Rhetoric is not an object. Of that I am certain. Rhetoric is not a substance to be examined and dissected or to be broken up into its requisite parts. Rhetoric is human meaning-making, and the study of rhetoric is the study of the way humans make meaning. This definition requires some nuance.
First, I have intentionally chosen the phrase “meaning making” over “meaning communicating” because, in my estimation, there is no knowable amorphous “truth” that sits outside our subjective ways of reading. This is because the only way we learn anything is through our senses. And even if we somehow received communication from something not using our senses (suppose a technologically advanced alien race transmitted thoughts directly into our brains), the only way we could understand such communication would be to run it through our existing psychological grid. In any case, as Derrida has pointed out, we only understand things as situated relative to other things. An objective truth would not be relative, but absolute, and therefore unknowable in human terms. This is not to say that objective truth does not exist external to our ability to understand it, because it might, we just could not know it absolutely. Nor is this to say that all points of view are equally valid, because they aren’t. Rather, this is to say that the way humans understand and communicate meaning is directly married to the way humans construct and perceive that meaning; that is, the signified and the signifier are inseparable.
Second, meaning is not necessarily (or even primarily) the one intended by the rhetor. Ink blots are a good example of this. Ostensibly, ink blots are just that: blots of ink. However, given to a client by a psychoanalyst, the ink blots are thought to have meaning. The client naturally imposes a pattern on the blot, seeing faces and objects where there are, in fact, no intended faces or objects. Are we to say that the client is mistaken, that she is seeing what is not there? No. The trained psychoanalyst will see the imposed pattern as a clue to the sub-conscious of the client. And, in this way, the ink blot means something to the client. In any case, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, the strategies we employ when reading actually shape the text itself. That is, the way we read does not change the physical object we have in our hand, but the way we read is an insurmountable lens that the text must pass through for our brains to begin cataloging its meaning.
Third, rhetoric is not an object. Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, and Longinus all treated it as if it were an object. That is, they viewed rhetoric with the gaze of the scientist, seeking to dissect, understand, and catalogue it. To this end, they developed extensive taxonomies. They had rhetorical canons. For example, Aristotle explains that there are three primary uses for rhetoric: debate in the assembly, military speeches, and persuasion in the courtroom. He then describes what should be done by the rhetor in each of these circumstances to best make use of rhetoric. The Roman rhetoricians had impressive lists of arguments and the way each argument should work. While viewing rhetoric in this way produced great thought, it nevertheless did violence to human meaning-making. First, it was not concerned with the ordinary use of rhetoric. That is, such a view was not concerned with the way we communicate in every day circumstances, preferring to view rhetoric as something done with civic intent for the purpose of influencing important people or events. In this way, rhetoric was a tool exclusively held by those in power. Second, treating rhetoric as the object of scientific inquiry was dogmatic. It said rhetoric is “such and such” and not “this and that.” In so doing, the rhetorics invented by Aristotle and others ceased to describe the way humans communicate and, instead, gave a rubric for how they ought to communicate. Again, the result is a rhetoric distanced from ordinary meaning-making and held in the hands of the powerful.
Rhetoric as human meaning-making, then, is concerned with every way that humans make meaning. This means that rhetoricians ought to be concerned not just with speeches (as Aristotle was) or even only spoken and written texts, but with any way that humans make meaning. The expansion in recent years of rhetorical studies to include things such as the rhetoric of silence, visual rhetoric, the rhetoric of space, etc means that our field is slowly coming to embrace the varied and creative ways in which humans make meaning, ways which are legion.
(From a paper I wrote for a course this past semester.)