Defining Rhetoric

Michael Wojcik, November 2007 - April 2008

In a program like this one, it's inevitable that we students (and, I imagine, faculty as well) are frequently asked to describe just what we mean by rhetoric. The very existence of subfields such as "visual rhetoric" and "digital rhetoric" raise this question — J. Anthony Blair's challenge to the concept of visual argument, for example, puts simple definitions of visual rhetoric in doubt.

Certainly there are many long-established and well-used definitions of rhetoric that have proven satisfactory for various purposes over the years. Many rhetoricians follow Aristotle's lead in associating rhetoric with the "possible means of persuasion", or in some other fashion with argument or its techniques. Others, from Isocrates to Cicero to Kant, saw in rhetoric (or its analogs) not merely the search for advantage but a chance for personal improvement as well, with the study of "good" argument enhancing, if not necessarily inculcating, moral character. Even stronger are the claims of those rhetoricians who see rhetoric as epistemic, playing a role not just in the successful transmission of ideas but in creating them as well — though opinions differ on just what (agreement, meaning, truth, wisdom) it might be that rhetoric is constructing.

Rhetoric is clearly in part the study of persuasion and argument; and this is in itself sufficient to make rhetoric indispensible for any just society, where the analysis and critique of argument, on the one hand, and the formulation of "good" argument (however difficult that might be to define) on the other, are obviously necessary to deal with the complexities of human interaction. It is perhaps less obviously true, but easy to argue, that the study of rhetoric may at least help produce a critically thoughtful subject who is less likely to follow demagogues and crowds in the fashionable injustices and oppressions of the day, so perhaps we can provisionally grant at least some of rhetoric's proposed moral uplift as well. With the apparently neverending contests among social constructivists and realists of various stripes, rhetoric's possible epistemic role is more contentious. But few would disagree that in practice rhetoric is central in producing at least the dominant opinion in realms that do not afford formalized and testable inquiry (such as law), and like many people I'm persuaded by the arguments from critical science studies that even in the formal, testable, and empirical fields rhetoric plays a major and unavoidable role.

Over the past year, though, I've tried to find for myself a definition of rhetoric that generalizes beyond these three — rhetoric as the study of persuasion, as the study of good thought, as the study of the social construction of meaning — to the essence of the question of just what rhetoric is. Defining rhetoric as the study of persuasion or argument, however practical, simply displaces that question from discipline to object: what then is persuasion or argument? Defining it in terms of effects, whether on the rhetor or audience, is infinitely interesting but leaves rhetoric itself as something of a black box. Here I'd like to present some of the conceptions I've considered for rhetoric, as I try to develop a theoretical model I find satisfying.

Social Process Control

Rhetoric is the collection of processes by which we intentionally intervene in our social processes. As Octavia Butler famously observed, we are both hierarchical and intelligent; hierarchy compells us to contest one another's projects, and intelligence to find indirect means of doing so. That is both the tension that creates rhetoric and the problem that gives it its form.

This is an interesting approach to the definition of rhetoric, I think, but it's arguably too broad. Certainly there are ways to see physical confrontation, non-participation, and other non-linguistic acts as rhetorical, but this threatens to broaden the definition of rhetoric past the point of usefulness.

Applied Semiotics

How do we motivate and guide the production of meaning in others? (And in ourselves, when we view the self as a network of competing impulses and interpretations.) While there are some methods that are not necessarily rhetorical (eg torture), rhetoric is clearly our primary channel for trying to constrain another's meaning-production. And since rhetoric operates through systems of signification — that is, semiotic systems — rhetoric can be viewed as the application of theories of how semiosis operates.

Like some of the theories I described above, though, this one considers what rhetoric does rather than what it is. Certainly rhetoric, in its synthetic (as opposed to analytic) mode, is an attempt to guide the production of meaning; and certainly it therefore incorporates the study of the production of meaning in some fashion. But this could equally be said of, say, linguistics.

Meaning Engineering

A variation on the preceeding: consider rhetoric as the endeavor to identify, operationalize, and apply the tools we have to build the meanings we intend in the minds of others. (It might be argued that persuasion is stronger than simply the production of meaning, but I'd suggest that persuasion is the act of producing conviction, and conviction is simply a type of meaning.) I think, though, that "engineering" suggests a degree of formal abstraction that cannot properly be applied to rhetoric. We don't know enough about meaning-production to formalize it, and indeed it may not be subject to formalization in any useful way — it may not be reducible to a usefully simpler abstraction.

