Monthly Archives: November 2014

Epistemology and Rhetorical Narrative Theory: Making it Fit

If the definition of rhetoric, at its most simple, is discourse that acts upon its audience in some way (and those ways may be under dispute)[1], then the study of rhetorical narrative theory necessarily involves analyzing narrative texts for the rhetorical effects they have upon their reading audience. What then, add validity and scope to this field, and, my question, what value does this have more broadly, beyond scholarly circles? Some scholars may see the value in rhetorical narrative theory in its ability to generate shared experiences of a text (Phelan), or its value may be understood to place narrative texts within the larger fields of cultural, historical, social, or political knowledge (Shen). Meretoja summarizes these divides between an epistemological understanding of texts, and their onotological value:

[T]heorists have been divided into those who conceive of narrative primarily as a cognitive instrument for imposing meaningful order onto human reality or experience (for example, Hayden White, Louis Mink, Daniel Dennett) and those who consider it to be primarily an ontological category that characterizes the human way of being in the world, that is, something constitutive of human existence. (89)

This then invites the major investigation of rhetoric theory: what is the relationship between the author and narrator (real, implied, reliable, unreliable) and the experience of the readerly audience, and what methods do we use to understand that relationship? How does a text act rhetorically upon its audience? If the implied author, sometimes in the voice of the narrator, has designs upon its audience, how can explicating those designs lead to deeper knowledge of the function of texts in our cultural and social worlds?

To answer these questions, it is necessary for the rhetorical scholar to be knowledgeable of the scope, validity, and methods within the field, however they might argue with each other. Though narrative theory and the rhetorical study of fictional narrative can have many epistemological factors that provide value and knowledge in our understanding of narrative texts, my own interests focus on the epistemological role of the narrator in narrative theory, and rhetorical narrative theory’s interest in the reliability of the narrator, how the narrator knows what she knows[2], and whether the role of the implied author creates critical knowledge in narrative study, or whether its debatable role distracts from more important foci that includes reader response and cultural truths/human experiences. And it may be that these philosophies need not be divided, and indeed many scholars have argued that methodological approaches should be integrated to form a unified field that allows us to “debate the similarities and differences, the commonalities and conflicts, among those methods” (Phelan, “Teaching Narrative” 218).

In attempting to bring together and place knowledge of narrative texts through a study of the debates, applied methodologies, and interpretive value generated by rhetorical narrative theory, I seek to really reveal how stories act upon readers through “the ways that authors use textual (and sometimes intertextual) phenomena to guide their audiences to respond to the communication in one way (or one set of ways) rather than another” (Phelan, “Cognitive Narratology” 310). But even that is not sufficient, as my interest is more deeply concerned with how these interpretations, whatever the methodologies, build knowledge of narrative texts beyond academia, into what Phelan describes as not just “the author’s private intentions but rather in his or her public, textualized intentions” and this “entails locating authorial agency in the implied rather than the actual author” (“The Implied Author, 127). As a pedagogy, this may bridge the academic realms of research and teaching, and allow deeper meaning-making of narrative and its role in our cultural, historical, and political contexts as what Meretoja terms the “complex interconnections between the ontological, epistemological, and ethical dimension of the relation between narrative and human existence” (90).

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Debates are part of what generates epistemological value in the disciplines, but in some cases, it may be more valuable to recognize perspectives that may conflict with those reified through a specific critical lens.

Finally, there remains the epistemology of interpretive methods and what objects of study can realize the author-audience dynamic of interpreting texts, and broader public interpretation of those same texts, or, framed as an academic question, can we experience texts in the same ways and how do those experiences build knowledge, values, and context in historical and modern culture? As we consider texts that range from fictional narrative, to the short story, to poems, and dramas, and nonfictional storytelling[3], we are really asking is if there are intentional actions put upon us as readers, in communication with the author. This casts into question the role of the real author, the implied author, the narrator (reliable or unreliable), the reader and the scholar, and are the major approaches concerned with methodizing our interpretation, both within the academy and beyond. Can a reconciliation of methods and theoretical approaches in rhetorical narrative theory “explain experience and organize knowledge” so that teaching and public discourse of texts addresses issues of cohesiveness and legitimacy in literary studies (Phelan, “Rhetorical Aesthetics,” 86)?


Works Cited:

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 1 (1968): 1-14. Print.

Booth, Wayne C. “How Many Rhetorics?” in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

Covino, William A. and David A. Jolliffe. Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries. New York: Longman, 1995. Print.

Heinze, Rueddiger. “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction.” Narrative 16.3 (October 2008): 279-97. Print.

Meretoja, Hanna. “Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics.” New Literary History 45.1 (Winter 2014): 89-109. Print.

Phelan, James. “Cognitive Narratology, Rhetorical Narratology, and Interpretive

Disagreement: A Response to Alan Palmer’s Analysis of Enduring Love.” Style 43.3 (Fall 2009): 309-21. Print.

——–“The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative:

Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-37. Print.

——–“Rhetorical Aesthetics and Other Issues in the Study of Literary Narrative.”

Narrative Inquiry 16.1 (2006): 85-93. Print.

——–“Teaching Narrative as Rhetoric: The Example of Time’s Arrow.” Pedagogy:

Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 10.1 (2009): 217-28. Print.

Zerweck, Bruno. “Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction.” Style 35.1 (Spring 2001): 151-78. Print.


[1] Wayne C. Booth explores the various definitions of rhetoric in his chapter “How Many Rhetorics?” and notes that Aristotle showed that “rhetoric has no specific territory or subject matter of its own, since it is found everywhere” (3). A thorough reading of the many definitions of rhetoric throughout time, premodern to postmodern philosophies, seems to bear up Aristotle’s premise, though Lloyd Bitzer’s definition may most fully give the scope of rhetoric as it acts within diverse domains in modern theory: “rhetoric is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (“The Rhetorical Situation,” 4). In addition, Covino and Jolliffe further define rhetoric as “primarily verbal, situationally contingent, epistemic art that is both philosophical and practical and gives rise to potentially active texts” but caution that within this domain there are certain limitations and ambiguities (“What is Rhetoric?” 5).

[2] See Ruediger Heinze’s article “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction” for a comprehensive articulation of how narrators “know” the story they tell; this rather fascinating approach assumes that narrators of the first-person and the “knowledge they display is temporally, spatially, or cognitively” unknown to them. How, then, do we trust their narration? Phelan further argues that this unreliability is intention by the author, and thus creates a certain response by readers.

[3] See my two PAB Posts #7 and #8, which explores texts and their interpretation using rhetorical narrative theory and especially, authorial intention and narrator reliability.


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Rhetorical Narrative Theory: Methods and Debates

When researching rhetorical narrative theory, it seemed at first that most scholarship began with some sort of defense of its efficacy among critics. Narrative theory as a field involves generating knowledge and lending value to literary texts as they intermingle with culture, politics, ethics, and social systems. James Phelan defines the rhetorical methodological approach as,

[S]omebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purposes that something happened, and the definition seeks to account for narrative as having a textual dynamics (the telling of something that happened) and a readerly dynamics (the developing responses of the somebody who receives that telling). (“Rhetorical Aesthetics,” 88)

This definition includes the concepts of narrative progression and judgment, which are interested in the “synthesis of textual dynamics and readerly dynamics” because they “directly links textual and readerly dynamics: judgments are communicated by the telling but they are activities of a reader” (89), or as Sheldon Sacks asked, “Do we read the same books?” (qtd. In Phelan Experiencing, ix).


Aside from James Phelan and Dan Shen, few scholars seem to believe that methodologies can live side-by-side in the field.

Now, rhetorical narrative theory lies alongside a range of theoretical lenses[1] that can be applied to the study of literary texts, though its scholars seem to belong a rather narrow field within the broader discipline. Examining the application of rhetorical narrative theory includes not just understanding how it is applied to narrative texts, but also its finer points of study within the field as they continue to be debated, and so, most articles do begin by addressing criticisms. Dan Shen argues that the rhetorical approach “has been shedding significant light on the relation among the implied author, narrator, character, and audience” as it takes its place in narrative theory among other prominent approaches, including feminist, Marxist, formalist, and cognitive (576). And as a major critical theory, one of its most published scholars, James Phelan, argues that, “The rhetorical approach has no a priori commitments to such things as the nature of literary language or the relations between ideology and literature, history and literature, or politics and literature. Indeed, the approach’s only major initial commitment is to the idea that authors design texts as purposive communicative actions” (227). As an object of study within the field itself, the how’s and what’s that question its methods keeps the field fresh and the dialogue lively among its scholars.

