Barry Brummett. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
Style is one of the most ancient concepts in communication and has long been regarded as a key component of messages. Its meaning and importance have not remained entirely consistent throughout history, however. This variability is a sign that it is an index of how communication works in cultures, for it changes as the role and nature of communication in society itself changes. Style has especially been associated with rhetoric, or the study, practice, and critique of persuasion. In important ways, what we think of style—whether we love it or hate it, think it is trivial or important—is what we think of rhetoric in general.
In this chapter, I argue that style has been understood within two main traditions: linguistic and performative. Both traditions have ancient roots, and both are alive and well today, but the linguistic understanding of style was relatively stronger in the past, whereas the performative understanding of style is gaining ground today. This shift of weight in the two traditions reflects a centuries-long cultural shift in the West from a concern with verbal ability to a concern with personal presentation in everyday life. Both traditions have generated a great deal of significant research, some of which I will review here. Although within and between the two traditions, the concept of style has varied greatly, I believe that a more or less consistent theme across all its manifestations has been aesthetics. By aesthetics I mean the sensory or artistic appreciation of objects and experiences (Brummett, 1999, 2004). Style may be understood as a kind of umbrella term for the aesthetic dimension of communication. I will proceed by explaining how style has been understood linguistically and then performatively. Finally, I will conclude by discussing the future of style in the study of communication and why style in both traditions is key to effective rhetoric.
Linguistic Rhetorical Style
One understanding of style sees it as primarily or entirely the creative use of language in rhetorical appeals. The rhetorical theorist Roderick P. Hart (1990) explains this sense of style as “the sum total of language habits distinguishing one message from another” (p. 197). Whether attention to language is of central importance to persuasion or is mere decoration varies widely from one theorist and practitioner to another.
The understanding of style as linguistic, as the manipulation of language, is ancient. A number of theorists and teachers such as Isocrates, Plato, and Quintilian wrote on the subject. Here let us review a few of the ideas of just three of these ancient authorities: Aristotle, Marcus Tullius Cicero, and St. Augustine.
In his landmark, seminal work, Rhetoric (trans. 1954), Aristotle begins Book III with a discussion of style. Earlier in this work, he discussed how to come up with the substance of a speech, understood as arguments and emotional and personal appeals. Clearly, he intends a linguistic understanding of the concept of style: “For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought; much help is thus afforded towards producing the right impression of a speech” (sec. 1403b). His work contains much practical good advice for the manipulation of language to create effective style—for instance, “Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do” (1404b). He urges the reader to master figures of speech and turns of phrase so as to achieve clarity and to move an audience.
Classical rhetorical theory developed, over the course of centuries, what has come to be called “the canon” of rhetoric, which refers to the major parts of the preparation and presentation of a speech. These are the elements of effective public speaking to which the orator must pay attention. The great Roman theorist and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (1977) offered a clear formulation of the canon:
And, since all the activity and ability of an orator falls into five divisions, I learned that he must first hit upon what to say; then manage and marshal his discoveries, not merely in orderly fashion, but with a discriminating eye for the exact weight as it were of each argument; next go on to array them in the adornments of style; after that keep them guarded in his memory; and in the end deliver them with effect and charm. (Book I, chap. xxxi, p. 142)
These “five divisions” have historically been summarized as invention (discovering what to say), organization, style, memory, and delivery. The historical tradition of rhetorical studies has focused more on style in the sense expressed by Cicero here, as linguistic manipulation, decoration, and adornment—as something added on to the substance of argument. But we will see below that ancient antecedents for the second, performative tradition of rhetorical style may be found in that canon of delivery as part of style as well. Let us just note in passing that this more “recent” performative dimension of style has ancient roots, even if it was not called style from the start.
