Rhetorical criticism analyzes discourse in order to understand its communicative power. In US departments of speech and communication, it grew out of the emphasis on public speaking as an expression of democracy and from perspectives developed by literary theorists.
Critical analysis of discourse began in ancient Greece and Rome as teachers attempted to understand why some rhetorical acts were successful while others were not. Although the practice of analyzing discourse became part of disciplinary scholarship only in the modern period, the works of Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian, and Augustine, among others, include guidelines for assessing rhetorical acts. Those linkages reaffirm the relationship between theory and practice; in effect, criticism is a way of refining theory in light of assessments of practice. In Plato’s Phaedrus, for example, the main characters evaluate three speeches and, on that basis, offer a theory of rhetoric. Textual analysis appears briefly in book 4 of Augustine’s On Christian doctrine in which biblical passages are dissected to demonstrate that sacred authors used the tropes associated with the pagan Greco-Roman tradition.
Development As A Field Of Research
Rhetorical criticism as the analysis of those elements in poetry or prose that are there primarily for the sake of the audience began in the 1940s in departments of English and derived its name from John Crowe Ransom’s The new criticism (1941), an approach to literary texts derived from the language studies of I. A. Richards and the critical essays of T. S. Eliot and others, which was spread through textbooks by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (Understanding poetry, 1938; Modern rhetoric, 1949).
These new critics held that literary work should be treated as existing for its own sake, an approach that diminished historical and biographical studies. They warned against the intentional fallacy, interpreting a work by reference to the plan of the author, and the affective fallacy, evaluating a work by its effects on an audience. In Explication as criticism (1963, x) W. K. Wimsatt clearly stated the textualist position, that “explication is criticism; it is the evaluative account of the poem.”
In The philosophy of rhetoric (1776), George Campbell captured the essence of textualism when he defined rhetoric as “that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end,” identifying the critic’s primary concern as the relationship between form – the choices that shape a literary or rhetorical work – and function – what that act is designed to achieve, at least to attract an audience that is to be affected in some way. Accordingly, rhetorical criticism can be applied to literary as well as political, commercial, or philosophical discourse, illustrated by Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of fiction (1961), Edward Corbett’s Rhetorical analyses of literary works (1969), and John Ciardi’s How does a poem mean? (1959). The form–function relationship is also central to studying rhetorical and literary genres (e.g., Rosmarin 1985; Campbell & Jamieson 1990), works that share certain characteristics because they have similar functions.
Rhetorical criticism in communication studies has focused on the discourse of the marketplace and developed methods to understand the power of political speech, advertising, documentary film, journalism, and other discursive forms that seek to influence specific public behaviors and attitudes. When fledgling critics in US speech departments searched for critical models, they turned to Select British eloquence by Chauncey Goodrich (1963; 1st pub. 1852), an anthology of addresses that the British public regarded as the masterpieces of their respective authors. Some evaluations were comments on style: “The eloquence [of John Eliot on June 3, 1628] lies wholly in the thought; and the entire bareness of the expression, the absence of all ornament adds to the effect, because there is nothing interposed to break the force of the blow” (Goodrich 1963, 2). Others noted context: “Much of the celebrity attached to this speech [by George Digby on April 21, 1641] is owing, no doubt, to the circumstances under which it was delivered” (1963, 15). Analyses of the addresses of Lord Chatham, Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and William Pitt the younger were extensive and detailed. Biography, political history, and commentary on key speeches were fused in a bio-critical assessment, a form of analysis that dominated early analyses of US oratory.
The Public Address As Object Of Study
Public address as an object of criticism began with William Norwood Brigance’s A history and criticism of American public address (1943), a two-volume collection of essays about major US political and religious figures, extended in a third volume (Hochmuth 1955). Ernest Wrage’s Public address: A study in social and intellectual history (1947) marked a transition from the study of speech performances to the study of speech texts and the rise of textualism as a critical approach. Historical and cultural analyses were not abandoned, however. Wrage stated a key assumption of public address scholarship, that “from the speeches given by many men [sic], it is possible to observe the reflections of prevailing social ideas and attitudes” (1947, 456).
Studying speeches was a way to understand the development of national character and identity: “A speech is an agency of its time, one whose surviving record provides a repository of themes and their elaborations from which we may gain insight into the life of an era as well as into the mind of a man [sic]” (455–456). The works included in American forum: Speeches on historic issues, 1788–1900 (1960) and Contemporary forum: American speeches on twentieth-century issues (1962) edited by Wrage and Barnet Baskerville reflected these views. Although the works presented opposing views on controversial issues, the only woman represented was Susan B. Anthony (in the first volume), the only African-American Roy Wilkins, and the only socialist Eugene V. Debs (both in the second volume).
US scholars touted public speaking as a distinctively democratic practice and asserted the discipline’s special relevance in the context of the cold war. The reiterated claim that studying public address is a means to understand national character and promote patriotism led to an insistence that addresses by major figures are historical and cultural documents central to the nation’s mythic heritage and historical experience. That perspective encouraged critics to study rhetoric by US presidents, leaders of national movements, and eminent churchmen, and to ignore protestors and dissidents, particularly communists, socialists, and anarchists who criticized the system and those outside positions of power such as women and minorities, a focus that persisted into the 1970s, illustrated by Barnet Baskerville, The people’s voice (1979).
In the three volumes of History and criticism of American public address and in Thonssen & Baird’s influential Speech criticism (1948), a critical apparatus emerged. Thonssen & Baird (1948, vi) emphasized psychological and historical factors, but reflected their reliance on Greco-Roman materials, in concluding that “the most basic is the critic’s evaluation of the speaker’s ability to adjust his argument to the four factors of rhetoric as developed by the ancients: himself, his audience, his subject, and the occasion. Of these, most important is the audience, for the success of a speech lies not in its well-turned phrases, but in achieving a desired effect upon the hearers.”
