Tropology, a form of rhetoric strictly limited to the study of the figures, was vastly predominant in France from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. According to Gérard Genette and Paul Ricoeur, its success due to this restriction in fact caused the decline of rhetoric: while rhetorical ornamentation at the classical period defined the literary, modern age literature, being self-referent, has lost any necessary connection with rhetoric. However, it is worthy to note that both Genette’s and Ricoeur’s criticisms of rhetoric take place right before the foundation of their own critical methods (narratology and hermeneutics).


            What is in fact at stake here is the status of rhetoric as an autonomous and continuous discipline. Separating between literary and argumentative rhetoric, as such critical methods as we will explore do, presents an epistemological problem: if the two ‘rhetorics’, the argumentative one and the poetic one, can and do operate independently of each other, how is one to understand the continuity of rhetoric itself?

        Should one then distinguish between the two disciplines? If this were to be the case, however, why is it that both sides of rhetoric come from the same historical sources? In other words, why is it that the art of persuasive speech as well as that of poetic discourse developed from the same technê?

          Thus, what is at stake in Genette’s and Ricoeur’s critiques of tropology is not simply the death of a scholarly technique of interpretation, but rather the very definition of rhetoric through the questioning of the orders of discourse to which it was historically applied.

          In order to understand how notions of truth and of orders of discourse find themselves challenged by the redefinition of rhetoric consecutive to criticisms of tropology, it will be necessary to understand how Genette and Ricoeur conceive of the death of rhetoric, and what special place this announced demise takes in the authors’ own critical projects. It may then be possible to understand the conditions of an epistemological model of rhetoric reconciling its diverse applications.

            Genette’s critique of rhetoric rests primarily on the assumption that the field died from limiting itself to a mere tropology or ‘figurology’. However, as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen remarks (Bender & Wellbery, 1990),

[…] Defined as the theory of tropes or of figures of speech, rhetoric undoubtedly died in the mid-nineteenth century. Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, Ricoeur and Tzvetan Todorov have all variously written out its death certificate by imputing what they see as rhetoric’s two-thousand-year decline to a progressive restriction of its range and objectives […] To say that rhetoric is dead by restriction, however, is also to say that only restricted rhetoric is dead. Nothing prevents one part or another of ancient rhetoric-in-general from surviving, reviving, or simply prospering under another name. […]

            While we shall deal later with the consideration of the epistemological problem brought about by such a comment: that is, how can rhetoric be a united discipline if its ‘parts’ exist separately from each other and apparently autonomously?, we can presently try to understand what exactly is meant by Genette by the ‘restriction’ of rhetoric and how this fits into the more general critical endeavour of the Structuralist period.


            In the chapter entitled ‘Figures’ of his 1966 book Figures I, Genette describes a theory of the rhetorical figure based on distance –the French word is écart– and shows why, according to him, this theory cannot adequately account for modern literature. Commenting on nineteenth-century manuals of rhetoric, Genette (1966: 207) defines the figure as the form of the distance between a signifier and a signified.


[…] between word and meaning, between what the poet has written and what he thought, grows a distance, a space, which, like any space, has a form. This form is called figure, and there shall be as many figures as there can be found forms to the space each time created between the line of the signifier […] and that of the signified […], which is indeed nothing but another signifier given as literal. […]


One can already take note of the difficulties encountered even in a simplifying description of classical definitions of the figure. As soon as the vocabulary of modern linguistics is being used, a difficulty is created by the conflict between what finally appears to be two distinct linguistic theories. While a linguist would most likely not accept the idea of a distance between signifier and signified, this hesitation of Genette between the more ‘scientific’ account of the working of language and the more poetic definition of tropes seems to be representative of one of the main questions for literary theory in the 60s. Genette himself describes two critical methods, an objective ‘structuralism’ and a subjective ‘hermeneutics’, in another chapter of Figures I, ‘Structuralism and Literary Criticism’. Genette does not seem to want to close off any doors for theory, and thus his account of what a ‘figure’ is seems tainted by some sort of nostalgia for an old, poetic although critically weak rhetoric, as well as by a desire to get rid of this sensitive obstacle in order to build anew a critical theory adequate to modern literature. This ambivalence can also be felt in his 1968 introduction to Pierre Fontanier’s work, The Figures of Discourse, in which Genette appears as a great admirer of Fontanier, albeit for aesthetical reasons.


