If I were to write the enterprise of rhetoric as broadly as possible, I would term it the study of relation (or force). I thought about "philosophy" rather than study, but then rhetoric is explicitly not philosophy. Undoubtedly, the typical way to view rhetoric (excluding pejorative views) would probably be as the philosophy or practice of communication. However I think that's far too narrow, and maybe even simply wrong (which is not to say the communication ought not be studied (or philosophized)).
As readers of this blog know, I've been engaging with object-oriented ontology a great deal lately, and one of the things that strikes me is how unlikely, from a philosophical viewpoint, really any relation is. Relation is, admittedly, perplexing for OOO. In a surprising way, OOO's staunch withdrawn object makes the question of relation far more interesting and fascinating than it every was before. It seems almost impossible. When I think about it, I am reminded of Stephen Hawking telling us how unlikely and suprising the universe is. Why didn't the matter and dark matter cancel each other out? How unlikely is it that atoms formed into stars and generated the materials to build planets? How many big bangs did it take before objects started to relate? And then how unlikely are the circumstances of life? How many planets, in how many star systems, in how many galaxies, does it take before objects link together to create DNA code? It is easy to keep going, because, after all, every relation is singular among objects… whatever objects are.
Understandably, it is difficult to create a philosophy of the singular. When we look at the suspicion of Socrates or Plato toward rhetoric, is it difficult to imagine this as a concern about relations or force? Rhetorical practice enacts a force upon its audience: persuassion, allure. Words insist in being objects in their own right, inhabiting a flat ontology with the objects they "represent" and the humans whose mouths they fill and thoughts they haunt. We all know from Derrida by now about the attempt to obscure or erase these relations. Even better, now, Latour has shown us the work that goes into constructing knowledge, into structuring these relations.
Now perhaps one would want to argue that cultural studies is the philosophy/theory of relations par excellence, though I would want to respond with the critiques of Harman, Latour and others regarding the way that cultural studies has insisted objects be deaf, dumb, and blind to the spectral forces of ideology and/or desire. If anything, one might say that cultural studies is the argument that relations do not matter at all. After all, in a world absent of agency, what could relation amount to? Ironically, cultural studies is then perhaps the great philosophy of relation after all!
In truth, I don't want to poke that much at philosophy. Of course there can be a working philosophy of relations and force. And we can trace and read such things. Physics would be one part of that realm, even though we may not wish to grant it the great explanatory force it would seek to claim for itself (even while, all the time, being uncertain of its own principles, as we all are). Rhetoric, though, remains the not philosophy, what philosophy sought to discredit, then domesticate, and finally assassinate. But rhetoric, in the end, cannot be denied, as it starts from the point that philosophy struggles most to explain: we relate.
To recognize rhetoric as the study of relation (or force) shines a powerful light on the internal struggles of rhetorical practice and pedagogy. We can come to recognize why we are so intently concerned with the experiences of our students in the face of institutional discourses. We recognize our sympathies with our exploited colleagues in part-time positions. Our interests in the technologies that shape composition make sense. For we are not simply about communication (let alone clarity of style), though certainly communication is part of relation and force. Ultimately rhetoric studies the bonds among objects and the forces passed along those relations. Perhaps it is a philosophy of such concerns or maybe it is too pragmatic or simply non-philosophical with its interest in composing, in making, rather than judging or deciding.
In that respect, perhaps, someday, philosophy will be a rhetoric.