Fish, Stanley. "Rhetoric." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentrichia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1990. pp. 203-222.



For Milton's seventeenth-century readers this passage would have been immediately recognizable as a brief but trenchant essay on the art and character of the rhetorician. Indeed in these few fines Milton has managed to gather and restate with great rhetorical force all of the traditional arguments against rhetoric. Even Belial's gesture of rising is to the (negative) point: he catches the eye even before he begins to speak, just as Satan will in Book IX when he too raises himself and moved so that "each part,/Motion, each act won audience ere the tongue" (673-74). That is, he draws attention to his appearance, to his surface, and the suggestion of superficiality (a word to be understood in its literal meaning) extends to the word "act"; i.e., that which can be seen. That act is said to be "graceful," the first in a succession of double meanings (one of the stigmadwd attributes of rhetorical speech) we find in the passage. Belial is precisely not full of grace; that is simply his outward aspect, and the same is true for "humane" and "fairer." The verse's judgment on all of his apparent virtues is delivered in the last two words of line 110--"he seem'd"--and the shadow of "seeming" falls across the next line which in isolation might "seem" to be high praise. But under the pressure of what precedes it, the assertion of praise undoes itself with every Janus-faced word (the verse now begins to imitate the object of its criticism by displaying a pervasive disjunction between its outer and inner meanings; indicting seeming, it itself repeatedly seems): "compos'd" now carries its pejorative meaning of "affected" or "made-up"; "high" at once refers to the favored style of bombastic orators and awaits its ironic and demeaning contrast with the lowness of his thoughts; "dignity" is an etymological joke, for Belial is anything but worthy; in fact, he is just what the next line says he is, "false and hollow," an accusation that repeats one of the perennial antirlictorical topoi, that rhetoric, the art of fine speaking, is all show, grounded in nothing but its own empty pretensions, unsupported by any relation to truth. "There is no need," declares Socrates 'in Plato's Gorgias, "for rhetoric to know the facts at all, for it has hit upon a means of persuasion that enables it to appear in the eyes of the ignorant to know more than those who really know" (459), and in the Phaedrus the title figure admits that the "man who plans to be an orator" need not "learn what is really just and true, but only what seems so to the crowd" (260).

This reference to the vulgar popular car indicates that rhetoric's deficiencies are not only epistemological (sundered from truth and fact) and moral (sundered from true knowledge and sincerity) but social: it panders to the worst 'in people and moves them to base actions, exactly as Belial is said to do in the next famous run-on statement, "and could make the worse appear / The better reason." Behind Befial is the line of sophists--Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias, shadowy figures known to us mostly through the writings of Plato where they appear always as relativist foils for the idealistic Socrates. The judgment made on them by a philosophic tradition dominated by Plato is the judgment here made on Belial; their thoughts were low, centered on the suspect skills they taught for hire; the danger they represented is the danger Belial represents: despite the lowness of their thoughts, perhaps because of the lowness of their thoughts, they pleased the ear, at least the ear of the promiscuous crowd (there is always just beneath the surface of the antirlietorical stance a powerful and corrosive elitism), and the explanation of their unfortunate success is the power Belial now begins to exercise, the power of "persuasive: accent." "Accent" here is a resonant word, one of whose relevant meanings is "mode of utterance peculiar to an individual, locality or nation" (OED). He who speaks "in accent" speaks from a particular angled perspective into which he tries to draw his auditors; he also speaks in the rhythms of song (etymologically "accent" means "song added to speech") which as Milton will soon observe "charms the sense" (11, 556). "Persuasive accent" then is almost a redundancy: the two words mean the same thing and what they tell the reader is that he is about to be exposed to a force whose exercise is unconstrained by any sense of responsibility either to the Truth or to the Good. Indeed, so dangerous does Milton consider this force that he feels it necessary to provide a corrective gloss as soon as Belial stops speaking: "Thus Belial with words cloth'd in reason's garb/Counsell'd ignoble case and peaceful sloth" (11, 226-27). Just in case you hadn't noticed.

I have lingered so long over this passage because we can extrapolate from it almost all of the binary oppositions in relation to which rhetoric has received its (largely negative) definition: inner/outer, deep/surface, essential/peripheral, unmediated/mediated, clear/colored, necessary/contingent, straightforward/ angled, abiding/fleeting, reason/passion, things/words, realities/illusions, fact/ opinion, neutral/partisan. Underlying this list, which is by no means exhaustive, are three basic oppositions: first, between a truth that exists independently of all perspectives and points of view and the many truths that emerge and seem perspicuous when a particular perspective or point of view has been established and is in force; second, an opposition between true knowledge, which is knowledge as it exists apart from any and all systems of belief, and the knowledge, which because it flows from some or other system of belief, is incomplete and partial (in the sense of biased); and third, an opposition between a self or consciousness that is turned outward in an effort to apprehend and attach itself to truth and true knowledge, and a self or consciousness that is turned inward in the direction of its own prejudices, which far from being transcended, continue to inform its every word and action. Each of these oppositions is attached in turn to an opposition between two kinds of language: on the one hand, language that faithfully reflects or reports on matters of fact uncolored by any personal or partisan agenda or desire; and on the other hand, language that is infected by partisan agendas and desires, and therefore colors and distorts the facts which it purports to reflect. It is use of the second kind of language that makes one a rhetorician, while adherence to the first kind makes one a seeker after truth and an objective observer of the way things are.

