Mere Rhetoric (general)



Do you remember in the 90s when there was this huge “thug life” thing going on? Shady types getting money doing shady things. Andocides, the 5th century BCE rhetor, would have fit fell into that world. Even though he may have been acquainted with Socrates, he was more interested in roving with his friends of rabble-rousers. He was born to wealth and lived as what one editor called “a hot-headed young man-about-town with more money than sense” (321).


His carefree life came to a hard stop after a significant act of vandalism. Andocides was accused of multition of the Herms right before an Athenian expedition against Sicily--exactly not the time that you want to get the gods mad at you. Everyone was shocked. The act was seditious and blasphemous.  Athens could forgive some offences, but not parodying the most intimate religious beliefs on the eve of war. The act was seen as an affront against democracy from exactly the kind of rich snobs who would want to consolidate power. Numbers of the stone images of Hermes were mutated across Athens in one night. Just as quickly, informers sprang up to place the blame. Forty two members of the riotous party were named. Andocides was one of the accused.


But when they threw Andocides into prison, he did what all those 90s gangsters warned about--he turned snitch. He revealed the names of everyone who was involved, and, although he was an accomplice, he was still exiled from Athens and had his citizenship stripped from him. It turned out worse for the four men that he snitched on--they were all put to death.


But if you’re a young man of wealth, a little thing like state-defying vandalism and sending four people to their deaths doesn’t get you down. He traveled the city states of Greece, making friends with powerful people. Powerful and shady, but powerful. Andocides came back to Athens during the oligarchy and it didn’t go well--he narrowly missed being sentenced to death and was imprisoned. Later, he was set free, or maybe he escaped. The historical record is hazy on that detail.

So you can see the kind of life that he lived. And it reflects in his greatest speeches. On His Return was written as an attempt to get back into the city’s good graces. The reasons for his exile was fresh in their minds, and he openly admits his guilt. He claims to be a changed man: “my behavior today,” he says “is much more in keeping with my character than my behavior then” (26). He had been foolish and he had been unlucky--dreadfully unlucky. “No one came near suffering the sorrows which I suffered” (9). However, he points out, he is rich. That wealth can bring in a lot of corn to prevent famine. It also buys a lot of naval support. And he is willing to use his wealth to help Athens. “I have been reckless of both life and goods when called up” in an effort ”to render this city such a service as would sipose you to let me at last resume my rights as your fellow” (10).


Unfortunately, Andocides’ bad luck continued. Before he even began his speech, people were muttering against him. It might not help that he smugly referred to his accusors as “either the most stupid of mankind or the worst of public enemies” (1) and preemptively said that he would forgive the people all the wrongs he suffered (27). He still comes across as a rich snot weasling his way back.


Andocides did finally get back to Athens under a general amnesty after yet another political overthrow. For 3 years, everything was coming up Andocides. He held important roles in  political cultural life. His influence was growing and everyone was forgetting his youthful indescretions.


And then enemies old and new began to circle. Callias II, along with some others, created a legal case against him, arguing that the amnesty shouldn’t have applied to Andocides and that he should be kept out of the assembly and, oh yeah, how about put to death for rebellion? While he again had to confront the ghosts of his past,Andocides had some advantages this time.


For one thing, time had passed. People had moved on and forgotten much of the outrage they felt in the several political upheavals they had been suffering since then. Also, Andocides had become a productive member of society, totally supporting the city in many facets. It seems that Andocides had also learned to temper his rhetoric. “On the Mysteries” was a plea for his life, but it’s also a thrilling piece of legal rhetoric. He refutes claims that he was involved in other acts of blasphemy and sedition and recalls his very minor role in the destruction of the herms.  He also changes tactic from deigning to absolve Athens of the wrongs they had done him to emphasizing Athen’s positive qualities. “The whole of Greece,” he says “thinks that you have shown the greatest generosity and wisdom in devoting yourselves, not to revenge, but to the preservation of your city and the reuniting of its not change your ways” (140). He calls on his family heritage “Our house is the oldest in Athens,” he says, “and has always been the first to open its doors to those in need” (147). He even makes the people of Athens his family: “It is you who must act as my father and my brothers and my children. It is with you that I seek refuge. It is to you that I turn with my entreaties and my prayers. You must plead with yourselves for my life, and save it” (149). Wow--you see what he did there? He recruited the jury to be his advocates. It’s powerful stuff and it went a lot better than “On the Return”--maybe time and circumstances have changed, but I think Andocides also became a more savvy speaker. “On the Mysteries” is a whole lot less cocky and more compelling than on the return. The verdict was in his favor and after that no one dragged up Andocides’ youthful thug life.


If you have a favorite ancient rhetorician gangster, why not tell us about it at ? I love hearing from listeners, even if they’re snitching on ancient Greek thinkers.

Direct download: andocides.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:04pm CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Uh, I guess including recent history, because today we’re going to talk about the February 2017 issue of College Composition and Communication as our “journal of the month” summary. This issue, as editor Jonathan Alexander points out, “takes up the notion of the ‘personal’ in a variety of ways” (436), departing from what we might think of as “composition as usual.” The articles in it include thinking about students who are full-time workers, students who have disablities, and indigenous methodology.


College Composition and Communication, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is one of the grand old dames of composition journals. It came about way back in the 50s as a summary of the conference on college composition and communication and many of the early issues were just summaries of what happened in the conference, so that you could follow along at home. The conference itself was an outgrowth of the rise of college writing classes. Many of these early composition classes were taught by people trained in literature, and they were eager to have their own place to share ideas about teaching and come up with theories that would apply as well in Tampa as in Toledo. CCC, or “the cs” as it is sometimes called, is still a great resource for composition instructors and researchers looking for theory as well as practice for their own classrooms.


In that spirit, let me take you through a whirlwind summary of all of the articles in this issue. Maybe you don’t subscribe to it. Maybe you just haven’t had time to sit down and read it. Maybe you haven’t thought that reading a journal could be fun. Okay, let’s dig in.


The first article called “Don’t Call it Expressivism” is Eli Goldblatt’s cautionary response to the emphasis in composition studies on job-readiness and college sucess. If, as Goldblatt worries, “the discussion about writing instruction [is] too narrowly around school success and professional preparation” (441), we lose sight of other important goals of writing. Writing, he suggests, can have real personal and political power beyond the instrumental ways that learning to write well makes someone a better student or worker. He gives examples like Tiffany Rousculp’s community writing center in Salt Lake City and Sondra Perl’s work in Austria with student whose parents had been complicit with Nazi atrocities. Over all, he “hope[s] to link [students’] acts of writing to purposes more compelling to them than passing the next class or getting a job” (462).


