Essays On Style Rhetoric And Language

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date: 14 March 2018

The Rhetoric of Style

Summary and Keywords

Style is in the traditional canon of rhetoric and means the manipulation of language for rhetorical effect. Historically, eras that emphasized style in rhetoric also tended to regard rhetoric as of secondary importance in public discourse, as the window dressing for logic and more substantive modes of invention.

When we think of style more broadly as the use of gesture, clothing, decoration, objects, grooming—in short, of style in the more colloquial sense of “he’s got style”—then we see a wider and more important role for style as a major form of rhetoric. Today, the need of global capitalism to sustain artificially high levels of consumption is largely achieved through a rhetoric of style. The public must be persuaded to churn its clothing, decoration, grooming styles, and so forth constantly to keep consumption up, and the most effective way to achieve that end is through creating in people a preoccupation with style. Once that happens, then style becomes the major way in which we think about presenting ourselves to others. Style becomes the way in which people say who they are, who they want to be, and who they feel opposed to. Style becomes a major expression of political commitment.

In short, style has become a major if not the major rhetorical system at work in the world today. We understand what others mean, and we influence others, through style much more than we do through carefully planned discursive discourses, argument, and expository presentations. Because global capitalism is the engine behind this preoccupation with style, style is a system of communication likely to increase in dominance and importance.

Keywords: style, rhetoric, capitalism, language, social, political, consumption, culture, aesthetics


The traditional rhetorical sense of style as embellishment of argument and today’s vernacular sense of style as dress, grooming, posture, decoration, and leisure activities have merged into a new form: the rhetoric of style. Styles are distinct patterns within cultural repertoires, and as such they function like languages. For this reason, style marks social and political groups powerfully and may be said to control people’s choices as much as people control style. Style is becoming a terrain of social and political struggle. Style is thus also becoming an increasingly global form of communication and may be said to be the chief form of global communication today. The ascendancy of style is fueled by the needs of global capitalism, which uses style to instill a sense of hyperconsumption in people.

This essay puts together two venerable ideas and discusses how they have merged in recent decades into an important cultural and scholarly concept: the rhetoric of style. Each has long been the subject of popular and scholarly fascination. Their parallel tracks of development have now merged into a concept that, this essay argues, is a central feature of global life today.


Style was part of the canon of classical rhetoric, developed for example in the third book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and it was a major concern for his Poetics (1954). As part of the traditional canon, style meant strategic language choice and embellishment of discourse with figures of speech, often as a support for the more substantive invention of argument. The centrality of style to rhetoric waxed and waned over the centuries. Style was a central theme in Longinus’s On the Sublime (Dorsch, 1965), and both Cicero and Quintilian devoted attention to it (Cicero, 1942; Quintilian, 1969). During some periods style became nearly the exclusive preoccupation of those interested in rhetoric, such as Peter Ramus (2010), or in the proliferation of figures of speech during the Renaissance (Adamson, Alexander, & Ettenhuber, 2011). In all these uses, style means strategic verbal choices, figures of speech and tropes. In fact, during the Renaissance, serious attention was paid to expanding lists and logics of figures of speech and tropes. Thus, style has often been seen as decoration of the real substance of rhetoric, which was taken to be argument, and thus as a secondary canon in rhetoric. In some eras, the ability to speak in a refined style was taken as a mark of high rhetorical skill.

Style has also for a long time been prominent in popular usage. We refer to someone as having a great style, or no sense of style at all. We refer to country-western style, Downton Abbey style, or punk style. The word is often used to refer to specific aesthetics of decoration, as in the styles of Louis XV or Swedish Modern furniture. The term is used to refer to specific and recurring patterns of gesture, grooming, intonation, and vernacular usage, as when we say that we assumed that someone is lesbian or from Brooklyn or New Jersey because of his or her style. Until recently, these related senses of style have not especially been understood to be rhetorical but have been approached in terms of aesthetics, history, or sociology.

Recent scholarship, however, has begun to unify a sense of style to mean both the traditional sense of language and in the sense of decoration, gesture, and personal grooming (Brummett, 2009; Maffesoli, 1996; Postrel, 2003; Vivian, 2002). The traditional understanding of style has been merging into and becoming subsumed by the second understanding.

