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The Future of Rhetorical Theory in the Electronic Age

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                This paper undertakes to understand the historical development of the rhetorical theory up to now and looks at some of the challenges the study is facing in the light of electronic development. The electronic age is slowly pushing the rhetoric studies out of the education system and lack of enough canonical texts is only making matters worse.


    The understanding of the word rhetoric has generated some confusion among scholars and public alike. More often than not the word is associated with politics and politicians and the media has always gone overboard to distort further the understanding of the word. Unlike other subject area like physics, rhetoric is not a definite body of knowledge and thus can be considered as the study as well as a practice of changing content. However, despite the never ending debates on what rhetoric means among scholars, it can be summarized as any forms of symbols use that operates within certain realms.

    Rhetoric in Ancient Times

                Ancient Greece had produced a number of great men and women credited with the development of the discipline of rhetoric and communication in general. These forefathers and foremothers of rhetoric from ancient Greece consisted of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Aspasia of Miletus, contributed immense to our understanding of today’s rhetoric (Cyphert, 2002). Aspasia of Miletus, one of the highly regarded women of ancient Greece, contributed to classical rhetoric as she was probably the only woman accepted in the men gatherings as a companion. She is said to have taught Socrates home economics and rhetoric at an early age. She was heavily involved in politics and philosophy and was a respected and elite member of the Periclean circle that brought together the most famous Sophists of the time. During her days in the circle, it is said that her political knowledge and public speaking prowess brought her hate and love in equal measure (Covino, & Jolliffe, 1995).

    Plato was another great thinker who contributed greatly to the understanding of rhetoric. During the time he was being taught by Socrates, he wrote many rhetorical dialogues wherein he featured Socrates as the main character. This led to inception of dialectic as a form of communication. Although Scholars have always debated and disagreed on the term from the time of its inception, Plato considered the term as a process where questions and response are used to reach an ultimate truth as well as understanding (Cyphert, 2002). There are indeed many forms of dialectic in today’s communication. Examples can be told of teachers asking students question so as to have a clear understanding of the student’s level of knowledge on a particular topic. A physician asking a patient a number of questions so as to understand the patient’s thoughts, behavioral patterns as well as motives so as get understand him. Plato developed the term dialectic which thus contributed to the classical rhetorical theory; however, he was also critical of his work. For example, he once argued that rhetoric is a false art because it lacks a unique body of knowledge (Covino & Jolliffe, 1995).

    Aristotle one of the Plato’s students however, disagreed with his teacher and believed that rhetoric is a possible means of creating a society. The dialectical which he also referred to as a give-and-take approach, enables individuals to share as well as test various ideas with each other with an aim of creating a more prosperous community (Blair, 1992).. According to Aristotle, rhetoric is the ability to visualize in every case the forms of persuasions available. His definition was quite important in that he recognized the role played by the audience and the context; that a particular situation with a certain audience may lead a speaker to create an idea in a certain way that might be totally different were it to be told to another audience. Aristotle also recognized the essence of having audience analysis. From his definition we can understand that different things or situation appeal to different persons. This is quite applicable in the contemporary society we live in and an example would suffice. A company could be making standard items or products (cars) for all its customers worldwide, but a thorough research may reveal that a particular group of people do not use the same car more often like another group of people. A thorough analysis would reveal that the product may not be appealing to the unenthusiastic group than it is to the other. It would be recommended the company repackage its product so that the context and the intended audience is taken into consideration. In this way it would manufacture a car that is appealing to the various groups of people.

    Aristotle’s second part in the definition of rhetoric that deals with persuasion tells us that he conceptualized a very limited and specific scope for any form of rhetoric. To him rhetoric is a process that exists only in contexts in which persons or groups of people strive to engage in a talk or communication intended to change one another in a particular way. For example, a change may be seen when a politician tries to convince a prospective elector to vote in a particular way in an election or an advocate convincing a court on the innocence or guilt of a suspect in a robbery trial (Blair, 1992).

