In classical rhetorical theory, invention was one of the five essential canons and referred to the activity or process of creating a message (a speech, an essay, a poem, etc.). (On the other canons, see Arrangement and Rhetoric; Delivery and Rhetoric; Memory and Rhetoric; Style and Rhetoric.) Over time, rhetoricians have explored some recurrent questions, such as whether or not invention can be described and systematized, what is the precise nature of the process of invention, and what exactly is the scope and function of inventional activity. Scholars have identified four dominant approaches to explaining and guiding this activity/process: romantic, systematic, imitative, and social (Kennedy 1963; Jasinski 2001).
Rhetoricians typically credit Plato with introducing a romantic approach to invention that emphasizes an individual’s psychic interior as the appropriate source for ideas and inspiration (LeFevre 1987). With its emphasis on imagination, emotional spontaneity, and individual creative genius, late eighteenthand early nineteenth-century romanticism represents a particularly strong version of this approach to rhetorical invention. But the romantic emphasis on psychic interiors, many scholars maintain, remained a fixture in twentieth-century speech and composition classrooms (Crowley 1990; Bawarshi 2003). Critics of modernist rhetorical and “current-traditional” composition theory argue that the romantic focus on the individual is epistemologically suspect and effectively privatizes the process of invention. Various “social” approaches to invention attempt to rectify these perceived problems.
As Kennedy (1963) and others have noted, classical rhetorical theorists developed a number of systematic analytic procedures that could be used to generate persuasive messages. Stasis theory, Lauer (1984) suggests, was the earliest framework developed in classical thought, designed to help legal advocates generate persuasive arguments. Deliberative stock topics are a much more recent and very popular extension and adaptation of classical stasis doctrine to the realm of policy discourse. By illuminating the recurrent points of dispute that organize and shape policy controversies, the stock topics identify the issues that policy advocates must address. But the most widely recognized systematic approach to the composition process is the doctrine of topoi or topics. The Greek terms topos/topoi (in Latin locus/loci) referred to a sense of place, space, or region. Message producers were taught to access various topoi/loci in order to investigate an issue or subject and discover things that might be said or arguments that might be made about this issue or subject. Composition and speech teachers discussed topical frameworks well into the twentieth century (Corbett 1971; Wallace 1972).
Imitation, the third approach to explaining how people generate messages, was central to the thought of numerous ancient teachers and theorists, including Isocrates, Longinus, Cicero, Quintilian, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Kennedy 1963). More recent scholarship extends classical scholarship to engage some perennial questions: Can imitation help message producers generate rather than replicate an original model? Can imitation engender novelty or creativity? (e.g., Copeland 1991; Leff 1997). These scholars argue that while it might seem paradoxical, imitating the structure, style, and/ or argument and language strategies of precursor texts is often a complicated process that can help writers and speakers adjust old ideas and patterns to new and changing circumstances.
The imitative model of invention at least implicitly locates speakers and writers in a world of other texts and voices that help generate and shape discourse production. Recent scholarship in composition theory (LeFevre 1987; Bawarshi 2003) and linguistics (Kamberelis & Scott 1992) emphasizes the centrality of other texts, genres, and voices to the process of inventing discourse. Scholars subscribing to a social approach insist that since language, the raw material of discourse practice, is a social (and not individual) phenomenon, rhetorical invention must be understood as similarly social in nature. Implicit in this social approach to rhetorical invention is the image of a “bricoleur”: a person who acts by making do or improvising with the materials that are available in a particular situation. Message producers are in effect language “tinkerers,” who stitch together bits of linguistic material and persuasive strategy to meets the demands of the specific occasions. Additional theoretical commitments frequently follow when a scholar adopts the social approach. For example, Bawarshi (2003) and Kamberelis and Scott (1992) argue that as people generate messages, they simultaneously create (or “co-articulate”) specific texts and self-identity.
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- Bawarshi, A. S. (2003). Genre and the invention of the writer: Reconsidering the place of invention in composition. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
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