Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Phaedra Pezzullo
Phaedra Pezzullo
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Christine Farris
Christine Farris
Photo © Tyagan Miller

The Rhetoric of Everyday Life

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

Cancer Alley, Louisiana--the stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans--has supported a thriving petrochemical industry since the end of World War II. Producing nearly one-fourth of the nation's petrochemical products--from fertilizers, gasoline, and paints to plastics--it also pollutes the region with poisonous chemical waste. For the local, largely African American community, this has led to severe health and environmental problems, among them, cancer.

In May 2001, Phaedra Pezzullo, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University Bloomington, embarked on a "toxic tour" of the region. The tour, organized by environmental justice activists, highlighted the unequal exposure of poor and minority communities to hazardous industrial waste. It's one of many such tours she has taken to different regions.

In its more conventional form, tourism typically pays tribute to sites a culture seeks to preserve and remember. But as Pezzullo explains, toxic tourism reverses this logic, revealing instead what a culture considers expendable or what it would like to forget. Such tours also present a moral and emotional appeal for change. Toxic tours create multifaceted "rhetorical opportunities," Pezzullo says, through which powerful arguments about the workings, or failings, of democracy and the public sphere can be made.

Rhetoric, often understood as the art of using language effectively, persuasively, and sometimes deceptively, is at the heart of Pezzullo's work, which combines a passion for social justice with the fieldwork of an ethnographer. For her and others in her field, though, the scope of rhetoric is no longer limited to language. "To say the world is rhetorically constructed," says Pezzullo, "is to talk more broadly about the ways humans frame or conceive the world.

"What rhetoric brings to the table," she continues, "is that, instead of going to a community and asking about the chemical causes or the biological reactions, I ask, ‘What sacrifices are considered acceptable? Why does the United States find it acceptable to consider some places appropriately polluted? How does that measure what kind of democracy we live in?"

Four years after Pezzullo's 2001 tour, the natural force of Hurricane Katrina and the horror of its human-made aftermath would broadcast just such a message about inequality, injustice, poverty, and race to the American public.

The office of Christine Farris, professor of English and director of the Composition Program at IU Bloomington, is a long way from the towns of St. Charles Parish, but like Pezzullo, Farris is preoccupied with the notion of rhetoric and its place in academic and public life. "Rhetoric is at the center of composition," says Farris. Composition may be primarily about writing and how to teach it, but Farris points out that our ability to read and interpret the rhetoric that surrounds us is essential to using rhetoric effectively in writing.

Explaining rhetoric's significance in their work, both Pezzullo and Farris turn to its ancestry, especially Aristotle's definition of rhetoric as "the ability to discover in a particular situation the available means of persuasion."

"Rhetoric has always been contextual," Pezzullo says. "It's always been creative and inventive, and it's always been social and audience-centered."

Farris points out that "we still primarily teach students to find the available means of persuasion, recognizing that writing requires awareness of context, prior arguments, and use of particular conventions and strategies that work with the audiences you are addressing. But we do it with the contemporary awareness that language is not a transparent, but a problematic, medium."

Rhetoric unbound

In fact, Aristotle's ancient definition of rhetoric reflects contemporary thinking about the topic. Rhetoric, say Farris and Pezzullo, is recovering from a long history of being narrowly defined as rules for proper writing and speaking.

Farris notes that in the 19th century, when written language became essential to the new missions of research and scholarship in the university, rhetoric became "more about arrangement and style than invention and finding the available means of persuasion. It was more about codifying the rules for writing," she says.

It also came to serve a kind of gatekeeping function. "You could mark the errors and determine who was ready for college," says Farris. "Composition was born as a course about something that needs to be fixed, and it has been recovering from that tag ever since."

For a long time, she explains, learning to write was seen as a matter of "pouring the batter into the muffin tin. Students were taught to reproduce certain forms: description, narration, definition, compare/contrast. They might describe their dorm room or compare jello to pudding. This was ‘school writing,' with attention to arrangement and style but no intellectual consequences.

