Rarely is speech simply a medium of communication, the channel along which a message is transmitted from A to B. As ancient rhetoricians understood well, it is the formation of a relationship between a speaker, the audience, and the issue around which persuasion is sought. That relationship shapes the audience’s reception of the speaker and disposes it in particular ways towards the message conveyed. Rhetorical knowledge, then, consists less in advice concerning the truthfullness of the message (as aggrieved philosophers such as Plato complained) than instruction on how an overall performance discloses aspects of the issue, casting it in a certain light and positioning the audience towards the matter in a particular way. Consequently, rhetoric gained a reputation as a mischevious kind of instruction concerned with the play of light and shadow, inviting speech to obscure as much as it illumined.
Thinking of persuasion as a positioning process accents the ‘embodied’ dimension of speech. Typically, embodiment is subsumed under the canon of rhetoric known as Delivery (pronuntiato) – as Cicero put in De Oratore: ‘Delivery is, so to speak, the language of the body’. ‘Every emotion’, he pointed out, ‘has its own facial expression, tone of voice and gesture’. But we can also think of the entire performance of persuasive speech as the abstract positioning of audiences and issues in space and time. The other canons – especially Invention (inventio), Arrangement (dispositio) and Style (elocutio) – all refer to the ways arguments seek to inveigle an audience by bringing it into proximity with certain ideas, imposing chains of association, logical oppositions and divisions, dramatic reversals of sense, and implications of risk, danger or even pleasure. These rhetorical manoeuvres are not purely matters of delivery or gesture but they accomplish a similar task in the practice of persuasion: namely, moving an audience to regard an issue from a particular perspective, implicitly acknowledging the argumentative topos (meaning ‘place’ or ‘site’) as a privileged location from which to view the matter at hand.
We see this positioning process all the time in contemporary political speech: for instance, in efforts to identify ‘enemies’ whose presence threatens us; to regard crises as unfortunate, unmotivated events from which we should momentarily take refuge or, alternatively as motivated by excessive greed or willful neglect; in identifying ‘obstacles’ to progress and ‘ways out’ of crises, journeys of salvation and ‘road maps’ to peace. Politicians of all sorts are constantly giving directions and warning of dead-ends. In words and gestures – by performing as beacons of certainty or of doubt – they seek to re-pose the shape of the body politic and its comportment towards the world.
James Martin is Professor of Politics and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmiths, University of London.