and configurations that reveal patterns of various kinds. The words, sentences, paragraphs, and patterns enter into relationships with each other; they can, among other possible relationships, support, qualify, contest, subvert, and ignore each other. And out of this mix of words, sentences, paragraphs, idioms, patterns, and interrelationships comes something ephemeral, but sometimes enduring, something intangible, but nevertheless real, something inherently particular, but capable of subsequent rearticula-tion in different contexts. This something is discursive force.

When people use language, they do not simply employ it as a passive tool for depicting or representing the world. Nor does language serve only as device that allows an individual to externalize their internal thoughts. These restrictive views of linguistic representation have been largely discarded in contemporary scholarship. More and more scholars are embracing a constructivist or constitutive understanding of language practice. Put simply: when people use language, they are participating in the ongoing (re)construction of the world. Stanley Fish notes how “in discipline after discipline there is evidence of … the realization … that the givens of any field of activity—including the facts it commands, the procedures it trusts in, and the values it expresses and extends—are socially and politically constructed, are fashioned by man [sic] rather than delivered by God or Nature.” Fish continues this line of argument a few pages later when he comments on the John Searle/Jacques Derrida “debate” about “ordinary” language. In this context, Fish observes: “The ‘obvious’ cannot be opposed to the ‘staged,’ as Searle assumes, because it is simply the achievement of a staging that has been particularly successful. One does not escape the rhetorical by fleeing to the protected area of basic communication and common sense because common sense in whatever form it happens to take is always a rhetorical—partial, partisan, interested—construction.” Along similar lines, Harry Bash describes how the social constructionist position “stipulates that what we commonly accept as real, the familiar world within which and in relation to which we plan our activities and act them out—both in their day-to-day detail and in the broader strategies in terms of which we conduct our lives—this reality, in effect, is an artifact of the way in which we have elaborated our particular culture and this given shape to our society.”

The constructivist position does not entail the idea that language can magically conjure up material objects from thin air. Rather, language and discursive practice mediates—links—people and their surrounding world. As John Shotter observes, “we ‘see’ just as much ‘through’ our words as through our eyes.” But this linking process is never passive or neutral. While language and discourse make the world understandable and accessible, they always present the world in particular ways. … Language and discourse do not create natural disasters nor do they simply, neutrally report these events. Rather, language and discourse shape or construct how we will understand events such as an earthquake or a tornado.