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Rhetorical Democracy: Discursive Practices of Civic Engagement

Editor: Gerard Hauser, Amy Grim
Publisher: Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: David Schulz

If you have attended a national academic conference you likely have experienced some degree of vertigo from the enormous size of the event. However, there are smaller, more intimate outlets for sharing scholarship and engaging colleagues with similar research interests. For rhetoricians, no small venue is better than the Rhetoric Society of America's (RSA) Biennial Conference. For readers who have not attended RSA, Gerard Hauser and Amy Grim's Rhetorical Democracy: Discursive Practices of Civic Engagement provides an excellent introduction. Housing a broad selection of papers and plenary presentations from RSA's 2002 meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, the anthology offers readers scholarship concerning rhetoric and civic engagement. Although the collection's overall coherence suffers from such breadth, the proceedings successfully present brief snapshots of theories and practices of rhetorical democracy for the twenty-first century.

The proceedings begin with a brief preface orienting readers to both the conference thematic and a sampling of the wide-ranging works within this volume. Following the preface is co-editor Hauser's chapter entitled "Rhetorical Democracy and Civic Engagement." Hauser traces the history of rhetorical democracy from its ancient Greek roots into the twenty-first century. Hauser's historical work leads to a discussion of public opinion and the persistent problems facing rhetorical democracies in contemporary politics. By way of conclusion, Hauser argues that the idea of a rhetorical democracy "is not identical with that of a deliberative democracy. As the chapters in this volume show, it is [a] historical formation stretching from antiquity to the present, cutting across cultures, and manifesting itself in different modes" (12). Cyberculture is but one of these "modes" where rhetorical democracy is made manifest. The collection is divided into three sections: Plenary Papers; Presidentís Panel: The Rhetoric of 9/11 and its Aftermath; and Selected Papers.

The first section, Plenary Papers, showcases the work of four leading rhetoricians: Bruce Gronbeck, Shirley Wilson Logan, Rosa Eberly, and Herbert Simons. While the essays in this section are short, reflecting a truncated conference presentation, each essay enacts a conversational style that performs the type of engagement the larger volume espouses. For example, the reader can hear Eberly's learned yet down-home voice both in her title ("Plato's Shibboleth Delineations; or, the Complete Idiot's Guide to Rhetoric") and in the essay itself. Eberly briefly theorizes a "middle-voice" for democracy, writing "I'd like to talk about one more smelly old Greek word: politeuesthai. In Isocrates, the middle-voice infinitive politeuesthai means 'to be citizens together' or 'to engage in politics together'" (51). Such finely parsed prose is a rarity in academic journals and functions throughout this and other essays in the volume to provide readers with a conversational style. Perhaps of most interest to readers of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies (RCCS) is Gronbeck's "Citizen Voices in Cyberpolitical Culture," which tackles the volume's theme from a "cyberpolitical perspective." While Gronbeck offers Internet statistics that are likely already well known to RCCS readers, his comparative analysis of ancient Greek conceptions of politics with cyberpolitics is distinctive and well worth the read. The other two plenary papers provide readers a sense of the disparate ways of conceptualizing civic engagement. Simons offers a particularly interesting template for practicing civic engagement on university campuses.

The book's second section, the President's Panel, gathers eight distinguished scholars who offer brief meditations on the theme: "The Rhetoric of 9/11 and its Aftermath." Continuing the informal tone initiated in the first section, each panelist considers the rhetorical contours of the post-9/11 world and the implications of such a world for rhetorical democracy. As the editor, Hauser points out in his introductory remarks, the eight panelists were assembled during the week after the 9/11 attacks and asked to reflect on different aspects of the post-9/11 discourse. Each panelist considers a different aspect of 9/11 rhetoric, from Dana Cloud's "Triumph of Consolatory Ritual over Deliberation Since 9/11" to Mark Andrejevic's "The Rehabilitation of Propaganda: Post 9/11 Media Coverage in the United States." Taken as a whole, the essays in this section do not offer comprehensive analyses, nor are they designed to do so. Rather, this section provides readers with another opportunity to "hear" leading rhetorical scholars analyze the discourses of 9/11 using different analytic techniques.

The book's third and longest section, Selected Papers, is a medley of twenty-seven essays that, taken together, reflect the diverse areas of study showcased at the 2002 RSA conference. The selected papers are arranged alphabetically, thus there is no governing thematic to organize the papers. At times chapter titles will tip readers off to the substance of a particular selection but at other times, a reader will have to read one of the brief essays to better grasp the author's object of analysis. At times essayists strive to weave the volume's theme into their papers, but at other times the link to rhetorical democracy is tenuous at best. Of most interest to RCCS readers will likely be two chapters addressing the democratic possibilities of cyberculture. The first, John Killoran's chapter entitled "Homepages, Blogs, and the Chronotopic Dimensions of Personal Civic (Dis)Engagement," assesses the potential of computer technologies to enact civic engagement. Specifically, Killoran compares personal homepages to blogs using Bakhtin's theory of chronotope. Not surprisingly, Killoran finds that blogs have much more democratic potential then personal homepages because of blog's means of production and their collaborative ethos. The second cyberculture related essay is Ken McAllister's "Tyrannical Technology and Thin Democracy." McAllister uses Benjamin Barber's concept of "thin democracy" paying particular attention to the seven axes along which technologies intervene and contribute to thin democracy. Ultimately, McAllister remains wary of "democratic technology" which he argues "must be viewed with great wariness, as a smiling tyrant whose warm hand, generous gifts, and gentle smile mask motives of personal power and domination" (247). The other twenty-five essays that compose the "Selected Papers" section cover many different topic areas, ranging from poetry slams to analyses of abolitionist rhetorical strategies. These essays would be of great interest to rhetoricians, but those seeking a volume focused on the democratic possibilities of cyberculture will not find such focus in this volume.

That said, Rhetorical Democracy is an insightful and well-written anthology on discursive practices of civic engagement. Housing an interdisciplinary mix of graduate students and faculty contributors from English, Speech Communication, and Philosophy, the collection illuminates the many potential synergies that RSA offers those interested in rhetoric and the possibilities for rhetorical democracy in the twenty-first century.

David Schulz:
David Schulz is Professor and Chair of the Applied Communications program at Trinity College in Issaquah, Washington. Dave teaches courses in rhetorical theory and criticism and is designing a program in Digital Design for Trinity College. Dave's most recent research has explored rhetorics of technology, public memory, and service learning.   <dr.dschulz@gmail.com>

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