Rhetoric Today

The field of Rhetoric examines how and why certain messages, images, or modes of communication (what we call "rhetoric") moves audiences. Why, for example, does a song become a hit at a particular moment in history? Or why does one presidential candidate's speech send ripples through the nation while another's falls flat? Or why does an image—like the face of Che Guevara—circulate across publics and take on various meanings, like freedom, revolution, or radical chic?

Rhetoric has been described as the "art of moving souls" and this is as true today as when Aristotle first said it 2500 years ago. The more difficult question is, What is not rhetorical? Even objects that seem to be outside of humanity's desire to communicate—like trees or mountains or the arrangement of chairs in a classroom—are all sites to which humans give meaning. The study of rhetoric is designed to empower us to decode the messages around us so that we may more critically examine our place in the world and in relation to others. What this means in the twenty-first century is critically analyzing all kinds of messages that are flying at us each moment.

This has been called an "information era," even a time of "information overload." We are saturated with images and messages demanding our attention and often our complicity or cooperation. Have you ever thought of texting, tweeting, or Facebook as rhetorical? Consider the intensity with which we craft messages about ourselves, others, and the world in a continual fashion through these technologies. So rhetoric in the twenty-first century shapes our daily lives and our most intimate ties, as well as relations of power: gender politics, racial identities and antiracist struggles, globalization, and decolonial struggles. From the most immediate to the global, rhetoric is actively shaping our experience and the world in which we live. Our task is to learn to decode and strategically intervene in these processes—through writing, speech, digital culture, film, fashion, or other daily practices through which we create meaning.

Rhetoric is not just ancient history. Here are some great examples of modern rhetoric and persuasion at work: