CCR 631: Contemporary Rhetorics · Rhetoric

Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, an Introduction

The ability to create a sense of community, and thus the possibility of social and political life as we know it, depends upon the human capacity for communication. Lucaites & Condit 1

This anthology introduction also seems appropriate to introduce (part of) what I’ll be blogging about this semester. One of the classes I’m taking is Contemporary Rhetorics, and we’re blogging our reading responses (predominantly) from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. So I’ll be working through a lot of material about what rhetoric is, what it has been & can be, and what some of the major current conversations are & where they seem to be going.

The introduction, like many, provides historical context that sets up the major content of the book: contemporary rhetorical issues since the 1960s. It’s not useful to completely recount this history here, in part because it’s a familiar history, but I do want to highlight some key themes based on time period. The intro focuses most on 1) ancient Greek & Rome, 2) 17th & 18th century Enlightenment, 3) the early-mid 20th century, and 4) the late 20th century.

Different rhetorical time periods & their values: ancient Greek & Rome, 17th & 18th CE Enlightenment, 20th CE pedagogy, and 1960s social theory
A diagram of the different “periods” of rhetoric & their values.

Rhetoric cycles depending on shifting cultural values. The classical Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition that we disciplinarily uphold, for example, emphasized the subjectivity of public discourse. It was intended to sway people, create particular types of meaning, and create a collective identity and action (Lucaites & Condit 3). That is, rhetoric was contextual. This fell out of favor with the Enlightenment, though, and rhetoric was suppressed and surpassed by reason. 17th and 18th century values included modernism, universality, and objectivity, which left little room for the subjectivity of rhetoric. During this time, then, there was minimal development of new rhetorical theories, which carried through to the 20th century where rhetoric spread from an area of interest in communication studies to English, philosophy, economics, law, and political science departments. And because there was a lack of theory, 20th century rhetoric was predominantly pedagogical–a “historical examination of classical and civic humanist models of persuasion and governance” (7). Here, it was more important to create effective citizen-speakers (via Quintilian’s “good man”) than to create new rhetorical theory.

All of this held until dissatisfaction in the 1960s. Lucaites & Condit describe this exigency as two-fold: First, TV as a form of mass media altered what constituted “public” discourse. Second, grassroots social movements (civil rights, student/antiwar, women’s liberation) questioned the values and relevance of classical rhetoric and communication “for the increasingly vocal, oppositional, and marginalized groups concerned to infiltrate and overturn what they perceived as rigid social and political hierarchies and hegemonies” (8). That is, there was a growing interest in (and by) the people for whom classical rhetoric didn’t account, and an interest in the relationships between rhetoric and social theory emerged.

With this new interest, there were new theoretical questions to be answered:

  1. What is the character of public morality?
  2. What is rhetoric’s relationship to truth?
  3. “To what extent is rhetoric bound to its context, and what is a context anyway?”
  4. “What is the relationship between rhetoric and social change?” (9)

With these new interests and theoretical questions, rhetoric shifted from modernism to postmodernism, from universal (back) to local and contextual knowledge:

[R]hetoric was not a practice that culminated in “the amassing of objective knowledge or the generation of purely abstract theory,” but was rather a “performance” that needed to be interpreted and evaluated in particular, interested local contexts. 12

This history, highlighted in the above diagram, is cyclical. In ancient Greece & Rome, rhetoric was highly contextual, but that was minimized until the 20th century saw a renewed focus on local, particular contexts. I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary rhetoric has the same focuses as ancient rhetoric, but it would be foolish to say that one hasn’t influenced the other and that there are similarities in terms of values: giving “everyone” the right to speak, creating a shared public/community, practicing effective communication.

It’s interesting to think about these values: Which values persisted and which were completely (or partially) discarded, and why? For example, I feel like modernism is often seen as a dirty word when talking about rhetoric, favored perhaps for postmodernism. At the same time, a focus on science & objectivity is similar to the field’s desires for RAD (replicable, aggregable, data-supported) research & quantitative research methods. And there are still tensions between whether rhetoric should be more concerned with theory or pedagogy.

And finally, returning to the opening quotation, I’m drawn to the language of defining rhetoric & how we it will be defined over the course of the semester. I’m interested in this language of ability & capacity and the many different ways that we can communicate beyond speaking and writing–What happens, for example, when we lose (or lack) the human capacity for communication? When we rely on technology or tech-assisted communication? Or, perhaps more broadly and inclusively, what happens when someone takes away our power to communicate?

Do we lose rhetorical agency?


Lucaites, John Louis, and Celeste Michelle Condit. “Introduction.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Ed. John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit, and Sally Caudill. New York: The Guilford Press, 1999. 1-19. Print.


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