345: Perspectives in American Rhetoric
Spring 1996
Brief discussion outline for exam study

Introduction to the Course

perspective: comes from Latin perspectus meaning "sight" or "looking through." "point of view": or, the interrelation in which a subject and its parts are mentally "viewed." The notion of "perspective" is a visual metaphor that implies seeing things in particular relationships. plural: there is not one perspective but multiple perspectives.

American: can be taken in many senses, and the term is often contested and struggled over. Here are some of its many layers of meaning:

(1) geographical: the physical boundaries of the Americas; OR the physical boundaries of the USA. North/South divide makes these perspectives very distinct (LA used to be Mexico, for example).
(2) geopolitical: "the United States of America" as a geopolitical construction -- focus on the nation's self-articulation in public discourse. (speeches of presidents, wars, etc.)
(3) ideological: focus on the idea of America and the various ideas associated with it -- the "American Dream"; American ideographs of "liberty," "freedom," "equality," etc.
(4) cultural: focus on the cultural aspects of American ideals -- baseball, apple pie, TV.
(5) historical: emphasis on "events" in history.

Rhetoric: According to Aristotle, "rhetoric" is the art of persuasion. Aristotle's definition arose out of his attempt to divide knowledge into different categories:

Rhetoric Dialectic Aesthetic
power truth beauty
politics science art
emotion reason "culture"

The study of rhetoric, then, is the study of the persuasive aspects of communication (persuasion = communication intended to influence belief or action).

2 general approaches to the study of perspectives in American Rhetoric:

(1) analysis of specific rhetorical acts. (text-centered approach). Study of specific texts, documents, etc.
(2) study of broader socio-cultural themes. (discourse-centered approach). Many of the readings are broad surveys of the rhetorical history of particular time periods, using many texts as examples but not focusing on any specific text.


History is a story, or rather a series of stories, and a collection of documents or texts. As rhetoricians, we do not approach history as an accurate depiction of events but rather as a particular and interested articulation of events.

"interest": an economic term indicating that someone benefits from a particular articulation
"articulate": to intelligibly tell, to create meaning through language.

an "interested articulation" is a telling of the stories that benefits some individual or social group. The study of the past is not an "accurate interpretation" or a "telling it like it really was." Rather, it is an act of modifying the present and the future through analysis of the past. What one chooses to emphasize or to leave out in any particular telling has an impact on the present and future.

Walter Benjamin's "historical materialism"

the historicist perspective sees Nazism as a break with the past, something that "can't happen here"

historical materialism, on the other hand, sees Nazism as continuous with the past -- part of an overall historical progression from domination to domination.

the notion of historical progress is thrown radically into question by Benjamin: he saw Nazi Germany not as the exception but as the rule throughout history.

materialism -- focus on matter and the real. The role of the materialist historian is not just to "tell" but to do -- to intervene decisively in history against the fascists. For a historian to say "I have no politics" (historicist claim) is the same as saying "my politics are those of the ruling class."

Benjamin, Zarefsky, and Blair: Three Views of Rhetorical Historicism

	Marxist					Classical Liberal

	Benjamin				Zarefsky & Andrews
	materialism				idealism
	social					individual
	science					rationality
	utopian or dystopian			positive & pragmatic
	idea arises from social reality		idea is applied to social reality
	people make history,			people make history
	     but not through
	     circumstances of their
	     own making

			Critical Theory

			Blair, et. al
			materialism of Marxist tradition
			pragmatism of liberal tradition
			social outlook of Marxism
			critiques both the rationalism of liberalism
			and the scientism of Marxism

Rhetoric vs. violence: Zarefsky and Andrews view history from the tradition of historicism criticized by Benjamin. Note the opposition they suggest between rhetoric and violence -- they see rhetoric as an alternative to violence. Both are a means of exercising power, but rhetoric is the liberal method whereas violence is the totalitarian method.

