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This review appeared in Volume 3 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Challenge of Rhetorics

by Stephen Rupp

Investigaciones Semióticas III: Retórica y Lenguajes. Actas del III Simposio Internacional de la Asociación Española de Semiótica Madrid, 5-7 December 1988. Ed. Jose Romera and Alicia Yllera. 2 vols. Madrid: Universidad Nacional de Educacion Distancia, 1990. Pp. 547, 575. ISBN 84-362-2516-3.

The theme of the conference recorded in these published proceedings -- rhetoric and languages -- invites us to consider the relationship between rhetoric and semiotics, as methods that attempt to describe the structures and processes of communication in a range of human languages. This relationship can be constructed in various ways. According to its traditional definition as an art of persuasion, designed to capture the attention of an audience and to move it to pursue a particular course of action, rhetoric can be regarded as a precursor of the more general theory of textual semiotics and subsumed under the categories of semiotic analysis. Ambitious claims can be made for the promise of such analysis, whether it is framed in terms of the "speculative rhetoric" of Peircean semiotics (Nöth 1990: 342-43) or in relation to the relentlessly "transforming" potential of linguistic devices (Dupriez 1986: 819). Specific attempts to define the semiotic basis of rhetorical practice nonetheless have been limited in number , and the relationship among the disciplines of semiotics, rhetoric, and poetics is still "uncertain" (Nöth 338). Although semioticians have devoted considerable attention to describing and classifying rhetorical devices, their research has yet to provide systematic coverage of the entire field of expression, and the limitations of their work point to "both the riches and gaps of the rhetorical heritage" (Dupriez 831).

Yet the role of traditional rhetoric in the composition and reception of discourse should not be discounted. In its limited aims and its explicit focus on suasory techniques, rhetoric can supply an exact method for approaching significant questions of agency and response. And its conventions have the weight of history on their side. The schemes and figures of classical rhetoric, transmitted and adapted to later periods in formal treatises and in conventional practices of composition, long defined a code of communication which authors and their audiences held in common. the technical and historical contrbutions of rhetoric to the analysis of discourse can challenge and complement the project of textual semiotics, and critical discussion informed by both methods should be attentive to this dynamic.

This review proposes to examine a representative selection of papers from the proceedings, in light of their bearing on these methodological considerations. Two of the plenary addresses discuss the importance of rhetoric in relation to current developments in semiotics. In "Retórica general literaria o poética general" (1: 11-21) Antonio Garcia Berrio insists on the distinction between the program of general rhetoric, applicable to all forms of discourse, and that of a literary rhetoric, limited to the description and analysis of literary works. His argument proposes that each of these rhetorics has a distinct bearing on semiotics. The first offers a theoretical option which contrasts with the thwarted claims of formal grammars; the second supplies a promising alternative to the formalist poetics of some contemporary literary theorizing. Garcia Berrio focusses on the possibility of constructing a comprehensive rhetoric for literature, and on the contributions that such a rhetoric might make to our understanding of 'broad theoretical issues.

Through their attention to the genesis and ordering of discourse, the rhetorical categories of inventio and dispositio can draw attention to the larger structures of a textual explication. And in its emphasis on the task of moving the audience, rhetoric can elucidate a series of questions of particular relevance to reception theory. Central to Garcia Berrio's conception of a literary rhetoric is the renewal of the rhetorical tradition, through the recovery of historical systems of rhetoric and the redefinition of their categories in relation to current developments in linguistics, semiotics, and poetics. In this project, based on the mutual confrontation of traditional rhetoric and the modern disciplines of linguistics and literary study, lies the potential for a comprehensive approach to literary texts.

