Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Rhetoric and Poetics of Speech and Debate: Resituating and Re-Disciplining Literary Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Rhetoric and Poetics of Speech and Debate: Resituating and Re-Disciplining Literary Argument

Article excerpt


Literature speaks for itself. Its voice is powerful and transformative, fostering emotional changes, new perspectives, and collective action. As Kenneth Burke suggests, literature is "equipment for living" (Burke 1998, 593-598). Audiences can actively take in literature, working together with the textual material to make new meanings and forge new relationships. Literature, of course, is one among many art forms with this power: film, painting, sculpture, music, and other kinds of art help constitute our being. In profound ways, art shapes reality.

Much as literature is equipment for living, speech and debate prepare students for interaction in the world. A rich past informs a promising present and vibrant future for speech and debate. So much is clear when one reads Michael Bartanen and Robert Littlefield's 2014 book, Forensics in America: A History. Forensic activity serves as a civic good, as the various contributors to Speech and Debate as Civic Education make abundantly clear (Hogan et al, forthcoming). Put simply, speech and debate prepare students to change the world.

My endeavor in this essay is to more thoroughly link the power of literature and the power of forensics. My argument is that speech and debate should embrace the inherent value of literature as argumentative and rhetorical. This has practical applications in two distinct domains: performative debate and the oral interpretation of literature, both of which have played host to theoretical questioning and practical power struggles. This essay navigates these controversies surrounding literature in forensics, arguing that the inherent argumentative qualities of literature should guide our treatment of poetic forms in speech and debate.

As I detail throughout this essay, beyond the stark distinctions between competitive speech and debate events, there are further distinctions between argumentative events (such as Extemporaneous or Persuasive Speaking) and interpretation events (such as Prose or Drama Interpretation). An informal hierarchy has resulted, relegating interpretation events as less rigorous or less intellectual in nature. My own competitive forensics experience was driven by immense passion for argument and persuasion. As a speech competitor, I participated in all events but tended to emphasize limited preparation and platform speech categories. On the rare occasions I was able to compete in debate at the collegiate level, my practice was driven by what I thought of as clear, rational argumentation. Oral interpretation events, I believed for some time, were somehow inferior; they were created to appease theatre lovers and more emotive individuals. But as I continued to try interpretation events, I found more than that. The literature moved me, sometimes more than I was moved by a persuasive speech. I began to take seriously the rhetorical power of literature.

This essay focuses on the argumentative power of literature in competitive speech. Though I touch on performative debate, I cannot contribute a comprehensive account of its practice or merits. As such, this essay might serve as a provocation, a call for more thoughtful contemplation of literature in debate in addition to speech. I proceed by walking through a few key lines of reasoning, all of which apply to oral interpretation in speech events and in performative modes of debate. Most importantly, I argue that literature is inherently rhetorical. Literary or performance texts need not be "supplemented" by traditional argumentative form in rhetorical performances of literature. Oral interpretation is a rhetorical act wherein form and content cannot be separated, presenting a distinct rhetorical exchange among interpreters/performers/rhetors and audience members. Meaning is constructed in an embodied exchange among the participants.

To support these claims, I first offer an account of rhetorical dynamics in literary texts. …

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