In his great treatise De Oratore, Cicero discusses the linguistic dimension of style at length. “Every speech consists of matter and words,” he claims, “and the words cannot fall into place if you remove the matter, nor can the matter have clarity if you withdraw the words” (Book III, chap. v, p. 19). Different purposes in oratory are served by variations in linguistic style, he argues, for speakers “deserving of praise nevertheless achieve it in a variety of styles” (Book III, chap. vii, p. 26). As he explains later, “Important criminal cases need one style of language and civil actions and unimportant cases another; and different styles are required by deliberative speeches, panegyrics, lawsuits and lectures” (Book III, chap. liv, p. 211).
St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century CE, devotes Book IV of his work On Christian Doctrine (trans. 1978) to a discussion of how to preach to popular audiences. Following the concepts developed by Cicero, Augustine places great emphasis on linguistic style as adapted to the preacher’s purpose. He claims, “He who is eloquent should speak in such a way that he teaches, delights, and moves” (Book IV, chap. xii, p. 27). These three purposes of teaching, delighting, and moving (or persuading) are to be matched by subdued, moderate, and grand styles of language, respectively (Book IV, chap. xix, p. 38). Augustine offers many examples of linguistic style from the Bible to illustrate these preferred dimensions of style as adapted to purpose.
Over the next centuries, theorists, teachers, and persuaders would continue to develop an understanding of style as linguistic manipulation. The study of figures of speech such as metaphor and irony developed tremendously, with works being written describing hundreds of such devices (see surveys by Corbett, 1998; Quinn & Quinn, 1995). People of the upper classes delighted in learning and using rhetorical style for entertainment and to impress others, especially as the Renaissance unfolded (Jeanneret, Whitely, & Hughes, 1991). From that, we are reminded that an important rhetorical function of style throughout the ages has been to define and separate different groups of people. It matters whether one has a “refined” or an “uncouth” style; one’s style bespeaks one’s class, geographic origin, and so forth.
During the late Renaissance, the French scholar Pierre de la Ramee, or Peter Ramus in Latin, wrote a work titled Arguments in Rhetoric Against Quintilian (trans. 1986) in the 16th century. Ramus is famous for equating rhetoric almost entirely with language style. He claimed that substantive argument was the property of logic, dialectic, or philosophy and that what we do when we argue is to demonstrate rational truths. All other influence is based on illogical—one might even say aesthetic—reactions to linguistic style, which Ramus equated with rhetoric. Since Ramus did not think highly of rhetoric as compared with logic, his equation of it with the mere decoration that is style shows us how the ways we think about style are often how we think about rhetoric as well. The Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, also writing in the 16th century, based his educational system on rhetoric. A heavy emphasis of his method was extensive training in the manipulation of linguistic style. In his work On Copia (1963), he describes how students would be trained to reduce a sentence to its briefest possible expression as well as to expand a sentence fruitfully. The Englishman Hugh Blair, writing during the 18th century in what would be called the Belles Lettres or belletristic school of thought, emphasized the importance of refined, tasteful verbal style in both public and private speech and writing, in his book Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres(1860). A central theme throughout the early and middle history of the linguistic tradition of style has been to understand it aesthetically, to see it as a way to manipulate how we use, critique, and theorize the use of rhetorical language for artistic purposes.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the linguistic study of style has continued vigorously. An aesthetic focus has remained, but with it has come increasing understanding that the aesthetic also has social and political consequences in that it can ground motivations. The ability of linguistic style to move audiences, whether the immediate audience of the public speaker or the vast, mediated audiences of today’s political struggles, has been explored in many scholarly studies.
An interest in studying language from many perspectives may be taken as a hallmark of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here, I want to call our attention only to a few scholars whose work in language focused significantly on style, on the aesthetic manipulation of language for effect. This scholarship is marked by concerns for aesthetic stylistic devices, principally metaphor; for the effects of word choices; and for the social effects of word choice in societies at large.
The English philosopher I. A. Richards (1936) had a largely stylistic understanding of rhetoric. Writing in the first half of the 20th century, he argued that metaphor was the underlying principle of all language and that therefore we cannot speak plainly and with total accuracy about the world and our experiences. Our language must always be expressed in one style or another, and it always occurs at some level of abstraction, Richards argued.