Garcia Berrio is sceptical about the possibility of a general rhetoric which would apply to nonliterary discourses. In the second plenary address, however, Migel Angel Garrido Gallardo stresses the desirability of studying rhetoric in all of its forms and contexts. Under the title "Homo rhetoricus" (1: 23-38) Garrido Gallardo argues that the separation of literary expression from other rhetorics is illusory, and that rhetoric in general has assumed a particular importance in modern culture as the distinction between rational and emotive means of argumentation has been undermined. Through a series of telling examples he illustrates the persistence of rhetorical strategies in everyday speech and in the modern media, despite the long-standing hostility to arguments that proceed by the principles of verbal persuasion rather than by those of logical validity. Two factors have contributed to the prevalence of rhetoric in contemporary discourse: the crucial role of the image in the means of mass communication and the tendency, in an intellectual climate shaped by Neopositivism, to collapse the concept of truth into the linguistic modality of verisimilitude. Under these conditions rhetoric can no longer be discounted for its potential to distract us from an unquestionable truth, and a general understanding of its techniques and applications become essential, since as Garrido Gallardo observes, "all that remains to us is rhetoric" (1: 36).

Although Garcia Berrio and Garrido Gallardo do not set out an intellectual program to which the other papers from the conference are meant to conform, their plenary addresses nonetheless indicate two significant lines of investigation that result from the confrontation of rhetoric and semiotics. The first centers on the analysis of rhetorics that bear on the literary tradition and the application of rhetorical categories to key issues in literary theory. The second defines its task in more general terms, taking as its object the means of persuasion and manipulation that operate across the spectrum of discourses, from works of literature of advertising and political propaganda. Taken together these two approaches -- one aligned with traditional rhetoric, the other with contemporary semiotics -- suggest a framework for evaluating the other contributions to the conference. To the extent that they participate in the construction of a historically and theoretically informed rhetoric of literature, or in the general analysis of persuasion in a variety of languages and media, the other papers respond to the challenge that rhetoric extends to semiotics.

Considered in this framework a significant fraction of the contributions are in some measure disappointing. Of the total numbers of papers (110), almost one third (33) apply methods of current semiotic or rhetorical analysis to a single literary text or author or (less frequently) to a selected group of texts. These papers are well informed in theoretical terms, in that they refer to influential modern research in semiotics (Greimas and Courtés 1979) and rhetoric (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1958; Groupe Mu 1970), and they cover a considerable range of national literatures (Spanish, Latin American, French, Italian, British, and American). Yet the basic exercise of applying a method in order to generate a reading of a particular text is in itself limited. Even when performed with sophistication and acuity, this exercise is unlikely to contribute to an informed rhetoric of literature, or to a more general analysis of persuasion. And it does not lead in every case to conclusions that could not be reached through traditional methods of literary study.

Two papers on Spanish drama of the Golden Age illustrate the limits of applying semiotics and rhetoric as methods of textual analysis. In "Las canciones en las comedias de A. de Claramonte" (1: 241-50) Fernando Cantalapiedra studies the use of songs in two of Claramonte's plays -- EI infanzón de Illescas and Deste aqua no beberé -- centering his analysis on the internal ordering of the songs, their bearing on the dramatic action, and their significance for the interrelationship of the two works. A series of semiotic squares delineates the structures of supposition and correspondence that inform the songs in each play and persist at the level of characters, settings, and themes. This analysis is more effective in elucidating the function of songs "in individual plays than in revealing general patterns of meaning in Claramonte's work. It is useful to divide the songs in El infanzón de Illescas into four types (compliment, epithalamium, admonition, and lament), and to arrange these types in a semiotic square which emphasizes both the contradictory relationship between the generic associations of a given lyric and its narrative program and the axes of juridical and familial meaning with the drama. In defining a semiotic sequel that relates the songs in the two plays to one another, and to larger thematic conflicts of honor, power, and character, Cantalapiedra's argument tends to be schematic and selective.

The second paper on Golden Age theater -- "Tipologia del hipérbaton en El médico de su honra, de Calderón" by María; Luz de Gutiérrez Araus (1: 525-36) -- is also schematic in its treatment of the dramatic text. The analysis here proceeds within well-defined limits. Applying the method of a previous study she published on Calderón's El principe constante, Gutiérrez Araus proposes to isolate and classify the instances of hyperbaton in El médico de su honra in order to elucidate the nature and development of the author's style in terms of his reliance on this figure. Her analysis demonstrates the preponderance in the play of the syntagmatic hyperbaton (117 instances) over the syntactic (44 instances), and the light dominance within the former category of the hyperbaton that occurs when a prepositional phrase is placed before or separated from the noun that it modifies (65 instances). In this stylistic feature El médico de su honru is sufficiently distinctive to suggest that the influence of Gongora on Calderón moderated the eight years that separate the play from El principe constante. This point is of interest for Calderón's development, but the paper as a whole would be more illuminating if it offered some commentary on the significance and function of the figures that it classifies. This contribution, like that of Cantalapiedra, tends to describe a complex literary text through recourse to diagrams and catalogues, and both papers raise questions about the originality of such schemas, as compared to traditional methods of thematic and stylistic analysis.

