Sunday, November 05, 2006

What's the Difference? Fuck It! Rhetorically I Mean.

What is Rhetoric?

According to Cavallaro, rhetoric is the art of 'expression and persuasion', an art which consists of tropes, images and figures of speech. Rhetoric also shapes meaning, for pretty much any utterance can be read rhetorically as well as literally.

The mechanisms of rhetoric can be shown on two levels:
  • In everyday sign systems such as advertising and political slogans
  • Through the displacement of referential meaning through images

Because all words can be seen as metaphors, words don't refer transparently to objects or ideas, instead they 'displace them by translating them into abstract and arbitrary signs' (Cavallaro, p.28).

New Criticism and Positivism

Inspired by critics such as T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, W. K. Wimsatt, M. C. Beardsley and R. Penn Warren in the 1940s and 1950s, New Criticism's ideology sees that 'rhetorical devices are a distinctive feature of literary texts' (Cavallaro, p.29). New Critics see the text as a 'complex structure of meaning, or organisation of language, to be analysed with close reference to its rhetorical devices and specifically with a focus on irony, paradox, tension and ambiguity' (Cavallaro, p.29).

On the other hand though, Positivism seeks to view language as a neutral medium for the transcription of facts, and that literature manipulates language through rhetorical devices that make it far from transparent.
New Critics' tasks consisted of isolating the devices through which a text is built-up, and the produced effects, independently of the reader's emotions and the intentions of the writer. But this tactic, according to Wimsatt and Beardsley in The Verbal Icon creates two fallacies: Intentional, confusing the text and its origin; and Affective, the text and its results. Later developments in this field went on to emphasise the importance of the text itself rather than its origins or results.

And so, New Criticism's approach to rhetoric proposes that:
  1. A text's obscurities and contradictions produced by its rhetorical structure must be clarified and resolved; rhetoric must be domesticated
  2. Rhetorical language must be divorced from ordinary language

This re-evaluation of rhetorical language came with the writings of Formalist Critic and linguist Roman Jakobson who believes that poetic mechanisms (especially rhetorical ones as images, tropes, sound, rhythm and rhyme) constitute 'a special kind of language rather than a superficial decoration of so-called ordinary language' (Cavallaro, p.30).

Rhetoric and Ideology

Rhetorical language often eminently serves ideological objectives, hence the intertwination of rhetoric and ideology. For centuries, classical theorists were eager to define the codes and conventions of rhetoric as a command of this art was essential to the successful outcomes in the manipulation of language, more often than not, for political purposes.

Many Greek and Roman writers such as the great Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, among others have paid homage to this doctrine of rhetoric. For one, Cicero prescribed the rules for oral and written composition as comprising of five processes:
  • Invention: the discovery of appropriate verbal material
  • Arrangement: organisation into structure
  • Style: formulation of the mode of delivery relevant to the occasion
  • Memory: the ability to store and recycle utterances and images
  • Delivery: the elaboration of techniques for producing a successful rhetorical package
Therefore, a culture's understanding of rhetoric tends to mirror its dominant ideology; many classical and Renaissance approaches to rhetoric show that rhetorical language defines and affects people's actions because it is an important aspect of human behaviour.

Discoveries in the philosophy of language have shown that speech is a species of language. J. L. Austin argues that 'in any use of language, a speaker performs many acts' (Cavallaro, p.32), and that there are three main types of speech act.
  1. Locutionary: the act of saying something (stating)
  2. Illocutionary: an act done in saying something (reminding)
  3. Prelocutionary: an act done by saying something (warning)

As language constructs reality, rhetoric takes over language in all its manifestation, so that without rhetoric 'there may be no reality for us to speak or write about' (Cavallaro, p.32). Where language displaces reality by 'substituting disembodied and conventional signs for concrete objects..[r]hetoric throws this overtly capitalizing on tropes' (Cavallaro, p.32). Tropes can be defined as strategies which turn something into something else.

Two major aspects of rhetoric which produce meaning by 'unsettling conventional assumptions' between a sign and the concept it is supposed to stand for are irony and allegory. Irony is used to say something by seeming to say something else: what is affirmed is at the same time negated. Allegory though is the device used to displace meaning by speaking otherwise: by stressing that the meanings of the sign are not inherent in the sign itself but attributed to something else.

Jacques Derrida: Deconstruction

Born 1930, Jacques Derrida classified all language as rhetorical and that was the main foundation of his deconstruction theory. Where everything is a text 'any set of signs can be explored and interpreted as an organisation of language' (Cavallaro, p.33). For Derrida, texts do not exist independently of how they are interpreted. Deconstruction, is mainly about showing how texts question themselves.

Derrida proposes the thought of a 'plural and culturally constructed subject' (Cavallaro, p.34), and he questions the convention of memisis: where texts are able to reflect reality truthfully, by emphasising that reality is an effect of how it is represented, interpreted, and distorted even. And in the domain of history, Derrida believes that what is recalled as history is actually different to what really happened. This is because real events are recorded, and shaped in that process by 'dominant systems of values' that put forth certain events and repressed, or marginalised, others. In turn as Derrida says 'there is not one single history..but rather histories' (Cavallaro, p.34).


Proposed by Saussure, difference is the mechanism whereby 'a sign derives meaning from its phonemic difference from another sign' (Cavallaro, p.35), for example 'cat' and 'rat', but one must not limit difference to minimal pairs only, for a sign leads to many other signs such as 'mat', 'sat', 'hat', etc.

Where Western thought is logocentric, in its efforts to differentiate between non-rhetorical (supposedly reliable), and rhetorical (unreliable) forms of text, this has created phonocentrism: the superiority of speech (phone) over writing.

Rhetoric enters our lives the moment a word is uttered, for in that moment an abstract symbol replaces a physical object. But traditional scholars wishing to hold onto the myth of an 'undistorted and undistorting' language, resisted the rhetorical side of human discourse.

Paul de Man: Grammar and Rhetoric

Paul de Man concentrates on the relationship between rhetoric and grammar, for rhetoric and grammar most often than not cross over into each other, and are interlocked at all times. According to him, rhetoric is everywhere language can be found.

Where grammar defines what is a properly formed sentence, it cannot tell how to interpret the sentence, nor can it deliver exact meanings. Rhetorical questions exemplify this, for a rhetorical question is defined as 'a question that does not expect an answer, or for which an answer is more or less obvious' (Cavallaro, p.37).

Thus as grammar plays a major role in the operations of language, by laying down rules, the realisation that grammar and rhetoric tend to merge makes them both an 'underpinning of human discourse' (Cavallaro, p.37).

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