Samuel McCormick

Toward the Rhetoric of Everyday Life
Samuel McCormick
Department of Communication
Purdue University
[email protected]
“Materiality vs. Language”—given the tilt of this conference, my first thought is
of the classical canon of delivery, specifically Aristotle’s use of the term hypokrisis—a
variation on the Greek hypokrit─ôs, the term for a stage-actor and thus for someone
pretending to be what they are not. Delivering a speech was for Aristotle akin to acting
out a part. Who’s part? That of the logographos—the speechwriter or, to keep it
theatrical, the poet or the playwright. Like theatrical performance, rhetorical delivery
consisted in the embodiment of a script, a “fleshing out” of sorts in which the written
word gave way the visual and auditory codes of spoken discourse.
This tradition of delivery resurfaced in the elocutionary rhetorics of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. From Mason’s Essay on Elocution (1748) to Austin’s
Chironomia (1806), elocutionary manuals and anthologies helped provincials, women,
and other socio-linguistically marginalized groups learn how to speak like educated
English elites. Self-control, moderated sentiment, an accent not their own—stage-acting
was the name of the game. And they learned to play it by reading texts aloud. And not
just any texts: it was polite literature that, when read aloud, taught them how to speak and
act like proper English men and women. By the early-nineteenth century, public
speaking had become what it remains today: the art of reading in public.1
Nowhere is this art more active than in presidential address. And nowhere is it
less apparent than in the rhetoric of everyday life. When it comes to delivery, what
routinely happens at the level of official political culture rarely occurs in local forums of
collective life. For better and for worse, much of the rhetoric of everyday life is
completely unscripted. Dianoia, lexis, hypokrisis—all are usually off the cuff. And, not
surprisingly, all are usually in disarray.
But oratorical messes are not limited to pep rallies, wedding toasts, and city
council meetings. Every now and again, they find their way into official public culture.
Consider, for instance, David Letterman’s segment on “Great Moments in Presidential
Speeches.” The set up is usually the same. First, we get FDR on “fear itself.” Next
comes JFK on “what you can do for your country.” And finally, a wayward rhetorical
moment with G.W. Bush. “Let me just remind you where we have been (.) through.”
“Our people have done really a great job (.) of (.) hauling in a lot of the key operators:
Kaliek Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zabeta, Ramsey Al- (.) uh (.) Ra- (.) Ramsey Al Sheeb
or >whatever the guy’s name was<.” “My da::d, like many of your rel- uh uh folk uh
who got relatives here (2.3) many of you (.) whose relatives (.) did the same thing (.) who
are (1.4) you’re here, they’re relative- probably aren’t.” You get the idea: no script, no
What makes this segment funny is its emphasis on the discrepancy between
George W. Bush and the enunciative modality of the American presidency. What makes
it relevant to our discussion of language and materiality is the media bias on which this
discrepancy depends: literacy, not orality, is still the key to eloquence. The truth of
presidential speech is not in spoken discourse but on the teleprompter. Sticking to the
script, as the clips of FDR and JFK illustrate, is the recipe for persuasion. What, then, is
Letterman suggesting when he prefaces the babbling Bush with two of his most fluent
predecessors? Not that Bush can’t speak, but that Bush can’t read. It’s his potential
illiteracy as a president more than his actual ineloquence as a speaker that cracks us up.
Consider, again, his blunders. Sure, enunciation is an issue. His talk is riddled
with hesitations, repairs, awkward pauses, and other paralinguistic blisters. But its salient
feature, its defining failure is linguistic. At issue in “Great Moments in Presidential
Speeches” is not the Bush’s poor delivery, but his failure to arrive at proper words and
phrases. Dianoia and lexis are his shortcomings; hypokrisis merely follows suit. What’s
laughable is his lack of thought content and verbal style, not the performance in which
this lack becomes legible.
A legible performance—I like this phrase. If literacy is the ability to read what
has been written, legibility is the quality of writing which allows it to be read. If the
former is often crucial to the delivery of great speeches, the latter is often crucial to their
analysis. If the tradition of delivery in which today’s public officials participate is
premised on an ability to convert writing into speech, the tradition of inquiry in which we
consider their discourse presupposes an ability to transform speech into writing. Which
is a roundabout way of stating the obvious: great moments in presidential speech often
begin and end on the page.
What gets lost along the way? First to go are the visual and auditory codes of
public speech or, in keeping with our topic, the material features of language-in-use.
With literacy and legibility as the lodestars for eloquence and its analysis, the “rhetoric”
of those who address us—be they presidents or plebeians—is limited to their choice of
words. What we often forget are the sights and the sounds of their speech. Yet another
reason to consider the babbles of G. W. Bush: they remind us that oratory is not only a
linguistic undertaking, but also a paralinguistic and occasionally nonlinguistic enterprise.
What also gets lost is the rhetoric of those who, without recourse to speechwriters
and teleprompters, are often dependent on the paralinguistic and nonlinguistic codes of
public address. Ordinary political actors—the ones who speak up at city council
meetings but rarely run for public office, who frequently address their coworkers in
groups but rarely draft a speech beforehand, who discuss their careers at “parent day” but
rarely address more people than can fit in an elementary school classroom—much of
their persuasive artistry resides the “-ics” of nonverbal communication: vocalics,
proxemics, kinesics, occulesics, and the like. With word choice as our object of analysis,
it is difficult to understand, much less to appreciate, the rhetoric of everyday life.
But methodology is not our only barrier. Another is the infrequency with which
ordinary public discussion and debate enters into the historical record. In addition to
proceeding without speechwriters and teleprompters, ordinary political actors often
address audiences unaccompanied by video cameras and tape recorders. Once spoken,
their words have a tendency to slip into oblivion, vanishing into the ether of human
forgetfulness. So also do their voices, their postures, their gestures, their eye movements.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, clerks record and transcribe
city council meetings. Sometimes, employees activate their cell-phone cameras before
their superiors begin to speak. And sometimes students do the same. From speech
McCormick – Toward the Rhetoric of Everyday Life
events to cell phones to laptops to YouTube—the rhetoric of everyday life is increasingly
recorded, posted, and ready to be replayed. We need only analyze it.
But how? If indeed the rhetoric of everyday life has more to do with embodied
speech than word choice, more to do with the material form of public address than its
linguistic content, how are we, with our lexical-centric methods, to understand and
explain this awkward genre of democratic discussion and debate?
See Thomas P. Miller, “Eighteenth-Century Rhetoric,” in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, ed. Thomas O.
Sloane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 230. The condition of possibility for this eighteenthcentury notion of delivery was twofold. First: the completion of the vernacular revolution begun centuries
earlier by medieval authors such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan. Second: the
emergence of print culture, and with it the spread of literacy beyond learned men and women. Taken
together, the preoccupation with the native tongue and the commercialization of cultural production
disrupted established social hierarchies, allowing for the emergence of a literate and upwardly mobile
middle class—“the civilized reader who inhabited the middle range of society, the man who would read
Hobbes’s English but not his Latin works and was less erudite than the scholar but more discriminating
than the consumer of trash.” Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Vol. II (New York: W. W.
Norton & Company, 1966), 61.
McCormick – Toward the Rhetoric of Everyday Life