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Rhetoric, the art of oratory, was developed in ancient Greece and Rome. Both as a general communication theory and as a collection of practical advices on how to convince an audience, rhetoric exerted decisive inﬂuence on the history of Western civilization and culture. In the period from antiquity until the nineteenth century, rhetoric was the single most important subject taught in Western educational institutions. During these more than 2,000 years it changed both in scope and perspective. Corresponding with the growth in written communication, it was gradually transformed into an art of writing. In later centuries it became closely associated with the writing of literature while less emphasis was put upon argumentation and persuasion.
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Rhetoric deals with communicative situations. Speeches and texts are always considered in their relation to the aims and intentions of the speaker writer, the subject matter in question, the general mood and prior knowledge of the expected audience, etc. Correspondingly, any kind of analysis which sets out to describe the ways in which a given discourse is determined or affected by its immediate communicative context could be said to be rhetorical in nature. Rhetorical analyses of this kind have always played an important role in literary studies, but during the few last decades similar methods have also been applied to nonliterary texts and even to nonverbal means of expressions, for instance in connection with studies of political propaganda, advertising strategies, as well as mass media in general.
1. The History Of Traditional Rhetoric
1.1 Classical Antiquity
Some ground rules of oratory were developed and taught by Sicilians in 485 BC in connection with legal disputes about real estate. This rudimentary rhetoric quickly spread to Athens where a more comprehensive body of knowledge about the art of public speaking was developed from the mid-ﬁfth century and onwards. Greek rhetoric was introduced in Rome in the ﬁrst century BC as part of the education of older children.
In the Greek period, the so-called Sophists— persons who taught rhetoric, politics, and mathematics for money—played an important role in the development of rhetoric as a formal discipline. They were attacked by Plato for putting more emphasis on style than on substance. Plato’s critique raises a question which has followed rhetoric ever since: Is rhetoric a method for discovering the truth, or merely an effective technique for manipulating an audience?
There is, however, no clear answer to this question. The old Greco-Roman rhetoric—as described by Aristotle (384–22 BC), Cicero (106–43 BC; De Oratore), and Quintilian (c. AD 35–c. 95; Institutio Oratoria)—was a complex social system of interrelated, and in some cases even contradictory, practices (cf. Barthes 1970, Vickers 1988). First of all, rhetoric was an art in the classical, Aristotelian sense of the word, i.e., a craft or technique, a collection of rules and advices for speakers who want to convince or persuade an audience. These rules were taught in and transmitted through strong educational institutions. Thus, rhetoric was also a discipline, a subject, a body of knowledge. In addition, this body of knowledge constituted a theory, or at least a semitheoretical ﬁeld: it described and classiﬁed some important effects of verbal language.
1.2 The Rhetorical System
The old manuals divided rhetoric into ﬁve parts: Inventio, Dispositio, Elocutio, Memoria, and Actio. Each part covers a speciﬁc ﬁeld of knowledge and aims at training certain skills related to the ﬁeld in question.
(a) inventio (ﬁnding what to say) is the part dealing with argumentation. Speakers learn to analyze a given subject matter, to ﬁnd relevant information, and to determine which types of information are the most useful for their purposes. They also learn to convince an audience with quasilogical proofs (logos), and to move the audience by appearing to be good and trustworthy (ethos) or by stirring the audience’s emotions ( pathos).
(b) dispositio (organizing what one has found) deals with composition. Speakers learn to organize their speeches in clearly separated sections.
(c) elucutio (choosing the proper words) is the part that deals with verbal ornamentation. Some elementary rules are presented together with examples of striking images and other verbal devices which can be used to color a text.
(d) memoria (remembering what to say) is an introduction to mnemonics.
(e) actio (performing the speech) contains practical advices on how to deliver a text before an audience.
1.3 The Reduction Of Rhetoric
The memoria and actio parts were rather sketchy in the old manuals, and because they were directly related to the practice of oratory, they disappeared as soon as rhetoric became a theory of written discourse. During the Middle Ages the tripartite system of invention/disposition/elocutio was taught together with grammar and logic. This system collapsed during the seventeenth century, and rhetoric ended up being a part of poetics. From now on it was further reduced: inventio and dispositio, the parts most closely associated with logic and argumentation, lost in importance and in the end all that remained of the old system was elocutio, the part dealing with questions of stylistics.
