One More Round: Jim Phelan

One more round from me, one more effort to suggest to a committed historicist with post-structuralist leanings that rhetorical theory isn’t as wacky or impossible as it initially appears (or perhaps I should say, as I have previously made it sound).

Richard agrees that texts have patterns and that following them is an important part of the reading process. He even acknowleges that authors, despite being pronounced dead by those once very much alive French theorists, marshall words purposefully. But he questions the extent to which either such authorial marshalling of words or the activity of following textual patterns delimits meaning because, well, readers not authors determine meanings and because our old friend language is actually a very slippery fellow.

If the question we’re asking is “what can this arrangement of this language at this point in history, an arrangement that depicts these events experieced by these characters in this order, possibly mean to its range of contemporary readers?,” I’m willing to grant Richard’s position and happy to have the answers. Similarly, if that’s the question, then I’m willing to grant that patterns won’t delimit meanings very much, precisely because that question calls for us to seek multiple patterns, even contradictory ones.

But rhetorical theory doesn’t ask that question. Instead it asks, “what designs on her implied audience did the agent who used this language at this point in history to depict these events experienced by these characters in this order probably have?” It believes that the question is worth asking because it believes in the otherness of the text and in the phenomenon of disparate giftedness, the notion that some authors have insights and abilities that are greater than most of ours and very much worth engaging with. And it believes that the question is answerable because it believes that an author communicates her designs on her audience by constructing her text in one way rather than another, and it finds the patterns underlying that construction as important guides to those designs.

The difference between the questions can be seen in the different accounts they’d give of the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Someone asking “what can this arrangement of language possibly mean to its contemporary audience” would answer at least that the sentence can be taken straight and it can be taken ironically. Someone asking the rhetorical theorist’s question would answer that the agent has designed it ironically in order to introduce her audience to her wit and to the application of that wit to serious subjects. The rhetorical theorist would go on to note that the irony sets up a relation between the two voices in the utterance (the one who takes the universally acknowledged truth as a given, and the one debunking that truth) and that this relation includes a clash of ideologies about marriage and money in which the ironist takes the side of the debunker. The rhetorical theorist would also note that the relation between the two voices in the first sentence gets picked up in the dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about the single man of good fortune who has just let Netherfield Park, and that the carryover of that relation aligns the narrator and thus the implied audience with Mr. Bennet rather than Mrs. Bennet and further that Mr. Bennet’s singling out his “little Lizzie” aligns her with him, the narrator, and the implied audience. And so on with the way these parts of the initial design get qualified by the revelation that Mr. Bennet was teasing Mrs. Bennet even more than was apparent in their dialogue and by the trajectory of varied relations among the narrator’s views of the marriage market, Mr. Bennet’s views, and Elizabeth’s views. And the rhetorical theorist would go on link these inferences about the design of the novel’s beginning to their ethical and affective consequences, and in this way begin to build up a sense of the novel’s overarching design.

Following the internal mechanisms of the novel as a way to understand its multi-layered communication to its implied audience does not mean that rhetorical theory escapes interpretation or otherwise turns our engagement with texts into an exercise into discovering certainties. Indeed, it’s very important to the model that its results are hypotheses that need further testing and that are open to revision. Thus, it would say to the critic who insists that Austen’s first sentence can be read as straight or ironic that Austen gives us much more evidence that it’s ironic both in the way it builds to one kind of anticlimax and it way she juxtaposes it with the second sentence which tacitly acknowledges that the truth is not universally acknowledged: “However little known the views or feelings of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood.” But it would also want to account for the force of the literal reading of that first sentence in the action of the novel. One of the consequences of this position is that the model regards the implied or authorial audience not as a Platonic ideal but as a well-motivated heuristic for distinguishing between what an author assumes about her audience’s knowledge and abilities and what any actual reader might know and/or do in response to the text. Thus, for example, Austen’s authorial audience knows a fair amount about the geography of England (way more, for example, than I did when I first read the novel) and about the social mores and class structures of Regency England, and it has the ability to detect her irony.

As you can infer, I could go on–and on and on. But I’ve just heard a wise voice cry out, “Hold, enough!”



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