A Critical Reflection
Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. This is not a function of any other art. Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter; for instance, medicine about what is healthy and unhealthy, geometry about the properties of magnitudes, arithmetic about numbers, and the same is true of the other arts and sciences. But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us; and that is why we say that, in its technical character, it is not concerned with any special or definite class of subjects. (Aristotle & Honeycutt 2011)
Aristotle’s words reflect the idea that rhetoric is, in its essence, interdisciplinary, a thought that I agree with after my studies at Georgia State University. Rhetoric is the study of persuasion, and of course when we say “persuasion” we really mean everything or anything that a person does. So in the end, rhetoric is the study of why subjects appear or are arranged in space in the manner in which they are. There is a reason behind every sigh, hand raise, note written, and website designed. It is the job of the rhetor to notice these reasons and then to examine why the actions symbolizing them are either effective or not. In other words, rhetoric is the systematic wondering at the differences or similarities between what could be taking place in the brain and what has made it to the surface through either action or word.
Rhetoric takes note of the unopened Delft Blue rum collectibles lining the kitchen of my grandparent’s home in South America and draws conclusions about the people who placed them there based on their arrangement, style, origin, and symbolism. In this way, it is an explorative and deeply personal art form.
Aristotle was one of the pioneers in this art form. He embraced rhetoric as a true art, an arête, amid beliefs that it was not specific enough to be one. Furthermore, he developed a system for developing and investigating rhetoric. Perhaps one of his most famous contributions to rhetoric, besides the previous definition, is the division of persuasion into three separate types: logos, ethos, and pathos (Herrick, 2013). From Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, we gain much knowledge about rhetoric that still stands in the twenty-first century. When contemplating for myself what rhetoric is, the above definition still stands as being the most comprehensive and complete. Aristotle’s definition has stood since the beginning of my education through to my final semester as a student of Rhetoric and Composition.
An important visual that I enjoy connecting to rhetoric is the image that Plato gives us with The Myth of the Charioteer. In this myth, the charioteer directs two horses. One is reasonable, noble even, while the other is wild and untamed. It is the job of the charioteer to steer these two in the same direction to accomplish one goal (Herrick, 2013). This is rhetoric. The rhetor must struggle for balance at all times. This balance must occur between logic, emotion, and character, but it must also occur between arrangement, style, and content. Control, in rhetoric, is everything.
This idea of control leads us to the topic of embodiment and its relation to rhetoric. According to Derrida’s thoughts about Plato’s Phaedrus that he presents in “Plato’s Pharmacy”, there is a gap between the mind and language (Derrida and Johnson, 1981). If this is so, it is the particular goal of written discourse to have control over both language and action, the latter of which is considered closest to original thought. This arrangement of action, which we will consider to be most closely related to physical embodiment, as being nearest to the truth can be problematic in certain cases. Issues of discrimination based on appearance tend to arise as a result of such an assumed closeness between body and mind.
Along this same trend, if rhetoric is the study of how we think and act in any given situation, then it must also be a study of who is speaking and why. And if it is a study of who is speaking, it must also be a study of who is not speaking and why they are not. Often, it is the case that those whose voices have not been recorded were not heard due to gender, race, disability, or class discrimination. Aspasia, a female Greek philosopher and contemporary of Socrates, is an example of such a person whose work was marginalized because of her sex (Herrick, 2013). This is an important fact to reflect upon before moving into the future lest we consider the audible voices to be the only voices.
Images, videos, sounds, layouts, and interactive websites attempt to rectify the issue of embodiment by allowing their pages to stand in their own “bodies” online. Many varietals of digital rhetoric attempt to collaborate with language to produce the desired persuasive effect. This is a partnership that I considered for the first time in response to Dr. Wharton’s Expository Writing course where we were asked to draw upon material culture in order to inform our compositions. After taking this class, I realized that my Business Writing course had also relied heavily on the visual, especially when considering appropriate formats for business settings. Visual Rhetoric also later reinforced those ideas that Dr. Wharton introduced with terms and visual exercises. I began to question why it is that our culture operates so much from a place of linearity when in fact life is not necessarily linear.
This primary questioning of rules continued as I considered composition and how it relates to critical thinking and literacy. Dr. Harker’s course in Composition Studies was at the center of each discovery that I made about the other half of my focus as a Rhetoric and Composition student. In my own words, I have learned that
composition relates to the act of developing new work based on information that has been gathered and assessed by the composer. It is both the process and the product of critical thinking.
There is no single fail-proof way to compose just as there is no single way to think critically, even though Derrida would like to assert that writing and critical thinking are inseparable (Derrida and Johnson, 1981). The process of composing is elusive, and yet schools and colleges teach it as being the product of linear thinking and writing—first we brainstorm, then we outline, and finally, we are ready to write—but when we ask professional writers they either cannot answer the question of invention or else the answers are so diverse that no sense can be made from piecing them together (Emig, 2009). But then linearity is a topic from which we cannot easily divorce ourselves. It is ingrained in us. My term paper for Composition Studies: History, Theory, and Practice gives an example of this very issue.
Another often misunderstood concept upon which composition, and critical thinking for that matter, leans heavily upon is literacy. In Dr. Harker’s class, we examined the literacy myth and the multiple metaphors attached to literacy. We dissected Barton’s view of ecological literacy, a more holistic approach to literacy. Instead of viewing literacy as the ability to read and write, I began to view it as the ability to communicate effectively within any given discourse community. There are many discourse communities, and they depend on environmental factors such as location, community, time, and subject (Barton, 2007). There is a ballet discourse community just as there are urban and scholarly discourse communities. Through our conversations, research, and interactions with the DALN, I began to see literacy in its full scope. In my mind, literacy went from being a problem that needed to be solved to a way of thinking that needs to change. A lack of literacy does not, in fact, signify a lack of critical thinking, but signifies a lack of information from one or more discourse communities. Once I realized this, I saw great changes emerge in how I taught dance and in how I wrote. I began to experiment more with my personal voice and style, playing with sentence structure, organization, word choice, and even content. Suddenly, my personal narrative exploded onto the page. Spring 2015 was a transformative time because it was a time of development in which I allowed myself the freedom to speak in my own voice.
The selections that I have included for this portfolio demonstrate the emergence of an artist from a student, a critical thinker from a rule-follower, and a person from a perfectionist. When I began to learn about rhetoric, I also started to question my motives behind my own words and the arrangement of them on the page or on the screen. As for the study of composition, it caused me to ask more questions, changed my writing style, and contributed greatly to the way in which I see the world. It has kept me humble while teaching ballet and while learning in other areas of life; after all, we always have more to learn.
So in the end, the art of persuasion for me is a lot like lining little houses up in a row at the height of the kitchen cabinets where the breeze blows gently through slatted windows. But then it is also the freedom to drink their rum and to send them crashing to the floor, their scattered pieces covering the ground entropically. Either way, Rhetoric and composition center themselves around that choice, but more specifically, they are concerned with what our choices have to say about us.
Aristotle, & Honeycutt, L. (2011, September 27). Book I – Chapter 2. Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://rhetoric.eserver.org/aristotle/rhet1-2.html
Barton, D. (2007). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Derrida, J., & Johnson, B. (1981). Dissemination. London: Athlone Press. Retrieved February 10, 2016, from http://xenopraxis.net/readings/derrida_dissemination.pdf
Emig, J. (2009). The Norton book of composition studies (S. Miller, Ed.). New York: W.W. Norton &.
Herrick, J. A. (2013). The history and theory of rhetoric: An introduction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.