Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Roxanne Mountford; Carolyn Miller et al. | Go to book overview

JAMES F. KLUMPP University of Maryland, College Park


The Rhetoric of Community at Century's End

To a young graduate student, "Wingspread" sounded like an exotic place. It was, of course, uniquely American that leaders of the discipline of 1970 would go off on a bucolic pilgrimage to invent the future. When I saw the first product of that conference -- a copy of the report of the Committee on Rhetorical Invention slipped to me in a seminar -- excitement was hard to contain. When The Prospect of Rhetoric reached my bookshelves, I was ready to endorse the practice of American business to have all great meetings in these bucolic Meccas.

That book was absolutely crucial in the quarter century since. It preached a bit -- I remember particularly the absolutely compelling essay by Hugh Duncan -- but served us well by setting forth an agenda of questions that we should be asking, material we should be examining, and approaches we should be taking. But mostly, I think, the book served as a legitimizer for the generation of scholars who have worked since that time. When we wanted to do something different, to challenge those tacit barriers that a profession establishes to proscribe ideas that stray too far from the common, there was Prospect from which to select a juicy quotation to challenge the tradition we were confronting. The conference and its volume shaped the work of our generation.

It is entirely appropriate that we should reprise Wingspread this quarter of a century later. It is not so much the magic of the silver anniversary that is important, but the fact that we have somehow survived the turbulent sixties, moved through the deadening seventies, the narcissistic eighties, half-way through the angry nineties, and lie on the verge of the twenty-first century with new challenges for rhetoric. For the spirit of Wingspread was to examine the state of rhetorical study with an eye to the times and the social context and to reenvision the discipline's tasks as meet that assessment.

In this essay I focus on the crisis of public life and community at the end of the century. I consider the rhetorical dimensions of that problem and the resources of rhetorical scholarship that can be brought to addressing the problem in the coming years. My argument is that the task of our time is to develop rhetorical theory and criticism that strengthens communities and their ability to adapt to change.

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