poking around Rhetoric of rhetoric

First a confession: I’ve never felt very comfortable with the appellation "rhetorician." I don’t think I’m a very "good" one (good meaning loyal to the cause/discipline). So perhaps it is not surprising that I find this Booth’s Rhetoric of Rhetoric strikes an odd chord with me.

In the Preface, he writes "rhetoric will be seen as the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another…It is the entire range of our use of ‘signs’ for communicating"  (xi).

No, it isn’t. In making this definition, Booth refers specifically to violence as rhetorical, albeit a form of rhetoric he doesn’t value highly. OK, fair enough. How about pheromones? Currently scientific evidence is still uncertain of the extent of pheromones as a means of communication between humans. However, there are some suggestions that scent does communicate. Obviously, we use this rhetorically when we wear perfume (or bathe), but when it is released by our body unconsciously, is that rhetoric?

A less controversial example: semen. We’re on pretty firm scientific ground here. Again, there can be rhetorical elements to ejaculation, but in the basic function of reproduction, a message is sent as well. Is it rhetorical?

Continuing on with the sexual: a "peeping Tom" watches a woman in her shower and becomes aroused. Is the woman sending a message? Is it rhetorical? A heterosexual male’s arousal via visual stimulation can be part of a rhetorical message (in a centerfold or a beer ad), but is the extent to which a man or a woman might become aroused in any situation necessarily the product of a rhetorical communication?

Finally (and I got this from Colin), an essay at McSweeney’s on "reading too mcuh into things" provides a faux exam apropos to this question:

Paragraph A:

Her leg brushed up against yours.

Questions 1-24 will be based on Paragraph A.

1. Did she do that on purpose?
a) Yes.
b) No.
c) Maybe.
d) Don’t know.

2. Why would she do that?
a) She still loves you.
b) She still likes you.
c) She still wants to have sex with you.
d) She still wants you to think one of the above.

The point illustrated here is that brushing a leg can be unconscious/unintentional or intentional with any number of possible meanings. Now certainly the latter meanings, however inscrutable, are all potentially "rhetorical." But what about the former unconscious/unintentional ones?

So here is the crux of my problem, always already from the start, which is not a problem, but an aporia. Rhetoric here is set upon a metaphysics of presence, of intentionality and logocentrism. Booth may include Derrida among his saviors of rhetoric, but he hasn’t "listened" closely or more likely has actively ignored this issue.

I agree with Booth in his defense of Derrida as misread by those who believe deconstruction means everything is relative, that truth does not exist, that all is rhetorical. Relational and relative are not the same. In the critique of the binary of rhetoric/science or rhetoric/philosophy or rhetoric/truth, those who believe in science, philosophy. and truth see the deconstruction of these terms meaning simply that Derrida is advocating not-science, not-philosophy, not-truth, i.e. rhetoric. But the deconstruction cuts both ways, which is why rhetoricians run away from Derrida just as fast as scientists. It is not a neither/nor situation or an either/or situation, but a both/and situation: both rhetoric AND science. Their deconstruction asks us to investigate the relational differance from which both emerge.

This is also the issue, in my view, with Booth’s rhetoric. We must consider the material, biological, and unconscious elements of communication. We must also consider the process of communication itself. Booth’s model assumes two (or more) self-present humans intentionally sending messages to one another with the purpose of creating some predetermined effect.

Does this ever actually happen? Maybe it is a part of every communicative event, but it is such a small part in my view. Perhaps that’s why we have all these other disciplines, like pscyhology or sociology, to attempt to understand some of these other elements. I’m not an apologist for them either. However, the notion that rhetoric is somehow a meta-commentary on these is weak to me.

Yes, there are rhetorical elements to most information exchanges between humans. However, if one is interested, as I am, in the composition of such exchanges, in writing and new media, then one needs a more material, embodied understanding of consciousness, including an accounting of the ideolgical and unconscious forces at work.


2 replies on “poking around Rhetoric of rhetoric”

I’m anxious to read Booth’s book; I’ve met him and been following his work for some time. I admire its intelligibility and, as someone who believes Derrida worship has done more harm than good for the humanities, I’m anxious to read Booth’s sympathetic treatment.
The point made in this posting about semen and pheremones is very cute, but other than that, I wonder what it accomplishes in furthering the conversation.


It isn’t a matter of being “cute.” I’m not sure what the point of that comment is. The point I would like to make here is that when rhetoric operates on the level of discourse, as if to imagine that all human experience/knowledge is discursive, then it is missing an engagement with the materiality of symbolic behavior and cognition as a embodied process involving a network of distributed, abstract-tho-material mechanisms.
We certainly can define rhetoric the way Booth wants to, but to do it would require substantially altering our disciplinary practices. To imagine that rhetoric, as it is conventionally practiced, encompasses “the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another,” is rather myopic. However, the fact that such a claim might be made does point to the challenge rhetoric faces in trying to see beyond the discursive.
This fits well with the issue regarding Derrida. Certainly English Studies has apprehended Derrida in discursive terms, witness Hansen’s critique along these lines. However, Derrida can be read otherwise.


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