Rhetorical Balance

Balance itself is always harder to describe than the clumsy poses that result when it is destroyed.

Wayne C. Booth, “The Rhetorical Stance,” CCC, 14(3), 1963.

For Booth, the “pedant’s stance” and the “advertiser’s stance” are “perversions” of the “rhetorical stance,” which is characterized by a “balance among speakers, audience, and argument.” Importantly, the rhetorician does not play the pedant and the advertiser off each other in order to achieve this balance. Those alternative stances are each unbalanced in different ways — perverted — by an overemphasis on, respectively, argument and audience. Speakers (i.e., writers) have to find their balance in themselves, not in between the pedant and the advertiser. How should academic writers approach this problem?

While Booth doesn’t put it quite this way, I would say that the speaker must appropriate the argument and identify with the audience. If you are writing about More’s Utopia you are really writing about your reading of More’s Utopia and you are writing for other readers of the same book. You are not simply telling people who have never read the book and will never read the book what it says. You are not just reading the book so someone else won’t have to. You are telling someone who has also been thinking about it what you think.

People sometimes misunderstand Orwell’s slogan “prose like a window pane” as an injunction to provide a clear view of “the facts,” as though a perfectly “objective” view of them is possible without any intrusion of “subjective” concerns. But he was really telling us to provide a clear view of our thoughts, our own images of the facts. The facts that may be adduced about More’s Utopia (the actual book) are as available to your reader as they are to you. But your image of More’s Utopia (the fictional place), which you have gleaned from the pages of his book, is of interest to a reader that has formed an image of their own, which they can then compare to yours. The purpose of your writing is not to tell the reader what they already know, or could find out by reading More themselves, but to get them to consider something they might otherwise not have noticed. It is to offer your reader an opportunity to engage.

Burke’s work on the Sublime and Beautiful is a relatively unimpassioned philosophical treatise, but one finds there again a delicate balance: though the implied author of this work is a far different person, far less obtrusive, far more objective, than the man who later cried sursum corda to the British Parliament, he permeates with his philosophical personality his philosophical work. And though the signs of his awareness of his audience are far more subdued, they are still here: every effort is made to involve the proper audience, the audience of philosophical minds, in a fundamentally interesting inquiry, and to lead them through to the end. In short, because he was a man engaged with men in the effort to solve a human problem, one could never call what he wrote dull, however difficult or abstruse. (Booth, 1963, p. 145)

By appropriating you argument (by making the subject your own) and by identifying with your reader (by making them one of your peers) you establish what we might call a “clearing” (in a vaguely Heideggerian sense) for your argument, a place for it to stand, some grounds on which we can see if it “holds up”. You are standing in that clearing, too, and you are standing there with your reader. The result may not always be exactly sublime, or even beautiful, but it should never be dull.

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