It is this understanding of linguistic possibilities and dangers that generates a succession of efforts to construct a language from which all perspectival bias (a redundant phrase) has been eliminated, efforts that have sometimes taken as a model the notations of mathematics, at other times the operations of logic, and more recently the purely formal calculations of a digital computer. Whether it issues in the elaborate linguistic machines of seventeenthcentury "projectors" like Bishop Wilkins (An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, 1668), or in the building (a la Chomsky) of a "competence" model of language abstracted from any particular performance, or in the project of Esperanto or some other artificial language claiming universality (see Large 1985), or in the fashioning of a Habermasian "ideal speech situation" in which all asscrtions express "a 'rational will' in relation to a common interest ascertained without deception" (Habermas 1975, 108), the impulse behind the effort is always the same: to establish a form of communication that escapes partiality and aids us in first determining and then affirming what is absolutely and objectively true, a form of communication that in its structure and operations is the very antithesis of rhetoric.

Although the transition from classical to Christian thought is marked by many changes, one thing that does not change is the status of rhetoric in relation to a foundational vision of truth and meatung. Whether the center of that vision is a personalized deity or an abstract geometric reason, rhetoric is the force that pulls us away from that center and into its own world of ever-shifting shapes and shimmering surfaces.

The quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric survives every sea change in the history of Western thought, continually presenting us with the (skewed) choice between the plain unvarnished truth straightforwardly presented and the powerful but insidious appeal of "fine language," language that has transgressed the limits of representation and substituted its own forms for die forms of reality (see Kennedy 1963, 23).


To this point my presentation has been as skewed as this choice, because it has suggested that rhetoric has received only negative characterizations. In fact, there have always been friends of rhetoric, from the Sophists to the antifoundationalists of the present day, and in response to the realist critique they have devised (and repeated) a number of standard defenses. Two of these defenses are offered by Aristotle in the Rhetoric. First, he defines rhetoric as a faculty or art whose practice will help us to observe "in any given case the available means of persuasion" (1355b) and points out that as a faculty is it not in and of itself inclined away from truth. Of course, bad men may abuse it, but that, after all, "is a charge which may be made in common against all good things." "What makes a man a sophist," he declares, "is not his faculty, but his moral purpose."

Aristotle's second defense is more aggressively positive and responds directly to one of the most damaging characterizations of rhetoric: "We must be able to employ persuasion ... on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are" (1355a). In short, properly used, rhetoric is a heuristic, helping us not to distort the facts but to discover them; the setting forth of contrary views of a matter will have the beneficial effect of showing us which of those views most accords with the truth. By this argument, as Peter Dixon has pointed out (1971, 14), Aristotle "removes rhetoric from the realm of the haphazard and the fanciful" and rejoins it to that very realm, of which it was said to be the great subverter.

But if this is the strength of Aristodes defense, it is also its weakness, for in making it he reinforces the very assumptions in relation to which rhetoric will always be suspect, assumptions of an independent reality whose outlines can be perceived by a sufficiently clear-eyed observer who can then represent them in a transparent verbal medium. The stronger defense, because it hits at the heart of the opposing tradition, is one that embraces the accusations of that tradition and makes of them a claim.

To the accusation that rhetoric deals only with the realms of the probable and contingent and forsake truth, the Sophists and their successors respond that truth itself is a contingent affair and assumes a different shape in the light of differing local urgencies and the convictions associated with them. "Truth was individual and temporary, not universal and lasting, for the truth for any man was ... what he could be persuaded of" (Guthrie 1971, 193). Not only does this make rhetoric--the art of analyzing and presenting local exigencies--a form of discourse no one can afford to ignore, it renders the opposing discourse--formal philosophy--irrelevant and beside the point. This is precisely Isocrates' thesis in his Antidosis. Abstract studies like geometry and astronomy, he says, do not have any "useful application either to private or public affairs; ... after they are learned ... they do not attend us through life nor do they lend aid in what we do, but are wholly divorced from our necessities" (Isocrates 1962, 2:26162).

What Isocratcs does (at least rhetorically) is shift the balance of power be tween philosophy and rhetoric by putting philosophy on the defensive. This same strategy is pursued after him by Cicero and Quintilian, die most influential of the Roman rhetoricians. In the opening pages of his De Inventione Cicero elaborates the myth that will subsequently be invoked in every defense of humanism and belles lettres. There was a time, he says, when "men wandered at large in the field like animals," and there was "as yet no ordered system of religious worship nor of social duties" (Cicero, 1:2). It was then that a "great and wise" man "assembled and gathered" his uncivilized brothers and "introduced them to every useful and honorable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty." Nevertheless, he gained their attention through "reason and eloquence" (proper rationem atque orationem) and by these means he "transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk." From that time on, "many cities have been founded, . . . the flames of a multitude of wars have been extinguished, and . . . the strongest alliances and most sacred friend ships have been formed not only by the use of reason, but also more easily by the use of eloquence" (1: 1). Whereas in the foundationalist story an original purity (of vision, purpose, procedure) is corrupted when rhetories siren song proves too sweet, in Cicero's story (later to be echoed by countless others) (see, for example, Lawson 1972, 27) all the human virtues, and indeed humanity itself, are wrested by the arts of eloquence from a primitive and violent state of nature. Significantly (and this is a point to which we shall return), both stories are stories of power, rhetoric's power; it is just that in one story that power must be resisted test civilization fall, while in the other that power brings order and a genuine political process where before there was only the rule of "physical strength."

