Where X = Rhetoric

What does it mean to be a scholar of x? Before I can answer this question, I suppose that I first have to solve for x. In my case, that might be easier said than done. It is easy to narrow my field, though. I have been interested in the act of public apology, but since I’m a scholar, that might need more heft, at least from an ethos standpoint. So, I suppose it would be easier to identify myself as a scholar of epideictic rhetoric. It’s interesting, because I actually got into epideictic rhetoric because of apology, but now that I’ve begun studying it, I have become more interested in epideictic more generally, even to the point where my interest in the broad field has surpassed (while still encapsulating) my interest in public apology. Over the course of this semester, I have found myself becoming more broadly versed in the various discussions being had about English studies, and believe that I have been able to fit myself in. My interest in epideictic rhetoric places me squarely into the field of rhetorical studies, but at the same time, seems to distance me from many of the Composition/Rhetoric scholars (at least those focused more on composition).

How I Got Here, and Where I’m At.

For the beginning of this blog post, I am going to take the reader on a trip through my previous blog posts, while at the same time both adjusting and re-framing the ideas. I should probably include the disclaimer that, before this class, I hadn’t been a student or really done any scholarship to speak of in several years. One effect of this fact is that I feel like my writing and research got progressively better as I went. My first post, on the history of rhetorical studies in America, focused heavily on Berlin, though I had little idea about either him or the scholars he discussed I wrote:

Rhetoric, traditionally, has been the type of discourse that deals in practical matters, i.e. public discourse, while poetics was centered around criticism and creation of texts that ‘embodied the best values of society’ (Berlin 522). Historically, the two have always been kept in balance, as two sides of the same coin, but in the mid-nineteenth century, that began to change. Berlin traces this change to a conflation of three separate theorists: Campbell, Blair, and Emerson (523). Each of these scholars had a different epistemology concerning rhetoric, but each also (to varying degrees) saw the value of both poetics and rhetoric in coexistence. With the shift toward an ‘elective model’ of education, the dominant educators at the time ‘pull[ed] together strands of rhetorical thought that had appeared in American imitators of Campbell and Blair for fifty years’ (529). Using Campbell’s theory of rhetoric working on each of the faculties, they stressed the rhetorical modes, while using the stylistic concerns of Blair to posit that students should imitate the styles of well-written essays (529). While students flocked to literature courses to fill their need for a liberal education (now that the classical tradition was in remission), rhetoric was shrunk down to a single, formulaic course: a first-year composition course where the rhetorical modes were taught by showing examples of ‘good writing’ and having the students produce similar works. In so doing, they removed the emotional aspect of rhetoric altogether, and subordinated rhetoric to the more analytic (and therefore scientific) poetics.

Since writing this passage, I have since both learned a great deal about, and also read, the scholars referenced by Berlin. I was grasping around these ideas, as was apparent here. I’d read Emerson, but had no idea who Campbell and Blair were (seems embarrassing, now!). Looking back at this post now, it’s apparent to me that one of the losses that Berlin is lamenting, whether he realizes it or not, is a loss of the value of epideictic rhetoric. Though epideictic is often referred to as a rhetoric most literary, because it uses literary forms, it is also one of the most quickly dismissed by those that care about precision and perspicuity, like Campbell and Blair do. Therefore, while these two scholars spend a considerable amount of time discussing forms that rhetoric might take, they seem to focus more on deliberative and forensic rhetoric than epideictic. This was made even more dramatic by the piecemeal incorporation of Campbell/Blair’s ideas that Berlin describes; as works became more uniform, the idea of using rhetoric in a ceremonial way seemed to fall even further out of vogue.

Hugh Blair. Look at this handsome devil.

In my second post, I looked more closely at epideictic rhetoric. Much of the work I did for that post is similar to work I did a long time ago; I have been familiar with the broad strokes of epideictic for some time now. The work Hauser is doing on epideictic is some of the best out there, but he has since been aided by some excellent scholars like Condit and Villadsen. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about Hauser:

Though he seems to advocate a more conservative role for the didactic nature of epideictic, Hauser makes a very convincing case for the importance of the acknowledgement of epideictic’s radical didactic function by pointing out what happens when a society loses the ability to articulate its moral underpinnings.  This society, he argues, “soon becomes moribund, and relinquishes the discursive basis of its political actions to authority or force” (19-20).  No matter how these scholars position themselves on the creation of morality through epideictic, they all seem to agree upon the importance of bringing epideictic out of the metaphorical doghouse and back to the public sphere for which it was originally intended.  What will happen as we move in that direction, however, is still a matter of debate.

Many others are currently writing about the importance of a return to the teaching foundations of rhetoric, among them Perelman. However, I feel that it is also important to take a look at how rhetoric is currently being used to teach in a less explicit way: namely teaching morality. To that end, my scholarship tends to look at how we negotiate morality through rhetoric, especially epideictic rhetoric.

As part of this undertaking, I’ve set out to better theorize my own work, not just from an epistemological framework, but also by examining what OOS I should be using. My objects of study take at three different forms: namely primary texts, responses to texts, and textual framework. For example, I’ve recently been studying an incident that occurred during WW2 involving General Patton. Patton was caught slapping soldiers who were suffering from “battle fatigue,” or shell-shock, and calling them cowards. When called on this act, Patton issued an apology to his men and to Eisenhower. One of the things I do to study this case is look specifically at Patton’s apologies themselves. However, in order to look at how morality is negotiated through these acts, I need to look at public responses to his apology as well, especially those from the press.

