Paradigms of Historical Criticism in Rhetoric

The Historiography of Rhetoric

  • Bailif, Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric
  • Farenga, “Periphrasis on the Origin of Rhetoric,” MLN 94 (1979): 1033-55.
  • Edward Schiappa, “Rhêtorikê, What’s In a Name? Toward a Revised History of Early Greek Rhetorical Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 78 (1992): 1-15.
  • Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong, “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology,” in Reclaiming Rhetorica, 9-24.


The unit on historiography is broken into two components. The first is the foundations of historiography, which consists in the development of unique methods of performing rhetorical history. These readings answer the question: what is a history of rhetoric, or what can such a history be? What assumptions does one make as a historiographic critic? What kinds of objects can be centered by more-or-less traditional variants of historiographic criticism? The second unit is the historiography of rhetoric, which focuses upon the way that rhetoric is the focal object of historiographic criticism. Here we consider three readings about the ancient Greek context of Rhetoric, and how each of these essays centers a unique method of telling that history. In the case of Farenga, rhetoric originates as a gesture that preceded its translation into speech. With Schiappa, who abides by a strict nominalism, there can be no rhetoric before it is named. The Sophists may indeed have been teachers of logoi, but they did not teach or use the word ‘rhetoric’ to describe their wares. Instead, rhetoric originates with Plato, Aristophanes, and Aristotle, who name rhetoric as a way of solving a particular problem that had yet to receive a neologism. Finally, Jarrat and Ong a feminist rewriting of the history of rhetoric by finding in Plato’s discourse references to Aspasia, the unnamed female rhetorician who informs his maieutic method of sussing information from an interlocutor, and who he systematically erases from the historical record. [if you are looking for the chart referencing the objects of rhetorical criticism generated in seminar on 3/28, please look to the assignment description page]

Foundations of Historiography

Mark Brenden

Writ 5776, Spring 2019

The three readings under this banner, “Foundations of Historiography,” each make theoretical arguments about historiography as a method in the discipline of rhetoric. Each (at least implicitly) wrestles with two main questions:

  1. How do we perform a rhetorical history, and
  2. How do we tell the history of rhetoric?

Zarefsky lays out four clear guidelines and categories for performing history in the discipline, while Hawhee/Olson and Sutton advance arguments for altering the traditions of rhetorical history. This presentation will summarize the three readings, draw connections between them, center rhetoric, and assess their usefulness as theoretical foundations for the method of historiography in our discipline(s).

David Zarefsky, “Four Senses of Rhetorical History”

David Zarefsky’s four senses of rhetorical history is a taxonomy of the ‘kinds’ of analysis that a rhetorician might undertake under the heading of rhetorical history. This taxonomy is meant to be rhetorical itself, building on the reversal of “history” and “rhetoric,” in each case. From the article, it is clear that Zarefsky reserves a special preference for “rhetorical studies of historical events,” which he maintains to be both the most challenging and the most rewarding. To be clear, Zarefsky’s framework builds in places upon Bitzer’s framework of rhetorical situation. Like the rhetorical situation, rhetorical history is an ongoing and open conversation rather than a static notion. As the articles selected for this week show, the objects and ecologies of rhetorical history are more open now than when Zarefsky first described them.

In this well-known chapter, Zarefsky responds to a “defensiveness” that he perceives in the conversation around rhetorical history. He sees defensiveness deriving from two strands of thought: 1) that the present provides enough problems with which scholars should concern themselves and 2) that the historical method is not critical or theoretical enough. Zarefsky mostly waves his hand at this “pseudocontroversy,” arguing that history is already interpretive and criticism is already historical. Finally, as promised in his title, he endeavors to establish four senses of “rhetorical history.” It seems most useful to simply present his senses in list form, with attendant succinct descriptions of each. Zarefsky notes that senses three and four stem from “what used to be regarded as the ‘history of public address.’”

