On the Atomization of Rhetoric

Faust sits translating the Bible. He is working on the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John. The troublesome word is logos, which he renders as "word," then “mind,” then “power,” then “act.” ~Scott (1967)

This post explores theoretical propositions that have potentially broad implications for researchers and practitioners in the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies and related disciplinary and professional domains.

These propositions and speculation about their implications have developed as a result of ongoing collaboration between myself and Christa Teston as we've sought to examine how our field, writ large, understands, theorizes, enacts, and inculcates various modes of representation and rhetorical action (visual :: aural :: haptic :: spatial :: embodied :: linguistic) in both our disciplinary episteme, and when creating meaning about our discipline for broader (extra-disciplinary) audiences.

Specifically, this post is inspired by recent professional deliberations and experiences that seem to suggest that our field fails to centrally position and explicitly theorize the epistemic and ontological nature of rhetoric when investigating and articulating how various modes of representation afford knowledge-making; implications abound, then, for how the complex act of constructing knowledge with rhetoric-as-epistemic at the helm informs our discipline's theories and practices.

Following Scott's (1967) assertion that “the terms 'certainty' and 'knowledge' confront one with what has become known as epistemology,” we are interested here in what and how rhetoric means, how our disciplinary gazes should be governed, and what our philosophical and pragmatic understandings of rhetoric say about our discipline beyond academe.

Consequently, this post aims to foster theoretical discussion about the implications associated with what we're calling the atomization of rhetoric. We present here a credo of sorts, a series of propositions concerned with our desire to better understand rhetoric as object/focus/field of study, and rhetoric's role in meaningful (everyday) human activity.


Scott (1967) posits that “rhetoric may be viewed not as a matter of giving effectiveness to truth but of creating truth.”

We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is no mere tool, the dressing or art of language. It cannot simply be just the art of persuasion.

According to Enos and Lauer (1992), "Aristotle holds not that rhetoric creates all reality but rather that it creates the meaning of that reality." And yet, Scott argues that “if truth is somehow both prior and substantial, then problems need not be worked out but only classified and disposed of.” Consequently, Scott rejects “prior and enabling truth as the epistemological basis” for rhetoric; so do we.

We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is worldview; it is underlying philosophy and tacit understanding.

We argue that rhetoric is no more teleologic than time. Rhetoric makes as it goes, and defines its ends along the way. It is not circumscribed; it circumscribes. Rhetoric deploys as it is deployed.

We argue that rhetoric ought not be treated as a conduit, a dumb pipe connecting human knowledge to an a priori Reality and Truth. Rhetoric does not discover; it invents and produces.

These propositions neither invalidate nor ignore the role of human agency in the making of meaning. In fact, we argue that rhetoric is embodied and materially instantiated, and because of this, rhetoric is grounded in human agency.

Pierre Thevenaz claims that “man acts and speaks before he knows. Or, better, it is by acting and in action that he is enabled to know” (quoted in Scott 1967).

So, because rhetoric is being and knowing, because knowing and being are rhetoric (and not merely rhetoric-al), we argue that rhetoric structures, facilitates, and makes possible human agency. Human agency and rhetoric cannot be excised from one another. They are mutually constitutive.

Further, Brummett (1979) asserts that rhetoric "is epistemic in an ontological sense," and "creates all of what there is to know." He asserts that "discourse does not merely discover truth or make it effective," but that discourse "creates realities rather than truths about realities."

We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is epistemic. It is ontological.

Rhetoric is "a dimension of all activity rather than [...] an activity in its own right" (Brummett 1979).

These are not beliefs. This is not theory hope.

These are propositions that ground our theorizing about and approaches toward understanding how meaning gets made in the overlap between modes of representation, human interaction, and everyday experiences--experiences bound by space and time. But we sense that these propositions are not shared within our field. There are profound disciplinary and pragmatic implications for accepting, rejecting, or ignoring these propositions.