Writing throughout the 20th century, the eclectic and prolific theorist and critic Kenneth Burke advanced research into style more than anyone else. Burke believed that motives are shaped by the language that we use and that the way we stylize our language is vital in affecting how people think and act. In hundreds of critical essays, short and long, collected within his books, Burke showed the motivations created by expressing language in one style or another. In his book Permanence and Change (1965), for instance, written during the Great Depression, he argued that the way people chose to talk about the economy in the first quarter of the 20th century employed a style that actually led, through creating undesirable motivations, to the economic collapse. In his essay “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” (1939), he showed that Hitler’s motivations for war and genocide were perfectly apparent in his use of style in Mein Kampf.
Scholars in communication have pursued the study of linguistic style throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. “Don’t Leave Your Language Alone,” admonished Ernest Pulgram in 1952 to prospective orators and writers. Scholars such as Henry Ewbank developed schemes for studying the subject, as in his 1931 essay, “Four Approaches to the Study of Speech Style.” Joseph DeVito also attempted to schematize “Style and Stylistics,” in an essay published in 1967.
The aesthetic dimension of this focus on word choice is clear in an early essay by Horace Grant McKean (1916), “The Public Speaker as a Word-Artist,” and again in Donald C. Bryant’s 1950 work, “Aspects of the Rhetorical Tradition: Emotion, Style, and Literary Association,” in which he explores links between oratorical and literary styles. Likewise, Carl E. Burklund (1955) focused on the aesthetic language of figures of speech and stylistic devices in his article “The Presentation of Figurative Language.” The aesthetic dimension of imagination was linked to style in Donald Salper’s “The Imaginative Component of Rhetoric,” published in 1965, in which he largely refers to linguistic expression.
Jane Blankenship (1962) studied “oral and written style” to show the rhetorical effects of phrasing. Paul Newell Campbell (1973) used a well-known scheme of linguistic acts to develop a theory of how style has rhetorical and practical effects in usage. Usage or usefulness also informed an article from 1940 by Henry Alonzo Myers, “The Usefulness of Figurative Language,” in which style was studied not merely as decorative but as having impact in the world.
Assessing such impact is often difficult. Linguistic style itself may be used to trace the wider effects of any rhetorical act, according to Richard A. Cherwitz. Cherwitz’s (1980) study “The Contributory Effects of Rhetorical Discourse: A Study of Language-in-Use” argued that style is a tool for gauging the effectiveness of a writer or speaker. The critic may see whether a speaker’s language choice is taken up by others and by public usage—Cherwitz argues that the chaining out of such usage is a sign of rhetorical success. In that vein of examining rhetorical word choices and their effects, a number of studies have examined the styles of specific great orators or types of speakers, as in J. H. Doyle’s (1916) early-20th-century essay “The Style of Wendell Phillips.” Thomas Lessl (1989) examined “The Priestly Voice” to identify common stylistic components of a particular linguistic stance that people, whether actual priests or other public leaders, take in public communication. Another study that casts its net broadly is Michael Osborn’s (1967) “Archetypal Metaphor in Rhetoric: The Light-Dark Family,” which looked at our culturewide use of metaphors based on light and dark to assess their rhetorical implications. Osborn identified consistent patterns in which metaphors based on light carry positive motivations, while metaphors based on dark urge audiences to oppose the object or concept to which the metaphor is applied.
More recent essays in communication continue this important tradition of the study of style as linguistic manipulation. Although not always identified as an issue of linguistic style, a recurring theme in research has been to study dominant metaphors in public use in order to explain the rhetorical implications of those stylistic choices. Jennifer R. Mercieca and James Arnt Aune (2005) study the style of an 18th-century text to distinguish between elite and vernacular language use, which of course is linguistic style. Robert L. Ivie (1980) has explored the effectiveness of metaphors for rallying public support for war. In a number of important essays, Ivie has identified key stylistic components of public foreign policy rhetoric, and he has shown ways in which language choices have furthered ideological choices. On a similar theme, Steven C. Combs (2000) argues that war itself is an effective metaphor for rhetoric, and he studies the style of some ancient texts to draw parallels between fighting and persuasion.
