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

VAN E. HILLARD Duke University


Entering the Rhetorical City: The Metropolitan Prospect of Rhetoric

It has become commonplace in contemporary discussions of rhetoric and the teaching of writing to rely upon the metaphor of community to represent the public ground upon which rhetorical interactions take place. The concept of community (as in "interpretive community" or "community of discourse") often is delineated by a recognition of common purpose, common attitude, common language, and common referential frames -- all of which substantiate an intricate and sometimes invisible network of shared assumptions, beliefs, and ideology. It is, of course, extremely useful to identify communities that share interpretive sensibilities; such recognition permits us to situate knowledge production and to determine the contextual boundaries that control and constrain the production of new meanings and alternate worldviews. Myriad references to discourse communities have provided powerful ways to link rhetorical projects to the sociology of knowledge and have permitted reevaluations of collectivity, collaboration, dialogue, and dialectic that would have been difficult, perhaps even impossible, without access to the epistemologic framework that the term community provides. Even more, the notion of discourse communities has prompted important discussions of inclusion, exclusion, membership, power, and privilege. It is extremely empowering, for instance, for my students to learn that they hold places in a variety of discourse communities and that they can engage productively in the disagreements arising both within and between these communities.

But however useful in selective contexts, the term community has certain limitations when applied to public discursive practices. First, the term suggests that assent is shaped and reshaped by direct, and in many instances face-to- face, encounters between the community's members. As Raymond Williams reminds us, the immediacy and interpersonal nature of community encounters has been set in opposition to the putatively remote, impersonal interactions among members of the public -- the distinction, clarified by Ferdinand Tönnies, between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. Second, its rootedness in commonality lends community a utopic and positive valence. Williams speaks of it as that "warmly persuasive word . . . that unlike all other terms of social organization (state, nation, society, etc.) . . . seems never to be used unfavourably, and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term" (76). When discord

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