Rhetoric: A User's Guide, by John D. Ramage

Ramage, John D.  Rhetoric: A User’s Guide. New York: Pearson, 2006.

Reviewed by Brad E. Lucas, Texas Christian University

Last year I was browsing for a new textbook to adopt for a course I teach in argument and persuasion, and I have to admit that I was intrigued by the promotional blurbs for John Ramage’s Rhetoric: A User’s Guide. The jacket copy states that the book “treats rhetorical theory as what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living,’ an invaluable tool for construing and constructing everything from personal identity to political speeches to even cell phone usage.” Later on, it explains, “Ramage focuses on the theories of Burke in order to help students move beyond a mere accumulation of knowledge about the field of rhetoric and toward a genuine ability to think rhetorically.” I agree with both claims about Ramage’s book, and having assigned it recently to a class full of upper-division undergraduates, I can say that it’s a good book to use—and does justice to Burke’s work.

The book is divided into six chapters, each organized with section headers and illustrated with applications that serve as extended, running sidebars to the chapter content. While my students told me that they found the examples helpful, they would have preferred a textbook that allowed them to skim and quickly navigate through content rather than engage with the author’s extended discussions. Ramage’s Rhetoric is certainly not a book designed for students to skim, nor is it designed to assault students with a catalogue of terms, concepts, and taxonomies. It is, instead, a textbook that invites students to think about rhetoric’s role in politics, literature, mass media, and everyday life practices, past and present.

True to a Burkean parlor, Chapter 1 begins in medias res with a lengthy defense of rhetoric against those critics who would claim that it’s a pseudoscience, that it panders to the masses, that it’s immoral and overly agonistic. Throughout this opening discussion, Ramage offers a clear explanation of rhetoric’s basic assumptions and premises, but he also makes concrete references to classical and modern texts so that students can either reflect on—or anticipate—any primary texts that might appear in a course. For example, he introduces Burke’s concepts of “act” and  “motion,” then makes connections to Parmenides and Heraclitus. After establishing a basic framework from which students can understand rhetoric’s place in the universe, Ramage wisely introduces the notion of recurrence and case law, followed by the arts of proving opposites (a fittingly reflexive move for this chapter, one that savvy students will realize). The chapter then comes to a close with illustrations from both Theodore Roethke’s poetics and the cultural dynamics of the “slow food movement.” This chapter introduces a wealth of material that could overwhelm students who are new to the study of rhetoric, but I think the tone and attitude toward the content is enough to sustain most readers.

I particularly like Ramage’s attention to arrangement throughout this book, given that he moves directly from his introductory chapter into one that focuses on concepts of language, identity construction, and the social determinations of discourse. Chapter 2 introduces the concepts of essentialism and the multiple dimensions of identity, offering students a tripartite model that includes the “given,” “readymade,” and “constructed” identities that comprise most understandings of the self. I offer an extended quotation here to provide a sense of Ramage’s tone and explanatory skills:

The given identity includes all aspects of our identity that are inherited or acquired willy-nilly rather than by choice and/or by creative act. And while our given identity is not necessarily unchangeable, it constrains our choices, sometimes decisively so. The most obvious aspects of our given identity include our genetic and family structure; the time, place, and circumstances of our birth; and our pasts. The readymade, meanwhile, includes those identities that we have not ourselves constructed, that have been prefabricated by others and are on offer through the workplace, the marketplace, and the cultural space we occupy. (42)

Later in the chapter, he elaborates on the impact of workplace, marketplace, and cultural space readymades, offering students multiple ways to view constructed identities. For example, he provides an extended illustration of “the Harley guy,” the motorcycle man who performs an American biker identity that he has chosen from a variety of available readymades. While the ghost of Burke is present throughout these pages, and throughout the book, Ramage is careful not to overdo it with the references to Burke’s work or ideas. He sets the stage for an understanding of identification without slipping into lengthy paraphrases or summaries of Burke’s thought. In my course, I was able to supplement this chapter with excerpts from Burke’s writings on identification, and students were able to consider each text in terms of the other.

Both Chapter 3 and 4 are titled “Rhetoric and Persuasion,” and they include some of the traditional content that we would expect to find in an undergraduate rhetorical textbook. From the rhetorical situation to Toulmin argument and stasis theory, Ramage does not disappoint our expectations nor does he require us to supplement his textbook with a more basic primer. These introductions are there for our elaboration, or they can stand on their own.  Throughout these two chapters, Ramage provides a running discussion of George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address. This illustration is itself a readymade teaching unit, giving instructors a prime opportunity to study a rhetorical analysis of a televised text that is widely available (see www.americanrhetoric.com). For those who do not want to incorporate the Bush address in their pedagogy, however, the extended analysis could seem burdensome and intrusive. So, in this particular case, the depth of analysis could be a strength or a liability. Clearly, future editions of this textbook will need to adapt to accommodate the changing political leadership—and perhaps even greater attention to the impact of new media on such tradition-bound rhetorical situations.

By Chapter 5, I was a bit surprised to see the book turn to rhetorical interpretation of a literary text. However, I also understand how market forces can influence a textbook, and the chapter’s extended treatment of John Keats’s poetry is eventually balanced with a discussion of the 9/11 attacks, a pithy examination of the role of ethics in rhetoric, and an elaboration of the concept of “political correctness” in the context of rhetorical activity. In the context of my argument and persuasion course, I would have preferred to see Ramage reserve Keats for an ancillary or supplemental discussion rather than foreground the literary as the introductory content. Or, better yet, I would have liked to have seen a female literary voice that could provide balance to the previous chapters and their attention to male figures. However, one chapter on rhetorical interpretation can’t be all things for all students, and I think Ramage provides enough variety to allow most faculty to tailor their readings accordingly.

Finally, Chapter 6 introduces students to the “rhetoric of everyday life,” offering an analysis of cell phone dynamics followed by sections focused on discussions of travel, advertising, and consumer culture. It’s a fitting end for this textbook, directing our students’ attentions to the shifting dynamics of rhetoric in a global-market culture. All in all, Ramage has put considerable thought into this book, offering a versatile text that could be a supplement—or a cornerstone—for a variety of courses that help students explore the rhetorical, literary, dramatic, and symbolic dimensions of human interaction.




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