Current Issue
Editorial Info
Search the Site
copyright 2000, 2001, ACJ

Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2000

Criticism of Political Rhetoric and Disciplinary Integrity
Craig R. Smith
Professor of Communication Studies and
Director of the Center for First Amendment Studies
California State University, Long Beach

Cultural studies, postmodernism (particularly deconstructionism), and critical rhetoric use language in ways that are more relative than in previous generations. The impetus for such new theories and methods came in part from the whipping old line "neo-Aristotelians" received for calcifying Aristotle's rhetoric and failing to read it in the context of his other works. While we now have plenty of studies that read Aristotle properly, the door was opened to alternate forms of criticism. Perhaps no example better exemplifies the transition than the treatment accorded Lloyd Bitzer's of a rhetorical situation, which he meant to be a theory of rhetoric not a tool of criticism. Bitzer's 1968 modernist model of situational rhetoric was attacked for ignoring perception (Hunsaker and Smith, 1976) and adhering to rigidly to Dewey's pragmatism (Vatz, 1973, Consigny, 1974). These four critics examined Bitzer from the perspective criticism as well as theory. Bitzer responded in 1980 retaining much of his system but allowing for Hunsaker and Smith's scales of perceptual interest in various issues. In 1996 Smith and Lybarger inculcated Bitzer's model with a postmodernist call for examinations of "multiple audience, perceptions and exigences" (197). They then used their reconstructed model to perform criticism on two of President Bush's speeches against drug use. Thus, Bitzer had been converted into a post-modern critic, whether he liked it or not.

In the realm of politics, relativity results from journalism, particularly sensational and entertainment journalism, which undermines objectivity particularly in the eyes of our students, who rightly take politics less seriously with each passing election. Starting in the 60s leading journalists were revealed to be subtle persuaders. By 1969, the Vice President of the United States felt free to condemn them as conspiratorial; the message would have stuck had he not become mired in scandal. Thus, the politicians themselves and their audiences deserve some of the blame in this regard. The tragedy of Vietnam, the melodrama of Watergate, and the sheer silliness of President Clinton, his defenders and his accusers was enough to turn anyone away from the political scene.

There are, however, more subtle currents that accomplish the same result. When a candidate of the left, such as George McGovern calls for the legalization of marijuana in the New Hampshire primary to prove he is the most liberal candidate, and then scurries toward the center when he receives the nomination, he undermines the legitimacy of his ideology. When a candidate of the right, such as George Bush, Jr. travels to Bob Jones University to ensure his primary victory in South Carolina, and then scurries toward the middle once he has captured the nomination, he reveals that ideology is not his primary concern. Of course, if candidates do hold firm on their ideologies, as did Barry Goldwater, they can be trampled by the public in its march to the middle. In short, the candidates who get elected and want to stay elected, tend toward the middle, and thus many people believe it makes little difference who we elect. Republican presidents desegrated the South, created the EPA, recognized Red China, and put the first woman on the Supreme Court. Democratic presidents supported a loyalty oath, sent the first combat troops into Vietnam, deregulated the trucking and airline industries, and balanced the budget.

The postmodern condition, then, results from a healthy suspicion of modernism and all that comes with it: rational politics, logical analysis of political situations, and an unbiased informing media. Add to that the invasion of high tech media with its isolating work stations and office in the home potential, and you can readily see the demand for new forms of analysis. Rhetorical critics of political public address are in a wonderful position to unravel these problems or at least contextualize them. However, with the ensuing fragmentation and ennui, I believe we are in danger of failing to communicate with one another in meaningful ways. Some advance an ideological agenda while doing criticism. My good friend Philip Wander makes no secret about his Marxists reading of matters.

Others indulge in local narratives no matter how atypical they are. Thomas Benson, whom I admire very much, wandered off the academic reservation and into impressionism when he recounted his experiences in a political campaign. He did not identify the candidate, nor the staff, nor many of his sources. His experience was completely different from the one I had when I managed a senatorial campaign during the same time period. Neither of us had enough data to do a scholarly take; we could do biography or journalism, but that is not good criticism.

At the risk of sounding old fashion, let me suggest that we should not do these things in scholarly journals because they are not academic nor are they enduring. Please do not misunderstand me. As a First Amendment advocate and one who has participated in several scholastic revolutions, I believe scholars have a right to say what they want as long as it is not threatening to national security or libelous. However, I do not believe it is a wise policy to publish every thing scholars say in journals that have academic standing unless one wishes to reduce them to the state of journalism. One way to protect the field of rhetorical criticism from falling into such decadence is to hold it to the standards of argumentation and to explore the uses of phenomenological hermeneutics in our discipline.

