Manifesto for Social Histories of Rhetoric

Manifesto: Why Study and Write Social Histories of Rhetoric?”

If we define social histories as the histories of everyday lives which haven’t been typically represented in mainstream histories, then I am assuming social histories of rhetoric(s) pertains to the use of rhetorical practices by communities and members of communities who haven’t been typically represented in mainstream rhetorical history. Working under this assumption, it is extremely important in my eyes to complicate and expand the ancient rhetorical canon beyond the traditional Greco-Roman discursive framework to include rhetorical practices employed by various members of the many diverse ancient communities from around the world, many of which exist and operate outside traditional conceptions of discursive rhetorics. We need, in other words, to open the canon of ancient rhetoric to body of texts, artifacts, and discourse venues that more accurately represents ancient rhetorics practiced by various members of specific cultures (Gaines). In order to open the canon, we must not assume that rhetoric in all ancient cultures is confined to discursive language use as traditionally conceived in classical Western rhetoric. Not only do members of ancient cultures enact rhetoric through non-verbal mediums, such as songs, gestures, physical movements, attire, and spaces, rhetoric employed in global settings often does not operate logically according to the Western Greco-Roman mindset.

In order to uncover social histories of non-discursive rhetorical practices, we must first expand the scope of rhetoric beyond its traditionally conceived discursive framework. As James Fredal convincingly argues, rhetoric should encompass the “manipulation of signs in any symbolic system, through any medium, capable of communicating meaning and value” (“Seeing” 183). Expanding the conception of rhetoric beyond ancient Western conception to nearly all forms of symbolic communication threatens to dismantle the traditional Greco-Roman framework as the foundation of the rhetorical canon. Yet, reasoned persuasion in the Aristotelian rhetorical sense leaves little room for oral or written texts that have their own unique rhetorical framework as well as the non-discursive symbols that behave rhetorically in many ancient (and contemporary) cultures. Thus, if social historians of ancient rhetoric truly want to investigate rhetorical practices beyond the Western canon on their own terms, social historians must not only be open to unique rhetorical frameworks but also create space within the scope of rhetoric to include non-discursive modes of communication that do not operate according to western logic and traditional western forms of communication. A move toward the non-discursive in rhetorical criticism would help us better understand the full spectrum of rhetorical transactions made by various people in various cultures at various points in their histories—a recommendation made by rhetorical scholars at the well-known Wingspread Conference back in 1970 (Ochs 2). This movement toward non-discursivity is especially important because we must begin to embrace cultural rhetorics from perspectives that do not reify Greco-Roman classical rhetoric as the apex in the development of ancient rhetorical systems (Lipson and Binkley 2). Excavating global, non-discursive rhetorics also exposes and challenges the tendency of canonized Western rhetoric to normalize as rhetoric the rhetorical system of one particular western culture” (Lipson and Binkley 2).

I also strongly advocate for embracing transcultural and transhistorical research on both discursive and non-discursive rhetorical practices because of its potential to bridge the polarized thinking concerning western/non-western and literate/non-literate societies that still pervades our field, despite recent efforts to complicate this way of thinking. As Robert Oliver makes clear in his original call for scholars to study “non-western” rhetorics that received harsh criticism back in 1961, “There is not just one rhetoric—instead, there are many rhetorics…and many different modes of thinking, many different standards of value, many different ways in which influence must be exerted if it is to be effective” (qtd. in Lu 113). Lois Agnew points out that the last generation of historians took a major step in recognizing that such rhetorical differences exist amongst various cultures and various members within those cultures, and that there is a significant “value in conceptions of language that are different from those we have inherited through the western rhetorical tradition” (Interview). This scholarship is vital; we need to be aware of these differences in order not to hold prejudices against other cultures and develop an appreciation for cultural rhetorics different from our own. Yet by solely focusing on rhetorical differences, we often miss the opportunity to locate similarities in the ways and reasons why certain members of certain cultures communicate rhetorically—similarities that can bridge the hierarchical thinking patterns that cloud our rhetorical gaze. Our goal should not be to develop a “General Theory” of rhetoric applicable to all cultures, as Kennedy attempts to do in Comparative Rhetoric. Rather, as Xing Lu has argued, our goal should be to “bridge gaps of misunderstandings for the betterment, enrichment, and illumination of human conditions” (“Studies and Development” 115). By identifying common values and beliefs, ways of communicating those beliefs and values, and reasons for communicating those beliefs and values across differences, social historians of rhetoric can facilitate transcultural and transhistorical understanding of how and why people in ancient cultures communicate rhetorically.

