Manifesto Revisited

Manifesto:  Why Study and Write Social Histories of Rhetoric?


            Social histories of rhetoric(s) study the use of rhetorical practices by communities and members of communities who haven’t been typically represented mainstream rhetorical history.  Working under this assumption, it is extremely important in my eyes to expand the rhetorical canon to account for a broader spectrum of ancient and contemporary cultural rhetorics, especially those practiced by underrepresented populations in unique, non-discursive forms that operate differently than traditional conceptions of discursive rhetorics. In order to make room for such practices, we need to “dig up” and study texts, artifacts, and discourse venues that represent ancient rhetorics practiced by various members of specific cultures on their own terms (Gaines).  We thus cannot assume that rhetoric in all ancient cultures is confined to discursive language use as traditionally conceived in classical Western rhetoric. Not only are a wide array of cultural rhetorics enacted through non-verbal mediums, such as songs, gestures, physical movements, attire, and spaces, cultural rhetorics employed in global settings often do not operate “logically” according to the Western, Greco-Roman, Enlightenment 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 conceptions to nearly all forms of symbolic communication has the potential to decenter the Greco-Roman tradition in the rhetorical canon.  This decentering is necessary because 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 am currently rethinking my argument for embracing transcultural and transhistorical research on both discursive and non-discursive rhetorical practices.  Formerly, I have strongly advocated for comparative work 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.  I have long recognized that 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). I understand, as 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). I consider this scholarship 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, I previously argued that 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.  I have argued that 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.

            I am currently rethinking this position because I am in the midst of what I call a paradigm shift in my own thinking.  As of late I have been very persuaded by the work of Vizenor, Powell, Beam and others who call our attention to the imperialist tendencies of our scholarly practices.  As Powell rights about the Academy’s role in the continuous frontier tale of “America” in her essay “Blood and Scholarship,”

The ‘rules’ of scholarly discourse—the legitimizing discourse of the discipline             of rhetoric and composition—require us to write ourselves into this frontier             story.  Scholars are to set forth on the fringes of ‘the unknown’ in order to                 stake out and define a piece of ‘unoccupied’ scholarly territory that, through             our skill at explicating and analyzing, will become our own scholarly             homestead, our area of concentration.  We are trained to identify our object of study in terms of its boundaries, its difference from other objects of study, and then to do everything within our power to bring that object into the realm of other ‘known’ objects.  In effect, we ‘civilize’ unruly topics.  And it is our distance from those topics, the fact of our displacement from the materiality of these areas of study, that lends legitimacy to our efforts (3-4).           

I think comparative analysis is part of the Academy’s imperialist practices.  I am currently then in the process of examining my desire and my inclination to compare.  Does comparative analysis have to be a means to transcultural understanding? How can we “bridge gaps of misunderstandings for the betterment, enrichment, and illumination of human conditions” without identifying common values and beliefs, ways of communicating those beliefs and values, and reasons for communicating those beliefs and values across differences?  I think social histories of cultural rhetorics have the potential to achieve these goals without employing comparative analysis….

            I am also growing fond of social history as a means to study contemporary cultural rhetorical practices because of its potential to affect real social change.  As I wrote in the first draft of my manifesto, by uncovering the rhetorical practices currently employed to marginalize communities, such as women marked as “Third World,” social historians of rhetorical practices can identify and challenge existing rhetorics that both explicitly and implicitly oppress and discriminate. Simultaneously, we can identify and support contemporary rhetorical practices employed by marginal communities to resist those oppressive and discriminatory rhetorics.  Through such investigations, we will 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.  We also will also deepen our understanding and learn from cultural rhetorical practices employed effectively to resist, challenge, and subvert oppressive powers.  Rather than just deepen our understanding, however, we can use our new “understandings” to help activate change on the ground if we devote some of our scholarly energy to work outside the academy.  I am currently working on a project, for instance, that analyzes the promotional materials of ProLiteracy, which through rhetorical analysis I have discovered to be so extremely problematic that they actually undermine the very women their Women in Literacy Initiative aims to “empower.”  This work has the potential to disrupt malevolent promotional practices but only if I both share my findings with the organization and offer solutions to counteract their current promotional strategies.  We need, or should I say, I need to focus my work on scholarship that has the potential to both create transcultural understanding and enact real change.

            Anyway, as idealistic as it sounds, 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. As our field takes the global turn, we have this responsibility; social history projects might be a useful vehicle for enacting this responsibility.


Works Cited:

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.     


Powell, Malea.  “Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood’s Dilemma.” Race, Rhetoric,             and Composition. Ed. Keith Gilyard. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook, 1999.


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


By symbol, I refer to Clifford Geertz’s definition:  “any object, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception” (“Religion” 5).


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