I don’t understand why it took Stanley Fish 20 pages to tell us that there has been a divide between people who trust rhetoric and those who don’t since antiquity (and then, proceeds to pretty much discuss the pro-rhetoric side despite saying he was going to recount the history of this argument as a whole, but whatever) and that the study of rhetoric is important. Perhaps his own rhetorical move is to kill his readers by over-explanation alone so that they never forget the existence of this debate or this study. I certainly won’t forget the growing anger I felt as every section said the same thing but wearing a slightly different outfit. “Things mean different things in different contexts” is essentially the core argument of the rhetoricians Fish is discussing, which, yeah, dudes.
Perhaps I’m being disingenuous, and Fish might deserve better, but he seems to be reinventing (or, rather, talking about the constant reinvention of) the wheel, stating over and over how different rhetoricians have all said language is context-dependent. Yes, agreed, naturally. And then: the context matters, which again, agreed. And then: skilled rhetoricians should use these contexts to determine how things are said, because things have meanings according to context, and we’re back at the beginning, except I’m 20 pages up on my lifetime reading count, one hour older and no more the wiser than when I started, but far more annoyed.
It’s not Fish’s fault that apparently, glaciers move faster than this question in the discourse of rhetoric studies. I think, save for a few odd ducks (looking at you, new critics) that most everyone I’ve read who studies language can agree that words mean things depending on the environment in which they’re said (the time, place, speaker and intent, mix-and-match as you so please depending on who you are). Very few people I’ve read, including Fish, tend to mention the harm that rhetoric can wreak along with the resistance it can bring. Fish and other rhetoricians all speak about the history of people being scared of rhetoric (like his example on Milton’s Belial in the beginning) and being wary of people who are good at using rhetoric, but very, very few openly admit that rhetoric, moving speech acts and emotional writing, can also be a place of resistance to power structures.
Fish does mention liberation (from rhetoric), and how ideology can wield rhetoric, but speaks of “everything being rhetoric” and that only when one realizes this can they free themselves from rhetoric (136-7). I don’t want to begin to speak about how wrong I think he is about everything being rhetoric because I’m sure there will be ample time for that later, but not once does he mention in this whole diatribe that these oppressed peoples he’s playing with here can also use rhetoric, except at the very end during his rapid-fire naming of rhetoricians where he mentions feminists and one female by name (which, in twenty pages, makes up about seven lines and is a little bit suspect). He doesn’t discuss how though, or how the positioning of a person as an oppressed class can affect the accessibility of both the rhetoric they use and the audiences that they can use it with (i.e. it’s much harder to learn how to speak well and to move audiences, nevertheless have audiences to move, when you’re not part of a power structure that privileges your voice to begin with).
This essay didn’t leave me feeling any more enlightened than I felt going into it, but did leave me feeling like once again I’d been hammered at by a dude whose only goal was to get me to realize Rhetoric Is Important, and the study of rhetoric is full of debate but ultimately words mean things. I do wonder, though, how many more rhetoricians he could have named.