Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation
English Rhetoric and Composition, PhD
Committee Co-Chair (if applicable)
rhetoric; topoi; evolution; fragmentation; political rhetoric; history of rhetoric
This dissertation integrates classical rhetoric with postmodern understandings of textual fragmentation. “Places in the Polity of Rhetoric” follows two mutually constitutive avenues of inquiry, one of which stresses the importance of understanding textual fragments as rhetorical topoi—that is, as generative “places” that allow writers and speakers to economically evoke larger fields of cultural meaning in the space of a single word, phrase, or image. The other stresses the evolution of rhetorical culture that emerges through the interaction between human agents, who use these topoi for rhetorical ends, and discursive agents (topoi themselves) who use human rhetors to propagate among texts. Implicit in this project is a reassessment of the term topos in rhetorical history; in particular, I recover and extend Aristotle’s largely overlooked metaphor of topoi as nodes of spatial orientation. Looking toward the future of rhetorical studies, my work also relates rhetoric to theories of memes and cultural transmission. Because topos remains at once the most momentous and nebulous term in this project’s theoretical arc, I begin with an overview of topos and its variants in rhetorical history. Chapter 1 notes several points of historical confusion about what topoi are what they do before advocating for an essentially functional understanding of topoi as “places” that economically orient audiences among matrices of cultural meaning. I revisit Aristotle’s use of the term in the Rhetoric and the Physics, stressing this overlooked understanding of contextual orientation that underscores Aristotle’s notion of “place”—among which the classifications of “common” and “special” places, or topics, become not a pair of binary categories, but expressions of degree. I proceed through a sort of counter-history of topical theory centered on the idea of place and orientation, noting contributions from figures like Cicero, Quintilian, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Vico, and Joseph Priestly, while also stressing the friction implicit in the positions of those like Boethius, Ramus, Descartes, and Hugh Blair. The chapter concludes with a comparative look at Stephen Toulmin, Chaïm Perelman, and Kenneth Burke—three figures who exemplify the current range of available positions on topical invention. Chapter 2, “Anatomy of a Topos: A Terminological Symposium,” places topos in relationship to the keywords of trope, fragment, and, most importantly, evolution. I craft this chapter as a theoretical and conceptual toolbox designed to aid rhetorical critics in analyzing topical fragments as they relate to texts, contexts, human agents, and to other fragments. I bookend chapter 2 with two discussions of topoi and evolution. The first stresses the conceptual affordances of evolution in relation to other constitutive terms of rhetorical and discursive analysis, such as “construction” and “sedimentation.” The second relates topoi back to Darwinian ideas of change and transmission, specifically by comparing topical theory to memetics, or meme theory, as espoused by thinkers like Daniel Dennett and Limor Shifman. The intermediate sections examine how different varieties of trope and fragment interact with the evolving sphere of rhetorical culture. Recovering the active understanding of trope as “turn” or “direction,” I describe how tropes like metaphor and metonymy describe different vectors of motion among related topoi. I also describe how different categories of rhetorical fragments—archetypes, quotations, god-terms, ideographs, and ideologemes—imply different relationships among topoi and their cultural contexts. Chapters 3 and 4 examine specific topoi. Chapter 3, “Epideixis and/as Cultural Evolution,” takes up the topoi of “gay marriage,” as used by the religious right and its political opponents, and Occupy Wall Street’s “we are the 99%” to exemplify how individual fragments push and pull on cultural and political formations of discourse. This chapter reconfigures the genre of epideictic, traditionally described as the rhetoric of “praise and blame,” as the rhetoric of incremental sustenance and change at the macrocosmic cultural level—that is, of cultural evolution. I describe, moreover, how deliberative (pragmatic, political) and epideictic rhetorics often alloy together in the space of a single rhetorical text; topoi within such texts often aid rhetors’ deliberative goals while also subtly revising the larger arena of semantic space from which deliberative rhetorics draw in the first place. I return, in Chapter 4, “The Terministic Scream,” to the example of Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women,” as well at the adage “good fences make good neighbors,” widely attributed to Robert Frost. In this chapter, I draw on Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “internally persuasive discourse” to analyze how certain topoi aurally imply the voices of others. “Voice,” here, becomes a deeply social phenomenon, notable for its topical utility and connotative density: the “voices” we quote in our chosen topoi evoke adjacent stores of cultural knowledge, as well as subtle appeals to ethos. I close the chapter by reflecting on the rhetorical ethics of proliferating dominant (straight, white, and male) voices through our chosen topoi. My conclusion extends such questions of ethics and rhetorical praxis, which matter especially as we accelerate further into the increasingly fragmented digital age—the era of “likes,” “shares,” retweets, hashtags, and Internet memes. We find ourselves, that is, in the age of Amazon-review activism. Even if one works for Avery, the faint echoes of the Romney campaign now affixed to the noun “binder” probably offer little harm. But other fragments may echo more loudly. I stress that there is nothing fundamentally new about discursive fragmentation, which is why even ancient rhetorics can assist the current inquiry. But fragments now travel with greater velocity, reach, and fecundity than ever before. We, as human rhetors, find ourselves in increasingly dynamic interaction with transitory fragments of discourse; it matters both to political progress and cultural evolution which fragments we circulate, and how.
Wetherbee, Benjamin James Bickel, "Places in the polity of rhetoric : topoi, evolution, and the fragmentation of discourse." (2015). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 2325.