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Philosophy and Rhetoric 35.3 (2002) 223-243

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Style, Rhetoric, and Postmodern Culture

Bradford Vivian

Modern rhetoricians habitually avoid the canon of style. The reasons for this avoidance should be familiar to those versed in the disciplinary lore of rhetoric. Since the fifth and fourth centuries B. C. E., when oratorical virtuosos like Gorgias proclaimed that "Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works" (41), the suspicion that rhetorical style amounts to irrational verbal excess has dogged those who would argue for the moral integrity of the art. Most recently, twentieth-century rhetoricians, Toulmin (1958) and Perelman (1969, 1979, 1982) in particular, realigned rhetoric with the study of argumentation after its apparent reduction, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to innocuous matters of form and taste by the elocutionist and belletristic movements. Consequently, the aesthetic capacities of rhetoric have received scant attention from modern rhetoricians, who resign considerations of style largely to supposedly regrettable episodes in the history of the discipline. For better or worse, then, modern rhetorical theory lacks a contemporary rationale and methodology for the study of style. 1

Beyond unfortunate equations of rhetoric with grandiloquence, this scarcity in recent rhetorical scholarship corresponds to general humanistic and social scientific prejudices against the topic of style. Robert Hariman posits, "Established academic conceptions of style hardly prepare one to take seriously the aesthetic dimension of political experience" (7). As evidence for this claim, he cites Stuart Ewen's reflections on the "frustration" peculiar to research on style: "It seemed to be a universal category," Ewen writes, "transcending topical boundaries, an accolade applied to people, places, attitudes and things . . . a subject that was, at best, amorphous" (quoted in Hariman, 7-8). Yet the social ubiquity of style—"[o]n news magazines, sports magazines, music-oriented magazines, magazines about [End Page 223] fashion, architecture and interior design, automobiles, and sex"—indicates that it offers "a key to understanding the contours of contemporary culture" (qtd. in Hariman, 7-8). Hence, the paradox of style as a scholarly topic: that which exhibits its cultural importance makes it seem intellectually vacuous.

Hariman's treatise on political style offers the most noteworthy attempt in rhetorical studies to remedy these trends; brief consideration of his insights will suggest further objectives for the study of rhetoric and style. 2 In Hariman's estimation, "style ultimately is a significant dimension of every human experience" because "relations of control and autonomy are negotiated through the artful composition of speech, gesture, ornament, decor, and any other means for modulating perception and shaping response. In a word, our political experience is styled" (3, 2). The distinctive contribution of rhetorical inquiry into political style involves "understanding the dynamics of our social experience or the relationship between rhetorical appeals and political decisions" rather than merely "cataloging discursive forms in the artistic text alone" (Hariman, 8).

Accordingly, Hariman acknowledges that one must recognize the substantive social and political influences of style apart from its traditional connotations of individual artistic performance. "In this context," he explains, "although style still highlights aesthetic reactions it no longer enforces artistic autonomy. Style becomes an analytic category for understanding a social reality; in order to understand the social reality of politics, we can consider how political action involves acting according to a particular political style" (9). Thus, for Hariman, rhetorical choices in political style need not amount to a valorization of "artistic autonomy": "each political style draws on universal elements of the human condition and symbolic repertoire but organizes them into a limited, customary set of communicative designs. . . Each is thoroughly conventional, yet the means for personal improvisation and intelligent, innovate responses to unique problems" (11-12). His treatise therefore appears to dissociate style from its outmoded definitions while recommending the utility of rhetorical principles to the study of political culture.

What Hariman calls the "cautious postmodernism" (6) of his project, however, hinders its innovative aspirations. The postmodern portion of his work endorses the study of style according to the aesthetic dimensions of social relations rather than "artistic autonomy" alone; but its...


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