The contrast between the two stories can hardly be exaggerated because what is at stake is not simply a matter of emphasis or priority (as it seems to be in Aristotle's effort to demonstrate an alliance between rhetoric and truth) but a difference in worldviews. The quarrel between rhetorical and foundational thought is itself foundational; its content is a disagreement about the basic constituents of human activity and about the nature of human nature itself. In Richard Lanham's helpful terms, it is a disagreement as to whether we are members of the species homo seriosus or homo rhetoricus. Homo seriosus or serious man

Homo rhetoricus or rhetorical man, on the other hand,

As rhetorical man manipulates reality, establishing through his words the imperatives and urgencies to which he and his fellows must respond, he manipulates or fabricates himself, simultaneously conceiving of and occupying the roles that become first possible and then mandatory given the social structure his rhetoric has put in place. By exploring the available means of persuasion in a particular situation, he tries them on, and as they begin to suit him, he becomes them (see Sloane 1985, 87: "Rhetoric succeeded in humanism's great desideratum, the artistic creation of adept personhood"; see also Greenblatt 1980). What serious man fears--the invasion of the fortress of essence by the contingent, the protean and the unpredictable--is what rhetorical man celebrates and incarnates.

Which of these views of human nature is the correct one? The question can be answered only from within one or the other, and the evidence of one parry will be regarded by the other either as illusory or as grist for its own mill. When presented with the ever-changing panorama of history, serious man will see variation on a few basic themes; and when confronted with the persistence of essentialist questions and answers, rhetorical man will reply as Lanham does by asserting that serious man is himself a supremely fictional achievement; seriousness is just another style, not the state of having escaped style. That is to say, for rhetorical man the distinctions (between form and content, periphery and core, ephemeral and abiding) invoked by serious man are nothing more than the scaffolding of the theatre of seriousness, are themselves instances of what they oppose. And on the other side if serious man were to here that argument, he would regard it as one more example of rhetorical manipulation and sleight of hand, an outrageous assertion that flies in the face of common sense, the equivalent in debate of "so's your old man." And so it would go, with no prospect of ever reaching accord, an endless round of accusation and countcraccusation in which turth, honesty, and linguistic responsibility are claimed by everyone: "from serious premises, all rhetorical language is suspect; from a rhetorical point of view, transparent language seems dishonest, false to the world" (Lanham 1976, 28).

And so it bas gone; the history of Western thought could be written as the history of this quarrel. And indeed such histories have been written and with predictably different emphases. In one version written many times, the mists of religion, magic, and verbal incantation (all equivalently suspect forms of fantasy) arc dispelled by the Enlightenment rediscovery of reason and science; enthusiasm and metaphor alike are curbed by the refinement of method, and the effects of difference (point of view) are bracketed and held in check by a procedural rigor. In another version (told by a line stretching from Vico to Foucault) a camivalcsque world of exuberance and possibility is drastically impoverished by the ascendancy of a soulless reason, a brutally narrow perspective that claims to be objective and proceeds in a repressive manner to enforce its claim. It is not my intention here to endorse either history or to offer a third one or to argue as some have for a nonhistory of discontinuous episteme innocent of either a progressive or lapsarian curve; I only wish to point out that the debate continues to this very day and that its terms arc exactly those one finds in the dialogues of Plato and the orations of the Sophists.


As I write, the fortunes of rhetorical man are on the upswing, as in discipline after discipline there is evidence of what has been called the interpretive turn, the realization (at least for those it seizes) that the givens of any field of activity--including the facts it commands, the procedures it trusts in, and the values it expresses and extcnds--are socially and politically constructed, are fashioned by man rather than delivered by God or Nature. The most recent (and unlikely) field to experience this revolution, or at least to hear of its possibility, is economics. The key text is Donald McCloskey's The Rhetotic of Economics (1985), a title that is itself polemical since, as McCloskey points out, mainstream economists don't like to think of themselves as employing a rhetoric; rather they regard themselves as scientists whose methodology insulates them from the appeal of special interests or points of view. They think, in other words, that the procedures of their discipline will produce "knowledge free from doubt, free from metaphysics, morals, and personal conviction" (16). To this McCloskey responds by declaring (in good sophistic terms) that no such knowledge is available, and that while economic method promises to deliver it, "what it is able to deliver [and] renames as scientific methodology [are] the scientises and especially the economic scientises metaphysics, morals, and personal convictions" (16). Impersonal method then is both an illusion and a danger (as a kind of rhetoric it masks its rhetorical nature), and as an antidote to it McCloskey offers rhetoric, which he says, deals not with abstract truth, but with the truth that emerges in the context of distinctly human conversations (28-29). Within those conversations, there are always

The real truth, concludes McCloskey, is that "assertions are made for purposes of persuading some audience" and that given the unavailability of a God's-eye view, "this is not a shameful fact" but the bottom-line fact in a rhetorical world.

