The Rhetoric According to Dr. Moberly

For my paper this week, I interviewed Dr. Moberly. I asked him a few questions related to theory, and I got very satisfactory answers. I’m going to use that interview to place myself into the discussion of rhetorical theory.

As far as theories of rhetoric in general go, there are definitely some that are considered more authoritative/accepted than others. Though, perhaps when we talk about theories, we are really talking about theorists? When asked about theory, I noticed Dr. Moberly followed a lot of the postmodern/deconstructivists, and referenced Bakhtin, Brummett, Burke, Booth (perhaps having a last name that begins with B predisposes one to be sympathetic to rhetorical theory), Foucault, and Derrida. I brought up Nietzsche, who wasn’t dismissed, and there were currents of McLuhan running under our conversation, though he was never mentioned by name; I suppose that makes him less authoritative. These theorists seem to have some things in common…namely a tendency to see a wide range of texts as rhetorically constructed, and to devalue any sort of idea of truth beyond a social construct. No one on “the list” values a sensory-based epistemology; rather, they all seem to view knowledge as constructed by language, rather than language representing truth in any firm way.

These theorists also seem to have in common a similar view of audience. I have always conceived of audience as something that is knowable; I imagined my audience to be in possession of certain characteristics, background knowledge, etc. Before my interview with Dr. Moberly, I saw technology as complicating the idea of audience, as it seemed to me that there becomes a barrier placed between a person and audience when your information might be disseminated anywhere in the world, possibly even without your knowledge. Dr. Moberly responded with the following:

the audience is fundamentally unknowable in almost every instance of rhetoric. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need rhetoric. As Locke and other Enlightenment scholars envision, we’d be able to communicate exactly and efficiently without any noise whatsoever [my note: notice how Locke et al are devalued by this statement]. As it is, however, our challenge as rhetoricians is to try and compensate for this fundamental unknowability as best we can, either through trying to understand the psychology, the socio-economic status, community affiliations or other categories that allow us to make generalizations.  Another way to think about this is the way that Bahktin does—that communication is an ongoing struggle between participants who are both in one way or another trying to overcome or perhaps even manipulate these limitations.

I find this way of viewing audience to be both clear and sensible. There are clear veins of the theorists I mentioned earlier running through these ideas, and it is clear the postmodern assumptions this response makes. An epistemology based on this idea of knowledge seems consistent with the idea that all texts are socially constructed.

When you’re talking epistemologically in regards to rhetoric, I suppose you also need to identify what sort of knowledge you are seeking to generate. Is creating morality the same thing as creating knowledge? I would argue that it is, because morality is a knowledge of, and adherence to, certain social conventions above others. While these conventions are often in dispute, I would argue that this disputation is, itself, an argument concerning knowledge. When asked about whether or not epideictic can create morality, or simply reestablish moral norms, Dr. Moberly had this to say:

I’m not sure that epideictic rhetoric has to be an either / or proposition[…]It strikes me that epideictic rhetoric can and often does fulfill both functions at once, especially as it is articulated through film, television programs, documentaries, etc…,. For instance, television shows like Dexter,  Breaking Bad,  and The Walking Dead both enact and reify family values—that is, they asks the audience to consent to accept these values as natural and beyond question. At the same time, though, these shows also redefine family values and a host of other values through the way they celebrate the actions / exploits of their protagonists.

Walter White: Family Man

As this quote illustrates, there is a making of knowledge happening here; there is both a confirmation of moral norms and simultaneously a redefinition of those same norms. In this way, epideictic generates knowledge of morality in the viewer. And, as a final note, Dr. Moberly extended, in this example, epideictic to cover TV shows. Did he do this because of the way I framed the question? I don’t believe so, because the question mentioned epideictic, but not popular media. This seems to be further evidence that epideictic rhetoric appears in many diverse types of media, not just in speech acts.

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