What this week’s readings really got me thinking about is the connection between literacy and rhetoric. In fact, this week seems to truly unveil how the discipline doesn’t quite know how it wants to identify itself. For example, Cole and Cole examine the historical changes and human consciousness that emerge as literacy functions within a society. Is the point of this text in our class to illuminate the way in which language, as rhetoric, shapes or changes a society (or maybe to underscore the “interdisciplinaryness” of Rhetoric/Comp/Writing, as Cole and Cole are a cultural psychologist and anthropologist)? Yes, rhetoric is historically situated and the writers of primary texts, as well as the writers of the secondary texts, are all in particular cultural, economic, and political contexts, so one way to define rhetoric may need to include some kind of contextualization. For example, here’s my stab at a nascent definition: rhetoric is the use of language that is shaped by cultural, economic, and political forces for the purposes of persuasion or communication or meaning-making. I’m hesitant to include the word “literacy” because I’m not sure I see a solid connection between this term and “rhetoric.” In fact, I’m not sure, especially after this week’s readings, what it means to be literate (or what writing is!). I do want to note though that I included some of Angela Haas’ ideas about rhetoric. In her article “Wampum as Hypertext,” she associates rhetoric to meaning-making for developing relationships, specifically for her study with wampum. She notes, “wampum is a living rhetoric that communicates a mutual relationship between two or more parties, despite the failure of one or more of those parties to live up to that promise” (80). I think meaning-making is particularly important to any definition of rhetoric.
We see in Cole and Cole’s argument (including their broad survey of twentieth century texts) the connections between literacy and consciousness. The latter here should be approached with caution though because, like rhetoric and literacy, defining such a term can be problematic, or at the least slippery. Ultimately, I’m wondering if we’re beginning (in our class) to see some discussions of rhetoric as it connects to consciousness (and, as already stated, literacy). How important is consciousness to rhetoric, rhetorical gestures, verbal and written language, images, and vice versa? How does rhetoric construct the consciousness of humans, and vice versa?
Rhetoric as/in writing and verbal communication does have one particularly powerful force: cultural identity formation. As Ellen Cushman points out, the Cherokee nation became a much different entity after the development of its writing system. Furthermore, the Cherokee syllabary functioned to give the nation political recognition while continuing its cultural knowledge without the dominant culture eradicating that knowledge. In other words, the Cherokee nation, according to Cushman, assimilated to the development of a writing system, but sustained a previously-held epistemology and ontology. Cushman remarks, “the aura of the artful original manuscript form of Sequoyan remained for Cherokee audiences, while for English-speaking audiences, it passed from ritual to political process” (638).
This week’s readings also raised for me questions in terms of writing and rhetoric. For example, why are rhetoric and composition and/or writing paired together? Why were most of our readings this week discussing writing when the course is supposed to focus on Rhetoric Theory and History? Some basic questions, but I think important ones as we think about the discipline and the definitions. Regardless of issues with whether or not the discipline should be split, as well as the issues of orality and literacy as two distinct modes and systems of communication, one important thing this week’s readings have suggested, and have continued to suggest, is the need to move beyond ancient Greek and Roman texts and paradigms for understanding rhetorical productions. In doing so, as Haas posited at the end of her article, we can decenter narratives and eradicate hierarchies, as well as generate more meaningful spaces and relationships within myriad contexts.