From its birth in Sicily within the particular context of defending landowners' rights to twenty-first-century media globalization, rhetoric has evolved and adapted. It is interdisciplinary in its essence and has sometimes appropriated knowledge from disciplines close to its own object; at other times, it has been appropriated by disciplines encroaching on its domain. A unique synthesis of philosophical and expressive approaches, rhetoric is constantly being born anew. It has at its disposal a set of prescriptive or analytical practices and theoretical reflections that even in the twenty-first-century allows it to master all fields of human expression and communication designed to act on the world.
On the whole, the global conception of rhetoric as it appeared in Aristotle's Greece has changed little. Despite, or may because of, its desire for a somewhat utopian, if not ominous desire for control, its overall theoretical and practical understanding of persuasion is still valid.
What has changed are the resources available. One of the advantages its modern-day practitioners have over their ancestors is that they are able to benefit from advances in technology and from the knowledge acquired through research in the nearby branches of the human sciences. In these fields of research, the modern orator, whether a lawyer, a political candidate, or a car dealer, will find resources to better grasp the social, ideological, psychological, or emotional state characterizing the target audience and thus to better understand it so as to better influence, if not control it.
But what has changed even more deeply are the technological means of communication, which are now able to diffuse farther, more rapidly, and more effectively a larger number of messages to a greater number of targets in a greater number of places. The power of the message is directly affected by that new audience. The electronic revolution itself, which is at least as significant as the invention of the printing press, offers new means for more effective persuasion. It is easier to seduce, and hence to influence, through the use of audiovisual media and virtual reality. Virtual reconstitutions of crime scenes, for example, are admissible in court. Rhetoric can only seek to adapt to these technological media, which constitute the new field of actio. The television screen has replaced the forum, the actor has replaced the orator, and teleprompters have replaced memory.
Even more radically, control of the media and access to the means of communication are what now seem to determine the true efficacy of the message, rather than oratorical talent or the intellectual quality of an argument (with perhaps the exception of the lawyer in the courtroom). That revolution has altered the conditions governing access to an audience. The means of communication, when they are not controlled by the state, are increasingly placed in the hands of a few large institutions, which are often controlled by commercial or ideological interests.
The Internet as it exists in the early twenty-first century would seem to offer to each individual access to his or her own means of communication. It ends up, however, providing a virtual "audience" an anarchical plethora of mostly unreliable and inefficient information. Without access to the media, which are the chief if not the exclusive means for diffusing ideas, no opposing power and no perceptible dissension can exist. And dissension is an unavoidable marker for freedom of speech, which is now reserved and limited to those who control access to the means of diffusion. Some speak of a "dictatorship of the media" linked to the power of the new technology, and of "formal democracy." Competition in the realm of opinion requires equal access to the forum.
Paradoxically, then, although nothing seems to have changed in terms of the general principles that govern the art of persuasion, the means available to rhetoric have shifted the essence of intellectual activity toward expression, whether that refers to elocutio, with the emphasis on seduction, or to actio, with the idea that the orator cannot be heard. It is somewhat as if the universe of communication were being transformed into an enormous literary fiction designed to entertain more than to inform or argue. This fiction is already embodied on our television screens and in our magazines as a new kind of discourse, the infomercial, whose very name captures its ambiguity.
Any rhetoric has two aspects: vacuity, if not manipulation and lies; and ethics and trust. We must ensure that such trust is not irremediably undermined by the distrust produced by the growing monopolization of increasingly effective means of communication. The public is now a captive audience, increasingly powerless in the face of that monopoly, and the very future of democratic societies is at stake. In addition to the tradition of reliance on the speaker's ethos, access to a multiplicity of opinions is the public's essential safegaurd against possible abuse of rhetoric. Rooted in freedom of speech, rhetoric finds its justification in the equal opportunity of access to the means of communication.
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Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny, with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.
Sloane, Thomas O., ed. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This is a rich source of references from specialists too numerous to name here.
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