Heeding the Storyteller’s Cues: Rhetoric as Listening

Julie Bokser

Presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication
Chicago, April 1998

This paper starts from my own recognition that I speak better when someone is really listening. Often, this is a problem. I am so overly attuned to my audience that it alters not only how I talk, but also what I say. Unlike the polished rhetor, I can’t always use this to my advantage. Too often, I let the auditor’s wandering attention get the better of me. I cut myself short, unwilling to plague my hearer with what I know he or she doesn’t care about. Obviously, this is a professional hazard. Coming to this career after success in other arenas, I have a heightened awareness of the extent to which many academics are capable of speaking—even without any audience. And yet, call it stubborn self-preservation, but I am convinced there is something to be gained from my sensitivity to audience. This conference calls us to consider the connections between our work and cuentos, stories, and shortly after the announcement arrived, I began to think about my experience with storytelling. I have attended many storytelling festivals and I have written an annual report linking the benefits of counseling and other social service programs to storytelling. I know that like rhetoric, storytelling is a speaking art. Yet it is also a listening art. Working within an oral tradition, the storyteller must be ever-ready to adapt and adjust what she tells according to her perception of immediate, changing needs. She gathers her material from the sources that surround her, listening for stories, for what might become lesson or leisure for her community. She listens in order to tell.

This description of the storyteller’s art may sound like many of our conceptions of rhetoric. And yet most theories of rhetoric don’t incorporate approaches to listening. In fact, many rhetorical theories actually discourage listening, and even present such disruption as essential to the rhetor’s success. I would like to spend some time today thinking about the problems with listening in the theories of two prominent rhetoricians, Aristotle and Kenneth Burke. These are theorists whose works continue to offer me applicable, pertinent models of communication. For this very reason, I feel it’s important to locate the attitudes toward listening implied in these theories. What I am working toward is a project to conceive of rhetoric as an art of listening, and I’ll begin by outlining some ways in which Western rhetoric, represented here by Aristotle and Kenneth Burke, neglects or displaces listening. Then I will quickly offer some possible models of listening rhetors.

In "Discourse in the Novel" Bakhtin calls attention to the fact that rhetorical discourse is oriented toward the listener but that usually this manifests as a concern for comprehensibility and clarity. Bakhtin sees this as a one-sided and limited approach that is "deprived of any internal dialogism, that take[s] the listener for a person who passively understands but not for one who actively answers and reacts" (280). Our response might be, "Not true. The enthymeme is the crucial ingredient of rhetorical dialogism." While we’ve been debating the precise meaning of the enthymeme since Aristotle left us with some very vague guidelines, the currently prevailing definition sees the enthymeme as a formally incomplete logical construction regarding something probable and based on shared premises between audience and speaker. This definition emphasizes intimate relations between a speaker and audience who jointly produce enthymemes and thus jointly produce persuasion. I don’t mean to suggest that our attempts at definition can or should come to a rest here, but I do think we’re pretty happy with this interpretation, since it offers a view of persuasion that doesn’t simply set out to change an audience—an uncomfortable notion in light of current concerns over identity and appropriation. Instead, the enthymeme allows us to see persuasion as a two-way process in which the presence of a particular audience also changes the rhetor’s speech.

But then why does the enthymeme often make me uneasy? Because while the enthymeme enfranchises the listener, it simultaneously precludes listening. As an abbreviated syllogism, the enthymeme exerts persuasive force not through its logical construction, which must nevertheless be present, but through what it does not say. When part of the syllogistic premise is left unstated, Aristotle says in his Rhetoric, "the hearer supplies" what is missing, and through cognitive participation, the listener completes the communicative circle (1357a). This participatory dynamic is attractive. But I am tormented by one question: when the "hearer supplies" enthymematic closure, is she listening? Not necessarily. When the audience participant perceives that a logical connection has been left out, she fills in the gap with something generated by her own mind. Hence, persuasion is self-created. Instead of the speaker persuading us, we persuade ourselves. For Aristotle self-persuasion is especially effective because of the pleasure we take in our own involvement in the exchange. We are pleased with our ability to make connections for ourselves—to "get it" without handholding.

