Supports the argument that rhetoric needs to be conceptualized as the social function that influences and manages meaning
Through history, rhetoric has been understood as the art of verbal influence. This art took various forms and was put to diverse uses. Rhetoric has usually been regarded as the kind of extended verbal discourse found in the public speech, the essay, the letter, or belles lettres, a discourse often founded on reasoned argument in support of propositions.
This conception of rhetoric as propositional, verbal text persisted through ages in which public controversy primarily took oral or written form: words spoken or committed to print. Issues were debated and decisions were formed verbally; the word was the agency for managing public business. But today the dominance of the extended text and the well-supported line of argument is fading. Public discourse may be embodied in as many words as it was in 1860, but the words take rather different forms. Presidential candidates speak more than they ever have, but campaigns depend increasingly on the twenty-second “sound bite” targeted for the evening news (Hart, 1987). A public that once read newspapers, listened to radios and to the Chautauqua speaker, or conversed on front porches is increasingly turning to various forms of video for information and entertainment.
The place and time of rhetoric are moving inexorably from specific locales in which issues are debated, into the more general context of popular culture. In other words, rhetoric as a distinct social practice carried out during concentrated periods of speaking and listening, or reading and writing, is dissipating into a noisy environment teeming with messages. Rhetorical studies as an academic discipline is responding to these changes in rhetorical practice by augmenting its traditional concerns for extended verbal texts (e.g., Medhurst & Benson, 1984). Students of rhetoric have recently examined the “rhetoric” of the streets, cartoons, and popular music. This book joins those efforts by theorists to conceptualize a kind of rhetoric that is less verbal, or “textual,” and more integrated into popular culture than is the rhetoric of Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. The public as well as the academy needs a way to understand the rhetorical dimensions of popular culture.