The Standards of Argumentation

In his essay, "Rhetorical Criticism as Argument," Wayne Brockriede importuned critics to argue rationally for positions no matter what they were or how they were formed. For example, a deconstructionist may claim that every text implies another text, or like Derrida, claim that nothing is out of context, only in another context. Derrida, like the Sophists, also reminds us that language is relative. Fine. Then demonstrate that with evidence and argue for it. Furthermore, the same deconstructionist may claim that every text that is implied by the first text also implies another text, ad infinitum which makes objectivity in textual criticism impossible. Not so fast, I would argue. While the objectivity of science is not possible, it is still possible to make a case that is coherent, congruent, and convincing. For example, one could argue that each implied text becomes further removed from the central text under study and has less influence on the primary text and therefore less relevance in the hermeneutic process of deciphering it. Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" echoes Webster's Second Reply to Hayne. And Lincoln's admiration for Webster is relevant to the analysis of the "Gettysburg Address." Webster's Second Reply to Hayne relies on some of George Washington's texts and the texts of other founders, but unless Lincoln relied on them directly, the texts that Webster used are less relevant to the analysis of Lincoln's address than the Webster text. If the infinite regress that deconstructionists project can be argued against and terminated in a convincing matter, a critic has a right to do just that.

The critic can rely on real evidence (notes, texts), testimonial evidence (interviews, diaries, newspaper accounts), and other forms of support. The critic can rely on secondary sources and his or her argument will be assessed on the basis of the credibility of the source. From this evidence, the critic can build arguments that support a thesis which will be assessed in terms of coherence and congruence. It will have to stand in the academic market place against other interpretations also argued for where it will be refined. In the academic marketplace, critics should state their case and then prove it, as opposed to offering up front-loaded theory and then supporting it with selective readings.

Hermeneutic Phenomenology

Are there other checks that we can employ that will assure that criticism has some elements of objectivity to it? As a hermeneuticist I would argue that phenomenology provides the horizon in which interpretive understanding occurs free of cognitive interference. Edmund Husserl, who influenced and associated with Martin Heidegger at Freiburg University starting in 1916, attempted to observe objects in their unity and presence. This step requires bracketing out how objects are mis-perceived in the everyday world and examining only what is actually presented to consciousness. To make such an examination, phenomenological philosophers need to step out of their immediate perspective in order to frame the phenomenon objectively. In this way, phenomenology allows one to describe what it means to be conscious of some thing. The phenomenological attitude allows for the discovery of the transcendental ego, the ego that can step out and observe without presuppositions and mis-perceptions by bracket out that which is distorts the critic's view. The obvious problem is how one determines what distorts and what does not.

Heidegger -- and later Hans G. Gadamer, who studied under Heidegger and Husserl -- found this task impossible because pre-suppositions always exist. Where critics should step is above the context, particularly the linguistic context, to determine how it shapes, distorts, and constructs various realities. Revolting against the traditional German historical objectivity and neutrality, Heidegger corrected Husserl's phenomenological perspective, arguing that critics must examine three fundamental and interrelated modes of human understanding: fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception. The three modes form a culture's "fore-structure", the culture's arena of linguistic possibilities in which all interpretive understanding takes place.

Fore-having is composed of the linguistic possibilities offered to individuals by their culture in advance of any act of interpretation. That is, before individuals can interpret --which is the vehicle for understanding -- they are conditioned by the linguistic possibilities and constraints of their culture. The culture's linguistic possibilities set the parameters for interpretation and understanding that influence the way its members think and behave. Furthermore, fore-having allows intersubjective communication and intertextuality because members of the culture share a language.

Fore-sight is an abstraction of fore-having that generates a personal or group point of view to guide interpretation. Fore-sight is the orientation or perspective one brings to the scene of interpretation which enables one to make sense out of and/or interpret what is experienced. For example, the fore-sight of prejudice will produce very different results than the fore-sight of tolerance when interpreting texts and events. Like fore-having, fore-sight happens in advance of any act of interpretation.

Fore-conception is the way an author structures the linguistic possibilities of fore-sight in advance of any act of interpretation. Fore-conception relates to categorical systems individuals create for operating within the culture. In other words, fore-conception is the method for implementing the fore-sight. The racist embraces categories which pigeon-hole and cover people; the tolerant person differentiates people on an individual basis.