Rebecca Brittenham wants to not just talk about student’s next job, but their current ones. She points out that often universities see student’s “dead-end jobs” as competition to focusing on school. They downplay what students learn through working and expect them to approach school like some idealized fully funded 18-year-old. “The multidimensional realities of students’ actual work experiences are often rendered invisible or obsured through a narrative of interference,” she writes (527). She created a research instrument to discover what kind of work students do and how it actually affects their education in a wider sense. Some students indeed report being time strapped, but they know that they must work several jobs to make rent. Other student report pride in their time management skills through their work experience. Brittenham makes some great suggestions for universities, like encouraging advisors to discuss skills on the job and how they align with course work or even creating a database of student-friendly employers in the area. Such accommodations would benefit all students, whether they work 3 hours a week or 30.


Accommodations are also the theme of Anne-Marie Womack’s article “Teaching is Accommodation,” where she focuses on how universal design, the use of design principles to include students with physical and learning disabilities. These designs often help everyone. The “classic example is the curb cut,” which benefits people in wheelchairs and also people with carts or, like rollerblades. Applying this principle to our clases, and especially documents like syllabi and course descriptions, Womack gives practical suggestions on colors, fonts and design that can help all students get the information they need. I was fascinated, for example, that there’s a font called Dyslexie that’s especially reader-friendly for folks with dyslexia, and that creating a submission window of several days rather than a hard deadline can help a variety of students succeed.


Chris Mays discusses complexity theory in relation to writing. After all, we rhetoricians understand that writing always takes place in a context and both impacts and is impacted by the systems in which it participates. He gives students two visual examples to illustrate the fractal complexity--the top of a pine tree looks very much like the top half of a tree looks very much like a whole pine tree. Similarly, the outline of a formal school paper has several main points, nestled under each of which there are many supporting point and their own supporting evidence (578-580). “By making and comparing different cuts” Mays writes, “we reveal how the writing works independently at each level and works in relation to form a complex text” (574).


Research should also be complex, argue Katja Thieme and Shurli Makmillen, as they introduce a research stance they call “principled uncertainty” (466). Because “researchers make method choices by considering how a method is valued in their research community,” communities with different knowledge values will contribute to a different accepted method. Indigenous research methos like “commuity-based or tribal centered research, collaborative participatory research, storytelling or “storywork” “yarning” or conversational method (471) all expand method because “method is situated, interpellative and dialogic” and indigenous conversational method is linked to a “particular tribal epistemology” (484).


There you have it. Each of this articles could be a podcast in themselves, but when you have them all sitting side-by-side it certainly gives you a feel for the variety and connection across one regular issue of College Composition and Communication. If you teach college writing classes, I recommend joining the National Council of Teachers of English, despite their awkward name, and I recommend subscribing the CCC.

Direct download: College_Composition_and_Communication.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

This last year I adopted a dog, a scruffy grey schnauzer mix. I call him Pip. I talk to Pip all the time. But I don’t expect Pip to talk back to me, and I don’t think about what Pip calls himself. Maybe I should. The rhetorical power of non-human animals, this week on Mere Rhetoric.

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginner and indisers about the people, ideas and movements who have shaped rhetprical history. I’m Mary Hedengren


Today we start a new type of episode of Mere Rhetoric. In the past, I’ve given you the low-down on books and movements, scholars and terms, and now I’m going to expand on that to give you the heads-up on some of the most recent issues of major journals in the field. Consider it a sort of Reading Rainbow, a teaser-taster of what’s showing up in rhetorical scholarship today.


Reading journals is one of those activities that I was encouraged to do when I first became a grad student in rhetoric and I’m always surprised how useful what I read ends up being: sometimes I find scholarship that relates directly to what I’m working on, sometimes I find stuff that comes up in conversation, but it’s rare that I regret reading an issue. I recommend reading them to everyone interested in the field, partially because it gives a good sense of what our field actually is these days.


The first issue I’m going to feature, I’m willing to admit though, is a little weird. It’s a the special issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly that came out this summer, and special issue usually means that there’s a theme that all of the articles are about, but even this special issue is special--it’s a Quote rhetorical bestiary unquote. A bestiary is a sort of encyclopedia of the animals, usually loose on the science and loaded on moralizing for a human world, but this rhetorical bestiary is specifically trying to break away from a human-centric orientation towards entering with animals more on their terms.


Within the bestiary, there are mini-essays on children raised by wolves, salmon spawning, a town full of roosting vultures and the cunning of snakes. These essays are an unusual lot for a scholarly journal: rich, imaginative, personal and poetic. They are grounded in theory, but are also beholden to activism, creative writing, and --as might be expected--animal behaviorism. One impetus for this collection is the 25th anniversary of George A. Kennedy’s “A Hoot in the Dark” article in Philosophy and Rhetoric.


Kennedy’s “Hoot in the Dark” isn’t included here, but it’s worth checking out on its own merits. George Kennedy was a tweedy classical rhetorician, translating, for example, the definite edition of Aristotle’s rhetoric. So it was a bit of surprise in 1992, when he argued that rhetoric is not an exclusively human endeavour, but that rhetoric “is manifest in all animal life and [that] existed long before the evolution of human beings” (4)... for instance “A rattlesnake’s rhetoric consists of coiling or uncoiling itself, threatening to strike and rattling its tail, which other creatures hear, even though a rattle-snake [sic] is itself deaf” (13). Pretty wild stuff. And the response, as Diane Davis writes in her afterward for the bestiary, “was to basically wonder what Kennedy had been smoking” (277).


But even if Kennedy’s work was out of character, some rhetorical scholars embraced the non-human animal turn. For instance Debra Hawhee, who also writes an afterword for the issue, has written such works like Rhetoric in Tooth and Claw and Moving Bodies, which explores “the places in rhetorical theory that are infested with nonhuman animals” (“towards a bestial rhetoric” 86). Looking at non-human animal rhetoric is a humbling practice that opens up our field and colors our received rhetorical traditions.

That being said,I was most impressed by the foreword by Alex C. Parrish and the afterwards by Hawhee and Diane Davis. Davis’ afterward is  espeically illuminating in highlighting that “there is no single, indivisible line between ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’” (278). She also provides a useful dichotomy between two threads in researching non-human animals in rhetoric. One is “studying human discourses about other animal species” --the way we use non-human animals in our human rhetoric--while the other involved “engaging the specific rhetorical practices of other species” (279).  This latter area of research is particularly interesting to me.


