What is Rhetoric Culture Theory?
‘Rhetoric Culture’ was first coined by Tyler and Strecker as the title for a workshop at the 5th Biennial Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists held in Frankfurt/Main 4th - 7th September 1998. The conference was devoted to The Politics of Anthropology. Conditions for Thought and Practice, and the workshop on Rhetoric Culture was meant to help overcome the state of limbo in which cognitive, symbolic, dialogic, and all sorts of discursive anthropologies have left us. Its was to provide a new - or rather very old - direction and sense of relevance to the study of culture by retrieving, exploring and making full use of the ancient insight that just as rhetoric is founded in culture, culture is founded in rhetoric. The idea, that such a project might be possible and that it was time to establish a forum where the interaction between rhetoric and culture could be discussed, had in turn grown out of work begun by Tyler in The Said and the Unsaid (1978) and Strecker in The Social Practice of Symbolization (1988).
In a world whose imaginative processes and social structures are seemingly undergoing dramatic reconfiguration brought about by the technology of the internet and other media, it may seem anachronistic to look for inspiration in rhetoric which many would not hesitate to call antiquated, even discredited. These new technologies of communication have, however, merely brought problems of social order into sharper focus, without being able to provide solutions to the problems they so clearly moot. It is this failure of auto-critique that impels us to refract these new technologies through the prisms of rhetoric, for rhetoric is not constrained by the structure or pre-requisites of any single culture or technological complex and thus holds out the possibility of a contemporary discussion that is not informed and pre-determined at the outset by the structure of technology.
Echoes from the Past
It will be important for the Rhetoric Culture Project to carefully study the past and see what can be learnt from earlier theories of culture. We call this section ‘echoes from the past’ in order to indicate that such a study has not yet begun and that at the present moment we only want to mention some of the most prominent voices which ‘echo’ in our minds. Our reminders are extremely short and do not quote authors in their original language. The translation of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s texts is our own.
The maxims which Ptahhotep, vizier of the pharao Djedkare-Isesi (5th dynasty) of the Egyptian Older Kingdom (2350 B.C.) formulated, suggest that already the ancient Egyptians knew rhetoric to be a powerful tool for confronting and bending the will of others and for defining and transforming social situations. The following maxim shows how even silence may ‘speak’ and be part of such rhetoric. It says: “If you meet a disputant in action, a powerful man, superior to you, fold your arms, bend your back, to flout him will not make him agree with you. Make little of the evil speech by not opposing him while he is in action; He will be called an ignoramus, your self-control will match his pile (of words)” (Lichtheim 1975 I:63).
We like to add here the words of an old sage from Hamar (southern Ethiopia). These words were told to us recently, but are based on ancient traditions of thought which, for all we know, may well go back to the time of Ptahhotep, or even before him. When asked to give an account of the history of his country, Baldambe (‘Father of the Dark Brown Cow’) began with the following reflections which clearly show an understanding of the rhetorical nature of culture:
“Well, one says what one knows. What one doesn't know one can't tell. He who tells one something is the father. The one who speaks to the children, it is the mother. Some have a father who dies already when he or she is still a child but then there is still the mother and it will be she who instructs the children. The mother has earlier on heard the word of the fathers. The fathers have said this and that. My father too has told me many things a long while ago. Parents talk to their children. In this way they bring up the children.
But if the child doesn't listen, then the father and the mother will neglect it and it will not grow up. It will not find anything. It will not collect anything. It will not have children and will not marry any woman. ‘Look, earlier this child didn't listen to the word of the fathers and of the mothers. It didn't listen to the word of the mother's brother nor to that of the age mates of its father’. In this way children grow up. Barjo (fortune) sits on their shoulders and closes or opens their ears. These things are told to the children so that they know that he who doesn't listen to the word of the fathers will become a thief and will die through the words of a thief and will become impoverished through the words of a thief. These are the teachings of the age-mates” (Strecker, unpublished manuscript).
