Discursive Ideologies: Reading Western Rhetoric

Discursive Ideologies: Reading Western Rhetoric

by C. H. Knoblauch


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In Discursive Ideologies, C. H. Knoblauch argues that European rhetorical theory comprises several distinct and fundamentally opposed traditions of discourse. Writing accessibly for the upper division student, Knoblauch resists the conventional narrative of a unified Western rhetorical tradition. He identifies deep ideological and epistemological differences that exist among strands of Western thought and that are based in divergent "grounds of meaningfulness.” These conflicts underlie and influence current discourse about vital public issues.

Knoblauch considers six "stories” about the meaning of meaning in an attempt to answer the question, what encourages us to believe that language acts are meaningful? Six distinctive ideologies of Western rhetoric emerge: magical rhetoric, ontological rhetoric, objectivist rhetoric, expressivist rhetoric, sociological rhetoric, and deconstructive rhetoric. He explores the nature of language and the important role these rhetorics play in the discourses that matter most to people, such as religion, education, public policy, science, law, and history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874219357
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 10/15/2014
Edition description: 1
Pages: 231
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

C. H. Knoblauch is professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His work on the writing process, critical pedagogy, and the Western rhetorical tradition has been influential in the field of rhetoric and composition for decades.

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Discursive Ideologies

Reading Western Rhetoric

By C. H. Knoblauch

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-936-4


The Meaning of Meaning

What we believe about words influences the ways in which we live our lives, what we think and say and do. Notice that I'm not referring to our uses of language: it's obvious that speaking, writing, listening, and reading have consequences for our lives. What I'm suggesting is rather less apparent: attitudes we have, assumptions we make, beliefs we hold, mostly tacit and unexamined, about what language can do for us, how language works, its connections to the world, the reliability of meaning, the truth-value of different kinds of statements, all affect our lives just as much as, and perhaps even more deeply than, our actual usage. Anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir, known for his insights into the relativity of representation across languages, argued the error of supposing that "one adjusts to reality without the use of language" and insisted that the "real" world is "to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits" of different groups of people. No two languages, he writes, "are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality" (Sapir 1964, 69). Sapir's observations in linguistics (the study of language) are pertinent also for rhetoric (the study of discourse). That is, what he argued regarding different assumptions about words and reality in different languages anticipates similar distinctions among the multiple, complexly interwoven discourses, or communication practices, that compose social experience in any one language — domestic discourses (the verbal routines of everyday life), religious discourses, scientific, legal, political, medical, artistic, educational, scholarly, and other discourses. These discourses are themselves different worlds of words, albeit within a single language, and they feature, some more self-consciously than others, not just distinct vocabularies, syntactic styles, and registers, but different views of what C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (1923) called "the meaning of meaning" — how things are named, what (if anything) is to be regarded as reliably "true," what counts as "proof," how the literal is distinguished from the figurative, who can speak authoritatively, what knowledge is and how it's achieved, and myriad other questions. In the most self-conscious of these discourses — religious, legal, or scholarly, for example — one commonly finds competing rhetorical theories vying for authority, with significant consequences attending the ebb and flow of alternative points of view. Ask a Catholic and an Anglican theologian about their contrasting views of the doctrine of transubstantiation, or two lawyers about the "intent" of the framers of the US Constitution, or two literary critics about their readings of "Young Goodman Brown," and conflicts regarding not just meaning but also the meaning of meaning will be quickly apparent.


But let's begin more simply with the familiar discourses of everyday life and consider the tacit rhetorical assumptions of a couple of ordinary Americans whom I will call, for ease of reference, George and Louise. Friday morning, George comes down to breakfast and the newspaper, observes while pouring milk on his cornflakes that the carton says "sell by September 15," which was two days ago, and, fearing the milk may be spoiling, plays safe and empties the carton in the sink. He reads a front-page story on a bond proposal to fund new buildings in his local school district and accepts the objectivity of the report along with the display of evidence supporting the need for new taxes to pay for the borrowing. He's unhappy, however, about Hispanic "aliens" driving up enrollment, and also with school programs that seem to put "multiculturalism" ahead of learning English. Turning to the editorial page, he finds a piece on global warming to be mere opinion, unsubstantiated by facts, its author melodramatic, and decides to withhold judgment until dispassionate science quiets the noise of discordant voices. As for the ad on page 6 hawking "eye-catching cosmetics," he recognizes the manipulative play of words, smirks briefly at the ad's fictions of beauty and sexuality, which he knows were conjured for commercial advantage, and dismisses its claims.

