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A Note on the Influence of ‘Rhetoric and Culture’

 Astonishment and Evocation: The Spell of Culture in Art and Anthropology, edited by Ivo Strecker and Markus Verne, was published earlier this year as the newest volume within the Studies of Rhetoric and Culture series. The volume and series have gained attention within the academic community, one such supporter being Michał Mokrzan, a future collaborator within the series and a scholar of rhetoric. In response to the newest volume, Mokrzan writes an entry of his own interactions with the series, series editors, and series volumes.



Due to the fact that the Rhetoric Culture Project develops at a rapid pace – Astonishment + Evocation is the fifth volume of the Berghahn Books series Studies in Rhetoric and Culture – one can risk the thesis that we are now witnessing a crystallization of a new theoretical and methodological trend in anthropology, which can be described as a ‘rhetorical turn in anthropology’.


The key figure for this trend is Stephen Tyler, one of the editors of the series and a co-founder of the Rhetoric Culture Project, to whom Astonishment + Evocation is dedicated. Tyler’s books, including Cognitive Anthropology (ed., 1969), The Said and the Unsaid (1978), The Unspeakable. Discourse, Dialogue, and Rhetoric in the Postmodern World (1987), and Culture + Rhetoric (ed. with Ivo Strecker, 2009) propose original, inspiring and controversial ways of thinking about language, culture and anthropology. To many readers they are the source of inspiration as they may engender a kind of astonishment and epiphanies.


So it was in my case, when I first read Tyler’s essay A Post-modern In-stance (1991), which is the essence of the rhetorical turn. A rhetoric of this text, which includes both style and message, had such great influence on me that I decided to devote to it a part of my doctoral dissertation. Of course, my goal was not to decrypt hidden meanings or an interpretation consistent with the author’s intention – as this would be contrary to the main idea of postmodernism – but to trace to what other texts it connects, on what texts Tyler grafts his own. The effect of my efforts was translated by my wife into English and sent to Tyler. The answer I received exceeded my expectations. He liked the text so much that he offered me its publication.


Unfortunately due to the time delay, the essay did not enter Astonishment + Evocation. When I sent it, the book was already in print. However it will be released in a future volume of the series Studies in Rhetoric and Culture. Reading of A Post-modern In-stance was a real turning point in my life. It initiated a wave of incredible events, among which was the meeting with Jean Lydall and Ivo Strecker. Discussions with them inspired me to further explore the impact of the rhetorical turn in contemporary science. Astonishment + Evocation. The Spell of Culture in Art and Anthropology could be read most profitably against the background of preceding ‘turns’ in the study of culture and society. Hoping that it might be useful for other readers, I quickly recall here the most important of them:


Already as early as in 1984, at the symposium entitled Rhetoric of Human Sciences, held in Iowa City in the USA, Richard Rorty diagnosed that the modern history of the humanities is marked by a number of ‘turns’. The first was the linguistic turn expressed in The Linguistic Turn. Essays in Philosophical Method (Rorty 1967), which was the collective work of many contemporary thinkers. The second turn mentioned by Rorty is the interpretative turn. Its main concepts were most fully laid out in Interpretive Social Science (Rabinow, Sullivan 1979). This book contains texts of such thinkers as Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Stanley Fish, Charles Taylor and Clifford Geertz.


Rorty claims that after these two turns, it’s time for another one, the rhetorical turn. According to this theoretical and methodological standpoint we experience the world through rhetorically mediated forms of knowledge. In the social sciences and philosophy the rhetorical turn is characterized by a reflection on epistemology. It is considered that the process of understanding is based on the mechanisms of rhetoric. In addition, it is pointed out that ‘selves and societies are constructed and deconstructed through rhetorical practices’ (Brown 1990: 191). Another distinctive feature of the rhetorical turn is focusing on the rhetoric of scientific and philosophical discourses. The attention shifts to the reflection on the role of tropes, rhetorical figures and argumentative techniques in narratives written by scholars.


In philosophy the rhetorical turn is associated with Jacques Derrida and with the reflection – developed by the thinker in the White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy (Derrida 1982: 207-271) – on the metaphorical nature of philosophical concepts. The first sentence of the essay ‘From philosophy, rhetoric’ (Derrida 1982: 209), summarizes the main objectives of the project ‘philosophy as a kind of writing’ developed by Derrida (Rorty 1978). In the field of literary criticism, tropes, understood as rhetorical mechanisms organizing literary, philosophical and scientific discourses are the object of interest for The Yale School. It is worth mentioning its representative Paul de Man and the essay The Epistemology of Metaphor (De Man 1978) which is the key text to the rhetorical turn. De Man develops the concept of rhetorical reading, which, according to Rodolphe Gasché (1999), corresponds to Derrida’s project of deconstruction.


In the field of history, scholars who are interested in the rhetorical dimension of cognition are Hayden White and Frank Ankersmith. The first one in the Tropics of Discourse argues that ‘The historian’s characteristic instrument of encodation, communication, and exchange is ordinary educated speech. This implies that the only instruments that he has for endowing his data with meaning, of rendering the strange familiar, and of rendering the mysterious past comprehensible, are the techniques of figurative language’ (White 1978: 94). In sociology Richard Harvey Brown wrote about the rhetorical construction of social reality. Employing the terminology of rhetoric, he argued that society works as a text (Brown 1987). Deirdre N. McCloskey, in The Rhetoric of Economics showed that economic sciences persuade through the use of rhetorical tools: ‘Figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us’ (McCloskey 1998: xix). James Boyd White, in turn, pointed out that in the legal sciences ‘this is a way of looking at the law, not as a set of rules or institutions or structures (as it is usually envisaged), nor as a part of our bureaucracy or government (to be thought of it terms of political science or sociology or economics), but as a kind of rhetorical and literary activity’ (White 1985: x).


In classical works for the rhetoric of science, Charles Bazerman (1988), Greg Myers (1990), Alan G. Gross (1990) and John Angus Campbell (1990) focused inter alia on the techniques of argumentation and strategies of justifying scientific theorems in the following works: Galileo’s Two World Systems, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, and Isaac Newton’s Opticks. Analyzing the rhetoric employed by the creators of discourses in physics, biology, and chemistry they argued that the ‘rhetoric is constitutive of scientific knowledge’ (Gross 2006: 5).




Michał Mokrzan is a scholar of rhetoric within the University of Wrocław’s Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology.


Astonishment and Evocation is Volume 5 of Studies in Rhetoric and Culture.


Read an earlier entry about the volume here.