  1. The history of rhetoric: This is the sense that examines “the development of rhetoric in the context of the eras and societies in which it evolved” (26). In other words, this is the broad study of rhetoric as a concept or discipline. Examples could be tracing the emergence and development of the term kairos or George Kennedy’s studies of Greek and Roman rhetoric. This is the sense that examines “the development of rhetoric in the context of the eras and societies in which it evolved” (26). In other words, this is the broad study of rhetoric as a concept or discipline. Examples could be tracing the development of the term kairos or George Kennedy’s studies of Greek and Roman rhetoric.
  2. The rhetoric of history: Says Zarefsky, “This branch of inquiry is partly a study of how historians talk and write about history” (28). Much like the rhetoric of science, law, or any other discipline, this sense explores the ways that historians employ rhetoric in their telling of history. To think of the discipline of history as a mode of rhetorical practice is a mode means that we would theorize epistemology, or our way of ‘knowing’ history, as itself a rhetorical process.
  3. Historical studies of rhetorical practice: This one particularly looks at, say, works in the rhetorical canon (Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural,” King’s “I Have a Dream,” or Condit and Lucaites on <Equality>), and studies them “as a force of history” (29). This register asks what the historical significance of a specific rhetorical act, understood as a speech or speeches delivered within a reconstructible historical context and situation.
  4. Rhetorical studies of historical events: This is Zarefsky’s “most elusive but possibly most rewarding” sense. It looks at history “as a series of rhetorical problems” (30). This is the examination of history through a rhetorical lens, or “as a series of rhetorical problems” and “the focus of the study would be on how, and how well, people invented and deployed messages in response to a situation” (30). He finds these useful because they answer a ‘so what’ question in a way that the other ‘senses’ do not. He references his own work on the "War on Poverty," which examined domestic policies in the 1960s as “responses to historical situations” (30). In short: number three looks at acts of rhetoric and makes them historic, whereas number four looks at historical events through rhetorical lenses.

Whichever of the four senses rhetoricians labor under, Zarefsky stresses the importance of addressing the “so what?” question, and being explicit about how and why the study matters.

Hawhee and Olson, “Pan-Historiography”

Debra Hawhee and Christa J. Olson set their argument against the backdrop of a tension in rhetorical studies between sweeping pan-historiography and the more “restrictive, specialized” histories toward which the discipline of rhetoric is trending. Through a discussion of their own historiographic work (Hawhee’s work with animals and Olson’s with Ecuadorian indigeneities), they advocate for a middle path between pan-historiography and specified, focused history work, favoring a method of “by turns zooming and hovering, simultaneously posing big-picture questions and fine-grained ones” (91).

These decisions “recalibrate the distinction” between two styles of history that stem from Saussurian structuralism and Foucaultian poststructuralism, respectively: diachronic (focus on longview) and synchronic (focus on a particular moment) (92). Hawhee’s own study of animals in rhetorical history zooms and hovers, telling a story of the history of nonhuman animals shaping rhetoric that has “both surprising thematic durability and contextual, cultural mutation” (94). For Olson’s study of indigenous visibility and marginalization in Ecuador, she spans eras using a thematic thread, laying alongside one another “slices of time” that, she says, better tells a story of Ecuadorian indigeneity than a more limiting, synchronic style. Both of their methods “turn toward the expansive for a combination of conceptual, theoretical, and practical reasons” (95). Pan-historiography, then, is akin to piecing together slices of cheese (borrowing from Burke’s cheesy metaphor), “even if it resists beginning or ending with anything like a whole cheese” (98).

Quotations to consider from Hawhee and Olson:

  • Seek to capture “the lingering usefulness of those histories that sprawl across long stretches of time and/or space and multiple archives, and the concomitant need to share methods and cautionary tales pertinent to writing such histories, to take preliminary steps toward a pan-historiography.”
  • The decision to span depends on and responds to the aspects of rhetorical history or theory that the study hopes to illuminate and the contributions a rhetorical perspective might make to clarifying the broad themes (in our cases, of nation formation, and of human/animal relations) under consideration.
  • Even the most expansive histories still work within set parameters (historical, thematic, or, more usually, both): historiography always involves making selections. With more expansive histories, those selections slice up time, selecting representative figures or movements in order to create a larger narrative arc.
  • “The sweep,” that tendency to homogenize whole eras, places, and controversies into manageable and misleadingly coherent terms, must be counterbalanced by theoretical, methodological, and structural practices designed to keep texture and complexity in the foreground. Expansive rhetorical histories cannot merely acknowledge that change happens or that the rhetorical situation of one moment is distinct from that of another; they must have theoretical and methodological orientations that make those evolutions and breaks integral to the analyses they forward.

Jane Sutton, “Rhetoric’s Nose”

According to Sutton, the 1980s saw rhetoricians embracing “varying perceptions” of how to look for rhetoric through the method of historiography. The 90s, similarly, dared to search for rhetoric “where it has not been found” (Mountford qtd in Sutton 128). Sutton views her work in “Rhetoric’s Nose,” as taking up the challenge—the “dare”—forwarded by these two decades of scholarship.

