Rhetoric and the Essay: some principles

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have been focusing intently on the rhetorical work–and workings–of essays evident in Dillard, Douglass, Kaysen, and Abani, as well as Moore’s documentary (and Dr. Hall’s essay). You will continue the focus in the second writing project, both in analyzing two of the authors and their projects, as well as in performing that analysis for your reader–in other words, producing your own rhetorical text. You, also, will be developing a rhetorical project.

What, again, does this “rhetorical” mean? What does it have to do with essays?

Here are some reminders and further thoughts.

In terms of our overall approach to the essay, I have suggested that any essay can be thought of as having elements of philosophy (ideas), rhetoric (the way the ideas are effectively and persuasively and deliberately expressed to the audience), and poetics (the creativity and aesthetic experience of the ideas and the expression). We focus more on poetics in the next section of the course; but keep in mind that poetics and rhetoric are very often related and sometimes interchangeable. Though for clarity, and for thinking of your own writing, I tend to think of rhetoric on the larger scale of how ideas, organized across paragraphs or pages or an entire essay or entire book, effect the argument and affect the reader; I think of poetics more on the scale of a particular sentence or passage, an image or turn of phrase (trope) that draws attention to itself, but is not necessarily reiterated and need not be part of a larger structure. Thus, irony (or metaphor or metonymy) is a rhetorical figure, structuring the reader’s attention across a section or the whole of an essay; but they can also be viewed as poetic figures or tropes when more localized in a sentence or paragraph. But don’t worry too much about the difference (people have been debating this for centuries).

Here is a definition of rhetoric from an 1877 text by David Hill, The Science of Rhetoric. It gets at some key, larger principles to consider when thinking of the rhetorical work or effect an essay.

All worthy discourse aims at producing some change in the mind addressed. It may be a change of knowledge, or instruction; a change of opinions, or conviction; a change of disposition, or persuasion ; or a change of the passing emotion for its own sake, or mere entertainment. Whatever this change be, it is produced by ideas. These ideas are effective in producing the change only when they are assimilated to the dominant ideas of the mind addressed. The rhetorical process extends farther than the mere presentation of ideas; it is complete only when those ideas are referred to the preexisting ideas of the person addressed in such a manner that they will effect the desired change. All mental changes take place in accordance with certain laws. As an art, Rhetoric communicates ideas according to these laws; as a science, it discovers and establishes these laws. Rhetoric is, therefore, the science of the laws of effective discourse.

Rhetoric is about changing a reader’s ideas or understanding; but rhetoric works only when the presentation of the new ideas effectively address–and thus also redress, refocus, reform–the preexisting ideas of the reader, the “person addressed in such a manner that they will effect the desired change.”

Think, then, about the ways these essayists, or any writer (or more broadly, rhetor, to include any speaker) not only present ideas, but organize the ideas to change our ideas. Haven’t we seen this in some measure throughout our recent readings?

A key rhetorical strategy for effecting change is Counterargument [further discussion here]. This is one of the requirements for the project.



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