A Review of Scholarly Literature: Identity and Psychology

Style and its related concepts in our world today have been approached from a variety of scholarly and methodological perspectives. One might say it is one of the most widely and variedly used term across the humanities and social sciences. Much work has been done in social sciences to identify styles of relationship, or of thought and cognitive processing (Beitel, Ferrer, & Cecero, 2004). Certain kinds of psychosocial style have been identified with certain kinds of emotional and social disorders (Davila, Steinberg, Kachadourian, Cobb, & Fincham, 2004). Individual differences in nonverbal behavior have been studied as kinds of style useful in forming identity (Gallaher, 1992). The effects of gender and different coping styles on athletic status and drinking behavior in college have been studied (Wilson, Pritchard, & Schaffer, 2004). Teaching styles preferred by students in universities have been shown to influence perception of professors (Zhang, 2004). The styles of pastors have been shown to influence their effectiveness (Zondag, 2004). The behavioral styles of children were studied in connection to personal temperament by Karp, Serbin, Stack, and Schwartzman (2004). A number of interesting studies have noted the extent to which criminals read the everyday styles of potential victims and choose whom to attack based on their reading of styles that promise little resistance (Gunns, Johnston, & Hudson, 2002). Kanemasa, Taniguchi, Daibo, and Ishimori (2004) have identified “love styles” and tracked their influence on romantic experiences in Japan. Turning attention to culture-wide styles, Stearns (1994) argues for the existence of a peculiarly American kind of emotional style he calls “American cool”.

The connection of style to specific kinds of identity has been the subject of much study (Hall & DuGay, 1996). Style has long been understood to be a marker of different class positions (Milner, 1999). Style has been seen as central to the creation of communities that recognize themselves largely through style (Bauman, 2001). Doty (1993) has studied the ways in which style, especially camp style, may become both a way to mark queer identity and also a way to disrupt heteronormative power structures. Mort (1996) shows how “cultures of consumption” were used to mark different masculinities in late 20th-century Britain, especially queer masculinities. Ackroyd (1979) studied the ways in which drag, or cross-dressing, has been central to certain kinds of psychosexual identity, and such cross-dressing surely makes use of style inflected by gender. Similarly, style is one component of Butler’s (1990, 1999) analysis of the ways in which gender is socially constructed. Crane (2000) studied the ways in which clothing specifically marks identity keyed to class, gender, and other dimensions of self-making. The ways in which style is used by youth culture to mark itself as distinct in the wider cultural context has been studied by many authors, such as Danesi (2003). Miles, Hall, and Borden (2000) use concepts of style to delineate different kinds of “city cultures.” Styles in architecture have been studied for their contributions to the cultures of cities (Rybczynski, 2001).

Styles connected to different races and ethnicities have been studied in detail. Hooks has explored this issue (1992, 2000). Likewise, Kitwana (2002) has studied styles in hip hop, while Majors and Billson (1992) have noted that style has historically been an important means for the creation and protection of African American male identity. Watkins (2005) also studies hip hop as not only a cultural movement but a kind of style, with important political consequences. A related study explores what “hip” means, explaining it on several dimensions of style (Leland, 2004). Winter (2002) foresees the “end of white America” as style becomes increasingly commodified and, he argues, increasingly diffused in terms of race or ethnicity.

A Review of Scholarly Literature: History, Culture, and Social Structures

Style is an important factor in the development of history, as Hariman (1995) has shown in his analysis of political styles. As I will note below, style has been centrally implicated with capitalism and the market, and this connection has often been studied. Adorno and Horkheimer (2000) accused the “culture industry” of deceiving people in part by inducing an obsession with style. One need not see their vision of actual deception in the market to note the overwhelming focus on consumption that popular culture encourages in the public, which is largely done through style as we shall see below (Ritzer, 2001). Seabrook (2001) points to the now insoluble connection between marketing and culture, and of course much of that is marketed is the means to manipulate style through clothing, home decoration, and such.

