Project Rhetoric marks the beginning of an international collective dedicated to advancing the critical-theoretical study and social advocacy of rhetoric across academic, civil society, and institutional contexts. Launched on 18 July 2012, it seeks to invite the formation of a collective, a group gathered and a body of work addressed to a broad and evolving set of problems, including the variety of experiences, gestures, and discourses that enable rhetoric, the relationship between the advocacy of rhetoric and ethical life in transitional and established democracies, and the education of political and media institutions about the roots and possibilities of rhetorical expression.
What if the problem is not an excess of rhetoric?
In so many ways, rhetoric remains unspeakable. More often than not, the English-speaking media and its twenty-four-seven pundits rely on “rhetoric” as a code for an irrelevant gesture, a non-event. Popular philosophical and political-scientific traditions vigorously peddle the idea that language is merely a conduit and that expression is where real thought goes to die. A pillar of human rights, the freedom of speech is taken to mean that the power to speak abides in unlimited supply and arrives with no attending demand to reflect on its responsible consumption. The scholar of rhetoric is a simple curiosity, the sort of exotic but nonthreatening seatmate that makes for a moment of distraction on a long plane ride. The eloquent are not to be trusted, unless they confess to being poets, at which point they are a safe accessory for rainy days. Authors who write without excluding the possibility that some prose reveals itself only on a second or even third reading are a presumptuous and undue burden.
With more than a little irony, none of this precludes the endless calls and fervent pleas for public deliberation, social dialogue, and multicultural discourse that litter democracy’s landscape. In the century’s second decade, these impulses have been folded and wrapped into a deep moral panic, a well-funded clamor to improve the state of “civic engagement.” And moral it is. And a miracle. Presupposing that the capacity to speak is a given and assuming that consensus is a natural and cost-free good, the proliferating reports from think tanks, civil society, and schools of education betray an industry that more often than not talks endlessly about language without ever talking about it. Engagement is not about engaging with or within language; as the narrative goes, it will just happen. There is no need to broach the uncomfortable questions on which the entire enterprise rests. Why is language a matter of persistent public apathy? What are the forms, terms, and vocabularies that compose, enact, and thwart engagement? How do they work? Do they work? What are the promises, risks, and costs of “engaging” words?
These are rhetorical questions.
The problems of engagement, cohesion, deliberation, and dialogue turn on the often unspoken question of how human beings experience the potential of words over which they do not have full control. The desire for mutual understanding turns on the difficult question of discovery, an ongoing investigation into the ways in which words appear, turn, and move between human beings that may become human precisely as they thrown into the world and called to struggle with language itself, a struggle whose outcome is far from assured and which may depend far more on humility than domination. The hope for recognition that offers dignity and enables civic participation turns on inquiry that both recognizes the question of language’s possibility and renders the question recognizable.
The project of rhetoric demands its projection.
A working definition of stasis may be life in a society that professes to value the capacity for expression while clinging to the idea that the power of language is not a matter that merits careful reflection. From here, nothing moves. It is a paralysis that cannot be relieved by tired and addled adages about the need to set practice over theory. In the question of rhetoric, the discovery of the word’s movement is an event in which theory is vital precisely because it is practical, a moving experience of the moving word. Put differently, the promise of the word’s power cannot be severed from the conditions under which the promise becomes interesting.
If the academic study of rhetoric has long shed light on the nature, value, and risks of rhetoric, it has proven itself a poor advocate for its own vocation. The shortfall surely stems partly from the way in which the field has backed itself into a corner. Fixated on the problem of what rhetoric ‘is’ and unable to arrive at a full and final answer, the field not only succumbs to a social scientific impulse to close a question that must remain open but convinces itself that any advocacy of rhetoric is premature if not hypocritical. With their homage to an increasingly anachronistic sense of public duty, the opening chapters of the field’s foundation-level textbooks testify to the strange silence that ensues. Cuckolded by middling readings of Plato and then Kant, rhetorical inquiry dulls its own brilliant light as it comes to view its crucial lessons about the opacity of language as evidence of a lack of transparency that justifies the field’s fate on the margin. In the wake of this perverse conclusion, all that remains is to carry the water for political science and lament the fact that history has yet to discern that utterance has made a difference.
To refuse to speak of rhetoric beckons the unspeakable. If Theodor Adorno was correct when he claimed that the disavowal of rhetoric sets society in league with barbarism, the contemporary condition and position of rhetoric may impoverish experience, warp the formation and fabric of ethical life, and distort the possibilities of old and new democracies. In response, one reply among many, Project Rhetoric begins with the question of rhetoric’s potential, a discovery of those forms of power that turn within the moving word and move human beings into its constellation.
Launched on 18 July 2012, Project Rhetoric is dedicated to fostering work that sets out the question of rhetoric within and across academic, civil society, and institutional contexts. It seeks to invite the formation of a collective, a group gathered and a body of work addressed to a broad and evolving set of problems, including the variety of experiences, gestures, and discourses that enable rhetoric, the relationship between the advocacy of rhetoric and ethical life in transitional and established democracies, and the education of political and media institutions about the roots and possibilities of rhetorical expression. Other questions will follow over time, including perhaps the question of the increasingly ubiquitous “template” that underwrites this space and so many like it.
Inquiries to: projectrhetoriccollective [AT] gmail.com