“Formal Propriety as Rhetorical Norm,” by Beth Innocenti Manolescu

Manolescu, Beth Innocenti. “Formal Propriety as Rhetorical Norm.” Argumentation 18 (2004): 113-125.

Reviewed by Maegan Parker, University of Wisconsin-Madison
KB Journal 2.1 (Fall 2005)

In her article, “Formal Propriety as Rhetorical Norm,” Manolescu tackles the perennially provocative issue of argument evaluation. Broadly, she suggests “formal propriety as a norm for evaluating argumentation from a rhetorical perspective and a method of reconstruction for doing so” (113).  Manolescu’s innovative contribution couples the centuries-old conversation concerning argument evaluation with Kenneth Burke’s conception of form.

Eager to avoid evaluation based upon the criterion of effectiveness and conscious of the complex composition of arguments, Manolescu turns to Burke’s essay in Counter-Statement entitled “Psychology and Form.” Specifically, Manolescu extends Burke’s description of form as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” using it as the starting point for her system of evaluation (Burke 31). To demonstrate the utility of formal propriety as a method for evaluation, Manolescu offers a brief criticism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1854 address to the New York legislature. Manolescu’s account of the presence and absence of formal propriety within Stanton’s speech highlights the “strengths and shortcomings” of both Stanton’s address and of using formal propriety as a norm for evaluation (122).  Ultimately, Manolescu concludes that in the absence of “ideal models” of argumentation, formal propriety is “the best way to judge argumentation from a rhetorical perspective since it helps to maintain an appetite for arguments of integrity, to appreciate the possibilities of the art, recognize the particularity of the art, and to acknowledge its tenuousness and fallibility” (124).

Manolescu’s use of Burke’s conception of form is a novel contribution to the conversation concerning argument evaluation. However, I wonder if the very idea of using form as a “method” of evaluation pushes Burke’s conception too far in the direction of the psychology of information—from which he sought convalescence for the psychology of form. By this I mean to suggest that, in “Psychology and Form,” Burke aimed to recover an appreciation of art for art’s sake and to downplay the demand that form have a “function” outside the psychology of the audience. A pivotal contribution to his Counter-Statement, this essay tried to rescue an appreciation of the “psychology of form” from the subsuming influence of the “psychology of information,” lamenting that: “The hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form” (Burke 33).  Burke more clearly distinguished the psychology of information from the psychology of form, describing the former as seeking truth in art, which “is not the discovery of facts, not an addition to knowledge in the scientific sense of the word. It is, rather, the exercise of human propriety . . . Artistic truth is the externalization of taste” (42). While Manolescu’s system of evaluation does attend to the question of human propriety, my reservation about her extension of Burke’s notion of form stems from her pursuit’s methodical tenor. Her use of formal propriety as a method for argument evaluation leads me to wonder if the system she prescribes is the “externalization of taste”—a quest for artistic truth—or, conversely, is Manolescu’s proposed method more closely related to pursuits that define the psychology of information?

I wonder if Manolescu, in constructing formal propriety as a method of evaluation, is actually seeking “addition to knowledge in the scientific sense of the word” as opposed to the “externalization of taste.” She briefly addresses this tension in her article, recognizing that while “Burke is primarily concerned with artistic form and aesthetic judgment,” she insists “his analysis of form has important implications for the analysis and evaluation of argument” (115).  Although I agree with Manolescu that Burke’s consideration of form holds potential for finding artistic truth in argumentation, she seems to stretch Burke’s notion of form to accomplish ends more closely aligned with the psychology of information. For instance, following her analysis of Stanton’s speech, when Manolescu contends: “we would do well to note its improprieties with the aim of improving our own practice of argumentation,” the more informational slant of her methodology manifests itself (123). While I can see the merit in evaluating arguments to learn from their “strengths and shortcomings,” I am not convinced that this methodological appropriation of Burke’s notion of form is consistent with the argument he advances in “Psychology and Form.”

Regardless of her fidelity to Burke’s recovery mission in “Psychology and Form,” Manolescu’s article “Formal Propriety as Rhetorical Norm” advances an innovative system of argument evaluation that circumvents the drawbacks of existing criteria for judgment while accounting for argument’s under-considered persuasive elements.

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