History of Rhetorical Theory I
103A | CCN: 23721
Instructor: IK Udekwu
Location: The Mediated Polis
Tu/Th 3:30pm-5:00pm, North Gate 105 ///
One major task in rhetorical theory is to locate the concept, the specific differences that identify instances of this thing we call “rhetoric.” Provisionally, we might refer to practices and acts of persuasion. In this light, consider a recent example in American political life: the commentary surrounding the rhetorical gifts of US President Barack Obama as contrasted with the blunt and plain-speaking character of his 2008 opponent, the late Senator John McCain. (McCain even went so far as to name his campaign bus “The Straight Talk Express.”) A significant part of the public discourse around the 2008 campaign surrounded the eloquence of Obama, which drew praise but also accusations of emptiness and dangerous seduction, the hidden lures of an orator as opposed to the true art of governing. But how, exactly, are we able to distinguish rhetoric from ordinary, “plain” speech — and why should we do so? What is it that troubles us so much about speech as mode of artifice and its potential effects?
These debates, claims, and discourses were not invented whole-cloth, nor should we accept them unquestioned as derived from natural or logical distinctions. Such troubles have an extensive genealogy, a genealogy which we will take up in the context of classical Greek and Roman thought. The Classical period expresses a particular sensitivity and anxiety surrounding persuasive practices and an attunement to the complexity of communication — speech may appear as ephemeral and weightless but, through obscure pathways, it links up with a world of action and permanent consequences. These reflections, debates, and anxieties about the nature, power, and value of rhetorical practice draw in a constellation of claims about relations between speech, pleasure, politics, and truth.
This upper division course aims to provide students with a “snapshot” of a genealogy of rhetorical thought, focused on texts and culture from classical Greece and Rome. Examples of course texts include work from Gorgias, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, as well more recent reflections on classical thought and culture from thinkers like Loraux, Vernant, Cavell, and Popper. Through our lectures and discussion sections, we will track a number of related questions for our texts: What is the concept of rhetoric and its specific difference? Where does it fit in the world? What kind of “thing” is rhetoric, and to what other things is it related? What should our attitude be towards it? This inquiry’s implications will also connect us to conversations about: artifice, mediation, and politics, poetry and other fine arts, the nature of truth and knowledge (philosophy), ethics and justice, literature, and distinctions between oral and written communication.