BMCR 2021.02.16

The Oxford handbook of rhetorical studies

, The Oxford handbook of rhetorical studies. Oxford handbooks. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xxiii, 819. ISBN 9780199731596 $150.00.

Oxford Handbook Online
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Michael Macdonald is very clear in his aims: ‘to provide a history and theory of rhetoric and to explore new developments’ (p. 2). The book contains 60 chapters in total as well as a glossary and an index, both of which are very comprehensive. The book is divided into six parts with very interesting chapters from well-established scholars. Part I features Ancient Greek Rhetoric pp. 33-156; Part II Ancient Roman Rhetoric (pp. 169-311); Part III: Medieval Rhetoric (pp. 315-74); Part IV Renaissance Rhetoric, (pp. 377-474); Part V: Early Modern and Enlightenment Rhetoric (pp. 477-568); and lastly, Part VI: Modern and Contemporary Rhetoric (pp. 572-771). Glossary (pp. 773-92) and Index (pp. 793-819) follow.

The wide array of disciplines, particularly in the last section of the book, accommodates new rhetorical discourse formations like feminism, presidential rhetoric, rhetoric and science, and digital media. However, some noteworthy omissions include new forms of rhetorical practices such as professional speakers associations, which mirror the ancient sophistic practices that Plato vehemently decries; the rhetoric of economics, which has continued to gain traction and diplomatic rhetoric, given its significance in contemporary global politics.

Three eminent scholars, Edward Schiappa (pp. 33-42), William Dominik (pp. 159-72), and John O. Ward (pp. 315-28) discuss the historical contexts of the emergence and decline of rhetoric’s Hellenistic, Roman, and Medieval periods. The first two chapters cover the probable origin of the term rhetoric, its scholarly scope, and stasis theory; the transmission, transfer, continuity and adoption of Greek rhetoric in Rome; the major scholars who were involved in rhetorical scholarship and practice in Rome; and the impact of Hellenismus and Latinitas in Rome. Ward traces the reemergence and redefinition of rhetoric, the intersection of rhetoric and philosophy, the production of knowledge around rhetoric and the availability of commentaries, the curriculum [Trivium and Quadrivium], and the tension around the rhetor as the giver of precepts, theory, and guidance. However, this kind of historical contextualization stops after Part III of the book. Subsequently, there are no sectional opening chapters that deal broadly with the milieu with which the section is engaged. They focus on narrow specialisms rather than offering context-based narratives.

Since this is a compendium of many chapters, I offer a detailed discussion of just a few.

The first two sections focus on Graeco-Roman Rhetoric (pp. 33-311) and contain introductory essays for the new researcher into classical rhetoric. Many of these are already available in existing bibliography on rhetoric; some may have needed updating. Authors renew our understanding of the Graeco-Roman origins, theory, and practice of rhetoric and discuss diverse aspects from law, politics, historiography, pedagogy, poetics, tragedy, old comedy, music to sophistic movements (see outline further below).

Of primary interest is Michael Gagarin’s, ‘Rhetoric and Law’ (pp. 43-52), which explores what he qualifies as the ‘intimate, complex and controversial’ relationship between rhetoric and law. His chapter is divided into three segments: ‘The Role of Law in Rhetoric’ (43-46), ‘The Role of Rhetoric in Law’ (46-49) and ‘The Relationship between Law and Rhetoric’ (49-51). Since rhetoric had the greatest impact in the law courts of Greece, this chapter seems important to the volume. Perennial discussion around Protagoras’ notion of probability (eikos) is reiterated, so is a list of early rhetors and their contributions to the development of rhetoric at inception. There is also a challenge to Plato’s repudiation of the sophistic practice in the sense that, as Gagarin argues, the idea is not to win at all cost, a misunderstanding of the idea of ‘making weaker arguments stronger,’ but simply to enhance the potential believability of the arguments while leaving the decision-making to the more experienced judges. In his conclusion, Gagarin suggests that the reciprocal relationship between law and rhetoric reinforces the idea that power resides with the people (demos) under a democratic system of government. The complexity of the discussion in this chapter and the interconnectedness of subject areas lead to a lot of repetition of material, which makes the chapter rather dense.

