Chapter 6: Thinking Rhetorically

What is Rhetoric?

The definition of rhetoric commonly used is, “the art of persuasion.” Rhetoric is everywhere and can involve any kind of text including speech, written word, images, movies, documentaries, the news, etc. So it is important to understand how to navigate the murky waters of persuasion and rhetoric.

In my opinion, the OWL of Purdue does a great job of describing some of the intricacies of rhetoric in the following passage:

A Review of Rhetoric: From “Persuasion” to “Identification”

[…] Aristotle defined rhetoric as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle Rhetoric I.1.2, Kennedy 37). Since then, Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric has been reduced in many situations to mean simply “persuasion.” At its best, this simplification of rhetoric has led to a long tradition of people associating rhetoric with politicians, lawyers, or other occupations noted for persuasive speaking. At its worst, the simplification of rhetoric has led people to assume that rhetoric is merely something that manipulative people use to get what they want (usually regardless of moral or ethical concerns).

However, over the last century or so, the academic definition and use of “rhetoric” has evolved to include any situation in which people consciously communicate with each other. In brief, individual people tend to perceive and understand just about everything differently from one another (this difference varies to a lesser or greater degree depending on the situation, of course). This expanded perception has led a number of more contemporary rhetorical philosophers to suggest that rhetoric deals with more than just persuasion. Instead of just persuasion, rhetoric is the set of methods people use to identify with each other—to encourage each other to understand things from one another’s perspectives (see Burke 25). From interpersonal relationships to international peace treaties, the capacity to understand or modify another’s perspective is one of the most vital abilities that humans have. Hence, understanding rhetoric in terms of “identification” helps us better communicate and evaluate all such situations.

Why Do I Need to Think Rhetorically?

A rhetorical analysis asks you to, “examine the interactions between a text, an author, and an audience.” However, before you can begin the analysis you must first understand the historical context of the text and the rhetorical situation.

By historical context, I mean you must determine where in history the text is situated—was it written in the past five years? Ten? One hundred? Then you must think about how that might affect the information being delivered. Once you determine the historical-ness of the text, then you must determine the rhetorical situation (i.e. who, what, when, where, why). The following questions will help:

  • What is the topic of the text?
  • Who is the author? What are their credentials, what sort of experiences have they had? How do their credentials, or lack of, connect (or not) with the topic of the text?
  • Who is the target audience? Who did the author have in mind when they created the text?
  • Who is the un-intended audience? Are they related in anyway to the target audience?
  • What was the occasion or historical context? What was happening during the time period when the text was produced? Where was the text distributed or published?
  • How does the topic relate to the author, audience and occasion?
  • What is the author’s purpose? Why did they create the text?

You are already asked to find the context when writing your Reading Entries, but when writing a rhetorical analysis the rhetorical situation is even more important. Meaning can change based on when, where and why a text was produced and meaning can change depending on who reads the text.

An example of the rhetorical situation affecting the meaning associated with the text is noticeable when we think about the articles in The Engaged Reader. An important part of the rhetorical situation is audience and since many of the articles were not written with you (college student in introductory composition class) in mind; therefore, the meaning you create might be different from the meaning the author’s target audience creates. For example, we read “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?” and you were part of the target audience, so you connected with and understood the purpose behind the reading. However, if I asked you to read a text about higher education written in 1876, you would probably have a hard time understanding and connecting to it because you are not the target audience and the text’s context (or rhetorical situation) has changed.

Further, the occasion for writing might be very different, too. Many of the articles are at least five years old, or older, and this affects the references they make, the relevancy of the topic (think of the change regarding gay marriage in the past few years), and the historical moments that have taken place since. All of these components affect the way you, the reader, read a text and although you might not be a member of the target audience or were even alive during the production of the text, that does not mean that you cannot recognize rhetorical moves associated with these texts.

In This Chapter

This chapter includes information pertaining to audience and purpose because they are foundational aspects of the rhetorical situation.