"Today, if we ask students to make comparisons, the focus is on why two things are compared," she continues. "The comparison serves a deeper analysis. We show students how one expert's ideas might shed light on, test, or contradict another's. Students who analyze the language and the arguments made by two social critics, for instance, might find similarities within differences that enable them to evolve more complex and interesting theses for their papers. We try to make these rhetorical moves and tools visible to composition students."

Likewise, just as composition courses broke off from the older rhetorical tradition to focus on written language, Pezzullo points out that speech departments evolved to address spoken language. From the 1940s to the 1960s, she says, "rhetoric gained disciplinary status in the U.S. academy as debate, public speaking, and oral communication. This was useful for some reasons--to prepare students for careers in law or politics, for example. But the emphasis on verbal communication made rhetoric a very narrow thing."

Today, Pezzullo's interdisciplinary communication and culture department includes anthropologists as well as film and media studies faculty. "Now," she observes, "we have started to think about how people are being moved. If they are being moved by tourism, then that is a domain of rhetoric. If you are interested in improving democracy, you have to account not just for logical debate (‘I'm more right') but also for what is moving to people. This allows rhetoric to do what it was initially supposed to do, which is create a more robust engagement with democracy and public culture."

With similar democratic intent, Farris believes the writing process can and must be demystified. Forget the old adage that "writers are born, not made." Rather, Farris explains, teachers of writing now think about error differently. Instead of assuming that "there are people in an in-group who have the skills, taste, style, and know-how to use the conventions, we think, ‘What does it take to initiate people into the kind of moves that academic writing makes?' We assume that no one knows those naturally."

To understand the analytical moves made in an essay is to learn that "language and other types of representation work on you in various ways," Farris says. "You want to be savvy about how they work, whether it is an argument by a sociologist, an ad, or a documentary." In short, language shapes us and changes us. As Farris puts it in an essay on rhetoric, "everything is rhetorical, constructed by language, affected by how it is described and whose interests are being served."

Everyday rhetoric

Cut back to Cancer Alley, where Pezzullo engages in just this sort of rhetorical analysis on her toxic tour. The stops on the tour, the tour guide's "performance," a speech by a local resident, sights and smells, conversations on the bus, even the bus itself are vehicles of rhetoric. Take the naming of Cancer Alley. The name, Pezzullo has written, "is a powerful rhetorical tactic for environmental justice activists" that has reframed the debate "by foregrounding the deadly health effects produced by what industrial officials would otherwise describe innocuously as an industrial corridor."

A key issue throughout Pezzullo's work is the degree to which "being there" matters. "We live in such a technologized world, what difference does it make to be there?" she says. "But with all the technology, there are still communities that say, ‘you can't understand what it's like to be us till you walk through our neighborhood,' that we would make different decisions if we were with each other face to face." She points out that after Katrina, President Bush was initially criticized for only flying over the area in a plane, until "eventually, he appeared moved by public pressure to visit the area on the ground, to take a tour of the flood zone. In response to this tragedy, going there, stop-by-stop, mattered in our public culture."

Pezzullo is especially interested in "everyday practitioners of rhetoric," as she calls them. ("Rhetors," she says, drawing on the ancient vocabulary, "are not all trained in rhetoric.") Tourism, for instance, is "a way we communicate all the time," she says. "People tour a maternity ward or workplace, or give a tour of the town where they live or grew up to say, this is where I went to school, this is the house I grew up in. I'm interested in how the rhetoric of tourism branches out into everyday routines, influences our creativity to make our lives more meaningful."

Far beyond essay forms and rules for proper speech, then, rhetoric enables us to make connections among literary and nonliterary texts and everyday life. It's about understanding how we engage with the world. With English department colleague Judith Anderson, Farris recently completed work on a collection of essays for the Modern Language Association, many of which argue for a rhetorical approach to the teaching of literature and writing.

"We are a reading people, and literary texts reproduce and challenge our cultural beliefs," Farris says. "Learning to interpret all texts through writing and extending reading expertise to photos, films, and even Web pages, matters."

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.