The problem is that the self-persuading listener might or might not supply what the speaker intended. There is always a possibility that the hearer will fill in the enthymematic gap with something the speaker never considered, and in so doing introduce to the equation a host of new, "deviant" associations. In "White Mythology," Derrida’s description of the metaphoric process might also apply to the enthymeme: "No reference properly being named in such a metaphor, the figure is carried off into the adventure of a long, implicit sentence, a secret narrative which nothing assures us will lead us back to the proper name" (243). To the extent that the enthymeme reflects a similar instance of "bottomless overdeterminability," each listener participates in his or her own persuasion by refusing to listen (243).

Rhetorical theory is full of suggestions for how a rhetor can bring listeners to this nonlistening and malleable state, and how to corral potential meandering so that it best coincides with the speaker’s aims. For example, Burke suggests that form is a great way to close people’s ears as well as their minds. Devices like antithesis, gradatio, or asyndeton have a "universal" rhythmic attraction, Burke says: "You will find yourself swinging along…, even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form." Despite disagreement with an opponent, "you might ‘help him out’ to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such" (Rhetoric 58; emphases added—see below). Hence, according to Burke, the successful rhetor exploits the general instinctive human response to rhythmic form at the expense of attending to unique, individual insights. Aristotle also prescribes attention to general inferences rather than listening to particular beliefs. When using maxims, an abbreviated enthymeme, he suggests that the rhetor doesn’t need to engage in conversation with particular members of her audience, but rather, "one should guess what sort of assumptions people have and then speak in general terms consistent with these views" (1395b). If Aristotle’s listener is not consulted, Burke’s listener hears from a position of subjugation, as revealed in the militaristic terms Burke uses to describe what listeners do: yield, surrender, and in the same passage, collaborate. Despite the listener’s devotion to her own unique insights, for a brief time at least she is "carried away," metaphorized from her commitments by a formal process that instead of intellection relies on threatened violence and biological affinity with rhythmic patterns.

Being "carried away" can bring miscommunication, but it also suggests open-minded flexibility. I never cease to wonder at Aristotle’s 4th century B.C.E. comprehension of both the good and bad associated with being "carried away," and his belief in the positive potential of a listener’s meanderings. Aristotle offers a theory so grounded in invention that even the listener is potentially generative. But the irony of being "carried away" is that the listener is not brought away into contact with others but rather, further into the self. According to Aristotle, enthymematic meandering works so well in persuasion because it leads to a perception of likeness, and seeing likeness is a fundamental human pleasure. In an extended enthymeme in Book I of the Rhetoric, Aristotle indicates that at the heart of mimetic appeal is seeing a likeness to ourselves: Since "all things that are related and similar are, for the most part, a source of pleasure," and since likeness and relationship are pleasurable, and we like most what is like ourselves, then "all are more or less lovers of themselves" (1371b). In Book II he explains how the proficient rhetor can benefit from this observation about self-love if she understands that people feel pity, fear, and anger when things are perceived as potentially applicable to themselves. Read alongside his theory of the enthymeme, this explanation of mimesis demonstrates the extent to which Aristotelian persuasion is grounded in self-love as well as self-persuasion, both processes that capitalize on our attentiveness to ourselves rather than others.

Burke’s theory of identification also acknowledges the appeal of self-love and its reliance upon inattentive listening. Identification joins people through their recognition of likeness; if I perceive that you are like me, your efforts to persuade me will be more successful since I will assume that what benefits you will also benefit me. Self-love is the underlying motivator. While identification highlights likenesses, it simultaneously masks (but for those in the know, marks) the inevitable division that must exist between two separate beings. As Burke says, "[T]o begin with ‘identification’ is, by the same token, though roundabout, to confront the implications of division…. Identification is affirmed with earnestness precisely because there is division" (Rhetoric 22). Division means that since the two can never completely know one another (they can be identified but not identical), an element of mystery is always present in the rhetorical relationship.

