What is Rhetorical Criticism, Anyway?

I get asked this question a lot, and as it pertains to some manuscript revisions I’m making, I thought I’d take a informal stab here first.

I need to revise the question a little, though, and change it to “What makes a good rhetorical critic?” or even, “What do I think, personally, makes a good rhetorical critic?” Just talking about the criticism itself as some objective, free-floating entity seems a bit of a cop-out to me – reasons forthcoming shortly.

A good rhetorical critic starts with several bedrock epistemological assumptions.  Ignore or sidestep them at your peril.

The first assumption  is that all meaning worth talking about is an artifact of human perception, and thus limited by the boundaries of our particular physiology, evolutionary processes, personal experiences, sociocultural forces, etc, etc. Meaning outside of human perception is not worth talking about because, quite  honestly – and quite ironically – we can’t talk about it in any meaningful way. We can, however, analyze our perceptions and the perceptions of others to our heart’s content.

The second assumption builds directly upon the first. If all we have is human perception to play with, and our perception is limited, flawed, and problematic as Hume astutely put it,  then the grand bulk of human communication will necessarily have to be a series of arguments about the nature of the world. We will constantly be trying to communicate our perceptions – or at least what we want others to think are our perceptions – to others, who, limited by their own perceptional filters, will try to communicate back to us, and will be forced to deal with exactly the same problem in reverse. Imagine the human race as a giant room filled with brains in vats, who can do little more than send each other a constant barrage of garbled text messages  and then argue over the contents of these messages using precisely the same medium. The simplified medium in this metaphor stands for the whole human sensory suite – sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vesticular system, etc. In other words, all communication, all our efforts to communicate in this perpetually confused state, is rhetorical and epistemic by nature. As such, rhetoric is a kind of applied philosophy and vice versa.

The third assumption builds on the second. The observation that all communication is rhetorical and epistemic is not terribly useful by itself.  Our order-seeking, category-hungry brains prefer simpler fare in order to avoid overload, confusion, and general insanity. And so we are drawn inexorably to classify the communication that we use and encounter by genre, by tone, by purpose, by anything, really – the taxonomic urge, the pleasure of stereotyping, is quite powerful. With this comes the realization that while all communication might be rhetorical, some of it seems really, really rhetorical, whereas other texts are far less so. This is a byproduct of our preference for simpler fare; effective rhetoric is almost always hidden in some way, for if it is noticeable, then it becomes suspicious and challenges our worldview. Remember, we don’t want to fully acknowledge the extent of how all communication is rhetorical and epistemic – it’s just not possible to live with such a fundamentally bleak assumption second-by-second. So we simplify. Naked persuasion becomes undesirable as it exposes the constantly refreshed epistemological white lie that allows us to get through a simple conversation without going nutters. The good rhetorical critic, therefore, knows that much of what seems at first to be bereft of persuasion will turn out, with close attention,  to be rhetorical, though there is no telling in many cases until some careful reading of the text in question is performed. But there is a necessary limit to this where insanity lurks and we start theorizing about the rhetoric of bowling. Good rhetorical critics lurk near the edge, but they don’t go over.

The fourth assumption might be the most important: rhetorical critics cannot escape from this strange communication system with anything like objectivity. The good rhetorical critic knows he or she is embedded and complicit in whatever medium and text that he or she chooses to study. There is no magical  scholarly impartiality; those who pursue it like the Holy Grail, interestingly enough, tend to end up the most compromised, trapped within their own methodology. This corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows about it; a good rhetorical critic, however, embraces it like an old friend, shines a light on it, and reminds everyone about it, all the while noting and admitting their own complicity. This is why talking about ‘rhetorical criticism’ absent of its agent feels a little dishonest to me; there are as many flavors of this activity as there are practitioners. The term is useful shorthand, but it has limits.

The fifth assumption is a bit more mundane than the rest; this is where “methodology” finally creeps in (you might have been wondering when it was going to make an appearance). Holding the previous assumptions, the good rhetorical critic realizes that genre and its ilk, playing off of the brain’s propensity for order in an inherently chaotic world, are the key to understanding how texts persuade. The reason for this is that it is impossible to do good rhetorical criticism without knowing what kind of text you are examining. If the initial classification is poor, then the resulting analysis is near useless. This means, fortunately or fortunately, that rhetorical criticism is an art, not a science; that initial classification is made more by gut instinct and experience than by evidence, especially if evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, that initial classification cannot be fixed in stone. It has to have some serious give. If you kick it, it should shift an appreciative amount.  Otherwise, all your analysis can ever do is prove your initial assumption and you are reduced to pronouncements, not arguments, when you choose to tell others about texts. The sciences know this, generally, but not always the arts.

The sixth and last assumption is more obviously a special topic or a value than the others:  namely, a good rhetorical critic thinks rhetorical criticism is worth doing, much like Ebert thinks talking about films does wonders for humanity. Calling attention to how the previous assumptions apply to certain texts – namely, that persuasion is going on – is a good idea. And it’s a good idea because rhetoric tends to be hidden, misunderstood, and used for nefarious purposes as much as for good ones; understanding how it is used, how it works, and what the ethical dimensions are contributes to the general human enterprise. It also makes it far easier to teach speaking and writing  if the teacher knows how to deal with rhetoric on an abstract level that is not wedded to any specific genre or context. And it’s certainly a good idea to promote more effective communication between human beings.

So that’s it, really: all meaning is limited by human perception,  all communication is rhetorical and epistemic, some texts are more rhetorical than others and rhetoric tends to be hidden for effectiveness as well as general sanity, subjectivity needs interrogation, genre identification is key, and examinations of rhetorical texts promote better understanding of human communication. That’s rhetorical criticism in a nutshell. I suppose I could go on to talk about specific things to look for in texts, reading strategies, terminology, etc, but these assumptions, at least to me, are far, far more important.

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