The limitations in Cantalapiedra and Gutiérrez Araus are typical of the papers that center on a single author or work, and they indicate that such applications of semiotic or rhetorical methods are unlikely to make significant contributions to a general rhetoric of literature. Material that promises more for the project can be found in papers addressed to the significance of rhetoric in literary theory and to the recovery of the rhetorical tradition. The contributors who turn their attention to theoretical questions illustrate the uses of rhetoric in redefining the status or space of literature and its various genres. Manuel Cáceres Sánchez (1: 225-32) notes the tendency, in traditional critical practice and in formalist theory, to associate literariness with the forms of verbal expression and decoration that classical rhetoric categorizes as elecutio. To offer a potential alternative to this limited view he argues that semiotics can provide a more comprehensive approach to the literary, which will attend not only to the rhetorical divisions of inventio and dispositio, but also to the role of the reader and to the extratextual; factors that shape literature as a social practice. In another paper concerned with the general implications of rhetoric for literary theory, Manuel Asensi (1: 163-73) attempts to define the space occupied by rhetoric and critical interpretation, particularly in relation to the literary text. After reviewing the concept of rhetoric as it is variously understood in three prominent strains of contemporary critical theory -- structuralism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction -- Asensi adopts from the last of these schools the principle of displacement, in order to stress the difficulty of defining the limits of rhetoric. To view the discourses of text and interpretation as dependent in differing degrees on rhetoric, and to regard the critical activity as embedded in a series of displacements from one interpretative language to another, is to dislocate the accepted boundaries of rhetorical space. As Asensi concludes, in critical practice it is possible to change the rhetorical mode, but not to escape from rhetoric (1: 168). A similar interrogation of critical assumptions, and an attempt to offer a more adequate description of the phenomena of literature, motivate the analysis of enunciation in Lyric poetry by Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza (1: 215-24). A survey of current views concerning the status of the speaking voice or persona in Lyric leads to the conclusion that the rhetorical category of actio can be adapted to describe the complex spectrum of enunciatory modes in the Lyric tradition. Like the others who address theoretical issues, Cabo Aseguinolaza proposes that rhetoric can extend and refine the terms in which literature is understood, and this view finds support in the number of other contributions, such as José Antonio Pérez Bowie's study of speech and communication in the Lyric poetry of Spain's Golden Age (2: 247-56).

The authors concerned with literary theory apply rhetorical concepts and categories to the elucidation of contemporary issues; those who attempt to recover the rhetorical tradition on its own terms trace the dissemination and influence of rhetoric in earlier periods, particularly in the Hispanic context. An important set of papers deals with representative texts in this tradition and with the influence of rhetorical treatises and practices on the structure of literary works. These approaches reclaim important texts from the past and illuminate the role of rhetoric in the composition and reception of literature. In "La 'inventio' en la retórica de Miguel de Salinas" (1:119-25) Luis Alburquerque examines the aims and arguments of Salinas' Retórica en lengua castellano (1541), the first rhetorical manual written in Spanish. This paper is intended as an initial step in the assembly of a collaborative history of Spanish rhetoric, and it is exemplary in its lucid analysis of a specific treatise. According to Alburquereque, Salinas is notable for his interest in rhetorical practice and for his relationship to classical authorities. The central intent of his treatise is to offer vernacular speakers practical guidance based on sound rhetorical principles. To this end Salinas consciously follows the tradition of Quintilian and Cicero, and he stresses the limited extent of his own contribution to the subject. His treatment of inventio nonetheless does not correspond on every point to classical precedent. It preserves the accepted division of the oration into parts, but it does not present the parts as wholly distinct entities, nor does it distinguish precisely among the standard genres of judicial, demonstrative, and deliberative discourse. This blurring of conventional boundaries, due to the disappearance of the social conditions in which classical rhetoric had emerged, reflects the general diffusion of rhetoric across a broad range of literary activities. Following the example of Curtius' classic study (1948) -- a work directly cited in support of his argument -- Alburquerque uses Salinas to illustrate the transformation and persistence of rhetoric's classical heritage in a common store of compositional practices.