As is well known, the Sophists of ancient Greece held speech to be “a mighty ruler who almost without effort performs godlike deeds”, and “reduces fear, takes away pain, brings joy and enhances compassion” (Gorgias Eulog. Hel. 11,8; 427 B.C.). The Sophists thus figure prominently among the ancestors of Rhetoric Culture Theory, just as Isokrates (436-383) whose outline of the power of persuasion reads almost like a general introduction to Rhetoric Culture Theory even today. Brian Vickers in his seminal book In Defense of Rhetoric (1988) was the first to re-direct our attention to Isokrates quoting him as follows:
“In most of our abilities we differ not at all from the animals; we are in fact behind many in swiftness and strength and other resources. But because there is born in us the power to persuade each other and to show ourselves whatever we wish, we not only have escaped from living as brutes, but also by coming together have founded cities and set up laws and invented arts, and speech has helped us attain practically all of the things we have devised. For it is speech that has made laws about justice and injustice and honour and disgrace, without which provisions we should not be able to live together. By speech we refute the wicked and praise the good. By speech we educate the ignorant and inform the wise” (Isocrates 1928: 326).
Roman rhetoric also provides well known examples of early Rhetoric Culture Theory . Cicero and Quintilian (Cicero, de orat., 1.8.30-4; Quintilian, Inst. Orat. II, 16, 9-10) both agreed that rhetoric, and only rhetoric, had the power to produce and reproduce culture and society. Only rhetoric could create a sense of community, conjure a common history and articulate the common values and sentiments on which the communitas could be built.
In the wake of the Renaissance Giambatista Vico fought a spirited fight against Cartesian philosophy, arguing that man in truth could only fully understand what he had created himself, that is culture. In his “Principles of a New Science concerning the Nature of the Nations” (1725) he developed a theory of how the history of culture was based on rhetorical imagination. Culture, he said, was created poetically, in fact it was like a large extended metaphor developed by our faculty for, and obsession with, analogical thinking, like in the following example, where, in the chapter on ‘Poetic Economy’, he illustrates the advent of cultivation:
“539. Hereupon, by a fine natural and necessary metaphor, they called the ears of grain golden apples, transferring the idea of the apples which are fruits of nature gathered in summer, to the ears of grain which human industry gathers likewise in summer. 540. (...) And, in other metaphors both beautiful and necessary, they imagined the earth in the aspect of a great dragon, covered with scales and spines (the thorns and briers), bearing wings (for the lands belonging to the heroes), always awake and vigilant (thickly grown in every direction)” (1961:145-46).
Of all the echoes that reach us from the past, the voice of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1776-1835) is here probably the most important. Like Giambattista Vico, he argued against Cartesian indifference to language and against the Cartesian formula of 'ratio=logos minus oratio'. In an attempt to re-connect philology and philosophy as in classical Greek tradition, where rhetoric had been central to the study of ‘logos', von Humboldt emphasized the ontological unity of 'oratio' and 'ratio' in 'logos' and insisted that reason was inseparable from language, thought inseparable from speech.
The 'I', he said, critically depends on the 'You'. It needs the 'You' whose power of thought radiates back to the 'I', and vice versa. As the 'I' and the 'You' engage in discourse, their very use of language presumes the other's power of thought. It presumes, that the 'You' will try to understand the 'I' although it knows from experience the potential vicissitudes of language. We humans simply have no other choice, for between the power of thought of the 'I' and the power of thought of the 'You' there is “no other mediator but language” (1995:24).
Note that von Humboldt spoke of language not as tool, nor did he speak of it as product (ergon) but as process and activity (energeia). In Ueber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (1830) he wrote: “Language is the eternally repeated work of the mind, enabling the articulated sound to express thought. Taken strictly, this is a definition of (what is happening in individual acts of) speaking; but in a true and essential sense one may view language to constitute the totality of such speaking” (1995:36).
This, then, is what one can rightly call Wilhelm von Humboldt's rhetorical theory of language. Language is a process, the emerging and creative work of individual minds interpreting and re-interpreting their cultural heritage: “As each language has received its substance from unknown earlier periods, the work of the mind which generates the exchange of thoughts is always simultaneously directed towards something given, not purely creating, but refiguring” (1995:38).