The Study of the Effective Transmission of Ideas

If, as I suggested above, argument and persuasion can be reduced to the production of a particular sort of meaning, they could also be reduced to simply the transmission, from rhetor to audience, of an idea, as long as we regard the belief in the correctness of a thesis as an idea distinct from the thesis itself. Then rhetoric ultimately becomes a communications problem: what impediments to the transmission of that idea does the rhetor face, and how does the rhetor overcome that? The audience's resistance is simply a complex form of noise interfering with the signal.

I was tempted to at least toy with this definition for a while because it lends itself nicely to communications and information theories, which could produce some interesting insights about rhetoric. I'm conscious of the large conceptual gap between the very different levels of abstraction at which traditional rhetoric and traditional information theory operate, and the often infelicitous results of trying to drag concepts from the formal sciences into the humanities; but my rule of thumb is that if you can do the math, you can propose the metaphor, and I've studied the math. And in fact I still think this idea could serve as the occasion for some interesting ruminations on the relationship between rhetoric and the propagation of ideas.

I have a different theoretical objection to this formulation as a definition of rhetoric, though, and that is to the conceptions of mind and language it relies on. It implies that ideas are things which can be located in some original site (mind), and that they can be packaged, and that those packages can be transmitted through some medium to another site/mind, and that the received idea will replicate the original one with some fidelity. All of those seem dubious to me, precious though they might be to intentionalists like Walter Benn Michaels. Individual "minds" strike me as a concept of convenience, not a description of things that exist in the real world; during rhetorical (and other) interactions, the participants are, I think, engaged in cooperative self-reinvention as much as the transmission of ideas to one another, so the boundaries between minds, and between minds and ideas, are not well-defined. And I am at least somewhat persuaded by the idea that Richard Rorty develops from Donald Davidson, that language is not, in fact, a medium of any sort, and that nothing is transmitted "through" it. Instead, language is a collection of conventions for arriving at more-or-less shared intent, which does not necessarily mean shared meaning or even less shared idea.

The Design and Implementation of Ideology

Combine the traditional view of rhetoric as the study of persuasion with my suggestion above that rhetoric can be seen as concerned with the transmission of ideas and/or the reproduction of meaning. Then take a broader view of ideas and meanings as not isolated entites but members of systems of understanding. Now rhetoric appears to be not so much a question of interactions among individual speaking (or writing, etc) subjects but one of creating and promoting systems of ideas — which is to say, of designing and implementing ideologies.

This might seem to poison the well against rhetoric, much as the common use of the term ("empty rhetoric", rhetoric as deception, and so on) does (a holdover from the Enlightenment fantasy of unbiased language). But ideology gets a bad rap. I agree that ideology-as-mental-model is an essential component of the framework of false consciousness, and that ideology-as-discourse is its outer dress (though I think the very concept of "false consciousness" is a fiction of convenience for a far more complex relation between the self — itself a continually-reproduced epiphenomenon — and an outer world). I agree with Adorno, though, that there is no "outside ideology" that can be achieved as a mental state (or even aimed at as an asymptote of critical purity). We have no choice but to think in, through, and by ideologies.

I'll additionally posit that ideology is the product of conscious human action, and is subject to intention. (Those might seem self-evident or obviously true to some readers, but it's worth noting that it's likely a minority opinion, given widespread belief in extra-human sources of ideology, particularly sacred revelation.) That would seem to not only open a space for the intentional effort to create ideology, but a moral imperative to do so, under any moral system that values encouraging others to do good.

Rhetoric as ideological craft approaches a definition that I'd find satisfying. It hoists rhetoric out of a narrow concern with argumentation or persuasion and recognizes its broad applicability and widespread cultural influence. But even this is too limited, I think, in seeing rhetoric only used systematically, for a body of ideas. I think rhetoric also applies at the micro level, in contingent, immediate, ephemeral moments of interpersonal interaction; and even within individual subjects (we are rhetors to ourselves). Nor is rhetoric always so systematic as to build an ideological structure — there is a wide range of "accidental rhetoric", of signifying subjects creating ad hoc frameworks of ideas without consciously designing them.