At the first conference called to consider McCloskey's arguments, the familiar antirhctorical objections were heard again in the land and the land might have been fifth-century B.C. Athens as well as Wellesley, Massachussets, in 1986. One participant spoke of "the primrose path to extreme relativism." Other voices proclaimed that nothing in McCloskey's position was new (an observation certainly true), that everyone already knew it, and that at any rate it didn't touch the core of the economists' practice. Still others invoked a set of related (and familiar) distinctions between empirical and interpretive activities, between demonstration and persuasion, between verifiable procedures and anarchic irrationalism. Of course, each of these objections had already been formulated (or reformulated) in those disciplines that had heard rhetoric's siren song long before it reached the belated ears of economists. The name that everyone always refers to (in praise or blame) is Thomas Kuhn. His The Stmaure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) is arguably the most frequently cited work in the humanities and social sciences in the past twenty-five years, and it is rhetorical through and through. Kuhn begins by rehearsing and challenging the orthodox model of scientific inquiry in which independent facts are first collected by objective methods and then built up into a picture of nature, a picture that nature herself either confirms or rejects in the context of controlled experiments. In this model, science is a "cumulative process" (3) in which each new discovery adds "one more item to the population of the scientist's world" (7). The shape of that world--of the scientises professional activities--is determined by the shapes (of fact and structure) already existing in the larger world of nature, shapes that constrain and guide the scientist's work.

Kuhn challenges this story by introducing the notion of a paradigm, a set of tacit assumptions and beliefs within which research goes on, assumptions which rather than deriving from the observation of facts are determinative of the facts that could possibly be observed. It follows then that when observations made within different paradigms conflict, there is no principled (i.e., nonrhetorical) way to adjudicate the dispute. One cannot put the competing accounts to the test of fact, because the specification of fact is precisely what is at issue between them; a fact cited by one party would be seen as a mistake by the other. What this means is that science does not proceed by offering its descriptions to the independent judgment of nature; rather it proceeds when the proponents of one paradigm are able to present their case in a way that the adherents of other paradigms find compelling. In short, the "motor" by which science moves is not verification or falsification, but persuasion. In the case of disagreement, "each party must try, by persuasion, to convert the other" (198), and when one party succeeds there is no higher court to which the outcome might be referred: "there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community" (94). "What better criterion," asks Kuhn, "could there be?" (170).

The answer given by those who were horrified by Kuhn's rhetoricization of scientific procedure was predictable: a better criterion would be one that was not captive to a particular paradigm but provided a neutral space in which competing paradigms could be disinterestedly assessed. By denying such a criterion, Kuhn leaves us in a world of epistemological and moral anarchy. The words are Israel Schefficr's:

Kuhn and those he has persuaded have, of course, responded to these accusations, but needless to say, the debate continues in ternis readers of this may could easily imagine; and the debate has been particularly acrimonious because the area of contest--sciencc and its procedures--is so heavily invested-in as the one place where the apostles of rhetorical interpretivism would presumably fear to tread.

At one point in his argument, Kuhn remarks that, in the tradition he is critiquing, scientific research is "reputed to proceed" from "raw data" or "brute experience"; but, he points out, if that were truly the mode of proceeding, it would require a "neutral observation language" (125), a language that registers facts without any mediation by paradigm-specific assumptions. The problem is that "philosophical investigation has not yet provided even a hint of what a language able to do that would be like" (127). Even a specially devised language "embodies a host of expectations about nature," expectations that limit in advance what can be described. Just as one cannot (in Kuhn's view) have recourse to neutral facts in order to settle a dispute, so one cannot have recourse to a neutral language in which to report those facts or even to report on the configuration of the dispute. Whatever reports a particular language (natural or artificial) offers us will be the report on the world as it is seen from within some particular situation; there is no other aperspectival way to see and no language other than a situation-dependent language--an interested, rhetorical language--in which to report.

This same point was being made with all the force of philosophical authority by J. L. Austin in a book published, significantly, in the same year (1962) that saw the publication of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Austin begins How to Do Things with Words by observing that traditionally the center of the philosophy of language has been just the kind of utterance Kuhn declares unavailable, the context-independent statement that offers objective reports on an equally independent world in sentences of the form "He is running" and "Lord Raglan won the battle of Alma" (47, 142). Such utterances, which Austin calls "constative," are answerable to a requirement of truth and verisimilitude ("the truth of the constative . . . 'he is running' depends on his being running"); the words must match the world, and if they do not they can be criticized as false and inaccurate. There are, however, innumerable utterances that are not assessable in this way. If, for example, I say to you, "I promise to pay you five dollars" or "Leave the room," it would be odd were you to respond by saying "true" or "false"; rather you would say to the first "good" or "that's not enough" or "I won't hold my breath" and to the second "yes, sir" or "but I'm expecting a phone call" or "who do you think you are?" These and many other imagmiable responses would not be judgments on the truth or accuracy of my utterance but on its appropriateness given our respective positions in some social structure of understanding (domestic, military, economic, etc.). Thus the very identity, and therefore the meaning, of this type of utterance--Austin names it "performative"--depends on the context in which it is produced and received. Nothing guarantees that "I promise to pay you five dollars" will be either intended or heard as a promise; in different circumstances it could be received as a threat or a joke (as when I utter it from debtor's prison) and in many circumstances it will be intended as one act and understood as another (as when your opinion of my trustworthiness is much lower than my own). When the criterion of verisimilitude has been replaced by the criterion of appropriateness, meaning becomes radically contextual, potentially as variable as the situated (and shifting) under standings of countless speakers and hearers.