When Pip barks at a strange dog, or drops his ears backwards, or lulls his tongue out in a squinty-eyed smile, he is using symbols just as effectively as Burke’s “symbol using (symbol making and symbol misusing)” human agent. I mean, I can testify that he symbol misuses all the time, especially in his clumsy attempts to make friends at the dog park. Dogs are especially interesting because they are attuned to cross species communication: for millenia, they’ve been learning to read our weird symbols, like me pointing to Pip’s crate, and respond with their own communication, like Pip’s resulting “hangdog” expression. It’s almost like he’s telling me “I don’t want to go to my room.” But sometimes when you discuss communication with, or among, animals, you’ll be accused of anthropomorphism. Certain, I don’t think Pip communicates the same things in the same ways as he would if he were another human, but, as Davis points out, instead of throwing around accusations of  anthropomorphism, we would be better served by recognizing that communication is beyond the “anthro” and rather something inherent in creatures that live in proximity with other creatures.


If you have a great dog story, or other kind of animal communication story, why not drop us a line at Also, let me know what kind of journals you’d like me to be checking in with. I can’t promise I’ll read every issue of every rhetoric journal for you because there’s a lot out there--and you don’t have to take my word for it.



Direct download: rhetorical_bestiary.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Just checking in to let you know that new episodes of Mere Rhetoric are just around the corner. I've moved to a new institution and we've been figuring out how to set up a recording studio, but I think it's time to just get started making episodes the old fashioned way--in my office with a blanket over my head to muffle the sound.

Direct download: check_in.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:57am CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas people and movements who have shaped rehtorical history. Before we get started, big announcement: Rerecordings are over! We’ve re-recorded over 80 episodes here in the studio thanks to the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas. That’s an incredible feat and now that we’re done, there’s no more reruns, at least for a while. We’ve had new ones interspersed yeah, but now it’s all new from here on out. The other news is that having defended my dissertation and finished my time here at the University of Texas --boo!--I’m headed to the University of Houston Clear Lake --yippie! That means this might we one of the last episodes we record here at the booth at the University of Texas. Well, I hope it’s a good one!


Today we’re talking about LuMing Mao’s Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie. This book is not, as you might suspect, a treatise on how to decipher phrases like “Your smile is your best asset” or “Defeat your enemies by making them friends.” Instead, Mao is talking about what the fortune cookie represents. It might surprise you to know that fortune cookies are not the traditional end of meals in China. They aren’t even the dessert when you go to a Chinese restaurant in Europe. The fortune cookie is an American-Chinese invention, combining an ancient way to pass notes undetected with the American proclivity towards dessert at the end of a meal (18). In this sense, “Like the Chinese fortune cookies, the making of Chinese American rhetoric is born of two rhetorical traditions, and made both visible and viable at rhetorical borderlands as a process of becoming” (18). That’s the meaning of Mao’s Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie--we’re not talking about Chinese rhetoric, and no American rhetoric, but something distinctively Chinese American

All of this adds up to being more or less fluidly comfortable with these different elements. This might sound like a cheesy platitude about tolerance and strength of immigrants, but it’s more complex than that, argues Mao. “‘Togetherness-in-difference”--rather than harmony-in-difference--...becomes constitutive of the making of Chinese American rhetoric,” he writes (29). Instead of trying to be perfectly assimilated, this “togetherness-in-difference” highlights a distance between non-Western rhetoric and the other Americans around them.

First, we need to “recognize that there will be times when instances of incommensrablity become irreducible” (28) Second this is not a matter of celebrating diversity because, as Mao says, “there is nothing to celebrate”--the emergence of Chinese American rhetoric is a rhetoric of survival based on as the scholar Mao cites, Ang says ‘the fundamental uneasiness’ of interconnection. Third, Mao points out “at rhetorical borderlands where there is more than one... rhetorical tradition, if nothing else, the basic question of commununication never goes away in terms of who has the floor, who secures the uptake, and who gets listened to” (29).

Much of the book then focus on what these differences in rhetoric are and how we are to interpret them. For example, Mao talks about the (in)famous Chinese indirection. While the American academic writing values clarity, Chinese indirection communicates through “subtle, direct strategies, through innuendoes and allusions” (61). Many American writers, especialy those who teach first-year composition and English as a foreign language, or work in writing centers, find themselves slashing through sentences and paragraphs and repeated asking, “What are you trying to say here?” This deficiency model ignores the rich possiblities of indirection.


Okay, so get comfortable, because here’s a long quote from Mao: “Chinese indirection should not be seen, without discrimination, simply as an example of a non transparent style of communication or, worse still, of indecision and incoherence. Chinese indirection, be it realized or articulated by repeated appeals to tradition/authority or y recurrent parallel statements with or without a transparent profession of ideas, takes on new meanings or associations within its (newly-developed) context. To put the matter another way, the contextualized nature of the chinese language and the dominance of correlative thinking of the chinese language and the dominance of correlative thinking in Chinese culture both constitute a central context to understand the rhetoric of Chinese indirection more completely and provide a metadiscourseive language to talk about and reflect upon it more felicitously” (71). But remember the Chinese fortune cookie? Chinese American rhetoric doesn’t have a list of characteristics, but “border residents can behin to take advantage of this oportunity to develop and try out new ways of speaking, and to reconstitute rules of relationships and patters [sic] of communication” (75).


Another section talks about the mysterious and misunderstood concept of “face.” Americans will use phrases like “saving face” or “losing face” Mao points out, but they are talking about “the myth of the individual, of the individual’s need either to be free or to be liked” in contrast to the “public, communical orination, which underpins the original concept of Chinese face” (38). For one thing, there are two kinds of “face”: lian, which refers to moral dignity, integrity and shame and mianzi, which is more about what you do with your life, your position in society. Usually when Westerners think about losing face, they mean mianzi--prestige and position. Lian, though, the moral integrity, is consistered far more important and far worse to loose than mianzi (39). But Westerns think about pride, not the “ever-expanding circle of face-giving and -receiving in one’s own community and beyond” (43). This balance of self and community gets even more complicated as Chinese Americans negotiate and transform multiple communities. The urge to “yi”-- immigrate, move, transform-- re-emphasises that “togethenessr-in -difference”-- to “moliblize and put to practice a hybrid rhteoric that ...openly cultivates not a harmonious fusion,” but recognizes inherent tensions and potential” (50)?


