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Rhetorical Homologies: Form, Culture, Experience

Rhetorical Homologies: Form, Culture, Experience

by Barry Brummett

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A highly developed study of the relationships between rhetoric and public culture.

One of the most widely used ideas in scholarship of the humanities and social sciences is that of homology: a formal pattern structuring different kinds of texts, ideas, and experiences. Rhetorical Homologies explores the central meaning of this form in a variety


A highly developed study of the relationships between rhetoric and public culture.

One of the most widely used ideas in scholarship of the humanities and social sciences is that of homology: a formal pattern structuring different kinds of texts, ideas, and experiences. Rhetorical Homologies explores the central meaning of this form in a variety of discourses and also examines the kind of homologies that shape audience responses to personal, public, and political issues. Barry Brummett is most interested in homologies among very different orders of experience and texts: experiences on the battlefield that are homologous to those at a dining room table, for instance. What the common patterns that underlie such cases mean, why they are interesting, and why homology is rhetorical are the subjects of this study.

Brummett focuses on a wide range of topics, from the homologies between rhetoric and weapons throughout history to the homology of ritual injuries as manifested in representations of Christian martyrs, Laurel and Hardy films, the African-American practice of playing the dozens, and televised professional wrestling. Brummett also explores the homology of the Wise Woman, using rhetorical representations of Sojourner Truth and Oprah Winfrey. In a concluding chapter, Brummett argues that the idea of homology is important in understanding how social life is organized in general and that the centrality of discourse in organizing experience makes rhetorical homologies an important perspective for general knowledge beyond the boundaries of this study.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rhetorical Homologies  is an exceptionally well-crafted and -written work. Highly imaginative as well as at times provocative. . . . The individual studies in this text stand on their own as refined and sophisticated analyses of the relationship between rhetoric and public culture."—Raymie McKerrow, coeditor of Principles and Types of Pubic Speaking

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

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Rhetorical Homologies

Form, Culture, Experience

By Barry Brummett
The University of Alabama Press
Copyright © 2004

The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1423-1

Chapter One Rhetorical Homologies

Everything has shape, if you look for it. There is no escape from form. -Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Some strategies for understanding discourse and how it works in human affairs are very broadly shared across the humanities. Among these strategies is the principle of metaphor-the idea that one thing can stand in for, or represent, another; or the idea of linguistic structure-language forms a structure of oppositions and associations within texts that imply motivational structure; or the strategy of personae-authors take on certain personae, texts imply certain kinds of authors and likewise call upon readers to take up certain subject positions, readers may accept, refuse, or negotiate the stances they take in relationship to texts, and so forth. We find such strategies, often called by different names, at the heart of many methods and schools of thought. They are widely adaptable to different approaches and philosophies, and are likely to resonate with fundamental, even transcendent forms of thought, text, and communication.

Among these widely used strategies is the idea of homology. Although this principle takes on new meanings and connotations in its different applications, we will begin with an understanding of homology as a formal resemblance. A homology is a pattern found to be ordering significant particulars of different and disparate experiences. Because homologies are formal they are, as Michael Lane noted, "not on the surface, at the level of the observed, but below or behind empirical reality" (14). A homology is a formal structure that must be identified, described, and shown to be manifested in the particular content of texts and experiences. If A is like B on significant dimensions of form, to that extent the two are homologous. That it is formal makes a homology no less "real."

To illustrate: an extremely capable administrative associate in my department had spent a good hour dealing with an obstreperous faculty member who did not want to hear "no," who could not understand the nature of budgetary limits, and who reacted to anything but total acquiescence with pique, suspicion, and stubbornness. Once the faculty member had left, I observed to this administrator that she could not do her job if she were not the experienced, battle-tested mother o f two little boys-an observation with which she heartily agreed. I had asserted a homology between her home life and her work life. The faculty with which she must deal are not little boys and girls but often their behavior is formally similar to the behavior of children. A child will not understand why he cannot simply have that expensive toy; a professor will not understand why she cannot simply take that trip at department expense to a far corner of the earth. A general formal pattern of "self-centered greed with no understanding of the principle of limited resources" underlies both sets of behavior.

Homologies may also undergird the kinds of experiences that are thought of as primarily textual, and it may bring texts into the same pattern as extratextual experience (we may modify these distinctions later, but they serve for the moment). Back home in the evening, the administrative associate might calm her frazzled nerves by reading a book or watching a television show in which the story line likewise embodies a pattern of "self-centered greed" as well as suggesting a cure for the affliction of greed in others. The text of the book or show would be homologous with the experience she had during the day, and because it would be homologous (linked, relevant) it could thus speak to her and advise her as to what to do and how to feel. Such a homologous text would have rhetorical power.