The practice of rhetoric can be traced in a broad selection of specific texts. The intercalation and structure of direct discourse in epic narrative, as an index to the diffusion of rhetorical patterns in the medieval vernacular tradition, is the concern of Jose Luis Giron Alconchel in "Retórica e intertextualidad en el Cantar de Mio Cid" (1:469-76). Girón Alconchel argues that the confrontation between the Cid and the Count of Barcelona takes place in the order of language as well as on the field of arms, and that this episode should be interpreted in terms of this rhetorical dimension. The speeches in which the two antagonists commit themselves and their followers to battle contrast sharply in their uses of rhetoric. The Cid carefully observes the division into parts, in order to construct a deliberative oration which will provide a convincing argument for victory and move his men to feats of arms. The count mistakes both the technical demands and the occaison of his discourse. According to Girón Alchonchel, these errors in dispositio and inventio explain key terms in the episode's lexicon; in the distemper of his rhetoric, the count is a fallón (braggart) who pronounces a vanidat (vain discourse).

The persistent interplay of rhetorical theory and practice, particularly in the humanist writing of Spain's Golden Age, is the subject of two other contributions. In "Retórica y discurso scientifico: la Obra de Agricultura de Gabriel Alonso de Herrera" (1: 175-83) Consolación Baranda examines the uses of language in Herrera's work, the first Renaissance treatise on its subject to be published in a vernacular language. Baranda regards this treatise as exemplary of technical discourse in the early Spanish Renaissance, and she centers her analysis on two features of Herrera's language: the attempt to locate, in the style and lexicon of Spanish, a language adequate for technical description in agricultural matters, and the intention to convince the rural populace to abandon traditional forms of cultivation in favor of new methods. Rhetoric is essential to each of these tasks. Baranda illustrates in detail the suasory techniques that recur in the treatise -- topics of conclusion and of modesty, frequent diminutive, allusions to and comparisons with everyday affairs -- and she stresses the importance of such strategies in Herrera's attempt to reach a largely unlettered public accustomed to following those agricultural practices which custom and tradition had sanctioned. From the perspective of her analysis, the Obra de Agricultura illuminates the relationship between author and audience in the initial phase of Spanish humanism.

The question of audience is also central to Itziar Túrrez Aguirrezabal's discussion of poetics in "Aproximación linguistico-retórica a textos del Siglo de Oro" (2: 437-45), although the public here is a lettered elite. This paper proposes to survey Golden Age treatises on rhetoric and poetics and to examine the influence of such works on the writing of poetry. The survey runs from Luis Vives' DeRatione Dicendi (early 16th century) to Arias Montano's Rhetoricum Libri III (1596); it stresses the concept of decorum, based on the use of an appropriate lexicon and on the traditional division into high, middle, and low styles. To gauge the importance of decorum in poetic composition, Túrrez Aguirrezabal turns to the works of Garcilaso de la Vega, in which he finds a correspondence between the various genres of Renaissance verse (elegy, sonnet, canción, eclogue) and the relative frequency of poetic epthets. The adjustment of style to genre in Garcilaso -- a poet quickly elevated to classical status during the Golden Age -- confirms the prominence of rhetorical categories in the production and reception of poetry among his contemporaries.