This double-mindedness is not just a cultural sophistic exercise, but a robust theory that has implications in communities, in classrooms and in families. Mao closes his book with a sustatined case study of a statement prepared by Chinese Americans and others to protest the racist statements of a Cincinnati city councilman. Mao doesn’t just consider the document itself in this hybridity, but the process of putting together the document, of addressing the Westerner-American city council as well as the Chinese American community they are representing. Mao ends with three practical suggestions from his case study. First “we try to assert our agency and to establish our residency” to “speak out more openly about thee experiences” (141), and second “learn ow to place ourselves in the other’s position and ‘word the world through the other’s eyes”... “incorporating both self and other into a relaionship of interdependence and interconnectedness” (141-2). Finally, he calls for Chinese American scholars to “reconnect to our own rhetorical history”... as it “enables us to resist both the discourse of assimilation and the discourse of deficiency or difference” (142).


Reading this book reminded me of some of the other scholars who have felt pulled in two different traditions, like “Bootstraps” which was in an earlier episode. Well, I hope you don’t feel pulled in two different directions about this podcast. If you like us, please leave a message on iTunes or send us a message at, especially as I begin to figure out how Mere Rhetoric will continue at my new institutional home. And let me give one last thank you to the University of Texas for a great year of recording!

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Fortune_Cookie_fix.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Shout out to Daniel T Richards to wrote in to me asking for a podcast about Rhetorical Situations. Couldn’t be more pleased to oblige a fan, if you have a request for an episode or a question or comment, feel free to email me at and I’d love to see what I can do, but Daniel asked for rhetorical situations and there’s no time but the present, eh?

so let’s get it started with a couple of clips, eh?

Churchill, Henry V, and Aragon. Why are these such great speeches so good?

Qtd Churchill There comes a precious moment in all of our lives when we are tapped on the shoulder and offered the opportunity to do something very special that is unique to us and our abilities, what a tragedy it would be if we are not ready or willing.”

This moment is part of what L B in 1968 calls the rhetorical situationation. More fully: A complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence.


OK, let’s break this very dense quote apart. First there is exigence, which is a problem that exists in the world. It may be pressing, like an upcoming battle, or it may be gnawing, like an increase in teen violence or campus discrimination. It may even be potential: Henry V didn’t have to go to France, but there was a potential there. The key thing for Bitzer is that this exigence can be affected by discourse. So you may not be able to talk the orcs away from being evil, but you can talk the men fighting them into being brave. A speech churchil makes to parlement won’t make the Nazis retreat, but it may shore up patriotic interest.


So not every situation is a rhetorical situation, but only what Bitzer calls “finest hours” (3) when discourse can DO anything about it. As he says, a “mode-altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action” (4). Reality-changing discourse. That’s a pretty awesome power for rhetoric to have.

But that’s not to say that Henry V or Churchill or Aragon can say whatever they want. In addition to the moment, to exigence, the rhetorical situation relies on an audience. When the men of the west or of England are standing at the start of a battle and can fight half-heartedly or lion-heartedly, they are able to be mediators of change. It wouldn’t do much good for Aragon to be giving this speech to Frodo or Sam—for one thing they aren’t men—but for another they aren’t an army. The army can fight one way or another and that action can impact the way the battle goes. For Bitzer, the audience must be agents of change.

Finally, there are constraints. These are kind of the downers of the rhetorical situation. Contraints include what Aristotle calls artistic and inartistic proofs—things you can change and things you can do nothing about. So Henry V can’t talk more English solders into suddenly appearing in his army, he can’t talk the French into being weaker, and he can’t talk swords into tennis balls, but he can change beliefs and attitudes about the slim chances of success.

These three elements: the moment, the audience and constraints, all combine in a delicate balance for the rhetorical situations. Bitzer points out Rhetorical situations can be mature or decayed, dissipate audience, lose to completing forces, etc (12).

The rhetorical situation is a helpful way to think about seizing your own “precious moment” and a good way to analyze historical and fictional bits of rhetoric. But there are plenty of questions So does the rhetorical situation just alight on one? Would anyone have made the same speech at Henry V, or Churchil or Aragorn in the same situations? Maybe. John Patton says that there’s a two-sidedness to the rhetorical situation. You have to see it and also respond to it. As he says, 'the meaning of rhetorical situations is a dual process, partly a matter of recognition, i.e., clarity and accuracy of perception, and partly a matter of intentional, artistic, human action.' Some folks like Scott Consigny feel like Bitzer is a little fatalistic, suggesting the stars just align and suddenly you’re Churchill promising to fight in the streets. Richard Vatz also objects to the idea that exigence just sits out there, compelling a rhetor. Instead, Vatz suggests that the rhetor almost always creates the exigence. The rhetor is not pushed around by the rhetorical situation, but creates them. It might be hard to see this when you’re looking at an army in front of you, but remember when Henry V started this war? Yeah, when he, searched for legal claim to France, sent demands, was rebuffed with tennis balls and then gave this answer?


Henry V started this war. He put together the army and by doing so made France put together its army too. He created the rhetorical situation that led to him having to give the St. Crispin’s speech. It’s easy to spin around like this in circles: speech creates the situation (and the contsraints) which create the speech, but the key thing to remember about Vatz’s criticism is that elements of the rhetorical situation, exigence, audience, constraints, are always social constructions rather than objective realities.

, So next time you’re addressing an army, ask yourself this question: did I make this situation or did this situation make me?





Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_The_Rhetorical_Situation_alternate.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and outsider about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today we’re going to talk about the method to the madness, if madness were writing studies research. That’s right, we’re going to talking about a little edited volume called Writing studies Research in PRactice and you never knew methodology could be so fun.


But first, if you’re a regularly listener to the show, can I recommend you get on iTunes or whereever you find your podcasts and give Mere Rhetoric a review? It doesn’t have to be long or laudatory, but it would be nice for when I prepare reports for folks like the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas. This way I can let them know that people like the show and want it to continue.


Or if you want to, you can email us at and a word about that: sorry! I recently realized that my email forwarding on that gmail account wasn’t correctly forwarding to my personal email, meaning that many of the lovely email people had been sending hadn’t been getting to me! As you can imagine, I am properly mortified, and I will begin to respond to the backlog and get on people’s requests for episodes as I respond. I thought no one had been writing! But now that I know, I’ll be (1) a lot more satisfied with the lovely responses and (2) getting back to everyone who emailed by didn’t get a response.


