Rhetorical Complexities

After reading “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” and “IText: Future Directions for Research on the Relationship between Information Technology and Writing,” my reaction is mainly one of awe at the great complexity of rhetorical situations. The study of rhetoric and its uses seems to have reached monolithic proportions, and even the brave efforts of the articles’ various authors seem insufficient to harness the complexities involved. In fact, the articles give me two distinct impressions. The first is that experts in the field of rhetoric often do not agree; this is illustrated by Grant-Davie’s use of sentence starters like “I think” and “I propose” (266) instead of sentence starters designed to exhibit the voice of authority. The second is that the vast nature of rhetorical studies makes it unlikely that research will ever reveal all the secrets of any given rhetorical situation. Geisler and her associated writers intentionally or unintentionally give me this impression when they speak of “the complexity of the meaning-making process, the historical forces that shape interactions with text, and the powerful impact literate interactions in these new electronic environments are having on society” (297).

I believe the compound rhetorical situations described by Grant-Davie provide prime examples of the great and growing complexities of rhetoric. Grant-Davie says that “exigence, rhetor, audience, and constraints can interlace with each other, and the further one delves into the situation the more connections between them are likely to appear” (277). Such rhetoric situations create webs of inputs so vast and tangled that they can be almost impossible to comprehend in their entirety.  This seems to be especially true when these situations are placed in electronic formats packed to bursting with stimuli.

For example, one political campaign ad can contain many forms of communication (speech, written words, music, facial expressions, and more), be disseminated to a vast and highly variable audience, have a large number of different goals and implications, and be subject to a great number of constraints. How could such an ad possibly be analyzed so thoroughly that all the rhetorical factors associated with it could be discovered? Is it likely that all of the professionals analyzing the ad would agree upon its attributes and intentions? To see an ad which demonstrates the character of modern compound rhetorical situations, check out an Obama campaign ad here.

All of the great complexities associated with such ads and the field of rhetoric in general make me feel as though attempts to classify elements of rhetorical situations into neat, box-like categories lead to the formulation of possibly inaccurate assumptions and dangerous simplifications. One example of a classification system that makes me uncomfortable appears when Stanley Fish describes people as either homo seriosus or homo rhetoricus. According to Fish, homo seriosus believes in a central identify and referent reality while homo rhetoricus believes in shifting realites and constructions of the world (127).

A question which I would like myself and others to ponder at length is whether or not the dichotomy that such a description of humans seems to create is consistent with the reality of compound rhetorical situations described by Grant-Davie. Can most people be described as serious man or rhetorical man, or are most humans a hybrid form of both? In my opinion, people are as complex as the rhetorical situations of which they are a part. I think the majority of people could be described as a blend of serious man and rhetorical man as they seek to form some sense of reality but also recognize the persuasive powers of rhetoric and writing. Even scientists regularly utilize rhetoric to argue that their scientific findings are accurate interpretations to help understand our perceived realities or to persuade government and private investors to fund a project. Many would even admit that science is influenced by factors associated with rhetoric. Cezar Ornatowski of San Diego State University has even more to say on the subject of the complex but potentially peaceful blending of science and rhetoric which can be viewed here.

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3 thoughts on “Rhetorical Complexities

  1. Erin says:

    It interests me that you report having felt “awe at the great complexity of rhetorical situations.”

    Yep. Totally what I thought, too. Well, actually I felt like screaming in despair at the impossibility of me ever understanding this stuff, but…surely that was a reaction brought on by awe. 🙂

    Part of me persists in wanting to shake my head and denounce that rhetoric is a pointless waste of time which just makes things more complicated than they need to be, but I’m going to give it a chance. It might indeed reveal how complicated seemingly-simple things truly are. Your attitude that rhetoric will never, ever become a fact-driven field actually demystifies things for me somewhat. Do you think rhetoric is meant to help us find mysteries instead of solving them?

    Because I’ve been wishing for concrete rules and “neat, box-like categories” this entire…well, week and a half. But now I’m starting to reconsider…

    • Outwardly, I think that rhetoric does serve the more straightforward purpose of influencing an audience. However, I think of rhetoric as layered. It is designed to create some sort of reaction from an undefined audience; this much seems clear. Then, however, a great many questions are raised. What is the rhetor’s exact purpose? Is it multifaceted? Why did he or she use a certain word when another could have been substituted? What historical context influenced the rhetor to make a particular argument? Why did the rhetor wear a suit instead of a polo? These questions are just the beginning of what could be investigated. So yes, I do think that rhetoric helps us find mysteries or recognize that previously ignored mysteries exist.

  2. meghanoneal says:

    Ever since I learned about the serious man and the rhetorical man, I’ve thought that the serious man is too good to be true. We are all rhetorical beings. Rhetoric is not confined to the stage or the classroom or any other settings we typical define as rhetorical. We use rhetoric on a daily basis whether we like it or not. The clothes we choose to wear in the morning represents us rhetorically. If we dress nicely, we are persuading our audience that we are professional, or clean, or good looking. If we dress in sweats, we are persuading our audience that we don’t care or we’re tired. When we engage in conversation, we become a rhetor and audience simultaneously. As we describe our weekend plans, we must persuade our “audience” that they are as super dope as we say they are. The “audience” uses the same tools we use in order to analyze the rhetoric. They decide if our plans are really as awesome as we say they are based on our ethos (have we lied to them before? Is there any reason they shouldn’t believe us?), logos (has our past actions reflected that of a crazy partier ready for the intense mountain rave this weekend, or do we seem more likely to be found in front of the tv all weekend? How much do we know about this rave?), and pathos (How is our attitude? Are we way stoked about this rave? Or are we dodging questions, failing to make eye contact, etc.). It’s not as strong of a rhetorical situation as more traditional situations, but the rhetoric is there nonetheless. We are all rhetoricians, and there is no escaping it. The Serious Man is a lost dream.

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