Overlapping Methodologies? English Studies and the Social World by Alan Finlayson, UEA

Posted by boo11 at Mar 04, 2019 08:42 AM |


I am sure I am not the only academic who experiences discomfort when asked - at University functions, social events and even conferences - ‘So, what’s your field? What do you do?’. At best the question invites answers which feel inadequate to all concerned; at worst it requires us to tie our thinking to a discipline, a method or an object of study in a way we’d prefer to resist. For me, an added problem is that the most accurate answer I could give is ‘Rhetoric’. But there are no Departments of Rhetoric in the U.K., it’s not really recognised as a field and the word is horribly misunderstood.

When I say I am a ‘rhetorician’ I not mean that I write speeches or am good at delivering them. I don’t and I am not. Nor do I mean that I specialise in studying communication which is manipulative, mendacious or ‘mere’ words. But I also do not mean what the word invokes for most colleagues in English: tropes and schemes. There is more in the garden of eloquence than what Henry Peacham cultivated. My ‘object of study’ is arguments - not the refined kind we learn to make in Philosophy class but the kinds (in all their variety and sometimes tangled wildness) that are found taking place in politics. Rhetoric, as Aristotle said, is ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’. Those of us who study Rhetoric, study the means of which rhetoricians, in given cases, availed themselves. That includes argumentative appeals made to audiences’ emotions, to their understanding of ethical character and to their reason, be it scientific of rooted in what is thought to be common sense. And understanding these requires examining all the activities that went into finding and choosing those arguments - ‘inventing’ as we would say in Rhetoric - how they have been organised into an instance of discourse, given ornament, staged and performed.

I think that all of this is worth studying for ‘its own sake’. I find ‘speechmaking’ anthropologically and aesthetically interesting. I believe that we need historians and critics of the rhetorical arts just as we need them for painting, film and novels – people who record and understand the development and spread of techniques, trends and styles, and who look out for and encourage new movements while critically assessing the conditions of production and dissemination. But I am also, and more fundamentally, interested in Rhetoric as a way of studying what I call ‘political theory in the wild’. By that I mean what happens to political ideas (about, say, justice and sovereignty, leadership and power, equality and fairness) outside of the confines of the seminar and library and in the messy, conflictual and contingent world of politics. There, ideas are reinvented or reapplied on the fly in the context of political battle, the heat and pressure of which can transform them entirely. Sometimes ideas and ideologies take hold of or ‘grip’ politicians, political activists and citizens reshaping what or how we think about political issues and phenomena. That is to say, ideas are part of political events. Taking form as writing, speech and performance they are one of the material forces with which people make their own history - though not always the ideas, or in circumstances, of their own choosing. To understand, evaluate and analyse any of that we have to look at how those ideas were expressed and how others were persuaded to adopt them. We have to ‘do’ Rhetoric.

The rhetorical tradition of thinking is, of course, not the only one to theorise or analyse language in the world. Poststructuralism has given us general and philosophically rich ways of understanding language and the conditions of possibility/impossibility of speech acts. In Linguistics the methods associated with Critical Discourse Analysis, for example, provide tools and techniques for the rigorous study of the syntax of political language. Rhetorical Political Analysis is informed by these and other theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of language. But it constitutes as its object of study something broader than the sentence or the trope yet not so grand as the entire system of differance or the rhetoricity of Language as such.

Rhetorical Political Analysis studies political rhetorical situations – not just people talking about politics but people doing something in politics at a particular moment. It is interested in how discursive argumentative action in those situations came about, took the form it took and had whatever effects. And it is interested in what that tells us about politics and about rhetoric.  Rhetoric has never been just a set of winning tricks. To be good it, said Cicero, one has to, ‘master everything that is relevant to the practices of citizens and the ways humans behave: all that is connected with normal life, the functioning of the State, our social order, as well as the way people usually think, human nature and character’. The opposite is also true. Analysing rhetorical situations is a way into understanding how citizens behave, how a state and social order function and how it bears on human nature and character. Rhetoric, is simultaneously and paradoxically a way of thinking about situations, of orienting oneself within them, finding the potentialities of what can be done through discourse (and what cannot) and a method for analysing what has been done. In that analysis the rhetorician is not inclined to see communication as the ‘representation’ of mental states or indeed of anything else. Communication is something people do to others (sometimes to themselves). It is material action taking place in determinate circumstances, invoking and reworking social rules, habits and technologies.

There is a lot of work in both Language and Literature that is immensely valuable to this kind of Rhetoric research. I am thinking of historical work on the material contexts of the production and dissemination of speech and writing, the spread of cultures of literacy, oratory and eloquence. Chris Reid’s work on Parliamentary oratory is exemplary here but so too is a wide range of research on Renaissance rhetorics. I am also thinking of Critical Linguistics, and of the cultural studies approach to ideology, culture and language which is part of a shared heritage. But there are some differences between what Rhetorical Political Analysis is doing and related work in English Studies. What these reduce to – to simplify somewhat – is the fact that colleagues in the latter tend to see political speech and writing as an example of language whereas I and my colleagues see the language as an instance of political action. That might not make much difference at the level of analysing a particular text. But it does make a difference at a more general level of theory and critique.