Okay, now on to the show. Writing studies research in practice is a relatively new book, published in 2012 and edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P Sheridan. It would be a nice addition to a doctoral course on composition research and methods, or for an advanted graduate student who is beginning to think about the kind of research she wants to do to approach a new project. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend it for a straight-up novice in research in compositoin. And here’s my reasoning why: this book mostly complicates some of the “traditional” methods of composition research, which might be a little disorienting for someone who isn’t familiar with the tradition. It’s a little like getting a triple-cake-chunk pineapple swirl mix-in sundae for someone’s first introduction to ice cream.


It consists of three main parts: part one “reimagining traditional research practices” talks about strategies we think we know well, like narratives or ethnographies.Part two, revisioning research in composition looks at controversal strategies like teacher research and autoenography, and part three reconceptualizeing metholodology and sites of inquiry. So you can hear how this text emphasizes the variation rather than the plain ol’ vanilla of research. There is a feminist methodology bent, which probably isn’t surprising because Sheridan and Nickoson are great feminist researchers and they themselves recognize that there are a few big, meaningful gaps in their book, including, like case study-research and surveys. Pretty much it leans heavily on lived research, like ethnography.


Here are some of the highlights of the text. First off, Doug Hesse, one of my favorite human beings and the reader on my dissertation has this fantastic chapter on “Writing Program Research” where he tells the story of how, plagued by the rumblings on campus that “students can’t even write a single correct sentence,” he “analyzed errors in a random sample of 215 papers selected from a corpus of 700 papers written by first-year students” and discovered “at least 85% of sentences were error free”--empirical proof that students can, in fact, write many correct sentences (144). But writing research isn’t just about snarky research design to stick it to your supercillious colleagues. Writing program research, like its cousin teacher research, seeks to advance actual practice as well as knowledge in the field. As Lee Nickoson puts it, “Teacher research is the study of a writing class conducted by one who teaches it with the ultimate purpose of improving classroom practice” (101). That means you care intimately about the results and you aren’t willing to sacrifice quality teaching for research, but that you create a holistic identity as teacher and researcher (105). You are always still a human being. That theme is also at the heart of Suresh Canagarajah’s chapter. We’ve done an episode on Canagarajah before and how deeply I love that man, so I refer you to it, but in this collection, he talks about autoethnography, an “emic and holistic perspective” where researchers “study the practices of a community of which they are members and they are visible in the research” (114).


Quick sidebar to define one of the terms there. Emic, means insider, and it’s opposed to Etic, which is outside. Etic is the traditional perspective of ethnography: some white guy, probably British, and I’m thinking with a pith hat and a monocle, goes to Papua New Guinea or somewhere and frowns disapprovingly and makes notes in a notebook while the native eat bugs. Emic is about coming from the inside, where traditions and culture are part of the researcher’s understanding, so the research isn’t just observations and interviews, but also their own understanding. Autoethnography is the ultimate in this emic perspective, where researcher and subject are the same person.


For narrative research, the individual is often also tied up. Debra Journet objects to the perspective that “narrative has sometimes been presented as a n almost direct way to represent qualities of personal experience” (15)--there are, she argues, many times of narrative that aren’t just personal, but a whole “range of narrative genres” (16). Cynthia Selfe and Gail E Hawisher, for instance, in their chapter about interviews point out that “we had grown increasingly dissatisfied with containing our questions to a standard set of prompts that elicited information but did not easily encourage follow-up questions and did not always encourage the kinds of narrative responses we found so richly laden with information” (39). These narrations don’t always come when the same list of questions are applied to each interviewee as traditionally happens in interviews. And because it’s Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher, you know technology is going to come into play, and indeed, they talk about how participants in their interviews often supplement their answers with digital media, and how publishing should also include video clips and sound as well as alphabetic and static image representations (44-45).


And lest you think digital research is going to be 100% easier than other types of research Heidi A McKee and James E Porter present “the ethics of conducting writing research on the internet” The internet is such a strange space for research because it isn’t entirely anonymous and it isn’t entirely private. When you study a text on the internet, some are obviously public, like a professional blog, but others have an expectation of privacy, or at least a limited audience, like the forum posts on a website for recovering alcoholics. Many people may feel like they are interacting in a space of limited publicity when they send text messages or post in a forum or even join a game like World of Warcraft, and they feel this way despite any small print on the site to the contrary. So even if sometime is technically permissible by your IRB department, you will want to considerate about consulting with representative audiences, being open about being a researcher online, and being aware of the regulations and laws of the online spaces you research (256).


No matter what kind of research you do, the volume as a whole seems to say, be thoughtful about the participants you involve, the audiences you are writing for and your own involvement in the subject. Things aren’t always cut and dry in research and what starts as, for example, a survey, may end up expanding into a series of interviews or ethnographic observation. Research in writing studies is so variable and there are so many ways to do it, from discourse analysis to autoethnography. We study texts and we study people. We want to make sure that we do it responsibly, thinking about how what we claim to be studying will impact the folks we study, the folks we’re writing to and, ultimately, to us ourselves as researchers.

Direct download: 16-07-22_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Writing_Studies.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Welcome Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Today's episode is brought to you by the Humanities Media Project and viewers like you, because today is a listener-suggested topic.

Today we’re going to talk about Longinus, which is to say we’re going to talk about On the Sublime,which is to say we're going to talk about the sublime. We don’t know anything about Longinus except that he wrote On the Sublime, and, if we’re going to be strictly honest, we don’t know whether the author of On the Sublime  was actually named Longinus. So we have this key rhetorical text and the only thing we know for sure about its author is that they wrote this key rhetorical text.


Maybe that’s over-stating it. Maybe this was Dionysies of Halicarnassus. You remember him, Greek fellow, loved Romans? Maybe it was Hermagoras, whom you might remember from the stasis episode. Or it was this other bloke, Cassius Longinus. It’s all very confusing, and you’d think the Roman empire could come up with a naming system that didn’t rely on like the same four names and a series of embarrassing nicknames, but evidentally not. Also, authorship wasn’t so well documented. So all of this is conjecture, but  for the sake of the podcast today we’re going to say that Longinus was the author of “On the Sublime“ and leave it at that.


