Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Transcript of a Continuing Conversation: David Zarefsky and Public Address

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Transcript of a Continuing Conversation: David Zarefsky and Public Address

Article excerpt

The thesis of this essay is that David Zarefsky is a consummate conversationalist. This term is not one that is routinely ascribed to my distinguished colleague. In fact, if by conversationalist we mean a raconteur, someone who holds audiences spellbound by regaling them with strings of loosely connected anecdotes, then the term is unsuitable, for although Zarefsky can recall a wealth of captivating anecdotes about histories that he has studied and histories that he has experienced, he tends to share such stories sparingly, when they are pertinent to immediate concerns. And if by conversationalist we mean someone who talks a great deal, then again the term seems inapt, for although Zarefsky would never be described as shy, he is better known for careful speech, thoughtful listening, and reserve in interaction than for gregariousness. So have I begun the daunting task of characterizing Zarefsky's contributions to public address by offering an insupportable thesis? And to the readers of Argumentation and Advocacy, no less?

I hope not. Instead, I accept as a premise of this essay that "to choose a definition is to plead a cause" (Zarefsky, 1986b, p. 8), and I trust that an alternate definition of conversationalist, one closely allied to the traditions of rhetorical theory, will prove a useful vehicle for generating my case and my cause. The twentieth-century scholarship of Kenneth Burke provides the impetus for the definition I propose. Among the many influential concepts and images in Burke's scholarship is the depiction of a continuing conversation, famously articulated in 1941 in The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973, pp. 110-111). As many before me have noted, Burke describes an "unending conversation" (p. 111) that existed before specific participants arrived and continues after they depart, a conversation that is altered owing to their involvement but that is never entirely controlled by any of them, a conversation whose trajectory is marked by time-bound concerns but persists across time, a conversation whose meanings are unstable and unknowable but are susceptible to momentary characterization. Drawing on the image of the Burkean conversation, I invite a focus on the individual participant, the conversationalist, one who affects and is affected by the unfolding symbolic drama.

For my part, I learned of Burke's image of the conversation when I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Early in the fall of 1996, Robert L. Scott, then director of graduate studies, briefly mentioned it during our orientation week. The significance of the image was quickly reinforced when I encountered it again within days, this time in a scholarly essay assigned by Kirt Wilson in his course on early U.S. public address. The essay that Wilson assigned was Zarefsky's "Four Senses of Rhetorical History." It would not appear in print until 1998, but we read it in manuscript, as a keynote address delivered at the Greenspun Conference on Rhetorical History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in March 1995. Our class gained early access because Wilson had been a research assistant for Zarefsky at Northwestern. The "Four Senses" essay remained a touchstone for me throughout graduate school, and I cited it in my dissertation (Ray, 2001, pp. 27-28). Now I periodically assign the essay to my own graduate students. Its precise framing of four approaches to rhetorical history and its frank advice about audience-based rationales for scholarly writing prompt lively class discussions. Students routinely refer to the essay in their class papers or their dissertations (e.g., Richards, 2008, p. 230), and some occasionally produce playful parodies of the "four senses of ..." theme. Perhaps a few are introduced to Burke's conversational metaphor via this essay.

I offer this personal commentary as narrative evidence of key points. When we change our focus from the conversation to the conversationalist, it quickly becomes apparent that each conversationalist is engaged in multiple conversations at once, and he or she may participate in any given conversation directly or indirectly. …

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