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RHETORICAL HERMENEUTICS

Invention and Interpretation in the Age of Science

edited by Alan G. Gross and William M. Keith

Speech Communication

SUNY

$19.95, paper, 295 pages, notes, index

0-7914-3110-X

hardcover: 0-7914-3102-6

RHETORICAL HERMENEUTICS asks whether rhetorical theory can function as a general hermeneutic, a master key to texts. The incisive central essay by Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar questions rhetoric’s globally interpretive status. Gaonkar begins with the ubiquity of rhetoric. Starting from the work of John Angus Campbell, Alan Gross, and Lawrence Prelli on the rhetoric of science, Gaonkar broadens his critique to fundamental issues for any rhetorical theory and develops four questions that cut to the heart of the possibility of a postmodern rhetoric: How can rhetoric, an art traditionally directed toward practice, transform itself into hermeneutic theory, a mode of reading? Does contemporary rhetorical theory have legitimate theoretical status? Can an intentional, strategic theory of rhetoric survive the poststructuarlist, postmodernist critique? Is the case study, the centerpiece of rhetorical and ethnographic scholarship, epistemologically robust enough to bear the weight of a discipline?

This volume provides thoughtful answers to a surprisingly large number of significant questions in the rhetoric of science and in rhetorical theory generally. Unlike most anthologies, there is no issue of continuity in this one. It contains treatments of the field’s most central issues and has a group of well-known authors who, in fact, have helped to define the field. It should have a wide readership because of its topical interest, its attention to basic theoretical issues, and its presentation of high quality academic debate.

It is a habit of our time to invoke rhetoric, time and again, to make sense of a wide variety of discursive practices that beset and perplex us, and of discursive artifacts that annoy and entertain us, and of discursive formations that inscribe and subjugate us. Rhetoric is a way of reading the endless discursive debris that surrounds us.

Can a rhetorical hermeneutic, or way of reading texts as rhetoric, be anchored in coherent and enabling theory? In the lead essay in this volume, "The Idea of Rhetoric in the Rhetoric of Science," Dilip Gaonkar raises this fundamental issue. This issue cannot be addressed abstractly; only a close examination of current critical practice will do. Gaonkar intends to test the assumptions underlying rhetorical theory and criticism for coherence, and so his best choice will be a interpretive practice confined to a single disciplinary community; such a practice is one most likely to share a common theoretical/interpretive tradition. Since he also intends to test the scope and depth of these assumptions, a critical practice at the vanguard of this discipline will be necessary; such a practice is most likely to put the greatest strain on its underlying theses, forcing the underlying assumptive cracks to appear. In a reversal of the usual topos, Gaonkar does not attempt to question whether the rhetoric of science has understood science properly, but whether it has sufficiently comprehended rhetoric. These considerations account for the site of Gaonkar’s critique of contemporary rhetorical theory and criticism: the rhetoric of science literature.

Gaonkar skepticism arises from the consideration of four claims: 1. Rhetoric’s essential character, as defined by both Aristotelian and Ciceronian tradition, consists in generating and giving speeches, not interpreting them—and certainly not interpreting texts in general. 2. The productive orientation of rhetorical theory, as traditionally conceived, requires a strategic model of persuasive speech, one in which the agency of the author controls the communication transaction. Such a view is plausible only in ancient fore or their contemporary analogues (and not even there, if we take seriously critiques of agency by Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida). 3. As a consequence of its traditional focus on production, rather than interpretation, rhetorical theory is "thin." The amount of specification necessary for a handbook like the Rhetoric is less than that needed for a critical theory. Because rhetoric’s central terms—e.g., topos, pisteis, enthymeme—elude precise definition, there are few constraints on them. Consequently, they are open to unbounded use. With so few constraints on interpretation, there can never be enough evidence for legitimate interpretive consensus. The thinness of rhetorical theory, then, enables its globalization, its extension to every instance of text, artifact, or eommunieation. 4. Globalization, in turn, is tied to a disciplinary anxiety: If rhetoric is in need of revival, that’s because its identity has been erased (by philosophy, science, the Enlightenment, or whomever) and there is therefore the danger that marginality could be permanent, that is, "the tradition" might be lost. But there is no need to worry: globalization is predicated on a circular strategy of recovering rhetoric as a universal phenomenon by prefiguring it as something suppressed or hidden. On this account, there are many "rhetorical" theorists (e.g., Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin) who only use the word occasionally and have no grounding in "the tradition"—but we can see their work is actually rhetorical anyway, provided we can describe it properly.

Alan G. Gross is Professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. His publications include The Rhetoric of Science. William M. Keith is Assistant Professor in Communication at Oregon State University.

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