The Rhetoric-Poetics Connection

Using rhetoric as a theoretical lens to explore digital poetics offers rich rewards. Historically, rhetoric and poetics have always been yoked, albeit not necessarily in fruitful or complementary relationships according to similar logics. Aristotle linked them explicitly through metaphor and implicitly through emotion; he considered both rhetoric and poetics to be arts of making, a fusion that carried into the Renaissance, which was marked by a rhetorical orientation to poetics (McKeon, 1965, p. 204).

John Kirby (1990) argues that the great works of classical Greek literature were characterized by what he calls the great triangle of peitho (persuasion), eros (desire), and bia (force or strength). Thus, rhetoric was a central element of literature as well as a framework for interpreting literature and theorizing the processes by which literature was made. Both points of convergence—rhetoric (peitho) as an element of and an orientation to poetics—are repeated in unique and powerful ways in the work of modern rhetoricians from Kenneth Burke to Ernesto Grassi. While the metaphor of "rhetoric is poetic; poetics is rhetoric" might lead to a simplistic reduction of one complex phenomenon to another, it does highlight the ways in which tenor and vehicle mutually inform one another.

One example of a powerful reciprocity is the enriched sense of spectacle offered by the linkages between poetics and rhetoric. On the one hand, in Aristotle's Poetics (trans. 1984) spectacle is largely a virtual experience, dependent on the evocation of mental images. Aristotle argues that one can experience catharsis without physically seeing a performance. We know and understand through reading tragedy because we create and perform our own internal spectacle. Thus, the Poetics, the result of an inductive process whereby Aristotle studied the texts of tragedies, abstracting from that intensive reading process (similar to the one he used for the Politics) characteristics of tragedy, highlights the importance of the virtual: mental performances and inner visions. On the other hand, the Rhetoric (trans. 1991) emphasizes the necessity of a material performance, a physical spectacle. The Rhetoric is not the product of a textual analysis of speeches, although it draws its examples from famous speeches. Nor is it the product of a textual analysis of extant handbooks on rhetoric, for those handbooks fail to get at the essence of rhetoric. Rather, the Rhetoric is, as Aristotle notes, something new: insights derived from analyses of an amalgamation of texts and performances and effects. As a result, it emphasizes the importance of material performances and effects. In this sense, the Poetics and the Rhetoric complement each other by revealing different aspects of the same phenomenon, and both aspects are essential to understanding the author position in digital poetics.