BUT -- this view of rhetoric as an alternative to violence covers over the ways in which rhetoric can be complicit in violence. Benjamin would see American history as a series of negotiations which covered up open warfare, while Zarefsky would see American history as a series of negotiations instead of wars. For Benjamin (and Zinn) the discourse which defines African-Americans as inferior, for example, went hand in hand with the violence that was used to subdue them.

Critical Attitude (Blair, et. al): critique as an attitude that permits decision and choice. Embraces understanding and informed judgment. This commitment and responsibility is not private and individual but public and social. Human beings are inherently social beings and the use of symbols is a social phenomenon.

The four "maxims" of critique (Blair et al):

1. understanding and pursuing one's own interests
2. criticism is written to and for an audience
3. both helped and hindered by theory and method
4. rarely travels a straight line to its end.

Zarefsky and Andrews on speech and history:

1.  A speech is given in a specific context
2.  ethos -- audience's perception of a speaker's character
3.  nature of the audience
4.  specific message
	a)  argument
		1)  audience's assumptions (doxa)
		-logic and reasoning are cultural and historical elements, not absolute norms
		2)  probability
	b)  organization
	c)  style

On Knowledge and Power

The Exchange (Bean & Beaner)

This tale should be read as a parable of American history and the role of power. Who won the verbal exchange? What is the role of power here? Note how the exercise of brutality appears in the guise of a court proceeding. Power, in its moment of exercise, is always absolute -- there was no "arguing out" of the sentence.

C. Wright Mills, "On Knowledge and Power"

public sphere: Enlightenment theory of knowledge -- presumes that knowledge and power should be shared in society, that ideas and policies should be open to discussion and public debate.

"liberalism" as:

	"theory of society"		"political rhetoric"

	dialectic/knowledge		rhetoric/power
	liberalism has become 		key terms of liberalism, "ideographs"
	irrelevant in this respect	have become the common denominators
					of political vocabulary, useless for theoretical
					or dialectical argument.

"In the old days freedom was something you used" -- i.e. it had relevance to the real world -- "now it is something you save and protect" -- i.e. it is only useful as an ideograph or as cultural capital.

Mills' argument is that "men of knowledge" are no longer "men of power"; now "men of power" hire "men of knowledge" as consultants. But we are commonly taught to explain and justify power in terms of knowledge -- e.g. "if you're so smart, how come you're not rich?" Knowledge is no longer an end but now an instrument of power -- a rhetorical tool.

expert sphere vs. public sphere -- decisions are more and more made by "experts" and justified not through rational argumentation but rather through the argument from authority of "expertise" -- i.e. "it's correct because the experts say so."

"America" as cultural dominant: "The US is now engaged with other nations, particularly Russia, in a full-scale competition for cultural prestige based on nationality." (602-3)

Howard Zinn and American History

Zinn's view of history and theory of the nation -- for most historians, history is the body of knowledge accumulated in and for the state. State power is the material resource from which historians draw, and the stories told by historians are the stories of the state. For Zinn, however, history should be not the history of the nation but rather the history of peoples. Thus he tells the story of history from the perspective of the "losers" in historical battles.

Native America

Rhetorical relationship of Indians to land and to private property.
Racism and race as historical rather than biological fact.
Class based nature of historical conquest of native America.
"liberty" and "equality" as ideographs.
Rewriting of history by white America.
Paternalistic portrayal of Indians as savages and of white leaders as "fathers" of wayward "children.":

Ward Churchill

colonization: used by Churchill as the model from which to read Indian experience in America.
exploitation: the deliberate and sustained draining of the resources of one group for the economic and political gain of another.

Blurring of truth and art -- according to Churchill, the primary means of defense of white colonization is sophistry or rhetoric. Truth and art are blurred in the colonialist narrative representation of the native.

Manifest Destiny: the belief in white American rhetoric that territorial expansion was ordained by God....anyone "in the way" must be crushed.