Maintaining the intersectionality of rhetoric within the democratic context, Paul Woodruff’s ‘Rhetoric and Tragedy’ (pp. 97-107) affirms that Tragedy was strongly shaped by rhetorical theory and practice. For Woodruff, dramatic speech is manifested in conversational dialogues within a play and often reflected contestations of ideas and values. These speeches have implications for, and more or less mirror, the three types of rhetoric: forensic, deliberative, and epideictic rhetoric. Woodruff uses characters from both tragedy and epic to establish the proximity between some of the myth and socio-political reality in the ancient world. For someone who teaches classical mythology, reception studies, and classical and modern rhetoric, I find this chapter particularly interesting and useful for pedagogical purposes. The chapter draws out a key point that is beneficial for contemporary society in the post-truth era, where alterity (‘otherness’), alternativism (aka ‘fake news’), and deceptive strategy (hallmark of the Homeric hero, Odysseus) under modern authoritarian regimes are celebrated in opposition to Aristotle’s first rhetorical proposition (in Cicero’s words: ‘the rational pursuit of truth is peculiar to human nature’ [De Officiis 1.13]). Implicitly, the chapter’s thesis argues for the minimization of deception and false strategy in policy making and adjudication of the law. This chapter is highly recommended.

Another interesting classics-oriented chapter is Jon Hall’s ‘Rhetoric and Epic’ (pp. 225-335). This chapter argues that the differing styles of the epic poets (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Lucan) are a function of the development of rhetoric and training received at rhetorical schools. According to Hall, Homer’s and Virgil’s use of language are not as elaborate and extravagant as that of Ovid and Lucan, who were graduates of ‘Schools of Declamation’ (pp. 229-311) whose flagship curriculum aimed at ‘electrifying speech.’ Hall identifies three main components of the school’s curriculum: 1) educational aim of improbable scenarios, 2) lines of arguments, and 3) language development (verbal skills). This rigorous program influenced Ovid and Lucan who, as Hall suggests, deployed the grand style in a fashion that he dubs ‘eccentric peculiarities.’ However, a different title  (Influence of Rhetoric on Epic Poets and Poetry; Rhetorical context for the Performance of Epic Poetry in Rome) would have been more appropriate. More clarity is gained if the chapter is read alongside Malcolm Heath’s ‘Rhetoric and Pedagogy’ (pp. 73-83).

Some interesting chapters stand out at the intersections of rhetoric and a number of other discourses for the modern reader—Music, Architecture, Race Relations, Feminism, Presidential Politics, and Digital Media. While it is essential to cover the established canon that includes law, politics, drama, and other well-known disciplines that traditionally constitute the domains of rhetoric, it is equally important to mainstream and canonize some of the emerging or marginal disciplines. This is another notable merit of the volume.

A noteworthy chapter among the non-traditional rhetorical niche areas is Thomas Habinek’s ‘Rhetoric, Music, and the Arts’ (pp. 289-99). This chapter uses rhetorical theory to frame the activity of the artist—the painter, sculptor, and musician—and equates the purpose and conduct of each artist to that of the orator. Habinek presents a comprehensive list of rhetorical concepts as a framework. The aggregate notion of ‘presentification’ would have corresponded to the mediatized modern world where knowledge production platforms always integrate visual, verbal, and oral symbols. The concluding section presents the orator as divine (p. 297).

Inextricably connected to the material world is architecture, which helps to compartmentalize or integrate our private and public lives. How this occurs naturally varies. Robert Kirkbride’s ‘Rhetoric and Architecture’ (pp. 505-22) proposes to ‘touch on pedagogical, professional, and poetic convergencies of architecture and rhetoric and their contributions to shifting perceptions of truth and methods of inquiry’ (p. 505).  Kirkbride examines Vitruvius’ views on architecture and its intersection with rhetorical theory. To a great extent, architecture projects the class of ownership, space of operation, and a platform for ornamentation that contains invaluable, articulable codes of power, presence, identity, affluence, prestige, and history. Architecture also possesses a structure similar to that of rhetoric in linearity of execution and stylistic genius of the individual architect (p. 517). The survival of architecture has helped to preserve knowledge, history, and culture in various societies.

