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This book is a collection of essays from Nancy Struever's career between 1980 and 2005, all of which cover the broad theme of rhetoric as a mode of historical inquiry. As with all books in the Variorum Collected Studies series from Ashgate, the chapters are essentially cut and pasted directly from the journals or books that they were originally published in, maintaining their original pagination, font and style, with an introductory chapter in which Struever briefly details the context for each essay. Despite the external appearance of a monograph, this is, in fact, a far more disparate collection. As such, the structure of the book provides certain challenges both to the reader and the book reviewer. As one would expect from journal articles unedited for the purposes of a single book, the texts in this book tend to deal with quite specific discussions, and make varied presumptions on the reader's existing knowledge. There are arguments over and references to both well-known philosophers and rhetoricians (Aristotle, Cicero, Heidegger), but also scholars whose work is less known outside of the specific field of the original journal. Some articles link easily to wider issues in rhetoric and hermeneutics, while the specialist nature of other discussions renders such links harder to discern.
What, then, is the theme which brings these articles together? The study of rhetoric traditionally takes on two forms: firstly, the study of the external uses of rhetoric -- how an historical text utilizes rhetorical forms to communicate their message. Secondly, there is a pedagogical interest in rhetoric -- how these forms of rhetoric are taught throughout history, and constructed as rhetorical 'systems'. Throughout these articles, Struever suggests a third use of rhetoric, one which can be expressed through an oft-repeated quote from Heidegger's Being and Time that occupies a central position in several of the assembled article:.
'Rhetoric is the first fundamental hermeneutic of the everydayness (Alltäglichkeit) of being-with-others (Mitteinandersein).'
It is the concept of Alltäglichkeit -- essentially, the timeliness of rhetorical discourse which enables it to convince its audience, through appeal to the commonly shared (thus everyday) themes -- which identifies Struever's unique interrogation of the history of rhetoric. Her aim is to 'distinguish rhetoric as mode of inquiry' (iv), in order to produce a reflexive historical understanding of classical and early modern rhetoric. Conceiving of rhetoric in this way allows Struever to re-analyze many of these histories in terms of their own rhetorical standpoint. Far from a purely technical or pedagogical exercise, Struever demonstrates how rhetoric is also a method of hermeneutical enquiry.
Within this broad theme, the articles in this collection map across four main areas of the history of ideas. First, the rhetoric of Aristotle is covered, as a basic positioning of rhetoric as an aspect of politics. Second, the concept of rhetoric as used by Heidegger, which is constructed (Struever argues) through a reading of Aristotle, and later effaced in Being and Time and his later works, though remaining an implicit structure of Heidegger's understanding of both politics and rhetoric. Between these two philosophical figures, Struever visits both the scholastic era (Petrarch, Pasquier) and the early modern (Descartes, Hobbes, Vico and so on).
What gives rhetoric this unique approach to the political is its essential timeliness. Ironically, this is exactly what philosophy has traditionally berated rhetoric for: a refusal to engage with transcendent and timeless 'truths', leading to the suspicion that rhetoric is at best whimsical, passing, and at worst deceitful and solely reflective of the orator's vanity. However, for Struever the timeliness of rhetoric provides a structure of meaning which intersects the traditional 'transcendent' concerns of philosophy and the modernist and postmodernist critiques of philosophical inquiry. While the caricature of philosophy's traditional rejection of rhetoric above might be said to maintain a 'static' nature of truth, the strategy of classical rhetoric makes static structures of meaning linear (IX, 118). By drawing out key elements of discourse key to rhetorical success -- memory, temporality, a relation to the 'everyday' -- demonstrates how the potential of power within political and educational institutions is realized through rhetorical narrative and sequence. (IX, 115). In short: rhetorical analysis demonstrates how the institutions of power and knowledge express themselves, through linguistic interaction, as timely, and thus rhetorically convincing. In turn, this challenges 'modernist' or 'post-modernist' accounts of communication. These, Struever argues, exhibit an essential 'anti-social' quality: the hermeneutics of suspicion practiced by the likes of Derrida isolates meaning by virtue of its recognition of the infinite possibilities of meaning. As such, it ignores the historical and communal context by which structures of meaning are maintained; a context which rhetoric itself depends upon.
Given the shifts in academic context between articles, not to mention the time span, it is not surprising that this general argument I have identified is pushed to a greater extent in some texts than others. In certain articles, rhetoric is posited as an alternative, or oppositional, hermeneutic discourse to the philosophical. But in articles such as Hobbes and Vico on Law (XIX), Struever goes as far as arguing that rhetoric is the proper medium for understanding political discourse, and it is here where her arguments are both at their most provocative and interesting. For a resource on the application of rhetoric as a mode of historical inquiry, this collection offers a plethora of case studies. However, it is not intended to construct a developed position which encapsulates all of the texts as a coherent work: the reader will find more of a consistent and developed position in Struever's monographs, in particular the excellent Rhetoric, Modality and Modernity (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009).
© 2010 Tom Grimwood
Tom Grimwood, Ph.D., Lancaster University U.K.