Academic journal article Intertexts

Engendering Charisma: K.D. Lang and the Comic Frame

Academic journal article Intertexts

Engendering Charisma: K.D. Lang and the Comic Frame

Article excerpt

Charisma tends to attract broad scholarly interest, particularly in management and business studies, religion, aesthetics, history, theatre, and the social sciences. It is also an attractive concept for rhetoricians. Charisma is fundamentally about identification with the "mobilizing myth" of a powerful authority (Kallis 30) and can be usefully conceptualized in terms of Aristotle's rhetorical triad of speaker, audience, and text. The charismatic leader is the first element of the charismatic dynamic: since Aristotle's Rhetoric, the discipline has viewed the ethos or character of an orator as crucial to rhetorical success. Max Weber's familiar definition of charisma also grounds itself in the personality of the charismatic leader, who is "set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities" (Theory 241). Charisma necessarily depends on a receptive audience, however; that which beguiles one person can leave another completely unmoved. Lloyd Bitzer's notion of exigence--some urgency, lack, or need that calls out for an appropriate response--offers a rhetorical explanation for why the charismatic leader often emerges during times of social insecurity and is, in fact, rhetorically constructed by such moments. Finally, there is the content of the charismatic message: Does the leader articulate a unifying vision? Use the right language? Catch the appropriate tone? Express hope for political resolution and offer a clear campaign for social change?

American rhetoricians exploring the concept of charisma have highlighted different elements of this classical configuration. Early publications from the 1970s tend to emphasize the psychological qualities of the charismatic figure within a favorable social context. George P. Boss, for instance, provides a list of nine "essential" charismatic attributes, including the gift of grace, a heroic spirit, a mission, a perceived crisis, and a shared history with followers. J. Louis Campbell III, in his study of Jimmy Carter's "unlikely" charisma during the 1976 presidential primaries, also foregrounds rhetorical context, arguing that Carter's rhetoric dovetailed with the visions of the electorate during the bicentennial celebrations. More recent rhetorical studies highlight the text's role in generating charismatic power in a given situation. In a content analysis of U.S. presidential address, Cynthia G. Emrich et al. find that presidents who use sensory, "image-based" words are judged to be more charismatic than those who use more intellectual, abstract language. J. Michael Hogan and Glen Williams provide a sophisticated reading of what they call "textual charisma," arguing that Thomas Paine's revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense is an anomaly for charismatic examination, as its writer was neither exceptional nor gifted and the manifesto, while revealing a private self, was anonymous. The egalitarian, democratic spirit of the American Revolution endowed such a text with "republican charisma." The pamphlet had an extraordinary effect on readers who identified with the new kind of leadership its "plain, literal, mundane, and ordinary" language represented (14).

These studies have all made valuable contributions to the rhetorical study of charisma, but they all privilege the rhetorical tradition of men. This paper takes its direction from the revisionist efforts of feminist rhetorical scholarship to regender a 2500-year-old history that assumed a male speaker and privileged masculine styles of address. The masculine biases of rhetoric have been challenged by many feminist researchers, most notably Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Karen Foss, Andrea Lunsford, Carol Mattingly, Lindal Buchanan, and Sonja Foss, who turn their attention to women rhetors, retheorize rhetorical principles, and challenge the agonistic assumptions that have underpinned rhetorical practice. This feminist scholarship considers the personal, economic, and cultural realities of women who had to adopt creative rhetorical strategies in restrictive and undervalued contexts. …

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