Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rhetorical Correlationism

In Meaning, Language, and Time, Kevin J. Porter succinctly restates the three dominant factions of rhetoric as espoused by James Berlin. They are as follows:
cognitive rhetoric (e.g., Emig, 1971), the “heir apparent of current-traditional rhetoric” grounded in the methods of individualistic cognitive psychology and built upon the premise that “the structures of the mind correspond in perfect harmony with the structures of the material world, the minds of the audience, and the units of language” (p. 480); expressionistic rhetoric (e.g., Elbow, 1981), with its focus on the authentic “experience of the self, and experience which transcends ordinary non-metaphoric language but can be suggested through original figures and tropes” (p. 485); and, again the hero of the narrative [for Berlin], social-epistemic rhetoric (e.g., Bartholomae 1985/1996), which holds that knowledge comes into existence through discursive interactions comprised of “social constructions […] inscribed in the very language we are given to inhabit in responding to our experience” (p. 488). (Porter 31)
First, cognitive rhetoric, with its belief that the structures of the mind correlate exactly with the world, other’s minds, and language, could very well be seen as an example of a strong rhetorical correlationism. Here the emphasis is place on the mirroring that the mind is capable of, rather than the world itself, so much so that, as Berlin remarks, cognitive rhetoricians like Janet Emig are “convinced that [they] could arrive at an understanding of the entire rhetorical context – the role of reality, audience, purpose, and even language in the composing act” (Berlin 480). The rhetorical act becomes nothing more than a construction of one’s mind, then. Or, to put this still another way, for the cognitive rhetorician, there is no reason to look outside of one’s mind. As Berlin puts it, “For cognitive rhetoric, the real is the rational” (482). All rhetorical acts, therefore, are products, or compositions, of the rhetor. Cognitive rhetoric shifts the discourse of rhetoric away from the rhetorical act, so that instead of asking “what is it” they wish to ask “how is it or how can it be composed.”

Second, we have expressionistic rhetoric which values the individual. For this rhetoric, as Berlin argues, “the existent is located within the individual subject. While the reality of the material, the social, and the linguistic are never denied, they are considered significant only insofar as they serve the needs of the individual” (484). Unlike cognitive rhetoric which in its own way denied a world outside of the mind, expressionistic rhetoric exploits the real world in order to serve its purposes. So that what remains significant is not the true ontological reality of the world and its real influences and presence, but instead, the terministic screens or perceptions through which this reality passes. The expressionistic rhetorician seeks to create metaphors by which the world comes to be – and specifically for that rhetorician. Born out of a response to political and authoritarian discourse, expressionist rhetoric wished to place the power into the hands of the rhetor. In this way, Berlin remarks that “From this perspective, power within society ought always to be vested in the individual” (485). The individual knows best how to divide up the real world for expressionistic rhetoricians. Thus, this type of rhetoric places a heavy emphasis on experience – experience as much in order to know more. For philosophy, we see this type of stance prevalent in all weak forms of correlationism – that is, much like the weak correlationist for whom the thing-in-itself could never be known, but for whom the phenomenal realm was ever knowable; the expressionistic rhetorician only ever knows his or her experiences of the real world.

Finally, for Berlin, we have a social-epistemic rhetoric. To recap, “For social-epistemic rhetoric, the real is located in a relationship that involves the dialectical interaction of the observer, the discourse community (social group) in which the observer is functioning, and the material conditions of existence. Knowledge is never found in any one of these but can only be posited as a product of the dialectic in which all three come together” (488). At first this form of rhetoric might sound pleasing to a rhetorician working to get outside of the correlationist circle. For here we have a rhetoric that recognizes a dialectical interaction between individuals and groups of individuals, but most importantly of a real world. Unlike the other two factions of rhetoric, social-epistemic rhetoric encorporates an ontologically independent world with which the rhetor/rhetorician must deal with. However, it is Berlin’s next statement that I find troubling.

Following up on his definition of a social-epistemic rhetoric, Berlin states, “Most important, this dialectic is grounded in language: the observer, the discourse community, and the material conditions of existence are all verbal constructs” (488). Reality, though it may exist for the social-epistemic rhetorician in an assemblage of personal, social, and material realms, language is seen as the overarching guide to interpretation. That is, everything can be reduced to language. Like the cognitive rhetorician who reduced the objects of the world to a product of the mind, and like the expressionistic rhetorician who reduced the objects of the world to the individual’s experiences, social-epistemic rhetoric reduces the objects of the world to language. The correlationist circle in rhetoric has simply been redrawn: there is nothing outside of language. But Berlin is not the only rhetorician who favors this view. His list of social-epistemic rhetoricians include: “Kenneth Burke, Richard Ohmann, the team of Richard Young, Alton Becker and Kenneth Pike, Kenneth Bruffee, W. Ross Winterowd, Ann Berthoff, Janice Lauer, and, more recently, Karen Burke Lefever, Lester Faigley, David Bartholomae, Greg Myers, Patricia Bizzell, and others” (488).

Each of the above three factions of rhetoric seems, to me, to redraw the correlationist circle in their own way. For cognitive rhetoricians the importance of rhetoric is on the processes of the mind and not the real world and its influences. For the expressionistic rhetoricians, the importance of rhetoric lies with the individual’s experiences of the real world. And for the social-epistemic rhetorician, the importance of rhetoric is to show how all rhetorical acts are a product of the function of language. Each faction uses the same structure – by shifting the goal of rhetoric from asking the question, “What is the rhetorical act?” to “In what way can the rhetorical act best be represented?”.

If the goal of an object-oriented rhetoric is to break outside of these types of correlationism, we must find a way of defining rhetoric that does not reduce it to any of the above (or others) positions. Rhetoric, then, as I propose it must be seen as separate not only from cognitive structures and personal experiences, but most importantly separate from the hierarchical function of language. In other words, rhetoric outside of correlation would no longer be seen as a product (e.g., political rhetoric, academic rhetoric, religious rhetoric, etc.), but a productive process that is irreducible to mind, experience, or language. Let us move rhetoric away from the forms of observation, and back toward the faculty (potentiality/potency/dunamis) of observing all of the available means of persuasion - including objects.


  1. Having just re-read Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics (jaw dropping) I think you are on to something big here. It seems clear to me that rhetoric has been hugely restricted in the last two centuries.

  2. Thanks, Tim! I'm currently working on my prospectus for my dissertation, so I'm just trying to get some ideas down to see if they make sense. BTW I love Intro to Metaphysics - I keep finding myself coming back to it.

  3. Great. I'm setting this post in my rhetoric class.