            In Figures, Genette (1966: 207) proceeds on, to show how rhetoric has come to be associated so closely with literature:


[…] The whole spirit of rhetoric is in the consciousness of a possible hiatus between the real language (that of the poet) and a virtual language (that which would have been used by the simple and common expression) that is just to be re-established in one’s mind in order to delineate a figural space. This space is not empty: it each time contains a certain mode of eloquence or of poetry. The writer’s art holds in the way in which he draws the boundaries of this space, which is the visible shape of Literature. […]


            In the same way as Barthes in his Mythologies, Genette shows that Rhetoric has come to represent, or to signify Literature, or the literary. This statement relates closely, or perhaps stems from the political idea that rhetoric, especially as it was conceived of by nineteenth-century rhetoricians, is imperialist. The figures, contends Genette (1966: 214), are sometimes unreal and do not have any function but that of extending rhetoric’s empire.


[Rhetoric makes up figures by] noting a quality in a text which may not have been there […] it then gives flesh to this quality by naming it […] Rhetoric has a rage to name things which is a way to extend itself and justify its existence by multiplying the objects of its knowledge. […]


          Genette’s criticism discards rhetoric as a critical method since its object is being exploded. Moreover, the prescriptive influence of rhetoric in defining a literary canon prevents it from exploring all the possibilities of discourse, therefore missing out on possible literatures. The imperialism of rhetoric would then seem not to extend to all discourse, but rather to limit the scope of literary discourse. Modern poetry, then, can be said to be revolutionary in the sense that it attacks rhetoric’s empire by putting forward a literality of the language.


[The figure] disappears only when the present signifier is literalised by an anti-rhetorical or terrorist conscience, as is the case in modern poetry […] and when the absent signifier remains impossible to find (1966: 211). […]


            This brings up a new difficulty in the definition of the figure. For if, as Genette notes, ‘Any figure is translatable, and bears its own translation below its apparent text, visible by transparency, as a palimpsest’, the importance of the non-figurative or literal language begs the question of a ‘degree zero of rhetoric’. Genette remarks in a footnote:


Therefore, if a figure must be translatable, it cannot be translated without losing its figurative quality. Rhetoric knows that the word sail designates a ship, but it knows as well that it designates a ship differently than the word ship would do: the meaning is the same, but the signification, that is, the relation between sign and meaning is different; and poetry rests upon significations, not upon meanings. […] The word is irreplaceable in modern poetry because it is literal; it is irreplaceable in classical poetry because it is figurative (1966: 211, footnote).


            It is important to note how this definition of the non-figurative does not coincide with the explanation of the ‘degree zero’ of the figurative that Genette described earlier on in the same text.


[…] Regarding the absolute absence of figure, it does exist, but is in rhetoric what we would call today a degree zero, that is a sign defined by the absence of sign, and of which the value is well known. […] We know, through linguistics’ example, that this phenomenon of a zero degree, where the absence of a signifier designates clearly a known signified, is always the mark of the existence of a system […] The existence of a zero figure, representing the sublime, shows that rhetoric’s language is sufficiently filled up with figures so that an empty space designates a full meaning: rhetoric is a system of figures (1966: 208).


            What is it that enables the reader to differentiate between a zero figurative which points out to the sublime and a zero figurative pointing out to itself in any given text? When does the reader know that the non-figurative stands for itself and when does the reader know that there is a translation to be found? The question of the transparency of the figure’s translation surfaces here again, and it takes on a double form. First, what is it that allows the reader of modern literature to decide that the language he or she is reading is not figurative? Second, why should the reader of classical texts not decide to take the text literally, even when it appears figurative? It is obviously the role of critical theory to help the reader decide whether he or she is faced with figurative or literal language. However, is not any critical theory in this respect guilty of imperialism, insofar as it imposes on the reader an interpretation which is necessarily relative? Indeed, it may be that the impossibility to decide whether a language is figurative or not is part and parcel of what the literary is.


