An Essay on Publishing Standards for Rhetorical Criticism

By Hunt, Steven B. | Communication Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

An Essay on Publishing Standards for Rhetorical Criticism


Hunt, Steven B., Communication Studies


The question posed is "What are the standards for publishable rhetorical criticism?" As with all good questions, the answer is both simple and complex. Publishable rhetorical criticism is high quality criticism which illuminates a rhetorical text and/or adds to rhetorical theory. However, it is difficult for anyone not immersed in contemporary theory and criticism to know what this means since the theories of what constitutes rhetoric and what constitutes criticism have evolved enormously in the past forty years. Since the publication of Edwin Black's Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method in 1965 and especially since the publication of The Speech Communication Association of America's The Prospect of Rhetoric: Report of the National Development Project in 1971 what constitutes a rhetorical text, object, or artifact and what constitutes an appropriate rhetorical-critical method, set of criteria, or critical stance or perspective has become quite complex. The vocabulary for criticism is complicated. It can confuse the critic trying to get published. It seems as if anything can be criticized or critiqued using any or all of an enormous variety of techniques. There are so many standards it sometimes seems as if there is no standard. In some ways the rhetorical critical art seems totally idiosyncratic and a matter purely of personal taste.

Still this author will argue that some eternal verities remain making some rhetorical criticisms more equal than others, better than others, hence more publishable than others. Three sets of variables distinguish especially worthy criticism from the rest. First, good rhetorical criticism focuses on a worthy rhetorical text or texts. Second, good rhetorical criticism clearly identifies appropriate rhetorical questions or criteria and applies those questions or criteria to the text describing, analyzing, and evaluating the rhetoric. Third, high quality hence potentially publishable rhetorical criticism is well written and argued. Good rhetorical criticism like good rhetoric is invented well and performed well. (Nothstine et al 4-70) (McKerrow 105).

A Worthy Rhetorical Text or Texts

First and foremost, the rhetorical critic must focus on a worthy rhetorical text or texts, rhetorical artifact, fragment, suasory discourse, icon, ideograph or whatever. The tradition of rhetorical criticism started with focusing on persuasive speeches generated as speeches or generated as speeches included in poems or dramas meant to change common culture or thinking what was called doxa, common sense or practical wisdom, utilizing probabilistic means of persuasion or phronesis (Aristotle). Modern conventions allow the critic to analyze a wider variety of public sphere discourse (Goodnight). Speeches are still very much potentially worthy critical texts. Suasory public discourse still constitutes the bulk of rhetorical criticism. However, we are no longer primarily an oral culture. We have layered on to oral persuasion both print and electronic media (Postman). Anything that influences the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of the public, anything within the purview of modern persuasion, can be the object or subject of criticism. Modern rhetorical critics work not only with political speeches and legal courtroom rhetoric, but also with editorials, pamphlets and monographs, books, docudramas, radio and television news, movies, music, and even the Internet.

But not everything is an equally worthy subject or object for criticism. The critic needs to go back to basic persuasion models and check for the significance of the various elements included there. Basically, most theorists today claim that communication is a transactional event taking place between rhetors or creators or sources through messages or rhetoric within channels in an environment or milieu to receivers or audiences. Each element separately can be significant or important and most critics claim that it is especially important to note the interaction effects of two or more elements what Kenneth Burke describes as "dramatistic ratios" between agent and agency, act and scene, etc. …

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