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  • In the Name of a Becoming Rhetoric:Critical Reflections on the Potential of Aristotle's Rhetoric 1355b
  • Erik Doxtader

ἔστω δὴ ἡ ῥητορικὴ δύναμις περὶ ἕκαστον τοῦ θεωρῆσαι τὸ ἐνδεχόμενον πιθανόν.

(Estō dē hē rhētorikē dunamis peri hekaston tou theōrēsai to endekhomenon pithanon.)

Let us define rhetoric to be "A faculty of considering all the possible means of persuasion on every subject."

(Hobbes translation)

Rhetoric then may be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever.

(Freese translation)

Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.

(Rhys Roberts translation)

Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion.

(Kennedy translation)

The question of rhetoric's potential continues to provoke. What appears in Aristotle's attempt to name rhetoric-and to name it as a dunamis? What appearances do such a name endeavor to keep? Infused with a contingency that seems to double and perhaps even double again, the opening line of the Rhetoric's second chapter seems to defy understanding, [End Page 231] let alone explanation. Form and substance blur. Is this a definition? A proposition? An article of faith? A prayer? Questions of translation circle and then spiral. Questions of context loom and fade away, and then loom again. As Aristotle pronounced it, rhetoric's (im)potentiality seems to promise and thwart (its own) recognizability. It remains otherwise-a suspicion of thought's necessary corruption, an opening to a discovery without grounds, an aporia with protreptic power. Whatever it might become, however becoming it might be, rhetoric's art is not (yet) altogether here. This may signal a deficit. It may sound a shared calling. In the name of letting rhetoric be, Aristotle bequeaths us a question that, perhaps tragically, we cannot let alone.

The subtle and thoughtful essays that compose this forum require little introduction, not least as they thematize and reflect variously on the multifaceted question of beginning that inheres in Aristotle's famous pronouncement at 1355b. Concerned that dunamis is far from a "neutral human capacity," Ekatrina Haskins considers the impracticality of Aristotle's attempt to name rhetoric and how this founding gesture "erects a protective barrier between practical rationality and discourses of democracy" that supports a teleology, a vision of progress in which rhetoric-as civic discourse-disciplines if not deters its performance. Starting with the insistent desire to understand the source of rhetoric, Megan Foley turns the table on Socrates-rhetoric emerges, for Aristotle, not from "some genus of ontically existing things but from the incipiently existing domain of the possible." Existing potentially, existing as potentiality, rhetoric begins before its first (practical) move, a beginning that begins with the question of its contingent ground. In his meditation on the "rhetoricity" that may abide in Aristotle's concern to "let rhetoric be," Christian Lundberg reflects carefully on this question of ground as a problem of context, that is, the ways in which rhetoric-as a discourse-operates "in advance of any context" and how the understandable need to define rhetoric does not relieve us of the need to think the movement between trope and persuasion, a movement in which rhetoric's potentiality begins-and perhaps ends-in a nomadic existence.

These nuanced inquiries are timely. Individually and together, they show how the city-whether Aristotle's or our own-cannot contain rhetoric. Rhetoric's potential sets it in motion and moves it beyond the walls, beyond the law, beyond the law of (its) language. In this way, very quietly but very firmly, the essays here trouble and expand the tradition of rhetorical theory as such. They do so from a beginning, from Aristotle's [End Page 232] naming of rhetoric as an (im)potentiality, that marks a tear between the apophantic and nonapophantic modes of expression. As it refuses to disavow its own antiphasis-and here, it is well worth recalling Aristotle's dedicated interest in the ways in which self-unraveling assertion participates in the work of coming to be and passing away-rhetoric's "defining" (im)potentiality testifies to an unsettling experience of (its) language, a moment of letting go, of letting a controlling...


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pp. 231-233
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