In other words, Burke feels that we are fundamentally alone, and that rhetoric bridges the divide. In this respect, rhetoric is what makes listening possible. But identification by itself is incomplete; it relies, dialectically, on division as well.

By encompassing division, Burke’s discussion of identification makes more explicit the implications of Aristotle’s theory of persuasion, especially as it pertains to listening. The effectiveness of a rhetorical appeal will rely on an identification that is simultaneously an exploitation in the sense that in order to succeed it must obscure the corresponding division at work. Rhetoric involves a division that must be glossed over to enact persuasion. In order to win a point, the rhetor must intentionally not listen—to division, difference, otherness—and she will call upon her skills to get the audience to listen equally inattentively. In the final analysis, listening to one another (or, to an other) is highly problematic in both Aristotelian and Burkean rhetoric.

"I have listened; you have spoken . . . "

And so we are left with an understanding of enthymematic persuasion as an enfranchisement of the listener that comes at the expense of listening, and in which listening is discouraged and displaced by self-persuasion, self-love, ever-present division, and metaphoristic meandering. I have two qualifications. First, these theories distinguish between the rhetorician and rhetor. Both Burke and Aristotle describe a rhetor who can benefit by taking advantage of disrupted listening. Yet having these very descriptions also supplies us with the theoretical sophistication to recognize when listening has been elided—and to make necessary amends. In other words, the rhetorician should notice what the rhetor has glossed. Second, it is quite possible that these theories simply offer a nuanced and honest understanding of what listening is, or can be, between humans. Communication and the knowledge it engenders is necessarily partial, collective, and based as much on forgetting as hearing. "Enthymeming is simply what people do," Jeffrey Walker concludes in a recent article (61).

Still, I yearn (of course) for "perfection," and so I strive for other ways around this listening problem. Recall that the word cuentos in our conference title means stories in Spanish. The noun cuento is a cognate of the verb contar, which means to tell, and of cuenta, which means account. An idiomatic Spanish expression reveals the link between these words, between stories and their telling, between speaking and hearing: tomar en cuenta is to take into account. My hope is that when we think about speaking, we take listening into account—that we theorize about rhetors and rhetoric as listening subjects. And so I’d like to tentatively sketch what a listening rhetor might look like.

I have two models in mind. First, there are rhetors who remind us of the contingencies of listening, who think of their audience as "standing," to use Roland Barthes’ term, and of themselves as standers-to-be. Barthes says that the discomfort of the "standing position" reminds listeners and speakers of the value and "vanity of [their] own speech" (203). Consider talk show host Tom Snyder in the guise of the uncomfortable, "standing" rhetor. Amid the plethora of television talk shows that substitute soundbyte banter for conversation—even while purporting to employ storytelling techniques—Snyder’s guests on The Late Late Show appear in spots lasting longer than 20 minutes, and conversation genuinely flows and drifts. Callers—listeners—share in the interviewing, a technique more common with radio broadcasts. Guest Kate Mulgrew recently drew attention to the awkwardness of the caller contribution in a visual medium when she acknowledged how difficult it is to listen to the voice from a black box but respond to a blank camera.

Such rhetorical dilemmas are precisely what Tom Snyder’s show underscores. Snyder doesn’t allow his viewers to forget that they are listening to spontaneous discourse. He continually points to his own flubs and gaffes, effectively highlighting the delicate role of a listening speaker, a role the talk show host necessarily assumes. Snyder regularly shares things like the embarrassment of teleprompter misspellings, the headache of dealing with a last-minute guest cancellation, how mistaken facts threw a wrench in the conversation on the preceding night, and a replay of a disastrous 20-year-old interview with a recalcitrant rock star. In his opening spots—I do not call them monologues—he interrupts his awkward renditions of bad jokes to acknowledge an off-camera staff member’s reaction. Telling jokes to an empty studio, in which punchlines are followed by silence, Snyder’s own excessive laughter, or a backstage guffaw reminds us that we are listening to "live" rhetoric. I am arguing here that it is precisely these awkward moments and flubs that make such rhetoric successful. Calling attention to the packaging of television rhetoric positions its usual flawless form as manufactured and insincere, enabling Snyder, the awkward rhetor, to come out ahead.

