Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Rhetorical Function of Utopia: An Exploration of the Concept of Utopia in Rhetorical Theory

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

The Rhetorical Function of Utopia: An Exploration of the Concept of Utopia in Rhetorical Theory

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

During the past fifty years, utopian studies solidified a functional definition of utopia in the Marxist tradition, which has encouraged a broad focus on social process rather than on content. In the liberal-humanist tradition, however, utopia is often treated as strictly a matter of form and content, particularly genre. I argue that the key to a functional definition of utopia in the liberal-humanist tradition is the Western tradition of rhetoric. Since its beginnings in ancient culture, rhetoric has been concerned with verbal or symbolic persuasion using values and ideals of the audience. I explain how the utopian impulse is inherent in rhetorical theory from ancient to modern times, including examples from Plato, Cicero, eighteenth-century rhetoricians Hugh Blair and George Campbell, and modern rhetorician Kenneth Burke. I give a rhetorical reading of Mannheim and Bloch and suggest other areas of cross-pollination between rhetoric and utopian studies.

According to Ruth Levitas, author of perhaps the most complete history of the concept of utopia to date, there have been three different bases for defining utopia as an academic area of study: content, form, and function. (1) This type of division has been relatively consistent since Lyman Tower Sargent's early articles in the first issues of Utopian Studies. (2) Of these three areas of study, the theoretical function of utopia remains least developed. However, during the past fifty years, utopists have begun to solidify a positive, functional definition of the concept in the Marxist tradition. Even so, as Levitas points out, "utopia" in the older, liberal-humanist tradition neglects function and focuses on matters of form and content, especially in terms of genre and various canons of utopian works. This seems to be a serious gap in the field of knowledge claimed by utopists, but one that is easily remedied by taking a closer look at the history of rhetoric. This article suggests that the concept of utopia found in traditional theories of rhetoric constitutes the functional definition of utopia in the liberal-humanist tradition that Levitas has claimed missing.

In order for utopian studies to develop a broad understanding of utopia that liberal humanists and Marxists can share, a functional definition should be available for both of these traditions or any hybrid of the two. Making the liberal-humanist tradition of rhetoric a basic feature in the developing discourse of utopian studies will solve this problem and lead to fruitful explorations in both fields. In its classical origins rhetoric is a highly developed art for finding or inventing all available means to persuade an audience. For those who have studied rhetoric deeply, a psychological and political understanding of persuasion would suggest an imagined better world existing in the minds of both speaker (rhetor) and audience. Without naming it "utopia," rhetorical theorists have consistently referred to an imagined, often idealized aspect of place as a part of ethos, the artistic rhetorical proof that is drawn from an audience's collective character. In a corresponding vein, rhetorical practices are inherent in what utopian theorists Herbert Marcuse and Ernst Bloch have called the "utopian impulse." For these writers, and as a working definition for this article, utopia is treated as a function of human social thought and communication. For the purposes of my argument, "utopia" is not an impossible political dream or a philosophical ideal but, rather, any kind of symbolic expression of hope for a better world, whether in a concrete future or in fictional or spiritual realms, and no matter if that expression is considered in a positive or negative light.

Rhetoric, like utopian studies, is a discipline with perpetual disagreement over the basic definition of its subject. Rhetoric has been explored both as a body of theories on how to influence people through spoken or written language and as a practice or techne of eloquence and power in communication. …

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