I still remember it today: “Everything has a rhetoric. Even this has a rhetoric,” My professor noted as she lifted her iPhone off her desk in front of her. I rolled my eyes. The class was an R1B, one of the college writing courses students are required to take. Our topic was “The Rhetoric of Autobiography. In it we read poetry, novels, and essays, as well as an autobiography or two.
On my application I had listed philosophy as my major but over the course of that semester I found by reading for Philosophy 2 (Individual Morality & Social Justice) to be more and more tedious. My Rhetoric reading, however, I found more and more exciting. Poetry, novels, some of the most creative essays I had ever read. Our discussion got more and more fascinating too. Philosophy was slow, dotting every i, crossing every t, making its list checking it thrice. Rhetoric blazed ahead, regarding grammar only as another device to be used or eschewed depending on ones aims and cultural context.
One day when discussing the merits of unconventional arguments, Amy, our lecturer mentioned an essay she had read which argued that all of Jane Austen’s work could be considered as a meditation on the social and political implications of the pronunciation of the letter h. This essay came from a book of essays from D.A. Miller called “Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style.”
By the end of the semester I was completely swayed. Rhetoric was my everything, after all everything had a rhetoric.
The following semester I enrolled in Rhetoric 20, which Amy would also be teaching. I also enrolled in a seminar that looked interesting, with a professor whose name seemed familiar… “Miller.” Some quick online research revealed that he was in fact the Jane Austen letter H guy.
In Rhetoric 20 our midterm essay included Jane, Austen or the Secret of Style, which put me in the unique position of writing a paper for one my classes on the work of the professor teaching another of my classes. In fact I was even able to approach professor Miller after class one day tell him how I planned to write about his book. He invited me to walk with him across campus. After I explained my paper to him, we chatted about the rhetoric department, which was home to art critics, film critics, novelists, legal theorists, continental philosophers, scholars of elizabethan theater, and cognitive scientists. Rhetoric at Berkeley has found a way to disciplinize the interdisciplinary, to conventionalize the unconventional, to create a space for a multiplicity of perspectives, critical regard of criticism.
By now I was a full convert, a rhetoric major, the subject of questions like “oh what is that?,” “oh like persuasion right?,” and “you must want to go into politics huh?” Although the popular joke in the Rhetoric department is that we’re all getting a B.A. in B.S. the fact of the matter is that the department tends to be a rigorously critical of empty or ornamental language. In fact rhetoric majors tend to be the most critical of rhetoric (as it is traditionally understood). Come to think of it, the second I rolled my eyes in class freshman year my fate was probably sealed.