Our society now has the media for the complete public speaker, the contemporary rhetorician, the modern Cicero on video who tries to speak for us all. If First Nations orators are the source of the social, cultural, political and religious guidelines for their societies, and are respected if not honoured for this skill, then what has happened to our own politicians? As radio and television have opened up, political communication has become more and more a combined verbal and dramatic art, what Cicero would have called ‘rhetoric’.
There is a set of unspoken but widely understood rules of thumb that have habitually been used to assess the value or otherwise of political performance in the media, and that these seem to be contradicted in complex ways by the increasingly diverse make-up of people with political power. Because contemporary political rhetoric must be all things to all peoples, it tends to gut the issues of any real debate, to offer to speak for us rather than to us, hence weakening our commitment to political action either by ourselves or by those acting on our behalf.
Lynette Hunter was the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric between 1997 and 2000.
She is currently Professor of the History and Rhetoric of Performance at the University of California, Davis. She was previously Senior Lecturer and then Reader in Rhetoric at the University of Leeds.
She has written and edited over twenty books and many essays in a range of disciplines from the history of rhetoric and literature, to philosophy and feminist theory, to post/neo-colonial studies (especially in Canada), to the history of science and computing, to women’s history and gender studies (from the early modern period), to performance studies. She has scripted, devised, produced and toured, several theory performance installations in Europe and North America and explores alternative ways of disseminating modes of knowing within aesthetics and scholarship.
When she was appointed to the Rhetoric Professorship at Gresham College in 1997, Professor Hunter wrote the following:
When Thomas Gresham included Rhetoric among the areas of study in his plan for a College, he was keeping a vital part of the Old Learning to contribute to all the New Knowlegde which he wanted to disseminate.
At its centre, rhetoric is concerned with value. We tend to use the word only in the negative sense in popular language, but all choice, good or bad, involves persuasion and therefore rhetoric. I intend to explore issues of literary value and work with words in a larger sense, in terms of the kinds of community that we are shaping for ourselves. We need to talk about these issues to understand our own New Knowledges.