Cheryl Glenn and Andrea Lunsford’s ‘Rhetoric and Feminism’ (pp. 584-97) traces the historicization of rhetoric from Aristotle to modern rhetorical historians like George Kennedy, and registers their dissatisfaction with the underrepresentation of women and their contributions. For them, the references in historical treatises to women and their rhetorical activities do not do justice to the immense and significant initiatives that women furnished to the formation and establishment of what modern critical discourse has offered as the public domain. The authors’ analyses adopts the historical periodization that normally attends feminist discourse: ‘Rhetoric and the first Wave: Diving in’ (p. 584); ‘Rhetoric and the Second Wave: Swimming Toward Equality’ (pp. 585-87); ‘Rhetoric and the Third Wave: Hanging Ten’ (pp. 587-92) and lastly, ‘Rhetoric and Feminism Today: Riding the Waves into the Future’ (pp. 593-95). The chapter structure helps to see clearly that the development of feminism as discursive formation, both in theory and practice, relied heavily on weaponizing rhetoric. This rhetoric has helped to challenge the historical dominance of heteronormativity to the point of achieving equality in the public domain. But this challenge is credited to revolutionary activism on the part of scholars in re-reading texts with feminist lenses, texts that include the rhetorical canon, whose understanding had been conditioned by hegemonic male interpretations. The work of feminists also led to the production of anthologies whose aim was to do something different (pp. 591-92). The radicalization of the feminine body to deny sex and perform resistance (p. 593) finds an analogy in sexual denial and passive resistance of civil right movements in India and the United States. This is an excellent chapter but should have included the role of pro-feminist males who also championed feminist causes. Was there a rhetorical element to their support?

Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s ‘Rhetoric and Presidential Politics’ (pp. 637-47) takes as its point of departure the notorious dictum in the Periclean funeral oration for women to be silent. The essay proceeds primarily via genre study and frames presidential rhetoric using Aristotelian categories. This kind of genre study does not utilize the abundant material available in presidential rhetorical studies or develop a genre theory based on rhetorical taxonomy. As fascinating as the chapter is, co-opting Aristotle undercuts its argument. Menander the Rhetor gives us a robust classification of epideictic rhetoric that could have better served as a bedrock for the essay. The chapter lays out different phases of the process involved in America’s executive politics, from the president’s relationship with the citizenry to the president’s roles—as priest, voice, and commander-in-chief. The institution is largely shaped by the president’s personality.

Andrew McMurry’s, ‘Rhetoric and Environment’ (pp. 734-44) sets out the bifurcation of interest, discourse, and participation in the environmental crisis. The two camps include: the practico/political and the ethico/epistemic (p. 735). This chapter voices serious concerns about the futility of discourse and the limits of rhetoric, given that both camps have compelling arguments: one side proposes the depletion theory that the commoditization of natural resources without any means of replenishment is a danger to humanity, while the other side would rather see the crisis in a distant future. Rhetoric not only mediates the dialogic process but also facilitates the implementation of appropriate policies that mitigate the capitalistic debilitation of the ‘the thing-world.’ My question is: how many experts in the policy-making sector have the necessary skills in rhetoric to deal competently with the greed of the capitalist universe? In the end, we rely on the practical conduct of the ideal orator, vir bonus dicendi peritus (‘a good man expert at speaking’). This is a pessimistic portrayal of any meaningful intervention by government given that some people gain from the environment’s destruction. Perhaps there needs to be a robust multi-sectoral conversation on the idea of rhetorical environmentality as a way of constructing a workable policy that can help reverse the current trend. I disagree with McMurry who suggests that the environment does not speak. Maybe we do not yet understand its language.

Ian Bogost and Elizabeth Losh’s ‘Rhetoric and Digital Media’ (pp. 759-71) gives a robust literature review of experts in both rhetoric and IT regarding the digital revolution. In Londow’s notion of hypertext, Welch’s Electric Rhetoric, Lunsford’s pornification of text, Eyman’s computational rhetoric, and Bogost’s ‘procedural rhetoric’, we see that computation has captured a domain that hitherto was solely based on physicality and—to re-use Habinek’s term—‘presentification.’ Rhetoric must embrace artificial intelligence and computation to update itself and broaden the scope of its relevance, effectiveness, and utility. I am sure that so long as humans exist and require productive interaction, then by whatever other means they choose, rhetoric will always be relevant.

I have one significant criticism. Despite mention of the African Association for Rhetoric (p.27) along with other international organizations who are vigorously promoting rhetoric globally, African Studies and African Rhetoric are missing from the list of disciplines that are treated in the volume.[1] The volume looks like a typical, exclusively Eurocentric, Western treatment of rhetoric, save for a chapter by the African American professor of Rhetoric, Jacqueline Jones Royster, who examines the intersection of race and rhetoric in the United States and notes the lack of critical engagements with non-western traditions.[2]

Despite the somewhat misleading title, which suggests globality, universality, and generality, the book offers a refreshing read for each aspect and period. The list of contributors include trail blazers in rhetorical studies in North America and Europe. For any undergraduate, postgraduate, or individual with general knowledge of the humanities and allied disciplines, or even for the curious scholar, this book will prove most useful.

