Rhetoric: Political Engagement, Formal Techniques
The rhetoricians of antiquity are the most stable figures in the history of the trivium, and rhetoric has proven to be the most stable category, despite its fall from prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries. McLuhan (2006), iconoclastic from his dissertation through his final publication, traces the rhetorical tradition from the Sophists through Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian, Erasmus, and Bacon (for the purposes of his dissertation), while unequivocally labeling Plato and Aristotle as dialecticians producing “mere froth and verbage” (p. 56) and of influence to only a handful of people (p. 64). He specifically suggests that the “Ciceronian concept of rhetoric as the art of practical politics” is one Cicero learned from Isocrates, while the “Ciceronian ideal of the orator” is a concept McLuhan endorsed: “one versed in the encyclopedia of the sciences and as one exercising the science of civil prudence, the supreme science, was an ideal for a world of educated laymen” (p. 7). Cicero, McLuhan pointed out, was engaged in the kind of intellectual battle we now recognize as a battle of the ancients and the moderns, the orators and philosophers, or even the rhetoricians and the philosophers, with Cicero coming down squarely on the side of ancients, orators, and rhetoricians, and coming down against not only moderns and philosophers, but also “professors of rhetoric” who “boast[ed] that they could make any normally gifted man into an orator by schooling him in a set of rules” (McLuhan, p. 68).
Despite endorsing this expansive Ciceronian definition of the ideal orator, McLuhan’s (2006) actual study of Thomas Nashe culminated in a rushed and under-developed formal analysis of Nashe’s use of rhetorical strategies in his literary debates with Gabriel Harvey. McLuhan would occasionally return to this kind of close formal-rhetorical analysis of a text—often literary—while at the same time identifying Joyce, Eliot, and Pound as the 20th century inheritors of the Ciceronian encyclopedic tradition. This formal analysis of Nashe’s writing, while focused on identifying specific textual examples of Nashe’s “high style: metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, paradox, ecphrasis” (p. 242), was conducted in the context of understanding how Nashe’s education in the trivium would have prepared him to produce such texts. McLuhan also looked at how Nashe deployed these strategies effectively in his debates with Harvey. When contemporary rhetoricians abandon the formal elements and strategies of composition, it seems to us they run the risks of becoming dialecticians, calling abstractly for rhetorical sensitivity, but offering few if any strategies for composing. When the elements and strategies of composing—strategies that cut across mediums and genres—are taught and considered within a rhetorical context, a productive tension—a rhetorical formalism—emerges.
Gregory Ulmer’s body of work can stand in for the expansive understanding of rhetoric in the Ciceronia tradition, grounded in a very broad understanding of the arts and humanities, seeking political engagement through what Ulmer calls "consultancy," and more generally seeking action and relevance in the rhetorical tradition. Ulmer himself embodies the trivium in his educational agenda, drawing heavily from dialecticians like Derrida, grammarians like Roland Barthes, and rhetoricians from Aristotle to Bacon to Lauer, but also drawing widely from the performing and visual arts (Joseph Beuys, Sergei Eisenstein), the social sciences (Lacan), and mass media (Carmen Miranda). His work has become increasingly rhetorical, moving from the pedagogical scene in Applied Grammatology (1985) to the scene of writing in Teletheory (1989) and Heuretics (1994), to a direct address and response to civic and public issues in Electronic Monuments (2005), "designing a practice to address the loss of borders experienced in the virtual city" (p. xix), but maintaining "[a] point of continuity between literate and electrate education" through a focus on "public issues as a basis for student projects" (p. xxiii).
This expansive approach, this rethinking of the humanities, however, cannot and should not be the only direction the contemporary rhetoric moves, as there is a great need to also work within the existing literacy apparatus, and to learn from the techniques and strategies of the practicing rhetoricians / compositionists / designers in a variety of fields. Teaching students to work in new media is a clear and largely agreed upon transition: Gunther Kress (1999) has called for a shift from critique to design (p. 88), Diane George (2004) has articulated reasons why composition courses need to move from the analysis of visual elements of communication to the production of visual communication (p. 32), Jay David Bolter (2003) has challenged theorists to become more engaged in practice (p. 26-7), and Kathleen Yancey’s (2004) CCCC Chair's address was a jeremiad for "Composition in a New Key." None of these calls, however and understandably, offer very specific strategies. Luckily, new (existing) rhetoric texts have already begun to take up this challenge of articulating the formalism of the new rhetorics:
- Robin Williams' (2004) The Non-Designer’s Design Book: a strong, introductory text widely used in rhetoric courses already.
- Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1994), Making Comics (2006), and, to a lesser extent, Re-inventing Comics (2000). Although McCloud’s books use “comics” as object of analysis and the goal of production, all three books are very much about visual language and communication, grounded in an awareness of the role of technologies, mediums, and economics in production and reception of messages.
- Robert Horn’s (1998) Visual Language incorporates some of McCloud’s work, but more generally attempts an ambitious delineating of how visual language works: the linguistic components, rhetorical strategies, and pragmatic functions.
- Hillman Curtis’ (2002) MTIV : Process, Inspiration, and Practice for the New Media Designer is conversational, inspirational, and emerges out of the experiences of a self-taught new media designer.
- The new media texts themselves, as I. A. Richards, McLuhan, and Ulmer have been telling us for most of the 20th century, might be “tools for living,” “do-it-yourself kits” and “relays” that 21st century rhetoricians can work with and compose from.
From within the field of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication, we have produced surprisingly few texts of visual rhetoric, instead favoring the collection of analytical essays in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World (Handa, 2004), Defining Visual Rhetorics (Hill & Helmers, 2004), Words and Images (Allen, 2002) and Eloquent Images (Hocks & Kendrick, 2003). Kostelnick and Roberts’ (1998) Designing Visual Language is a substantial rhetorical text devoted to the production of visual language; Mike Palmquist’s (2005) Designing Writing and Susan Hilligoss’ (2002) Visual Communication: A Writer’s Guide are slender companions meant to accompany writing courses. Our new media rhetorics might do well to learn from Horn, McCloud, and Curtis, drawing on the encyclopedic tradition of new media we encouraged above, and enacting the rhetorics we profess. The work our students do will need to surpass the work many of us are capable of doing if they wish to be designers, producers, and rhetoricians in the new media environment of the 21st century, but if we can provide both a broad and formal training in the rhetorics of new media and digital communication, they will be positioned to participate in the emerging electracy apparatus.
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