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  • After Rhetoric: The Study of Discourse Beyond Language and Culture
  • Thomas Kent
Stephen R. Yarbrough. After Rhetoric: The Study of Discourse Beyond Language and Culture. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1999. ix + 271 pp.

After Rhetoric deserves to be read by a very large audience. The book not only adds to our understanding of discourse studies; it also contributes significantly to our understanding of language, communication, interpretation, and epistemology. Here, I will relate what I take to be the controlling argument of Professor Yarbrough’s book, the book’s organization, and finally some comments about the book’s importance.

The controlling argument in After Rhetoric concerns the nature of philosophy, rhetoric, and composition studies as disciplinary activities. Professor Yarbrough argues, for example, that the disciplinary activity that we call “composition” has been seriously misconceived. He tells us that “the college composition course seems particularly counterproductive” (11) primarily because “teaching a ‘composition’ or ‘how-to-write’ course makes about as much sense as teaching a course on ‘how to live’” (213). For Yarbrough, the fundamental problem with current conceptions of rhetoric, philosophy, and composition studies concerns the pervasive notion that language is “an abstract entity distinct from the world, functioning by laws different from those that govern the world, yet representing or constituting objects in the world” (211). As an alternative to this conception of language, Yarbrough posits “discourse studies,” an approach to language study that stresses discursive (not linguistic) competence and that “does not consider ‘language’ or ‘culture’ in distinction from ‘things and ‘nature’” (210–11).

As I indicated, Professor Yarbrough calls for a turn away from current conceptions of rhetoric, philosophy, and composition studies and a turn toward discourse studies, and the justification for such a turn constitutes the controlling argument in After Rhetoric and gives the book its shape. The book is organized in eight chapters plus a very helpful introduction. The first four chapters discuss current conceptions of discourse and language. The discussion of power in chapter one is especially insightful, and chapter four provides an excellent overview of foundational attempts (mostly structuralist attempts) to describe the way language operates. Chapters five, six, and seven form the core of the book. In these chapters, Professor Yarbrough relates his own conception of discourse and discursive competence, a conception that endorses a largely pragmatic view of language as communicative interaction. In his concluding chapter, Professor Yarbrough relates some of the practical implications of his call for a turn toward discourse studies, and he recommends that we “drop the required ‘composition course’ in colleges and universities in favor of some alternative that might better promote discursive competence” (210).

Although Professor Yarbrough’s argument for the importance of discourse studies constitutes the controlling argument in his book—“controlling” in the sense that this argument gives the book its shape—I do not believe that this argument constitutes Professor Yarbrough’s central argument, and this central argument represents, I believe, the books greatest significance and importance. After Rhetoric is a significant and important book because it is one of the first books to offer a [End Page 222] sustained and coherent antifoundational account of language-in-use. At the heart of this account resides the claim that “there is no ‘medium’ called language or culture standing between ourselves and our world” (242). Although many rhetoricians and philosophers now generally accept this claim, few rhetoricians or philosophers have offered the kind of clear articulation of this position that we find in After Rhetoric. Professor Yarbrough understands clearly that if we accept the notion that human understanding derives from communicative interaction and not from something called language or language systems, then we cannot reasonably continue to conduct disciplinary and pedagogical business as usual. If our understanding of others and of the world derives from a triangular relationship among ourselves, other language users, and a world we share with others, then, to paraphrase Donald Davidson, there is no such thing as language if language is what we have been told that it is by many philosophers and rhetoricians. Professor Yarbrough’s book asks us to hold a quite different and, for some, quite disturbing view of discourse, language, understanding, interpretation, belief, and truth...

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