Historical vaguaries aside, in “On the Sublime,” Longinus advances a poetics that is rhetorical not in the sense that he expects poetry to develop and elaborate explicit persuasive claims, but rather seeks “to transport [audiences] out of themselves” (163). You may be familiar with a bastardization of the word “sublime” that talks about sublime chocolate or music, but the idea of the sublime is that it’s such a consuming process that you lose yourself completely. The chocolate becomes your entire experience.This  “irresistible power and mastery” has greater influence over the audience than any deliberate persuasive argument (163). Is the sublime, then a competitor with rhetoric or is it a mode of rhetoric? Is the sublime just high-falutin’ flowery language or something more? Longinus is vague about this point.


While the sublime comes from the world of poetry, it doesn’t exclusively reign there. Longinus may keep a traditional view of persuasion out of the sublime, but he does allow for sublime moments in traditionally persuasive orations, including legal discourse. Yes, in addition to waterfalls and chocolate, legal briefs can be sublime. I knew that, but then, I watched a lot of old school Law and Order. In such cases, when a sublime visualization is “combined with factual arguments it not only convinces the audience, it positively masters them” (223). Both poets and orators, then, can use the sublime to control an audience and “carry the audience away ” (227). With such incredible power, sublimity seems to be the ultimate skill to develop.

           But while Longinus advises us in methods to improve our likelihood of sublimity (choosing weighty words for weighty topics, considering the context, borrowing from the greats, etc.), ultimately he gives us no great writer, nor any great work, as a model of constant sublimity. The sublime comes rather as “a well-timed flash” or “a bolt of lightning” that “shatters everything […] and reveals the power of the speaker” (163-4). This lightning bolt metaphor highlights some of Longinus’ difficulty in teaching someone to be sublime: sublimity is sudden, short, and almost divine in origin.  As you put it, the sublime “takes you out of this world into a heavenly life” (22/02/2011).


           But just as we aren't so sure whether Longinus wrote On the Sulime, we also seem to be constantly redefining what the Sublime is and how much we think Longinus' conception of the Sublime should set the tone for every else. Pretty much, everyone wants to redefine the sublime. The modern mania for the sublime started in in 1671 with a translation of Longinus into the French. But the real break for Longinus in the modern work was Edmund Burke’s “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in 1757. That date make clue you in that this is the Burke who was a politician in the late 18th century, not the 20th century rhetorician. This Burke, Edmund, defined the sublime a little more narrowly: the sublime is “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger.” I can see where Burke is coming from on this--what takes you away from the every day and focuses your attention more than the threat of imminent danger? Still, it somewhat restricts what the sublime can be. Now rather  than just a “bolt of lightning” it’s a bolt of lightning on a dark and stormy night.

           This broodiness led to the sublime being picked up by all those romantic poets fifty years later, who loved to stand on top of Alpine cliffs in the fog and stare into the abyss and all that. Wordsworth, who was always have out-of-body sublime moments, wrote in “Tintern Abbey” about “of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood/ in which the burden of the mystery/ in which the heavy and weary weight of all this unintelligible world”--certainly solemn stuff. Wordworth’s sister, Dorothy, made fun of some tourists who were unforuntate enough to talk with Coleridge at a waterfall. She relates “Yes, sir’, says Coleridge, ‘it is a majestic waterfall.’ ‘Sublime and beautiful,’ replied his friend.” Coleridge thought this was the funniest thing ever and straight away ditched the tourists and came to his poet friends to laugh about how people were overusing the word “sublime.” Jerk move on Coleridge’s part, but gets to the point of how the “sublime” was becoming a specific term for the Romantics.

           This isn’t to say everyone in the 18th and early 19th century had one idea about what the sublime is. Kant, for instance, found the sublime not in nature, but in the “presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason.” Yes, while Longinus describes the sublimity of language and the Romantics found the sublime in nature, Kant can be carried away by an abstraction. For Kant, the sublime isn't just about aesthetics, but about the contrast between something very big and grand and the littleness of man—you can try to comprehend something incomprehendable when you encounter the sublime. That's heavy stuff.

           The sublime has continued to fascinate modern rhetoricians and thinkers. More recently, in the 1980s Suzanne Guerlac has contended that Longinus' “On the Sublime" “has traditionally been read as a manual of elevated style and relegated to the domain of the 'merely' rhetorical. The rhetorical sublime has in turn been linked with a notion of affective criticism in which analysis of style and expression centers upon questions of subjective feeling and emotive force” (275). Instead, and remember this is the 80s, she salutes “on the sublime” as being an assault on simple subjectivity, disrupting binaries like form/content and means/ends (276). The sublime in Longinus is about being sincere, but a sincerity that can be forced.  This isn't the only contradiction, but one that is representative of the paradoxes of art. " The Longinian sublime implies a dynamic overlapping, or reciprocity, between the orders of the symbolic and the imaginary" writes Guerlac (286).

           The little essay that maybe Longinus wrote, or maybe someone else wrote, has had a big influence in art, literature and rhetoric. Also, evidentally, waterfall-watching.  Do you know what else is influential? Email I get. Even those I don't respond to for like, more than a year.  That's my bad. Mike Litts wrote in asking for an episode on the sublime back in 2015, but here we are, a year and a half later and by gum, we've done an episode about the sublime. If you like delayed gratification, please feel free to write in to and suggest your own favorite topic. No, I'm just kidding. I think I fixed my email problem, so if you write in, I'll respond in less than a year. And won't that be sublime?




Direct download: 16-07-22_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Longinus.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 8:56am CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Jacob in the booth and we’re here together because of the support of the Humanities Media Project at the University of Texas at Austin. And the reason we’ve gathered together in the beautiful recording studio in the basement of Mezes Hall is to talk about the work of George Campbell.


Campbell, like his contemporary Hugh Blair, was a rhetorician-preacher and he believed that he could teach preachers to preach better through modernizing classical rhetoric. Campbell started out in law as a young buck and gradually gravitated towards a clergical vocation. From there, he became the teacherly sort of minister, becoming a scriptorian, translating the gospels of the New Testament and tinkering around with what would be one of his crowning works: the Philosophy of Rhetoric.  According to C. Downey, this guide was not just for rhetoricians and not just for preachers, also the book really reached the best-sellers list in the 19th centurey. The book had 39 editions by the 20th century (9-10). It was a bedrock for many of the rhetoric textbooks that dominated in the 19th century. But before it was one of the defining texts of Enlightenment rhetoric, it was a work-in-progress read before Campbell’s friends in the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, a bunch of like-minded brainy sorts who liked to spend time philosophizing together.