I am not familiar with everything that happens in English but my sense is that often when a political approach is taken or a politically informed theory applied it is done so in order to say something about a text. Theory is used to help break open what is happening within a work. That’s a fine thing to do. But it is different from using theories to work out how such texts fit with what is going on alongside them - how the text, or how writing and speaking as dimensions of social practice, may in certain moments or within certain configurations be politically significant. The thing is, from a Political Studies perspective, literary works are not usually of themselves very politically significant. That’s not to say that they aren’t political or significant, and there are political conjunctures (pre-Independence Ireland for instance) where novels, poems and plays have particular political power. But that was about the conjuncture as a wholly and not only due to the writing. On the whole, especially in British Politics and especially today, the texts that most effectively intervene into political situations are not novels or poems but speeches, policy briefs, slogans, op-ed columns, memes and You Tube videos, all of which may be informed by Literature and practices of literacy but in ways that only a more general social theory and method can help us to understand.

Some examples of Rhetorical Political Analysis might help here. One such would be work by Judi Atkins and I which looked at the uses of quotation and anecdotes in British political speech. We didn’t look at just one speech – we looked at one-hundred years of British Party leaders’ speeches to their Party conference.[1] We were interested in how the use of these in argument changed over time, the different kinds of things quoted and the political ideas communicated through the use of certain kinds of representative story. We found that quotations from literary sources and from the bible decrease and that quotations from ‘ordinary’ people, and the use of stories about politicians’ meeting ordinary people, all increase markedly in the nineteen-nineties. We argued that this showed important things about how political culture has changed but also about instability within political ideologies and some of the emerging contradictions attendant on notions of ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’. James Martin has, in a wide body of work, combined rhetoric with psychoanalysis and studied appeals to pathos as orchestrations of affect.[2] Others have looked at the rhetorical strategies, styles and performances that give definition to particular protest movements or to individual orators, and at the place of rhetoric in policy-making.[3] My current research brings together Sociology, Media Studies and Politics to look at how online communication technologies and practices are changing rhetoric and ideology, through a case-study of the ‘Alt-Right’.[4]

All of this work opens on to and helps to address larger questions about the social organisation and governance of political persuasion – the ‘rhetorical culture’ which shapes expectations of what political argument is like and how it should be evaluated, and of who is thought able to do it well or appropriately (which is also about who and what ‘counts’ in a polity and how power to determine that is exercised and protected). These are also questions about genre - the development and change of forms and styles of argument that come to define ideologies (socialist or conservative) and institutional practices (Parliamentary speaking, White Papers, political interviews). Rhetoric research of this kind is largely new to the UK but is developing apace. There are active research groups such as the Rhetoric and Politics Group[5] which in collaboration with the Network for Oratory and Politics, based in Classics,[6] has been holding research seminars investigating rhetoric and speechwriting.[7] There are close relationships with the Rhetoric Society of Europe and the Rhetoric Society of America, and a rapidly expanding, interdisciplinary and international book series on Rhetoric, Politics and Society.[8]

At the close of his famous 1983 textbook Terry Eagleton called for a revival of the tradition of Rhetorical theory and analysis which he praised for seeing ‘speaking and writing not merely as textual objects, to be aesthetically contemplated or endlessly deconstructed, but as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between writers and readers, orators and audiences, and as largely unintelligible outside the social purposes and conditions in which they were embedded’. That isn’t a formulation Eagleton invented. It’s what Rhetoric was always about. But this was not a research programme that Eagleton then undertook. As far as I am aware, although there is really great work on Rhetoric within English studies there is not what might be called a Rhetorical School. It’s a ‘road not taken’ which if it had been would, I believe, have helped English Studies be itself while also deepening its conversations with politics, sociology, linguistics and communication. There is much for political rhetoric researchers to learn from colleagues in possession of skills honed by rigorous training in close-reading and invaluable experience in the feel and flow of creative language. It’s a road that is still open and a conversation – not an argument - which all are welcome to join.

[1] Judi Atkins and Alan Finlayson (2016) ‘“As Shakespeare so memorably said…”: Quotation, Rhetoric and the Performance of Political Studies, 2016, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9248.12156; Judi Atkins and Alan Finlayson (2016) ‘“…A 40-year-old black man made the point to me”: Anecdotes, Everyday Knowledge and the Performance of Leadership in British Politics’, co-authored with J. Atkins, Political Studies, 61, 1, pp. 161-177, 2013.

[2] Martin, James (2016). ‘Capturing Desire: Rhetorical Strategies and the Affectivity of Discourse’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 18(1), pp. 143-160.

[3] For examples by UK-based scholars see Crines, A , Heppell, T and Dorey, P (2016)  The Political Rhetoric and Oratory of Margaret Thatcher. Palgrave Macmillan; Sophia Hatzisavvidou (2016) ‘Disputatious rhetoric and political change: The case of the Greek anti-mining movement’, Political Studies, 65, 1, pp. 215-230; Judi Atkins and John Gaffney (eds), 2017, Voices of the UK Left: Rhetoric, Ideology and the Performance of Politics London, Palgrave; Nick Turnbull, 2013, ‘The questioning theory of policy practice: Outline of an integrated analytical framework’, Critical Policy Studies, 7, 2.

[4] https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FR001197%2F1

[5] https://www.psa.ac.uk/psa-communities/specialist-groups/rhetoric-and-politics

[6] https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/index.aspx

[7] https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/networkfororatoryandpolitics/cor/index.aspx

[8] https://www.palgrave.com/gp/series/14497

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