Our concern should not just focus on ancient rhetorical practices, however. We must also turn our rhetorical gaze to rhetorical practices enacted by various underepresented members of modern cultures for a wide range of purposes. As our field takes the global turn, we especially have the responsibility to deepen our understanding of how rhetoric operates beyond our own borders and contributes to the unequal labor and cultural dynamics at work in our increasingly globalized world. Because women and their families are especially susceptible to the unequal labor and cultural dynamics, we have the opportunity to put our scholarship into direct actions that improve the lives of women and their families. This is not to say I am advocating for rhetorical scholars in western settings to create a hero narrative for themselves and our discipline by “rescuing” those in need. However, rhetoricians aimed at uncovering the rhetorical practices of people who have been marginalized in historical and contemporary rhetorical studies can use our scholarship to affect real change. Peter Stearns claims history has the potential to explain and understand change in human behavior (“Why Study History” 2). I would argue that history, especially rhetorical history, also has the potential to create social change. By uncovering the rhetorical practices historically employed to marginalize communities such as women marked as “Third World,” social historians of rhetorical practices can identify and challenge contemporary rhetorics that are both explicitly and implicitly oppressive and discriminatory. Simultaneously, we can identify and support contemporary rhetorical practices employed by marginal communities to resist those oppressive and discriminatory rhetorics. In all of these ways, social historians focusing on rhetorical practices in the global world, can use our scholarship to not only create a more diverse and equitable discipline, we can also play an important role in creating a safer and more equitable globalized world.

Works Cited:

Agnew, Lois. “Response to Haskins.” Personal Email. June 2007.

Fredal, James. “Seeing Ancient Rhetoric, Easily at a Glance.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly. Vol. 36 (2006), pp. 181-189.

Gaines, Robert N. “De-Canonizing Ancient Rhetoric.” The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Richard Graff, Arthur E. Walzer, and Janet M. Atwill. New York: State University of New York Press, 2005. 61-73.

Lipson, Carol and Roberta A. Binkley. Eds. Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Lu, Xing. “Studies and Development of Comparative Rhetorics in the U.S.A.: Chinese and Western rhetoric in Focus.” China Media Research. 2 (2), 2006, pp. 112-116.

Ochs, Donovan J. Consolatory Rhetoric: Grief, Symbol, and Ritual in the Greco-Roman Era. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Stearns, Peter N. “Why Study History?” American Historical Association. 1998. August 30 2007.

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1 Comment

Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam

One response to “Manifesto for Social Histories of Rhetoric

  1. Eileen E. Schell

    Great to be back on your blog, again! I like the way you argue for the need for non-discursive histories of ancient rhetorics and that you extend your call to that of contemporary rhetorics. You demonstrate a growing knowledge of the revisionary work in comparative rhetorics that tries to avoid using the Western frameworks of rhetoric as the main basis for comparison.

    One question I have as I read is the way in which histories of rhetoric create social change? I like the radical potential in that claim, but do histories of rhetoric create social change or do they change the way we think about human behavior and interpret and re-interpret past events or both? I suspect there is a both/and movement here, and I wonder if the potential for social change lies mostly in the “terms of representation.” If we look at histories differently, we begin to look at the world differently, adjusting our lenses, so to speak, to notice different narratives, locations, and communities.

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