Rhetoric and Power: Rethinking and Relinking

Article excerpt

As a field of study, rhetoric has seen its position within the broader range of scholarship vary greatly in its lengthy history. Saddled with Plato's legacy, rhetoric has been historically conceived as a "hand maiden" to the truth, a discursive aid for enlightening the unenlightened. In the last several decades, our field has offered a reversal of this relationship. Robert Scott's famous claim that "rhetoric is epistemic" has offered a vision of the discipline that breaks free from its Platonic chains, dismissing "Truth" in favor of a variety of multiple, negotiated "truths." (1) While I share in the desire for such an important role for rhetoric, I believe that even the negotiated truths of an epistemic rhetoric saddle our discipline with an unfortunate telos. Whatever the direction of the equation, a rhetoric constituted vis-a-vis its relationship with truth risks ignoring those factors that comprise or privilege certain truths over others. Consequently, I will side with the writings of Michael McGee, Raymie McKerrow, and Phillip Wander in an attempt to articulate explicitly a perspective of rhetoric as power articulation. (2) I will argue that rhetoricians need to place a greater emphasis upon a theory of rhetorical power and the implications for persuasion and hegemony. After a review of the "rhetoric is epistemic" perspective, I will examine current conceptualizations of the rhetoric-power dynamic. Discussing some of the potential flaws in these conceptions, I will attempt to develop a logic of rhetorical power using the sociological thought of Pierre Bourdieu and the rhetorical status arguments of Cal Logue and Eugene Miller.


In 1967, Robert Scott published the landmark "On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic." Concerned with the elitism embedded in the Platonic notion of rhetorically disseminated truth, (3) Scott argued that analytical arguments designed to "discover" truth rely on a sort of purposeful ignorance of mutability, an error costly to their validity. If change occurs over time (a point Heraclitus made circa 500 B.C.E.), then even the simplest of syllogisms are called into question by their context. Given the degree of contingency within human interactions, rhetoric thus commands a central role; rhetoric produces temporally constrained truths arising from "cooperative critical inquiry" (p. 135). No longer playing simple handmaiden to the grand truth, rhetoric is charged instead with "creating" multiple, situated truths. For Scott, rhetoric is a "way of knowing" (p. 138), a way of constructing one's understanding of the real; in other words, we develop the very truths with which we interact. Who controls how that knowing occurs? There is an ambiguity in Scott's work on this point. He does not dismiss the intentions of the speaker as unimportant, but he does advocate widening "our view to see the various and active roles audiences have when experiencing rhetoric" (1973, p. 90). This formulation serves to expand the rhetorical topoi while making the search for rhetoric's epistemological baseline significantly more difficult. Indeed, it may be of little surprise that Scott's self-proclaimed anti-foundational tendencies have more recently led him to question his "choice of epistemic as a titular term" (Scott, 1993, p. 132). Regardless, since Scott's initial presentation, the "rhetoric is epistemic" perspective has achieved an elevated status within rhetorical studies. Scott's work has been accepted and contested, and the role he envisions for rhetoric is one that is extremely attractive to those of us wishing to see rhetoric return to its sophistic era of importance. Indeed, coupling Scott's own impressive collection of writings on the subject (see Scott, 1967; Scott, 1973; Scott, 1977; Scott, 1982; and Scott, 1993) with those at least referencing his epistemological concerns would reveal a deluge of publications, rightly signifying the importance (and hegemonic status) of such questions to the field. …