On the other hand, scholars such as Bourdieu (1998) have argued that through the manipulation of style, people offer creative resistance to the domination imposed by the market. Buie (2000) sees the possibility for an “erotic space” in the use of style within the overall dominating system of commerce. Likewise, Stratton (2001) notes the creation of an “erotics of consumption” centered on the body and its stylization. De Certeau (1984) agrees in showing how people may manipulate the practices of everyday life, including style as a means of resistance or refusal, to counter forces of entrenched power. Featherstone (1991) explores strategies used in postmodern cultures to resist or at least inflect the influence of capitalism. Some students of design have pointed to the ways in which involvement with products may produce pleasurable experiences that create a kind of freedom and escape from logics of the market (Green & Jordan, 2002; see also Norman, 1988, 2004).

Style has been understood as a way to perceive the world and our experience in it. Jean Baudrillard (1987, 1983) argued that our world is becoming increasingly simulational, and a major factor in this change is a preoccupation with style over substance. Style connected to particular experiences of media that may structure experience has been studied. The element of style in visual rhetoric has been explored, sometimes under the rubric of “visual culture” (Evans & Hall, 1999). Students of visual rhetoric such as Finnegan (2003) have made possible ways to think of particular visual styles as having social impact. Hariman and Lucaites (1992, 2002) have studied the role of photographs as a kind of public discourse, and it is not hard to see the links between style and photography in their work. When Trebay (2007) discusses strategies for success in political campaigns, much of his focus is on the creation of a visual style. Likewise, Wheaton (2007) notes the extent to which the visual styles of female politicians are important in winning or losing elections.

Narrative based visual media such as film gives people patterns through which they structure their lives, argues Gabler (1998), and style is one dimension of those patterns. Likewise, Postman (1985) argues that an increasing preoccupation with entertainment is dominating public discourse, and of course style is an important component of entertainment.

Five Characteristics of Style

This scholarly integration of the two broad senses of style depends upon their amalgamation as having the following characteristics: 1) certain styles composed of language choice but also patterns of decoration, gesture, grooming, and so forth are widely recognized as distinct because there is a unity to each style; 2) styles in this unified sense function as a language that people may appropriate to communicate and to read the meanings of others; 3) styles powerfully mark social and political groupings and allegiances; 4) style in the unified sense is becoming one, if not the main, system of rhetoric in an increasingly globalized world; and 5) late capitalism is the engine that is making style so preeminent a form of communication. This article will develop these five themes in greater depth. It will then conclude by considering some pedagogical implications for the rhetoric of style.

Distinctive Systems of Style

A remarkable characteristic of a style is that most people raised in a given community share an understanding of the styles that are culturally available to that community (Douglas & Isherwood, 1979). Here a distinction may be made between style and fashion. A style is an enduring cohesion of language, gesture, grooming, and so forth, such as hippie style. In the United States at least, most people will know what hippie style is and will be able to identify elements that do or do not belong to it. The same is true of other styles such as 1930s gangster style. At any given moment, a particular style may or may not be the fashion, which is to say it is popular and its components are widely available on the market. Thus, a fashion is a currently popular and commodified appropriation of a style from the vast repertoire of styles known to most late capitalist cultures.

Part of socialization seems to be, in these cultures, to acquaint people with the cohesive and systematic nature of styles. Most people, if given the name of a style, can say which elements belong to it and which do not. Scottish Highlands style includes kilts, bagpipes, haggis, tatties and neeps, and so forth. But it does not include Stetson hats, cowboy boots, or bolo ties. Yet the reader is likely to know which other stylistic system this second list subsumes—country-western style. Knowledge of the coherence of styles, of the glue that holds a style together, seems to be something people learn at their mothers’ knees. That knowledge is also perpetuated through film, television, advertising, and other means of disseminating popular culture.

Style as Language

An understanding of the coherence of styles leads us to consider the ways in which styles work as languages. Languages are also coherent, and many people will be able to identify a set of utterances as being of a certain language, or at least a language group, even if they do not understand the language itself. Languages have grammars, which are logics of order. Languages are, among other things, means of communication. They are central to social and political identity; witness the importance placed upon French in Quebec, and even in France itself as both locations withstand the predations of American popular culture. People will understand when someone else is speaking another language and may even know some of what they are speaking, but that may not be the language one speaks oneself most commonly.

