Towards a Formulaic Poetics of Contemporary Public Rhetoric: The Interpretative Processing of Platitude and Cliche

By Tom Clark.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

The Aristotelian tradition of rhetorical commentary has assumed that rhetoric begins with the composer-performer, whose role is prior to that of listeners. Voloshinov (Bakhtin) has called this relationship into question, noting that the grammar with which a listener interprets rhetorical utterances or texts is in an important sense prior to the utterance, and is therefore an influence on performance. The poststructuralist critique of semiotics has problematised both the original formulation and Bakhtin’s inversion of it, by focusing on the simultaneous presence of performative and interpretative grammars, and their mutual influence through moments of performance and feedback. Within this theoretical debate, there is an important pragmatic complication. Whereas rhetorical performance is overt and explicitly invites our analytic attentions, interpretation tends to inscrutability. Several approaches to this complication have been attempted, including Voloshinov’s reliance on reported speech to reveal ‘steadfast social tendencies in an active reception of others’ speech’ (1986: 117). This paper attempts to reconcile interpretative practice with a research methodology currently under development: the attempt to apply a formulaic poetics approach, derived from twentieth century scholarship around oral-traditional poetry, to the topic and phrase patterns of contemporary public rhetoric. Previous papers have shown this approach’s relevance and validity at the rhetorical levels of public performance and journalistic reporting. This paper will show that the approach is also valuable in accounting for the behaviour of audiences.

Keywords: Rhetoric, Politics, Spoken Performance, Poetic Formula, Semiotics

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 7, pp.205-214. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.206MB).

Dr. Tom Clark

Lecturer, School of Communication, Culture, and Languages, Victoria University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Tom Clark has worked in a range of fields, including political advisory roles and studies in medieval Germanic poetry. He completed his PhD in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, awarded in 2003, which comprised a study of irony in the Old English poem Beowulf. He has published refereed articles on higher education policy, as well as a monograph version of his PhD thesis. He is currently developing a comparative international research project to examine improvised and semi-improvised public language in the fields of sport, politics, business, and satire.

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