What is Rhetoric?

Rhetoric, more often than not, is cast in a secondary position to the world. It’s “useful,” as if there were first the world and its truths, then rhetoric. Or rhetoric is the means of twisting and turning language in order to be persuasive or eloquent, as if language came before rhetoric, as if language were not itself always twisting and turning. Or rhetoric is cast as that which disrupts language, sends meaning astray—and once again, rhetoric is seen as acting upon something else, upon meaning or philosophy or truth or metaphysics. None of these definitions heed the logic that is immanent to rhetoric; they offer a philosophic rhetoric or a linguistic rhetoric but not a rhetorical rhetoric.

But perhaps that is inevitable as it is rhetoric—and not linguistics or philosophy—that proffers the logic of difference and its reckoning. That is, linguistics and philosophy have a way of reading the particularity of this or that in light of something else such as ideas, concepts, linguistic structures. It is no surprise, then, that they read rhetoric after the fact rather than as the fact.

If we read rhetoric rhetorically, it provides a fundamentally different way of making sense (of itself and of the world). Or, rather, it is that way of making sense that is always different. Rhetoric offers up difference as difference rather than as an untamed nuisance, secretive sameness, or endless deferral. But then we must configure rhetoric according to its own logic rather than reading it in terms of something else. So I will attempt this pithy definition of rhetoric, a redundant definition to be sure, a rhetorical rendering of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the art and logic—the practice and the theory—of how things go, things of all sorts—human, textual, animal, conceptual, emotional, natural (rhetoric is nomadic; it can make its home anywhere). As different things make sense of the world differently, the rhetorician is there to make sense of this sense-making. The trick is that the way of this or that is not pre-known but emerges in the very going; borders and modes shift as circumstances shift. The rhetorician is she who heeds the specificity of circumstance, the configuration of these things here and now, the propriety of the occasion.

But this rhetorician—who tends to a world on the fly—is on the fly herself, another thing in motion, another part of the circumstantial configuration. She must heed the world as part of the world. And it is the circumstance, the spatio-temporal configuration of these particular ways of going, that determines the course of action (say, an exegesis). A propriety, then, but an emergent propriety, a network forged on the go, every encounter a different occasion to heed.

Rhetoric, then, proffers the logics, stratagems, and tactics of difference reckoning difference, this making sense of that, particularities heeding particularities. Another way to say it is that rhetoric is the theory and practice of reading a world in motion while in motion.

Another way to say this is that rhetoric is the calculus of textuality.
And yet another way of saying this is that rhetoric offers the logic of difference and the ethics of negotiating this difference.

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