It is, of course, precisely this property of performatives--their force is contingent and cannot be formally constrained--that is responsible for their being consigned by philosophers of language to the category of the "derived" or "parasitic," where, safely tucked away, they are prevented from contaminating the core category of the constative. But it is this act of segregation and quarantinirig that Austin undoes in the second half of his book when he extends the analysis of performatives to constatives and finds that they too mean differently in the light of differing contextual circumstances. Consider the exemplary constative, "Lord Raglan won the battle of Alma." Is it true, accurate, a faithful report? It depends, says Austin, on the context in which it is uttered and received (142-43). In a high-school textbook, it might be accepted as true because of the in-place assumptions as to what, exactly, a battle is, what constitutes winning, what the fimcdon of a general is, etc., while in a work of "serious" historical research all of these assumptions may have been replaced by others, with the result that the very notions "battle" and "won" would have a different shape. The properties that supposedly distinguish constativcs from perfonnatives--fidelity to preexisting facts, accountability to a criterion of truth--tum out to be as dependent on particular conditions of production and reception as performatives. "True" and "false" Austin concludes, are not names for the possible relationships between freestanding (constative) utterances and an equally freestanding state of affairs; rather they arc situation-specific judgments on the relationship between contextually produced utterances and states of affairs that are themselves no less contextually produced. At the end of the book constatives are "discovered" to be a subset of performatives, and with this discovery the formal core of language disappears entirely and is replaced by a world of utterances vulnerable to the sea change of every circumstance--the world, in short, of rhetorical (situated) man.

This is a conclusion Austin himself resists when he attempts to isolate (and thereby contain) the rhetorical by invoking another distinction between serious and nonserious utterance. Serious utterances are utterances for which the speaker takes responsibility; he means what he says, and therefore you can infer his meaning by considering his words in context. A nonserious utterance is an utterance produced in circumstances that "abrogate (21) the speaker's responsibihty, and therefore one cannot with any confidence--that is, without the hazard of ungrounded conjecture--determine what he means:

The distinction then is between utterances that arc, as Austin puts it later, "tethered to their origin" (61), anchored by a palpable intention, and utterances whose origin is hidden by the screen of a theatrical or literary stage-setting. This distinction and the passage in which it appears were taken up in 1967 by Jacques Derrida in a famous (and admiring) critique of Austin. Derrida finds Austin working against his own best insights and forgetting what he has just acknowledged, that "infelicity [communication going astray, in an unintended direction] is an ill to which all [speech] acts are heir" (Derrida 1977). Despite this acknowledgment, Austin continues to think of infelicity--of those cases in which the tethering origin of utterances is obscure and must be constructed by interpretive conjecture--as special, whereas, in Derrida's view, infelicity is itself the originary state in that any determination of meaning must always proceed within an interpretive construction of a speaker's intention. In short, there are no ordinary circumstances, merely those myriad and varied circumstances in which actors embedded in stage settings hazard interpretations of utterances produced by actors embedded in other stage situations. All the world, as Shakespeare says, is a stage, and on that stage "the quality of risk" admitted by Austin is not something one can avoid by sticking close to ordinary language in ordinary circumstances, but is rather "the internal and positive condition" of any act of communication (Derrida 1977, 190).

In the same publication in which the English translation of Dcrrida's essay appeared, John Searle, a student of Austin's, replied in terms that make clear the affiliation of this particular debate to the ancient debate whose configurations we have been tracing. Searle's strategy is basically to repeat Austin's points and declare that Derrida has missed them: "Austin's idea is simply this: if we want to know what it is to make a promise we had better not start our investigations with promises made by actors on stage ... because in some fairly obvious ways such utterances are not standard cases of promises" (Searle 1977, 204). But in Derrida's argument, the category of the "obvious" is precisely what is being challenged or "deconstructed." Although it is true that we consider promises uttered in everyday contexts more direct--less etiolated--than promises made on a stage, this (Derri'da would say) is only because the stage settings within which everyday life proceeds, are so powcrfully-t-hat is, rhetorically--in place that they are in effect invisible, and therefore the meanings they make possible are experienced as if they were direct and unmediatcd by any screens. The "obvious" cannot be opposed to the "staged" as Searle assumes, because it is simply the achievement of a staging that has been particularly successful. One does not escape the rhetorical by fleeing to the protected area of basic communication and common sense because common sense in whatever form it happens to take is always a rhetorical--partial, partisan, interested--construction. This does not mean, Derrida hastens to add, that all rhetorical constructions arc equal, just that they are equally rhetorical, equally the effects and extensions of some limited and challengeable point of view. The "citationality"--the condition of being in quotes, of being indirect--of an utterance in a play is not the same as the citationality of a philosophical reference or a deposition before a court; it is just that no one of these performatives is more serious--more direct, less mediated, less rhetorical--than any other.

One recognizes in these assertions the familiar world of Rhetorical Man, teeming with roles, situations, strategies, interventions, but containing no master role, no situation of situations, no strategy for outflanking aft strategies, no intervention in the arena of dispute that does not expand the arena of dispute, no neutral point of rationality from the vantage point of which the "merely rhetorical" can be identified and held in check. Indeed deconstructive or poststructuralist thought is 'in its operation a rhetorical machine: it systematically asserts and demonstrates the mediated, constructed, partial, socially constituted nature of all realities, whether they be phenomenal, linguistic, or psychological. To deconstruct a text, says Derrida, is to "work through the structured genealogy of its concepts in the most scrupulous and immanent fashion, but at the same time to detcrn-iine from a certain external perspective that it cannot name or describe what this history may have concealed or excluded, constituting itself as history through this repression in which it has a stake" (1981, 6). The "external perspective" is the perspective from which the analyst knows in advance (by virtue of his commitment to the rhetorical or deconstructive worldview) that the coherence presented by a text (and an institution or an economy can in this sense be a text) rests on a contradiction it cannot acknowledge, rests on the suppression of the challengeable rhetoricity of its own standpoint. A deconstructive reading win surface those contradictions and expose those suppressions and thus "trouble" a unity that is achieved only by covering over all the excluded emphases and interests that might threaten it.

