Rhetorical criticism is the analysis of a broad range of items related to using language to have an impact on an audience. This is often but not always applied to writing, where the author intends to have a certain effect on readers. Rhetoric in general is very broadly defined as any aspect of speech or writing that reaches out to an audience. Criticism, as it is defined for rhetorical criticism, literary criticism, and other types of similar analysis, is the process of examining something for its fundamentals or underlying nature. The criticism observes units of language and other auxiliary products of speakers or writers to examine the intent as well as the context of a piece of an individual communication to an audience.
The popularity of rhetorical criticism has grown and diminished over time throughout its history in human civilization. In some ways, the rise of this type of criticism is as old as the common usage of written language. Some date this discipline back to Plato and the societies of ancient Greece.
Academics use this type of criticism to understand how communicators use symbols to affect their audiences. These researchers can study text, film, or audio recordings to find rhetorical symbols for analysis. They can utilize specific words or phrases to provide insight into the speaker’s or writer’s intent. Generally, those who study rhetoric will build a collection of symbols, try to work them together into a central thesis, and gradually develop a meta-narrative regarding the ultimate nature of that speech, writing, or rhetoric-based art work.
Some experts have built specific categories of rhetorical criticism. For instance, there is a general focus in some academic communities on the “rhetorical effect of spectacle,” where extensive rhetorical techniques are used to produce cathartic reactions in an audience. This type of study examines both the visual and auditory components of rhetoric in search of more information about how communications will be received by a large group of people.
The products of rhetorical criticism can take many forms. Research papers may draw a great deal from this kind of study. In some academic departments related to communications, students may be tested on their responses to this kind of analysis. Some academic journals may publish articles related to the study of rhetoric in contemporary societies. All of this adds to the general body of work around the use of rhetoric in diverse scenarios and contexts.