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“Free” Speech and the Production of Truth in Histories of Rhetoric

Susan C. Jarratt and Katherine Mack

“Free” Speech and the Production of Truth in Histories of Rhetoric 

Susan C. Jarratt, University of California at Irvine
Katherine Mack, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs 

For historians interested in the rhetorical tactics of disempowered groups, the concept of “free speech” holds a strong attraction.  The idealized scene of direct confrontation—a lowly person “speaking truth to power”–haunts our rhetorical imaginations but is rarely realized in its purest form.  There is always so much more going on in any rhetorical scene. As recent work in rhetoric, critical theory, and literary studies has shown, “free speech” and its purported opposites (subterfuge, indirection, and “figured” discourse) become intricately entangled in specific cultural locations.  Rhetoric produced under conditions of censorship often reveals this complex interplay.  Speakers may adopt the stance or trope of  “free speaking” or choose the artistry of indirection for many reasons: safety, coded affiliation, or even performative pleasure. Generic (and sometimes language) diversity marks rhetoric produced in these zones, where we may find poetry, song, fiction, images, and even history—a genre with its own rhetorical power.  

In a parallel process, institutional efforts by state, church, and academy to bring forth the “truth” of the experiences of oppressed or marginalized people also produce rhetorical artifacts requiring finely tuned analytic methods.  Truth and reconciliation commissions, treaties, and ethnographic accounts are examples of such “truth” forays and the complex artifacts they produce.  Historians of these efforts must bring together texts from varied sources and genres, and use a variety of analytical methods to represent their complexity. 

In this workshop, we will begin by discussing readings from theory, history, and rhetorical criticism on these themes (e.g., excerpts from Foucault’s Fearless Speech; Coetzee on censorship).  Most of the time will be spent working with participants’ work-in-progress submissions.  Everyone (including the leaders) will submit in advance a brief (5-page or so) piece of writing:  an excerpt from a dissertation chapter or prospectus, a reflection on methodology, a set of archival notes, or some other related text.  Our discussion will pose such questions as, What makes speech “free”?  How is truth produced?  How do generic or performative conventions shape an understanding of the rhetoric of the parrhêsiastes (the free-speaker) and of the person or locus of power (king, missionary, general, teacher, commission, anthropologist, et al.) in each case?  What is at stake in this rhetorical act:  “bare” life, the survival or recognition of the group, acknowledgement of past wrongs, the potential to influence the acts of those in power, the prominence or artistry of the speaker?  Historical work from any period or geography is welcome. 

Questions? Contact Susan C. Jarratt, sjarratt@uci.edu

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