AL805 Rhetoric Theory and History – On the “Demise of Rhetoric”

A page I included in my response. A mix of Aristotle/Heihachi Mishima/Mark Twain

Every week in AL805 we’re asked to write a critical response on the plethora of readings we do.

“Critical responses should formulate a provisional response to the readings, explore issues which especially interest you by engaging with the readings, begin to synthesize that day’s readings with other course readings/discussions, or offer/articulate a question about that day’s reading that you’re willing to share in class discussion.”

While that may seem over-broad, whenever I’m slogging through pages of high theory and ridiculous discursive critiques (I’ve been out of academia for two years so diving back into this sort of reading has been incredibly… frustrating) there tends to be one or two ideas that really strike me.  This week I responded to an idea from Bender and Wellberry’s “Rhetoricality” that posited the “demise of rhetoric” during the Enlightenment.  And of course I ALWAYS have to connect my work to comics.  This time I reference one of my all-time favorite comic book villains, Judge Death 🙂

The “demise of rhetoric” that Bender and Wellerby elucidate on in their paper “Rhetoricality: On the Modernist Return of Rhetoric” seems to me an entirely impossible topic because rhetoric can’t die.  Based on what we discussed last week rhetoric is an idea, a practice, a construct, a theory, a system of rules and guidelines specific to a particular time and place.  When you look at it in that light rhetoric seems both immortal and transcendent but also mutable and tangible.  Frankly it reminds me of a quote by the infamous Judge Death, “You cannot kill what does not live.”

I appreciate the irony that comes with our historical hindsight, especially regarding Kant and Descartes’ diatribes against classical rhetoric during the Enlightenment.  Rhetoric to us, our definition (whatever that may be), is markedly different from what they believed it to be (or not).  To these rational gentlemen rhetoric was a way to disguise the truth and to limit the freedom of an audience.  It was a style of speech, a way of writing that clouded the judgment of men.  These beliefs stemmed from Enlightnement mentality, that transparency and neutrality should be the goal of communication.  Both Kant and Descartes wrote vehemently against the practice of classical “subjective” rhetoric and the latter went so far as to condone the teaching of it!

What’s so interesting is that in their lengthy written attacks on rhetorical speech and writing, they themselves are the prisoners of their own historical rhetoric.  Instead of seeing the Enlightenment and the Romantic period as having slain rhetoric, we should note that they acted as a sort of mutagen, transforming the styles and rules of classical rhetoric into something more modern and in-line with the thinking of the time.  In denying rhetoric and embracing arhetoric, Kant, Descartes, and their contemporaries were really laying the groundwork for a new rhetorical style all it’s own.

Another really interesting topic I picked up during this week’s readings was the thought that “Rhetoric produces ‘[mere] belief without knowledge,’” which coincides wonderfully with Kant and Descartes rejection of classical rhetoric.  Before their detached and neutral approach to communication, which established the modern method for law and scientific discourse, you had oral trials without a detached, neutral defense or the possibility of scientific evidence.  There, in their eyes, truth that should have been objective and definite was marred by pretty persuasive words.

I can’t help but think of all of the readings we’ve been doing thus far.  It’s rhetoric on rhetoric trying to convince us of subjective rhetorical beliefs.  Not to say that these works aren’t grounded in a knowledgeable base or contain things worth knowing, but they’re not transparent or objective and the critiques and reviews lack empirical evidence to support their ideas.


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