Appraisals and Comments

Appraisals and Comments

Studies in Rhetoric and Culture

Ralph Cintron

Report on the Conference on Power, Rhetoric and Political culture


As with prior conferences at Mainz , this one was a source of stimulating, controversial talk and a bit of a spectacle to boot. Anthropologists and rhetorical studies scholars wrangled with the elusive concept of Rhetoric Culture. I will present here only my narrow perspective, hoping that I touch a sufficient number of the salient issues so that others who attended will recognize the same conference.

As the papers unfolded, it became apparent that some of us are primarily engaged in the rhetorical practices of face-to-face communities, whereas others are engaged in how rhetoric plays itself out in the national and international arenas. Papers such as Gabriele Herzog-Shröder's, which analyzed why and how Yanomamy males switch gender terms — calling each other wives for instance — and Nikolaus Schareika's analysis of political rhetoric among the Wodaabe exemplified face-to-face rhetorics. But papers by Francesca Merlan (“Rhetorics of Indigeneity”) and Mabiala Mantuba-Ngoma (“Rhetoric in the Political Culture of the Democratic Republic of Congo”) clearly addressed large-scale rhetorical practices. How do we handle this difference of scale? Don Brenneis's talk elegantly challenged analyses based on scalar differences. His point — and my own for that matter — is that face-to-face groups were radically altered a long time ago, and what characterizes our era are intricately woven amalgams of rhetorical practices and topoi moving from global discursive circuits to the local, but moving the other way as well, from the local to the global. In short, local discursive practices are bearing, among other things, the pressures of global media, while simultaneously the rhetorics and ideologies of international organizations must accommodate local perspectives. Merlan's paper as well Mantuba-Ngoma's were examplars of these deformations, reformations. Merlan pointed to the very category of indigenousness, and why and how some groups claim it and others refuse it; meanwhile, human rights organizations and national and international political leaders must contend with these culturalist discourses and the potential erosion of national frameworks. And Mantuba-Ngoma synthesized the contradiction between the universalizing discourses of democratic processes as embodied in concepts of civil society and the self-referential poetry of authoritarianism. “What will be the future of the Congo ,” he asked, as these political rhetorics and realities play themselves out?

One of the more engaging discussions concerned the relation between power and rhetoric. Papers by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney on the rhetorics of death, beauty, and nationalism as Japan fought World War II, or Johan Pottier on cannibalism, or Stevan Weine on the narratives of trauma by survivors of political violence, or the work on Middle Eastern legal rhetorics by Hassan Khader or on jihad by Kristina Stock — these papers seemed to straddle the boundary line between the verbal and the horrors of the physical. One glaringly fallacious belief that survives within rhetorical studies is that as long as there is rhetoric (“sweet talk”, as Deirdre McCloskey says), real violence will be kept at bay. But these papers in different ways pointed clearly to the immense importance of talk in the creation of physical violence. These papers, then, generated an important question: Is astounding horror itself rhetorical, a kind of overpowering message whose intent is to stamp out all replies so as to guarantee obedience? The discussion that ensued led to an inquiry into the nature of persuasion. At one moment some wanted to make a distinction between implicit and explicit forms of persuasion (Alan Rumsey's paper made this welcomed point, as I recall), and between verbal and nonverbal forms. Others in the audience wanted to know about the unevenness of persuasion. These questions, puzzles, dilemmas, of course, are ancient and probably not resolvable to the satisfactions of everyone.