If rhetoric as the creation and promotion of ideas, and of systems of ideas, applies at various scales — from internal and interpersonal to national and international — and ranges from the most deliberate (systematic propaganda) to ad hoc and accidental, then perhaps a better metaphor is rhetoric as ideoculture: the husbandry of ideas in their natural habitat (minds). Rhetoric as farming is a time-honored idea, of course, particularly in education (with various subject-building and citizen-building pedagogical philosophies) and religion (where organic husbandry metaphors have long been popular).

There is an appeal to a farming metaphor for rhetoric. It's sufficiently broad (we have everything from the flowerpot on the windowsill to agribusiness). Farming is among the oldest of organized human activities, so it is satisfyingly coeval with rhetoric; and there are at least vague historical connections between the two, as farming's production of surplus led to specialization and civilization. Like rhetoric, farming employs a wide range of technologies and degrees of sophistication (and like rhetoric, it's sometimes unappreciated by those who benefit from it). And the farming metaphor appropriately suggests that the subject is only one participant in a network of heterogeneous actors: just as the farmer must work with the vagaries of organisms, weather, and so forth, the rhetor is both constrained and enabled by audience and opportunity and technology.

Where the ideoculture definition of rhetoric falls short, I think, is in its unavoidable association with a "seeding" model of the transmission of ideas: plant an idea in the audience and it grows on its own into something like the one it came from. This is a bit too much of a black box, and underestimates the tendency of ideas to diverge, recombine, and produce novel meanings for different subjects. It's also suspiciously similar to the "banking" model that Freire famously criticized. In the same vein, the ideoculture idea doesn't do much to illuminate the mechanism of the transmission of ideas (again, the Rorty / Davidson "language is not a medium" critique applies).


My current preference, having considered all of the above, is to view rhetoric as ideoplasty. Ideas are plastic: they're maleable, sticky manifolds with complicated shapes, proturberances and concavities, that fit together eagerly but awkwardly into the complex, unstable, but strangely resillient accretions that are systems of ideas, theories and philosophies and ideologies. Rhetoric is the study of how ideas can be shaped and shuffled to fit together — in particular, how a set of ideas can be coaxed into fitting onto the structure of existing ideas held by each member of the audience. It's the chemistry of ideas, the protein-folding of language and other representations.

The plasticity of ideas is not only the result of rational meaning-production. In the thinking subject, emotion and the unconscious have equal, if not greater, weight; it's well-known that emotional reactions in particular come prior to the interventions of the conscious mind. The physical world prompts ideas through its effects on the senses, and constrains them as they more or less succeed or fail in modelling and predicting it (or offering attractive alternatives to it). Myriad social forces affect the assembling of ideas. By ideoplasty, then, I mean the total construction of ideas and idea networks upon the substrate of a meaning-producing network of heterogeneous agents, using the pressures that can be applied through semiotic systems such as language. And rhetoric is the study and practice of ideoplastic techniques.

Ideas are networks of meaning-relations, which is part of what gives them their flexibility: each relation is a potential pivot. Yet meanings in turn are networks of ideas. There are self-similar layers of progressive abstraction all the way from the general negative networks of sign-systems to the most specific, individual, contingent narratives. Ideoplasty must operate across levels of abstraction; rhetoric must account for language games and the feints of the individual unconscious but also for effects at the largest scales, like national ideologies and the macroeconomics of global commerce.

Ideoplasty holds that significant ideas (models and theories, generalizations aggregated from small, ephemeral, highly-contextual ideas) are formed upon and by networks of agents; they don't arise or reside solely in individual minds. Thus ideas are not communicated more or less accurately through some semiotic medium between individuals. Instead, semiotic pressures may lead interacting meaning-producing networks to arrive at similar meanings (which means they arrive at meanings that cause agents to produce similar symptomatic effects — the only rubric we have for comparing meanings). The rhetor as ideoplast mills ideas, sorting and shaping, refining and combining, creating tools to coax networks of meaning into configurations likely to have the desired outcome.


Blair, J. Anthony. "The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments". Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Boston: Bedford - St. Martin's, 2004. 344-363.

Butler, Octavia. Dawn. London: Gollancz, 1987.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Shape of the Signifier". Critical Inquiry 27 (2001). 266-283.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge UP, 1989.