Here von Humboldt evoked the image of man using his creative rhetorical disposition to 'spin out' language only to then get caught up in its web. His famous formulation runs as follows (note how close it is Clifford Geertz' characterization of culture as a 'web of significance' in which man traps himself):
“ Man lives with objects (objects which surround him) mainly, or rather, - as feeling and action depend on the ideas which he entertains about the objects -, exclusively in the way in which language presents them to him. The very activity by which he spins language out from within himself eventually gets himself entwined in it, and every language draws a circle around the nation to which it belongs, and which one can only leave to the extent that at the same time one enters the circle of another” (1995:53).
If one was to generalise and speak here of 'culture' rather than simply of 'objects' one would see how close von Humboldt was to a rhetorical theory of culture, especially if one adds Humboldt's awareness of the constraints and the freedom afforded to us by language, for at the end of the paragraph which presents his most mature 'reflections on the nature of language' he writes:
“Language assumes its final distinctiveness in the individual. Upon hearing a word, no one thinks precisely what the other does, and even the smallest difference trembles, like a circle in the water, on through the whole language. All understanding is therefore simultaneously a non-understanding, all mutual agreement a moving apart in thought and feeling. The way in which language is modified in every individual shows man’s power over it...The influence exercised on him (on man) reflects the rule-relatedness of language ..., and his response reveals a principle of freedom. For there may rise in man something which no reason could find in any of the preceding states (of man, language, and culture) and one would misunderstand the nature of language and violate the historical truth of its development and change, if one was to exclude the possibility of such unexplainable phenomena” (1995:59).
In the more recent past, an important contribution to Rhetoric Culture Theory came from Kenneth Burke, who may justly be called one of the fathers of current Rhetoric Culture Theory. He transformed ‘Aristotelian’ Rhetoric into ‘post-Christian’ Rhetoric and stressed that rhetoric plays a crucial role in socialization and hence in the formation of cultural rules and patterns of behaviour. Here it may suffice to quote the famous passage where he speaks of the need to be “alert to the ingredient of rhetoric in all socialization, considered as a moralizing process. The individual person, striving to form himself in accordance with the communicative norms that match the cooperative ways of his society, is by the same token concerned with the rhetoric of identification. To act upon himself persuasively, he must variously resort to images and ideas that are formative. Education (‘indoctrination’) exerts such pressure upon him from without; he completes the process from within. If he does not somehow act to tell himself (as his own audience) what the various brands of rhetorician have told him, his persuasion is not complete. Only those voices from without are effective which can speak in the language of a voice within” (Burke 1950:39).
Finally, let us draw attention to the fact that the ever more refined and prolific anthropological study of metaphor - and generally the interplay of tropes – which we have witnessed during the past decades, has contributed much to the emergence of rhetoric culture theory. For a long time already, anthropologists had been interested in metaphor, allegory, symbol etc., like James G. Frazer (1968/11890; 1927), Franz Boas (1911, 1940/11929) and Paul Radin (1945, 1950), but only the “metaphoric turn” in the mid of the 20th century gave the crucial impulse that brought research on metaphor to the forefront of anthropology. Influenced by Jakobson (1956), Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) demonstrated how the totemic and mythic cosmos that people create for themselves and others can be understood as a kind of mental ‘bricolage’ that works by means of ‘metaphoric and metonymic operations’. This thought provoking idea led to a number of fruitful and influential studies, like for example Thomas Beidelman (1975), James Fox (1971), James Fernandez (1972, 1974), Michelle Rosaldo (1972, 1973), Renato Rosaldo (1968) and Stanley Tambiah (1968, 1969).
The first publication in anthropology to carry both ‘metaphor’ and ‘rhetoric’ in its title was the book edited by David Sapir und Christopher Crocker The social use of metaphor. Essays in the anthropology of rhetoric (1977). It was dedicated to Kenneth Burke (1945b, 1957, 1966) and showed both theoretically and empirically how metaphors are not only ‘good to think with’, ‘good to speak with’ or ‘good to write with’ but are especially “good to live by”, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would put it a few years later (Lakoff/Johnson 1980a, 1980b). Of all the contributors it was James Fernandez who most vigorously continued the new ‘anthropology of rhetoric’ advocated in The social use of metaphor. First he presented a collection of essays entitled Persuasions and performances. The play of tropes in culture (1986), then he edited a collection of essays under the title Beyond Metaphor. The theory of tropes in anthropology (1991), and most recently he co-edited with Mary Taylor Huber a book on Irony in action. Anthropology, practice and the moral imagination (2001), with chapters by Paul Friedrich, James Clifford, Michael Herzfeld, James Boon and other scholars inside and outside anthropology whose work can be considered as being close to rhetoric culture theory.
