Corbett – The Rhetoric of the Open Hand and the Rhetoric of the Closed Fist


1.     Definitions:

i.    Closed fist – symbolized the tight, spare, compressed discourse of the philosopher.  In the contemporary condition, the closed fist “might signify the kind of persuasive activity that seeks to carry its point by non-rationale, non-sequential, often non-verbal, frequently provocative means.

ii.    Open hand – symbolized the relaxed, expansive, ingratiating discourse of the orator.  In the contemporary condition, the open hand “might be said to characterize the kind of persuasive discourse that seeks to carry its point by reasoned, sustained, conciliatory discussion of the issues.

2.     Corbett claims that the closed fist is emblematic of the strategies of persuasion in the 1960s (288, 1st column).

1.     As revisions, can we substitute 2000s for the 1960s to highlight the neoliberalization of the “closed fist” discourse that turned away from the open hand of white bourgeois argumentation (Habermasian in nature) toward a non-argumentative stance embodied by the Bush administration and into the current?

Section 1:

1.     Corbett explicitly links rhetorical instruction in the Renaissance (via folks like Baldwin, Howell, Tuve, Ong, etc.) humanist schools with logic and rhetoric so that he can paint a picture of the liberal humanist values that were valued in the period leading up to the Enlightenment.

a.     Corbett notes that the emotional appeal held little value in the culture of the time because of the emphasis “on the cerebral in Renaissance discourse is the natural consequence of the close union of rhetoric and dialectic in the Tudor classroom” (289, 1st column).

b.     The ethical appeal didn’t receive a lot of explicit attention during the period; however, the influence of folks like Quintilian and Cicero was very present as they highlighted the moral emphasis of the aspiring pupil in a Christian context.  When coupled with the distinctly aristocratic hue of pupil in the period, the ethical appeal really operated to validate these individuals as the best men – both in ethical nature and in breeding.

c.     At the same time, the effect of print was profound on rhetorical/logical instruction.  Because students were moved away from dialectic/dialogue toward monologue/writing the nature of persuasive discourse transformed.  As Corbett states, “not of the stop-and-go, fragmentary, oral-aural dialogue that Socrates had practiced but of the sequential, structured monologue that Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian had given instructions about in their rhetorics” (290, 1st column).[w1]

d.    In effect, the distributed nature of print and the enlargement of the world (through exploration, colonial adventures, etc.) made writers of the time think about audience in different ways – in ways that had to take into account “an international community of scholars, merchants, and statesmen” that simply wouldn’t have been around before.

e.     Corbett notes that the use of Latin (a higly formal, learned, even uncommon” language) during the Renaissance period was a curious thing – especially considering language/communication/rhetoric had long been concerned exclusively with a “mass audience” (290, 2nd column).  According to Howell, this was the result of the elite wanting to hear their own language so that it would function as a repudiation of other class structures (lower classes) – it was certainly a gatekeeping mechanism.

f.      Corbett argues that “academic rhetorics” have long served the interests of established society – presupposing the “’goods’ of order, civility, reason, decorum, and civil or theocratic law” (291, 1st column).  For Corbett, the nature of this form of rhetoric is the genesis for the rhetoric of the closed fist – a rhetoric that seeks to disrupt the aristocratic, academic nature of traditional rhetorical enterprise.

Section II:

1. C. begins his discussion of the “new rhetoric” of the closed fist by noting that often these forms of rhetoric are non-verbal.  Specifically he characterizes these as “muscular rhetoric” or “body rhetoric[w2] ” (used to describe “marches, boycotts, sit-ins, take-overs, riots” (291 – right hand column).  This form of rhetoric is accompanied by “accouterments” like flags, armbands, costumes, pins, etc.  Music is also important here.

2. Corbett recognizes that when the “ultimate confrontation” comes that “coherent sentences have to be resorted to, and we are back to the strategies of traditional rhetoric” (292, 1st column).  Yet, the amazing thing about body rhetoric is that it has made possible the “stage for nitty-gritty negotiation” with the hegemonic forces.

3. Corbett argues that the non-verbal nature of the new rhetoric is because of an expansion/exposure to vast amounts of electronic media (a development anticipated by McLuhan) that have “intensified the human sensorial.”  Corbett goes on to describe an experience in Greenwich village wherein he is subject to “immersion[w3] ” in a field of super-sensory experiences.  Corbett sees this adoption/integration into systems of immersive physical stimuli as mass culture watering down the “concept of literacy” so that words can no longer give sufficient accounts of the sum of realities that individuals experience (292, 2nd column).

