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Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005. 192 pp.

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Caroline Dadas

In Rhetoric Aristotle distinguishes between artistic and non-artistic pisteis, or proofs, which collectively comprise “the means of persuasion in public address” (36). While the non-artistic proofs encompass laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, and oaths—the more technical means of persuasion—the artistic proofs address the character of the speaker, the argument itself, and the emotion felt by the audience as a result of the speech: the familiar constructs of ethos, logos, and pathos (38). Of these three means, Aristotle explains that “it is clear that to grasp an understanding of them is the function of one who can form syllogisms and be observant about characters and virtues and, third, about emotions” (39). For Aristotle, “grasping an understanding” of ethos, logos, and pathos—commonly known as the rhetorical appeals—is critical in determining the available means of persuasion. Because Rhetoric represents a seminal work in the rhetorical tradition, its delineation of ethos, logos, and pathos remains axiomatic to rhetorical study and practice. When these three terms are interrogated more thoroughly, however, complications and assumptions rise to the surface. Perhaps most significantly, what exactly do we mean when we talk about “the rhetorical appeals”?

This is one of the questions that guides M. Jimmie Killingsworth’s treatment of rhetoric in Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary Language Approach. In his preface, Killingsworth explains his initial investigation into the term “rhetorical appeals”:

I went to the library and looked up the word [appeals] in the indexes of whole shelves of books on rhetoric to see what others had to say. To my wonder, I found no listing for “appeals, rhetorical” in the indexes…I had to conclude that the rhetorical appeal is a concept whose meaning is rarely explained in the scholarly literature…even for specialists, who may have assumed too quickly that Aristotle had the last word on appeals, the concept has been “undertheorized” (Killingsworth viii).

Killingsworth places his approach—the “ordinary language approach”—in opposition to that of Aristotle, the source of most scholarly thought regarding the rhetorical appeals. In fact, Killingsworth questions whether Aristotle’s appeals are really appeals at all. According to Killingsworth, “appeal” as a noun form is not found in Rhetoric; Aristotle classifies ethos, logos, and pathos as “proofs.” Through this (re)negotiation of Aristotelian terms, Killingworth maintains that present day denotations of “appeal” may prove just as useful within rhetoric. Its modern day definitions include “to plead” (French) and “to please” (Latin), both of which can be traced back to an Indo-European root meaning “to be calm (as of the flat sea)” (2). Using the sea as a metaphor for the communicative act between author and audience, Killingsworth claims that “etymologically, then, to appeal to an audience—whether to plead or to please—means to promote agreement or harmony, to smooth the waters between author and audience or any two positions” (2). Killingsworth makes a distinction between “author and audience” and “any two positions” because many appeals to audience are done so indirectly, via an appeal to a “value” such as nature, justice, health, etc. With this in mind, Killingsworth proposes a model of appeals that includes the author, the audience, and a position of value to which the author refers, all mediated through a medium such as a text (1). For Killingsworth, “Successful appeals move the audience, the result of which is the alignment of the three positions” (1). This model of triangulation suggests that in appealing to one’s audience through a position of value, the communicative waters between the author and audience position will be “smoothed,” communication will be effective.

After outlining the above model and rationale, Killingsworth proceeds to demonstrate how it might operate. In Chapter 1 he gives an example of a toothpaste commercial he saw as youth—one for which he does not remember the advertised brand, but does remember the attractive woman used in the ad. Through this example, Killingsworth emphasizes that one can (and often does, in the case of advertising) appeal to a more “engaging” value (sex) by substituting it for a more obvious choice (such as dental health). Choosing one value over another depends on what angle one wants to emphasize. Because appealing to the value of dental health may suggest negative connotations of unpleasant dental procedures, the authors of the ad chose the appeal to sex, most likely hoping that the audience would associate the advertised product with pleasure. Examples such as the toothpaste commercial underscore Killingsworth’s “ordinary-language” approach; everyone, even the layman with little to no facility in the “language” of rhetorical analysis, can relate to the situation of advertisers using sex appeal to promote their product. The notion of appeal as pleasing or pleading adapts particularly well to interrogating media-driven messages, messages that are ubiquitous and “ordinary” for the majority of readers.

Subsequent chapters follow the format of focusing on a particular appeal and using it as a heuristic for interrogating a text. Killingsworth provides excerpts culled from a variety of sources to illustrate the wide-ranging applicability of his approach. In Chapter 3, “Appeals to Time,” Killingsworth examines Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a text that employs what Killingsworth terms a “time-as-a-journey” appeal. In moving from the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent” to the “invigorating autumn of freedom,” King uses a metaphor with which we are all familiar: the passage of time. Quoting at length from the speech, Killingsworth emphasizes how King’s appeal to time both creates continuity and encourages the audience to undertake a journey toward racial equality. Killingsworth situates King’s speech within a rhetorical tradition of crisis, a tradition that suggests that turbulent times in history create rhetorical situations of “crossroads,” or decisive moments when rhetoric can be especially influential. Within this rhetoric of crisis, appeals to time are often employed in order to emphasize the urgency of the situation, as is evident with Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis (“These are the times that try men’s souls”) and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent”). Killingsworth places all three texts—King, Paine, and Lincoln—into conversation with his heuristic, constructing a persuasive explication of how the appeal to time was used to mobilize these texts’ respective audiences.

