Behind the Wizard’s Curtain: Using Rhetoric to Understand Literary and Cultural Studies Criticism

Behind the Wizard’s Curtain: Using Rhetoric to Understand Literary and Cultural Studies Criticism

My friend and colleague Jim Warren recently shared two article with me that I really enjoyed and which have been instrumental in changing how I think about my research and teaching. Both articles have made me more aware of how I think about literature when I sit down to write about it, and have offered me some provocative ideas about how to better teach my students how to be literary critics. The articles are “‘The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism’ Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice” by Laura Wilder (from the journal Written Communication, 2005) and “A Method for Teaching Invention in the Gateway Literature Class” by Joanna Wolfe (from the journal Pedagogy, 2003). Wilder defines the rhetorical underpinnings of contemporary literary and cultural studies, building primarily on the work of  J. Fahnestock and M. Secor, authors of an article titled “The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism” that was published in Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities (1991), and George Pullman, author of “Rhetoric and Hermeneutics: Composition, Invention, and Literature.” (from the journal JAC, 1994). Wolfe similarly builds on Fahnestock and Secor, and Pullman, as well as earlier scholarship by Wilder, to explore the application of their findings to the teaching of literature in a gateway course.

The gist of the research contained in the work of Wilder, Wolf, and Fahnestock and Secor, is how literary critics use two types of rhetorical conventions, the stases and the topoi. I am not a rhetorician, and do not claim much expertise in the history of that field, so my synthesis on what the stases and topoi are and how they function in the case of my field, will be necessarily general and gestural. (However, I am infinitely grateful to know something about them, after being ignorant of them for more than my twenty years as a student or instructor of literature).

The stases are, according to Wilder, “tools of rhetorical analysis” that “characterize the question or questions an argument seeks to resolve, in other words, the issues a rhetor sees as controversial to his or her audience” (83). In classical rhetoric, there were many different definitions and classifications of the stases, but the fundamental stases Wilder et. al invoke are:

  • Existence
  • Definition
  • Evaluation
  • Cause
  • Proposal

If the stases provide the speaker/author with a type of argument or arguments, the topoi provide tools for arguing the stases. As Wolfe writes: “Once the speaker has used the stases to isolate the type of questions to adress and has identified the general objective of the discourse, the topoi provide a ‘spring-board’ for launchign the argument in the right direction” (406). These are the topoi that Wilder et al. identify as pertinent to contemporary literary and cultural studies praxis:

  • Appearance vs. Reality: or, as I would sum it up, a literary text is not what it appears to be. Any professor of literature can tell you that this is a vital topos in their teaching, since students who are new to literary criticism have trouble getting beyond the surface of a literary text.
  • Paradox: the bringing together of points that would seem to be in opposition.
  • Paradigm: the application of a theory or a way of reading literature upon a literary text.
  • Ubiquity: the identification of a pattern in a literary text, such as symbolism, motifs, etc. I am always using the topos of ubiquity in my classes, to help students get beyond the surface of the text and to lead them deeper into it.
  • Context/Intention: The use of historical context and authorial intent to help us understand the literary text. This instance of the Intentional Fallacy is actually quite important to those of us who work on literature that is not contemporary or for Marxist literary critics (see Paradigm category above).
  • Mistaken Critic: meaning “so-and-so is wrong, and here I am to correct the record with my brilliant analysis” (irony: two years later, the same author becomes the ‘mistaken critic’ in another author’s analysis of the same text).
  • Contemptus mundi: contempt for the state of the world in the present, a topos that is a bit archaic in contemporary criticism. Contempus mundi is how I feel when I read nineteenth-century classics for pleasure to escape from my day to day problems and from world politics, all the while believing that it is good for me.
  • Social Justice: the updating of Contempus mundi for the politically-committed criticism, such as Marxism, Post-Colonialism, Queer Studies and Feminism, which see the use of Paradigm (see above) as a way of promoting social justice in some way.

Wilder takes the stases and the topoi and uses them to study a random sampling of 28 scholarly articles from literary/cultural studies.  Most articles (86%) could be classified as relating to the stasis of Definition. The most popular topoi are the Mistaken Critic (86%), Appearance/reality (71%), Ubiquity (71%), Paradigm (68%) and Social Justice (68%). Approximately half of the articles used Paradox and Context and a scarce 6% drew from Contemptus Mundi (which is, as stated above, an archaic idea tied to New Criticism, probably). In the diminishing influence of Contemptus Mundi and the rise of the Mistaken Critic and Context  topoi, Wilder sees a turn toward rhetorical practices utilized in the Sciences. I do wonder if the Mistaken Critic topos is a function of the proliferation or relativization of theory in the last decade or two, allowing for more posturing. I don’t know, but it’s a thought.

Wolfe shares her experiences using the stases and the topoi in her introduction to literature classes and concludes that they are powerful and effective pedagogical tools. Students don’t know what literary criticism is and how to do it when they start taking literature classes (in any language). They must be taught the conventions, rhetorical and otherwise, of speaking of and about literary texts. As Fahnestock and Secor argue, the overarching framework for studying literature is complexity: that the study of literary texts “requires patience unraveling, translating, decoding, interpreation and analyzing. Meaning is never obvious or simple” (89). To which I say Amen, and I return to class with renewed inspiration to tell them the same thing again and again.

There’s something delightful about seeing literary and cultural scholarship being disassembled so artfully into constituent parts. It’s the ultimate demystification, and a welcome invitation (for me, at least), to think about how I write and for what ends. It’s also an invitation to all professors of literature to come clean with their students about what’s behind the wizard’s curtain.

Works Cited:

Fahnestock, Jeanne, and Marie Secor. “The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism.” In Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities, ed. Charles Bazerman and James Paradis, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991: 76-96.

Pullman, George L. “Rhetoric and Hermeneutics: Composition, Invention, and Literature.” JAC 14 (1994): 367–87.

Wilder, Laura. “The Rhetoric of Literary Criticism” Revisited: Mistaken Critics, Complex Contexts, and Social Justice.” Written Communication 22 (2005): 76-119.

Wolfe, Joanna. “A Method for Teaching Invention in the Gateway Literature Class.Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to the Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 3.3 (2003): 399-425.


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