Nor is this act performed in the service of something beyond rhetoric. Derridean deconstruction does not uncover the operations of rhetoric in order to reach the Truth; rather it continually uncovers the truth of rhetorical operations, the truth that all operations, including the operation of deconstruction itself, are rhetorical. If, as Paul de Man asserts, "a deconstruction always has for its target to reveal the existence of hidden articulations and fragmentations within assumedly monadic totalities," care must be taken that a new monadic totality is not left as the legacy of the deconstructive gesture. Since the course of a deconstruction is to uncover a "fragmented stage that can be called natural with regard to the system that is being undone," there is always the danger that the "natural" pattern will "substitute its relational system for the one it helped to dissolve" (de Man 1979, 249). The only way to escape this danger is to perform the deconstructive act again and again, submitting each new emerging constellation to the same suspicious scrutiny that brought it to light, and resisting the temptation to put in place of the truths it rhetoricizes the truth that everything is rhetorical. One cannot rest even in the insight that there is no place to rest. The rhetorical beat must by definition go on, endlessly repeating the sequence by which "the lure of solid ground" is succeeded by "the ensuing demystification" (Ray 1984, 195). When de Man approvingly quotes Nietzsche's identification of truth with "a moving army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropornorphisms," a rhetorical construction whose origin has been (and must be) forgotten, he does not exempt Nietzsche's text from its own corrosive effects. "A text like On Trutb and Lie, although it presents itself legitimately as a demystification of literary rhetoric remains entirely literary, and deceptive itself " (113). The "rhetorical mode," the mode of deconstruction, is a mode of "endless reflection," since it is "unable ever to escape from the rhetorical deceit it announces" (115).


That, however, is just what is wrong with deconstructive practice from the viewpoint of the intellectual left, many of whose members subscribe to Nietzsche's account of truth and reality as rhetorical, but find that much of poststructuralist discourse uses that account as a way of escaping 'into new versions of idealism and formalism. Frank Lcntricchia, for example, sees in some of de Man's texts an intention to place "discourse in a realm where it can have no responsibility to historical life" and fears that we are being invited into "the realm of the thoroughly predictable linguistic transcendental," the "rarified region of the undecidable," where every text "speaks synchrorlically and endlessly the same tale ... of its own dupticitous self-consciousness" (1980, 310, 317). Terry Eaglcton's judgment is even harsher. Noting that in the wake of Nietzschean thought, rhetoric, "mocked and berated for centuries by an abrasive rationalism" takes its "terrible belated revenge" by finding itself in every rationalist project. Eagleton complains that many rhetoricians seem content to stop there, satisfied with the "Fool's function of unmasking all power as self-rationalization, all knowledge as a mere fumbling with metaphor" (1981, 108). Operating as a "vigorous demystifier of all ideology," rhetoric functions only as a form of thought and ends up by providing "the final ideological rationale for political inertia." In retreat "from market place to study, politics to philology, social practice to serniotics" deconstructive rhetoric turns the emancipatory promise of Nietzschcan thought into "a gross failure of ideological nerve," allowing the liberal academic the elitist pleasure of repeatedly exposing "vulgar commercial and political hectorings" (1089). In both his study of Benjamin and his influential Literary Theory: An Introduction, Eagleton urges a return to the Ciceronian-Isocratic tradition in which the rhetorical arts are inseparable from the practice of a politics, "techniques of persuasion indissociable from the substantive issues and audiences involved," techniques whose employment is "closely determined by the pragmatic situation at hand" (60 1). In short, he calls for a rhetoric that will do real work and cites as an example the slogan "black is beautiful" which he says is "paradigmaticatly rhetorical since it employs a figure of equivalence to produce particular discursive and extra-discursive effects without direct regard for truth" (112). That is, someone who says "black is beautiful" is not so much interested in the accuracy of the assertion (it is not constatively 'intended) as he is in the responses it may provoke--surprise, outrage, urgency, solidarity--responscs that may in turn set in motion "practices that are deemed, in the light of a particular set of falsifiable hypotheses, to be desirable" (113). This confidence in his objectives makes Eagleton impatient with those for whom the rhetoricity of all discourse is something to be savored for itself, something to be lovingly and obsessively demonstrated again and again. It is not, he says, "a matter of starting from certain theoretical or methodological problems; it is a matter of starting from what we want to do, and then seeing which methods and theories will best help us to achieve these ends" (1983, 211). Theories, in short, arc themselves rhetorics whose usefiilness is a fiinction of contingent circumstances. It is ends--specific goals in local contexts--that rule the invocation of theories, not theories that deterniinc goals and the means by which they can be reached.

