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Questionable Rhetoric

Paul Northam

Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and the Environment. Craig Waddell, ed. 239 pp. Hermagoras Press, 1998. $26.

We've learned from Watergate. We've learned from Rachel Carson. We know how important rhetoric is in molding our perception of the world. We also know how central the environment is to our very survival. How is it, then, that this collection of so-called landmark essays can be so disappointing?

Don't get me wrong. There are some genuinely insightful essays here. Perhaps the best is Mark P. Moore's "Constructing Irreconcilable Conflict: The Function of Synecdoche in the Spotted Owl Controversy." According to Moore, the spotted owl is used as a synecdoche (a rhetorical figure in which the part represents the whole) by both sides in the controversy over harvesting old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. But for each group, the owl has a clearly distinct meaning: For environmentalists, it represents the uncertain future of endangered species; for the timber industry, the owl embodies a threat to jobs. Moore, though, shows us that the synecdoche becomes so overused, so overemphasized in the incessant quest for the perfect sound bite or easy image, that the larger issue devolves into a false, either/or dilemma; further, he presents an alternative synecdoche, in which the owl is taken to represent neither indicator species nor job thief but "something to be sacrificed or saved" in seeking the best course for human beings and other species. Moore's essay gives us a glimpse of the true shaping power of rhetoric in environmental issues and guides us to a more enlightened application of it.

It's too bad that so many other essays in the volume fall short of this standard. The litany of complaints could begin with the very definition of "rhetoric" employed by several writers. We sometimes go far afield. In "Earth First! and the Rhetoric of Moral Confrontation," for example, Brant Short follows several communications theorists in expanding "rhetoric" to include virtually any meaningful act, linguistic or otherwise, including "agitation," "confrontation" and "nondiscursive forms of persuasion"—including, apparently, such acts as tree spiking and vandalism, both of which Earth First! is often implicated in. If everything is rhetorical, nothing really is.

One wonders also what is specifically "rhetorical" about the extended narratives in so many of the essays. Christine Oravec narrates, in great detail, the story of the controversy over the proposed flooding of a portion of Yosemite National Park. Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer trace the evolution of our understanding of "hysteria." Thomas B. Farrell and G. Thomas Goodnight relate each step in the unfolding of the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island. All of this is interesting enough, but the authors allow their narratives to overshadow any significant commentary regarding the role of rhetoric in their subjects: Observations regarding rhetoric are relegated to all-too-brief and unsatisfying generalizations. The law of diminishing intellectual returns seems to be operative here—and in the disappointingly shallow and repeated recommendation that aspiring rhetoricians take into account their audiences. Now there is nothing wrong with constructing an audience as one undertakes a piece of writing or with analyzing an actual audience, but this is a strategy that is familiar to any conscientious graduate of freshman composition. In this area, as in so much of the book, from practicing scholars I would expect more.—Paul Northam, English, Johnson County Community College, Kansas

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