My second model is a more venerable awkward rhetor: Moses. Moses is a speaker who resists speech, instead drawing authority from what and whom he hears. The events of Exodus are sparked by listening: God hears the Israelites’ cries and remembers their plight in Egypt (Ex 2:24, 6:5; Authorized Version). The rhetorical implications are abundant; God hears, remembers, proclaims, and commands Moses to speak to and for his people. In the Jewish tradition the exodus itself is repeatedly re-enacted through a ritual retelling, the seder, a word which connotes order, or arrangement. Moses’ pleas to Pharoah to let his people go conform to traditional uses of rhetoric as a means of asserting political rights toward liberatory ends. And yet while the Bible often reads "Moses said…," we can’t be sure it’s Moses who actually does the pleading. When God originally taps him for the task, Moses protests, "I am not eloquent…I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue" (Ex 4:10). Despite God’s exhortations, Moses sticks his ground, so God finally works out a deal. Aaron will be spokesman. God tells Moses, "And thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do" (4:15). Exodus blurs the distinctions between speaking and hearing. Moses speaks as God, yet Aaron does the speaking. Aaron says what Moses hears, with Moses, the listener, in the exalted position: "[Aaron] shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of God" (4:16). Moses may be our first documented listening rhetor, one who frets about his audience’s refusal to hear (4:1, 6:12), protests his inadequacy, pleads a speech impediment, and is a self-proclaimed man of "uncircumcised lips" (6:12). Such a rhetor of sealed mouth must rely on sensitive ears.

This is my preliminary sketch of the awkward rhetor as an entry point for conceiving of rhetoric as listening. I will close by considering the negative effects of non-awkward, smooth, professional rhetoric. In his ethnographic study of Texas storytellers, Richard Bauman describes the effects of professionalization. "Professional" storytellers perform at the increasingly popular festivals such as those I’ve attended. At one such festival, a performer who honed his storytelling skills at a fishing camp no longer has to attend to the needs of listeners anxious to get up and fish as soon as the weather clears. He also no longer need compete with other tellers around the campfire. Such an environment where listeners are no longer expected to become speakers reduces the need for speakers to carefully listen—dialogism is absent. This suggests the problems inherent even when an audience "really listens" if rhetoric operates as a professional, contrived, and polished performance of speakers who need not hear. In its stead, I offer the awkward, self-effacing, and reluctant rhetor who joins her audience in the "standing position." Such a speaker is one who might close her speech by adapting Aristotle’s words: "I have listened; you have spoken; you have [the facts]; you judge" (see Rhetoric 1420b).

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Bakhtin, M.M. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Bauman, Richard. Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative. Cambridge UP, 1986.

Bitzer, Lloyd. "Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited." Quarterly Journal of Speech 45.4 (December 1959): 399-408.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea A. Lunsford, eds. Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Derrida, Jacques. "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." 1971. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. U of Chicago P, 1982.

Gage, John T. "An Adequate Epistemology for Composition: Classical and Modern Perspectives." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 152-169.

Lunsford, Andrea A. and Lisa S. Ede. "On Distinctions between Classical and Modern Rhetoric." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 37-49.

Ratcliffe, Krista. "Listening to Cassandra: A Materialist-Feminist Exposé of the Necessary Relations Between Rhetoric and Hermeneutics." Studies in the Literary Imagination 28.2 (Fall 1995): 63-77.

Raymond, James C. "Enthymemes, Examples, and Rhetorical Method." Connors, Ede, and Lunsford 140-151.

Walker, Jeffrey. "The Body of Persuasion: A Theory of the Enthymeme." College English 56.1 (January 1994): 46-65.