So it is with styles. To say that there are, for instance, gay styles is not to say that every gay person will display such a style, nor that only gay people will display such a style, just as not only Spanish people will speak Spanish. But it does mean that gay styles (there are more than one) will usually be recognized as such (another word for this is gaydar) even by people who never display the style. Gay styles are thus a way to communicate a certain community affiliation, a way of living and thinking (Walker, 2001). The same may be said for every other style. They are like languages in their systematicity, their ability to communicate, and their connections to specific human communities. Styles have grammars in that what goes with what is widely understood; one does not wear a top hat with a swimsuit, for instance.

Style as a Social and Cultural Marker

As the “languages” attached to different communities, styles often if not always mark social and cultural allegiances and are for that reason politically powerful (Ewen, 1988). Styles may “call” powerfully to members of certain communities, even if the display of those styles incurs some sort of disadvantages. Various “hood” styles are powerfully enticing to people, especially people of color, even though displaying such styles will never get the displayer into the board room or corner suite (Rose, 2005). Styles can also effectively repel those who do not share the communities with which the styles are associated. If the reader is not African, try wearing African clothing such as the dashiki for a day. Social pressures may give one to understand that such a thing is inappropriate. If the reader is not Orthodox Jewish, try wearing the black clothing and specific styles of hats connected with, for instance, Hasidic communities for a day. A feeling of discomfort may well arise within, and unpleasant comments may well be received from without, having to do with a display of inauthenticity. Styles “wear” people as much as people “wear” styles, and this is so because of the powerful connections among styles and communities.

We see styles as terrains of social and political struggle precisely because they are usually connected to communities (Hebdige, 1979). Conservative political leaders and school boards from time to time attempt to ban the practice of “sagging” pants, which is closely connected to young, urban communities of males, especially African Americans and Latinos (Rose, 2005). France has waged an ongoing struggle in an attempt to ban Muslim head coverings on the grounds that they isolate those who wear them. These attempts are resisted with equal fervor by those who see the head coverings as a mark of pride in religion and community.

Style as an Ascendant System of Global Rhetoric

An important reason why style becomes a terrain of struggle is that the languages formed by different styles are increasingly becoming the main modes of communication shared in our world, whether locally or in a global context (Barnard, 2002). Fewer and fewer people know how to give a public speech, to craft a carefully reasoned argument, to appeal to shared values and commitments. People now move in a world awash in images and aesthetics. People are trained to manage images and aesthetics, and thus style. More know how to dress for success than know how to make a categorical syllogism. Television teaches us how to remake our clothing, our apartments, and our cars according to different styles. Magazines, movies, and television bid us to hyperaestheticize our lives, with increased attention to every aesthetic detail of our persons, domiciles, means of transportation, and accessories. Peruse the magazines at the checkout aisle in a grocery store, or just channel-surf on television, and one appeal after another is made to alter our styles through aestheticization. That is how we are trained to think nowadays.

Global markets share information about what different styles mean and which are currently fashionable. Your neighbor knows all the virtues of Japanese denim and can tell you why a four hundred dollar pair of jeans ought to cost that amount. People around the world use style as a terrain for ridiculing pompous comic-opera dictators in North Korea. Japanese couples will pay for entirely bogus Christian-style weddings complete with fake white pastors and paid white guests, and they know exactly which elements they want that mirror the “big church wedding” of the United States. African leaders have for decades dressed in the latest Western styles of suits, or if not, then the world knows what it means if they appear in more traditional clothing, perhaps as a statement of local pride and affiliation. In short, styles are becoming globally shared and understood, even if not everyone displays the same style. A strong case can then be made that style of one sort or another is increasingly the global means of communication and shared understanding today (Cantor, 2001).

