Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Theresa Enos; Richard McNabb et al. | Go to book overview

PATRICIA BIZZELL

College of the Holy Cross


The Prospect of Rhetorical Agency

The Prospect of Rhetoric seems most prophetic of our interests today in the collection's extended definition of rhetoric. Although Karl Wallace speaks for tradition in limiting the domain of rhetoric to "public discourse" only (9), most contributors follow the lead of Richard McKeon in defining rhetoric as an "architectonic art" (52ff), organizing virtually all forms of language use under its aegis. Johnstone explicitly includes the discourse of philosophy, and Perelman that of science, in rhetoric's domain, and the three reports that conclude the volume all advance very broad definitions. Ehninger's committee argues that rhetoric embraces no less than "all forms of human communication" (208). I think most scholars in rhetoric and composition studies today would agree with this broad definition, and its effects can be seen not only in our field but also in the so-called rhetorical turn of many contemporary academic disciplines, where the constitutive power of disiciplinary language has become a major focus of study.

At the same time, The Prospect of Rhetoric seems most distant from our concerns in its treatment of rhetorical agency. The contributors envision communication as taking place among internally unified, rational individuals who can more or less freely choose among available means of persuasion. Here Wallace sets the tone when he defines the "fundamental concepts belonging to the dynamics of the [rhetorical] act" as "the notions of end and its cousins, purpose, intent, motive, and goal; the material and substantial basis of action; form, structure, order, place, and position; the concepts of maker or artist, and of thing made or artifact" (5). By and large, the contributors disturb this purposeful picture of crafted structure only to suggest that strictly objective logic may not suit rhetorical persuasion. They invoke new respect for Aristotelian phronesis or probablistic reasoning, which, they say, should be served by a newly revived, nonscientific kind of invention. Here is how the final report to the NEH characterizes what is required:

Most of our problems, including the great social and political issues, are moral, or humane; the analysis and resolution of humane problems requires the application of methods to uncover facts, to be sure, but also to determine relevant criteria, to form new

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