Homology is most interesting when it is observed as a linkage among disparate orders of experience, such as texts, media, different kinds of material experience, and so forth. The more disparate, the more interesting and insightful is the homology. If I had observed the administrative associate's skillful handling of two young girls in a playground squabble, my comment about her qualifications as a mother of two young boys would not have asserted an interesting homology, since managing two young boys and managing two young girls are not disparate orders of experience, and thus, although the link between the two sets may well also be formal, the shared content of dealing with real little children is as important and relevant as is any kind of shared form. Homology is interesting and worth investigating when a pattern of behavior on the battlefield is the same as a pattern of behavior in the living room, or in the theater, or while grocery shopping. If a common pattern is found across experiences like that, a homology worth investigating exists; what that means, why it is interesting, and why homology is rhetorical are the subjects of this book.

In the following pages I will explain the virtues of homology as a widely used methodological strategy across the humanities, and will then focus on the more specific idea of rhetorical homology. A rhetorical homology is a special case of formal resemblance, grounded in discursive properties, that facilitates the work of political and social rhetoric, or influence. Attunement to rhetorical homology through methods of rhetorical criticism allows one to track lines of rhetorical influence that might otherwise be obscured. To understand how rhetorical homologies are created among different classes of experience can be a useful way to understand how power is created, managed, or refused rhetorically in human affairs.

To begin this discussion, let us note that the idea of a formal resemblance calls up a distinction between form and content, itself a venerable staple of textual analysis. The distinction needs to be revisited and reconsidered. I will argue that the distinction between form and content is continuous and variable rather than sharply dichotomous, an insight that will help us understand how rhetorical homologies work.

What Is Form, What Is Content?

A simple distinction that might be made between form and content holds that content is the information conveyed by a message whereas form is either the pattern that orders the content or the physical manifestation of the message. Both distinctions are hard to maintain. Suppose I want to tell you the combination to a safe. The numbers to which one should turn would be the content of such a message. But the ordering of those numbers is surely just as much a part of the message; it does make a difference whether one turns to 15 first or to 6. Order and pattern are inseparable from the bare articulation of the content in the first place; it makes a difference whether I put a 1 first or a 5 if I want to convey the idea of the number 15.

When we say "form" and mean the physical manifestation of a message, we are also speaking of patterns and regularities. If I give you the combination of the safe "in the form of" a song, we know it is a song because it follows the pattern of other messages we call songs. To be apprehensible, a physical manifestation of any message must be a recognizable type of thing, and thus follows a form. If I say, "This radio station must be country-western," it is because I recognize the forms that make the one song I am now hearing representative of a type of music. But this idea of form as a physical manifestation that conforms to a pattern is likewise difficult to separate from the idea of content, as form so often works to convey information on its own terms.

If you and I are dining and I want you to pass me the salt, I might say, "Pass the salt, please," or I might say, "Praise Jesus! And thank God, that I may receive the salt today," or I might say, "If you would be so kind, my dear Arbuthnot, to help me to the salt when entirely convenient, I would be most appreciative." One might say that the content in each utterance is the same (I am expressing a desire for salt) but that in each case the utterance follows a different form that is shared by other utterances in other contexts, respectively: ordinary social interaction, the evangelist's tent revival, and a conspicuously mannered, formal style.

But the distinction here between form and content is not so simple, for surely into each simple content of a request for salt the formal resemblance to another kind of utterance has also injected the content of ordinary interaction, religion, or mannered formality. If we insist on a conceptual distinction between form and content we find that new content piggybacks in on the form that is being used. My use of a religious form of address sneaks into our conversation the odor of candles and incense. Form is thus a bridging device, using a shared pattern to facilitate the mixing, shifting, and associating of content across different dimensions of experience. To make distinctions between form and content may thus be largely conventional, as in fact they are both intertwined. We will examine the work of Kenneth Burke later, but here let us note that he is likewise of this opinion, for he argues in The Philosophy of Literary Form that his method (which I shall argue is often homological) "integrates considerations of 'form' and 'content'" (90).

An even deeper reason why form and content are inherently inseparable has to do with the idea that unless content or information is patterned, it cannot be part of human consciousness. One of the clearest explanations of this claim comes from I. A. Richards, who argues in The Philosophy of Rhetoric that even our most basic perceptions are structures of sensations, and that we do not "have" such experiences until they are ordered and structured:

I can make the same point by denying that we have any sensations.... A sensation would be something that was just so, on its own, a datum; as such we have none. Instead we have perceptions, responses whose character comes to them from the past as well as the present occasion. A perception is never just of an it; perception takes whatever it perceives as a thing of a certain sort. (30)