    Most of the classical rhetorical theorists were men who championed the traditional roles of men in the society. Pan Chao however, emerged to provide an historical insight of the Eastern rhetoric as well as the role women play in rhetoric. She was a strong believer in the power of education and was the first person in her time to voice the importance of educating a girl child and women in general. She wrote a lot about women and qualities of a good woman in a society. Her writings were centered on the four qualifications she categorized as work, virtue, words and bearing. She suggested what she considered a womanly language to be used by all women. According to her a woman should not bother to be clever in arguments or keen when conversing, but should always choose her words with care so as to avoid vulgar language, and talk only when it is appropriate as well as not to tire others with a lot of talk. To her these constitute the characteristics of the womanly words (Covino & Jolliffe, 1995).

    Other key rhetorical theorists who deserve much recognition are Cicero and Quintilian. They are credited with combining much of the works from the Romans and the Greeks into a more comprehensive and complete theoretical systems. Most of their theoretical systems and concepts are still considered today as relevant, although some may have been change to suit the contemporary context (Blair, 1992). Examples are quite common in the setting and teaching of public speaking courses. In ancient times, public speaking was centered on three areas; politics, legal arenas and in ceremonies. Rhetorical discourse was later incorporated into poetry, letters, religious sermons and songs, however, the emergence of technology brought a mass mediated discourse that included radio, TV and films (Cyphert, 2002).

    The formation of the five cannons has also been considered as a major contribution of the rhetorical theoretical systems. The invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery are considered as the easily understandable speech preparation stages. The speechwriter needs to invent or formulate his arguments first which are based on the logos; logic or rational appeal. Secondly the speech is arranged in the most appropriate and effective manner. The third step is to consider style; a specific language choices that would enhance enjoyment by the audience and subsequently acceptability of one’s line of argument. The next stage which calls for memory is no longer important in the contemporary world because notes, Teleprompters and cue cards have been invented to replace the classical forth canon (Covino & Jolliffe, 1995). The last stage involves delivery where nonverbal gestures, vocal variations and eye contact are employed in the presentation of speech or argument to an audience.

    The fall and Rise of Rhetoric

    The fall of Roman Empire and the subsequent dominance of middle ages between 400 and 1400 saw the fall of rhetoric from grace. Rhetoric was neither honored nor valued as a skill by most people who now considered it a pagan art. The Christian domination of the period gave much credence to this view, when Christian believers argued that Christian faith and truth was enough to enable one automatically communicate truth more effectively and therefore the rhetorical ideas invented by the classical Roman and Greek pagans are not worth studying. However, it was quite ironical that a Christian, Augustine was the first to recognize the role of rhetoric in the church. Augustine was a rhetoric teacher long before he was converted into Christianity something that enable him understood the power of rhetoric in reaching out to the masses. Letters were later incorporated in the scopes of rhetoric when the demands to reach out for others across distances in the ever increasing populations of the world (Cyphert, 2002).

    The end of middle ages saw the emergence of renaissance period between 1400 and 1600 when the study of rhetoric took a new turn. Rationalism and humanism were the two intellectual trends that featured in the study of rhetoric during this period. Humanism is the teaching of historical, philosophical, poetic as well as rhetorical disciplines. According to this school of thought, the word has to be learned and understood through language and not through the nature or physical observations. Rationalism on the other hand offers scientific as well as objective answers to the very many humanistic questions and therefore offered little to the study of rhetoric. These trends however, changed in the contemporary studies of rhetoric. Three new trends emerged in the rhetorical theories; elocutionist, epistemological and belletristic (Covino, & Jolliffe, 1995).