One of my main concerns entering the conference was how those in rhetorical studies would be received by anthropologists and vice versa. At this particular Rhetoric Culture conference the two mixed exceptionally well. No doubt this was due to the fact that Carl Herndl is both a rhetorician and an ethnographer and Gerard Hauser has always been a rhetorician/quasi-ethnographer because of his analyses of vernacular rhetorics. It occurs to me that Herndl's and Hauser's work (and hopefully my own) have long argued that there is a gaping hole in rhetorical studies that anthropologists at this conference were quickly filling up for us. Rhetoricians continue to labor under the weight of the canon — Aristotle, Cicero, and on and on. But for us to hear Shifferaw Bekele's work on the rhetorics of the Ethiopian empire, or Megan Biesele's on the metaphors of tolerance among the Ju/'hoan San, or Carola Lentz 's on the rhetorics of elite Ghanians, or, astoundingly, Kwesi Yankah's work on the rhetoric of Ghanaian royalty, or Christian Meyer's work on Wolof rhetorics, or Kathleen Adams's work on the rhetorics and aesthetics of Indonesian carvings is to realize what the canon has missed. How might these practices change our understanding of the canon? Is the canon capacious enough to absorb all the different ways that humans have theorized about language and rhetorical performance? In my own view, rhetoric is not a particularly coherent discipline, resembling more of an accretion of this and that over historical time: it is a kind of grab bag of practical advice, of vocabulary items that try to label every imaginable “figure of speech”; it contains theories of logic/illogic, morality, and the psyche; it is the favored art of all hermeneuts of suspicion; one can be skilled at it without knowing a damn thing about it — which maybe proves that it resides somewhere in the unconscious and is deeply universal. Despite its checkered history and character, rhetorical studies remains fairly conservative because it has built its theories on a narrow range of assumptions about the nature of language and rhetorical practices without ever imagining the wide variety of rhetorical performance and theory that anthropology is capable of uncovering. In my view, then, the results of the rhetoric culture project will become a bit of a shock wave for rhetoricians as these volumes roll out in the next few years.

But what impact will this work have for anthropology? Indeed, this became the central question, in my view, throughout the conference, and it was James Carrier who asked it on several occasions. James offered a skeptical reading regarding the potential contributions of rhetoric to anthropology. He claimed that the real work of anthropology should be with political economy, that is, with the machinations of power itself. Brute force may use words, but in the end it defines itself by doing something other than words. He stated that rhetoric offers a vocabulary for describing language use and the world, but what does that amount to? Moreover, rhetoric, and, by extension, rhetoric culture theory, he claimed, does not really propose a model that lays out new sets of questions that can dramatically reshape the field of anthropology. For me, James crystallized the problem: I am convinced that rhetoric culture theory does offer something revolutionary for rhetorical studies that has the potential to alter the nature of the discipline, but can it do the same for anthropology? It may well be that the organizers of the conference are not interested in overhauling the discipline, for they know full well, as several other conferees made plain, that the history of the discipline fluctuates between symbolic and materialist concerns. I for one have favored illuminating one with the other, and I am hoping that these upcoming volumes will expand that line of inquiry.

I want to wrap things up by quoting from a philosopher, Michel Meyer, who is not much referred to by the rhetorical establishment, but who captures nicely the relationship between rhetoric and the “real”, which, I take it, is at the heart of Errington's arguments. My little fiction of making Meyer reply to Carrier is probably not sufficient and may need another tweak or two, but here it is:

It may come as a surprise to read that reality constitutes itself rhetorically. This is not the traditionally held image of the real. Independent from us, solid, invariable, permanent, as well as the cause of many unexpected novelties, the real imposes itself as something that is not of the rhetorical order. However, this image of reality, which we will not contest, is not a given, but the result of a process that involves the ego. The ego is confronted with problems, alternatives, and contradictions which it must answer. . . .The continuity of the world requires precisely that any new questions be reducible to an old one. . . .The continuous identity of reality therefore means nothing other than the assimilation of the new . . . which translates the problematic into the nonproblematic, the unknown into the already known (or the knowable). . . .If the real can appear to the ego as it is — renewed, unexpected, and identical in its solidity outside the subject — it is because the subject rhetoricizes and rationalizes the information, that is, coordinates it and, quite simply, names it and thus recognizes it.

Michel Meyer, Rhetoric, Language, and Reason, University Park , Pennsylvania : The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, 17-18.