The truth of rhetoric

“Anne, who (…) had distinguished every word, was struck gratified, confused, and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment.”
– Jane Austen, Persuasion, Vol. II, Ch. 8.

Rhetoric is the art of using language to elicit responses that modify the behavior of other human beings. The time has come to speak of rhetoric.

The temptation here is to write: ‘The time has come at long last to speak of rhetoric.’ For the truth of rhetoric, although implied in hundreds of texts on the subject over the centuries, has rarely been spoken directly since Aristotle made his rather cautious but generally successful study of Greek rhetoric some 2300 years ago.

Most of the texts that claim to be about rhetoric, do not speak the truth of rhetoric. The reasons for this are manifold but largely ideological. Since all ideologies present themselves as ‘the truth of the world’ any language not used solely to communicate ‘the truth of the world’ is always considered suspect. The power of ideology is such that the truth of rhetoric – which is only a truth about humans as social animals, and never about the world – can be known, yet few can bring themselves to speak it. Most who live relatively successful lives never have cause to dare the boundaries of the speakable in their social context.

Any text that would ask of its readers that they constrain themselves from using any particular rhetorical tactic because such tactic happens to be ‘immoral,’ or ‘unethical,’ or because its may offend some sectors of society, or it may succeed but only somehow ‘irresponsibly;’ or because it will not submit to the rules of grammar or of logic – such a text cannot utter the truth of rhetoric. Indeed, such a text, even when presented as a theory of rhetoric, or a manual on rhetoric, is not really written about rhetoric per se, let alone to speak its truth; rather it is an attempt to bury the truth of rhetoric beneath presumed constraints and social necessities – at best they are texts on etiquette. Thus their real purpose is to constrain rhetoric in the interests of the dominant ideology of their culture.

To demand of students that they should present ‘good form’ in their public address, rather than they achieve the ends for which rhetoric is used, is as much as to demand of them that they should not use rhetoric. (Rather, it is to train them to conform to an ideologically approved presentation style.)

A text that claims to teach students to write ‘convincingly’ (which is a demand from logic) also thus announces that it cannot teach how to write ‘persuasively’ (always in the domain of rhetoric).

Such texts succeed only in the efforts by their writers to accumulate publication credits in their given professions – which are no longer called ‘Rhetoric’ at all, but ‘Composition studies’ and ‘Public Speaking.’ If a student can learn how to write a cover letter for a resume or speak coherently in group therapy, the teaching is considered a success.

But the truth of rhetoric cannot be constrained, because its truth is that rhetoric cannot be constrained. To impose upon it orders for its use, to attempt to restrain it according to this or that ethical or social norm, this or that religious or political standard; to limit the horizon of rhetoric, or the resources from which it draws, for any other reason than to temper it so as to more effectively achieve the intended desires for which it is being used in a particular instance; to speak of appropriate uses for rhetoric in a moral or ethical sense, or in order to maintain a given social order – this is a use of a rhetoric, but it is not to speak the truth of rhetoric. It only speaks desire for a given social order. It doesn’t tell us how rhetoric is used, but how it is wished to be used in the given social order.

Some write theories and handbooks on rhetoric because they believe their readers desire the same ends they do. And they are disappointed when they find their readers having other desires. So they hope to persuade these people that they should want the same ends they do. Of course they might argue that rhetoric that achieves other ends is just ‘bad’ rhetoric. But it’s hard to see how any effective rhetoric could be a ‘bad’ rhetoric. Nor is it clear that upon surrender to a rhetoric designed for accomplishing certain goals, one must then adopt those goals as one’s own objects of desire. In other words, simply learning to use the ‘acceptable’ or ‘responsible’ or ‘ethical’ rhetorical style, does not mean that one also learns to desire the ends which such a style is designed to achieve. So what one learns from any theory or handbook on rhetoric is simply some useful tools to get whatever one really wants within a given social setting. Change the setting, and the rhetoric will change. Change the rhetoric, and the setting itself may change. The art of rhetoric is using language to modify the social to conform to one’s desires, not conform to the social by modifying one’s desires.

The truth of rhetoric: Rhetoric will be used in whatever manner it is used in order to achieve ends desired by the user. The only criteria of this usefulness is that it work – it achieves those ends.

This text is being composed in a chrono-tope of decaying culture. America has been marching into the 21st century of the Common Era, not with much grace or grandeur, but certainly (as can be expected from Americans) with bravado. This bravado is in fact a major component of any useful rhetoric addressed to the majority in America today – a fact that many of the more educated citizens of the US would prefer to ignore or deny. At best, they find is historically disappointing. So they resign themselves to the rhetoric only useful in small groups in small matters concerning the few. They would argue that the rhetoric of bravado is false. But rhetoric can neither be false nor true, it can only be effective or not. It follows that what is needed from those desiring a different politics than we have today, is a new and more effective rhetoric.

It follows, then, that any philosophy of rhetoric should not concern itself with how rhetoric ‘should be used,’ but how it actually is used – how it is effective, and what components of that effective use can be analyzed and extrapolated for construction of a new, more effective rhetoric.

In other words, those who are unhappy with the success of a certain rhetoric, should learn from it and devise a stronger, more successful rhetoric for themselves.

Because there is no way to constrain rhetoric through teaching or legislation. There is only the rhetoric that works, and then there is – well, there isn’t anything else. Language that does not somehow work rhetorically is just words – meaningless sounds, or mere marks on the page. Because the notion that language developed as simply a means of communication is probably false. Its function seems more likely always to have been modification of behavior, either our own or that of others.

Rhetoric is not the surplus of grammar and logic, it lies at their very origin.

But fuller accounting of that requires another discussion.


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