Style and Global Capitalism

What has brought us to this condition? Clearly, it is the need of global capitalism to induce hyperconsumption among the public (Ewen & Ewen, 1992). In the developed world at least, people long ago reached the limit of consumption based on needs and necessities. The industrial and agricultural overcapacity of the developed world must be matched by consumption at an ever-growing pace or the global economy will collapse. Even people of less means in the developing world will be induced to yearn after consumer goods and services, and, as their ability to purchase improves, they will join the global frenzy of consumption. How can late capitalism sustain an increasing pace of consumption?

The only viable means of inducing a frenzy of consumption is through instilling an fascination with style in the public. Style is the only reason why someone with twenty pairs of shoes will want forty. Style is an engine of desire, not need or necessity. Style is the only reason why someone will buy varieties of coffee, cereal, liquor, and snacks beyond the necessities of everyday life. We are appealed to in terms of a need to improve style, to have the latest style, to swap out style altogether. Style has the advantage of being churnable. In other words, for many elements of style—not all—we can quickly and easily replace the styles we currently display. It only takes a quick trip to the store or the grooming salon to do so. Convinced that one’s style is outdated, or sends the wrong message, or declares an unfortunate alignment with undesirable social groups, people will pay good money to change their style, and global capitalism is grateful for it. Messages about style are conveyed to the public so consistently that Nixon (2003) refers to “advertising cultures” in his work.

Nor are refusals of increasing hyperconsumption widely effective, never mind occasional local successes in going off the grid. Is one planning for an apocalypse of some sort, which would surely be the end of global capitalism? Why, merchants have just the right equipment, frozen food, weapons, water purifiers, and so forth to help one do that. Are young people declaring a contempt for consumer culture by wearing old and vintage clothing that is ripped and torn? No matter, merchants will within days be selling clothing that looks old and ripped but was manufactured just in that style yesterday in Indonesia. Refusals of global capitalism are likely carried out through the manipulation of material goods, as was true of the punk movement in the United Kingdom some decades ago. And it does not take long before those and any other refusals are turned into styles that can be marketed. Agents of capitalism make it their business to scour sites of youth culture to note these refusals and variations from current styles, in a practice sometimes called “cool hunting.” As soon as it appears as if a departure from the styles currently on sale by Sears, Nike, Hot Topic, or Victoria’s Secret may have some success on the streets and among subcultures, those very subversions of style will be on sale by major retailers. Global capitalism is a juggernaut, and the manipulation and marketing of style is its cutting edge.

Teaching and Learning the Rhetoric of Style

Throughout the history of rhetorical theory and pedagogy, controversy has persisted as to whether rhetorical skill can be taught. Plato argued it was a knack one acquired from experience, while others such as Quintilian maintained formal schools that claimed to teach rhetorical skill, always with the assumption that some natural ability as well as experience was important. Aristotle’s Rhetoric was in effect a program for the study of rhetoric, including style. An important loose cluster of philosophers and teachers known as the Sophists, roughly contemporaneous with Aristotle and Plato, argued that rhetoric and style could be taught, and they were instrumental in establishing formal courses of study to equip Athenians to participate in its young democracy (Backman, 1991; Jarratt, 1998).

Today one will not see Schools of the Rhetoric of Style being advertised, but to some extent the same choices are given to us. Television shows and magazines are full of advice claiming to teach people how to improve their style. The underlying possession of a natural kind of stylistic ability, sometimes called taste, is taken to be an advantage in learning the rhetoric of style, just as some facility for public speaking has historically been taken to be an aid in the formal learning of traditional rhetoric. Certainly, the extent to which the rhetoric of style is “taught” is much less institutional and formalized than have been curricula of rhetoric throughout history. The rhetoric of style appears to be spread more democratically and diffusely today. But by the same token, knowledge of style and how it works to influence others is likely more widespread than was any kind of advanced knowledge of traditional rhetorical knowledge such as the ability to give speeches or write essays. As noted above, this is entirely in the interests of capitalism, for the more people who are knowledgeable about, indeed engrossed in, the ways of style, the more sales will be made.

