Congruent Affinities: Reconsidering the Epideictic
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Aristotle's division of the "species" of rhetoric (deliberative, forensic, and epideictic) has served as a helpful taxonomy in historical accounts of rhetoric, but it has also produced undesirable effects. One such effect is that epideictic rhetoric has been interpreted historically as deficient, unimportant or merely ostentatious, while political or legal discourse retained a favored status in authentic civic life. This analysis argues that such an interpretation reduces contemporary attention to the crucial role that epideixis plays in modern discourse. As often interpreted, epideictic rhetoric contains at its heart a striving toward communal values and utopic ideals. Taking as its province the good/bad, the praiseworthy/derisible, it is a rhetorical form supremely attentive to what counts for audiences, cultures, and subcultures. As such, it has direct entailments for all forms of rhetorical practice, however categorized, for in its essence is not simply a suggestion of timeliness or appropriate context for its delivery, but also method: a focus on identification and affinity is at the heart of epideixis. Taking an expanded definition of epideixis, I argue that Aristotle's classification be read as provisional (that he allowed for and expected overlap with his divisions), and further, that criticism be seen as a form of contemporary epideixis. I claim that contemporary norms are more fractured than in classical times, and that as citizens no longer at the behest of formerly more unified cultural ideals it is through acts of criticism and aesthetic consensus that we often form emergent communities, gathering around objects of appraisal, around that which offers us pleasure (even the popular). I attempt to account for the mechanics of how, as Dave Hickey argues, “beautiful objects reorganize society, sometimes radically" (Invisible Dragon 81). The vectors through which this reorganization occurs are via popular discourse involving “comparisons, advocacy, analysis, and dissent” (Hickey Invisible Dragon 70), be it at the level of the interpersonal or in a more widely-sanctioned public forum such as professional criticism. I hope to show that epideixis is not a moribund rhetorical category, but a key discursive mode and way of forming community in our times.