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Rhetorical criticism analyzes discourse to assess its persuasive power. Criticism began in ancient Greece and Rome as teachers developed their curricula by identifying what made some rhetorical acts successful and some not. Analyzing discourse became part of disciplinary scholarship in communication only in the modern period, but drew on the works of Aristotle, Isocrates, Cicero, Quintilian, and Augustine.
Rhetorical criticism as literary analysis developed as field in the 1940s in English departments. ‘New critics’ treated literary works as existing for their own sake. They warned against the intentional fallacy, interpreting a work in relation to its author, and the affective fallacy, evaluating a work by its effects. Instead, they held that “explication is criticism; it is the evaluative account of the poem” (Wimsatt 1963, ix).
In The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell defined rhetoric as “that art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end,” identifying the critic’s primary concern as the relationship between form – the choices made in rhetorical works – and function – what an act is designed to achieve. Accordingly, rhetorical criticism can be applied to literary, political, commercial, or philosophical discourse. Rhetorical criticism in communication studies focused on the discourse of the marketplace and developed methods to explicate the power of political speech to influence public behaviors and attitudes.
Public address criticism emerged in the 1940s. Ernest Wrage claimed that “from the speeches given by many men [sic], it is possible to observe the reflections of prevailing social ideas and attitudes. … A speech is an agency of its time,… a repository of themes and their elaborations from which we may gain insight into the life of an era as well as into the mind of a man [sic]” (1947, 455–456). Public speaking was seen as a distinctively democratic practice with special relevance during the Cold War. That studying public address was a means to promote patriotism focused scholarship on addresses by major figures as historical-cultural documents central to the nation’s mythic heritage and historical experience. Accordingly, critics studied the rhetoric of US presidents, leaders of national movements, and eminent churchmen, and ignored protestors and dissidents, including trade unionists, socialists, and anarchists and outsiders, such as women and minorities.
The evaluative standards of critics were the arguments, emotional power, and character of the speaker, the structure, style, and delivery, echoing the Greco-Roman modes of proof – logos, pathos, and ethos – and the classical canons of invention, disposition, style, and delivery.
The civil rights, antiwar, New Left, countercultural and feminist movements transformed the rhetorical landscape and demanded that communication scholars respond to rhetoric that challenged conventional assumptions about public deliberation. The civil rights movement grew after World War II with picketing, sit-ins, freedom rides, and powerful speakers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Struggles over how best to achieve civil rights sparked the Black Power movement, which echoed the discourse of Black Muslims heard in the rhetoric of Malcolm X. Eloquent African- Americans such as Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm spoke as members of Congress. The civil rights movement challenged rhetorical critics because it questioned the relationship of public speaking to democracy as activists challenged Americans to live up to the values praised in public discourse while pointing to the history of American racism as a national disgrace. In addition, almost exclusively white critics needed to analyze rhetoric that challenged their beliefs and values, their stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and norms of public deliberation. In the 1960s and 1970s, anthologies of civil rights rhetoric appeared, as did critical studies in journals that explored alternative approaches to analysis and evaluation.
In the 1960s, countercultural, antiwar, New Left, and feminist rhetoric demanded fresh approaches to nontraditional social movement texts, and critics responded guided in part by the theoretical and critical works of Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke. European theorists were influential, particularly Jьrgen Habermas, Mikhail Bakhtin, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
- Smith, A. L. [Asante, M.]. (1969). The rhetoric of black revolution. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Wimsatt, W. K. (1963). Explication as criticism: Selected papers from the English Institute, 1941–1952. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Wrage, E (1947). Public address. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33, 455–456.