Time represents only one of several appeals of value that Killingsworth explores; similar attention is paid to another familiar text, A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Swift executes his “proposal” by employing an appeal through tropes. Swift’s trope of choice is, of course, irony. Killingsworth’s model proves especially useful in articulating how Swift’s irony operates on the reader, considering the difficulty of describing how, exactly, one knows that a statement is meant to be ironic. As Killingsworth explains in reference to Swift’s piece, “As we begin to read, the ‘I’ of the discourse appears to us as a social reformer. We may take the ‘you’ position as the addressee for a while, but as the proposal becomes more and more preposterous, we begin to pull away, and as we do, we perceive that the author is winking at us” (133). Through the trope of irony—the appeal to value—audience and writer are brought into harmony, together in on the joke being made at the expense of the callous upper class. Killingsworth’s analysis methodically deconstructs how Swift uses irony as a tool to critique the upper class’ neglectful attitude toward poverty and hunger.

Killingsworth’s examination of Swift’s persona—the ironic ‘I’ —draws upon a foundation he establishes in Chapter 3 when he introduces the concepts of double author and double audience: the actual author and audiences versus the “constructed personas” of author and audience. He cites this concept of duality as evidence that the appeals are merely jumping-off points for interpretation; we must push the boundaries of the appeals by reading closely and “attending” to the text (36). Killingsworth reminds us that “to attend” literally means “to listen,” and it is through this attending to the text that we engage more deeply with the appeals operating in that particular situation: “If I am going to understand someone different from myself, I have to begin by listening…My contention is that this practice and other forms of the rhetorical enterprise are needed for effective communication in a culture that respects difference and diversity but still values community” (36-37). Acknowledging the varying positionalities represented in any rhetorical act, Killingsworth proposes a means of negotiating these positions that is akin to Wayne Booth’s notion of “listening rhetoric” as delineated in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. Both Killingsworth and Booth advocate attending to opposing views in an effort to find common ground; paramount in such endeavors is the act of listening. Throughout the book Killingsworth engages with topics of current interest in the field—listening rhetoric, theories of location, connections between literacy and race—and does so in a manner that remains easily accessible even if one is unfamiliar with these topics and theories.

In his effort to be easily accessible, however, Killingsworth on occasion bemoans the “complexity” of more traditional rhetorical terms and constructs, suggesting that they may not be valuable to the non-specialist reader. In his chapter on the rhetorical situation, Killingsworth writes,

In one of the most confusing uses of language in the rhetorical tradition, ethos is called an appeal to character; pathos, an appeal to emotion; logos, an appeal to logic or reasoning. The problem is that authors demonstrate their character (good or bad) in every utterance; likewise, the emotions of the audience might attach to just about anything in a text; and without reasoning, nothing would make sense. Thus, if we depend upon the concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos as our theory of appeals, we are left with a rather narrow and vaguely defined set of appeals. (25)

To call the ethos, pathos, logos construct “confusing” seems to ignore the fluidity implicit in the rhetorical situation. The fact that the three appeals/pisteis overlap speaks to the ability of the appeals to work in consort to create a rhetorical situation. One need not tether each appeal to its own corner of the rhetorical triangle. Because the traditional model of the rhetorical appeals remains a valuable tool of analysis, Killingsworth’s approach can be used as a supplement to, and not a replacement of, the traditional model.

This tendency to disparage classical rhetorical constructs may not endear Appeals in Modern Rhetoric to students and teachers interested in a more theoretical treatment of the rhetorical appeals; Killingsworth’s focus is clearly on the applicability of his appeals construct. For this reason the book would provide fruitful opportunities as a supplementary text in a class whose goals include introducing students to the methods and application of rhetorical analysis in modern contexts. In this sense, Appeals would provide an engaging pairing with Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. Together, these texts would serve as a useful introduction to the questions and concerns of the discipline, establishing the relevancy of rhetoric in modern contexts of religious debate, literature, and politics. Killingsworth’s text in particular incorporates sources that will be familiar to a lay audience, making it a viable option for undergraduate courses in rhetoric. The pieces and authors he chooses to analyze—for example, the “telegraphic” prose of Hemingway’s war-themed writing and its appeal to the body—suggest that he believes recognizable texts as being effective in demonstrating the applicability of his approach. Because Killingsworth does not theorize the appeals as they are constructed throughout the rhetorical tradition, however, this book will not meet the needs of more advanced students and specialists interested in examining historical iterations of the appeals. Even so, because the rhetorical appeals remain at the core of the discipline, reexamining their role is, in itself, a valuable undertaking.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

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