Rod Hart Guidelines for Rhetorical Criticism

From Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1990.

A message is worth analyzing if it tells a story larger than itself. This means that the good critic always has a rationale for examining a text. These rationales take many forms: (1) the study may be worth doing because the speaker has dealt with a classic dilemma (How can a president apologize for backing misguided legislation without losing his authority?); (2) the speaker may have dealt imaginatively with unresolved tensions (How can a president appeal to the farmers without losing the urban vote?); (3) the speaker may have addressed projected problems (How can a president make the nation comfortable with life in a nuclear world?); (4) the speaker’s situation may be a parallel instance of a continuing one (How did early presidents change citizens’ economic habits?); or (5) the speaker may have been the first to confront some unique circumstance (What persuasive tools can a president use during an impeachment trial?).

There are, of course, countless such good reasons for doing rhetorical criticism. Notice that in all of the above instances, however, the critic has addressed issues of universal interest. Concern for the larger story, therefore, should animate each piece of criticism written. This same principle suggests several guidelines for developing a critical rationale:

1. No message is inherently worthy of study. Just because a given text fascinates the critic does not mean that study of it will be worthwhile. Often, criticism becomes eccentric and too specialized because the critic fails to develop a clear reason for doing criticism. This produces scholarship-by-whim. Thus, when picking a text, the critic should be asking: Why does this message intrigue me? “Just because” is not a sufficient answer.

2. The past speaks to us constantly. Examining the rhetoric of the past, even the rhetoric of the distant past, can be quite useful, because it gives us perspective on the lives we live today. Naturally, as Wichelns [1973:43] reminds us, all rhetoric is “rooted in immediacy” and we must be careful not to distort the past in a headlong rush to find within it contemporary relevance. But people are people. And cultures are cultures. And rhetoric is rhetoric. The past has much to teach us if we but open our ears to its voices.

3. People who are larger than life may not be lifelike. “Tabloid scholarship” [Hart, 1986a:293] presumes that persuasion by “great” persons will be especially worthy of study. This is a poor assumption. It is easy to become distracted by high-profile speakers like presidents and popes, people who often say interesting things but who are far removed from the lives most people lead. The good critic remembers that the messages of ordinary people are often highly suggestive, because they better represent how persuasion-in-genera1 functions.

4. Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. All too often, critics fail to go far enough in their analysis, because they merely “translate” a message rather than explain it. This is especially true for the beginning critic, who is tempted to latch onto an existing critical system and then superimpose it on an innocent piece of rhetoric. The result is criticism that succeeds only in finding new examples of old persuasive strategies.