Standards Of Judgment
The standards of judgment identified and developed in individual chapters were the integrity of ideas, emotion, character of the speaker, structure, style, delivery, and measures of effectiveness, a synthesis of the Greco-Roman modes of proof – logos, pathos, and ethos – and of the classical canons of invention, disposition, style, and delivery. Their survey of modern critics began with Chauncey Goodrich and continued with classicist Richard Jebb’s Attic orators (1876), historian William Lecky’s studies of British speakers, biographies that included rhetorical evaluations (e.g., John Morley’s Life of Richard Cobden and Life of William Ewart Gladstone), treatments of oratory as propaganda-reflecting techniques developed and used during the two world wars, and ended with works by faculty in departments of speech.
In his path-breaking book, Rhetorical criticism: A study in method (1965), Edwin Black identified the elements of and assumptions underlying the critical apparatus of Brigance, Hochmuth, Wrage, and Thonssen and Baird, which he called neo-Aristotelian, recognizing its debt to and departure from Aristotle’s Art of rhetoric. His analysis identified three key limitations: assumptions that prevented the critic from responding freshly to discourse, a circumscribed historical context limited to original presentation to an audience, and effects on the immediate audience as the ultimate standard of evaluation. The impact of these limitations was illustrated with a critique of John Chapman’s August 18, 1912, address at Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a work almost without an audience, lacking discernible immediate effects, by a man of quixotic character, but a speech still able to speak to modern readers. Black’s critique of neo-Aristotelian criticism was timely given the intellectual ferment in related disciplines and the impact of the social upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States and elsewhere.
Social Movements And Rhetorical Studies
The civil rights, antiwar, New Left, counter-cultural and feminist movements transformed the rhetorical landscape and made it impossible for US communication scholars to ignore discourse that challenged conventional assumptions about deliberation and public persuasion, a claim that is evident in the conclusions to the report of the 1970 Wingspread conference on rhetoric past and future and its contemporary needs (Bitzer & Black 1971).
The civil rights movement burgeoned in the aftermath of World War II and grew during the 1950s with sit-ins, freedom rides, and such powerful speakers as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Struggles over how best to achieve civil rights sparked the Black Power movement, which echoed the Black Muslims, whose impact was felt particularly in the rhetoric of Malcolm X. Eloquent African Americans such as Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm also were elected to Congress.
The civil rights movement posed at least two challenges to rhetorical critics. First, it questioned assumptions about the relationship of public speaking and democracy because these speakers challenged Americans to live up to those democratic values often praised in public speaking while pointing to the character, history, and extent of US racism as a national disgrace. Second, almost exclusively white critics needed to analyze discourse that challenged their beliefs and values, in particular, stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and public discourse. In earlier Brigance and Hochmuth volumes, only Booker T. Washington merited a chapter (for a wider view of earlier African-American rhetors, see Woodson 1925). In the 1960s and 1970s, anthologies of civil rights rhetoric appeared (e.g., King 1964) as did critical analyses (e.g., Burgess 1968; Scott & Brockriede 1969; Scott & Smith, 1969; Smith [Asante] 1969) that questioned whether neo-Aristotelianism was an appropriate evaluative apparatus.
In the 1960s, counter-cultural, antiwar, New Left, and feminist rhetoric demanded fresh approaches as nontraditional forms of discourse and as social movement texts, and critics responded in creative ways (for a wide sample, see Morris & Browne, 2006). The winds of change were fostered by the works of so-called “new critics,” such as I. A. Richards, Northrop Frye, and Kenneth Burke. Burke’s A grammar of motives (1945), A rhetoric of motives (1950), The rhetoric of religion (1961), and Language as symbolic action (1966) opened new paths for critics. The impact of works by European theorists has been substantial, particularly those of Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
- Bitzer, L. F., & Black, E. (1971). Prospect of rhetoric. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Boardwell, D. (1989). Making meaning: Inference and rhetoric in the interpretation of cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Burgess, P. G. (1968). The rhetoric of Black power: A moral demand. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 54, 122–133.
- Campbell, K. K., & Jamieson, K. H. (1990). Deeds done in words: Presidential rhetoric and the genres of governance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: Four essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Goodrich, C. A. (1963). Select British eloquence. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill. (Original work published 1852.)
- Hochmuth, M. K. (1955). A history and criticism of American public address, vol. 3. New York: Longmans Green.
- King, M. L., Jr. (1964). Why we can’t wait. New York: Harper and Row.
- Morris, C. E., III, & Browne, S. H. (2006). Readings on the rhetoric of social protest, 2nd edn. State College, PA: Strata.
- Rosmarin, A. (1985). The power of genre. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Scott, R. L., & Brockriede, W. (1969). The rhetoric of Black power. New York: Harper and Row.
- Scott, R. L., & Smith, D. K. (1969). The rhetoric of confrontation. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 55, 1–8.
- Smith, A. L. [Asante, M.] (1969). The rhetoric of Black revolution. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Thonssen, L., & Baird, A. C. (1948). Speech criticism. New York: Ronald.
- Wimsatt, W. K. (1963). Explication as criticism: Selected papers from the English Institute, 1941–1952. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Woodson, C. G. (ed.) (1925). Negro orators and their orations. Washington, DC: Associated Publishers.
- Wrage, E. J. (1947). Public address: A study in social and intellectual history. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33, 451–457.