Inherent to rhetoric is a relationship comprising three constituents: (i) the author or agent responsible for offering (ii) a text of some kind to (iii) an audience that receives the text and interprets from it some kind of intention.
Of course, no relationship is as simple as this one sentence can convey, by which I mean that each of the three relational members has its own features, which in concert complicate their interrelationships. But before discussing those interrelationships, let’s clarify each member’s features.
Let’s figure, so as to avoid chicken-and-the-egg, that the author initiates the relationship.
For simplicity, I’ve said “author” although, even in the model, I’ve used “writer / speaker.” The label varies, but it’s a person every time, and that’s ultimately vital if anything’s to be considered rhetoric. Rhetoric is interacting people, who continually face and make decisions large and small.
An author has occasion to create a text, and always for an audience – even talking to yourself or keeping a diary means having an audience. “I create for myself” is often what we hear from an artist. “That anybody else pays attention is nice,” they’ll say, “but not what moves me.” This simply means the intended audience is self, and the intended audience is my focus here. Below, I suggest that an unintended audience is really an author.
By “occasion,” I mean the author is moved by a prompting of some kind although defining the prompt is more layered: some inner compulsion, a moral motive, an external incentive… who knows? What I can’t imagine is the circumstance where somebody inexplicably creates; that person would not be conscious and therefore not creating. It’s a notion that’s altogether a bit silly, at least in an explication of rhetoric. Suffice to say, the authors I have in mind have something specific to convey and someone specific to whom they’ll convey. And what they convey is a reflection of themselves. Indeed, rhetoric can only be considered a relationship at all because the author intends to reach an audience with some measure of themselves. Texts are a contextual response to contextual stimuli, and rhetorical context derives entirely from people.
We’re skirting the dynamics of the interrelationships, but let’s continue considering the other two constituents of this relationship: Text and Audience.
As in the previous discussion on Context and in other posts, I suggest that we might consider texts as broadly encompassing all human communication as well as endeavour. So a book is published, and its words remain forever printed as planned, in ink, on the pages. A song is played, its melody heard and enjoyed, perhaps also remembered or recorded, but that take is now history. A painting, a lamp, a building, a car, whatever it happens to be – a finished product is consumed, perused, used, maybe even avoided, but its cues and features persuade people to decide one way or another how to respond. It’s obviously not possible to capture in every sense what a text might be or what response it might elicit. As it is, I’m defining a text as inert or static in the sense that, once produced, it no longer changes. Further, because it is static and unchanging, I suggest that a text is denotative in the sense that, once produced, it literally is its own singular, tangible version of itself. Being not active but merely available, it provokes each person not as it wills but as they will.
So, yes, a book is open to interpretation, but that comes down to the reader as the active participant because the book, post-author, is ink and paper. There might be ten million copies in print, say, and even as I bought only one for my library, any other copy would do since they’re all the same one book. I might even react to it differently on different days, but that’s me having changed, not the ink on paper. I guess we can say the text suggests, yet even that relies upon what the audience brings to the encounter, and I’d like to avoid personifying the text, as you shall soon see. But okay, a bridge crossing water suggests convenience, for one thing, and (hopefully) safety, and (preferably) aesthetic appreciation, maybe even historical significance or engineering prowess. But it won’t change or restore itself should any such feature fall short of peoples’ interpretations (and maybe let’s not say “fall” as we mention bridges). In the sense I intend, a reader’s outlook or mood, different each time, would be the independent variable and their interpretation dependent.
Naturally, somebody points to a lava lamp and says, “Ah, ha – a finished product that constantly changes!”
“Fair enough, Mic Drop,” is my reply, “but all I mean is that your self-contained lava lamp rests on the mantle a finished product, engendering ooohs and aaahs (rightly!) without any sentient intention or awareness.”
And that, for me, is a good test for defining a text – a text isn’t alive. Not like people. We sometimes call revised texts “a living document,” but that is metaphorical indication of the people who, over time, make revisions. And some call the Bible “the living Word,” but that is spiritual, a matter of faith that I neither include nor dispute here, one way or the other. Here, all I mean is that people are alive, and we interpret and connote while texts are denotative and inanimate and can only be engaged on our terms, which is to say all that we bring to the encounter. Can living things be texts? Indeed, yes, I think they can although, for now, I have limited the discussion here to inert, non-living texts simply to keep matters more straightforward.
A good text, I believe, challenges us, so much so that we might come to realise during the encounter just how much we still have to learn. A good text humbles us. If we accept the feedback positively, we’re motivated to go learn some of what we found was lacking. We’re able to appreciate a text as far as we’re prepared for its contents. Conversely, we might just as ably assign our own understanding to a text, irrespective of the author’s conveyed intentions, which is neither here nor there for this discussion beyond being possible.