Through the papers that consider the importance of rhetoric for literary theory and literary history, these proceedings advance the project of defining a general rhetoric of literature. They also participate, in a smaller set of papers, in the rhetorical analysis of other forms of discourse. Various contributors apply such analysis to the languages of film, advertising, and the visual arts, and a significant number turn their attention to strategies of persuasion and manipulation across the spectrum of political discourse. Some of these papers attempt to describe the verbal and visual languages of politics in general terms, as in the contributions of Maitena Echebarria and Rosa de Diego ("Retórica y discurso politico"; 1: 345-53), Teresa Espar ("Semiótica de la entrevista politica'; 1: 389-95). and Covadonga-López Alonso (' La argumentación en el discurso politico"; 2: 47-55). Others examine the suasory strategies of specific political campaign and programs. Of particular interest within the latter group is a series of papers, prepared under the direction of José María; Nadal and Santos Zunzunegui, on campaign materials distributed during the general election to the Basque regional parliament in November 1986. This research scrutinizes the publicity of four parties which represent the spectrum of political options in the region: the Basque Socialist Party (María; Angeles Garcia Collada; 1: 413-19), the Basque Nationalist Party (María; Ledesma Dominguez; 2: 21-28), the nationalist splinter party Euskadiko Ezkerra (José Ignacio Maradones Zorrilla; 2: 107-14), and the radical coalition Herri Batasuna (Juan Angel Alonso Aldama; 1: 127-34).

In their objects and methods of study, the four papers present many new features. They examine printed material sent to the electorate as direct mailings -- materials which are produced photographically to illustrate each paper -- and they focus on the uses, in the verbal and visual languages of each text, of elecutio. The analysis consistently isolates and describes rhetorical tropes in both languages, and emphasizes the manipulative functions of such tropes in the context of electoral politics. Alonso Aldama's paper outlines the relations generated by standard electoral discourse. The elector is the receiver of what is enunciated and the operating subject in the voting process; the candidates act as enunciators and as statal subjects of the votes cast; the electoral discourse presents the candidate as a subject delegated through the action of the electors (1: 127). The general purpose of political publicity is to induce the electors, through a series of tropes, to delegate their votes to a particular candidate or set of candidates.

Since all four contributors on the regional election appeal to this semiotic model they follow parallel procedures of analysis, emphasizing both the general tenor of political discourse and the particular features of the publicity distributed by each party. Although the materials surveyed all rely on the rhetorical techniques of intimidation and temptation, they propose different narrative programs which reflect key ideological distinctions. Most of the publicity implies a contrast, between the party and electorate, in which the delegation of votes will secure the transformation of the Basque homeland (Euskadi), in accordance with certain values which are articulated through a fundamental opposition between the desirable and the undesirable. The opposing terms (internationalism and nationalism, autonomy and dependence, rationality and irrationality) vary in response to specific political agendas, and the material prepared for Herri Batasuna is radical precisely in its denial of delegation and its preference for a pre-modern view of political identity over the concept of contract.

In analyzing the means of persuasion in political discourse, the papers on the electoral publicity of the Basque parties apply semiotic methods to the traditional province of rhetoric; in considering the interrelationships of written text and visual image, they extend such methods to non-verbal and non-literary languages. The dual perspective of these papers invites us to read them as contributions to a general rhetoric of the kind that Garrido Gallardo proposes in his plenary address, and as such they suggest a profitable direction for future research among Spanish semioticians. And the promise of these proceeding by no means limited to the development of such a general rhetoric. Many of the papers elucidate the rhetorical tradition itself, or illustrate the persistence of rhetorical practices in the composition and reception of literary texts. In particular, researchers such as Albuquerque and Baranda recover from the Spanish tradition works of obvious interest and importance for historians of rhetoric and literature alike. In another significant line of investigation, rhetoric will continue to challenge semioticians to turn to the past in order to recuperate historical views of structure and expression in literary discourse.


Curtius, Ernst Robert (1948) Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter. Bern: Francke.

Dupriez, Bernard (1986) "Rhetoric." Encyclopedic Dictionary of Semiotics. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok et. al. 3 vols. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 815-31.

Greimas, A. J. and J. Courtés (1979) Sémiotique: Dictionaire raisoné de la théorie du langage. Paris: Hachette.

Groupe Mu (1970) Rhétorique generale. Paris: Larousse.

Nöth, Winfried (1990) "Rhetoric and Stylistics." Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 338-45.

Perelman, C. and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) Traité de l'argumentation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Stephen Rupp is Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Toronto. His recent publications include "Reason of State and Repetition in The Tempest and La vida es sueno," Comparative Literature 42 (1990): 289-318 and "Rhetoric and Patronage in Alfonso Alvarez de Villasandino" Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispanicos 14 (1990-91) 49-64

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