As we have said above, Rhetoric Culture Theory explores how rhetoric is founded in culture, and how culture is founded in rhetoric. It starts from the fact that 'homo sapiens' is an incessant talker. Even when we are silent we keep talking to ourselves, and even in our sleep we hear voices and speak aloud in our dreams. Our minds are filled with ideas and images, but these tend to remain unstable and incomplete as long as we do not use language, or rather inward and outward speech. It is speech - addressed both to ourselves and others - which allows us to give some kind of shape and structure to our understanding of the world.
Furthermore, speech is central to the formation of consciousness and the self. In The Said and the Unsaid Tyler has explained this as follows: "It is not just that the act of speech itself logically requires the other as an objective or mechanical terminus of a message, but more importantly it is only through others that the self reveals itself and comes to know itself as something more than an object. Without the other there is no self... Consciousness, and more particular consciousness of self, cannot emerge except in a context of intercommunication, and it is speaking which provides the paradigm for intercommunication" (1978:141).
Rhetoric both enables and constrains us to think, speak and act intentionally in a world which is "neither anarchic nor determined" (Tyler 1978:135), and it is our innate rhetorical disposition and our culturally acquired rhetorical competence which create the ‘patterns’, ‘styles’, ‘configurations’, ‘habitus’, ‘paideuma’, ‘ethos’, ‘spirit’ etc. of culture (Bateson 1958, Benedict 1934, Bourdieu 1977, Frobenius 1921). Even the ‘codes’, ‘systems’ and ‘structures’ analysed by semiotics may be explained in these terms, for, as Clifford Geertz has observed, they are nothing but “webs of significance” we ourselves have spun (1973:5).
Just as there is no ‘zero degree rhetoric’ in any utterance (Kennedy 1998:5), there is no ‘zero degree rhetoric’ in any of the patterns of culture, and rhetoric which in its broadest sense may be understood as an emanation of mental and emotional energy (see Humboldt above and Kennedy 1998:5) is so powerful and ambiguous that it can be called the gravitational force of culture. If culture is ubiquitous, so is rhetoric, - if by that we mean the practices of discourse that enable communication and facilitate both the everyday and the critical performance of participants. What we implicate by the concept of rhetoric culture is just this mutuality of rhetoric and culture. There is then not an opposition between rhetoric and non-rhetoric but a cline of kinds and modes of rhetoric that traverse realities ranging from concrete speech events through text analysis to virtual worlds.
Analogy is perhaps one of the most evident forms in which rhetoric manifests itself as the gravitational force of culture (see Vico’s concept of poetic culture above). In the following passage, Tim Ingold has recently gone so far as to call it the ‘drive of culture’: “The essence of culture”, he writes, “lies in a uniquely human capacity to recognize and exploit likeness, or, in other words, to operate analogically. To construct an analogy (or metaphor) is to establish a relation between phenomena drawn from different domains of experience, in terms of a perceived similarity. Any real-world objects, as it is caught up in the nexus of analogical relations, can become a symbol. We can discover the meanings of symbols by attending to the multiple social contexts in which they are used: what each symbol does is to bring together these contexts into a single focus, the greater the symbolic resonance of the object by which it is represented. In the course of social life, new analogic linkages are forever being forged against the background of existing convention, only to become conventional in their turn: thus over time the meanings of symbolic change. The analogic drive, in short, is the very motor of the cultural process”(Ingold 1994: 334).
