You Do What??

Peitho taking Eros to Venus  
    Peitho taking Eros to Venus and Anteros                                 

Can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?

I usually leave puzzlement in my wake  if I tell acquaintances that my job involves teaching rhetoric and working as a rhetorical critic. It’s as if I announced that I’m officially the  Resident and Redundant Professor of Pomp and Pomposity who also holds the Bernie Madoff Chair of Lies and Lying.  Use the “R” word just once and people aren’t sure they really want to know any more. The faint bewilderment seems to hint at the hope that I might might someday take up a more useful line of work.  After all, isn’t rhetoric always preceded by the word “mere?”  Can explorations of its nature tell us anything we must know?  And can having a few of us spread around in various American universities possibly be a good thing?  Indeed, after showing up in England on an academic exchange I was promptly told to go register with the police.  You can’t be too careful.

It helps to set the record straight if I can add that most of what humans say to each other falls into the purview of rhetorical scholars. Even though the term rhetoric suggests inflated and eminently disposable prose (never our’s, of course; always other’s) it actually has an impressive lineage that runs at least from Aristotle to Marshall McLuhan to John Stewart.

Rhetoric box

In fact we are all rhetorical beings. Talk is our link to the worlds inside and outside our heads that matter. The only way to avoid coming to terms with the centrality of language is to render yourself mute. We are not only the most loquacious of animals, we draw a finely adjusted bead on the word choices others make.  As rhetorician Kenneth Burke observed, we are all critics.

It’s something of a bonus that studying how we go about the tricky business of influencing each other is enormously rewarding.  Only after learning the secret handshake and passing the necessary exams did I began to realize what a bracing enterprise rhetorical analysis could be.

We think in language.  We judge others in the words we choose.  And what we know about the world is largely filtered through the evocative language embedded in narratives we tell ourselves.

The characteristic work of human existence is communication.  The goals we seek in our daily lives do not always terminate in movement, but in rhetorical action.  Communicating through language is the meaningful thing we do.  Ask a business or civic leader what their job is, and it frequently comes down to effectively connecting  with others. Someone examining the rhetoric of science, or health care or religion is engaged in discovering how these distinct realms of discourse create identity, acceptance and support for their sources.

Because our rhetoric is less photographic than additive–language use is more a projection of the self than a “perfect copy” of reality–we use it to bend impressions to match our unique view of the world.  It’s little wonder that a person’s stories about a vacation are almost always more interesting than their pictures. The stories are more fully them.

This general idea of worlds verbally created suggests a whole host of questions that point to the primacy of rhetoric. Some examples:

  • There are about 15 minutes of actual play in a nearly three hour-long football broadcast.  In fact, the narrated game itself is the rhetorical spectacle. If that seems impossible, why did so few who watched an experimental presentation on NBC a few years ago avoid the game that was broadcast without commentary?
  • Why are we compelled to describe the motives of others, even when they have not disclosed them?
  • Pick a social context (i.e., wedding, funeral, a party you’re attending with work associates ). Do you find yourself rehearsing what to say and what to suppress?
  • Every field has its tropes: routine patterns for expressing ideas.  What are the most common ones that reappear in real estate marketing? Popular music?  State of the Union addresses? Romantic fiction?
  • What effect does it have on readers when journalists “mark” their subjects by inserting adjectives  in front of the names of certain newsmakers?
  • Why are we so frequently the intellectual captives of metaphors like the “war on drugs” or “social media?

All of these questions suggest why rhetorical analysis can be so useful.

Besides, how many fields of study can claim their own goddess? You can’t say that about accounting, electrical engineering or computer science. Peitho, the goddess of persuasion was the companion of Aphrodite. It comes as no surprise that the mythology of love has long been entwined with the mythology of rhetorical seduction.  Both represent forms of human action that define our species.