Another recent line of research into linguistic style has followed Michael Calvin McGee’s (1980) concept of the “ideograph,” which is a widely used term or phrase with important ideological, rhetorical consequences—such as “the people” or “equality.” Dana L. Cloud’s (2004) essay on U.S. press coverage of Afghan women is an example of a recent study using this theory; in her essay, she explores the implications of the phrase clash of cultures for how the United States understands other cultures through word choice in its war on terror.
Performative Rhetorical Style
My review of the linguistic tradition of style proceeded chronologically, from ancient times to the present. I will mix that order up a bit in presenting the performative tradition of style. I do so because scholars have more recently come to think of style as something not only linguistic but as also embodied in movement, gesture, facial expression—even in the clothes one wears, the cars one drives, the way we decorate our homes and choose our entertainment. This is style in the sense that we might say, “Oh, she has great style” or “He has no sense of style at all.” It is a highly aesthetic way to think of style, based on the presentation of self in public. I will begin with some contemporary scholarship on the subject and then go back to ancient theorists. I will do this because scholars throughout history have studied style in this sense but have only recently begun to call it by that name. Yet I want to show that a concern for style as performative, as going beyond just linguistic aesthetics, has been part of the rhetorical tradition all along.
In A Rhetoric of Style (2008), I offer this definition of the performative sense of style:
Style is a complex system of actions, objects, and behaviors that is used to form messages that announce who we are, who we want to be, and who we want to be considered akin to. It is therefore also a system of communication with rhetorical influence on others. And as such, style is a means by which power and advantage is negotiated, distributed, and struggled over in society.
Style is certainly implicated not only in how we speak but also in how we present our whole beings in public, how we judge and construct relationships with both private friends and public figures.
Bradford Vivian (2002) complains that “for better or worse, then, modern rhetorical theory lacks a contemporary rationale and methodology for the study of style” (p. 223). Of course, he means style in the performative sense, and although this understanding of the concept is not as well developed as is the linguistic one, his own work has gone far toward developing such a rationale. The media scholar Stuart Ewen (1988) defines style as “a way that the human values, structures, and assumptions in a given society are aesthetically expressed and received” (p. 3). His book traces the history of style in structuring society and politics since at least the start of the 25th century. The rhetorical theorist Robert Hariman’s (1995) fine study of political style explores four commonly found kinds of style in political circumstances, and his work is highly performative in that it looks at the ways in which emperors and bureaucrats alike manage their images by the styles through which they present themselves in public.
The cultural critic Virginia Postrel (2003) argues that performative style has taken center stage as we have become a more “commodified” culture, obsessed with the aesthetic goods we use to construct our personal styles, and that style in this sense is coming to restructure consciousness around the world. Likewise, Michel Maffesoli (1996) argues, “In the strict meaning of the term, [style] becomes an all-encompassing form, a ‘forming form’ that gives birth to whole manners of being, to customs, representations, and the various fashions by which life in society is expressed” (p. 5). As we become preoccupied with self-presentation in everyday life, we come to think of rhetoric as a way to manage impressions beyond limited, particular occasions of speeches and essays (see also work on self-presentation by Erving Goffman, 1959).
A small but growing body of work has begun to study the styles of particular people or groups in order to identify the rhetorical impact of stylistic performances. This work may be found throughout the journal Text and Performance Quarterly. In my forthcoming book, I study the style of the “gun culture,” and I argue that contradictions inherent in the essentially working-class style of that culture are key to understanding its social and political effects. Hariman’s work, mentioned above, has been widely influential in helping us understand the rhetorical impact of four political styles in a wide range of applications: government, the corporate world, and international relationships, to name a few. Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson (1992) describe a particular style from the African American community, “cool pose,” as performative and life structuring in this way, incorporating “unique patterns of speech, walk, and demeanor” (p. 2).