Sidebar: I don’t know why people think writing groups and faculty writing retreats are new-fangled productivity machines. These Enlightenment blokes were always clumping up together to read and think and write together. I’m as much of a loner as any other scholar in the humanities, but I figure if it works for Campbell and Blair and their lot, it’s worth giving it a shot, right?


Like all of his Scottish Enlightenment buddies, Campbell was engaged in the project of making the study of human activities more empircally demonstrable. Making the humanities more scientific, if you want. Campbell went back to classical sources of rhetorical thought and read them across the budding psychological sciences. Instead of “servile imitation” of the classic authors (vi), he promoted a modern interpretation that recognizes that things have changed since the classical treastises were written. That being said, he’s not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.


And, brother, did this guy like threes. That must be the Aristotlian influence creeping in. It might be worthwhile for you to imagine a chart with three columns when you think about Campbell’s ideas, as we go through the podcast you can start to fill in these columns in all of Campbell’s triparts.


One of the key Campbell trios are that the best langauge is “current, national and reputable.” Lets take a moment and dice out these three. Current is a modern gloss on what Campbell calls “present”--which doesn’t just refer to the time, but also to a metaphorical sense of place. Present is the opposite of past and also the opposite of absent. For a rhetor to use old-timey language is to alienate from the audeince. Similarly, Campbell, good Scotsman of the Enlightenment that he was, is a booster of national language, but this goes beyond the Eton accent--national langauge means there is no universal grammar. Again, we don’t need to stick to the same language rules of Cicero’s Latin when we’re writing and speaking in English.ure use must be (1) English (2) in the English idiom and (3) “employed to express the precise meaning which custom hath affixed to them” (170). If this all sounds cheerfully revolutionary, don’t worry, his idea of reputable will burst your bubble. Like the other “common sense” philosophers, Campbell assumed that one class--his class--were the proprietors of proper langauge. So while he wasn’t a chronological or Latinate snob, he wasn’t advocating a rich brogue riddled with slang over the pulpit. When your group gets to set common sense, everything else is nonsense (cf “Enlightenment Rhetoric” Encyclopedia of Rhetoric 233).Most important question: “is it reputable, nationals and present use, which, for brevity’s sake I shall hereafter simply demoninate good use” (154).  Over all, he argued that English is richer than even Latin (383) and language ought to “prove bars again licentiousness, without being checks to liberty” (380). PSo there’s your first trio: national, current, reputable langauge.


Campbell focuses on the audience as the heart of rhetoric, specifically, the psychological states of the audience. People care if the topic is important, close to their time or place, related to those concerned or interested in the consequences (91-94). This leads to our next set of threes: imagination, reason and passion. Members of the audience have all three of these parts and the rhetor must address them all three (77-86). Say you have these three main ideas, which come from Cicero, from Augustine, from everyone: rhetoric appeals to imagination, memory and passion. It delights, instructs and moves. With Campell, these three modes of rhetoric line up to genres, too. Imagination is related to epic; Passion related to tragitiy and comedy and memory fits in with satire and, through it, persuasion.Additionally important are Campbell’s listed aims related to these three: enlighten the understanding, please the imagination, move the passions or to influence the will” (11), in apparent order of importance (15)


Emotion was especially interested to Campbell. He Emphasizes the passions of the audience (82). Through diminishing or counter-suggesting a different emotion, the rhetorc can calm an emotion (97), especially implicitly rather than explicitly (98).The rhetor can leave “the effect upon their minds […] to nature” (96). If people are riled up about Catholics, as happened in Campbell’s Scotland, you can respond in a peaceful, calm way, as he did in a pamphlet called An Address to the People of Scotland, upon the Alarms that have been Raised in Regard to Popery urging people to calm the eff down.


The final three part from Campbell that I want to talk about is a little more complex. It starts with two seeming opposites: probability and plausibility. Probability and plausibility are “daughters of the same father, Experience” Probability is begot of Reason and Plausibility by Fancy (89-90). So you can think about this in terms of literature and art. This last week I chain-watched a sci-fi fantasy coming-of-age series about four nerds in the eighties. Even though my reason balks at the idea of monsters in the walls and nefarious psychic experiments, my imagination, my fancy, accepts that if there were monsters in the walls and nefarious psychic experiments, this show describes exactly how nerds in the eighties would respond to it.  My experience with the world tells me something about monsters in the walls and something else about pre-teen nerds in the 80s. Or in Campbell’s explanation, probability “results from evidence and begets belief”(86) while plausibility “ariseth chiefly from the consistency of the narration” being “natural and feasible” (87). Campbell is skeptical, as you might expect a Scottish Enlightenment preacher to be, of drawing on the artist for evidence.Testimony of the poet goes for nothing” he writes “His object […] is not truth, but likelihood” (89)


So there are our three threes: language should be current, national and reputable; reasoning draws on imagination, memory and passion; experience leads to both probablility and plausibility. I have to admit, while researching this podcast, I came to a newfound appreciation of Campbell. His wikipedia page, for example, is severely lacking. I should probably do something about that now, huh? If you have a topic you think gets shorted, why not drop me a line at Oh, or speaking of technology if you like the podcast, you can get on ITunes or whereever you get your podcasts and leave us a good review. Letting us know what you like lets us bring you even more. It’s like probable as well as plausible.


Direct download: 16-07-22_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_George_Campbell.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

abermas and public sphere theory

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movemnts who have shaped rhetorical history. special thanks to the rhetoric society of america student chatper at the university of texas at Austin.  I’m Mary Hedengren and today I’m joined by Laura Thain.


Have you spent much time thinking about coffee? If you’re a grad student, the answer is probably yes, but really do you spend much time thinking about what coffee did, especially coffee shops, especially in Europe? Coffee houses were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century and they spread quickly throughout all of Europe. By the 17th century, coffeehouses, not taverns, were the places to gather in your neighborhood. And if you think about how caffeine-fueled coffeehouses differed from the sloppy drunkenness of taverns, it’s little surprise that coffeehouses quickly gained a reputation as being a place of open political and intellectual discussion. 15th century Ottomans and 20th century Seattleites alike saw the coffeeshop as a place to open up dangerous conversation. The Spanish king Charles II even tried to restrict coffee houses on the grounds that there were places where “the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers” (qtd Times 23 Feb 2008). Gathering around a cup of Joe seemed to set everyone to riotous conversation, to the public discussion that led to revolutions in America and France in the 18th century, and because of this the coffeehouse became the place of obsession for 20th century philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas noted an 18th century seachange in the relationship between people and sovereign. Earlier, people supported (or didn’t) their sovereign as a symbol for them: France is the king and the king is France, therefore it’s to the benefit of France for the king of France to be as rich and grand as possible, regardless of how this impacts the everyday peasant on the street. But in the 18th century, a rise in coffeehouses and the conversations they engender accompanied an increase in newspapers reading clubs, journals, salons and other groups of public political conversation. This Habermas calls the öffentlichkeit, or the public sphere. The public sphere was a dialogue, a conversation of opinions. “Is the king France? Should the king be France? Let’s hear the pros and cons, then!” Habermas drew a direct line between the increase of coffeehouses and their conversations and the toppling of the French monarchy.

