chapter  2
13 Pages

Why Rhetoric?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a good place to start in an exploration of the etymology of rhetoric-which will, in turn, reveal aspects of the meaning of the term and its uses over the centuries. First, rhetoric is defined as “the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he [sic] may express himself with eloquence.” Immediately we can see that the traditional definition is inadequate to contemporary needs. Language, if associated with words only, is too narrow a term to compass the range of rhetoric in a multimodal world; persuasion and influence may be Aristotelian formulations of the function of rhetoric, but these intentions are only part of a wider, more generous conception of the art, which includes other functions of communication, such as informing, clarifying, and delighting (and a range of others). The body of rules indicates a form of rhetoric that is not appropriate to the present. What it suggests is a reified set of prescriptions in the form of a manual of discourse. Such formulations fossilize quickly, and as they become outdated, give rhetoric a bad name: that of a textbook, quasi-scientific approach. As we indicated as the end of the previous chapter, the metaphor that is more appropriate is that of light scaffolding rather than a body of rules. A speaker or writer might be better replaced by the notion of a “rhetor” or “maker” or “composer”—someone who has all the repertoire of resources available and who uses them to communicate a message to someone else (or to a group of people). The gendered “he” is clearly inappropriate, though it probably suggests not only convention but could refer to the supposedly male-centered nature of rhetoric as opposed to rhetorics, which embraces diversity. In this book, we use he/she or he and she alternately to indicate that the rhetor might be anyone-and we address issues of gender and rhetoric in the chapter on power. Finally, with eloquence does not do justice to the stylistic range that rhetoric offers. While eloquence might be appropriate in certain circumstances, as clarity would be in many more, the rhetorician is able to choose what degree of eloquence or clarity is

appropriate for the purpose in hand. In almost all respects, then, the key terms of the traditional definition are no longer fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.