    Rhetoric in the Contemporary Times

                Contemporary rhetoric theorists have been concerned with challenging some of the assumptions and biases classical rhetorical theories specifically the canon’s rationalism and voice. Those who have responded to the biases in the rationalism are the postmodernists and the social constructionists. The most notable social constructionists are Thomas Kuhn and Rorty Richard who had challenged the premise held by classical rhetorical theorists that philosophical or scientific knowledge are fundamentally true. According to them, this argument “discounts the possibility that truth/reality/knowledge exists in an a priori state.” (but rather) it emphasizes what cultures regard as knowledge or truth” (Covino & Jolliffe 1995: 83). These critics believe that “truth” is never out there as the classical rhetorical theorists would suggest but rather, it is found within us and determined by personal and cultural experiences as well as how we use language to understand and relate those experiences (Blair, 1992).

                The voice has also been a point of contention between the classical and the contemporary rhetorical theorists. The contemporary theorists have questioned the basis of choosing who to speak as well as whose speech rhetoric would be considered important or labeled rhetorical. Tracing the history of the classical rhetoric, one of the important scopes of rhetoric was public speaking and those who held positions of power like the whites and wealthy individuals were the only ones who could access public speaking arenas (Cyphert, 2002).. This according to the contemporary theorists sidelined a great number of people and in essence meant they possess no voice. Two perspectives have emerged to add to this debate; that of the Afrocentric and the feminist. According to the Afrocentric, African languages and Black American’s experience should be incorporated into this scope of rhetoric as well as in the understanding of the rhetoric processes. The feminist’s perspective on the other hand, tries to find out how and why women and minority groups have been sidelined in the scope of rhetoric discourse. They therefore tempt to unearth the various patriarchal biases found in language and language use and offers to have a more egalitarian principles replace them (Blair, 1992).

    The future of rhetoric in electronic age

                The world is certainly experiencing a lot of technological changes that would definitely in one way or the other affect the scopes of rhetoric. The rapid changes in our electronic world for example, are drastically changing our conventional definitions of literacy (Brooke, 1997). The electronic age has seen a presentation of words in a more fluid textual forms on a computer screen, and is quickly replacing the traditional static textual display of words in print. The electronic textual forms like email, hypertext and network exchanges are definitely going to change our intellectual perception and may create a tension between the static printed forms and the new fluid forms enhance by computer age.  But most definitely the static print text would give way and the new forms brought about the electronic age would take root in our society. This would bring a new phenomenon called electronic literacy which would totally change how we define literacy (Metzger, 1997).

                Much of the early literacy is under threat of the emerging electronic age and the future might not hold much for them. The great works of William Shakespeare for example, are gravely strange to the modern society and college freshmen where teachers have increasingly embrace the new available technologies to teach and assess students. The current trends where books are no longer part of the learning process and loudspeakers and classroom lectures have been the preferred methods of disseminating knowledge to students are signs of things to come (Brooke, 1997).

    One of the classical scopes of rhetoric is letter writing. It has been tremendously affected by the emergence of superior technology in today’s world. People do not bother these days to write letters as mobile phones and internet emailing have just taken over as the most preferred and fastest mode of communication. Although, still in use in some situations like in business and political engagements, the social scene has wholly embraced the emerging technologies in reaching out to others. What the future holds for this scope is quite gloomy and it would only be a matter of time to find them obsolete. In educational front, teaching on this scope has received a blow from the emerging technologies. From job application to love letters, letter writing is certain on its deathbed (Blair, 1992).

    While we can worry about the new technological experiences bombarding us left, right and center, and the future of the society’s classical literacy, we should not take it that most of our literacy works like those of Shakespeare are about to disintegrate into the historical dust. Some early works of great thinkers have survived the hardship and ravages of times and we must believe that more will go past the electronic age. However, the man’s increasing technological advancement must be a worry to humankind and lovers of literature. Technological advancement would definitely pose a threat to our treasured values which normally are driven from the works of literature. In a pursuit of technological advancement, man’s literacy works may be distorted or lost forever in the historical changes which sometimes are very chaotic. The middle ages period is a better example of what would happen to our literacy and scopes of rhetoric. Many texts of antiquity that included the works of Quintilian – Institutio Oratoria got lost for years and centuries only to be recovered later after much effort by Petrach and others in the renaissance period (Metzger, 1997).

