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What Is Contemporary Rhetoric?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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Contemporary rhetoric is a study of rhetoric that conforms to the dynamics and norms of a particular period of time. In general, rhetoric is defined as the broadest category of language that includes a social component. In the study of rhetoric, there is an implication of a persuasive element, but any kind of communication that tries to relay an idea to a listener or listeners can be called rhetoric. Linguists and others study rhetoric to investigate how language is linked to meaning, and how it is used by an individual or group.

Those who study contemporary rhetoric might call it the “rhetoric of a time” or, more specifically, “the rhetoric of our time.” The word “contemporary” identifies the study as relating to the current era. This distinguishes contemporary rhetoric from other studies of rhetoric in past societies and eras.

One frequent use of the term contemporary rhetoric is in a university or academic context. An instructor or other professional might describe a contemporary rhetoric program as one that studies human internalization of language, or what people “believe, act on, and know.” Although this may seem broad, academics often find ways to make the study of contemporary rhetoric germane to a certain end goal.

For example, someone who is studying rhetoric in a current events context can look for clues as to how the use of language allows for the most common kinds of communications in their society. In many modern societies, this means considering not only person-to-person rhetoric, as in peer or family communications, but also the use of rhetoric in visual media for example in the cable television news cycle. Those who champion the use of this kind of study in modern times will contend that contemporary rhetorical study helps to more closely track how mass media is influencing the average citizen, which can have many practical applications in modern societies.

Students of rhetoric for the contemporary era will often consider the writings of various theorists. These will explore the use of a narrative, issues of human inquiry or curiosity, or items like “epistemological” rhetoric, or rhetoric in text. All of this will help to provide a more comprehensive view of the role of language in an overall “social universe,” whether that reality predates or includes the vast range of new technologies where people “speak” to each other without really speaking.

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