Reaching his office building later in the morning, he glances at the sign in the elevator warning not to exceed a limit of twelve occupants, takes it as an engineer's appraisal, casually estimates the number of his fellow travelers, and rides confidently to his workplace. He spends part of his work time writing proposals to potential business customers that detail how his consulting firm can troubleshoot their management practices and present software solutions. He is confident that his statements are accurate, unbiased, clear, and true, as professional writing is supposed to be, and he trusts that the precision of the language will allow the document to have contractual force if his firm's bid is accepted. Arriving home that afternoon, he sorts his mail, saving a notice of jury duty in two weeks and throwing away a breathless proclamation that he has won a Caribbean cruise, not bothering to open the official-looking envelope. He listens to a phone message from his mother but dismisses her familiar complaint that he "never calls" as an unreasonable plea for attention. In the evening, he watches the televised hearing on a Supreme Court nominee, marking the candidate's views on the first and second amendments. Before bedtime, he amuses himself with a history of the Crimean war; he rarely reads novels and doesn't like poetry. First thing Saturday morning, George, a devout Catholic, goes to confession at his church, admits to the priest that he has failed recently to "keep holy the Sabbath day," and earnestly recites the requisite Hail, Marys and Our Fathers as penance, confident that he has been forgiven. On the way home, he notices a traffic sign saying "No U Turn." He makes a U turn anyway to park in front of his house, interpreting the meaning of the sign as "don't turn unless you're sure there is no oncoming traffic."

Louise follows similar routines, motivated (in part) by equally tacit, occasionally different, assumptions about language. She reads the sale date on the milk carton as an approximation only and decides to keep her milk, sees the bond issue article as an argument motivated by the political slant of the newspaper, and approves the global warming editorial, impressed by the urgency of the writer's prose. She glances at a letter to the editor in which the writer refers to Palestinian militants as "freedom fighters," a label with which she disagrees strenuously, believing that the militants are just plain terrorists. Like George, she sees a cautionary notice in her workplace elevator but regards it not as an example of engineering discourse but as a legal statement protecting the manufacturer from liability if the elevator fails when too fully loaded. She is skeptical about the safety of elevators and often climbs the stairs to her office. She spends part of her workday writing an online human resources newsletter that relies on a friendly, personal touch to maintain a positive image of her company while giving employees valuable information in user-friendly language supported by clever graphics and humorous anecdotes. She has always been grateful to her ninth-grade English teacher for giving her the grammatical proficiency that has made her so successful in her job. Even her diary entries are carefully crafted. After work, she sorts her mail, planning to query an official notice that her electric bill payment is late, worrying about how her mother's letter complaining of loneliness illustrates her failures as a daughter, and opening the same notice George received about a Caribbean cruise package, just in case. Her brother emails that evening, promising to come soon for a visit. She responds with the requisite expressions of eager anticipation, but she knows that he rarely follows through and she isn't particularly interested in seeing him anyway. Saturday morning, she heads for the beach, following directions on her GPS. A sign prohibiting U turns obliges her to go around the block to reach the freeway, which she willingly does because the law is the law.

There may be little, if any, articulate awareness of language directly motivating what George and Louise say, understand, or do. Like the rest of us amidst our ordinary routines, they probably find just thinking to be challenging enough without also consciously thinking about their thinking. Yet they are immersed in language, and their thoughts as well as actions are influenced by a rich array of beliefs and assumptions about words. The beliefs come from lifelong interactions with other people (whoever pointed to a mooing creature and called it a cow "explained" to them that language can name things), from their schooling, including Louise's helpful ninth-grade teacher, and from their practical experience of the world, an experience that has been preshaped, to a greater extent than they probably realize, by their cultural background, language included. What they believe comes to them as settled understanding rather than theory or argument, mostly from the European inheritance of linguistic and rhetorical speculation that has served for centuries as the repository of our cultural common sense about language and discourse. It would take many pages to explain the details and nuances of this common sense, even limited to the thoughts and actions described above, but a sampling of its axioms should be sufficient to make the point. The most important belief George and Louise share is that language enables people to name, experience, organize, manage, and interact with realities that are different from and "outside" of language, including a world beyond the self (other people, human institutions, nature) and also a world within the self (feelings, ideas, memories, fears, hopes, imaginings). They presume that language represents these worlds and enables us to function within them. The warning on the milk carton doesn't cause milk to spoil. Rather, milk spoils, and the warning predicts approximately when it will happen. Louise's GPS directions to the beach don't create the road system; they only offer a symbolic rendering and convenient instruction about the best roads to take. For George and Louise, things precede the names we give them: real money underlies taxes and bond proposals; physical heat gives meaning to words like warming and cooling; actual cosmetics come before the ads that promote them. It follows, then, that the truth and accuracy of language involve a correspondence between words and the worlds to which words refer. George's professional writing names problems that really exist in a potential client's business operations, and it offers solutions whose validity and practicality can be objectively demonstrated. Louise's representations of her company, and her HR advice to employees, may be judged as true or false by matching them to employees' actual experience. Louise's electric bill is inaccurate because she has paid it. Substance is always more important than form. George and Louise don't use the word rhetoric very often, but when they do, it's a disparaging reference to language without substance, such as the advertising language George scorns as he reads the cosmetics ad. Louise exploits the clever graphics in her desktop publishing program, but she believes that her PR language is substantial, not mere rhetoric, because it offers real information; it is user-friendly but not misleading or manipulative.

