studies in the history of science and culture
   PREVIEWS > forthcoming GALLERY exhibits > annotation 14
   Search this site
© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008

Baroque-era printer's ornament

on rhetoric and its iconography

This is a companion exhibit to the forthcoming e-text of Hobbes’ A Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique (1637) in the LIBRARY, to the forthcoming GALLERY exhibits on Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Sciendi (item CAT. 1 in the gallery catalog) and John Bulwer’s Chirologia: Or the Naturall Language of the Hand (1644), to the forthcoming ISSUES webessays on gender and language, and to the forthcoming IN BRIEF topic on critical pluralism.

Because rhetoric was almost always figured as female, there is a contradiction between the iconography for Rhetorica and the theory & practice of rhetoric as taught in schools — described by feminist critics as a male-dominated ritual of agonistic debate that turns on probabilities and ends with a winner and a loser. In the words of Miriam Brody,

The metaphor of the agon addressed the combative stance of a masculine hero in public places, repressing and silencing as a feminine half of human enterprise those apparently useless temporizings and equivocations debilitating to agonistic projects.

Furthermore, because women have too often been denied citizenship rights and the ability to participate in public life, such classical definitions of rhetoric as “persuasive argumentation practiced by citizens” are now seen as excluding women and women’s rhetorical activities.

While it is true that “the Adversary Paradigm” cannot account for large portions of historical populations and significant kinds of suasory activities, the iconographic tradition indicates that this has not been the only view of rhetoric to hold sway, even within elite, educated circles.

The emblem for Rhetorick, as adapted from Cesare Ripa’s canonical Iconologia (1593; illustrated, 1603), shows

   A fair Lady, richly cloth’d, with a noble Head-dress; very complaisant; holds up her right Hand open; a Scepter in her left, with a Book; on the Skirt of her Petticoat are these Words, ORNATUS PERSUASIO; of a ruddy Complexion, with a Chimera at her Feet.
   Fair and complaisant, because there is none so ill bred that is not sensible of the Charms of Eloquence. Her open Hand shews Rhetoric discourses in a more open Way than Logic. The Scepter, her Sway over Mens Minds. The Book, Study requisite. The Motto denotes its Business: The Chimera, the three Precepts of it; judicial, demonstrative, and deliberative.

The “open Way” of Rhetorick suggests an adaptability and sensitivity to the occasion for speech, a more nuanced situational response that allows for shifting contexts including, but not limited to, the rituals of the agon.

And Rhetorick’s “Charms of Eloquence,” along with “her Sway over Mens Minds,” suggest commonplace stereotypes about the power of women’s speech (since Eve) in leading men astray. It was such worry over the proven seductiveness of women’s speech that prompted the many injunctions to silence found in hundreds of early modern texts. Ripa’s emblem for Persuasione (Persuasion) embodies centuries of accumulated anxiety over our psychological susceptibility to the communicative arts:

   A phantastical Woman; a Tongue fastn’d to her Head Attire, with an Eye over it; she seems whimsical; and is tied round with Cords, with an Animal with three Heads.
   The Tongue denotes its being the Instrument of Persuasion: the Eye Exercise and Art, contributing to Persuasion: the Cords, Force of Eloquence, binding up the Will. The Animals signifie three Things; to insinuate, by the fawning Dog; Docility by the Ape; Attention, by the Cat, which is diligent.

Yet, despite the range of cultural pressures they confronted, early modern women “were not interpellated into a tragic female speechlessness,” as Ann Rosalind Jones has rightly noted, adding that women of all ages “need to be read in relation to the male writers and male-defined discourses of their time”:

I share with materialist feminists such as Judith Newton the conviction that women’s history should be read as a process of struggle and creative accommodation to social realities and cultural forms, rather than “a tragic and timeless story of individual suffering” — or of group suffering under immutable patriarchal and symbolic orders. I want to resist interpretive frameworks that doom women of the past — or the present — to a relentlessly disempowered relation to political and cultural practices.

When William Cavendish advised his prince, the future Charles II, to implement educational reforms — for girls as well as boys — it was because women’s dissenting voices had proven suasory power. “The Bible In English under Every weavers, & Chamber maids Armes hath Done us much hurte,” he wrote to Charles. Hence, England can no longer permit “weavers to teach petty Scooles, And Expound the Bible, which hath added much to our miseries.” “Scoolemasters, from the petty Scooles, to the Gramer Scooles” should be carefully screened to ensure that “they bee orthodoxe according to the Church of England, & so to Educate their Puples.”

And Even the females, all Girles muste goe to the same petty scooles for if they bee Infected with a weavers Docterine, att firste, they will infecte their Husbands afterwards, Therefore no teaching of scooles, Eyther petty or Gramer scooles, but such as the Bishops shall alow of & thinke Fitt.

One cannot help but wonder if Charles recalled his old governor’s advice during an exchange on 11 Jan. 1664 with a Quaker woman petitioning the court. According to Pepys,

... This morning I stood by the King, arguing with a pretty Quaker woman that delivered to him a desire of hers in writing. The King showed her Sir J. Minnes, as a man the fittest for her quaking religion, saying that his beard was the stiffest thing about him. And again merrily said, looking upon the length of her paper, that if all she desired was of that length, she might lose her desires. She modestly saying nothing till he begun seriously to discourse with her, arguing the truth of his spirit against hers. She replying still with these words, ‘O King!’, and thou’d him all along.

Regardless of how her petition was decided, the woman effectively made her case to the king, adapting her argument to suit royal whim without compromising core principles.