4. Another facet/characteristic of this kind of rhetoric is that it tends to be a “group rhetoric.”  In other words, rhetoric doesn’t become an enterprise wherein the top marshals the rest (“the solitary speaker or writer held forth for an allotted time or space); rather, rhetorical activity is group-led and mass demonstration. . . a rhetoric that is participatory[w4] .  Corbett sees this “mass participatory” quality as another iteration of tribalization made possible by electronic media (relying on McLuhann) because it makes possible connections among people through alternative channels[w5] .  This group rhetoric is also characterized by a desire to participate in groups to avoid retaliation from the state (safety in numbers).

5. Corbett mentions that the fact that “in densely populated, highly complex societies, like ours, the individual is such a cipher that he thinks it presumptuous of him to demand the sustained attention of an audience, but he realizes that his anonymity acquires a powerful voice when it merges with the [w6] group” (293, 1st column).

6. According to Corbett, this new rhetoric of the closed fist also relies on a “coercive” rather than “persuasive” tactic of argumentation.  What Corbett means here is that rhetoric that is coercive [w7] doesn’t necessarily contain a moral imperative.  If traditional persuasive discourse highlights the availability of numerous paths to action (but preferences one), then this new form of discourse is coercive in that very few viable alternatives are offered.  It is here where Corbett’s main criticism of this new rhetoric operates as he highlights how the elimination of “choices” likewise results in the elimination of rhetoric itself.

7. Corbett seems to sympathize (even a little bit) in this section by noting that the folks that resort to violence/action in the face of very few rhetorical choices (there is no persuasive rhetoric because the persuasion to another position simply doesn’t exist) are usually the “disenfranchised in our society – poor people, students, minority groups” (293, 2nd column).  What Corbett sees as problematic about this particular way of making arguments is that the coercive rhetoric of violent action tends to permeate all discursive encounters – even when freedom or welfare isn’t at stake.  He notes that “What does seem to be on the increase, however, is the deliberate disdain for, even revolt against, truth and logic among those whom we would expect to be more responsible[w8] ” (294, 1st column).

8. Corbett notes the use of the “rhetoric of unreason” via a quote by Wayne Booth on the bottom of 294.  As Booth notes, the appeal in putting together facts/ideas logically “so that they can ‘track’ or ‘follow’ doesn’t seem to appeal to many of us any more” (294, 2nd column top).  Corbett is afraid of how this non-rationality is becoming the dominant rhetorical tactic for the up-and-coming generation.  Corbett notes that he would be sympathetic and understand if this was the rhetoric of a “disenfranchised people who have exhausted or who do not have available, the normal channels of communication with those who can do something to alleviate their miseries.  This is the aberrant rhetoric of supposedly intelligent people professionally engaged in the pursuit of truth and reason” (294, 2nd column).  In other words, Corbett sees these developments as the ascendency of the pathetic appeal.  To this development he comments, “God help us all.”

9. Corbett notes that the new rhetoric of the closed fist is also “non-conciliatory” or is seeks to purposefully antagonize or alienate its audience (295, 1st column top).  In this case, truth-speaking or “tell[ing] it as it is” is a frowned upon (by C. anyway) rhetorical tactic because it consciously alienates its audience[w9] .  To this point Corbett uses Burkean identification to highlight how the rhetoric of the closed fist has fundamentally missed its mark because of its insistence on not identifying itself with the mainstream audience – “That is a lesson that many conemporary speakers or writers have not learned.  Or if they have learned it, they have chosen to ignore it” (295, 1st column, bottom).  Yet, C. recognizes that this might simply the a new kind of ethical appeal – an ethical appeal of shouting the loudest gets the most attention (top of 295 2nd column.

Section 3:

1.     Corbett recognizes that he has been pitting “an older mode of discourse which was verbal, sequential, logical, monolinguist, and ingratioating” against a newer form “which is often non-verbal, fragmentary, coercive, interlocutory, and alienating” (295, 2nd column); however, he isn’t necessarily convinced that the older style is better (though it certainly seems that way).  C. recognizes that the changes in electronic media are shifting the kinds of argumentation that a particular culture values[w10] .

2.     C. recognizes that the new rhetoricians might understand the rhetoric of the open hand (the civility, decorum, and orderliness of the older mode of discourse as a façade behind which establishment in all ages has perpetrated injustices on the have-nots) as necessarily hegemonic; however, Corbett recognizes the problem not in the rhetoric, but its application and use by “human frailty” (296, 2nd column).  Corbett closes by noting that we need a rhetoric that both opens and closes – a rhetoric that will “let up be prepared to open and close that hand as the occasion demands” (296, 2nd column) so that we can “lend a hand-up to us poor mortals in this humming present.”

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