The elocutio sections of the old manuals taught the reader that signiﬁcant persuasive or poetic effects can be obtained by selecting the proper words and combining them in the right manner. A ﬂat statement of facts can be transformed into a strong, colorful, and convincing message by the use of tropes or ﬁgures, i.e., by substituting single words (tropes) or by manipulating phrases consisting of several words ( ﬁgures). However, when eighteenth century linguists and literary theorists began to study and classify the many varieties of discursive ornamentation, they found that most of these poetic effects could be described as variations of two semantic relations, viz. similarity and contiguity. The similarity-relation ﬁnds its clearest expression in the metaphor while metonymy and synecdoche are well-known examples of ornaments based on causal and spatial contiguity-relations. From the eighteenth century and onwards, metaphor gradually became a kind of supertrope representing all the other tropes and ﬁgures based on similarity-relations, while metonymy correspondingly became the representative of all the various ornaments based on contiguity-relations (Genette 1970).
2. Modern Rhetoric
2.1 Rhetoric And Semiotics
During the twentieth century several writers have sought to incorporate this reduced version of traditional rhetoric into a broader, more general framework. One of them is the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson who in 1956 presented a structuralist interpretation of elocutio, arguing that the metaphor metonymy-dichotomy corresponds with a general bipolar structure in language (Jakobson 1956). All discursive production is the result of two fundamental linguistic processes based on similarity and contiguity. These metaphoric and metonymic poles in language can be observed in all normal linguistic behavior but, Jakobson argued, they are also manifest in any symbolic process, either intrapersonal or social (for a fuller discussion of the metaphor metonymy-dichotomy, see the following section).
Jakobson thus opened the ﬁeld of rhetoric towards sign systems other than language. His own examples were the dream work studied by psychoanalists, the magic rites described by anthropologists, as well as nonverbal forms of art like cubist painting, the ﬁlms of Chaplin and Eisenstein, etc.
Jakobson exerted decisive inﬂuence on French structuralists and semioticians during the 1950s and 1960s, among them Roland Barthes who in a seminal article, Rhetoric of the Image, proposed to rethink classical rhetoric in structural terms (Barthes 1964). Like Jakobson he argued that the immense variety of tropes and ﬁgures categorized by traditional rhetoric are merely surface manifestations of a few formal relations which can be shown to be the structural armature in all kinds of verbal discourse as well as in several nonverbal forms of expression. He predicted that it would be possible to establish a general rhetoric which would be valid for all types of discourses, for texts as well as for sound and images.
Since the 1960s there have been several attempts at implementing Barthes’ project. The most comprehensive contribution is the work of the so-called Groupe µ, a group of Belgian researchers, who have presented a general description of rhetorical tropes and ﬁgures on a semiotic structuralist basis (cf. Groupe µ 1970). In recent years the group has focused on the question of visual rhetoric (Groupe µ 1992).
The semiotic-structuralist interpretation of traditional rhetoric was mainly a theoretical project, but it had important practical and analytical consequences as well. In his 1964 article Barthes argued that there is a close connection between rhetoric and ideology, a view supported by the fact that the classical manuals usually were more concerned with probabilities than with the actual truth of the matter. In order to be convincing one must know one’s audience, know what people will or will not accept as probable, in short one has to respect doxa, i.e. public opinion, the stereotypical forms of thought which members of the audience rely on in their everyday lives. This means that the rhetorical devices used in a text can be understood as discursive expressions—or exploitations—of the dominant ideologies within a given society and that such ideologies can be brought to light by means of rhetorical analysis.
That rhetorical analysis can be used as a decisive critical tool had already been proven by the American critic Kenneth Burke who in 1939 wrote an inﬂuential article on the argumentative strategy in Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Burke 1941, see also Burke 1962). From the 1960s and onwards Barthes and many other writers followed Burke’s example and made rhetorical analysis a part of a general critique of ideology. Using the insights gained by the fusion of semiotics and rhetoric they made systematic studies of the patterns and systems of belief that are presented as ‘natural’ or ‘evident’ in newspapers, fashion magazines, popular ﬁlms, television programs, etc. This form of analysis was particularly efficient in studies of advertising (for an overview see Dyer 1982).
2.2 Metaphor, Metonymy, And Mental Mapping
Elocutio was the only part that was left of the old rhetorical system by the beginning of the twentieth century. There was however a growing interest in this surviving part and particularly in metaphor. Not only did metaphor become one of the most studied subjects in literary theory, the interest spread to several other areas. At present the study of metaphor is one of the most fertile ﬁelds in the humanities and the social sciences. It plays a crucial role in academic disciplines as diverse as linguistics, ﬁlm and media studies, constructivist psychology, anthropology, and cognition theory.
During the last century the conception of metaphor has changed dramatically. From being a poetic device producing a specialized type of discursive effect, it is now generally regarded as a very fundamental mental tool: ‘the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another,’ as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it in their book Metaphors We Li e By (1980). Metaphor is the kind of understanding which is produced when a set of relations is displaced from one kind of thing to another. Or to put it another way: Metaphor is a type of mental mapping. When people say that ‘time is money,’ they establish a simple relation of similarity between two elements but this process entails a further mapping of a whole series of relations from the time-ﬁeld onto the money-ﬁeld: if time is money, then time must also be valuable, scarce, etc.
