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Idealogies and Introductions

In (re)reading the introductions to both The Rhetorical Tradition and Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries, I am struck by the way that both books attempt to define a scope for “rhetoric” in order to introduce this concept, or what the authors mean by this concept, to begin the forthcoming book(s). Comparing them side by side, I can’t help but notice what each of them has in common versus what is different, and how these differences then guide the direction in which the rest of the text moves.

Both texts are clear about the problematic and complex nature of defining rhetoric at all and offer multiple examples of definitions that have been offered from various sources. They also discuss and clarify the five canons of rhetoric and the three forms of persuasive appeals (though Calvino and Jolliffe do include many others as well). Though each spends differing amounts of time detailing these concepts, they are generally similar in content. It is interesting that particular concepts, such as the ones discussed in both of these introductions, are generally presented as relatively stable indicators of the presence or use of rhetoric. These conventions – the five canons, the three appeals – are so often introduced first in many texts that attempt to explain what rhetoric is, including overviews such as those found on rhetorica.net and wikipedia. As an instructor, I likewise wonder how many students are fist introduced to rhetoric through these conventions and why these conventions are chosen and not others.

The RT “General Introduction” seems to focus more upon perceptions of rhetoric historically and qualifies the statements that it makes accordingly. For instance, the authors make claims such as “Rhetoric in its various incarnations has been a powerful force in public affairs and in education for most of its existence since the fifth century B.C.E.” (1). This, I think, is a supportable claim (though one could argue that it is impossible to ascertain when “its existence” began, and it is unclear whether the authors are making the claim that this was rhetoric’s beginning, or whether they are defining the historic scope of their particular investigation) e.g. that rhetoric has been a powerful force in education and public affairs during the time examined. It is clear from the “General Introduction” that this will be an historical examination arranged roughly in chronological order, as introduced within this chapter.

The Colvino and Jolliffe introduction, while similar in some regards, seems to attempt to make more unqualified claims about what rhetoric encompasses and what it does not, approaching the issue (it seems) from a stance of attempting to make an overt argument for some of these positions, while at the same time noting that they often problematize their claims as well. Some of their claims point to a privileging of words over other elements of rhetorical interest, claiming (in their italicized definition) that “rhetoric is primarily verbal” (5). Though they interrogate this claim, they do argue for its support, defining it “as a primarily verbal art” (6). They say that those who “speak of rhetoric ….[as]…. gestures, paintings, or films” do so “metaphorically,” placing the primacy of rhetorical investigation upon the verbal medium (6).  I am not sure that this claim can be effectively substantiated as I am not sure that is possible to say that the verbal has more effect than the non-verbal, especially in multi-genre or multi-media texts, or even within oral delivery. There are many objects that can be considered rhetorical (architecture, images, sounds, etc.) that are non-verbal and may not even be accompanied by the “verbal understanding” that Colvino and Jolliffe privilege (6).

Though both of these books offer some overlapping information in their introductions, they take different stances and approaches in these texts that give the reader some information about the way in which the following book will be presented, as well as the types of arguments or approaches that one might expect to encounter. Thus, these chapters about rhetoric are themselves rhetorical, attempting to put forth and legitimize a position for the presentation of the highly complex and problematic concept of rhetoric. In reading them side by side, the argument for the complexity of the concept itself is, to me, the most convincing position taken by either approach – in the fissures and differences in presentation, one can see the fluidity and temporal/cultural contingency of any study or attempt at its definition.


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