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.

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