She focuses her argument on a passage from Aristotle’s Rhetoric:

Thus democracy loses its vigor, and finally passes into oligarchy, not only when it is not pushed far enough, but also when it is pushed too far; just as the aquiline and the snub nose not only turn into normal noses by not being aquiline or snub enough, but also by being too violently aquiline or snub arrive at a condition in which they no longer look like noses at all. (Sutton 129)

Initially, Sutton followed Aristotle’s logic to find a metaphor for democracy and rhetoric through the shape of the nose: the straighter, more “aquiline,” the better. That notion quickly lost its luster for Sutton, and she began thinking not how the nose looks, but what it does: “it smells” (130). The nose therefore functions metaphorically in two ways:

  1. Sensation (contingency of experience)
  2. The process of historiography (wandering into something)

About the former, Sutton riffs with Kennedy in his distinction between habit and accident. Whereas Kennedy endorses habit, Sutton calls for a focus on the accidental The metaphor of the nose invites scholars to embrace and indeed search for accidental history, and focus on the sensation of smelling. Number two also stresses the accidental, which is the image of wandering into something, leading with the nose. Ultimately, Sutton sees the nose and the accidental as a “process by which rhetoric can reconfigure itself as an agent of change” (136).

Connecting the readings and centering rhetoric

This has been a conversation about method, and rhetoric understandably has a thorny relationship to historiography as a method, considering the discipline has been designed as a series of roads all of which lead back to ancient white dudes. Zarefsky, as is common, responds to controversy by chasing the allure of structure, assembling a four-legged table upon which all of rhetorical history can be neatly stacked. Sutton takes a more subversive route, performing a feminist rewrite of Aristotle in an unorthodox essay about the nose. Hawhee and Olson may be subversive in their own work on animals and Ecuadorian indigeneity (and a missing “Aristotle” on their references list is itself subversive), but the essay that we read itself does not ruffle many feathers, in fact advocating for a compromise between two extremes (synchronic and diachronic histories). So if Sutton’s is the most radical take and Zarefsky’s the most conservative, then Hawhee and Olson give us a centrist option: we needn’t either zoom or hover; we can do both, which they say gives us a more comprehensive view of our objects.

Centering rhetoric in these three essays is not difficult, as it’s already unequivocally central to each piece. What is difficult is the work of centering rhetoric in historical methods or centering history in rhetorical methods, which is the reason these writers wrote these pieces. Zaresfsky’s essay is useful insofar as it gives us a structure against which we might measure our own historical theory/methods. It’s also formulaic and mostly uncritical (though he does invoke Burke’s notion that reflection is also about selection and deflection). In addition to being the most engagingly written piece of the bunch, Sutton’s is also the most critical, and the most illuminating. The sense of sight continues to dominate history—what did it look like?—and this is a logocentric view. It examines, observes, assesses. Thus, centering smell is itself a subversion, but functioning as a metaphor it invites us to divorce ourselves from that logocentrism in productive ways. When you wander into a room, its smell likely hits you first. It’s an affective experience: this room reeks or smells like geraniums in bloom. Odors, thankfully in some cases, are fleeting. Sutton calls for rhetoricians to go into rooms new and old, so to speak, and take a whiff.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we do as a discipline whose history mostly traces back to one ancient white guy? Can/should we conduct rhetorical history that bypasses him, or must it all lead back to or at least wrestle with Aristotle?
  2. Is anyone here doing what they’d consider rhetorical history in their own work? Is there a trend away from this method? If so, is our current age tantamount to how Zarefsky describes the 1960s, wherein we think, “how could formulaic studies of dead orators speak to the great crises of the day?” (20). If not, what are some of the current trends in rhetorical history?
  3. Where does Sutton’s nose metaphor fall short for you? Can you really simply wander into an accidental history without bringing an inherent logocentrism with you into that experience? How do we know we aren’t just reacting to the smell of, say, the present archive room that we’re in?

Additional Sources

  1. Carey, James W. and John J. Quirk. “The History of the Future.” Chapter 7 of Communication As Culture (Carey, Ed). Routledge: 1989.
  2. Hawhee, Debra, Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw: Animals, Language, Sensation. University of Chicago Press: 2017.
  3. Haley, Sarah. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, University of North Carolina Press, 2016.