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

MARTHA COOPER

Northern Illinois University


A Feminist Glance at Critical Rhetoric

The pervasive sense of frustration, despair, powerlessness, and alienation present in some groups, and in other groups a disregard for, misunderstanding of, or unwillingness to accept different images that people have of themselves have produced polarized types of language in our society: an establishment rhetoric and a rhetoric of revolution. . . . The most immediate social responsibility of rhetorical scholarship in the United States is to ameliorate, insofar as scholarship can, the diremption that has occurred in our public language, to investigate further the reasons for that fissure and, more challenging still, the prospects for transcending it.

-- Douglas Ehninger et al., 1971

There is a rising sentiment that we are coming to the close not only of a century and a millennium but of an era, too. . . . The idiom we have favored since the beginning of the modern era fails to inspire conviction or yield insight; the language of those who are proclaiming a new epoch seems merely deconstructive or endlessly prefatory. . . . The language of postmodernism has crucial critical force. But much of it seems idle; very little of it gives us a helpful view of the postmodern divide or of what lies beyond it. How can we hope, then to find a discourse in which to explore this watershed and find our way across it."

-- Albert Borgmann, 1992

Twenty-five years ago, participants in the Project on Rhetoric recommended broadening our concept of rhetoric beyond persuasion and public address to include "any transaction involving the use of symbols between human beings" and advocated "increasing a student's awareness of what is happening when he [sic] uses symbols and responds to them" as a way to deal with problems in society ( Ehninger et al.212). They concluded with a call "to replace the 'scientific stance' and the 'analytic stance' with a 'rhetorical stance' in humanistic and social affairs" ( Bitzer and Black244). Their call for a rhetorical stance reflected a general recognition that the master narratives of modernity held little promise for coping with contemporary social problems and thus laid the ground for rhetorical scholarship that would incorporate postmodern thinking.

Among the more influential assimilations of postmodern thought into rhetorical studies is "critical rhetoric," an orientation first outlined by McKerrow that promotes critique as the primary feature of a rhetorical stance. While critical rhetoric clearly holds promise for increasing our awareness of how symbolic action creates effects of power and knowledge and thus advances

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