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Reviewed by:
  • Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism
  • Jeffrey Walker
Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism. Walter Jost . Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004. Pp. xiii + 346. $55.00, hardcover.

As the sixth-century BCE poet Theognis once wrote, "Hearken to me, child, and discipline your wits; I'll tell / a tale not unpersuasive nor uncharming to your heart; / but set your mind to gather what I say; there's no necessity / to do what's not according to your will" (Theognidea 1235–38; my translation). While this poem ostensibly is a pederastic proposition, it is also and more fundamentally (as I have argued elsewhere) a poem about poetry as a rhetorical transaction. Poetry is the poet's act of heart-charming persuasion or seduction; the duty of the audience, the object of the poet's seduction, is to "discipline your wits," that is, to exercise hermeneutic and critical judgment on the way to understanding fully and being persuaded or unpersuaded to think or do as the poet asks (for seduction is not compulsion). Finally, and as Theognis's poetry elsewhere suggests, the audience's act of being-persuaded or unpersuaded ultimately is an enactment of, a rehearsal of, an ethical or intellectual position (stance, schêma) that is on its way (with further, repeated rehearsals) to becoming part of the audience's ethical-intellectual performative repertoire, or in other words its êthos, or what Kenneth Burke would call its identity.

This richly researched, densely argued, excellent book by Walter Jost could well be understood as a modern (or postmodern) instantiation of a "Theognidean" rhetorical poetics. At one point early on, for example, Jost invokes Angus Fletcher to sum up the activities of an ordinary-language approach to poetry as "thinking the poem": "taking the poem as an occasion for thought; thinking through the poem; being aware of one's thoughts as one reads the poem; looking for some logic in the poem; allowing the poem to trigger certain lines of thought," and so forth (Fletcher, Colors of the Mind, 111–12; Jost 9–10). This is "disciplining one's wits" to "gather what the poet says" and to follow out its implications on the way to judging what Jost calls "the meaning and quality . . . of an experienced artifact or event or performance" (10). As Jost develops his theoretical frame, which draws most heavily from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanely Cavell, and Kenneth Burke—as well as a host of others in a basically pragmatist tradition—this becomes an explicitly rhetorical approach to poetry, and specifically to Robert Frost's poetry, understood as an epideictic "showing forth" of thought that invites its audience, like Theognis's addressee, to "think [End Page 178] the poem" through and to form a relationship (whether identificational or contestatory) with the system of topoi that underwrites its judgments.

Rhetorical Investigations is divided into two main parts. "Book I," titled "Rhetoric: An Advanced Primer," consists of four chapters that attempt to lay out the conceptual framework for, and to philosophically justify, Jost's rhetorical-hermeneutic approach to poetry, while also setting up Robert Frost as a distinctive exemplar of a "low modernist" practice that demonstrates the central themes of ordinary-language and pragmatist philosophy, essentially by dramatizing them, and that stands as a significant (if under-appreciated) alternative to the "high modernist" mode of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and their successors. Frost, in other words (though Jost does not say this explicitly) takes the less-traveled modernist path that Kenneth Burke embarked on in Counter-Statement and pursued for the rest of his career. The key topoi for the framework laid out in these four chapters are: dialectic/dialogue as the medium for an ordinary-language philosophical practice (chap. 1); rhetorical invention as what is missing from "high modernism's" sense of epistemological crisis and anomie (chap. 2); "grammar" as the system of topoi, or commonplaces, that underwrite ordinary language-use and are instantiated by it, and that provide the grounds (what speakers "acknowledge") for deliberation and judgment in practical thought and action (chap. 3); and logic as the implicatures of ordinary-language thought that enable epideictic argument in poetry and that make it something...