There are those on the left, however, for whom the direction is the other way around, from the theoretical realization of rhetoric's pervasiveness to a vision and a program for implementing it. In their view the discovery (or rediscovery) that all discourse and therefore all knowledge is rhetorical leads, or should lead, to the adoption of a method by which the dangers of rhetoric can be at least mitigated and perhaps extirpated. This method has two stages: the first is a stage of debunking, and it issues from the general suspicion in which all orthodoxies and arrangements of power are held once it is realized that their basis is not reason or nature but the success of some rhetonical/political agenda. Armed with this realization one proceeds to expose the contingent and therefore challengeable basis of whatever presents itself as natural and inevitable. So far this is precisely the procedure of deconstruction; but whereas deconstructive practice (at least of the Yale variety) seems to produce nothing but the occasion for its endless repetition, some cultural revolutionaries discern in it a more positive residue, the loosening or weakening of the structures of domination and oppression that now hold us captive. The reasoning is that by repeatedly uncovering the historical and ideological basis of established structures (both political and cognitive), one becomes sensitized to the effects of ideology and begins to clear a space in which those effects can be combatted; and as that sensitivity grows more acute, the area of combat will become larger until it encompasses the underlying structure of assumptions that confers a spurious legitimacy on the powers that currently be. The claim, in short, is that the radically rhetorical insight of Nietzschean/Derridean thought can do radical political work; becoming aware that everything is rhetorical is the first step in countering the power of rhetoric and liberating us from its force. Only if deeply entrenched ways of thinking are made the objects of suspicion will we be able "even to imagine that life could be different and better."

This last sentence is taken from an essay by Robert Gordon entitled "New Developments in Legal Theory" (1982, 287). Gordon is writing as a member of the Critical Legal Studies movement, a group of legal academics who have discovered the rhetorical nature of legal reasoning and are busily exposing as interested the supposedly disinterested operations of legal procedures. Gordon's pages are replete with the vocabulary of enclosure or prison; we are "locked into" a system of belief we did not make; we are "demobilized" (that is, rendered less mobile); we must "break out" (291), we must "unfreeze the world as it appears to common sense" (289). What will help us to break out, to unfreeze, is the discovery "that the belief-structures that rule our fives are not found in nature but are historically contingent," for that discovery, says Gordon, "is extraordinarily liberating" (289). To the question, what is the content of that liberation, given a world that is rhetorical through and through, those who work Gordon's side of the street usually reply that emancipation will take the form of a strengthening and enlarging of a capacity of mind that stands to the side of, and is therefore able to resist, the appeal of the agenda that would enslave us. That capacity of mind has received many names, but the one most often proposed is "critical self-consciousness." Critical self-consciousness is the ability (stifled in some, developed in others) to discern in any "scheme of association," including those one finds attractive and compelling, the partisan ains it hides from view; and the claim is that as it performs this negative task critical self-consciousness participates in the positive task of formulating schemes of associations (structures of thought and government) that are in the service not of a particular party but of all mankind.

It need hardly be said that this claim veers back in the direction of the rationalism and universalism that the critical/deconstructive project sets out to demystify. That project begins by rejecting the rationalities of present life as rationalizations, and revealing the structure of reality to be rhetorical, that is, partial; but then it turns around and attempts to use the insight of partiality to build something that is less partial, less hostage to the urgencies of a particular vision and more responsive to the needs of men and women in general. Insofar as this "turn" is taken to its logical conclusion, it ends up reinventing at the conclusion of a rhetorically informed critique the entire array of antirhetorical gestures and exclusions. One sees this clearly in the work of Jdrgen Habermas, a thinker whose widespread influence is testimony to the durability of the tradition that began (at least) with Plato. Habermas's goal is to bring about something he calls the "ideal speech situation" a situation in which all assertions proceed not from the perspective of individual desires and strategies, but from the perspective of a general rationality upon which all parties are agreed. In such a situation nothing would count except the claims to universal validity of all assertions. "No force except that of the better argument is exercised; and ... as a result, all motives except that of the cooperative search for truth are excluded" (1975, 107-8). Of course, in the world we now inhabit, there is no such purity of motive, but nevertheless, says Habermas, even in the most distorted of communicative situations there remains something of the basic impulse behind all utterance, "the intention of communicating a true [wahr] proposition ... so that the hearer can share the knowledge of the speaker" (1979, 2). If we could only eliminate from our discourse-performances those intentions that reflect baser goals--the intentions to deceive, to manipulate, to persuade--the ideal speech situation could be approximated.

This is the project Habermas names "Universal Pragmatics" and the name tells its own story. Habermas recognizes, as all modem and postmodern contextualists do, that language is a social and not a purely formal phenomenon, but he thinks that the social/pragmatic aspect of language use is itself "accessible to formal analysis" (6) and that therefore it is possible to construct a universal "communicative competence" (29) parallel to Chomsky's linguistic competence. Sentences produced according to the rules and norms of this communicative competence would be tied not to "particular epistemic presuppositions and changing contexts" (29), but to the unchanging context (the context of contexts) in which one finds the presuppositions underlying the general possibility of successful speech. "A general theory of speech acts would ... describe ... that fundamental system of rules that adult subjects master to the extent that they can fulfill the conditions of happy employment of sentences in utterances no matter to which particular language the sentences may belong and in which accidental contexts the utterances may be embedded" (26). If we can operate on the level of that fundamental system, the distorting potential of "accidental contexts" will be neutralized because we will always have one eye on what is essential, the establishing by rational cooperation of an interpersonal (nonaccidental) truth. Once speakers are oriented to this goal and away from others, oriented toward general understanding, they will be incapable of deception and manipulation. A company of transparent subjectivities will join together in the fashioning of a transparent truth and of a world in which the will to power has been eliminated.

