Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism, by Walter Jost

Jost, Walter.  Rhetorical Investigations:  Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism.  Charlottesville:  U of Virginia P, 2004.

Reviewed by Peter C. Molin, Indiana University

Within the last two years, Walter Jost has co-edited A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism (with Wendy Olmsted) and Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein (with Kenneth Dauber). In Rhetorical Investigations: Studies in Ordinary Language Criticism, Jost combines his interest in rhetorical criticism and ordinary language criticism to re-read the “dialogue poems” of Robert Frost. These poems, which feature earnest, homely New Englanders talking their way through situations freighted with moral implications, illustrate the interest in persuasive speech, practical wisdom, social ethics, and community-based determinations of meaning that Jost associates with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, and Kenneth Burke.

Wittgenstein and Cavell are Jost’s primary intellectual forefathers here, but early in Rhetorical Investigations he declares his affinity for Burke-like explorations of the boundary regions where rhetoric, philosophy, and literature meet. Jost establishes the importance of rhetorical and ordinary language criticism and suggests how their use facilitates practical criticism. (He does not, however, successfully recapture a seat for Frost in the first tier of twentieth-century Anglo-American poets.)

Rhetorical Investigations is sophisticated in methodology and execution, but near polemical in its aims. Jost first argues for the importance of ordinary language and rhetorically-minded philosophers such as Burke, Wittgenstein and Cavell, as well as “theorists of the everyday” such as Michel de Certeau. He views them as an alternative critical tradition that avoids the non-communitarian tendencies he associates with deconstructionism, New Historicism, and cultural studies. Second, Jost promotes the critical rehabilitation of Robert Frost as the progenitor of a “low modernist” school slighted by “high modernists” such as Eliot and Pound and their advocates in the academy. (In a footnote, Jost likens this slighting of Frost to that of Burke, claiming that both suffer similar disregard because “neither . . . fits accepted academic–literary molds and for related reasons” [302 n. 41].) Accordingly, Jost divides Rhetorical Investigations into two “Books” entitled “Rhetoric: An Advanced Primer” and “Four Beginnings for a Book on Robert Frost.” The first Book is subdivided into chapters that, in Jost’s words, “propose to borrow the traditional, broad discriminations of the liberal arts—namely grammar, rhetoric, logic, and dialectic—and to repostulate these terms, now as an ordered schema of rhetorical topoi that can open new areas of thought and new lines of argument to explore everyday life and talk” (14). The second Book dedicates one chapter each to in-depth analysis of four conversation-filled Frost narrative poems. These poems are, to use Wittgenstein’s terms, “perspicuous representations” and “intermediate cases” that model and illuminate the theoretical concerns of the first Book. In Burkean terms, the poems and the chapters in which they are studied are “representative anecdotes” of the possibilities of rhetorical and ordinary language criticism.

Wittgenstein is omnipresent in Rhetorical Investigations. He furnishes epigraphs and chapter titles throughout in addition to providing the text’s theoretical infrastructure. Jost refers most often to Philosophical Investigations (1953)—note the closeness of the title to Jost’s. Ordinary language criticism in fact has its roots in Wittgenstein’s “ordinary language philosophy,” specifically its mistrust of universal assertions about the nature of language. Assertions, definitions, and statements proposed as “true” gain their validity only through approval by the community in which they are tried out, circulated, and allowed to sink or swim on their own merits as useful descriptions of whatever reality the community collectively constructs. Such emphasis on the “conditions of intelligibility” (40, quoting Cavell) and “agreement in valuing” (40) do not engender relativism or a nihilistic refutation of essences. “Correct judgments collect a character and critical community around them” (60) Jost writes. Humans in fact have developed huge common vocabularies and are obsessively driven to communicate in the face of problems and changing circumstances. These consensual language practices by and large have allowed the human community to function quite well.

Rhetoric, as the rubric under which truth-claims compete for acceptance, is an important facet of collective reality construction. Jost is interested in rhetoric both as the traditional branch of philosophy that analyzes the techniques of persuasion and argument and as the branch of literary analysis that is attentive to form and narrative technique. He also believes that artistic productions, such as Frost poems, are “rhetorical” in the old-fashioned sense that their use of images, appeals to the senses and emotions, and “non-rule-governed argument by example” (126) stands opposed to more methodologically-bound persuasive forms such as debate, essays, and logical reasoning. Akin to poetry are mundane human activities such as conversing, story-telling, joking, and appeals to common sense and aphoristic expressions—the stuff of ordinary language and everyday communicative practice.

Humor, particularly wit, is an especially pregnant example for Jost (following Wittgenstein) of how rhetoric works. In sudden flashes of mental and linguistic acuity, humans conjoin previously unjuxtaposed “facts” of existence in ways that reveal connections and insight. For Jost, such ingenious mental combinations constitute new knowledge. Importantly, wit works only when it is recognized as such by its listeners. Though listeners might not be able to generate a pithy comment, they possess the latent ability to understand one as such and to enjoy hearing a witty remark as much as the humorist enjoys producing it. In a key term that Jost derives from Stanley Cavell, the hearer’s “acknowledgement” (44) of a comment as humor lies very close to the creation of new reality; laughter validates the joke as a summary statement of a new way of looking at things. Importantly, acknowledgment of a novel statement as truth can occur only within an “interpretive community” that shares a Ciceronian “sensus communis” (72) and is committed to non-violent collective resolution of conflicts and differences.