In short, the fore-structure is the context of linguistic possibilities for a user of discourse. The praxis implied by Heidegger depicts understanding as interpretation (hermeneutics) of a new object within the context of a fore-structure (phenomenology). Hermeneutic phenomenology analyzes the fore-structure of the culture that surrounds an artifact. In other words, hermeneutics examines the trees of the text and phenomenology delineates the forest into which the text is placed. Heidegger believed that all texts were a product of their fore-structure, which hermeneuticists must uncover before they can provide useful interpretations. And it is at just this juncture that we can tie our two theories together. The fact is that Heideggerian readings are of necessity rhetorical. They are elusive and must be argued for. They are comparative and often metaphorical. But they are also deep, rich, rewarding, and thoroughly grounded.

To summarize, while realizing that they may have their own pre-suppositions, hermeneuticists operating from a phenomenological perspective seek to delineate the fore-structure of the culture surrounding an artifact in order to contextualize the hermeneutic reading. The fore-structure is derived from an analysis of the fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception of the text and its author. Assessments based on such a model will necessarily have to be argued for because they are speculative and unscientific; however, that does not mean that they are not true. As Jim Andrew has written in his The Practice of Rhetorical Criticism, "As the rhetorical critic studies the context, he or she must construct what might be called an argumentational history of issues along with his or her reconstruction of events." The beauty of this approach is that it overcomes the problem that Jean-Francois Lyotard (xxiv, 1993) and others have with meta narratives. The analysis is grounded in a cultural fore-structure that can be as local as is relevant to understanding.


My point is simply this: rhetorical criticism has a great deal more to offer than deconstructionism or journalism if we do what we have demonstrated we can do well. Many rhetorical critics have shown that they can do exceptional close textual readings. Others have shown that they can masterfully re-create contexts. If we combine the two relying on the principles of Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer, we can produce well argued, meaningful, and enduring criticism. The position of some deconstructionists that there cannot be one interpretation of a text because language is relative and any text imply an infinite regress of other texts undermines academic criticism while placing an equal value on almost any explanation of a rhetorical artifact.

To overcome this difficulty, I suggest that critics beheld to a standard of stating their case and then proving it. The proof can be accomplished in many ways; Burkean, Aristotelian, Platonic, Post-modern analysis will do. However, it is hard to imagine a case study that would not benefit from being situated in the fore-structure of its culture and given a close reading. In a recent article for QJS, I began by exploring what I believed to be Daniel Webster's imperialist tendencies. After all he was quoted by noted imperialists at the end of the 19th Century and he possessed a view of whites that was later used to justify American expansion. However, on closer reading, I found that Webster opposed almost every war America entered in his century, was an advocate of negotiated settlements, and adamantly argued against the acquisition of new territory. The standard interpretation of Webster had been missed by myself and others because we relied too much on secondary sources, mainly historians, because we did not reconstruct the proper context, and because we ignored Webster's "lesser" speeches on the war with Mexico.

The strategies of speakers that we analyze should be multifarious. But when we write criticism in our journals, we ought to confine ourselves to solid argumentation inclusive of valid arguments built on sufficient and high quality evidence produced from close readings and masterings of context. If we do not, we shall soon find that we will be unable to talk to one another in our journals, that our research will lack credibility, and we will fall into disrepute among those outside our field who monitor disciplinary integrity. For those who wish to issue subjective criticism, passionate ideological critiques, or impressionism, I respectfully suggest that they take it to other outlets designed to facilitate such discourse. The rest of us need to be careful about what face we put on our discipline. We need to remember that our criticism certainly shapes that face.


Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1, 1-14.
Bitzer, L. (1980). Functional communication: A situational perspective. In E. White (Ed.), Rhetoric in transition: Studies in the nature and uses of rhetoric. State College, PA: Pennslyvania State University Press, pp. 21-38.
Brockriede, W. (1974). Criticism as argument. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 40, 165-74.
Consigny, S. (1974). Rhetoric and its situations. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 7, 172-82.
Hunsakser, D. M &;Smith, C.R. (1976). The nature of issues: A constructive approach to situational rhetoric. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 40, 144-56.
Lyotard, J. (1993) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Smith, C.R. &;Lybarger, S. (1997). Bitzer's model reconstructed. Communication Quarterly, 44, 197-213.
Vatz, R. E. (1973). The myth of the rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 6, 154-61.

Back to Top
Home | Current Issue | Archives | Editorial Information | Search | Interact