An important pedagogical difference between traditional rhetoric and the rhetoric of style is that the former worked best with full awareness of its conditions and goals, while the rhetoric of style works best if its conditions and goals are to some extent hidden from its practitioners. Traditional rhetoricians, such as public speakers, knew full well what they were attempting to do and for what purposes. They had audiences to persuade and set about that business with focused intention. Practitioners of the rhetoric of style may conduct much of their business out of awareness or with only partial awareness. Not everyone will take into full consideration the rhetorical implications of how they dress, what they order for lunch, or what entertainment choices they display. Yet the public displays a remarkable degree of tacit knowledge as to how the rhetoric of style works, even if not focally considered. It likely never occurs to anyone attending a baseball game to wear a top hat and a tuxedo. Most likely, the remarkable consistency in how people dress and conduct themselves stems from a tacit knowledge of appropriate styles to display in those circumstances. The reactions that people have to others who display rhetorically impaired styles will likely not be thought of along those strategic lines. People will simply make the attribution that a given display of style is clumsy or inappropriate or in poor taste and leave it at that.

Of greater importance is the likelihood that the centrality of style and the hyperconsumption that it sustains will not be in the focal awareness of practitioners of the rhetoric of style. Most people decorate their living spaces giving no thought to the indispensable support they are giving to late capitalism, often at the expense, literally, of their own financial well-being. This lack of focal awareness gives us to understand that the rhetoric of style is taught much more through a process of socialization than was traditional rhetoric, which tended to be taught through a conscious curriculum or program of study.

The rhetoric of style may be an important part of a wider category that one might call vernacular rhetorics. By this I mean rhetorics that are picked up by experience and through socialization and that are also taught, but not in any formal curriculum or institutional plan of study. An incomplete list of such vernacular rhetorics would include knowledge of how best to communicate within microcommunities such as neighborhoods, even to the level of corner stores, barber shops, hair salons, and the like. It would include rhetorics most effective on the shop floor, at gun shows, around rodeos, in boardroom meetings, and on playgrounds. Rhetoric today is spreading out as it were. Its practice and pedagogy is distributed throughout popular culture. As awareness of vernacular rhetorics grows, pedagogical practices must change, and teachers of these rhetorics must develop new methods for dealing with these new forms.

One final consideration is whether knowledge of style is something that is worthwhile to teach or to learn. In a world rife with war, disease, and genocide, is it not a distraction to become skilled in strategies of decoration, grooming, fashion, and the like? On the one hand, it is a moot point if it is true, as I think it is, that late capitalism has made style the dominant rhetoric of our period. Capitalism is unlikely to go away, and so knowing how its main tool for capturing the interest of the public works must perforce be important. But on a more important point, if it is true, as I think it is and as many of the works cited here show, that style is the terrain and means for social and political struggle, then learning how to use the rhetoric of style is a requirement for civic participation. It will not do for activists (trump them each time through the manipulation of style). As classical rhetoricians would have said, we should all learn that dominant rhetoric so that those possessed of good ideas may make them rhetorically attractive and thus successful.

Further Reading

Barnard, M. (2002). Fashion as communication (2d ed.). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Bergman, D. (1993) (Ed.). Camp grounds: Style and homosexuality. Amherst: University of Massachusetts.Find this resource:

Brummett, B. (2009). A rhetoric of style. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

Douglas, M., & Isherwood, B. (1979). The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Ewen, S. (1988). All consuming images: The politics of style in contemporary culture. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Hebdige, D. (1979). Subculture: The meaning of style. London: Methuen.Find this resource:

Maffesoli, M. (1996). The contemplation of the world: Figures of community style. (S. Emanuel, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.Find this resource:

Postrel, V. (2003). The substance of style: How the rise of aesthetic value is remaking commerce, culture, and consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.Find this resource:

Rose, T. (2005). A style nobody can deal with: Politics, style and the postindustrial city in hip hop. In R. Guins and O. Z. Cruz (Eds.), Popular culture: A reader (pp. 401–416). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Vivian, B. (2005). Style, rhetoric, and postmodern culture. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 35, 223–243.Find this resource:

Walker, L. (2001). Looking like what you are: Sexual style, race, and lesbian identity. New York: New York University.Find this resource:


Ackroyd, P. (1979). Transvestism and drag: The history of an obsession. London: Thames and Hudson.Find this resource:

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