    In the same light, is the current disregard of canonical texts in education by students portends a future of crisis in literacy. The classical and traditional pleasures associated with the texts are today forsaken by most students who have embraced the pleasures provided by the internet, movies and television. The crisis would center on the tension between the texts and the visual and as the word continue to embrace technology in almost all spheres of life, my bet is that a lot of early literature will be lost and rhetorical studies would not only be obsolete but would be considered pagan by the electronic generation (Brooke, 1997).

    More needs to be done to salvage the situation. If most of our literature have survived some of the harsh historical revolutions and can be accessed, we need to move them from texts to digital if we are to have any chance of preserving and encouraging studies in this discipline (Brooke, 1997). They must not only embrace the on-line forms of expression but also assume the digital hypertext and multi media visuals and leave behind the linear page formatting. They must also be presented in a much more holistic and electronically suitable manner. If such emerging technologies are embraced together with the social and other theoretical forces, liberal arts and rhetoric studies would easily assume a central role in academics (Metzger, 1997).

    If we don’t embrace electronic age then the worrying trend would definitely continue and probably may put a death knell on the rhetoric studies. Emergence of computer technology and other electronics is just one problem facing rhetoric in the twenty-first century. The English department in many universities and educational institutions have been lacking in canonical texts. The scarcity coupled with the new technologies would surely hurt the cause of rhetoric scholars and students. There are definitely no enough materials written, discussed, read, published or circulated in our society and institutions. Lack of enough canonical materials therefore means students would wait for English teachers and course to provide them with the necessary foundation in the study something that would influence one’s preference and what is to read (Brooke, 1997).


    English scholars should not sit by and watch the electronic age consume the scopes of rhetoric as well as literacy studies. Instead of feeling alienated, they should embrace the new emerging electronic literacy and get empowered by the new technologies in transforming the literature available in various forms into easily accessible ones through the electronics. This would not only helped resolved the dialogic tension of values between the texts and visuals but would also make it accessible to various students in different forms through different electronics offered by the electronic age. The digital dialogic may therefore form the basis of theoretical models in the literacy studies in the future.


    Blair, C. (1992). “Contested Histories of Rhetoric: The Politics of Preservation, Progress,

                and Change,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78 (4), 403-428.

    Brooke, C. G. (1997). “The Fate of Rhetoric in an Electronic Age,” Enculturation, 1(1).
    Covino, A. W. & Jolliffe, D. A. ed. (1995). Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions,

                Boundaries. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    Cyphert, D. (2002). “Internal Rhetoric: Toward a History and Theory of Self-Persuasion,”
    Argumentation and Advocacy, Vol. 39.
    Metzger, D. (1997). “Saul/Paul and the Promise of Technological Reforms,” Enculturation,

                1 (1).

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    Frequently Asked Questions

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    How old is the study and practice of rhetoric?
    Rhetoric began 2500 years ago as the study of the forms of communication and argument essential to public, political and legal life in Ancient Greece. It has since evolved a rich and diverse body of research, texts, and pedagogies.
    What is classic rhetorical theory?
    All kind of usage of language comprises a certain amount of element of persuasion in them. The classic rhetoric theory was to know how this element of persuasion works and how it can be effectively utilized. In simple words classical rhetorical theory developed from the thought how the language works for people.
    What is theory in rhetoric?
    Rhetorical theory is fundamentally concerned with composition, forms, functions, means, venues, producers, audiences, effects, and criticism of discourse. Rhetorical theories differ from one another depending upon the definition of “rhetoric” that serves as their starting point.
    Why is rhetorical theory important?
    Rhetorical theories provide a way for us to take context into consideration when we examine messages. Unlike empirical laws theories, rhetorical theories highlight the importance of considering context as essential for understanding messages.

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