The New Criticism, widely adopted throughout the mid-twentieth century, applied a rigorous objectivity to critical theory to literary texts (Yagelski, 300), and New Criticism scholars generally question the legitimacy of critical theory that moves outside “the text itself,” and the instead strive for generating meaning by a close reading of the language, style, and aesthetics of particular texts. Even those scholars who embrace the rhetorical approach to analyzing narrative engage in a vibrant debate of the role and relevancy of the “implied author,” defined as the “author’s second self,” or more fully, “the implied author’s image is one “implied by the text” for readers to infer, an image “the IA wanted them to find,”[2] (Shen “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism,” 583). Though there is much more complexity to the role of the implied author – such as its variable invocations and relationship to the real author, narrator reliability, even a debate about the historical-I of the real author, the narrated-I, the narrating-I, and the ideological-I and the role of the implied author,[3] and the complexity of the depth of analysis when applying rhetorical theory – the debate itself remains an active object of study among rhetorical narrative theorists. Finally, rhetorical narrative theory seems to be combating an ongoing deconstructionalist argument that “seeking to identify an implied author (indeed, the implied author^) of a literary work can surely only appear as a dubious endeavor to reduce the multiplicity of a text’s meanings to the totalizing unity of authorial intention” (Stefanescu 49). Deconstruction is mistrustful of rhetorical theory because it often includes the study of authorial intent, which has raised many criticisms about “intentional fallacy” and whether we can really know intention and whether authorial intention even matters to the reader. Dan Shen attempts to clear up what she terms “decades of misinterpretation” of who the implied author is by offering this definition and clarification: The difference between the “implied author” (second self) and the “real author” (first self) is the difference between the person assuming a certain air or a particular stance when writing the text and the same person in daily life out of the writing process. (“Implied” 142). She further argues that the real author and their historical, cultural, and political contexts, while not primary, enrich the rhetorical study of texts because they “do often exert influence on one’s stance in composing a fictional narrative” and Shen demonstrates this through three studies of a real authors whose historical, biographical, and socio-cultural contexts deepend our understanding of the texts (“Neo-Aristotelian,” 585).

Within rhetorical narrative theory rests the rising influence of affect: the readerly response to texts, the judgments and ethics we apply, and this concept also addresses the question of “Do we read the same books?” Dr. Dana Heller, Chairperson of the Department of English at Old Dominion University, agrees that the understanding the rhetorical effect of certain texts, “[W]ould be appropriate and I think it is appropriate.   But I think we need to look just as closely at the rhetorical effect of cultures on texts. This is a two-way street” (“Personal Interview”). Continuing, she points out the growing field of affect study across the disciplines, exemplified in such works as the omnibus reader The Affect Theory Reader (Duke U. Press 2010), which surveys the “enormous body of work” being performed in affective theory (Heller). Understanding how texts work on us as readers and how we can analyze texts by constructing critical approaches that include the concept that “an author…guides us to experience [the text] one way or another” underpins rhetorical narrative theory (Phelan Experiencing, x). As it is applied to texts of any genre, it addresses the question: can we experience, or read, the same texts the same way?

Approaching literature as a point of study for its rhetorical effect allows scholars to be liberated from strictly genre, language, or historical study, and instead blend narrative literature through its affect over time, in its historical period, and for its place among other texts that resonated emotionally in culture. Studying both the texts under scrutiny for its affective nature and the debates within the field of rhetorical theory as they are waged, allows the rhetoric scholar a very broad field of study as well as the opportunity to participate in relevant and important dialogue in critical theory.


Works Cited

Copland, Sarah. “To Be Continued: The Story of Short Story Theory and Other Narrative Theory.” Narrative 22.1 (Jan.

2014): 132-149. Print.

Heller, Dana. “Personal Interview.” October 3 & 14, 2014. Email.

Phelan, James. Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative. Columbus: Ohio

State University Press, 2007. Print.

——– “The Implied Author, Deficient Narration, and Nonfiction Narrative: Or, What’s Off-Kilter in The Year of Magical Thinking and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?” Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 119-137. Print.

Shen, Dan. “Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Narrative Study: Need for Integrating Style, Context, and Intertext.” Style 45.4

(Winter 2011): 576-597. Print.

——–“Implied Author, Authorial Audience, and Context: Form and History in Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Theory.” Narrative 21.2 (May 2013): 140-158. Print.

Stefanescu, Maria. “Revisiting the Implied Author Yet Again: Why (Still) Bother? Style 45.1 (Spring 2011): 48-66. Print.

Yagelski, Robert P. “English Education.” English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Ed. Bruce McComisky.

Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. 275-319. Print.

[1] James Phelan notes in his essay “Rhetorical Aesthetics and Other Issues in the Study of Literary Narrative” that these approaches include: formalist, feminist, cognitive, rhetorical, psychoanalytic, Marxist, and others (86). He also discusses the interplay between these approaches and the issues now current in the field of literary narrative: nonmimetic narrative; digital narrative; the fact/fiction distinction; narrative space; and rhetorical aesthetics (86).

[2] See Dan Shen’s article “Neo-Aristotelian Criticism” for a fuller discussion and definition of the “implied author.” See also Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (U. of Chicago Press 1983) and James Phelan’s Experiencing Fiction: Judgments, Progressions, and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (Ohio State Press 2007).

[3] These are the four autobiographical “I’s” as defined by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson in Reading Autobiography (2001).


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