Prisoners of Conscience: Moral Vernaculars of Political Agency

Prisoners of Conscience: Moral Vernaculars of Political Agency

Prisoners of Conscience: Moral Vernaculars of Political Agency

Prisoners of Conscience: Moral Vernaculars of Political Agency


Prisoners of Conscience continues the work begun by Gerard A. Hauser in Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres, winner of the National Communication Association's Hochmuth Nichols Award. In his new book, Hauser examines the discourse of political prisoners, specifically the discourse of prisoners of conscience, as a form of rhetoric in which the vernacular is the main source of available appeals and the foundation for political agency.Hauser explores how modes of resistance employed by these prisoners constitute what he deems a "thick moral vernacular" rhetoric of human rights. Hauser's work considers in part how these prisoners convert universal commitments to human dignity, agency, and voice into the moral vernacular of the society and culture to which their rhetoric is addressed.Hauser grounds his study through a series of case studies, each centered on a different rhetorical mechanism brought to bear in the act of resistance. Through a transnational rhetorical analysis of resistance within political prisons, Hauser brings to bear his skills as a rhetorical theorist and critic to illuminate the rhetorical power of resistance as tied to core questions in contemporary humanistic scholarship and public concern.


Gerard A. Hauser’s study in Prisoners of Conscience of what he terms the “thick moral vernacular of human rights” is a work of erudition, scrupulous theoretical reasoning, patient critical analysis, and profound moral seriousness. in his 1999 book Vernacular Voices: the Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres, also published in this series, Professor Hauser developed an account of “publics theory,” an understanding of how public opinion may be understood as a discursive process in which citizens engage in everyday talk that shapes and discloses public interests and the public sphere. Vernacular Voices has been a widely influential book, inspiring stimulating new lines of study in rhetoric. Hauser’s Prisoners of Conscience is likely to be equally influential.

At the core of Prisoners of Conscience are five case studies. At Robben Island in apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were subjected to intimidation and abuse; their response was to enact a practice of what Hauser, adapting the term from Foucault, terms parrhesia, a rhetorical figure of speaking the truth with frankness. the prisoners found ways to maintain and represent their humanity, and thereby their sense of self and solidarity, against a regime of total control and degradation. Next Hauser tells the story of Irina Ratushinskaya, condemned to a Soviet prison camp, in the “small zone” set aside for women prisoners, describing the enactment of a rhetoric of indirection in which prisoners performed a silent self-control in the face of indignities and reprisals—winning over their fellow prisoners to a shared sense of human agency and dignity.

In his account of the hunger strike of Provisional ira prisoners at Maze prison in Belfast, Northern Island, Hauser describes a regime of physical punishment that is met by the prisoner’s inversion of and resistance to the system by “self-induced performances of bodily pain”—passive aggression as vernacular moral rhetoric.

Hauser returns his account to Robben Island for an analysis of a memoir by Indres Naidoo, Island in Chains, written after his release from a ten-year sentence, in which he depicts how even the body in pain can undermine the authority of the state and affirm an individual human identity.

In a final case study, Professor Hauser examines the circulation of images of prisoner abuse by United States military guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, arguing that, despite energetic efforts at dissociation, the images came to frame and define the neoconservative supremacy of executive power. in casting blame for Abu Ghraib on . . .

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