Introduction to Rhetorical Criticism
The human use of symbols to communicate. Includes three primary dimensions
Humans as creators of rhetoric
Symbols as medium for rhetoric
Communication as purpose for rhetoric
1. Humans as creators
o Rhetoric involves symbols created and used by humans
o Every symbolic choice we make results in seeing the world one way rather than another.
Reality is subjective based on how we interpret symbols.
o Symbols frame experience of an event
o Rhetoric is limited to human rhetors as the originators and creators of messages
Symbols as medium for rhetoric
o Sign, Signified and Signifier:
Sign is the whole that results from the association between the signified and the
signifier, the abstract concept and the material concept.
Signs can be words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects
The material signifier can be a written word, a spoken word, a shrug, and notebook, a
laptop, the smell of bacon. The resulting mental picture is the signified and both
combined are the sign. Word "cat" us the signifier, the image of a cat is the signified,
both together are the sign for cat.
The abstract signified is the abstract mental concept of the material signifier (what
you think when you hear or read a certain word)
o Symbol is something that stands for or represents something else by virtue of relationship,
association or convention
o Distinguished from signs by degree of direct connection to object represented. Smoke is a
sign fire is present, meaning there is a direct relationship between fire and smoke. Symbols
are human constructions connected only indirectly to it's referent. Ex. The word cup has no
natural relationship to open containers for beverages and was created by a person who
wanted to refer to this kind of object.
o Only conscious use of symbols to communicate a particular idea is rhetorical.
Actions not deliberately constructed by rhetors can also be interpreted symbolically.
Someone can choose to give an action a symbol, interpreting the meaning differently than
it was intended
o Any action, intended to communicate or not, can be interpreted rhetorically by those who
experience or encounter it
o Not limited to written or spoken discourse; includes tv, architecture, dance, furniture,
o Types of Signs:
Index: type of sign that functions through direct association: the signifier
(material concept) is not arbitrary, but directly connected to the signified (abstract
An index is a sign that points to or indicated something else caused by
association Smoke is indexical of fire; see smoke, think fire
Indexical meaning depends on the group...
"that" "this" "here" "there"; thunder, footprints, echoes, odours; clock,
thermometer; pain, rash; Bert is an index of Ernie; catchphrases
Icon: type of sign that functions through resemblance; signifier looks like or
resembles the signified in some form.
Resemblance usually involves some sensory perception. The signifier
Photos, caricatures, impersonation, models, metaphor, onomatopoeia(word
resembles the sound, word is the icon); anything that stands in for a person can
be thought of as in icon
3. Symbol: type of sign that functions through an arbitrary relationship - there is no
"natural" reason for the connection. The signifier does not resemble the signified, but
is connected only by convention and must be learned.