George and Louise also believe in common that language enables communication. They communicate with family, friends, business associates, public institutions, service providers, even supernatural beings in George's case, generally confident that what they say is understood. People also communicate with them through talk and through a variety of media, including television, Facebook, e-mail, text messages, blogs, books, newspapers, telephones, letters, business memos, and official documents. They are satisfied that the interchanges, the sending and the receiving, create and maintain valuable, or at least useful, human relationships. George's business writing not only speaks the truth by naming problems and solutions, but it also communicates that truth to a potential client and makes a promise that his company will perform effectively in accordance with the statements in the proposal. The writing must be clear and technically correct, however, in order to be reliable. Clarity and correctness assure translucent communication, resulting in social bonds that enable the mutually beneficial conduct of commerce and daily life. Of course, because of the prior belief that words are subordinate to things, both George and Louise understand that actions speak louder than words. George's business contract is a promise, but it doesn't in itself get the work done. Louise believes that she and her brother know and relate to each other partly as a result of their ability to communicate, but she also knows that what her brother says in his e-mail message must be contextualized by earlier failures to follow through with actual visits. More generally, what people say must always be evaluated by reference to what is "actually" the case. That's how we tell the difference between truth, error, and deceit, not to mention the subtler difference between deceit and that socially strategic but ethically complex misrepresentation that enables Louise and her brother to maintain a sibling relationship despite the fact that he doesn't really travel to see her and she doesn't really care. Most of the time, words need to be interpreted,not just taken at face value, depending on how much we know about the speaker's intentions and about the communicative context. George and Louise draw different conclusions from the message in the elevator and partly (but only partly) base their actions on what they read. George believes that his mother's complaint about his never calling fails to match the reality of his frequent-enough calls, so he comfortably interprets her statement either as erroneous (in her case, forgetful) or as communicating something different from what it actually says, namely that his mother is lonely. Both George and Louise believe that we cannot only match language to factuality but that we can look through a verbal statement to perceive the intent of the person who makes it. They both "know" what their mothers mean, and what the elevator signs mean, and they confidently, though differently, appraise the truth-value of each.

For Louise and George, different statements have different truth-value, and they trust them more or less depending on the ways in which they are classified and ranked. George's hierarchy of statements begins with the Word of God. He believes that there are sacred utterances, like the Bible, that speak to human beings with divine authority and also that there are specialized human utterances that have the power to affect supernatural or divine agencies, including prayers and rites such as Catholic confession. George finds the authority of the newspaper's front-page stories more compelling than the editorials and the editorials more persuasive than the advertisements. The letter announcing his entitlement to a Caribbean cruise is at the bottom of the hierarchy, not just manipulative but deceitful. His mother's message is more reliable than the cruise letter because it doesn't lie but less reliable than the newspaper because his mother's message is more influenced by personal bias. He finds, as most people in our culture probably do, that there is more truth-value in "realistic" writing, like history, than in fiction writing, that prose is more reliable than poetry, and that argument is more reliable than narrative. Louise's hierarchy makes room for the value and usefulness of personal, not just "objective," writing because the sincerity of personal writing assures the reliability of its statements. She believes that writing can portray the self and connect with the inner beings, the selves, of others. Whether she is writing in her diary, communicating with her mother, or informing her colleagues at work, she has confidence that sincerity is a basis for authenticity, that statements "from the heart" have more value than rhetorical manipulations of seeming objectivity. Louise recognizes that the apparent detachment of front-page articles may conceal a newspaper's political and mercantile agendas, just as the caution sign in the elevator can be more protective of the manufacturer than the riding public, so she interprets both with more skepticism, less trust, than George does. The passionate conviction of the global-warming argument gives its author integrity: she knows where the writer stands. Of course, Louise isn't invariably skeptical about objective narrators. For example, she does not read ulterior motives into the sign prohibiting U turns, accepting the authority of this particular civil discourse without presuming to retain any interpretive license. George, by contrast, regards a commandment to keep the Sabbath as different from a commandment to avoid U turns, although the differential regard is more likely a consequence of rationalized self-interest than a parsing of the degrees of authority implicit in religious and civil discourses. Beliefs about language, whether Louise's or George's or our own, do not have to be philosophically consistent with each other, or consistently applied, and they are always modified by other complexities of human motive and behavior.


Excerpted from Discursive Ideologies by C. H. Knoblauch. Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents


1 The Meaning of Meaning,
2 Magical Rhetoric,
3 Ontological Rhetoric,
4 Objectivist Rhetoric,
5 Expressivist Rhetoric,
6 Sociological Rhetoric,
7 Deconstructive Rhetoric,
Afterword: Critical Reflections,
About the Author,

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