- Letting Rhetoric Be:On Rhetoric and Rhetoricity
In the closing moments of Phaedrus, Socrates announces rhetoric's last gasp: "And now the play is played out; and of rhetoric enough" (2006, 69). Of course, news of rhetoric's death has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, the death and subsequent rebirth of rhetoric have been declared countless times, and debates surrounding the nature and character of rhetoric— from antiquity through the renaissance and even into the modern day— seem to continue almost interminably. In the contemporary context, such debates often flow inexorably from a constitutive indecision that marks rhetorical studies's complicated relationship to a foundational definition of rhetoric. More often than not, after a brief foray into debates surrounding rhetoric, many theorists retreat, opting, following Robert Scott (1973) to "not define" rhetoric at all, producing an implicit rather than an explicitly conceptually articulated definition of rhetorical theory and practice, albeit in a manner that often opens up as many problems as it solves. When rhetorical theorists do take up the task of defining rhetoric, definitions often vacillate between one of two basic gambits: one stratagem frames rhetoric as the codification of a relatively banal insight about human life together (people have interests, opinions, and investments, and one should take each of these things into account if they would like to persuade or to understand why others are persuaded); the other frames rhetoric as a globally constitutive social ontology in its own right.
It may be that a portion of this ambivalence is a historical accident; nevertheless, there is good reason to believe that this ambivalence is part and parcel of the project of rhetoric. In defining rhetoric one potentially also swims in the discursive equivalent of Heraclitus's river: every definition [End Page 247] of rhetoric is caught up and molded by the same field of discourse that it attempts to capture and is subject to the very constraints that such a definition announces in codifying an approach to human discourse. This phenomenon induces a conceptual vertigo in definitions that seek to establish what exactly rhetoric is—"rhetoric" is often suspended between a functional requirement to define its texture and an equally strong prohibition against defining its nature and character. To define it would be to limit its scope, and to not define it would be to lose the specificity that makes a rhetorical analytic a valuable interpretive technology. It is likely the river-like character of definitions of rhetoric that inspired Aristotle to invent the definition of rhetoric that occupies this forum. The Aristotelian formulation, which serves as the basis of most introductions to rhetoric in traditions that emphasize its pedagogical heritage and productive character in composition and communication, is usually rendered as follows: "Rhetoric is . . . the faculty of observing the available means of persuasion in any given situation."1
At points in the history of rhetoric this definition has been held to be passé, as nothing more than the commonsensical observation that audiences have certain predispositions that they expect speakers to fulfill. At its worst, and despite Aristotle's own protestations, this iteration of Aristotle's definition implicitly works to frame rhetoric as nothing more than a knack, a dignified kind of cookery made unsystematic in condescending to the messy plurality of its contexts. Alternately, some have argued that what Aristotle had discovered is the first robust and systematic theory of discourse-in-context, as well as a set of substantive principles for human speech that flow from these observations. In both cases, Aristotle's definition is important because it ascribes rhetoric a determinable content that authorizes specific forms of theorization and practice.
Although it is often elided, Aristotle's definition contains at least an implicit recognition of rhetoric's fluvial dilemma, and in recognizing the paradox of defining rhetoric, Aristotle's definition opens up a more nimble and fluid—that is, explicitly epistemically reflexive—understanding of rhetoric. Finding this fluidity requires that rhetorical theory reject the typical classroom translation of Aristotle's definition ("rhetoric is . . . the faculty") and return to a more precise rendering of his definition: "let rhetoric be . . . defined as" (2007, 37). In the first iteration of Aristotle's definition, the point of...