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Excerpts from Pierre Maranda: An epistemological query


“There is […] a cline of kinds and modes of rhetoric that traverse realities ranging from concrete speech events through text analysis to virtual worlds”  Strecker, Meyer, and Tyler (2000 : 6).


This short note touches on three topics that seem to me fundamental to Rhetoric Culture Theory with respect to the “cline of kinds and modes of rhetoric”.  The first topic concerns the minimal audience of a speech; the second, the minimal speech or rhetorical utterance, and the third one, the use of rhetoric by non-human animals.


1          MINIMAL AUDIENCES       


What is the minimal audience of a speech ?  Oneself ?  Are inner speech, and voiced talk to oneself, instances of rhetoric ?  Take Baudelaire’s first line of his famous poem


            Sois sage, ô ma douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.

            Tu réclamais le soir, il descend, le voici.


            Be good, my pain, and remain more quiet

            You were calling for evening, it descends, here it is.


When addressing oneself in the absence of any interlocutor one may use all sorts of rhetorical modus loquendi: exhortation, reprimand, admonishment, self-praise, self-pity, compassion, etc. 

--“What a fool I am making of myself !”  or

--“Wow !  Great !  I did it at last !”

The speaker and the hearer of such utterances -- the orator and the audience -- are the one and same person. 


And how should we categorize as audience the pet its master addresses in a variety of different terms, from very affectionate to severe, stern scolding ?  Or the sweet, encouraging words, one tells one’s house or garden plants ?


And what of people talking (most often in harsh short sentences) to their vacuum cleaners, to their computers and other appliances ?  Of course, machines – contrary to living organisms -- are deaf, inert audiences that there is no point in trying to convince.  Such buzz words then function as a défoulement resource in which the addressee acts, actually, as a sounding board on which utterances bounce back on the speaker himself.


There is thus a full scale of hearers, from the most responding ones (humans) to the most indifferent ones (machines).  Does RTC include the whole range of such audiences ?





Should we consider as rhetorical statements like “Hey you there !”,  or “Don’t touch that !”,  or “Stop crying !”, and such other exclamations or commands ?  And how about a glacial look, or giving the finger,  or a slap on the face ?


See the definition of rhetoric given in the OED – emphasis added --: “The art of using language so as to persuade or influence others. …(a) The expressive action of the body in speaking, (b) the persuasiveness of looks or acts”.  What stand on or approach to does RTC take about such minimal speech acts ?





People talk to their pets.  But pets can also take the initiative of rhetorical admonitions as in the case I shall describe briefly below.  But first, I wish to submit a few general  thoughts on the use of rhetoric by non-human animals.  Do such considerations question some epistemological foundations of RCT ? 


I phrase my point in terms of the non tropical use of non-human  «languages», languages, non-verbal or vocal, used by several animal species, both mammals and non-mammals, to persuade or influence other animals both of the same species and of other species when, for ex., competing for niches.  And also for communicating with humans.


Everyone is familiar with the way that animals – cats or dogs or bears to mention only those species – delimit the perimeters of their territories, for instance with urine.  Many species code their statements in an olfactory language, a code that they are expert in handling.  They thus influence the behavior of competitors, stating rights that they will defend if needed by other statements such as hissing, barking, fighting, etc.




Male BIRDS OF PARADISE use “multimedia” techniques in their courting songs and dances in order to compete in attracting females.  Having “dressed up” in their best plumages, they trim the branches of trees, removing leaves that obstruct sunshine keeping their bright colors in the shade.  They are then ready to utter their theatrical discourses consisting of display calls while jumping from branch to branch and opening and closing their wings to alternately show and hide their shining chests.  Females will then inspect each male closely, especially their wing pits, and opt for one male preferably to another.


Are such communication strategies instances of rhetorical discourse ?  Each male’s performance aims indeed at influencing the choice of the females, at persuading them to select him.  Is that very different from men cruising women in bars or other contexts ?


