Monday, May 02, 2005

On defining rhetoric at family reunions and other awkward occasions

This is not quite in response to a request by Paul Stob at the Blogora for a "quick" definition of rhetoric for use at family-type gatherings:

When I went to my first Rhetoric Society of America conference in 1998 they were selling a cool T-shirt with the heading "What is rhetoric, anyway?", followed by a bunch of definitions on the back, including Aristotle's "the faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion", I. A. Richards's "the study of misunderstanding and its remedies", George Campbell's "that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end", and Kenneth Burke's "[t]he use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols", among others. I wore this T-shirt with pride and would point to the back of it whenever someone asked me what I was studying. (To be honest, it also helped me define for myself exactly what it was I was supposed to be studying. And to be honest, I think the definitions helped me a lot more than they helped those asking me what rhetoric is.)

Unfortunately, after many washings, the definitions of rhetoric faded away and in the end, I was left with a T-shirt that only asked, "What is rhetoric, anyway?" Oddly appropriate that all the definitions of rhetoric would self-destruct like that, leaving me again to my own devices.

[Cross-posted as a comment to the Blogora]


Anonymous said...

Hilarious and fitting, indeed! Remember that the text deconstructs itself! All rhetoric is dust in the wind? All rhetoric is flux--a Heraclitusian perspective?

I don't have much to rival your experience, Jon, except for my sweatshirt that reads "Eschew Obfuscation." When esteemed Kenneth Burke scholar and one of my mentors, Dave Blakesley, saw that shirt the first time, he thought for the first few seconds it said something in Polish! --ERG

Jonathan Benda said...

Commenting on the Blogora posting of this, John Lucaites wondered if there was an allegory in my story. I guess if you see an allegory, then there is one. Maybe rhetoric is flux. Or maybe my T-shirt (or, actually, it was the washing machine) was trying to tell me to find my own definition rather than relying on others' definitions... (This is getting a little ridiculous.)

I remember "Eschew Obfuscation." Did I ever tell you about my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Beck, who punished us for talking in class by making us write a sentence 10 times? Doesn't sound like a lot of times, but the sentence was (I still remember), "It is exceedingly disrespectful to disregard a teacher's request for verbal non-communication." Talk about obfuscation!