An audience’s encounter with a text I characterise as a conceit, a willing suspension of belief. The audience, reading a text (I’ll say “reading” for the sake of simplicity), finds whatever they find, as I say (more on this below, a separate kind of authorship). One thing an audience might find is the author, whose presence permeates the text through-and-through although whether the audience does detect the author is down to the audience’s toolkit. For their part, the author has set out to convey a message – by way of the text – to whichever audience they had in mind, whether self or other, private or public. The conceit is prompted by the persuasive elements of the text, its rhetoric, by the effect of the author’s efforts – however deliberate and however effective – to persuade the audience that this text’s message is (in whatever way) positive and acceptable. Here, I don’t mean “positive” in the sense of uplifting but simply palatable, a text that the audience accepts, a text compelling enough to continue reading. So the message may be dark, like a horror story, yet what a page-turner!
(The audience also has a role to play in what counts as persuasive – specifically, in what is deemed persuasive by whom, and why. More on that below.)
To continue from before… it’s as if the author were saying, “Please, believe that I’m trustworthy. What’s more, given that my message in this text resonates with you, enough to keep the pages turning, believe that I am in some way like you.” Say it’s a novel: for all the book’s characters, settings, conflicts, adventures, and so forth, the author appeals to an audience in a way that asks for acceptance and camaraderie. In this case, the conceit is that comparison proposed by the author between themselves, by way of the text’s contents, and the audience: “My writing reflects me, so to enjoy my writing is to realise some concordance between us.” An author can engender goodwill from their intended audience by way of ethos – a conceit comparing character, really. The audience, likewise, reacts to the author’s suggestion that something between them is comfortable or agreeable (or else not, and the book is cast aside).
Another important wrinkle to add is that authors do not necessarily set out every time to communicate with a particular audience deliberately, which is how I realise the previous paragraph can sound. In other words, the author might have a chosen audience yet eventually reach other audiences. No matter the case, though, I would argue that this persuasive communication happens, irrespective of deliberate or unintentional motives. How could it not? The author leaves unique, unmistakable traces in the text, just as the thief leaves fingerprints, a loose hair, or some clue as to their identity. In other words, the audience will inevitably find, on account of their own knowledge and motives, something persuasive that may or may not have been or intended or even imagined by the author.
Often, conceit is detectable between actors or musicians and their fans, who imagine the performer to be just like their portrayal suggests (e.g. people asking medical advice of the actor who played a doctor on TV). That’s audience conceit gone a little too far, but at least the performer might say they did a convincing job!
Deciding who was the author’s intended audience can get a bit messy, though, since an actor or musician might have performed with several intended audiences: a director, a producer, fellow performers, themselves, their fans, their critics, on and on. What’s more, rhetoric being fluid, unceasing, and common to all, deciding at all who is “author” and who is “audience” gets a bit messy. What I’m now talking about is sometimes called stealing the limelight, and it’s the qualification I’ve hinted at several times above. It’s like upstaging, only here I mean from off-stage, from the spectating crowd: the audience is an author.
The intended audience of this audience-as-the-author might be self or people immediately nearby, as the audience member somehow garners surrounding attention, distracting from the original author’s text on account of creating a text of their own. Perhaps it’s a classroom full of peers, or the teacher, as the class clown acts up. Perhaps it’s a group of like-minded fans in a concert crowd when someone decides to go crowd-surfing. Whatever the case, the audience-as-the-author, prompted by the original author’s text, presents or performs in some context via some medium, asking from their intended audience attention, if not respect (just don’t drop me, please!). There’s no limit to the number of audience-as-the-authors who might upstage each other, and it definitely doesn’t need to be competitive!
For all this, ironically, a skilful author might compose an appropriately persuasive text for a chosen audience that really conveys nothing truthful at all. Dishonest, perhaps, but then good rhetoric isn’t necessarily hemmed in by scruples, which is why Aristotle and Cicero are to be admired for recommending a moral foundation. In any event, the author’s authority – yes, that’s meant to be repetitive – is the author’s to proffer, and with every published text, proffering authority is precisely what they do (…even when they say they only write for themselves because, if that really were true, they’d never publish a thing). But it’s still the audience’s decision either to concede their own authority in accordance with the author’s textual suggestion or to author a little authority of their own. Typically, it’s somewhere in between, what we call close reading or interacting with the text. A thoughtful reader / audience member will take up some authoritative stance of their own, prompted as they were by the author’s text. Truly, rhetoric is a continual negotiation, and recognising that should help simplify the mess.
Boy, who ever thought rhetoric could be so belligerent and confrontational! Except for when it’s not. Hmm, actually, never mind… confrontation is probably what a lot of people think when they hear the word “rhetoric” – a bunch of guff spewed by dishonest politicians who’ve lost all moral authority, etc etc. Hardly a successful example of conceit, this colloquial reference to “rhetoric” (as in, political bullshit) still serves as a great example of conceit in reverse: “Your speech reflects you, and to reject your words is to realise some gulf between us.” They may not always realise, but perhaps the audience is the real power broker in the rhetorical triad relationship. To have no audience is to be utterly powerless.
Next, let’s consider the three kinds of appeals that, together, make for authoritative rhetorical persuasion, and then get to the interrelationships between the three constituents of the triad.