From formalism to rhetoric

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To open discussion today, I want to start with a quote from Brooks’ “The Formalist Critics” that seems to offer an excellent transition into a useful consideration of rhetorical analysis:

Literature is not inimical to ideas. It thrives upon ideas but does not present ideas patly and neatly. It involves them with the “recalcitrant stuff of life.” The literary critic’s job is to deal with that involvement. (Rivkin & Ryan 23, 26-27)

And in Ryan’s Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, he describes rhetorical analysis as first depending on the awareness that the stuff of life is being shaped–what choices have been made in shaping this representation, this character, this plot, this description, and what is their effect? What has been represented, and what has not been represented? What do we expect to appear, and what actually appears? How does representation work on the reader to “change behavior, mold perception and belief, or challenge assumptions” (Ryan 49)? He notes,

The makers of cultural works do not simply seek to inspire belief in an imaginary world in their audiences. They seek to create a particular kind of belief, one characterized by positive and negative judgments and feelings. […] The field of rhetoric includes not only the choices and valuations that go into the selection of elements that shade audience perceptions and judgments in different ways, but also the way selected elements are arranged logically in a narrative sequence. (Ryan 47)

This should get us into a discussion of the other ways that texts acquire meaning–not just through the selection and arrangement of words or images, but also through broader cultural and interpretive predispositions that are themselves what we might call accretions of belief. How are our “interpretive communities” formed (Ryan 49)? Along what lines does our lived experience shape how we come to a text, and therefore what a text is, does, or causes us to believe? Finally, Austin’s concept of speech acts works as a way to concretize the rhetorical power of language (Ryan 49).

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