Churchill's critique of "aesthetic license":

(1) the notion itself arises out of the colonial context, so the justification is circular
(2) it rests on the factual distortions of previous time.

terministic screen (Burke): stereotypes of Indians became a distorting lens through which native America has always been viewed.

"white America" is in fact not possible without the exploitation of native America.

Declaration of Independence

(1) slave trade: Jefferson's attack on the slave trade, though it was totally disingenuous and eventually stricken from the Declaration, called attention to the question of "the people" and "mankind" invoked by the declaration.

(2) Audience -- Americans, elites in England, and in France and Spain.

(3) theory and practice: the declaration presumes a certain theory of government that underwrites its specific arguments. government is placed in a means-ends relation -- gov't as the means to secure individual rights. This theory of gov't, popularly accepted in the West by 1776, had arisen out of historic peasant uprisings against the landlord classes in Europe.

(4) Lucas essay -- an excellent example of a close textual analysis of a rhetorical document. "probing the text microscopically" in order to slow down the persuasive dynamics of the text, to reveal its inner workings. Lucas also pays particularly close attention to context. The following are some of Lucas' main points:

(a) "unanimous declaration" -- the illusion of unanimity is created by congress in order to justify independence; Lucas points out this was a false hypothesis.

(b) the preamble -- Lucas argues that "taken out of context, it is so general that it could be used as the introduction to a declaration by any oppressed people." In fact it was -- the "other" declarations of independence.

(c) "one people" -- Lucas notes that this phrase declares Americans a separate culture from Britain -- a proposition of policy ("should") is here stated as a proposition of fact ("is"). This masks the implicit value choice that is made so that the Declaration need not persuade or prove its point. The goal was to portray the revolution as a true rebellion against tyranny rather than a civil war.

(d) sense of levity and seriousness: everything in the Declaration is written so as to give the decision to declare independence an overwhelming sense of historic inevitability.

(e) broad appeal of the declaration -- Lucas shows how "all men are created equal" meant very different things to different people.

(f) sorities: a mode of argument in which propositions are linked together so that the predicate of the first becomes the subject of the second, and so on. The preamble was written so as to appear as this form of argument.

(g) the preamble held no new ideas per se -- the right to revolution articulated was a generally accepted theory of government in the West. Jefferson's goal was to show how the argument for the American revolution followed directly from a common ground of principles that were generally shared -- doxa -- common political views that can be appealed to by specific circumstances.

(h) personification of the enemy: King George III instead of "Great Britain" or "parliament."

(i) "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world": matters of interpretation become "facts" that there can be no dispute about. The story is seen as "unmediated" -- who is submitting the facts? no one. If you don't agree with the "facts," you must not be candid!

(j) role of strategic ambiguity -- the grievances are ambiguous in order to make them seem greater and also to make them more difficult to refute.

(k) Indians and the slave trade:

(i) Indians -- every tribe had fought on the side of the British during the revolution; here Jefferson makes it seem as if it is the King's fault they attacked Americans.

(ii) loyalists -- Jefferson used this passage to call loyalists traitors and to accuse the King of encouraging loyalism.

(iii) slaves -- the real force of the slave trade passage was the argument that the slaves were rebelling against their masters. George III had promised the slaves freedom if they rebelled against their masters. The irony is that JEFFERSON was in effect charging King George with the "crime" of manumission.

Ultimately, according to Lucas, the purpose of the Declaration was not to provoke debate about political issues (like Thomas Paine's pamphlets), but rather to silence it. In other words, to present the rationale for independence so clearly and persuasively that it would cease to be a topic for debate. The declaration was designed not to be timeless but timely (in the sense of kairos) -- not to be memorable but to be forgettable.

(5) Derrida essay -- the move from the is to the ought. Who signs the Declaration, according to Derrida? Not Jefferson, not the Congress, but "the people" -- a people that did not exist before the document is signed. According to Derrida, the signature invokes the author and calls him/her/it into being rather than the other way around.

