On the Rebound: Resilient Rhetorics

Jackson Pollock


As a rhetorician, I am constantly negotiating between rhetoric and its philosophical implications, and even more specifically, Science, and its practical demands for the Truth. I perceive my narrow purpose as a rhetorician, specifically, as a rhetorician of the sciences and politics of nature, as a democratic and civic one; that of energizing creative coopera(C)tion among the seemingly contradictory purposes of the sciences with the political system. Given the wider scope of rheotoric and its philosophical implications, though, I’d suggest that on the most general level, the epitome of the rhetorician’s purpose is in negotiating competing interests in critical, useful ways. A “purposed” rhetoric is one which manifests itself in productive change. I’d also admit that the perspective I’ve just outlined above becomes completely unbound considering that, ironically, the boundary – this definition, the situatedness – of rhetoric, its philosophical implications, purposes, and usefulness, creates a dichotomy that is extremely unsettling; uncannily disequilibriating. For instance, if the epitome of the rhetorician’s purpose is in negotiating … in “critical, useful” ways (as defined above), how ought we to determine what is deemed “critical”? At what point in the continuum of ideas and action is a thought explored, contested, challenged deeply, perfectly, enough? What is “critical”; what are the ends? Furthermore, “usefulness” and its valuation seem to depend entirely upon audience; competing audiences value different “uses” and therefore like or dislike opposing uses; and in this sense, the “negotiation of competing interests” mentioned above is inherently useless in that the Truth is always splintered by preference of one audiences’ usefulness and valuation in discord with other truths.

In terms of historical rhetorics, and in particular, the context of the rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies of Cicero, Quintilian, Augustine, Ong, and Grassi, I want to articulate rhetorics’ propositions, not define, or even purpose, rhetoric. Rhetorically, I see significant and sustainable distinctions (‘significant’ in that the terms have dangerous implications for our agency as educators, and ‘sustainable’ in that the rhetorical effects of their uses continues to occur and recur throughout, and in spite of, time.)

Purposes, Definitions, and Articulations of Propositions

“Purpose” is that which a person sets out to do or attain; an object in view; a determined intention or aim. Additionally, to serve one’s purpose is to be of use or service in effecting one’s object; to be capable of bringing about a desired result. This gives a very tangible iteration to the term; it means that purposing is accomplished, finished, ended, when the object in view is attained. Therefore, to “purpose” rhetoric is essentially reinforcing a subject/object dichotomy: the subject, the server, is to be of use to affect the object, that which the subject intends or aims to attain. In this sense, purposing rhetoric is reduced not only to a subject/object dichotomy, but to a litany of one- or (at most) two-dimensional accomplishments, and at the very most, tactics used to obtain objects.

To “define” is to bring to an end; to terminate, or bound. Here, there is more at stake. I’d suggest that even more dramatically than the significant and sustainable implications of “purpose,” to “define” rhetoric is to end, terminate, and bound it; to kill it. To “define” is one-dimensional in that it constricts, prevents, and (k)nots potentialities, agencies, compositions. If defining rhetoric is an act of violence – an act that brings an end, terminates, bounds, kills – is defining rhetoric anti-democratic; anti-rhetorical?

Because of the distinctions and implications of “purposing” and “defining”, I’d suggest that the problematics of describing and experimenting with rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies can begin to be partly remedied by more democratic language. Latour’s Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy negotiates ways of slowing down the impulse to purpose, define, boundar-ize. Concerning the knot tightened by theorists’ purposing and defining of rhetoric (singular; static), would we be better served – rather, more aware, honest, “truthful” – in shaking around the knot a bit, untying a few of its strands and knotting them back together differently? (Latour 3). This is my intention (there’s really no escaping the language, here, regardless of how fervently I’ve been attempting to avoid language associated with “purpose” or “define” in an attempt to justify a democratic, rather than dictatorial, articulation of rhetorics’ propositions …) in suggesting that we ought to be articulating rhetorics in terms of propositions.