This exciting sense of style as performative will join linguistic style as the source of new and provocative research in the future. But as a concept, the idea of style as performative predates by centuries the application of the word style to these communication patterns. People have been studying performative style even when they did not call it style.
I noted earlier that the Greek rhetorical theorist and teacher Aristotle understood style as linguistic. However, he also discusses “delivery,” which anticipates later, performative understandings of style. Aristotle sounds quite modern in saying, “The whole business of rhetoric being concerned with appearances, we must pay attention to the subject of delivery.” We should note that Aristotle also calls the need to manipulate delivery as “unworthy” (sec. 1404a). Aristotle views delivery as unworthy because, like style, it is mere decoration added on to substantive appeals. Nevertheless, being a pragmatist and acknowledging that people do respond to how a message is presented, he argues,
It is plain that delivery has just as much to do with oratory as with poetry…. It is, essentially, a matter of the right management of the voice to express the various emotions—of speaking loudly, softly, or between the two; of high, low, or intermediate pitch; of the various rhythms that suit various subjects. (sec. 1403b)
Although he does not call these considerations by the term style, he is clearly introducing ideas that today we might think of in terms of “a speaker’s style.” Aristotle restricts his understanding of such performance to the giving of speeches, however, rather than expanding it to style in everyday practices.
The Roman rhetorician and orator Cicero had a concept of style that went beyond just language to include performative dimensions. Cicero’s discussion of style is limited to public oratorical presentations and does not include the rhetorical effects of style in everyday life, but it is nevertheless perfectly consistent with today’s increasingly performative understanding of style. In his treatise De Oratore (1977), Cicero discussed the style of two orators whom he admires and noted the extent to which both language and physical performance are intertwined:
In present company, consider Sulpicius and Cotta, who stand almost on a level: what greater difference could there be between two orators, and yet what greater eminence in their respective styles? The one accurate and precise, unfolding the matter in language appropriate and suitable to it—he always sticks to his brief, and having discerned with supreme acumen the point that has to be proved to the court, he lays all other matters on one side and rivets his thoughts and utterances to this; Sulpicius on the other hand combines extreme boldness and energy, a very loud and resonant voice, and unrivalled vigor of bearing and dignity of gesture, with a weight and flow of language that make us think him Nature’s nonpareil of orators! (Book III, chap. viii, p. 31)
Later in that treatise, Cicero develops some principles of “delivery” that he does not call style per se but that clearly fall into the performative tradition of understanding style. By delivery, he means the physical, nonverbal means of public speaking, including gesture, clothing, expression, and so forth. He claims, “Delivery, I assert, is the dominant factor in oratory; without delivery the best speaker cannot be of any account at all, and a moderate speaker with a trained delivery can often outdo the best of them” (Book III, chap. lv, p. 213). Delivery is crucial for conveying emotion and tone,
for nature has assigned to every emotion a particular look and tone of voice and bearing of its own; and the whole of a person’s frame and every look on his face and utterance of his voice are like the strings of a harp, and sound according as they are struck by each successive emotion. (Book III, chap. lvii, p. 216)
We noted earlier St. Augustine’s assignment of three styles of language to three rhetorical purposes that a preacher might pursue. We also find a performative theme in Augustine’s rhetoric, even if he does not call it style. Writing for clergy at a time when many clergy were not as well educated or formally trained as might be desirable, Augustine stresses the importance of a performative style in conveying religious truths to audiences. The preacher should try to speak eloquently and wisely, he argues:
However, if he cannot do this, let him so order his life that he not only prepares a reward for himself, but also so that he offers an example to others, and his way of living may be, as it were, an eloquent speech. (Book IV, chap. xxix, p. 61)
This sense of a life lived in public with rhetorical effect that is not tied to language is quite consistent with later performative understandings of style. Augustine also notes the political and social consequences of style when it functions divisively in anchoring the judgments we make about other people’s worth and class.