Our observation is that rhetoric as an academic discipline and professional practice suffers from a kind of insidious atomization—a context-stripping particularity that reduces rhetorical practice to departments, domains, specialties, sub-disciplines, colloquialisms. And yet we simultaneously recognize that such atomization has been historically productive; atomization has fostered new approaches and understandings that, for so long, have been othered or invisible. Atomization in part yields feminisms, body studies, LGBT studies, Critical Race Studies. Atomization gives us rhetorical criticism, writing studies, technical communication. Atomization is crucial to the viability of studying and doing rhetoric.

And yet atomization separates, bifurcates, siloizes. Atomization necessitates a particularized and specious division of multivalent, polymorphous, polycontexts.

Atomization comfortably compartmentalizes—culturally, philosophically, theoretically—meaning and being. It ameliorates our need to explore through the practice of exploding contexts. It assuages our uncertainty, allows us to reduce writing to this, visual to that, performance to here, orality there. Consequently, atomization draws lines, then builds fences, then erects walls, borders, and territories.

Image becomes a province, alphabetic text an imperial kingdom, orality a third-world domain, art a margin, film a continent to be conquered, digital media a competing power.

In the atomization of rhetoric, the visual in particular is seen from across the border, with suspicion—a potential threat. When atomized, the visual is simultaneously embraced and othered. It is not granted the capacity for meaning without the contextualization of alphabetic text, a decree of its (un)worthiness.

Our argument proceeds from these principles. Image and alphabetic text are not atomized domains, but mutually constitutive actors in meaning making. Yet the very atomization of rhetoric, which generously gives and insidiously takes away, will not let image stand alone, even though the image is always already rhetoric.

Similar bifurcations materialize themselves in troubling ways. News anchors claim to "get to the bottom of" or beyond a certain politician's "rhetoric." Oral presentation skills aren't taught in Business and Professional writing courses because it's a course on "writing," not "communication."


Rhetoric as a discipline suffers from failing to join the productive tensions of atomization with a kind of theoretical baseline or shared understanding among contingencies that all discourse is at once particular and holistic, situated and situating, epistemic ontologically.

Taking to be true,

(i) Scott's (1967) argument that, if there can be "truth in human affairs," it is "the result of a process of interaction at a given moment," and

(ii) Toulmin's (1958) assertion that "claim(s) to knowledge" can't always be "backed by an analytic argument," else "the future, the past, other minds, ethics, even material objects: about all of these we ought, strictly speaking, to admit that we know nothing,”

we see meaning making as always already mediated in and through rhetoric.

Instead of considering the rhetoric of images or the rhetoric of alphabetic text, therefore, we propose an approach to rhetoric, proper. We eschew the "of"--an indication that rhetoric is part rather than whole. We no longer need the "of" if we are to learn from our atomization and challenge ourselves toward holistic theorizing. We argue for is rather than of.

The visual is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of the visual.
Writing is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of writing.
Bodies are rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of bodies.

The bricolage of visual~writing~bodies is not merely rhetoric-al, since being rhetoric-al pigeonholes rhetoric as a mere attribute, appendage, or add-on, rather than understanding rhetoric as the constitutive property of that polycontextual whole.

This is not to say that in order to know we cannot or should not first fracture and make strange previously held assumptions or understandings about our objects of study (a la Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1997). What we propose is that the lines upon which those fractures take place ought not be solely dependent on mode, medium, or material form. We argue, instead, that by exploring knowledge-making holistically and in situ, rhetoric is precisely what facilitates the ontological reevaluation, reassembling, and restructuring of previously held assumptions and understandings.

We accept that our propositions are potentially troubling or problematic for a discipline that has, for years, been wedded to close textual analyses and hermeneutic approaches to understanding phenomena. We acknowledge that the arguments above are deserving of refinement; we ask you to consider this work as but a “process of interaction in a given moment.” Above all, we invite you to join us in “cooperative critical inquiry” (Scott 1967) so that we might reevaluate, reassemble, and restructure previously held assumptions and understandings about the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies.

Our aim is to move from the above described philosophical revival of rhetoric-as-epistemic toward constructs that support more grounded investigations of rhetoric and writing practices as they occur in the world. We want to explode contexts, to make strange, and to complicate without sacrificing the holistic nature of rhetoric. Grounded, activity- and practice-based methodologies and methods, therefore, are where we turn from here. We welcome and look forward to the ongoing conversation that will develop from this and any subsequent posts.

Brian McNely
Ball State University

Christa Teston
Rowan University


Casey McArdle said...

If rhetoric makes as it goes and deploys as it is deployed, can you make a characterization of consistant expansion, then, not just into other fields, but through other fields? Disciplines? That academic walls are transparant? The ultimate end of such expansion is eventual contraction - when will that occur? And as you say at the end, you concede marriages of our discipline with "text" and understanding phenomena, and yet by merely making this post you advocate for such use in disseminating your information. What exactly, per se, is a text? Is it a product or a process?

christa said...

Hi Casey. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

A few questions and then my humble attempt at a response.

Casey, what do you mean by "consistent expansion"? And what does the expansion/contraction analogy get you, exactly? I don't think I follow?

And I don't think I fully understand what you mean by "you concede marriages of our discipline with text and understanding phenomena..."? Could you help to clarify?

Further, what is "such use"? Are you saying that because we've proposed this final argument here, in this space, in a space that one might say is "textual," that we've undermined our very argument?

If so, here's how I'd respond to that:

I'd disagree, and say that you're guilty of the very thing we're criquing. That is, you're making the assumption that this final "product" is somehow wholly representative of the kinds and types of work that went into "producing" it.

I'm working on a blog post of my own that will pair up with this one where I'll discuss on a more meta-level the ways we used wave, google docs, google talk, etc in order to get to this final "product."

Said another way, if one were to approach how it is Brian and I got to some kind of collaborative agreement about the so-called "atomization of rhetoric" by only looking at this final product, you'd be missing out and overlooking a whole host of contributing factors. The fruits of our efforts are not this blog post. This blog post is but a small fraction of what could be taken to be the result of our collaborative negotiations of meaning.

So, product, process...hmm, no. We're interested in *practices.* A blog post might be part of that, yes. But to narrow our gaze to just that is precisely what we mean by atomization.

I may have totally missed the boat on what you're trying to say here, so feel free to set me straight!

Casey McArdle said...

Perhaps I did not take Brian's description of this discussion being an "iceburg" literally. That said, most of my comment centers around your approach towards the deployment of rhetoric.

The expansion/contraction analogy provides me (or "gets" me) a means to understand your description of how rhetoric is dispersed. I am not so sure that what you are calling for is not exactly an expansion, but an examination of that expansion, but in doing so, you are actually prescribing a contraction of how we look at rhetoric and what it means. Atomization is a nice way of looking at it, but it can be just as limiting as you find it to be liberating.

What I am saying is that you both call for a reexamination of rhetoric as a whole, that atomization has done all of these great and horrible things... and yet you say you want to "explode contents" - it's confusing to follow in one blog post, but what else am I to follow? You say I am guilty of my own critique of the post and yet how I am to know how it was constructed or what other spaces were involved in its origins?

You are in the middle of another blog post on your site that disucusses these construction elements and yet is that not just another construct of a text that someone else further down the line will "explode" the very second new technologies afford them the chance?

I agree with your assessment of rhetoric and that it applies to everything - but if we just say that, it might be confusing to people who are seeking to find specific categories by which you are formulating your thoery. If someone begins to break down the various elements of rhetoric, as we are want to do, the response can't just be a Monty Python "Well the roads go without saying!"

Heller stated furiously, over and over again, that Catch-22 had no structure, and yet we still found one. While I understand your approach and I love the use of the various digital streams you used to consruct it, until I see it in its entirety, I can only comment on what I see.

Jim said...

Hi, Christa and Brian. In case you don't catch it on Twitter, I wanted to send along a link to my response to this post:


I'd love it if you could stop by the Blogora and continue the discussion.

Brian J. McNely said...


Thank you so much for your charitable and thoughtful response to our post over on Blogora. Christa and I are following the discussion taking place over there with great interest!

Carlos salinas said...

Re: there should be no "rhetoric of" argument. I see your point, to a large extent, but I'm not sure that what follows is ultimately "useful," because if we go with, say, "The Visual is Rhetoric," or by extension, all communication is always already rhetoric, well, then, aren't we potentially losing the "usefulness" of the atomization you-all point out?

Let me put this another way -- certainly it has been useful to define rhetoric in certain ways (give it limits/boundaries) -- my question is, is it "useful" to define it so broadly as to include all communication? Certainly lots of people do this, but does it really get us anything?

Brian J. McNely said...


These are fair questions, and we have struggled with the tension between the dangers/benefits of atomization on the one hand, and totalizing grand narratives of rhetoric on the other. But our motivation for advocating for a move beyond the rhetoric of argument is rooted primarily in how our theories inform methodology and practice in our field. [1]

In a disciplinary sense, we are arguing that holistic epistemic rhetorics "get us" to see beyond our current ways of seeing. We wish to move toward methodologies, therefore, that can productively and heuristically plumb the tension between situated knowledges and holistic theorizing.

We're interested in complex "deliberative ecologies" rather than texts, heuristic in situ explorations of meaning-making rather than hermeneutic readings of artifacts. We argue that an ontological view of epistemic rhetoric necessitates such approaches, and that methodologies informed by this theoretical baseline can "join the productive tensions of atomization."

We are interested in the actual bricolage of visual~writing~bodies, not the bricolage that might be inferred through post-situ close readings in "rhetorics of."

Brian and Christa

[1] As we mention in the post above, we are responding to very real exigencies in our own situated experiences. When we say "our discipline" or "our field," we realize that we are speaking from the Rhet/Comp tradition as it has developed from within English Studies. We recognize that rhetoric scholars whose backgrounds are in Speech or Communications Studies--and even many Rhet/Comp scholars within the English Studies tradition--will have divergent viewpoints on how we're characterizing "our field."

Explorations of disciplinarity will always encounter such difficulty, and we fully recognize that sweeping or totalizing characterizations are problematic because they cannot possibly reflect the myriad differences in how "the field" is instantiated in different situations. We appeal then to the "epistemic courts" (Lauer) of our discipline in the form of work published in CCC, College English, RSQ, other influential scholarly journals and numerous scholarly monograph series; but we're also enmeshed in and speaking from our situatedness in previous institutional practices, curricular concerns, listserv conversations, job market preparations and experiences, and so on... These local and global practices are our best indicators for where we're at as a field. It's in these places that we all too often experience rhetoric as atomized--an unfortunate atomization that is theoretically, pragmatically, and materially instantiated in our everyday experience.

Helen said...

"We are interested in the actual bricolage of visual~writing~bodies, not the bricolage that might be inferred through post-situ close readings in "rhetorics of."

(Relative to remarks here and at Blogora)

I'm reading this statement as the point of stasis in this deliberation and thus the point at which discussion ought to begin, because these two fundamentally different methodologies are based upon fundamentally different notions about the nature of rhetoric, its realm, and its potential. From here, a discussion of what each portends for disciplinarity/atomization might then usefully ensue.

Certainly, the work of Scott and others regarding rhetoric's espistemic nature (and, of course, an espisteme is always already ethical) and Berlin's various theorizings of rhetoric(s)(and rhetorics are always, already ideological) are interesting, relative to this discussion, but I would argue, again, that this is not where delibertation ought to begin.

One methodology views atomization as a necessary intellectual concession, whereas with the other, atomization is requisite to its very enactment. We're talking apples and oranges here.

rwmonty said...

This may be dumbing down the conversation, but the notion of atomization reminds me of critiques of hyper- and meta- genre classifications of music.

[The quick once-over: there has been a trend in music criticism over the past 15 years or so that sought to provide ultra-specific labels for minutely different styles of music. So-called "subgenre" Classifications like "lap-pop", "freak folk", "electroclash" and countless others were thrown around in a an attempt (I guess) to uniquely define any variation of style.]

Instead of providing a better understanding, however, what the use of these excessive subgenres actually accomplished was a muddling of understanding for all but those that remained in lockstep with every updated definition. Is this similar to the plight affecting the study of rhetoric and writing studies? Academics entrenched within the field of study are likely able to stay current with the constantly narrowing (or, in the parlance of this post, atomizing) of terms, but those from outside this discourse community, even other academics, will have trouble keeping up, and will ultimately lose interest.

Post a Comment