From Mon Jul 15 18:46:59 1996
Date: Mon, 15 Jul 1996 15:51:33 -0500
From: "Carolyn R. Miller" 
To: sullivan dale l 
Subject: Re: your article in defining the new rhetorics (fwd)

Let's see what I can do to respond to your more recent questions about my essay in DNR. And feel free to post this to your students and/or the website.

>1. Why did you focus on community in this study? I remember your giving >a paper at Penn State on the koine, I believe. Why is it important to >define these terms within the study rhetoric?

Well, one of the reasons I got interested in community was simply that everybody was talking about it--literary theorists, composition theorists--and then to go just a bit farther afield, sociolinguists, anthropologists, sociologists, policital scientists, and the like. It was in the air, and I wanted to understand it better. Its link to rhetoric is implicit, more than explicit, I think--but surely you can see it in the notion of the "common" topics or commonplaces, in doxa, Plato's notion of pandering to the crowd, and in Aristotle's sense that the three genres of rhetoric are functions of the polis, that the judgment or decision to be reached is for the community and for the good of the community. In more recent theory, the notions of universal audience, identification, and Toulmin's "fields of argument" also point to some basis in, or some notion of, community.

More specifically, I got interested in community (I think--it's hard to reconstruct these things exactly) through my work in the rhetoric of science. Kuhn foregrounds the "assent of the relevant scientific community" as the basis for scientific change. And in trying to adapt classical concepts to the study of scientific and technical rhetoric (much as you have been doing), I thought that community could be central to justifying and operationalizing this adaptation. A scientific discipline is easier to define and study as a rhetorical community than other areas in which we might be interested, so it seemed a good idea to use science as a place to think about community--but then one always wants to generalize and to test the scope of what one is thinking in other locations.

By the time I got this far, some people in composition were already starting to critique community as a repressive and hegemonic force, so I began working on an essay to explore all the concepts and opinions that were swirling around and to see if I could use classical rhetoric to resolve or at least explain the conceptual difficulties. That essay became two essays, the one you have read, which was published first but finished second, and the one in Rhetorica, "The Polis as Rhetorical Community," which was completed some time before but delayed in publication. In a way the DNR piece is a kind of coda or continuation of the earlier one.

Your question, "why is it important to define these terms (community) within the study of rhetoric" really goes back to the early connection between rhetoric and politics within the thinking of the sophists, when there was really no distinction between the two as separate subjects of teaching. If we understand rhetoric as pragmatic, as active in the world of events and affairs, as fundamentally suasory, then it seems to me that community and politics are necessarily implicated in rhetoric.

>2. In Michael's articles on ethos, we saw him shifting definitions from >ethos in classical rhetoric to ethos in modern rhetoric to ethos in >postmodern rhetoric. It seems you do the same thing with community, >moving from the polis, to discourse communities, to postmodern >definitions of community. Now that you have had a couple years to think >about community and postmodernism, how do you think postmodern theories >of community will change the theory and practice of rhetoric? >

Well, yes, I did make that trajectory you describe, and it's even more pronounced if you include the Rhetorica essay as part of the package. Was the chronological approach necessary or merely a matter of convenience? I'm not sure. It was a way to help me (and, I thought, others) sort through how we got the the "postmodern" confusion the seemed to be caught in. A sort of," how did we get into this pickle, anyway?" approach. "How do I (indeed, DO I) think p-m theories of community will change the theory and practice of rhetoric?" First, I don't think we have a postmodern theory--in fact having a theory of anything may be a distinctly un-po-mo thing to do (here I find myself sounding a bit like Michael Halloran). But even if it's not, if you can have a postmodern theory of community, I don't think we're much farther along than when I finished that essay, and I don't think we should be. I don't think theories like this can be forged overnight and all at once. I think they coalesce over a long period of time as various strands of thinking get tested against each other. What's the hurry

I would hope that sounder thinking about the communal basis for rhetoric could affect teaching (not by turning the classroom into a community but by challenging students to understand themselves as citizens of a variety of sorts) and also such important communication practices and professions as risk communication and political communication. I'll leave it to your students to think about how that might work.


Carolyn R. Miller
Department of English
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, NC  27695-8105

919-515-6071 fax

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