            It is not, however, because of a presumed inadequacy of tropology to modern poetics that rhetoric is finally dismissed by Genette. Rhetoric stands as an obstacle to a theory of the literary aspiring to scientific legitimacy. The problem with rhetoric for the structuralists is not so much a relativity of the discipline –that is to say, it is not because rhetoric cannot be applied indifferently to any text– but rather rhetoric’s acknowledgment of the relativity of the relation between the reader and the text. Genette notes (1966, 216):


[…] The figure, then, is nothing else than the feeling of a figure, and its existence rests entirely upon the consciousness that the reader has, or does not have, of the ambiguity of the discourse which is given him. […]


            The claim made by Genette in ‘On Restricted Rhetoric’ that rhetoric should provide, or rather, be, ‘a semiotics of discourses. Of all discourses.’ can be understood to represent the structuralist desire to understand –as best as possible– all texts. Understanding all texts on an equal footing, however, does not go without certain problems. Two elements are to be considered: on the one hand, that of the general context of the discourse (am I reading a book? A newspaper?), and on the other hand, that of the objective in the text. It may be possible to express both those terms as rhetorical functions, and furthermore as functions of an undivided rhetoric. First, the context can be described in terms of ethos and pathos. Second, the objectivity of the text. By this, I mean that there are some functions of the text that should be performed constantly in constant environments. For instance, a public speech usually performs its function with more than one audience, at least in a diachronic perspective. Indeed, one could say that only a good public speech does that –which only reinforces the ties between the idea of a rhetoric extending from the deliberative to the poetic without interruption. What is decisive here is the idea that the potential of discourse is measured in terms of persuasion.

            Such a conception of rhetoric is doubly dangerous to Genette’s project. Dangerous for structuralism on the one hand, since a delimitation of the genres of texts would come as an obstacle to a structuralist semiotics. A definition of rhetoric as persuasion would not imply a renouncement of the orders of discourse or of the hierarchy of styles, but would rather reinforce both aspects by justifying them within the persuasive function. What would be challenged, nonetheless, is meta-language itself, as it could equally well become a mere function of persuasion. The critic’s meta-discourse would then be shown in its own, illusory imperialism –not unlike the discourse of dogmatic philosophy as Nietzsche presents it. This conception of rhetoric is on the other hand dangerous for Genette in particular, as it tends to highlight his hesitation between the ‘two critical methods’ as well as to impeach the very design of his narratology. What does not appear in the English translation of Figures III, is the article on ‘Restricted Rhetoric’ which creates a tabula rasa for narratology, placed as it is before the ‘Discourse on Narrative’.


            We can see here how rhetoric challenges the traditional conceptions of orders of discourse. While with Genette, it was essentially the meta-language of a critical theory of literature which found itself questioned, Ricoeur’s take on metaphor will provide insights in the constitution of the philosophical discourse.


            The Rule of Metaphor is an interesting translation of the title to Ricoeur’s 1975 work; La Métaphore vive, literally ‘The Living Metaphor,’ presents Ricœur’s view of traditional rhetoric, and the reasons why he believes it necessary to replace the latter with his own ‘hermeneutics’. The critique of Aristotelian theories and of tropology takes place mostly in the first two chapters. Ricoeur’s epistemological conception of the critical disciplines considers the scope of their object.





Classical Rhetoric                  Word



                              > Sentence




Hermeneutics                         Discourse



            Ricoeur agrees with Genette in seeing its reduction to tropology as the cause of the fall of rhetoric. However, Ricoeur thinks that the cause of this progressive restriction of rhetoric had been in place since Aristotle. The ‘pre-eminence of the word’, ‘le primat du mot’, is what condemned rhetoric. Two remarks on this subject. First, as Genette was fighting against an imperialism, Ricoeur combats an ideology. For according to Ricoeur, ‘It is then the primacy of the idea which guarantees that of the word. Rhetoric thus rests on an extra-linguistic theory, on an “ideology”, in the proper sense of the word, which endorses the movement of the idea to the word.’ Criticism once again tries to battle against its own politics, and is deluded by the literary text. The epistemology of rhetorical criticism is overlooked as critics find themselves defending their own antithetical ideas of language. This explains, it seems to me, Ricoeur’s defence of Aristotle and his own conception of hermeneutics as a higher order of criticism, perhaps through a different level of experience. To go back to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, ‘The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. (2000: 200) ’

            My second remark concerning Ricoeur’s criticism of tropology regards his relation to Genette’s theses. The second chapter of The Rule of Metaphor, points out the limits of the structuralist assessment of rhetoric. Ricoeur (1975: 64) writes of the account of the decline of classical rhetoric by its progressive restriction to tropology,


[…] This explanation, which at the same time is a criticism, wants to clear a path for the project of a new rhetoric, which would firstly reopen the rhetorical space that has been closed off; thus, the project is conceived of against the dictatorship of metaphor. […]


Ricoeur’s own laudable project is not to reopen a rhetorical space, but rather to redefine the tropes by replacing meaning in the vaster context of a sentence or a text.