But although one may stress the constitutive and positive force of rhetoric in such a way, and although one may say, as Isocrates did (and so many who followed later), that it is speech which has “made laws without which provisions we should not be able to live together”, and that “by speech we refute the wicked and praise the good, (and) by speech we educate the ignorant and inform the wise", we also know too well, that by the same token it is speech which misinforms the wise and misleads the ignorant, praises the wicked and perverts the good. For this reason in the course of history rhetoric often fell into disrepute, was censored and declared to be a tool of the devil. But to expel the devil also meant to destroy the ethical basis of discourse as Tyler has observed. His sketch of the historical fate of rhetoric runs as follows:
“The rhetorical vision of meaning, first articulated by Plato in the Phaedrus, is a unity of thought and expression accommodated by the speaker to the specific receptivity of the soul addressed. In modern times this unity of thought, expression, and communication is shattered. The process is gradual. In Aristotle logic is separated from rhetoric, and the Aristotelian elaboration of rhetoric, for all its emphasis on the accommodation of speech and soul, is consequently only an act of persuasion divorced from the speaker’s apprehension of truth, and is only added on as an adjunct to reason. With the scholastics rhetoric eventually becomes again the original Sicilian art of the Sophists, a means of speaking skilfully and sophistically, the hallmark of priestly casuistry. With the decline of rhetoric, meaning was separated from the speech event, and the notion of speech or speaking subordinated to the idea of language. Meaning by the seventeenth century had become almost entirely a property of words rather than deeds, as revealed primarily in the rationalist philosophers’ equation of thought and language, and in his identification of language as the limit of reason. To this development the empiricist philosophers added their interpretation of the distinction between reason and passion. Thought is divided into the rational and the passionate. The voice of reason is literal, the voice of passion poetic or metaphoric. This separation of reason and passion has destroyed the ethical basis of discourse” (1978:167).
Like the mythical trickster, rhetoric allows us to turn fact into fiction and fiction into fact. It tempts us to persuade ourselves as well as others to see and feel what we wish, and it leads us to imagine that there are no limits to our flights of fancy. By means of rhetoric we create phantasms, by means of rhetoric we act like daemons, and by means of rhetoric we conjure up those ideas, values, moral rules and laws that constitute the basis of culture.
The suggestion that because of its rhetorical nature culture can never be fully grounded in objectivity may seem awesome, yet it may also be conceived as a challenge. We do not need to give up because of the perceived lack of objectivity. On the contrary, knowing the central role of our subjectivity, we should feel inspired by it and eager to engage in the creation of those phantasms (conventionalities) which we call culture. In order to get this important and constructive point clear, let us again quote Tyler where he says:
"Our speaking presupposes that we do share in the same objective conventionality, and when we are rudely made to see that we do not, as when others misunderstand us, we do not, except in unusual circumstances, give up on speech, but we seek instead to repair the rents in our net of common intersubjectivity and to get others to understand us. When, in the course of practical affairs, we are confronted with the fact of the presuppositional basis of intersubjectivity, we interpret that revelation as a signal to re-establish and reaffirm its objective conventionality. Apprehensive at the incipient disintegration of our world of previously unquestioned common understandings, we do not retreat into desperately silent loneliness, but are impelled instead to reaffirm and accomplish that world through constructive negotiation. Thus it is that conventionality emerges from and is sustained in communication. Communication does not require just an objective conventionality, it needs conventionality which is at once subjective and objective" (1978:148).
Present Rhetoric Culture Theory transforms this view and emphasizes the more candid idea that culture emerges from and is sustained in rhetoric. This does, however, not mean that it propagates any kind of ‘idealism’, whatever ‘idealism’ may be. Rather, it focuses on concrete or virtual practices of discourse in which and through which cultures are performed, contested, and reproduced. Performance and practice can sometimes be thought of as instantiations of symbolic orders, but they are not just instrumentalities of the symbolic. They are also the means by which symbolic orders change and emerge.
