Hello, and welcome to this special episode of Kairoticast. Today we are happy to be taking part in The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2022.
The theme of The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is “Rhetoric: Spaces and Place in and Beyond the Academy.” The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival takes place August 22-25. This is the 3rd Annual Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival, and we hope to grow the list of participants and listenership going forward. We hope The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival continues to be an annual event. The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival 2022 hashtags are: #tbrpodcastcarnival2022 and #placesspacesinbeyond. The keynote speaker for The Big Rhetorical Podcast Carnival is Dr. Madison Jones, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric/Natural Resources Science and Founder of the DWELL Lab at the University of Rhode Island. That episode will be released August 25th.
The Carnival features 12 podcasts that deal with rhetoric in various manifestations and for a variety of audiences. We encourage you to check out our fellow podcasters and see what others are talking about.
Dr. Woods over at The Big Rhetorical Podcast challenged us to think about spaces and place this year. As I thought about this, I really became taken with the idea of place and rhetoric. It occurred to me that rhetoric is, in many ways, a product of its place as much as its time.
If you’re a regular listener, you know that rhetoric is a very old subject. Ancient cultures in Mesopotamia as early as 2500 BCE had versions of what we might call rhetorical studies, and the ancient Egyptians did as well. But what we think of as rhetoric as we understand it today (and this may be as much due to our Eurocentrism and colonialism) comes out of ancient Greece. In the 5th century BCE the Sophists began to develop oratorical theories and pedagogies that would ultimately pave the way for Plato, Aristotle, then Cicero, Quintilian, and the rhetoricians to come.
The reason I think this is important to think about when talking about place is because Greece is not just the birthplace of rhetoric – it is the birthplace of democracy.
The term “democracy” first appeared in the 5th century BCE to describe Greek city states. It is no coincidence that the word for democracy and the first group of people we think of as proper rhetoricians, the Sophists, were Greek.
Greece was experimenting at that time. And rhetoric and democracy were sisters in that grand experiment.
Democracy meant “rule of the people” as opposed to aristocracy, which was “rule of the elite.” The thing about allowing the people to rule, about giving the people a voice, is that there must be a way for things to happen. There must be a mechanism by which decisions are made. In the most technical sense, that is the vote. People vote and the majority, or sometimes the plurality, wins. But how do people decide how to vote?
They are persuaded.
I suppose in an ideal world each voter would be presented with all the available information and they would assess it all and decide on their own what the best option is.
But that is not now, and not even then, how democracies work. We are persuaded who to vote for, which laws and policies are best, who is guilty and innocent. And that is where the development of rhetoric was paramount in ancient Greece. As the people became more and more important to the workings of the city-state, public speaking and the ability to persuade became more and more important in order to make that city-state operational. Democracy and rhetoric go hand-in-hand. One fuels the other.
So rhetoric wasn’t just developed at a particular time – it was developed in a particular place. Greece was experimenting with democracy, so Greece began to develop rhetoric, as well.
The trajectory of rhetoric, its history and development, is equally defined by place as well as time. Take for example, the latter part of the Classical era of rhetoric. That part of rhetoric defined by Roman thinkers.
When we think of Roman rhetors we tend to think of Cicero and Quintilian. And there’s good reason for that. They were the masters. The took rhetoric and created a thorough and comprehensive theory and practical guide for teaching the art of oratory. Cicero, especially, was a leader in the community and an example for all statesmen of how to comport oneself.
But consider, for a moment, that era of Roman rhetoric called the Second Sophistic. The Second Sophistic was a phase in rhetorical thinking and teaching that focused on “the practical,” or so they taught, instead of the stately. The teachers in the Second Sophistic concerned themselves with the everyday needs of people, and eschewed politics. But those “everyday needs” are not what you think. They argued over poetry and public speaking. There was an emphasis on style as opposed to statesmanship.
I mention this because the Second Sophistic is a particular response to Rome. It is specific to that place more than it is to that time. Roman politics were changing. Rome was becoming more and more imperial. The Senate and the people were losing power as the Caesar’s power grew.
The thing about Empire is, the less power people have, the less important rhetoric, or persuasion, is. When people have power, they have need of a means to persuade each other, or even the other people in power. When one person makes all the decisions, like a monarch or a dictator, there is no need for a persuasive rhetoric because there is nobody to persuade. The person in charge just makes the call and that is it.
Hence, the Second Sophistic. A version of rhetoric that has nothing to do with politics or anything “serious” and focuses on style and poetry because that is all that is left to the people. It is a product of its place – Rome. Though Rome may have been a very expansive place at that point, it is still specific to its political environment. It is a particularly Roman rhetoric.
The history of rhetoric is shaped by where it is happening as much as when it is happening. For example, we talk about rhetoric during the Renaissance, but we mean something very specific there. Renaissance rhetoric was shaped not just by its time, but by the place, and places, it sprang from. The Renaissance was nestled in Italy, and so were the major changes in rhetoric at that time. So, too, when we talk about Enlightenment rhetoric, we don’t mean global changes. We are referring to changes that happened in certain parts of Europe where ideological paradigms were shifting. And that’s pretty important to understand for later when you’re trying to figure out things like colonialism and Eurocentrism in rhetoric.
Rhetoric has long been centered in certain parts of the world. And that makes a difference in who gets to be a rhetor and who gets to be a member of the audience. From the Greeks to the 19th century in America it was land-owning men, and after the Classical period it was specifically land-owning white men, who dominated rhetoric and rhetorical theory. That is because rhetoric cannot be divorced from its place. Rhetoric was a European enterprise, so European sensibilities and systemic structures imbued rhetorical theory – hence its white patriarchy.