For Latour, “articulation” describes that which ‘connects propositions* (*defined – er, positioned(?) suggested(?) in a moment) with one another; whereas statements [and I’d include here “definitions” and even “purposes”] are true or false, propositions can be said to be well or badly articulated; the connotations of the word cover the range of meanings that I am attempting to bring together, meanings that no longer stress the distinction between the world and what is said about it, but rather the ways in which the world is loaded into discourse’ (237). “Articulation” is appealing because while “define” and “purpose” are means to ends, articulations manifest in positively influential (well-articulated propositions) or negatively affective (badly articulated propositions) situations, but are not definitive, bound, or paralyzed in their expressions. A “proposition” ‘in its ordinary sense in philosophy, designates a statement that may be true or false: it is used [by Latour] in a metaphysical sense to designate not a being of the world or a linguistic form but an association of humans and nonhumans before it becomes a full-fledged member of the collective, an instituted essence. Rather than being true or false, a proposition in this sense may be well or badly articulated. Unlike statements, propositions insist on the dynamics of the collective in search of good articulation, the good cosmos’ (247-8). Therefore, in terms of articulating rhetorics’ propositions, I’m essentially suggesting that attempts to justify rhetoric, to speak in terms of rhetorics’ significance in the world, that it can (only?) be described as the negotiation of effective and less effective associations between humans and nonhumans.

Before rushing to the originality and risk inherent in articulating rhetorics’ propositions, and more importantly, its associations with philosophies and pedagogies, it’s necessary to do some boundary work; to address and elaborate upon the fundamentals of how rhetoric (singular) has been historically defined and purposed, before articulating more sophisticated propositions and implications of what I’m articulating as “resilient rhetorics”; which I propose is a rebounding of rhetorics and its sustainable effects for future iterations of education.

Boundary Work

Is the perfect orator a good man as well as a good orator? Answers to this question, throughout the history of Western thought, have attempted to define the mesh of speech, rhetoric, and ethics as either “philosophy” or “rhetoric.” Grassi articulates the distinction fairly simply: historically, rhetoric generally was assigned a formal function, whereas philosophy, as episteme, as rational knowledge, was understood to supply true, factual content. This distinction is significant because the essence of man is determined both by logical and emotional elements, and as a result speech can reach the human being as a union of logos and pathos only if it appeals to both these aspects. Hence, boundary-drawing ensued. Now, although such boundary-drawing seems antithetical to our purposes ((?) articulations(?) manifestations(?)) as rhetoricians, I’d suggest that an awareness of fundamental definitions of rhetoric’s purpose is intrinsic in order to begin shaking its knots, lengthening the list, and imbuing rhetorics with agency and life.

Cicero returns to an Isocratic emphasis regarding rhetoric, in that, for him, rhetoric is defined as training for leadership; Cicero’s use of “rhetorician” seems to echo the ancient Greek word for “sophistry”.  Concerning the question, “Does philosophy matter without oratory?” and therefore, the question pertaining to whether rhetoric ought to take precedence over philosophy, or vice versa, potential ways of thinking through this depends on various answers to the questions: 1) what is the techne of oratory? and, 2) what is the scope of rhetoric? If the scope, the boundary, of rhetoric consists of methods of training for leadership, this suggests that the “end” of rhetoric is accomplished through the means of attaining others’ confidence and subsequently, their loyalty; toward a particular direction, object, end.

As Santos notes, there is an Aristotelian ring to Cicero – in that to study rhetorical means of persuasion is also to build up a measure of resistance to them; an awareness of rhetorics’ applicability, its boundaries, ends.

Cicero’s definition influenced how Augustine valued rhetoric. For instance, in On Christian Teaching, some theorists suggest that Augustine viewed the whole of Scripture as ‘the Divine Rhetorician’s communication with humanity’; that Augustine perceived God as the perfect, ultimate communicator, exercising perfect, inherently divine leadership of the “sheep”. The function of Scripture then, is to instill knowledge in the teacher so that he is more than an eloquent rhetorician, but one who can distil the love of God in his listeners. In this sense, if divinity is transferred from God to teacher to “flock”, in a one-dimensional, linear fashion, then I’d suggest that Augustine’s valuation of rhetoric – with God as the epitome of the perfect orator, the Divine Rhetorician – parallels the banking model of education (which will be discussed briefly below) in the sense that knowledge is understood as the process of applying a fully satiating Truth to individual, anemic objects; converting them, appropriating them, leading them home.

Quintilian asserts that rhetoric is not ornamental but determinative, essentially creative; truth exists outside the play of language; language is ornament and adornment for Truth. Because “the Q question” pertains to the conversation below, about the value of rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies for education in the humanities, Quintilian is best elucidated through Lanham …

Ong’s position on rhetoric is contested; contradictory interpretations exacerbate and polarize the ways in which controversial ideas, such as the “great divide theory” are interpreted; however, regarding rhetoric and writing, some suggest that Ong’s belief was that rhetoric and writing aren’t legitimate forms to truth and understanding- that if an argument was dialectic, if it was both plausible and persuasive (i.e. eloquent), it could be regarded as ‘true’. In this sense, then, Ong’s position reflects the re-working, the unbinding, of rhetoric, opening it to more democratic, humanistic, educational acts.