Additionally, if I am to judge how effective the apology was at what it was trying to do (or even to state what it was trying to do), I have to find scholars who can assist me in creating a framework for the analysis of these discursive acts. In the example I’ve just laid out, the framework has been provided by Lisa Storm  Villadsen; her look at statements of regret, which aren’t really apologies, and of which Patton’s “apology” was a type, provides a useful framework to determine why Patton didn’t issue a more explicit apology, and why it was accepted the way that it was. Additionally, by studying the reaction the American press had to the incident and the apology, I am able to discuss how the conversation quickly moved from the appropriateness of Patton’s actions (not very disputed), to the larger issue of the press’s initial suppression of the story. The members of the press were more concerned with the fact that the story had initially been covered up than they were about the actual incident itself. The conversation shifted to a conversation about how much deception is allowed during times of war, and for what reasons. Perhaps I’ll post my final paper on Patton here when it’s finished!

 Gaps in My Knowledge

Where to even begin? I am definitely guilty of imposter’s syndrome. I feel like there is still so much that I don’t know about the theoretical framework that I need to understand in order to make the rhetorical moves I’m eager to make. Of all the big names, the only real “Father of Modern Rhetoric” that I’d read before this semester began was Foucault. So, unless I’m directly talking about him as a theorist, I feel completely out of my depth any time epistemology comes up. Take, for example, the uncertain nature of the following, from my last paper:

I find myself torn between two warring epistemologies: social constructivism/relativism and realism. On the one hand, I am deeply sympathetic to the idea that we construct our own versions of social truths; in fact, most of my research on epideictic rhetoric depends on that fact. If we truly do “make morality,” as I argue society is largely in the process of doing, I can’t very well argue that morality just “is.” Yet, on some level, I do believe that. One of the questions that I posit to my students when this topic comes up is one of scale: are things wrong because society thinks they are wrong, or because there is something in the act itself that is just plain wrong? As with most dichotomies, I find this lacking. Can’t it be something in between?

As is probably clear from the tone here, I still haven’t been able to fully articulate the different epistemological theories of any of these scholars, let alone figure out where to position myself within the conversation. To that end, I have a considerable amount of work to do, and it begins with reading more concerning epistemological rhetoric, as Dr. R. suggests. I’ve already ordered a Burkean theoretical book (Grammar of Motives) for reading over Christmas break, and I plan on continuing to devour these scholars whenever a free moment presents itself. I am very grateful to have had the experience of Dr. Moberly’s modern rhetoric class this semester, as it has filled in some definite holes in my knowledge (as with Blair and Campbell above), however, it has also left me with a more detailed knowledge of where the holes still exist. I’m looking forward to filling in the holes in knowledge of classical rhetoric this spring; this knowledge will be essential for situating myself in the conversation. Additionally, I believe this background knowledge will help me in better becoming a scholar of epideictic rhetoric.

This is my brain on epistemology.


Where Does My Work Overlap?

My work overlaps in two ways and for two separate reasons. The first concerns the arbitrary nature of rhetoric’s situatedness in English Studies. Though rhetoric and poetics are two different sides of the same coin (to simplify and avoid the “all literature is rhetoric” debate), they reside in the same academic department of most universities. However, most is not all, and in many places, rhetoric is found in the field of communications, instead. This became clear to me mid-semester, as I had a research breakthrough: I realized that Jstor, a database that primarily serves the arts, was a decent place to look for scholarship on rhetoric, but that it was vastly overpopulated with the compositional aspect of rhetoric, and with essays by composition scholars. When I began perusing communications databases, I had a great deal more success finding the kind of theoretical or practical work that I was looking for, including feeling more at home with some of my trusty authors. Would I consider myself a communications scholar rather than English? Tough to say, for one because my primary occupation is that of a composition teacher, and therefore I am naturally sympathetic towards that aspect of scholarship, but also because I am fairly realistic on the nature of the fields themselves. Communication departments exist in universities because everyone has to take speech, and English departments exist because everyone has to take composition. The idea that the two departments should be opposed strikes me as ridiculous; they have far more in common than not.

The other place I’ve been noticing my work overlapping is sociology, though this overlap is a recent discovery and therefore still ill-defined. Part of the reason for this overlap is because these discussions about what is or is not “moral” have real-world effects, not just theoretical ones, as is no doubt obvious from contemporary discussions about morality. So, for my purpose, some of the things I have to look at are not just pure English or Communication concerns, but sociology concerns as well. For example, Stuart Hall considers himself a cultural theorist, and held a chair in a sociology department, but his theories on media and how it works speak directly to my own research.

Hopefully, this has been a mostly perspicuous (Blair would approve!) look at what it means to be a scholar of epideictic rhetoric. I still have a very long way to go, but if I am continually growing, then I feel I can consider myself a true scholar. After all, what is scholarship, but another kind of growth?


Works Cited:

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Poetics in the English Department: Our Nineteenth-Century Inheritance.” College English, Vol. 47, No. 5 (Sep., 1985), pp. 521-533. Jstor. Web.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/376886 .

Hauser, Gerard A. “Aristotle on Epideictic: The Formation of Public Morality.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Winter, 1999), pp. 5-23. Jstor. Web. 9/23/2014.  <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886389>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *