One of the more interesting things that I noticed when I first started studying rhetorical theory is that some rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. Everyone, I think, at one time or another, has encountered an audience that cannot, or, rather, would not, be moved.
The distinction between ‘cannot’ and ‘would not’ is important; if an audience cannot be moved – if there is some gulf of values that somehow cannot be crossed by any conceivable method – then that is one thing, to say that rhetorical power has limits. But if an audience refuses motion – if it chooses not to move when it could have – that implies something else, that namely, the audience has all the real power, and we should speak less of rhetorical power and more about audience power. Rhetoric becomes more of a curious byproduct – a residue of an interaction – than a means to an end.
So if audiences can choose not to be moved, all rhetorical situations are impossible tasks. People cannot be persuaded – rather they choose to persuade themselves in the light of certain situations or stimuli.
Where does this place the so-called persuasive speaker, the charismatic, the leader? Obviously some people can move others and are demonstrably better at it than others, right? So I think that the power to refuse movement is present but not always used, comparatively. It would require a mechanism that is the reverse of cognitive dissonance; that is to say, instead of rationalization in the face of dissonant input, there is an resistance to information that does make sense to the listener – an unwillingness to move, to listen, to process. I may be equivocating between “dissonant input” and “makes sense”
The prosecutor in the Ferguson case, Robert McCulloch, gave a very interesting speech last night while announcing the grand jury’s decision. I am particularly interested in it because of the extensive use of moderating language, given that I have published a piece recently on moderation.
Over and over again, McCulloch stressed that the grand jury had worked extremely hard and that every piece of possible evidence had been extensively weighed and considered, and that the process was fair and impartial and had considered every angle. This must have been 90% of his prepared remarks and much of it predicated the actual announcement of the grand jury’s decision. The other 10% was criticizing the media. The announcement of the decision was almost anticlimactic given the amount of apology that preceded it.
Needless to say, all this moderating language as an apology for the decision could not have possibly succeeded. Ultimately the speech could do little more than reinforce the beliefs those who believed the shooting was justified, and anger those that thought the incident was some form of murder. In short, McCulloch was in a no-win situation, rhetorically – there is literally nothing he could have said that would change anyone’s reaction to the news. About the only way he could have done worse is to not give the speech at all.
Our article (Adam Ellwanger and I) “The Rhetoric of Moderation in Deliberative Discourse: Barack Obama’s December 1, 2009 Speech at West Point,” is online in the journal Cogency. I really thought our collaboration worked well in this article, and that it says several valuable things about how political discourse is formulated.
There is a new review out of my co-edited (with Star Vanguri) book, The Centrality of Style, in the journal Pedagogy. It is very flattering about the contents and the authors. It is written by Gretchen Dietz.
I can’t link directly to it as it requires a subscription, but I can link to the journal, and suggest accessing it through a library.
Well, the title here is misleading. I have a new article forthcoming on moderation (see the About page) but I co-wrote it four years ago.
It has been quite the journey to get it published. For a long time I considered it an example of how peer review occasionally doesn’t work, because I and my co-author are at that point in our careers when we can smell whether something is publishable or not. And this piece has always had that distinctive smell, but no one was biting. I’m glad that it will have an audience now.
It’s a pretty lazy holidays for me so far. I’m sitting here with the dogs at my feet, doing some ancillary reading for a spring project. Tomorrow we go see my mother and stepfather and grandmother, which is good.
Some other good news recently – another accepted article, this time at Rhetorica (see the About page) – though I don’t know when it will appear. This one is particularly important as it’s the first time a chapter from my dissertation has made it to print. Previously I had a big idea from a chapter appear (the article on Origen) but not a whole rewritten chapter. So I’m pleased.
In a previous post I noticed that certain sources have a different version of ancient stasis theory than the one I knew to be accurate to Hermagoras.
I initially thought Crowley and Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students was the source of this difference – namely, the introduction of a fourth stasis, policy, that replaces jurisdiction – but apparently it goes farther back to an article by Fahnestock and Secor in 1985, “Toward A Modern Version of Stasis.” Crowley and Hawhee correctly identify their version as a “hybrid” in a footnote, but don’t mention Fahnestock and Secor. F&S have a textbook that apparently furthers their stasis model.