This public sphere isn’t a given and not every coffeehouse, town hall meeting etc. is going automatically be a public sphere. In fact, Habermas identified some of the identifying characteristics and requirements for a public sphere.

1-    First, the public sphere requires a temporary disregard of public status, according to Habermas. He believed in “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether” () . It doesn’t work if only the princes of France get their say and the merchants don’t. Everyone needs a place at the coffee table.


In many ways, our conception of a “public sphere” as ordinary citizens in the US is so pervasive that we have trouble imagining a world without one.  But what Habermas points out is that before the birth of a public sphere in the eighteenth century, there was little linking the private sphere (the discourse of ordinary subjects of the sovereign) to the bureaucratic sphere (the discourse of the sovereign to his subjects).  Imagine if laws and edicts were all that existed to communicate between king and subject. Habermas argues that the public sphere emerged as a unique space for what were once private murmurings to have real and legitimate impact upon bureaucratic procedure under certain rhetorical constraints.  This was no pitchforks-and-barn-burning kind of conversation, but rather, the emergence of a new rhetorical practice that rapidly came to be dominated by a nascent middle class of people: the bourgeois.  


2-    Talking about private and bureaucratic coming together is tricky, though.  “Private” doesn’t mean what we might think today.  In the public sphere, there needed to be some sort of common issue, a public issue of common concern. Before the emergence of a public sphere, according to Habermas, the kinds of things we think about as very public were private conversations among citizens, if they were articulated at all.  For instance, the question of whether France needs a king is a question that everyone in France is concerned about. The question of whether wine dealers in the northwest of Paris should ration a particularly good vintage is not. The question of whether Pierre ought to marry Margarite is definitely not. Often these common concerns were rarely discussed—they were given. The civic or religious authorities told the people that France needs a king and that’s that. Until the people begin sitting around in coffeehouses started asking the questions about things that they all had an interest in.


The idea that the coffee house became a new space for people who previously had no visible platform to communicate with existing power structures is really important because it signals the emergence of not just a new place to talk but a new center of institutional authority.  Habermas argues that the public sphere is an important and new site of power in the 18th century.  This might sound familiar to you if you’ve heard talk about “public discourse” in the things you read and discuss in your own life.  Public discourse and a space to have that discourse in is really important, but it’s important to understand how that space happened to read how we might read what the public sphere means as a concept today.


3-    Habermas argues that the public sphere is a public good, but in order to do so he claims that once-private-now-public issues had to be open for anyone to discuss. As Habermas said “The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate” In coffee houses and salons, there were no rules about who was allowed to open their mouths.  

The coffeehouse seems to fulfill these expectations, which is probably why Habermas was so keen on the example. But the coffeehouse wasn’t perfect and these imperfections highlight some of the problems of the public sphere in general.

For instance, there were rules about who could get in the coffeehouse. While Germany made some exceptions for silent baristas, in France and Germany, women were personae non gratae in these vibrant spaces of public debate. It’s all very well to say coffeehouses were inclusive, except where they weren’t.

And for that reason, Habermas’s dreamy ideal of the public sphere is seen by some as just a dream, a bourgeois dream that pretends to be inclusive but actually excludes voices of women and other minorities. The scholar who is mostly closely associated with a criticism of Habermas’s public sphere is American scholar Nancy Fraser.

Nancy Fraser’s Rethinking the Public Sphere makes her three points about the public sphere to challenge Habermas’. While Habermas emphasizes disregard of public status, common issues and the freedom to open your mouth and speak, Fraser refutes these same points.

  1. When Habermas says that everyone is equal in the coffeehouse, Fraser contends that this is actually a “bracketing [of] inequalities of status” and far from removing these differences of status, “such bracketing usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates.” Instead of saying—inauthentically—that there is equality in the public sphere, Fraser recommends instead that we “unbracket inequalities in the sense of explicitly thematizing them.” Instead of saying that a prince and a merchant are the same in the coffeehouse, some of the conversation should be about the fact that they aren’t and why.
  2. Fraser also challenges the idea that there are common issues in the public sphere. She says that there “no naturally given … boundaries” between public issues (or “common concern”) and private ones. So remember the example about how the question of whether France needs a king being a public one while Pierre marrying Margarite is a private one? Well, what if the names were instead Louie XV and Marie of Poland? Is that a public issue or a private one? Fraser points out that many issues that were once personal issues like domestic abuse, have become public issues. As she says, "Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation we succeeded in making it a common concern".
  3. Finally, Fraser points out that not everyone is welcome to the table. Women were excluded everywhere—in clubs and associations—philanthropic, civic professional and cultural—was anything by accessible to everyone. On the contrary, it was the arena, the training ground and eventually the powerbase of a stratum of bourgeois men who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’” The deception that such spheres were truly public justified the male, middle classes in making decisions that were for ‘all of France’ when, in actuality, hegemonic dominance had excluded many participants.

Instead, Frase suggests that theses marginalized groups form their own public spheres, which she called Counterpublics. These counterpublics are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs"


Another site of vibrant research in public sphere theory is in the field of spatial rhetorics.  While Habermas arguably saw the public sphere as an ideological shift that just happened to be housed in Europe’s coffee house and salon culture, scholars like Henri LeFebvre, Edward Soja, David Fleming, and UT Austin’s own Casey Boyle are increasingly interested in talking about, to quote Dr. Boyle, “how spaces affect our shared practices and sense of identity.”  To these scholars, the coffee shop as a physical, embodied space is as important to the structural transformation of the public sphere as the folks who inhabited it.

            So the next time you visit your favorite cafe and order yourself a hot beverage, think about what kind of public you’re a part of. What, if anything, do you have in common with the people around you? What are some power differentials between you? What “common concerns” do you have? And what do you think about the king of France?





Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Habermas_and_Public_Sphere_Theory.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:47pm CDT