            Is this really contrary to what Genette intends to do with narratology? Though the approaches to the texts are certainly different in their sensibility, is it not the case that both hermeneutics and narratology hope to look at greater units of signification than that of the word? The difference of approach perhaps betrays, then, the own sensibility of the critics in both cases: while their breaking apart with what could be described as philology has brought them closer to a philosophy of the texts, while according to their own statements the critic is becoming more of a writer, all these changes bear witness to the emergence of the figure, that is to say of the face of the critic in his work. ‘In the philosopher, […] there is nothing whatever impersonal; and, above all, his morality bears decided and decisive testimony to who he is […]’, writes Nietzsche.


            Perhaps Ricoeur’s idea that rhetoric is condemned to limit itself to the word is due to his conception of rhetoric and philosophy as two entirely separate disciplines. Although he insists that ‘Taxonomy stands in the place left empty by the philosophy of rhetoric’, Ricoeur does not himself offer much of a philosophy of rhetoric, aside from his epistemological study of metaphor, which leads him to the hermeneutical method.


[…] metaphor is the rhetorical process by which discourse frees the power held by certain fictions to re-describe reality […] language’s poiesis comes from the connexion between mythos and mimesis […] (1975: 11).


            Thus, Ricoeur creates a ‘poetic truth’ which stands as it were at an equal distance, on the one hand, of the phenomenological experience and, on the other hand, of speculative thought (1975: 399):


[…] What is thus given to thought by the ‘tensional’ truth of poetry, is the most primary and most hidden dialectic: that which reigns between the whole experience of belonging and the capacity to take a distance which opens the space of speculative thought.


            If the finding of this ‘tension’ corresponds roughly to the ‘écart’ of the figure, there is still a metaphysical step to climb in order to reach, as Ricoeur does, the idea of ‘truth’. Maybe one can see another, more fundamental difference between Ricoeur and Genette here: while a structuralist notion of truth would be, as it were scattered among all texts, Ricoeur’s take would concentrate truth on a few texts only –to quote Genette’s description of this, a ‘ “living” literature, that is a literature which can be experienced by critical consciousness, and which would need to be reserved for hermeneutical critic, like Ricoeur who claims the domain of Judaic and Hellenistic traditions, possessed of an inexhaustible and always indefinitely present surplus of meaning’.

            Is one then condemned to choose between those two metaphysical positions? Has one to choose permanently between different orders of discourse? What –or perhaps, as the question is at the same time metaphysical and political– who sets the standards for those divisions of discourses?

            In the manner of a conclusion, I would like to briefly suggest a way in which we could conceive of rhetoric as a united field, and hopefully do away with most of the metaphysical prejudices implied in critical theory. What is said to be at stake in rhetoric is the relation of words with thoughts. However, as Jean Paulhan remarked in 1953, what rhetoric in fact does is to liberate thought by offering it multiple possibilities of expression. Perhaps that what rhetoric in fact does is to assert, or rather to persuade the reader that it asserts something about this relation between language and thought, and between language and referent. Rhetoric, thus, is above any dialectic which it creates by suggesting a distance or a proximity which, in any case, does not exist before the reader enters a relationship with the text. Rhetoric is this mask, sometimes polished like a mirror, with which we ourselves cover the text.


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Collection Pierres Vives. Paris: Seuil, 1957.
Bender, John B., and David E. Wellbery. The Ends of Rhetoric : History, Theory, Practice. Stanford Calif: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Genette, Gérard. Figures I. Collection Points, 74. Littérature. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966.
____. Figures III. Collection Poétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1972.
____. Narrative Discourse. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Modern Library ed. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Ricœur, Paul. La Métaphore Vive. L'ordre Philosophique. Paris: Seuil, 1975.
____. The Rule of Metaphor : Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. University of Toronto Romance Series 37. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1977.


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