As with the linguistic tradition of style, the performative tradition was developed over the centuries following the classical era, although not as strongly as the linguistic and not as clearly identified as style. In 16th-century Florence, the statesman and courtier Nicolo Machiavelli published his classic The Prince (1984), much of which is a study of the performative style necessary to gain and keep power. In the 18th century, the English man of letters Thomas Sheridan (father of the better-known playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan) published his influential A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1968), a precursor of what would come to be known as the elocutionary movement. Sheridan echoed Cicero as he argued that nonverbal communication was at least as important as verbal communication, and in fact, he argued that it is a universal language since animals of all species including people may understand one another through gesture, vocal inflection, facial expression, and so forth. Sheridan therefore advocated paying attention in communication to one’s whole body, clearly a performative understanding of persuasion, although he did not specifically call it style. His countryman in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Gilbert Austin, published Chironomia (1966), a remarkable work that organizes the space around the speaking body, assigning different areas to different emotions and emphases. Thus, there was a place to gesture for praise, a place to gesture if you wanted to place blame, a place to gesture to incite love, and so forth. Influential at the time, Austin’s work was of course too mechanical and simplistic to find much use in later centuries. But while it, too, does not use the word style, it belongs to a tradition that sees stance and movement as important elements of communication. We might also consider the 19th-century French teacher of dance and elocution, François Delsarte. Although not known for prolific or influential publications, his theories and courses of instruction were widely important in the growing elocutionary movement presaged by Sheridan. Like both Sheridan and Austin, Delsarte taught that specific movements and vocal inflections were linked to the creation of predictable emotional reactions in the audience. The ideas of Sheridan, Austin, and Delsarte influenced not only public speaking but also how people carried themselves and spoke in all kinds of public appearances, even during everyday life, which is of course a performative way of thinking about style.
Modern scholars of communication from the start of the 20th century have studied the performative dimensions of style. A willingness to call this dimension by the term style has, as we saw at the start of this section, recently entered into this scholarly tradition. An early essay from 1915 by Gladys Borchers develops “An Approach to the Problem of Oral Style,” in which Borchers discusses the special dimensions of style that come from the person presenting herself in public before others—in other words, from performance. The importance of orality or the use of the spoken word is a dimension of style that moves toward the performative, since it goes beyond the purely linguistic. This is the theme of Robert T. Oliver’s 1943 article “Living Words.” A living word, as opposed to one on a page, is inherently performative. In performance, style tells us about the individual speaking, an idea developed early in the century by C. K. Rogers (1916) in “The Voice as a Revelation of the Individual.” That which is experienced orally is experienced in particular ways. An essay by Lionel Crocker (1928), “The Refrain in Oratorical Prose,” is an example of early 20th-century studies of such orality. An even earlier essay is F. H. Lane’s 1916 “Action and Emotion in Speaking,” which clearly addresses the performative dimension of delivery in public presentations: what one does, how one gestures, and so forth. A similar study from 1927 was Gaston Louis Malecot’s “A Note on Gesture and Language,” continuing Austin’s tradition of studying the ways in which gesture in performance conveys meaning. Likewise, T. Earle Pardoe explores “Language of the Body” in a 1923 essay. By 1970, W. Ross Winterowd was referring to the nonverbal, performative dimensions of communication as style in his “Style: A Matter of Manner.”
Sheridan’s idea that a living voice may convey emotions nonverbally finds a more recent echo in Smiley Blanton’s 1989 study of “The Voice and the Emotions,” with its focus on the delivery and performance of public discourse. Wayland M. Parrish explored the kind of performed styles best suited to extemporaneous speaking in his 1923 essay “The Style of Extemporaneous Speech.” Floyd K. Riley studied parallels between conversation and certain styles of public address in 1928, in “The Conversational Basis of Public Address.” Marouf Hasian Jr. (2000) continues the performative tradition of style without explicitly calling it style in his study of John Brown’s demeanor and self-presentation during his 19th-century trial.