There is also a reference to George Kennedy’s “reconstruction of Hermagoras’ lost treatise” in C&H, but the text they’re referencing is not in the bibliography. In fact, in A New History of Classical Rhetoric, Kennedy lists the four stasis questions, and they’re the correct classical ones from Hermagoras (98-99).
Now what is the significance of this, you may ask. On one level, I’m just being nitpicky about representing something as classical – and getting the ethos that this bestows – when it is really modern. On another level, though, I wonder if the policy question actually adds anything to the theory. Still digesting that one.
So I was prepping a quick lesson on stasis theory for my undergraduates and popped online to confirm the four categories. The first link on Google for stasis theory is the Purdue OWL. Unfortunately it is incorrect from what I remembered of ancient stasis theory – the fourth question is translatio, a question of jurisdiction – not policy, a question of what to do. The second link, the Forest of Rhetoric, gets it right. The third link, The Everyday Writer is back, however, to policy…
The guilty party appears to be Crowley and Hawhee’s Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, which is cited here and there in teaching materials online. What’s going on here? There is nothing in Hermagoras or the Ad Herennium or Cicero to support a ‘policy’ question. Even Wikipedia gets the four categories right. Is this some kind of reinterpretation?
Introduced the Phaedrus to my undergraduates this week. They had more difficulty with it, I think, than the Gorgias. Next week, the graduates get a stab at it.
Most of my interpretation of the Phaedrus stems from two works: Richard Weaver’s famous essay on the three speeches and my mentor’s essay on whether or rhetoric is fully denounced in the dialogue. As such, I think the three speeches represent different kinds of ethical rhetorics (as Weaver does) – a piddling neutrality (Lysias), a base rhetoric (Socrates’s first speech) and a philosophical rhetoric (the Great Speech) – but I also think the dialogue needs to be read in light of Isocrates’s work, which it may respond to, and the comparatively restrictive definition of rhetoric and rhetors in classical Athens. Plato wasn’t a rhetor; we can call him one if we so wish retroactively, but only with knowledge of the equivocation.
I’ve been thinking that I may not assign the Phaedrus in the future for either class as unlike the Gorgias, it can be summed up relatively quickly, and there is so much else to cover in the meantime. The main thing to take away from it is that Plato finally gets around to showing, via the Great Speech, the persuasive technique behind his philosophy; we get to see what a “philosophical rhetoric” linked to transcendent truth would look like as opposed, directly, to the “baser” speeches in the dialogue. The existence of such a creature is hinted rather broadly at in the Gorgias, but not delivered.
I’m teaching four classes this fall – two sections of Business and Technical Report Writing, one section of History of Rhetoric, and a graduate course in Rhetorical Theory & Criticism. All of these I’ve taught before, but not in this particular configuration. In particular, I have not taught undergraduate rhetoric and graduate rhetoric at the same time. As such, it seems worth my time to take extra time to reread some canonical texts this semester and search out some new secondary readings.
For example, take the Gorgias, a foundational text for rhetoric if there ever was one. Both classes read it, but for different reasons. The undergraduates read it to complete a section of the historical puzzle of classical rhetoric and to put in an oar on the rhetoric vs. philosophy question. The graduates read it for the same reasons, but they are somewhat better prepared to read both with and against the text; I’m also slowly introducing them to rhetorical criticism, so the text also has to be read in that light.
My elevator pitch understanding of the Gorgias is that Plato first teases out what rhetoric is through debate with Gorgias (it’s mere flattery or a knack rather than an art), why it is bad with Polus (rhetoric aims for the pleasant rather than the good), and lastly with Callicles, why it is bad for the soul (bad acts, namely inflicting pain, i.e. rhetoric, scar the soul, which the dead will be judged by). The aforementioned interlocutors attempt several defenses, all of which fall before Socrates’s questioning, but none of them – particularly Callicles – seem convinced of Socrates’s arguments. They give up rather than keep trying, much like Socrates’s real-life dialectical adversaries probably did.
Reading the secondary lately has brought up three points I should mention. One is Bruno Latour’s observation that Callicles and Socrates both fear the demos; it is only their solutions to the problem of the polloi that differ. For Callicles, the weak are simply crushed; for Socrates, they are mollified by philosopher-kings.The second is that Socrates’s argument against Callicles is stronger than commonly thought (Jenks). Furthermore, Callicles’ entire hedonistic position can be construed as being artificially weakened by Plato (Klosko).