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re-situating and re-mediating the canons:

a cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity

a collaborative core text


Paul Prior :: Janine Solberg :: Patrick Berry :: Hannah Bellwoar :: Bill Chewning :: Karen J. Lunsford :: Liz Rohan :: Kevin Roozen :: Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau :: Jody Shipka :: Derek Van Ittersum :: Joyce Walker

An earlier version of this argument was presented February 6, 2005 by Paul Prior in a plenary talk at the Santa Barbara Conference, Writing Research in the Making.


Delivery problems

Re-mediating and
re-distributing delivery

The rhetorical scene

Take 1: Revising the canons

Society and socialization

Take 2: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity

Mapping literate activity

Using CHAT to form new canons

From the core text to the data nodes


map button


Society and socialization

Take 1, however, still seems to leave much off the map. Gaonkar and Burke were pointing not only to more complex participation structures, but also to complex institutional networks. Consider recent developments in the U.S. political system. How would the classical canons (or for that matter the topics, or ethos/pathos/logos) help us to analyze the effects of, or plan a strategy comparable to, that of the far right over the past few decades? David Brock (2004), as a former insider, has detailed some of this long-term campaign: the formation of far-right think-tanks; cultivation of journalists, intellectuals, and media personalities (like Rush Limbaugh); changing Federal Communications Commission rules on media concentration and regulation; the campaign to centralize and politicize protestant religious organizations; journalists secretly on the government payroll; strongly ideological judicial appointments across decades; and the IRS review of the nonprofit tax status of organizations like the NAACP and anti-war churches. Consider the following quote, found in a 2004 report of the Defense Science Board's Task Force on Strategic Communications (aka propaganda):

Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource. Power flows to credible messengers. Asymmetrical credibility matters. What's around information is critical. Reputations count. Brands are important. Editors, filters, and cue givers are influential. Fifty years ago political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information. Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility. (italics in original, p. 28)

Rhetoric could say ethos here, but note whose ethos is being highlighted—editors, filters, cue givers. In fact, no part of classical rhetoric was oriented to sustained ideological struggle for control of the apparatus of the state and of cultural production. Are such struggles not a part of rhetorical activity?

What if we redesigned the canons starting with the prototype of the full range of activities involved as a bill in the U.S. Congress becomes a law and then is enacted in practice? What we need here is something more like Latour's (1999, 2005) actor-network theory or Charles Bazerman's (1999) heterogeneous symbolic engineering (the rich account he offers of Edison suggests the kind of shape and complexity we should anticipate in considering rhetorical action). Latour's (1987) notion of black-boxing is suggestive as it highlights production of artifacts (material and semiotic). Black-boxing refers to the process of producing established facts or unproblematic elements (whose contentious, troubled histories become, for practical purposes, invisible). Latour (1987) notes the way a black box functions automatically and stiffly resists being “disassociated, dismantled, renegotiated, reappropriated” (p. 131). To take one of Latour’s favorite examples, the notion today, post-Pasteur, that microbes are a primary vector of diseases has become a given, a black-box. We need do no rhetorical work to recruit this notion in a discussion of the potential dangers of bird flu. Likewise, the binary logic of integrated circuits has become so widely established materially and conceptually that it is difficult to imagine the forces that would be needed to undo this black-boxed piece of design history. In contrast, if we wished to argue that the United States should rapidly switch to a hydrogen-powered economy, immense material and rhetorical work would lie ahead of us.

Serious attention to society implies serious attention as well to socialization, to the sociohistoric production of people. As Barthes (1988) points out, Plato (1989) defined (true) rhetoric as a psychagogia—the leading or formation of people's souls through discourse (public and private). Plato argues that rhetoric must begin by knowing what types of souls there are and what types of arguments will lead them; its goal is to instill in them knowledge, order, and justice so that they can escape the birth-rebirth cycle on this lowly plane of existence (not perhaps a key goal for many of us today). For Plato, the soul was the field in which true rhetors must sow their seeds. This formulation resonates, to a point, with cultural-historical activity theory's (CHAT's) attention to making people. However, Marx (Marx & Engels, 1976) offered another way to understand types of people, seeing them as made in historical conditions, as shaped, though not determined, by social relations of production.

Immersed in both traditions, rhetorical and Marxist, Burke began to articulate why it was critical to see making people as part of rhetoric. Consider the following quotations from A Rhetoric of Motives (1950):

Such considerations make us alert to the ingredient of rhetoric in all socialization, considered as a moralizing process....Only those voices from without are effective which can speak in the language of a voice within. (p. 39)...often we must think of rhetoric not in terms of some one particular address, but as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull reinforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill.  (p. 25-26)

The first quote resonates with Bakhtin's (1981) account of ideological becoming as the interplay between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses. The second quote seems to resonate with Bourdieu's (1990) notion of habitus. Because Burke (1950) defines "the basic function of rhetoric" as "the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents" (p. 41), education, socialization, or indoctrination all become basic rhetorical acts. The focal persuasive message begins to recede against a background of explicit campaigns of persuasion and more tacit socializing pressures of everyday cultural practice.

If persuasive identification has been prefabricated through socialization and through populating the world with black-boxed artifacts, then little or no focal persuasion need be done now. This kind of account of rhetoric can be found in Karen Lunsford's (2003) notion of distributed argumentative activity, which highlights ways that multiple mediations, socialization, production of artifacts (including texts), and establishment of institutions combine in argumentative activity. Burke begins to gesture toward a rhetoric that encompasses socialization, but we think we can find richer toolkits than those he offered. Voloshinov and Vygotsky in the 1920s began traditions, grounded in a Marxist framework, for considering the semiotic mediation of thought, action, and personality as concrete cultural-historical practice.