Rhetoric Culture Theory explores the possibilities afforded by rhetoric to explain culture. It does this by paying more attention to the unsaid behind the said, the latent beneath the manifest, and the unreasonable as well as the reasonable sides of human existence. It emphasizes multivocality as much as univocality, understanding as much as translation, imagination as much as decodation, and it adds, or rather brings back, the ideas of emergence, creativity, construction and negotiation to the ideas of episteme, knowledge, representation, rules, and symbol/sign systems. But it does this without necessary reference to the notion of meaning, for understanding is not exclusively or even primarily dependent on meaning, or knowing the meaning, or symbol interpretation, but comes about as much through sensibility which includes sense making, feelings and empathy.
Here the ideas of story and exempla are of key concern, for when we understand something, it is probably because it is embedded in a story or in examples which as particulars portend the whole. They are both concrete and general, but couldn’t be concrete without also being universal and general. Their concreteness is not the givenness of the iconically concrete, because it is already mediated by the inherent possibility of the general. Rhetoric culture founds in this appreciation of the dynamic, unfolding character of understanding and seeks to give an accounting of the imaginative resources that ground our approximations and make our openings and closings. That is why Rhetoric Culture Theory pays as much attention to the ways of intuition as to the structure of proof, and attends so closely to those means of fabulation that become the instrumentalities of fact.
The Aristotelian discourse divisions of logos, ethos, and pathos, as mirrored in such contemporary oppositions as fact and fiction, fact and feeling, fact and opinion, fact and value cannot be sustained as radically different and independent modes of formulating and interpreting discourse. Every discourse makes its appeals and claims in many modes simultaneously, either by direct and overt means or by indirect and implicit indices of context and presupposition, as much by what it does not say as by what it says. We may still feel that the Aristotelian triad is a general schema of purposes and intentions, but even so, our purposes and intentions are likely to be entangled and inconstant, shifting and changing as we interact in discourse.
There are then no pure discourse types. Every discourse is an open possibility of multiple interpretations that unfold as we seek to understand. Openness and multiplicity do not prevent us from understanding one another, or from arriving at agreements, understandings and interpretations, or even truths. They are, in fact, the means that enable our closures, impermanent though they may be. A discourse is a dynamic, inherently unstable process in which we generate temporary finitudes of interpretation out of what may be infinite possibilities. All of our closures are but possible openings.
To express this differently, Rhetoric Culture Theory does not privilege speech over writing and is responsive to all technologies of discourse. It does not give priority to either the speaker (the oratorical mode) or the hearer (the hermeneutic), or the code (structuralism). Classical rhetoric privileged the idea of the speaker and the speech event. Later rhetoric privileged the author of the text. No one (except in later hermeneutics) consistently adopted the perspective of the hearer. Critique focused chiefly on the text as a structural object or a code of symbols. Rhetoric Culture Theory does not abandon these loci, but it is not projected from any one of them as the dominant or origin or starting point of understanding. Partly as a consequence of not privileging the code, Rhetoric Culture Theory does not privilege truth over opinion or persuasion. These, and others, are merely kinds of things we try to do in communication. Consequently too, Rhetoric Culture Theory is not responsive to the idea of independent genres correlated with the different modes of rhetoric (logos, ethos, pathos).
We may give the appearance of separately engaging one or another of these modes for "rhetorical" purposes. Common practices in scientific writing, for example, are entrained in order to give the appearance of a discourse structured and motivated solely by logos. Similarly, we may wish to convey moral certitudes without appeals to reason as if these certitudes were reason unto themselves , or at least beyond reason. In our everyday discourse as well, we trim these different rhetorical modes to the measure of our needs and desires, exploiting their possibilities either separately or jointly as we judge their relative efficacy in the emergent situation they create (as in the strategies of politeness analyzed by Brown and Levinson, 1978).
Even so, we are not in complete control of our instruments. Much as we may try to exploit these different modes, either by separating them or by compounding them into judicious mixtures, we cannot really employ one of them in complete isolation from the others any more than we can fully control or predict the synergies of their combinations. At best, we manage to convey the appearance of control, which fortunately is sufficient to the moment, or at least as it is judged by its contemporary effects. All fixed genres are mixed to various degrees and in various ways, and all exceed our attempts to keep them under our thumbs. Even if we could achieve total authorial control, our audiences and interpreters might nullify or reconfigure our intended effects, for there is no way effectively to control the interpretive responses of our interlocutors.