Haymarket: Capital v. Labor

The Haymarket tragedy which gave rise to the speeches of Lizius and Lingg was an historic event in the contest between capital and organized labor in the 1880s. by the 1880s there was a nationwide workers' movement, and revolutionary talk was common. Also there were immigrants pouring into the American labor force. Child labor and exploitation was common -- in 1880 there were over 1,000,000 children under 16 working in US factories.

1877 - Socialist party founded
1883 - Central Labor Union called for strikes and violence
1886 - AFL called for nationwide strikes for an 8-hour day
business leaders urged that Parsons and Spies (of the CLU) be "made examples of"
May 3 1886 - police fired into crowds of strikers in Chicago
May 4 1886 - c. 3000 people gather in Haymarket square to protest police violence against workers. 180 cops showed up, ordering the crowd to disperse. A bomb explodes, wounding 66 policemen. They in turn fired into the crowd, wounding 200 people. Without any evidence, the police arrested 8 anarchist leaders in Chicago, only one who had actually been present at Haymarket Square (and he couldn't have thrown the bomb since he was at the podium when it exploded). They were arrested on their ideas alone. Evidence later emerged that Rudolph Schnaubelt was hired by police as an agent provocateur to throw the bomb. In the long run, the police plan backfired, and Haymarket became a symbol of labor uprising, inspiring many activists throughout history, from the contemporary Emma Goldman to the Chicago 8.


Adam Parfrey points out the way in which American mass media not only directs our attention to certain things; it also directs our attention away from other things, as is evidenced in their treatment of the Oklahoma blast.

"terrorism" -- Edward S. Herman develops the notion of the "terrorist industry" -- made up of academics, government and private nonprofit organizations, commercial think tanks, and media pundits -- that generates "information" about terrorism -- what it is, who commits it, and what threat it poses. The key power of the industry is in defining "terrorism" to coincide with the interests of multinational corporations -- mass murder and coercion is "terrorism" only if it is committed by unfriendly powers.

"crisis of whiteness" -- Before Oklahoma, the definition of terrorism was largely nonwhite and Middle Eastern. With the identification of Timothy McVeigh as the chief suspect, there arises a crisis in that definition of the typical terrorist.

Parfrey notes the Federal government's power to suppress dissent as embodied in Oliver North's 1984 plans for martial law and the Omnibus Antiterrorist Act of 1995.

Revolution in Black

(1) race riots of 1919

(2) art and politics -- Harlem Renaissance; European Dadaism and Futurism. Theme of the "minstrel."

(3) political activity -- Marcus Garvey (pan-Africanism), Angelo Herndon (Communism).

(4) decolonization -- third world nations throw off the colonial governments; this inspired many black Americans to see their experience in America as analogous to the colonial experience.

(5) Civil Rights efforts in America began not as a means to produce equality but rather as a means to make the US look better than the Soviet Union in the eyes of the rest of the world.

(6) Malcolm X: "civil rights" vs. "human rights"

(7) nationalism: the "nation" is not a real un-mediated phenomenon; it is always a discursive construction. the nation is an imagined community. it is a concept that has a productive impact on the world. American nationalism: manifest destiny -- the sense of mission, adventure, and success in the face of great obstacles are all part of the myth of American nationalism. Black nationalism arises as a response to the fact that the imagined community identified with American nationalism has never included Black America. Black nationalists see themselves not as Americans with black skin but rather as an occupied or captive nation within North America. This black nation was actually the product of white supremacy.

(8) relation between violence and the state

(9) color as a rhetorical fact -- color in itself has no meaning; it only has meaning through the discourse of white American nationalism.

(10) There are 2 Americas according to H. Rap Brown; the problem is that many black Americans are forced by circumstances to identify with white America's values and institutions. The internal contradictions of white America are dealt with through its institutions and ideas.

(11) ideology: a representation of our imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. ideograph: a particular word or phrase that can be loaded with and emptied of ideological content in particular rhetorical systems -- e.g. "liberty."

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