The idea of the "sort" is key in Richards, and it is a thoroughly formal term. He argues that "a particular impression is already a product of concrescence. Behind, or in it, there has been a coming together of sortings" (36). Writing with C. K. Ogden, Richards argues that "whenever we 'perceive' what we name 'chair,' we are interpreting a certain group of data (modifications of the sense organs), and treating them as signs of a referent" (22). This means that all of experience is formal, patterned, before it enters our consciousness at all: " experience h as the character of recurrence, that is, comes to us in more or less uniform contexts" (55). Other thinkers such as Susanne Langer agree in arguing that "sense-data and experiences ... are essentially meaningful structures" (266)-note that formal term, structures. Running throughout all these observations by Richards, Ogden, and Langer is the paradox that formal thinking asserts a similar structure underlying dissimilar experiences. To see many different experiences as of the same sort merges the disparate into the same formal order. That is the role of homology: not to unite what is already the same, but to link disparate orders of experience by way of the same form. Of course, since nothing in everyday experience is ever exactly the same as anything else, homology must be the engine of stable categories in our consciousness.

These observations may be found throughout the humanities among many different thinkers. The implication is that even the simplest piece of information or "content" is already patterned, formal; indeed, it is present to us in the form of content or information precisely because it is formed. Yet there remains an intuitive sense of something we would call form, which works palpably in a different way and at a different level from content, even if it is inseparable from it. The content of the idea that "a tree is a beautiful thing" can be conveyed in discourse that follows the form of a lyric poem, or in discourse that follows the form of a technical report, and so forth. What are we attuned to in thinking about form as something distinct from content, even in principle, when we make such a distinction?

I propose thinking of form and content as shifting positions on a continuum of abstraction. Key to the idea of perceptions as sortings or structures, explored previously, is the idea of abstraction. The simplest physical perception is already at some level of abstraction "up" from the level of raw, immediate physical sensation. Every sensation is experienced as a sensation of a particular "sort," and is thus always already abstract as it reaches human consciousness. Note that abstraction is a kind of formal linkage. This particular pain is experienced as a pain of some sort, as linked to, as like, other pains of this sort that I have experienced in the past. To abstract is to assert a resemblance that cuts across specific local experiences; those resemblances across experiences constitute form.

An experience can be, among other things, kinesthetic, such as walking down the street, or it can be textual, such as viewing a film. Any particular experience thus has information or content: something happens, a difference is made, some new shift in one's view of the world occurs; and it also has form: a pattern or structure that makes it like other experiences and links it to those experiences. Those are but different points on the continuum of abstraction. In all experiences, we receive content or information and we also experience patterned linkages from the experience to other experiences of the same sort. The dimension of experience that is relatively more immediate and local is content; the dimension of experience that is relatively more patterned and connected to other sorts of experience is form. The news broadcast I watch right now brings me information or content about a specific murder that has just occurred, but as I process that information in increasingly higher levels of abstraction I likewise move toward increasingly wider circles of connection to see this murder as being of the same sort as other murders, this news broadcast as being of the same sort as other broadcasts-in other words, as having form and formal connections.

But what makes a "sort"? This is a crucial question. Sorts of experiences, groups of experiences linked together formally, need not be the same orders of experience. If we think of films as naturally being in formal linkage to other films, we may be trying to trace formal linkages by following content (the content of film). The "form and genre" line of research in rhetorical studies is strong and venerable, and often takes this approach, as in Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson's seminal study. Grouping films together as a form because they are all about, say, war, or because they all respond to predictably recurrent contexts is certainly a way to identify formal patterns creating a "sort," but there may be wider and more inclusive sorts yet. A film about alien space invasions may at some level of abstraction share patterns or forms with my experience of office life at work, or with the form of a family conflict, or the form of a news story about a political convention. As we slide on the scale of abstraction from the content of the immediate to the formal sortings found higher up that scale, we must be prepared to jump the tracks laid down by the lower, content-heavy levels of abstraction and find higher level formal links among all sorts of experiences-or should I say, all kinds of experiences within a sort. "Sorts" may thus be understood as increasingly wide circles of formal resemblance, of abstraction, that continue moving outwards until at some point the formal linkages break, or become less interesting and compelling than narrower linkages. "Things appear, they change, they disappear" may be the widest homology of all, but you can't use it to get published.

Form and content are thus continuous rather than distinct. They are arrayed on a scale of abstraction, which is a scale of connections and linkages through sortings. A usage that treats form and content as distinct is quite widespread, but as we explore those usages among other scholars, or as we express such a distinction here, we will need to bear in mind the artificiality of the difference being asserted. As noted earlier, a term that is very widely used to mean formal linkages is the word homology. Let us review some of the ways that term has been used in many different scholarly literatures.


Excerpted from Rhetorical Homologies by Barry Brummett Copyright © 2004 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Barry Brummet is the author of several books, including The World and How We Describe It: Rhetorics of Reality, Representation, Simulation; Reading Rhetorical Theory; and Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture.

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