Students of Kenneth Burke can probably predict the aspects of Burke’s thought that Jost finds appealing. Very early in Rhetorical Investigations, for example, Jost references Burke’s well-known explanation of “identification” from A Rhetoric of Motives (1950): “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his” (qtd. in Jost 13)—persuasion essentialized as the creation of a tacit understanding that rhetor and recipient share common values, beliefs, and behaviors. Earlier, Jost writes that a “hundred pages or so” of A Rhetoric of Motives constitutes “not only the handiest brief description but perhaps [also] the closest thing in our own time to a recognizably Ciceronian ‘oratory’ or rhetoricized philosophy … now appropriately reinvented in response to radical philosophical as well as historical and social changes in modern times” (12). Shortly thereafter, he asserts that Burke articulates Jost’s own high regard for the importance of rhetoric: By the time Burke wrote A Rhetoric of Motives, Jost states, “any local ‘art’ or ‘craft’ of rhetoric as simple persuasion has long since given way to studies of the ways all linguistic acts of understanding and interpretation are tied to the practical interests and values of people” (13).

From this early and bright moment of prominence in Jost’s theoretical armature, Burke recedes somewhat as Jost works through detailed discussions of Wittgenstein, Cavell, and others on his way to his explication of Frost. Jost returns to Burke only for a particularly apt formulation or to establish a critical context. For instance, Jost calls Frost’s poetry “equipment for living” (144) that represents “symbolic actions in Kenneth Burke’s terms—questioning, naming, asserting, analogizing” (188). The poetry also demonstrates a “method of presentation and paradox” that Jost calls “‘comedic’ in Kenneth Burke’s expansive sense of the word. . . . an engaged but ironic acceptance of human limits or boundaries” (244).

The four Frost poems that Jost studies in detail are “The Death of the Hired Man,” “West-Running Brook,” “Snow,” and “Home Burial.” (Three of the poems are mainstays of Frost criticism, but Jost claims that his long analysis of “Snow” is the poem’s first. He also offers less expansive treatments of “The Black Cottage,” “The Code,” and “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”) He asserts that Frost is a “low modernist” who uses homely scenes, ordinary people, and common language to approach big issues such as language reinvention, human temporality, contextualization of truth claims, and the ability to dissent from and reconvene social consensus. Frost’s dialogue poems, as Jost sees them, better serve the human community than those by canonical poets such as Eliot and Pound. Even sympathetic philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Cavell benefit from the practical illustration of their precepts offered by Frost’s poetry.

Jost’s rationale for re-opening investigation of Frost chestnuts such as “The Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial” is his claim that previous critics have erred by obsessively trying to resolve on one side or another the moral dilemmas expressed by the poems’ loquacious protagonists. In doing so, critics have “not noticed” or “missed” (formulations Jost uses often) that Frost is not interested in solving ethical uncertainties, but in calling attention to the social, hermeneutical, and epistemological lessons of obsessive talkiness, not for the characters so much as for readers: “Now we are asking: What, precisely, can be the moral and philosophical value of the reader’s experience of spiritual drift in the gossip, the rhetorical conversation, that Frost himself understood his poetry to portray and perform?” (162) “Drift” here—as in “Do you catch my drift?”—is a positive term for the oblique and scattershot ways that humans absorb experience and formulate appropriate interpretive responses and strategies. The poetry, then, models the continuous regeneration of socially-produced truth through haphazard but collective processes of conversation, argument, consensus formation, and agreements to disagree until the discursive flux of everyday life produces something better.

To wrangle with Jost, and just a bit with Burke: the scenes of intimate disputation in the poetry Jost studies fit his thesis very well, but how might other, less literal and less narrative texts be understood rhetorically? I’m not so sure that the high modernists whom Jost pits against Frost would accept his charge that they are somehow uninterested in ordinary language and the everyday, to say nothing of public-minded rhetoric. Frost’s poems may, in fact, better mirror the concerns of the average person than do those of elitist poets, but it is hard not to notice just how local and self-contained are the tiny lives of Frost’s protagonists. Do the same possibilities exist for consensus formation within national communities marked by widely divergent perspectives, attitudes, and values? Jost perhaps too blithely assumes that consensual language practices drive humans toward either healthy resolutions of competing perspectives or productive transformations of old ideas into new patterns of understanding. Further, what of the larger social and economic forces that impinge on the micro-worlds of Frost’s protagonists? Jost briefly addresses the issues raised by adherents of Foucault and Gramsci, who no doubt would have much more to say about the swirl of discursive and hegemonic currents in which the characters and Frost himself swim. Finally, Burke’s theory of identification is invoked here (as it often is) as a more expansive definition of how persuasion “really” works, with the stress laid on the inherently social and non-rational bent of successful argumentation. On second glance, however, the concept of identification seems oddly pessimistic about the possibility of reasoned argument to bridge gaps between people who differ in profound ways. “Persuasion without argument” (a phrase Burke uses elsewhere in a slightly different context) seems to assert that words need do little to convince those who share affiliations and affinities, and that words alone cannot convince those who do not.

In summary, Rhetorical Investigations establishes the promise of rhetorical and ordinary language criticism, but without addressing potential limitations. It also piques interest in Frost’s dialogue poems, but does not achieve Frost’s critical rehabilitation. Rhetorical Investigations will surely inspire readers to return to Burke (and Wittgenstein and Cavell), but the true test of rhetorical and ordinary language criticism lies in the application of these perspectives to texts that do not so readily exemplify their values.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1950.

Dauber, Kenneth and Walter Jost. Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2003.

Jost, Walter and Wendy Olmsted, eds. A Companion to Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism. Malden, MA and Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2004.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.