To be frank, I dread the question. Often it is accompanied with perplexity, an unsure shake of the head, one ear turned to confirm the word heard; occasionally, it is offered with narrowed eyes as a challenge. This is not the usual state of things. Most people are able to account for what they do or what they study with a pat explanation. The rest of us take them at their word—which is to say, we ask no further questions.

My mother, who for years worked in non-profit development, says just that. A follow-up question might ask the nature of said non-profit, but we don’t ask what “development” means (although, talk about a word with complex rhetoricity!). My fiancé is a mathematician. An avowal of “math” as a course of study is usually met with one of the following responses: impressed wide-eyes; a shudder and report of the questioner’s own mathematical ineptitude (inevitably overstated); or, a joke about higher math being devoid of numbers. My friends in law school, med school, business school; classmates in English or history departments; folks in marketing or sales, finance, banking, the IT-industry, dot-com companies…unless we can engage the other person on the level of shared professional or academic experience, we generally don’t ask too many questions. “What are you reading in chemistry lab?” “Can you say more about tort law?” “But what are you going to do with business?” “What, pray tell, is history?”

We don’t ask about the purpose of pre-professional degrees because they are exactly that: professional. We don’t interrogate the meaning of “math,” “history,” or “English” because they have a kind of self-evidentiary quality. Even if we have no idea what one reads, writes, or does as a working mathematician, we are content that we understand the sphere of math—or rather, that we can locate mathematics in relation to other subjects, and that we need not know more about what happens in those chalk-filled seminar rooms. I haven’t the faintest idea what people do in Microsoft or Google all day long, never mind the guys who work in those web start-ups, but I know it involves gourmet cafeterias in the first-instance and a whole lot of hype in the second.

In fairness, I expect to be asked about Rhetoric, which is why, after months of closing these columns with a note on my departmental belonging, I thought I ought to offer some provisional description. I have been fascinated by the attitudes I encounter upon sharing my program of study. An instant defamiliarization occurs, as the listener believes s/he should know what Rhetoric means—after all, who doesn’t know what “rhetoric” is?—but senses that I’m up to something else. Rarely does my stock response satisfy, though it is meant ingenuously: that Rhetoric is an interdisciplinary program in the critical humanities and social sciences.

Rhetoric does have technical definitions which have bearing on what it means to study “rhetoric.” For Aristotle, for example, rhetoric was the detection of the available means of persuasion in a given circumstance, with a given audience. Classical philosophers critiqued the practice of rhetoric as one which does not adequately deal with “Truth” (persuasion, it has been argued, too easily turns into manipulation).

But rhetoricians, in turn, have critiqued philosophy’s inability to think about how differences (like historical, social, cultural, and identitarian difference) structure our relationships to “knowledge” and “truth,” which we cannot think about in those singular terms.

Rhetoric is a field that demands attention to the things that other fields assume are given. If philosophy is concerned with Truth, rhetoric is concerned with “truth.” If history is concerned with history, rhetoric is concerned with “history.” Go ahead and ask the question: What do I mean by putting those words, including “rhetoric,” in inverted commas?

To put a word in inverted commas is to acknowledge that the word, its history, and what it references do not mean the same thing everywhere. Indeed, to put a word in inverted commas is to question how, if, and why it “means” anything at all. With respect to “rhetoric,” those inverted commas reveal that Rhetoric operates on the level of the relationship between language and experience. How do the ways we talk, write, and think about things reveal something important about the way the world operates?

An example is in order. We have some sense of possible objects of study of Indian literature (Tagore, Rushdie, Roy). You might have read a historical study of the Mughals, of Partition, or of the Emergency. Sociologists and anthropologists have lived and worked in Indian villages and cities, developing frameworks for understanding social systems, communities, kinship, and so on. Linguists and philologists have compared Sanskrit and Greek grammars, searching for an Indo-European mother tongue. A rhetorical study might take as its motivation the question of how “India” came to be an object of study for European and American sociologists and anthropologists of the 20th century, or why the story of “Indo-European” has proven to be a compelling origin story, and how it is tied to a complex history of not just linguistics, but national and racial stratification.

Rhetoric doesn’t ask who is right or wrong in a given debate. Rhetoric is not a moderator. Rhetoric is rarely after answers. Rhetoric does not ask if a community center ought to be built near the site of a terrorist attack, but rather how it is that a so-called populist movement (funded by those who are anything but) can emerge in 2010, in flagrant opposition to the constitutional and moral tenets of a so-called liberal democracy that purports to value and protect all citizens equally? Rhetoric asks, how does neoliberal discourse construct the “terrorist”? How does “liberalism” operate? What is the “democratic” promise of and for “equality”? How do we understand the rhetoric surrounding the Cordoba House, and what are the conditions of its emergence?

Sure, I’d love a pat answer to my title question. But Rhetoric reveals: there’s a lot today that’s much harder to explain.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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