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.
The OWL of Purdue section “A Review of Rhetoric: From ‘Persuasion’ to ‘Identification” clearly describes some of the intricacies of rhetoric in the following passage:
[…] 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.
To locate a text’s historical context, you must determine where in history the text is situated—was it written in the past five years? Ten? One hundred? You should think about how that might affect the information being delivered. Once you determine the background of the text, you should determine the rhetorical situation (i.e. who, what, when, where, why). The following questions may help:
- What is the topic of the text?
- Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials, what sort of experiences has he or she had? How do his or her 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 he or she created the text?
- Who is the unintended audience? Are they related in anyway to the target audience?
- What was the occasion, historical context, or setting? 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 he or she create the text?
- In what medium was the text originally produced?
Meaning can change based on when, where, and why a text was produced and meaning can change depending on who reads the text. Rhetorical situations affect the meaning of a text because it may have been written for a specific audience, in a specific place, and during a specific time. An important part of the rhetorical situation is audience and since many of the articles were not written with you, a college student in a college writing class, in mind, the meaning you interpret or recognize might be different from the author’s original target audience. For example, if you read an article about higher education written in 2016, then you, the reader, are connected with and understand the context of the topic. However, if you were asked 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. Articles or scholarly works that are at least five years old or older, may include out of date references and may not represent relevant or accurate information (e.g. think of the change regarding gay marriage in the past few years). Older works require that you investigate significant historical moments or changes that have occurred since the writing of text.
Targeted audience, occasion, and the date, site, and medium of publication will all affect the way you, the reader, read a text. Therefore, it is your duty as a thoughtful reader to research these aspects in order to fully understand and conceptualize the text’s rhetorical situation. Furthermore, even though you might not be a member of the targeted audience or perhaps might not have even been alive during the production of a text, that does not mean that you cannot recognize rhetorical moves within it. We will examine the aspects of the rhetorical situation in the following section.