Authors and titles

List of Contributors
Introduction. Michael J. MacDonald

Part I: Ancient Greek Rhetoric
1. The Development of Greek Rhetoric. Edward Schiappa
2. Rhetoric and Law. Michael Gagarin
3. Rhetoric and Politics. Edward Harris
4. Rhetoric and Historiography. Chris Carey
5. Rhetoric and Pedagogy. Malcolm Heath
6. Rhetoric and Poetics. Jeffrey Walker
7. Rhetoric and Tragedy. Paul Woodruff
8. Rhetoric and Old Comedy. Daphne O’Regan
9. Plato’s Rhetoric in Theory and Practice. Harvey Yunis
10. Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Theory and Practice. Eugene Garver
11. Rhetoric and Sophistics. Barbara Cassin

Part II: Ancient Roman Rhetoric
12. The Development of Roman Rhetoric. William J. Dominik
13. Rhetoric and Law. Richard Leo Enos
14. Rhetoric and Politics. Joy Connolly
15. Rhetoric and Historiography. Rhiannon Ash
16. Rhetoric and Pedagogy. Catherine Steel
17. Rhetoric and Stoic Philosophy. Shadi Bartsch
18. Rhetoric and Epic. Jon Hall
19. Rhetoric and Lyric Address. Jonathan Culler
20. Rhetoric and the Greco-Roman Second Sophistic. Laurent Pernot
21. Rhetoric and Declamation. Erik Gunderson
22. Rhetoric and Fiction. Ruth Webb
23. Rhetoric, Music, and the Arts. Thomas Habinek
24. Augustine’s Rhetoric in Theory and Practice. Catherine Conybeare

Part III: Medieval Rhetoric
25. The Development of Medieval Rhetoric. John O. Ward
26. Rhetoric and Politics. Virginia Cox
27. Rhetoric and Literary Criticism. Rita Copeland
28. Rhetoric and Poetics. Jill Ross
29. Rhetoric and Comedy. Jody Enders

Part IV: Renaissance Rhetoric
30. Rhetoric and Humanism. Heinrich Plett
31. Rhetoric and Politics. Wayne A. Rebhorn
32. Rhetoric and Law. Lorna Hutson
33. Rhetoric and Pedagogy. Peter Mack
34. Rhetoric and Science. Jean Dietz Moss
35. Rhetoric and Poetics. Arthur F. Kinney
36. Rhetoric and Theater. Russ McDonald
37. Rhetoric and the Visual Arts. Caroline van Eck

Part V: Early Modern and Enlightenment Rhetoric
38. Rhetoric and Politics. Angus Gowland
39. Rhetoric and Gender in British Literature. Lynn Enterline
40. Rhetoric and Architecture. Robert Kirkbride
41. Origins of British Enlightenment Rhetoric. Arthur Walzer
42. Rhetoric and Philosophy. Adam Potkay
43. Rhetoric and Science. Peter Walmsley
44. The Elocutionary Movement in Britain. Paul Goring

Part VI: Modern and Contemporary Rhetoric
45. Rhetoric and Feminism in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Angela G. Ray
46. Rhetoric and Feminism. Cheryl Glenn and Andrea A. Lunsford
47. Rhetoric and Race in the United States. Jacqueline Jones Royster
48. Rhetoric and Law. Peter Goodrich
49. Rhetoric and Political Theory. Andrew Norris
50. Rhetoric and Presidential Politics. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson
51. Rhetoric and New Testament Studies. Stanley E. Porter
52. Rhetoric and Argumentation. Frans H. van Eemeren
53. Rhetoric and Semiotics. Theo van Leeuwen
54. Rhetoric and Psychoanalysis. Gilbert Chaitin
55. Rhetoric and Deconstruction. Paul Allen Miller
56. Rhetoric, Design, Composition. David Kaufer and Danielle Wetzel
57. Rhetoric and Social Epistemology. Lorraine Code
58. Rhetoric and Environment. Andrew McMurry
59. Rhetoric and Science. Richard Doyle
60. Rhetoric and Digital Media. Ian Bogost and Elizabeth Losh


[1] For the purposes of full disclosure, Segun Ige is the founder and Chair of the Steering Committee of the African Association for Rhetoric (AAR). See African Association for Rhetoric.

[2] Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzburg’s co-edited volume (2001) The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford St. Martin seems a precursor to the formation of this scholarly volume. However, numerous publications exist to suggest that the scope of treatment of rhetoric in projects of this nature should be global, see, for instance, Carol S. Lipson and Roberta A. Binkley, (2004) Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Albany: State University of New York Press. George Kennedy’s (1998) Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press. Anthropologists have been working in the area of African Rhetoric since the 1960s.