Academic journal article College English

Ecologies of Cancer Rhetoric: The Shifting Terrain of US Cancer Wars, 1920–1980

Academic journal article College English

Ecologies of Cancer Rhetoric: The Shifting Terrain of US Cancer Wars, 1920–1980

Article excerpt

Cancer is an inescapable presence in modern life. Most people know someone who has had cancer, if they have not had it themselves. And language about cancer is arguably even more ubiquitous than the disease. Talk about cancer assumes many forms: news of developments in treatment; stories of courage in the face of challenges; advice for testing and prevention; fundraising appeals to pursue the cure of all or specific types of cancer; pink ribbons and other symbols that remind the public of the cause; social media discussions about the effects of cancer and its treatment. The pervasive themes that are sustained as cancer rhetorics circulate across time and space illustrate the capacity of language to shape public consciousness even as it responds to complex changes in cultural values and preoccupations.

My archival study of cancer rhetoric's development in the United States across the early decades of the twentieth century demonstrates the dynamic intersections among medicine, language, and public life, offering what Judy Segal describes as a "kairotic account of medical history." Such accounts, what Segal describes as "kairology," or "a rhetorically tilted medical history" (Health 23), generate insight by illuminating the integral role of persuasion in the development of medical history. A kairology of cancer rhetoric foregrounds the role of language in supporting scientific developments and in increasing the public's understanding of the disease. Together, these roles support Lisa Keränen's interest in expanding the rhetoric of science to include "persuasion both in the conduct of science and in its circulation in public life" (22). The effort to understand the relationship between scientific discovery and the circulation of scientific knowl- edge to the public is enhanced by an ecological focus, which Stuart Macmillan describes as an "exploration of both the supportive facets of environments and the enabling beliefs and actions of individuals" (346). Examining cancer rhetoric as historically situated in changing environments, constantly emerging within a complex landscape of human and nonhuman participants and diverse modes of interaction, provides new insight about the implications surrounding public discourses about cancer-and more broadly about the ways in which language shapes all human experience.

The persistence of central lines of argument about cancer reveals a significant degree of consistency in perceptions of the disease from one generation to the next, but these arguments also shift in response to social contexts, material conditions, and medical developments that persistently converge in shaping discourses about cancer. This historical perspective also illustrates the potential of rhetorics of health and medicine to contribute to varied conversations in English studies. First of all, tracing historical developments in cancer rhetoric demonstrates language as situated in larger ecologies and shaped by circulation across historical and cultural contexts. The effort to understand the fluid and dynamic relationship between rhetoric and material conditions requires attention to the diverse factors that shape discourse about cancer at different historical moments and the persistent values and constraints that account for discursive patterns that are sustained over long periods of time.

Cancer rhetoric also offers a useful example of rhetoric as embodied and materially situated. In the introduction to Rhetorical Bodies, Jack Selzer, quoting Kenneth Burke's Permanence and Change, calls for greater awareness of the importance of materiality as a component of rhetorical production: "Our calling has its roots in the biological, and our biological demands are clearly implicit in the universal texture." Selzer goes on to argue, "Even though rhetoric has long been concerned with the situatedness of literate acts and the real effects of discourse rather than with ideal possibilities, the relationship of rhetorical events to the material world that sustains and produces them has not often enough been fully elaborated or clearly articulated" (9). …

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