The common thread linking the linguistic and performative traditions is aesthetics. However it is viewed, style has always been understood as an aesthetic dimension of communication. When a theorist has not thought aesthetics to be important, style has not been felt to be important. It is then regarded as mere decoration, as something extra to be added to a message or presentation after the main substance of argument and exposition has been developed. We saw above that linguistic style has sometimes been referred to as mere ornament or decoration. Performative style is often denigrated as mere “skin” or “surface,” a mask that one puts on just for today and that does not reflect one’s reality. Ewen (1988) describes that opinion as the feeling that “the ability to stylize anything … encourages a comprehension of the world that focuses on its easily manipulated surfaces, while other meanings vanish to all but the critical eyes” (p. 262). Those “other meanings” are often seen as the more important substance or inner core of who a person, speaker, or group really is. These doubts that are raised about both linguistic and performative style raise the question of whether style in either sense is important in effective communication. That is also to raise the question of whether attention to the aesthetic dimension of communication is necessary for rhetorical, communicative effectiveness.
It will not do to sneer at either sense of style in the 21st century or to believe that aesthetics are unimportant for effective communication. We are living in an age of aesthetics today. You can certainly find at least one show on television any time of the day or night that features aesthetics: how to cook, how to decorate, how to dress, how to be made over, how to overhaul your car, and so forth. Magazine racks in stores groan under the weight of slick glossies offering to show you how to make your self or your home more aesthetically appealing. If there are cultural reasons (e.g., the aesthetic is a more important value for us than it may have been for other eras) for this phenomenon, there are surely also commercial reasons: The world’s huge industrial overcapacity must be kept going by constant hyperconsumption on the part of the public, globally. We have to be induced to buy far more than we need, or the economy would come crashing down. One can never be persuaded to buy 20 pairs of jeans and 30 pairs of shoes for practical reasons alone. But if we can be persuaded that we have to have another pair of jeans in just that shade of indigo, if we can be taught that last season’s jacket is no longer socially acceptable, if we are led to believe that only this pair of shoes is appropriate for that big night out—in other words, if we can be taught to think in terms of style, then there is hardly any limit to what we may be persuaded to buy. An aesthetic preoccupation is key to global capitalism, and if it is also central to today’s popular culture, the link should not be surprising. Ewen (1988), argues that today’s economy especially depends on style, since in the market “all manners of human expression and creativity are mined for their surfaces: their look, their touch, their sound, their scent [italics added]. This booty is then attached to the logic of the marketplace: mass produced and merchandised” (p. 52).
For both cultural and economic reasons, style and aesthetics are key to effective communication because they are key to how people live and think today. The political candidate with all kinds of good policy ideas who cannot express himself or herself in an exciting verbal style or cannot perform a likable personal style is simply not going to be elected. The business presentation couched in heavy jargon by someone in a rumpled suit and a slouching stance is not going to land the contract. And wouldn’t that be unfortunate if the candidate were really the best person for the position and if the contract should by economic common sense go to that inept persuader? Style, linguistic and performative, is no longer decoration and adornment—it is increasingly the most important element of effective communication.
I think that given the power of the capitalist system and the market today, it is entirely understandable that style should increasingly take on a performative aspect. While the linguistic tradition is still with us, you can’t sell the stuff for making good metaphors as easily as you can sell the stuff for making a good impression at the club tonight or at the job interview tomorrow. The linguistic tradition is a little disconnected from commodification, but commodification was made for the performative understanding of style and vice versa. For these reasons, the performative understanding of style will continue to gain strength as a major cultural preoccupation and dimension of communication.
A theme sounded throughout classical rhetoric is that one should study persuasion because it would be too bad to leave goodness and truth undefended while evil and falsehood win over audiences. Today, we may say that about the study of style. If it was important to know how to argue before audiences of the past, how to present facts and figures in the most logical fashion, today it is important to know how to reach audiences through style. Rather than regard style as inconsequential, communicators should accept its cultural and economic dominance and incorporate it into their rhetorical efforts in everyday life, in public presentations, and in mass communication.