Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric of Social Movements

By Yildiz, Diana | Composition Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric of Social Movements


Yildiz, Diana, Composition Studies


Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric of Social Movements, edited by Sharon McKenzie Stevens and Patricia Malesh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. 263 pp.

A guidepost at the intersection of sociology, political science, communication studies, and rhetoric and composition, Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric of Social Movements purports to redefine the scholarship of social movements. In their introductory essay, editors Sharon McKenzie Stevens and Patricia Malesh provide a view of the intellectual Zeitgeist of social movement studies in the U.S., a milieu complicated by a blurring of the demarcations between private and public spheres. To illustrate this blurring, Stevens and Malesh cite the mining of user profiles by Internet companies, the imprisonment of journalists for insisting upon the anonymity of their sources, the warrantless wiretapping instituted by the Bush administration, and the surveillance of domestic advocacy groups. Once the disenfranchised made what was private public in order to shed light on wrongs, but no longer, the editors contend. Rather, dominant institutions of American society have broken down and redfined the privacy of no-longer private citizens.

Responding to this sea change in public discourse, the editors seek to distinguish their volume by resituating rhetoric, particularly in regard to social change, as "the study of who is trying to do what to whom, with particular emphasis on how and why they are doing it" (7). Absent from this nebulous, unsettling definition is any reference to language, image, or other form of communication. This definition portrays merely the agonistic nature of rhetoric, including no acknowledgement of how rhetoric can and does effect positive social changes.

Despite this problematic theoretical underpinning, the editors provide a useful overview of trends in social movement theories, noting these stages of focus: collective behavior or structural strain, resource mobilization paradigm, framing processes, and new social movement studies (NSMs). Although social movement research traditionally has been performed by sociologists and scholars in Communication Studies, Stevens and Malesh champion rhetoricians as being especially well-suited to the "m eta-inquiry" of social movement studies, particularly since it is "grounded in persuasion, discourse, and interaction" (11). Furthermore, through their pedagogical focus, Composition scholars can enact civic praxis because the classroom "embodies the dialectical relationship between theory and practice - theory informs practice, practice restructures theory, and theory crafts future" (15). Even though the studies within the book are primarily inductive, the book itself has a deductive structure, beginning with theories and ending with specific pedagogies.

Part I of Active Voices, "A New Rhetoric for Social Change: Theories," contains two essays. In "Vernacular Rhetoric and Social Movements: Performances of Resistance in the Rhetoric of the Everyday," Gerard Hauser and erin daina mcclellan propose that social movement studies should focus less on charismatic leaders and more on rank-and-file members. To this end, the authors use Hausens term vernacular rhetoric, which they explain exemplifies Kenneth Burke's consideration of all of human symbolic action as rhetorical. Forms of vernacular rhetoric include letters to the editor, graffiti, music, and bodily displays, eliding the line between discursive and nondiscursive practices. Hauser and mcclellan's essay proves to be one of the best-researched and most engaging pieces in the volume.

The next essay, "Dreaming to Change Our Situation: Reconfiguring the Exigence for Student Writing," by Sharon McKenzie Stevens, is comparatively slight. Stevens outlines theories about the rhetorical situation by figures such as Lloyd Bitzer, Barbara Biesecker, and Jenny Edbauer, ultimately privileging Kenneth Burke's notion of identification to best explain how teachers and scholars can expand Bitzer's restrictive view of audience. …

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