We all have different conceptions of what rhetoric is, why it matters, and what it can do for us and for others. Part I of Contemporary Rhetorical Theory attempts to move away from totalizing definitions of what rhetoric is and move toward proactive understandings of what it can be. To continue some of the questions raised in the introduction (about creating a sense of community), looking at these readings through a lens of praxis and community seems fruitful for understanding rhetoric from its traditional civic function (and its possibilities).
In “Practicing the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention,” Farrell rereads Aristotle in order to suggest that rhetoric is an “ethical practice” that moves beyond individual understanding and benefit and is best measured by “phronesis, or practical wisdom, in dealing with civic matters” (20). Such an understanding positions rhetoric as a vital function of communal decision-making and forming collective identity. This sets up two important themes: that of praxis and community.
According to Farrell, there are two types of practice: first, the Aristotelian sense of praxis, and, second, a Marxist form of practice. The classical sense is equated with mastery and excellence and “stresses its unity and coherence as a form of thoughtful action” (Farrell 79). The more radical understandings posits practice as “the concrete embodiment of existent social forces, understood as a mode of production” (79). These two definitions, then, are divided by action and production.
This distinction also concerns Leff who, in “The Habitation of Rhetoric,” focuses on praxis in terms of the split between action and production. In particular, Leff argues that rhetoric in an active process that “embeds itself in and responds to specific, public circumstances” (Leff 57, emphasis added). This is not only an interesting account of rhetorical practice but also rhetoric’s role in forming communal identity. Leff continues by discussing the role of decorum in mediating between product and process, which is interesting because it positions decorum—or propriety—as pure process that, like rhetoric, “finds its habitation only in the particular” (62). That is, though rhetoric (or decorum) may exist as universal action, it is made (and makes) only when situated in particular spaces, communities. Perhaps here it’s useful to go back to Farrell’s address of community.
Importantly, Farrell’s situates his definition of rhetoric within a civic context, stating that “rhetoric is an art of practice to be developed in real-life settings, where matters are in dispute and there are no fixed or final criteria for judgment” (Farrell 82). Many of these real-life settings have newly emerged and allow people more opportunities to engage—with issues, with each other— whether formally or informally. These places constitute civic forums, any spaces that can serve as a “recurring ‘gathering place’ for discourse” (88). This opening, then, creates (literal and symbolic) space for historically marginalized and dissonant voices. At the core of the forum is a “disturbance, an issue or contested perspective” (90) that the community rallies around. And, like any rhetorical situation, the forum has particular rules (who can speak, what can be spoken) that are deemed appropriate.
Hariman is also concerned with these issues of appropriateness and community in “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory,” though he approaches them from how rhetoric has historically been marginalized from other discourses. Very importantly, though, he introduces the concept of center/margin. That is, any society creates (whether physically or symbolically) a center and periphery, which are mutually constructed spaces. That is, for a center to exist, there must be a margin (perhaps a duh moment for anyone who has studied Critical Race Theory, Gender Theory, Disability Theory, etc.). This is an extremely important point for thinking about power hierarchies:
Social marginality is the zone of what is recognizable as pertaining to one’s identity, but is undesirable. The margin of the society contains what one is but should not be, and the disciplining of the individual to avoid the margin is the means by which one is socialized. 41
This obviously has implications that extent beyond thinking of rhetoric as a marginalized discourse. Any thing (or one) that exists within the margins represents society’s undesirables—that which exists beyond a cultural set of “agreed upon” norms.
Establishing societal standards is necessary for understanding rhetoric’s power within communities and coincides nicely with understanding culturally and contextually-dependent notions of appropriateness. One of Farrell’s most important takeaways for me is that we shouldn’t presuppose the appropriate; instead, “rhetorical practice enacts the norms of propriety collaboratively with interested collective others” (89). That is, norms aren’t created until people in particular places and contexts agree upon them—an idea that we can extend to rhetoric. It is perhaps this point, in fact, that I think drives the exigency of Sutton’s argument. Woman (and thus the body and thus rhetoric) have been suppressed and “tamed” because there have not always been agreed-upon conditions for what constitutes appropriateness. That is, women do not have the same power in the community that Sutton describes because they were not an equal part of that communal decision making.
What interests me most about these different themes is their applicability to and intersections with disability rhetorics—how disability is portrayed within everyday contexts, how disability is rhetorically constructed, how disabled people create identities and form communities. If we think of rhetoric as an ethical practice concerned with civic matters (as Farrell suggests), for example, it is tied to how disability identity is constructed and how (global and local) communities are formed. If we also think of disability as literally within the margins of society, it is easy to imagine how disability rhetoric would also occupy marginalized discourse.
But perhaps most interesting as a thread between these readings, and connected to disability rhetoric, is appropriateness. These readings all address the importance of appropriate context—principles of decorum that decide who gets to speak in particular conditions about particular topics. Borrowing from critical theorist Nancy Fraser, Michael Berube defines “participatory parity” as the “imperative that a democratic state should actively foster the abilities of its citizens to participate in the life of the polity as equals” (56). This notion positions people of all abilities within the community as equally able and worthy of participation. Disability studies is frequently concerned with issues of citizenship because there are still constraints on who is allowed to speak publically and how one must speak in order to be heard, which speaks quite clearly to issues of appropriateness and community building.
A focus on community necessarily involves a discussion about who constitutes the community, something I felt that the readings didn’t address—for example, how do we build rhetorical communities when groups are marginalized and excluded from our “real-life” communities? Who decides who gets to speak (for whom) in these communities? And perhaps something the readings couldn’t account for because of their date of publication, how can digital spaces contribute to our understandings of rhetorical practice, community, and center/periphery?
Farrell, Thomas. “Practicing the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention.” 79-100.
Hariman, Robert. “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory.” 35-51.
Leff, Michael. “The Habitation of Rhetoric.” 52-64.
Sutton, Jane. “The Taming of Polos/Polis: Rhetoric as an Achievement Without Woman.” 101-126.