Table of Contents
What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is magic.
Surrounded by eager ears, and going many miles an hour in a small tube under water, “What is Rhetoric?” was the question on everybody’s mind. But let me back up a bit.
I was picking up someone dear to me from the San Francisco Airport one afternoon. It was one of the uniquely San Francisco days that manages to shift from sunny to chilly to rainy to relieved in the course of an hour’s journey, which viewed outward from a subway window made it feel as if we were traveling between seasons to back to my apartment. We took the BART back, partly because the subway itself shows off how lively the Bay Area is to rural newcomers, and partly because it never fails to amuse. Unexpectedly, but in every way anticipated, the ride back was animated with conversation and candor. Many respectable universities are sprinkled throughout the Bay Area — among them Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF 1 — spritzed with an equally varied number of races, backgrounds, ages, and intended professions among the students attending and the friends and family they drag along with them. Right about lunch time when everyone’s liveliest, the nerds become restless as the caffeinated sugar running through their veins dwindles, wrestling with ideas among their peers like teary-eyed children protesting tiredness to their parents. Rival schools all in attendance, the train car was filled with glasses and glaring eyes vigorously shouting at each other from across the aisles, all intending to discuss a scientific matter as it related to practical happenings in the world, but more accurately blurting out scientific squeals in hopes that the loudest would win and the losers would buy lunch.
Sitting there holding a lovely lady, I quickly found myself lured in and glancing over, despite trying to avoid derailing either of us in what we were enjoying. I was wearing a blue and gold University jacket, so my affiliation preceded me. My colors acting as a homing beacon, we were sucked into the conversational vortex as well, much to the anxious dismay of my fellow traveler who felt ill-equipped to speak on any topic with the ‘best and brightest’, let alone this one, and at one of the intellectual capitals of the world.
I had been more focused on my partner than the topic, but they were discussing something related to the inertia of the train, and the effects of things progressively complex and humorous happening to it as it sped along. Nobel prizes weren’t at stake in the answer, but school pride was, making it all the more valuable. Infecting one another with their undergraduate enthusiasm, it was all comedically taken more Seriously the more absurd it became. What began with missiles from a plane extended to nearby cranes being used to bat us off the tracks, giant lizards lunging our way, or maybe an earthquake forming an impromptu ramp for us as we sailed over the lava and spikes that tortured classical commuters. I honestly didn’t know at the time, and to this day don’t, other than recalling it was appropriately absurd enough to arrest the attention of anyone with ears to hear. Everyone was very concerned with what would happen if all the narrative genres and combinations thereof attacked the train, and gave it a level of engagement likely lacking in any of the many essays they’d ever go on to write.
“Berkeley, huh? Care to weigh in?”
“It might be better if I didn’t. I like physics as much as the next guy, but I’m no physicist.It’s been a while since I was a student as well.”
“Rhetoric, huh? I think a friend of mine is taking a course in that. Interesting stuff.”
As we hit a major stop leading most of the uninvolved car off, I whispered to my partner that, as a rule of thumb, everyone saying that is just blowing smoke.
“Come on, join in!”
“I’ll win the argument, but I won’t necessarily be right.”
“You’re on my team then.”
The long standing rivalry between Berkeley and Stanford would likely have prevented that from flowering, but the conversation quickly derailed into everyone asking me about Rhetoric before any of us found out. The fate of the train car, like many topics, was ruled by Rhetoric, not lab accidents, space missiles, radiated lizards, or other blockbuster bollocks that are admittedly Rhetorically inclined.
Spirited to begin with, things got much livelier after that, and many missed their stops to hear a measure more as the rest of the car joined in — arrested as most of us are when we hear more about what Rhetoric is and, more importantly, what we can do with it.
What is Rhetoric? Whatever it is, it changed more than a few majors and many more lives that day. And that was a dry day for it.
Footnotes and Citations
- In that order. Go bears. ↩
He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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