By the 20th and 21st centuries places had changed, and so had rhetoric. The world had become more democratized, and rhetoric, though it had been slow to move, was at least acknowledging its patriarchal, Eurocentric, and heteronormative past. Scholars from various backgrounds were working hard to open the field to new perspectives and ideas. There was, and is, and lot of resistance, but it is, to cite John Lewis, good trouble.
But place is hard to figure in the modern era. If we think about the trajectory of rhetoric and rhetorical theory, place seems like it is becoming less and less important. This is a globalized world. We are connected. We are not stationary. We are not limited to one spot. We can communicate with somebody across the world instantaneously. We can learn about customs, cultures, and traditions with the click of a button. Where we were once limited to a singular place, now we have limitless access to place everywhere.
And rhetoric and rhetorical theory is changing to meet that. Current theories of rhetoric explore digital rhetorics and networked rhetorics. Rhetoric’s “place” is no longer a spot on a map – it is in hyperspace. And in an increasingly digitized world, that makes a weird amount of sense. We spend more and more of our time on in front of a screen, online, plugged in, and connected. The places we occupy are as much digital as they are physical. So rhetoric and rhetorical theory has moved in to occupy this new place as well. If online is a place, rhetoric has been shaped by it as much as it was shaped by Greece, Rome, or England and we are just seeing the beginning the transformation. Digital rhetorics, visual rhetorics, and networked rhetorics are what will carry us through the next few years. Jean Baudrillard may have been writing about television, but some of his ideas seem pretty prescient when we think about the online world. We live in a world of the hyper-real. The place where many of us spend most of our time isn’t a physical one, but a virtual one.
So our understanding of rhetoric is shifting as rapidly as our thinking on place is shifting. Does physical place matter as much anymore? You can upload a TikTok video from anywhere, and that might be one of the most influential examples of rhetoric there is right now.
But I would posit place still matters some. Maybe not in the sense that is matters where you physically speak, but place still shapes rhetoric at large. And I think the last few years in America, and the years to come, illustrate that.
Rhetoricians have pretty much been singing the same tune since forever. If you go to any freshman speech class, they are teaching basic Aristotelian rhetoric. Kids are taught that from grade school all the way to college. When you get to the advanced stuff you get to Burke and identification and that helps you make sense of what you actually see in the real world, but since forever, we have been telling people there is a good way to speak and a bad way to speak and the good way will make you successful as a speaker.
In 2016 that all got blown to hell.
Politics in America was a mess, to be honest. And, if success was gauged by winning elections, everything we thought we knew about political rhetoric was wrong. What we have long said was appropriate and would lead to success failed during the campaign, and a new kind of populist rhetoric swept the nation, bringing a new kind of candidate into office. The flip side to that was that by all available metrics, those who came swooping in on that populist rhetoric were total failures in office. We are keeping an eye on people like DeSantis, because he seems to have White House aspirations, but he is wildly unpopular in his home state. People like Boeber and MTG are polarizing and ineffective. And in a time when our leaders are increasingly more communicative, it is becoming clearer and clearer that their rhetoric really does matter. So, this is a time of testing, and waiting-and-seeing for scholars of political rhetoric. What at first seemed like a repudiation of long-held wisdom may actually be an affirmation. But we are watching the rupture happen. It is time for us to reckon with our nation’s words and their effects.
So what is going on in America and how is it going to shape rhetoric?
That’s the thing! We don’t know yet!
But things are changing.
Now, rhetoric isn’t solely an American thing. There are lots of other places where rhetoric is being developed. There is some excellent work on argumentation being done in Northern Europe and some amazing rhetorical communities in places like Denmark. But there is an American tradition of rhetoric that is influential and specific.
The Age of Trump will have irrevocable consequences for rhetoric. But we’re in the thick of it. We don’t know what is going to happen.
It’s interesting to note that there HAS been a wave of populism in other parts of the world. France has experienced an uptick in the kind of regressive thinking that got Trump elected, and we have seen a bit of it in other parts of Europe. And certainly there are despotic regimes in places like Hungary and the Philippines and North Korea. And Trump wasn’t a radical departure. We’ve been on this trajectory for the last few decades. But Trump was explosive. And he opened the floodgates for similar politicians who are open about authoritarian and regressive politics.
So we don’t know what will happen with American rhetoric. When Rome succumbed to tyrants, rhetoric became ornamental. But America hasn’t completely fallen to authoritarian rule, yet. There are still people who seem to value democracy. And those who favor authoritarianism use the trappings of politics by relying on nationalism and false platitudes. Many have argued, convincingly, that this is not far removed from fascist rhetoric. So we REALLY need to be paying attention to the kind of rhetoric America is producing. What is this place and who is talking in it? What are they talking about and how?
Because how people talk and what people talk about tells you a lot about a place. Rhetoric and democracy go hand in hand. But this is where we need to remember our Burke – if the rhetoric a place is producing stops being about rational persuasion and only about emotional identification, and that identification includes demonizing others and creating a sense of blind nationalism, then that is a recipe for devastation.
So consider the place and consider the speech it produces. Because history has shown us time and time again that one informs the other. And if we don’t learn from that, we might face dire consequences.
Finally, a word to all you professors and teachers of rhetoric out there who are gearing up for the fall semester – let this reminder of the importance of place also be a reminder of just how vital a role you play in your student’s lives.
We started this episode talking about how rhetoric and democracy developed in the same place at the same time, and how that is no coincidence. So let that be a sustaining thought for you as you steel yourself for grading papers and endless emails and meetings. You aren’t just teaching a class – you are teaching democracy.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.