According to Lakoff and Johnson there are three major types of metaphor. One is the structural metaphor, the ‘time is money’ variety just mentioned: a restricted, almost local, structuration of one ﬁeld in terms of another. Another one is the orientational metaphor which is used to give larger systems of concepts a spatial orientation. When for example happiness is described as ‘being up’ and sadness as ‘being down,’ a spatial relation (up down) is mapped onto an emotional relation (happy sad). Such orientational metaphors are clearly grounded in very concrete, physical experiences of the body and its position in space. According to Lakoff and Johnson all metaphors do actually have some kind of concrete experiential basis. One example is the third major type, the ontological metaphor, which is based on the everyday experience of handling physical objects. Ontological metaphors make it possible for an individual to understand—and thereby to deal with— events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc. as if they were objects, entities, or substances.
Metonymy, the other supertrope, does also have important cognitive functions. Its basic principle is that one entity stands for another. In the phrase ‘sails on the water,’ a part (sail) is used as a short hand reference to a totality (boat). Thus, a metonymy emphasizes or highlights certain aspects or features within a given totality. In the very act of referring, metonymy thereby serves some of the same purposes as does metaphor.
Metaphor and metonymy are mental tools which enable people to focus their everyday experiences and to understand the world they live in. They are, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, part of the ordinary way in which people think, act, and talk. Sometimes people use these tools in new and/original ways, but most of the resemblances they perceive and most of the short-hand references they make in their everyday lives are the result of relatively conventional metaphors and metonymies that have become part of their conceptual system. In later years there have been a growing number of studies of such conventional metaphor metonymy-based systems and the role they play in public debates and political communication. One striking example is George Lakoff’s own analysis of the political rhetoric used by US politicians in the weeks before the war in the Gulf in 1991 (Lakoff 1991).
2.3 Rhetoric, Argumentation, And Thinking
Traditional rhetoric originated in relatively small, closed societies characterized by limited ﬂows of information. Politicians and lawyers who should speak in public were faced with the task of convincing or persuading uneducated and incompetent audiences. The manuals told them how to do that.
Communication today is still a question of ﬁnding and interpreting relevant information and presenting it in effective ways. Nevertheless, the general communicative situation has changed radically since the days of classical antiquity. The most important communication is mediated by radio, ﬁlms, television, the Internet, etc.—media characterized by what has been called a new type of orality (Ong 1982). Information is distributed at an incredible speed, and the total amount of available information is growing rapidly. Even though the general level of education is considerably higher than anytime before in the history of the world, a modern mass audience is a rather heterogeneous phenomenon consisting of people with very varying degrees of knowledge and competence.
The fear that this complex situation with its rapid ﬂow of information may result in massive manipulation of the audiences provides a signiﬁcant background for many of the newer attempts at reviving rhetoric. One example is the so-called New Rhetoric which was developed in the mid-twentieth century (Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca 1958, Toulmin 1958). The New Rhetoric was initially an attempt at reestablishing the total rhetorical system in order to be able to cope with all aspects of the new, media-driven types of communication. However, from the very beginning the strongest emphasis was put upon inventio, and more speciﬁcally on argumentation, one of the parts of traditional rhetoric that more or less disappeared when rhetoric became associated with literature and poetics.
In the philosophical tradition argumentation has usually been associated with logic and the techniques of deduction and induction. What the New Rhetoricians have in mind, however, is not this strict, formal, and logical type of argumentation, but the ‘fuzzy’ thinking, the jumping-to-conclusions known from everyday life. Aristotle excluded this kind of thinking from logic proper but included it in his Rhetoric and actually considered it to be one of its most important parts.
Rhetorical argumentation is a ‘situated’ form of argumentation, it cannot be performed or understood without taking the total communicative situation into consideration. It is dependent on the subject matter, the level of available information, the pre-existing attitudes and prejudices of the speaker and the audience, the type of media which is used, etc. In short, what is at stake here and what the New Rhetoricians as well as many other, later writers (cf. for example Billig 1987) set out to describe and analyze are the various ways in which practical, everyday reasoning is determined by its immediate context.
Viewed like this rhetoric is much more than a theory of oratory or a collection of simple rules to be used by poets—it is a discipline which studies the underlying principles governing all human discourse, the way in which people argue with themselves and with others, the way in which they make value judgments, etc. Rhetorical analyses of such arguments and of how judgments are made can provide a better understanding of how opinions and social attitudes are formed in complex modern media-driven societies.
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