Aubrey gives additional insight into women’s kairic eloquence (at varying social levels) by describing how the same sociopolitical forces that afforded the Quaker woman new rhetorical powers inhibited those of the nurse and maid who, for generations, had successfully used “the bogeyman” to modify the naughty behavior of children:

When I was a child, and so before the civill warres, the fashion was for old women and maydes to tell fabulous stories, night-[t]imes, and of sprights and walking of ghosts, etc. This was derived downe from mother to daughter, etc., from the monkish ballance, which upheld holy Church: for the divines say “Deny spirits, and you are an atheist.” When the warres came, and with them liberty of conscience and liberty of inquisition, the phantomes vanish. Now children feare no such things, having heard not of them, and are not checked with such feares.

Clearly, Rhetorick’s adaptive strategies were exercised in all of women’s spheres, domestic and public.

In a very smart essay, Tony Davies has explained how Elizabethan grammarians, orthographers and educators all regarded speech as the primary form of language, and writing as a second, imitative mode. This was in keeping with the central humanist concept of eloquence (from the Latin, “speaking out”) — that is, voice as the authentic sign of being. Or as the Renaissance poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, put it: “speak, that I may see thee.”

Davies believes that the social valuations of a Renaissance phonocentric culture disadvantaged a range of people, including women and men affiliated with the new science (such as John Wilkins), many of whom turned to writing:

those who have no voice in the order of things must become grammatologists, invent a writing.

To Davies, 17th-century women who invented “writing-systems” and “domestic” genres were engaged in empowering acts. And he warns against feminists’ tendencies to romanticize oral culture: “speech, with its dominating presence and its ineradicable social accents” favors men, he writes; in fact,

the silencing, invisibility and subordination of women continue to be registered in terms suggestive of their dependence on writing.

Even if we admit that what Davies describes as the humanists’ “ebullient masculinity” (tied to “picaresque performative vocality”) is not shared by all men, there is still a sense in which the “spoken world” in patriarchal societies remains “paradigmatically male.” Despite the traditional figurations of Rhetorica, in many cultures, authoritative presence still attaches more to stereotypically masculine than feminine bodies and voices. The politically astute Elizabeth I, for example, knew that her authority rested on her ability to present a hybrid sex-gender; hence, her famous remark in the speech before the Armada:

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.

Since at least the early modern period, women have complained of not being listened to, and of having their counsels ignored. But the fact that “all male and female talk occurs within a regime of male supremacy” is beyond the frame of Rhetorica iconography, as is disputation in general (sometimes labeled “Sophistae” and almost always depicted by the chaotic, battling figures of men). Significantly, this framing removes rebellious or indecorous language which challenges privilege and power differentials, or makes demands for social justice and accountability, from Rhetorick’s purview.

This has meant that we lack rhetorically-guided, non-adversarial models of critical pluralism (as envisioned, for example, by Iris Marion Young in her call for “an openness to unassimilated otherness”). bell hooks has written at length about the need for new rhetorics that build from, without suppressing, deeply rooted differences of belief (e.g., about honing “strategies of confrontation” that allow us to “engage in critical dissent without violating one another”).

A recent example of this is John Trimbur’s “rhetoric of dissensus,” which serves “as a critical instrument to open gaps in the conversation through which differences may emerge.”

Another example is Miriam Brody’s recommendation that we “imagine the metaphor of our public conversations as a design rather than a battle”:

A design admits the mutual interdependency of all its constituent parts and idealizes that some coherence may be wished for as the outcome of a multiplicity of positions.... A design ... may serve our projects for social justice better than the contest [i.e., agon] or the cacophony [i.e., of difference], both of which allow for nonnegotiated settlements.

And new practices of critical pluralism continue to emerge over Internet discussion lists and through the medium of e-mail (the electronic republic of letters). Writing in a 24 July 2005 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley noted that

E-mail can be a fabulous medium for serious discussion, combining as it does the spontaneity of talking with the opportunity for reflection inherent in writing it down.

While Kinsley bemoaned the fact that “most of the e-mail I get doesn’t realize this potential,” I would counter that much of the e-mail I get does.

In a recent dispute about “frame theory” with an e-colleague, Mick McAllister of, the following exchange occurred:

> I know that you, OTOH, will mount
> a rigorous defense of framing, and
> I hope that by the time we’re
> finished butting up against one
> another, I’ll have an even better
> understanding of what I think and
> why.

And I have a strong inclination to that sort of agon. I enjoy it. I think I can change your mind, and I’m not afraid you might change mine. But I don’t think I will change your mind with facts. Data is dead. I need to make you see what I mean. And when you do, the data of green dots and red dots and purple dots and black dots and slivers of light will become a fox watching from the mulberries. That is how reason works. Until it happens, all I give you is more dots....

Our dispute, which has in fact caused me to change my mind about a couple of related issues, is far from finished. And I think Mick would agree that it has been a good exercise in “collaborative learning” of the sort Trimbur advocates.

This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes various images of Rhetoric, Persuasion, and Disputation/Contention to illustrate the arguments I’ve outlined here with this preview. Canonical as Ripa’s handbook of symbolism was throughout the early modern period, there were still plenty of authors and artists who creatively deviated from it, such as Johann Amos Comenius and Athanasius Kircher.

TOPICS:  the allegorical use of the female form; woman-centered rhetorical studies; folklinguistic beliefs about women’s “marginalization” and “silencing” by patriarchy; feminist theory; changing rhetorical models

Baroque-era printer's ornament

top of page
up a level: Previews — Gallery page

This Web page was last modified on:  09/02/2014 2:34 PM.