For Grassi, rhetoric – defined as the speech that acts on the emotions – is problematic in that it can, in one sense, be considered simply as a doctrine of a type of speech that the traditional rhetors, politicians, and preachers employ only as an art, as a technique of persuading. In this case, the problems of rhetoric will be limited to questions of practical directions for persuading people and will not have a theoretical character, which isn’t sufficient because only the clarification of rhetoric in its relation to theoretical thought can allow us/him to delimit the function of rhetoric. He writes that only this will allow us to decide on an answer as to whether rhetoric has a purely technical, exterior, and practical aim of persuading, or whether it has an essentially philosophical structure and function. For Grassi, rhetoric is not, nor can it be, the art, the technique of an exterior persuasion (the potentiality described above). Instead, it is the speech which is the basis of the rational thought and theoretical thinking (as a rational process) which excludes every rhetorical element because pathetic influences — the influences of feeling – disturb the clarity of rational thought.

Schooling, Educating, and Re-bounding Rhetorics

What are potential ways of associating rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies in our positions as (humanities) educators? Namely, how ought we to engage not with the foundational question as to whether rhetorics is more esteemed or useful than philosophy, but rather, with how blurring the boundaries between the two enables us to begin articulating propositions that lengthen the list of dialectics; enhancing the historical foundations of influential humanists, for instance, Ong. In his studies of human communication and human mediation of reality, Ong was significant in reworking the triad of grammar (using words in meaningful ways), logic (propositions together as plausible arguments), and rhetoric (combining words and propositions so that the arguments become persuasive). This blurring of boundaries created a new field: dialectic, the formulation of arguments that were both plausible and persuasive. With this new field came new questions, such as the poignant and lingering rhetorical dilemma:

“Are we schooling or educating, under what premises, and affecting whom in what ways?” Schooling, from my understanding, refers to the school system, in which students, like sheep, have no option but to listen to, or at the very least, tolerate, the delivery of direct instruction from above. As Freire taught, this tactic is ineffective in that it operates like banking; depositing “knowledge” deemed universally “useful.” Furthermore, when “schooling” is confused with “education,” as it often is, education comes to be regarded as an institution, rather than a process. I agree, to a certain extent, but will extend Freire’s articulation below, in suggesting that rather than regarding education as a process, we ought to be conceiving of it with virtuosity, seeking to imbue it with a more radically open attitude, espousing rhetorics of resilience.

For Lanham, rhetoric, when the center of education, aims at exploring questions of morality; he articulates an understanding of rhetoric that cripples this idea of a university predicated upon the divorce of thought and action, knowledge and politics, and takes up the Q question in a new strain, that of connecting – associating – reading and writing practices with concerns about living moral lives .

For Santos, rhetoric stands as embracing, without necessarily celebrating, the whirl. “But the whirl isn’t a ‘formalist pleasure’ rather a rhetorical Humanism … [and celebrating it] would have to begin by blowing up the very structure of the contemporary university. Instead, learning might be organized around particular temporal problems. In place of fragmented Humanities, each teaching how to play with a particular piece of the human condition, we might return to a program of Humanism, which explores the question of how to live a good life …”

With this insight, I want to conclude by articulating the opportunity I believe may serve as a good proposition for how the “good life” is associated with rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies. In an attempt to lengthen Freire’s (good) proposition regarding the “process” of education, I’d suggest that – in terms of rhetorics, philosophies, and pedagogies, and the ways in which we’re conceiving of Humanities education, we’re in a post-process era. Instead of reinforcing “process,” instead, I’m asking, “How do we articulate good, sustainable, strategic propositions for rhetorics?” First, I believe that this rhetorics ought to be grounded in virtuosity, meaning that which is concerned with negotiating character, and with concerted attention to the genius and beauty inherent in doing the common uncommonly well. A rhetorics grounded in virtuosity lengthens the list of rhetorics’ propositions, because we engage in risking a more radically open mode of thinking. Essentially, this rhetorics is one of strategies, versus cut-and-paste tactics, or even process-oriented tactics, masked as democratic articulations. Additionally, a rhetorics of virtuosity necessitates experimentation with uncertainties, leading me to think in terms of a resilient rhetorics. Resilience is the act of rebounding or springing back; so in terms of rhetorics, we ought not bind rhetoric with definitions and purposes, but rather, enable rhetorics’ rebounding, recovery, robustness, and adaptability to powers acting within, under, around and out of it. In this sense, rhetorics rebounds, not because of the sophistication of tactics employed to define, purpose, and legitimize it, but rather, because risk, originality, virtuosity, and resilience are sustainable strategies for negotiating effective associations between humans and nonhumans.


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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