Saturday, July 26, 2008

Edwin Black and Tech Comm

Why is Edwin Black (and Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Criticism) not used more in Technical Communication (TC)? As I understand it, one great criticism leveled at Neo-Aristotelian (NA) criticism is that it implies an impartial and contingent audience. In order to conduct a NA criticism, the rhetorician must delve deeply into the historical context of the artifact in the hopes of understanding the audience at hand. This is also something that TC strives to do for their deliverables. In other words, can NA criticism and/or Edwin Black's method aid technical communicators to develop effective strategies for audience analysis?

Rhetorical Transaction

For Black, a rhetorical transaction is a complex and a process of three elements of rhetoric: strategies, situations, and effects. These elements are understood as the following [1, p. 133-135]:

  • Rhetorical Strategies: the characteristics of the discourse
  • Rhetorical Situations: extralinguistic influences on the audience
  • Audience Effects: responses to the strategies in the situations

Taken together, these three elements converge to be a complex process (or phenomenon) that can be articulated to describe the effect of an artifact (or deliverable) which he names the rhetorical transaction. Certainly, one could approach TC through this heuristic in most genres including document design, proposals, and web design.

For instance, what are the characteristics of a given deliverable? This sounds like a genre to me. A proposal should contain certain elements while a resume would include different elements. All technical communicators should thoughtfully consider the conventional elements in light of the situation and audience effects. Also, "extralinguistic" influences sounds, to me, close to document design and other strategies of visual rhetoric while Usability would address the audience responses. All three work together to adequately describe the all important context of any deliverable. How would our service-level TC classes be enhanced if we, as instructors, thought about teaching writing through the lens of Black's Rhetorical Transaction?

Of course this is not a comprehensive treatment of Black's method but simply the initial musing for me on this matter. Black's subsequent writing on "Exhortation" and "Argument" may also offer good strategies for TC. I am simply wondering at this point. Hmm.. here is another dissertation topic.

-Safari Bob


[1] Black, E. (1978). Rhetorical Criticism: A Study in Method. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Eh... What?

I ran across this article as I was traversing the 'Internets' today. Here is my favorite quote:

Then, how do we explain aliens if they are for real? The Bible teaches that Satan and his demons (the fallen angels) can take on take all sorts of shapes and perform all sorts of miracles in order to deceive mankind. In fact, some who have been claimed to be abducted by aliens say that these aliens have told them things that undermine the truth of the Christian Scriptures and the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

This is not say that God cannot create life on other planets, but the point being made here is that the supposed alien contacts popularly mentioned are not actual alien beings at all but the work of dark supernatural forces.

Eh.. What?

I love how this guy ties conspiracy theories, evolution, UFO's, and demons into a modern understanding of Christianity. This may be the most paranoid example of multi-tasking in modern theology I have witnessed. Someone needs to alert the Spanish Inquisition!


-Safari Bob

Thursday, July 3, 2008

What is the Role of Rhetoric Before a Biased Audience?

My reading of Aristotle contends that he approaches argument as contingent – or happening in the moment. Ideally, the rhetor addresses an audience that chooses sides at that moment or at least within the corpus of the oration. The effect of the rhetor is judged by the choice of the audience to either accept or reject the argument en toto at the expense of the opposition. Victory and defeat both depend on the skill of the rhetor and the construction of the argument while the audience is presumed to have little or no stake in the decision. My question is this: What is the role of rhetoric if the audience is biased (or intractable) before the argument commences? How is the purpose of rhetoric different before a hostile or sympathetic group of stakeholders? What is the role of neo-Aristotelian criticism in determining the motives (hidden or declared) of the audience that sits in judgment of the efficacy of the argument?


Wichelns addresses the nature of the audience through the eyes of the rhetor: “Something should be said of structure, something of adaptation to the immediate audience, whose convictions and habits of thought, whose literary usages, and whose general cultural background all condition the work both of writer and speaker” (15). The function of the orator is seen as “influencing men in some concrete situation” (24) and her method of imparting these ideas to her hearers (26) is analyzed. He concludes that we “must examine more thoroughly…the interactions of the inventive genius, the popularizing talent, and the public mind” (32) but, for Wichelns, the rhetor is still privileged with if not a neutral audience, certainly a sympathetic one.

Selzer provides an excellent primer of rhetorical analysis as critical reading of texts and provides a summary of three general ideas of audience (283) but fails to address the motives for accepting or rejecting a given argument. Audience is treated as neutral to or even “implied” (294) by the rhetor and persuasion is contingent on the skills and choices of the one constructing the argument. In his example, he demonstrates that Friedman was vulnerable to counterattack by opposition through a weak metaphor rather than the opposition’s predilection to do so based on their stake in the argument. Why did Friedman’s rhetoric not persuade his opposition?

Perhaps it is unfair to ask the rhetorician – or at least neo-Aristotelian criticism - to identify the motives of the audience. In fact, Leff and Mohrmann in their analysis of the Lincoln address at Cooper Union demonstrate that Lincoln actually was not addressing a potentially hostile Southern audience (181). Hitchcock, in his analysis of Jonathan Edwards, explores a certainly sympathetic audience (I can’t help it; he was preaching to the choir) and articulates the stylistic modes Edwards used to help the congregation concentrate on his message (117 for example). Perhaps this question truly lies in the notion of ethos in that if you truly disagree with the position of the speaker, how can you see her as credible?

-Safari Bob


Hitchcock, Orville A. "Jonathan Edwards" American Public Address, pp. 213-237.

Leff, Michael C. and Gerald P. Mohrmann. "Lincoln at Cooper Union: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Text" in Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Criticism, pp. 173-187.

Selzer, Jack. "Rhetorical Analysis: Understanding How Texts Persuade Readers" Chapter 10, pp. 279-307.

Wichelns, Herbert A. "The Literary Criticism of Oratory" in Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Criticism, pp. 1-32.