No need to call here on the very large literature on the language of apes and monkeys nor on the language, very elaborate, of dolphins (with their triple resonance system of emissions).  I shall make my point with the single example of a cat, knowing that it will evoke “resonance” in readers who have house pets.




My son and his girl friend have had a cat for some years.  They all get along well, having established a stable relationship.  The cat is well behaved, has regular, predictable, habits, and conforms to the routines conveniently defined by his masters.  Usually, when going away for a relatively long period of time, they either left the cat with a friend who took care of it, or else they had someone move in and live in their apartment during their absence.  Upon their return the cat greeted them happily, rubbing itself against their legs, jumping in their lap, purring, and giving other signs of satisfaction to see them again.


Once, however, they had to leave for several days without being able to find a cat-sitter.  They left plenty of food for their cat, with an adequate supply of water, some toys, etc.  When they returned to their apartment the cat first gave a display of complete indifference and walked away in another room.  My son and his girl friend took stock of this fist message and thought he would come back to them as usual after a bout of sulkiness.  The girl went to their bedroom to make a fresh bed.  She had barely completed the operation that the cat showed up and jumped on the bed.  Sitting in the middle of the clean sheets and locking eyes with her, he defecated profusely  -- a statement contrasting strongly with his regular use of his litter.


Then, apparently pleased with himself, he jumped down from the bed walked slowly away.  The cat had made his point that can be glossed as : “You neglected me when you went away so ‘You made me shit!’”.


Isn’t that rhetoric ?  It is surely a non-verbal communication act that emitted a message of discontent as clear as a verbal one.  A cat previously so tame, so gentle, so well-behaved chose to express himself by deliberately infringing the rule that he had always dutifully observed of using his litter.  He got his message across, a strong message of blame that reprimanded his masters for having failed to take proper care of him when going away.   Isn’t that a rhetorical statement, through  retaliation, and at the same time a warning, similar, mutatis mutandis, to vengeful acts by humans that deem to have been molested ?




Along the lines sketched above, my query bears on the relation of feed-backing and feed-forwarding between rhetoric and culture.  First, as far as a minimal audience goes, one learns to speak to oneself or even to inert objects through one’s culturally provided language – lexicon and semantic grammar alike.  And that kind of rhetorical minimal hearers seems to be an anthropological universal ; all over the world people talk to themselves and to their tools or to the sea or to the rain, etc.  This query bears therefore on the tack RCT takes to deal with minimal audiences.


My second query has to do with minimal speech acts.  Here again we have a cultural universal. Exclamations, one-word orders or admonitions or briefings, etc., work as condensed developments  A single word may pack – and have as much or even more power than -- a whole speech   What steps does RTC take to look into such minimal utterances, be they targeting humans, oneself, or inert things ?


Finally, my third and last query concerns  the relation between culture and rhetoric.  Strecker, Meyer and Tyler state “Rhetoric Culture Theory explores how rhetoric is founded in culture, and how culture is founded in rhetoric” (2000 : 5).  And they add “If culture is ubiquitous so is rhetoric […] What we implicate by the concept of rhetoric culture is just this mutuality of rhetoric and culture” (2000 : 6).  


But are we still facing the same sort of mutuality when the interlocutors are no longer humans, viz., when birds, dogs or cats influence each other’s behavior through their own kind of rhetoric ?  And what of animals – viz., a cat – using non-verbal rhetoric to chastise my son and his girl friend ?  Does animal rhetoric imply that non-human animals also have culture ?  If so should RCT substantiate the “mutuality of rhetoric and culture” for them as well as for human animals ?

Or is it that animal rhetoric is a misnomer ?


I began this inquisitive note with a quote that I repeat here : “There is […] a cline of kinds and modes of rhetoric that traverse realities ranging from concrete speech events through text analysis to virtual worlds”  Strecker, Meyer, and Tyler (2000 : 6).  I conclude by asking whether the “cline” of “kinds” and “modes” include minimal audiences as well as minimal speech acts ?  And should one add “non-human living organisms” before or after “virtual worlds” ?



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