Just Some Thoughts about Rhetoric

[I wrote the following post on Thursday, May 12, 2011. I am reposting it here because it is easier to access on this blog.]

I’m writing this because I need an audience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to read it. Then again, if you do read it, I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts.

In the renaissance, students were educated in what was called the trivium–logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Rhetoric tended to focus on the study of formal patterns that we use in our speech. One example of a formal pattern, antimetabole, is the ABBA form in Kennedy’s statement, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (the “your country” is the A and the “you” is the B).

Renaissance philosophers believed that the rhetoricians studied and taught these formal patterns because you can throw a bunch of them in a speech and result in having an “eloquent” or “flowery” piece of work. But the rhetoricians themselves disagreed. For them, formal patterns like tropes and figures were not just ways of speaking, but they were also ways of thinking and ways of acting. In other words, they were ways of being.

Let me give a classic example: repetitio. Repetitio means to repeat something (a word, an idea, or a syllable). Here’s an example: I came, I saw, I conquered (some translations say “I overcame” instead of “I conquered”). Notice how the “I” is repeated. That’s repetitio. Simple enough. And by the way, since the “I” is repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, this case of repetitio is also an anaphora. An anaphora is a certain kind of repetitio that repeats something at the beginning of successive clauses. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Repeating something is an action, and by repeating, emphasis is placed on the thing that is repeated. The more something is repeated, the more it sticks in our minds. By repeating the “I,” in “I came, I saw, I conquered,” the speaker–remember, this is Caesar–is emphasizes his own actions. He is in every clause, and the emphasis is places on him as the conqueror. Furthermore–this is from Lanham–the “I came, I saw, I conquered” are all statements of similar length, as if Caesar means that conquering was as easy as coming and seeing. From this statement, Caesar reveals, somewhat, his self-pride. The focus of his statement is on him and his accomplishments.

Anyway, that’s why students in the Renaissance were taught tropes and figures. They believed that speaking was acting. Speaking reveals and betrays who we are. They believed, like Quintillian, that since “No man can speak well who is not good himself” (Institutio Oratorio II.xv.34), instruction in tropes and figures was also instruction in how to act well.
But wait. Can you really do this? Can you analyze someone’s speech patterns–or someone’s rhetoric–and discover something about their character? Renaissance rhetoricians would say yes, definitely. And I think Kenneth Burke would say yes, too.

For Kenneth Burke, we’re using rhetoric whenever we use symbols to “induce cooperation in beings that . . . respond to symbols” (A Rhetoric of Motives 43). Probably the most apparent way in which we use symbols is in language. Language is a system of symbols. The words, the sounds, the syntax and sentence patterns all have meaning for beings that speak the same language. We use symbols to communicate, and these symbols also have patterns. Some of these patterns happen because our languages have rules that other speakers of our language will expect us to follow. Other patterns we can create or mimic because we like the sound of them. There are still other forms that Burke says

we might call innate forms of the mind. These forms are the ‘potentiality for being interested by certain processes or arrangements,’ or the ‘feeling for such arrangements of subject-matter as produce crescendo, contrast, comparison, balance, repetition, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, magnification, series, and so on. (Counter-Statement 46)

In other words, there’s something within us human beings that craves a variety of patterns, and all forms of art–music, literature, paintings, movies–manifest these kinds of forms in some way. There are also many different kinds of crescendo, contrast, repetition, etc.

One reason why we watch the same movies over and over is because they have a variety of the kinds of patterns that we like. The same thing goes with our favorite music. Perhaps this can even explain why we spend time around certain kinds of people. Yes, we like them. But my question is, to what degree can we explain ourselves in terms of balance, repetition, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion, magnification, series, and so on”? Language, after all, isn’t the only symbol system we use. We also use things like body language, gestures, tonality, and attitude, personality, style, the list goes on.

We can use formal patterns strategically or subconsciously, but however we use them, do they really reveal–and betray–who we are? We use our symbols strategically or subconsciously to communicate to others what we want and what we are. Can’t we, then, also analyze the ways in which others use symbols to learn something about their character?

At least, that’s what I’m wondering about right now.

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