Rhetoric and Power: Rethinking and Relinking
Rufo, Kenneth, Argumentation and Advocacy
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.
RHETORICAL THEORY AND ITS TELOS: THE POWER OF THE EPISTEME
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.
The exact scope of the rhetorical episteme has, of course, been debated. Is everything that we believe a rhetorical construction, or are some fields of knowledge more rhetorical than others? Consider two examples, positioned rather distinctly at different points along the rhetorical epistemology continuum. Thomas Farrell (1976), in keeping with his neo-Aristotelian tendencies, argues that rhetoric properly constructs what he terms "social knowledge," an epistemological sphere that interacts with, but is distinct from, other spheres of knowledge (e.g. technical knowledge). For Farrell, rhetoric's god-term is consensus (see also Farrell, 1993), a communal attribute emerging from debate over social knowledge. Farrell's work has been influential, no doubt, because of its ability to walk the line between the Platonic and the poststructural. It offers us a comfortable array of rhetorical artifacts while keeping rhetorical theory limited to a traditionally "proper" arena. What is interesting to note is that his conceptualization is still very much organized around epistemology; he is concerned first and foremost with how rhetoric informs the process of knowing, or what he terms "practical reason" (1993, p. 72).
Practical reasoning then serves as the bedrock for any situated consensus on social knowledge. While it seems obvious that power plays a role in defining what constitutes "practical reason" in particular contexts, Farrell offers relatively little discussion as to what this role might be.
Construing a broader rhetorical topoi, Barry Brummett's influential work, "Some Implications of 'Process' or 'Intersubjectivity': Postmodern Rhetoric" (1976), offers a radical departure from Farrell's more conventional leanings. Embracing a processual notion of reality, Brummett offers a now well-known conceptualization: "rhetoric ... is in the deepest and most fundamental sense the advocacy of realities' (Brummett, 1976, p. 160). He contends that rhetoric functions as an intersubjective phenomenon, able to shape agreement in the world around it (although such a world is, for Brummett, a rhetorical construction). In a move reminiscent of Derrida's "there is no outside-text," Brummett argues that "objective reality is not a useful concept" (p. 157). In this formulation, rhetoric becomes more than just a means of debating "social knowledge;" it functions as the Rosetta stone by which we assign meaning to sensation through a process of repeated redefinition (Brummett, p. 158-9). While I laud Brummett's statement as a strategic attempt to rework conventional labels, it seems curious that these unconventional processual claims are juxtaposed to such a traditional teleological goal: Brummett remains "most concerned with the term 'truth'" (p. 161). Following in the tradition of Robert Scott, Brummett links a notion of intersubjective truth to a version of ethical accountability, but like Scott, his arguments continue to center around rhetoric as a "way of knowing." For Brummett, rhetorical truths are manifest through agreement (p. 162). Not unlike Farrell's attributed consensus, Brummett argues that truth involves the assignation of shared meanings, creating differing degrees of truth. This process is entirely discursive: "wherever meanings are shared, they are shared only because discourse has the power to induce people to participate in that shared reality" (p. 160, emphasis added). In other words, truth is both epistemological and persuasive, a fact much in accord with Scott's claim that "rhetoric may be the art of persuasion ... but rhetoric must also be seen more broadly as a human potentiality to understand the human condition" (1976, p. 266). These various interpretations of reality, when shared, constitute (a) truth.
Brummett's above use of "power" remains relatively undertheorized. What is the nature of this power of discourse? What are its constraints? How is it that particular truths eventually earn the label "hegemonic" while others are dismissed? What manner of agent and/or degree of agency exist within the "advocacy of realities?" Brummett's conceptualization of rhetoric privileges rhetoric as an agency of power, an ontological device through which we construct the world of meaning. But this theoretical privileging lacks any underlying development. Skipping over the impact of materiality upon truth systems, Brummett simply argues that individuals can "choose" to believe another truth (p. 162). But there are plenty of situations in which there are intersubjective limitations imposed upon that choice that preempt and alter one's ability to agree or induce agreement. Economic status, social position, and military power frame the contexts so important to Brummett's epistemological theorizing. A slave did not simply interpret his/her freedom into existence. Saddam Hussein's belief that his country should not be bombed into rubble did (and does) not make it so. Arguably, Brummett allows for these constraints within his discussion of validating contexts and agreement, but there is little theoretical support for the powered element of reality construction. Interpretation of experience functions consequently as a form of interpellation, always already constraining the subject's "way of knowing" within the intersubjectively produced extra-rhetorical realm. Consequently, one's role as a validating context is, at least in part, determined b some (pre)defined position or potential. Or to put it more simply, rhetorical actors possess differing capacities to affect or induce agreement. These differences in capacity direct rhetorical theorists towards an alternate teleological goal: the examination of power within and through rhetoric.
TELEOLOGICAL SHIFTS: POWER AND RHETORIC
Power, as a term, has been written about explicitly and referenced implicitly in more works than one could possibly engage in the limitations of a single essay. This is both fortunate and unfortunate, for while it offer to contemporary critics a pantheon of theoretical approaches, it muddles what the tern itself actually entails. How does power be come measured? We often think of "powerful" orations or artifacts as moving o thought-provoking in effect; we attach an element of success to whatever "end" we believe a discourse to be achieving. Such measures of success are by nature arbitrary ant varied, (4) relying as they do upon interpretation and measurement. But these variations and the heuristic uncertainties to which they point, do little to nothing to derail the connection between rhetoric and power. For de cades, the disciplinary focus on a rhetorical canon--the "touchstone" addresses--has focused rhetorical study on those in society who had power--presidents, leaders of social and political movements, multinational corporations, etc. With the incorporation of cultural and subaltern studies, those at the "margins" of power were incorporated into our critical endeavors. Critics like Phillip Wander (Wander 1983; Wander, 1984a; Wander, 1984b), while not focusing on the term "power" per se, have nevertheless demanded a critical acknowledgement of the unavoidable and pervasive implications of ideology in discourse. Rhetorical epistemologists, focused on the telos of truth, may gloss over the importance of power relations, but those relations still exist. To be sure, one cannot divorce Plato's celebration of truth over rhetoric from Plato's political and professional aspirations anymore than one can divorce the substance of presidential address from the authority with which the president addresses. Power is power qua rhetoric, or as McGee notes, " 'Rhetoric' is that theory of discourse which was created ... in consequence of thinking about the relationship between discourse and power" (McGee, in Corbin, 1998, p. 27). But noting the relationship between the two does little to address the nature of the relationship. If a discourse can be called "powerful," where then does that power reside-in the audience's perception, the discourse itself, the status of the rhetor(s), or somewhere else? To answer such a question, we need briefly consider a rhetorical logic of power from a variety of perspectives-which we will loosely categorize as the intentional, the structural, and the discursive. (5)
The intentional frame believes that power exists through a willed exercise on the part of one agent in regards to another. Rhetorical power, so conceived, is thus a persuasive appeal, designed to control or shape or influence the world around the rhetor. Our rhetorical forebears, the sophists, concerned themselves with teaching this power to persuade audiences, with Gorgias's mockingly playful Encomium for Helen and Isocrates' more tactically grounded To Nicocles serving as potent …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Rhetoric and Power: Rethinking and Relinking. Contributors: Rufo, Kenneth - Author. Journal title: Argumentation and Advocacy. Volume: 40. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2003. Page number: iii+. © 2008 American Forensic Association. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.