In his recent book Textual Power (1985), Robert Scholes examines the rationalist epistemology in which a "complete self confronts a solid world, perceiving it directly and accurately, . . . capturing it perfectly in a transparent language" and declares it to be so thoroughly discredited that it now "is lying in ruins around us" (13233). Perhaps so, in some circles, but the fact of Habermas's work and of the audience he commands suggests that even now those ruins are collecting themselves and rising again 'into the familiar antirhetorical structure. It would seem that any announcement of the death of either position will always be premature, slightly behind the institutional news that in some comer of the world supposedly abandoned questions are receiving what at least appear to be new answers. Only recently, the public fortunes of rationalist-foundationalist thought have taken a favorable turn with die publication of books like Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, both of which (Bloom's more directly) challenge the "new Orthodoxy" of "extreme cultural relativism" and reassert, albeit in different ways, the existence of normative standards. In many quarters these books have been welcomed as a return to the common sense that is necessary if civilization is to avoid the dark night of anarchy. One can expect administrators and legislators to propose reforms (and perhaps even purges) based on Bloom's arguments (the rhetorical force of antirhetoricalism is always being revived) and one can expect too a host of voices raised in opposition to what will surely be called the "new positivism." Those voices will include some that have been recorded here and some others that certainly merit recording, but can only be noted in a list that is itself incomplete. The full story of rhetoric's twentieth-century resurgence would boast among its cast of characters: Kenneth Burke, whose "dramatism" anticipates so much of what is considered avant-garde today; Wayne Booth, whose The Rbetoric of Fiction was so important in legitimizing the rhetorical analysis of the novel; Mikhail Bahktin, whose contrast of monologic to dialogic and heteroglossic discourse sums up so many strands in the rhetorical tradition; Roland Barthes, who in the concept of "jouissance makes a (non)constitutivc principle of die tendency of rhetoric to resist closure and extend play; the ethnomethodologists (Harold Garfinkel and company), who discover in every supposedly rule-bound context the operation of a principle (exactly the wrong word) of "ad-hocing"; Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, whose The New Rbetoric. A Treatise on Argumentation provides a sophisticated modem source-book for would-be rhetoricians weary of always citing Aristotle; Barbara Herrnstein Smith, who in the course of espousing an unashamed relativism directly confronts and argues down the objections of those who fear for their souls (and more) in a world without objective standards; Fredric Jameson and Hayden White, who teach us (among other things) that "history ... is unaccessible to us except in textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization" (1981, 35); rcader-orientcd critics like Norman Holland, David Bleich, Wolfgang Iser, and H. R. Jauss, who by shifting the emphasis from the text to its reception open up the act of interpretation to the infinite variability of contextual circumstance; innumerable feminists who relentlessly unmask male hegemonic structures and expose as rhetorical the rational posturings of the legal and political systems; equally innumerable theorists of composition who, under the slogan "process, not product," insist on the rhetorical nature of communication and argue for far-reaching changes in the way writing is taught. The list is already formidable, but it could go on and on, providing support for Scholes's contention that the rival epistemology has been vanquished and for Clifford Geertz's announcement (and he too is a contributor to the shift he reports) that "Something is happening to the way we think about the way we think" (1980).

But it would seem, from the evidence marshalled in this essay, that something is always happening to the way we think, and that it is always the same something, a tug-of-war between two views of human life and its possibilities, no one of which can ever gain complete and lasting ascendancy because in the very moment of its triumphant articulation each turns back in the direction of the other. Thus Wayne Booth feels obliged in both The Rbetoric of Fiction and A Rbetoric of Irony to confine the force of rhetoric by sharply distinguishing its legitimate uses from two extreme limit cases (the "unreliable narrator" and "unstable irony"); some reader-rcsponse critics deconstruct the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the text, but in the process end up privileging the autonomous and self-sufficient subject; some feminists challenge the essentialist claims of "male reason" in the name of a female rationality or nonrationality apparently no less essential; Jameson opens up the narrativity of history in order to proclaim one narrative the true and unifying one. Here one might speak of the return of the repressed (and thereby invoke Freud, whose writings and influence would be still another chapter in the story I have not even begun to tell) were it not that the repressedwhether it be the fact of difference or the desire for its elimination-is always so close to the surface that it hardly need be unearthed. What we seem to have is a tale full of sound and fury and signifying itself, signifying a durability rooted in inconclusiveness, in the impossibility of there being a last word.

In an essay, however, someone must have the last word and I give it to Richard Rorty. Rorty is himself a champion of the antiessentialism that underlies rhetorical thinking; his neopragmatism makes common cause with Kuhn and others who would turn us away from the search for transcendental absolutes and commend to us (although it would seem superfluous to do so) the imperatives and goals already informing our practices. It is however, not the polemicist Rorty whom I call upon to sum up, but the Rorry who is the brisk chronicler of our epistemological condition:

It is the clifference between serious and rhetorical man. It is the difference that remains.

Guthrie, W 1971. The Sophists.

Howell, W S. 1956. Logic and Rhetoric in England 1500-1700.

----1971. Eighteentb-Century British Logic and Rhetoric.

Kennedy, George. 1972. The Art of Penuarion in the Roman World (300BC--AD300).

----1963. Tbe Art ofPenuasion in Greece.

Murphy, J. J. 1966. Rbetoric in the Middle Ages.

Nelson, John S., Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey. 1987. The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs.

Ong, W J. 1958. Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue.

Perelman, Chaim, and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca. 1969. The New Rhetoric. A Treatise on Argument.

Puttenham, George. 1936; 1970. The Arte of Englisb Poesie (London, 1589).

Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria.

Smith, Barbara Hermstein. 1988. Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory

Tuve, Rosemond. 1947. Elizabetban and Metaphysical Imagery. Renaissance Poetic and Tiventietb-Century Critics.

Vickers, Brian. 1988. In Defence of Rhetoric.

White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe.