On Booth 3

Another brief recap: after Wednesday night’s characterization of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric as focusing more on the content of the rhetoric and the motives (which, Booth repeatedly asserts, must be pure) of the rhetor than on the style of the rhetoric and the character of the rhetor, I spent Friday’s post exploring connections in Booth’s book to the Roman rhetor Quintilian, who characterized the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well,” and wondering why — though both Booth and Quintilian are deeply concerned with ethics in rhetoric — Booth focuses on action’s doing, while Quintilian focuses on character’s being. I see Booth’s focus on ethical motives and rhetorical content particularly clearly in his “commandment” that

It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. To pursue deception creates non-communities in which winner-takes-all. To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention. (40)

But I think implicit in that quotation is an idea that one’s rhetorical style should ideally be absolutely pellucid, although I’m not entirely sure: I mean, it sounds like he’s saying, “Be as clear as possible,” which implies a sort of super-style that presents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — no?

Well, part of the difficulty is that I’m trying to separate style from content in the context of understanding. As anybody who’s ever hemmed and hawed when telling a lie knows, that’s difficult (if not impossible) to do. We need only consider recent presidential rhetoric (not just the Bush administration examples Booth relies upon, but Clinton’s “is”) for examples of this difficulty, but it’s one that exists throughout the history of rhetoric: Cicero, speaking of the Pro Cluentio, boasts that he threw dust in the jury’s eyes, and examination of the text demonstrates a stylistic reliance upon vagueness and insinuation coupled to a clearly deliberate bending of the facts. Neither one would be useful without the other.

One reason I bring up Cicero here is to begin making a point about rhetoric’s multiple audiences. Cicero began his career under the dictator Sulla and ended his career during the fall of the Republic and the beginnings of the principate, and his mature rhetorical theory is deeply concerned with how rhetoric ought to function and flourish for public purposes in a free state. The fascinatingly convoluted ethos he brings to bear in the Pro Ligario, given before the dictator Caesar (who, in a sense, was both plaintiff and judge) in the fallout following the the battle of Pharsalus, alerts us to the fact that the political conditions under which rhetoric is delivered do much to affect its style and content. Booth is certainly aware of this, in the examples he offers us of “Osip Mandelstam, in a Soviet prison, commanded to write a poem honoring Stalin” (54) and of George Mangakis (49), but his arguments seem to me to often constitute rhetoric as a two-party system: rhetor and (monolithic) audience. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, as in his consideration of how the rhetoric surrounding Iraq played out with various national audiences.) But I’m thinking about how in Plato’s Philebus, the character Protarchus asserts, “I have often heard Gorgias constantly maintain that the art of persuasion surpasses all others for this, he said, makes all things subject to itself, not by force, but by their free will, and is by far the best of all arts.” Yes, it does that — but the free will, and the understanding Booth desires, go beyond its recipient. This is part of the reason, I think, that Booth is so worried about “rhetrickery” — but there seems to be a part of the equation missing. What if I convince an audience that a thing is dangerous, but my audience has a different reaction to danger than I do? What if my audience is willing to use force to make that thing subject to herself?


This is pretty much the same example Booth offers about his March 2003 discussion of the looming war in Iraq with his colleagues, one of whom responded to Booth, “Don’t you see that the best way to reduce the number of enemies is to kill them?” (150), with one difference being that Booth’s colleague might not have had the power of a Caesar. According to Booth, he was attempting to engage his interlocutors in listening-rhetoric, and he remarks that “My failure at that table illustrates the absolute limits of the rhetorical strategies I am defending” because the “phrase ‘reducing the number of enemies’ had carried two radically different meanings” (150). Suppose that one of the interlocutors at the table had been Booth’s superior, and an opponent of the war in Iraq, and in a position to advance Booth’s career: in that sense, Booth’s rhetoric would have carried additional meaning to an additional audience. But as my examples of Cicero and Quintilian ought to indicate, I want to add a consideration of the problems offered by domination to the mix.

Booth offers about political rhetoric the caution “that one form of careful listening can produce one of the worst forms of deception. Really skillful rhetors can invent language that is intended to mean one thing to ‘insiders’ while appeasing ‘outsiders.'” (121) As Booth’s Chicago colleague Shadi Bartsch (xvi) brilliantly demonstrates in Actors in the Audience (a book I’d strongly recommend to anyone interested in the complex relationship of rhetoric to power in the Roman empire), this is the strategy employed by Tacitus in the Dialogus de Oratoribus and by Juvenal in Satire 7, only it was deployed as a counterhegemonic strategy, as a resistance to tyranny. In Bartsch’s words, “the discourse used before powerful figures, especially on occasions when it had an audience ready and willing to find unstated meanings, could undermine its own contents and the authority of the addressee. The meaning granted a given act, in interactions with emperors or their agents, was not always and not necessarily the sole province of the powerholder” (65). When deployed intentionally — as is the case with Tacitus and Juvenal — the strategy is what Bartsch calls “doublespeak,” and “characteristic of doublespeak is the appropriation of the ideological language of the court in such a way that, thanks to the peculiarities of the context in which it appears, allows its use to be understood as its opposite or at least an uncomplimentary version of the original although this context does not irrefutably fix the content of what is said in one way or another for the audience” (115). This is emphatically not irony, for “the nature of irony is to reveal itself as such, and the decoy message generally does not deceive any of its audiences” (115). Rather, doublespeak “offers dual meanings to its different audiences” (115). So here’s where I hope my three posts on Booth might be beginning to come together: I want to argue, with Bartsch’s counterhegemonic doublespeak as an example, that Booth’s stance on the motives and content of good rhetoric might be limiting. Rhetoric often has multiple audiences, bound up with the rhetor in differing relations of power, which gives a relevance unaddressed by Booth to the character of the rhetor and the style of the rhetoric. Booth argues that “No rhetorical effort can succeed if it fails to join in the beliefs and passions of the audience addressed” (51), but since his book is addressed to a contemporary (and largely American) lay audience, he seems to not see much of a need to talk about how rhetoric might operate under conditions of imperial domination.

For Booth, rhetoric is more a technology of alterity than a technology of the self. It always happens with an other, and there is little interest in the rhetorics of self-persuasion. But Booth’s argument that “all hard thought, even what Aristotle called dialectic, either depends on rhetoric or can actually be described as a version of it” (7) seems to indicate that what Booth calls “Rhetorology” — “The deepest form of L[istening-]R[hetoric]: the systematic probing for ‘common ground'” (11) — was what Plato was talking about as dialectic in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, and dialectic, of course, is a form of subjectivity-construction. It’s a way of building a self, a way of building the identity and character of the individual, of the interlocutor, of the rhetor.

The Romans, interestingly enough, constructed their subjectivities in a much more public manner than we do today, as historian Carlin Barton has compellingly argued. After Freud and the Romantics, societal notions about the intersection of language, identity, and the individual have changed radically, but I have to wonder: with the advent of weblogs, are our ideas about the function of rhetoric in subjectivity-production returning to a new focus on publicy (thanks to Charlie for the link)? As Collin has pointed out, Booth seems to be not much of a fan of technology, but I wonder if weblog technology might be bringing about a re-orientation in the public function of dialectic/listening-rhetoric. After all, according to Lee LeFever (thanks to Collin for the link), “bloggers listen better than others.”

I think what LeFever is saying might be better phrased, “RSS helps bloggers listen more,” but still, if Booth were to overcome his apparent dislike for the Web, I think he might approve even of simply listening more. And I think he might admit that listening more could be part of an effective strategy for opposing tyranny and domination. And, ultimately, isn’t that the model that today gets described in composition and rhetoric circles as “critical literacy”? Listening more, listening carefully, resisting dominant ideologies, working towards a counterhegemonic understanding? I think so. But in light of what I’ve written above, this seems to me to be an inward-turning strategy, a technology of the self. And without the interpretation Bartsch offers, we might simply understand rhetoric under the Roman empire as having retired to the drawing-room of Seneca the Elder.

I don’t think we’re living under an imperial domination like that of the Romans — although, as I’ve acknowledged, there are certainly some parallels, and The Happy Tutor’s recent excellent post offers yet more evidence for the case that Americans are far less free than they were four years ago. Which makes me wonder: if Booth’s listening-rhetoric is dialectic, the truth-seeking (and possibly public) construction of an individual subjectivity, where is its deliberative counterpart? Where is the technology-of-alterity counterpart to “critical literacy”; the outward-directed use of language that resists the practices of domination? Can the argument against Booth’s ethical “commandment” be made that Bartsch’s doublespeak — in its resistance to tyranny — is itself a rhetorical ethical imperative?

I know a lot of this is really all-over-the-place and makes some big associative leaps, and as much as I might worry at Booth for neglecting the canon of style, I’ve certainly neglected the canon of arrangement. Still, I hope that these three entries on Booth, taken together, might happen to function as a semi-integrated whole, with some common themes, and I’d be grateful for any feedback.

On Booth 3

3 thoughts on “On Booth 3

  • March 1, 2005 at 12:18 am
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    Strauss om Writing under Tyranny? St Mark on parables? Doublespeak, or esoteric speak, is a fascinating topic today, as we learn to speak under conditions where speech acts have consequences inside language games we don’t control, but that enclose our speech from the outside.

    You are so good on these rhetorical topics, particularly with your ease with classical sources. Wish I had your learning and your ability to make these connections.

    Fables? Just so stories? Uncle Remus?

    I glumly think that Paul de Man, for example, learned to write doublespeak under the Occupation and that it gives his writings an unholy power even today, or more so than ever.

    Booth, though I have not read him in years, seems so healthy minded and a unselfconsciously a gentleman liberal of the plain and candid style. You too are writing still in the plain style of the honest man about esoteric speech, but you are not practicing it. What is your thought on that? Has your practice not kept pace with your theory and appreciation?

    The “turn” comes when you not only understand, but undertake speech coded for more than one audience. It comes like a fall from grace, or from Eden, into a world of hurt.

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