The Rhetorics of Reading and the Energy of Language

The Rhetorics of Reading With Wonder

“Camerado, this is no book, 

who touches this, touches a man, 

(Is it night? Are we here alone?)

It is I you hold, and who holds you, 

I spring from the pages into your arms…” 

Walt Whitman, So Long!

In William Covino’s book, The Art of Wondering (1988), he advances Plato’s definition of rhetoric that he develops in Phaedrus. He calls rhetoric an art of wonder that emphasizes “avoiding rather than intending closure.” Covino is all about the ambiguity. When we consider the rhetorics of reading, it is with a posture of wonder.

Paul de Man - Allegories of ReadingThis spirit of curiosity echoes Paul de Man’s definition of rhetoric in his collection of essays in Allegories of Reading (1979) that has resonated with me for years:

“Rhetoric radically suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration.”

In the 1995 article, “What Is Rhetoric?” William Covino and David Joliffe do not cite this definition directly, but it is clearly at play in the authors they have invited to their rhetorical party.

They invoke Roland Barthes’s work of structural analysis, S/Z (1970), to appreciate how a text is made up of a galaxy of signifiers which celebrates the infinitude of language or Paul de Man’s notion of “vertiginous possibilities.”

Equally as powerful, we are reminded of “the energy inherent in communication” that Kenneth Burke appreciates in “Rhetoric – Old and New.” When a book acts as a container for language, we often think of it as a closed system. All meaning is confined to that finite object, but this is not how language works.

The energy of communication is limitless. Umberto Eco calls a novel a machine for generating interpretation and this process never ceases — because communication is active.

That is precisely the approach Covino and Joliffe take when they combine so many strands of thought to create their definition of the ever-mysterious subject of rhetoric:

“Rhetoric is a primarily verbal, situationally contingent, epistemic art that is both philosophical and practical and gives rise to potentially active texts.”  

This reminds us of the Burkean Parlor metaphor: when we read a text, we enter into a conversation that is already happening. Despite our underlying need for totality and yearning for clarity, it is far more empowering to see our interaction with a work of art in a kairotic moment that invites us to play or jest, perhaps, for infinity.

We can appreciate the unity of a book captured in a single moment in time while we simultaneously celebrate the vitality of the text to make meaning even after we read the last chapter. Wonder is an activity that continues long after we close the book.

With this in mind, there is something magnetic about the thinkers who appreciate rhetoric as energy. If we can point to the potentiality of language while we read, watch, and experience written, spoken, and visual art, we can appreciate the potentiality of language in a way that remains true to how language works, lives, and breathes.

What does the potentiality of language lead to? Change.

Rhetorics of Reading - Change

When we read, we can appreciate the potential for language to change us. As Covino and Joliffe point out more than once, sometimes this change is intended, but not always. Sometimes a writer sets out to change her audience, but not always.

It’s helpful to remind ourselves of the vast histories of rhetorics and the generative power of the logos – thought plus action – working with pathos and ethos to move an audience – to change us while we read. This is the process of intellectual growth – a kind of intellectual becoming.

“But the rhetoric of a text is also the intellectual, cognitive, affective, and social considerations that guide the writer or speaker to use the language as he or she does, and the rhetoric of a text is the effect it actually has on people who listen to it or read it.”

In the end, we are reminded of Walt Whitman’s gripping lines in his poem, So Long! “It is I you hold, and who holds you, I spring from the pages into your arms…” Wonder is an attitude of openness that primes us to appreciate the energy of language to persuade and move us to action.

The Rhetorics of Reading With Wonder