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Rethinking the Relationship between Rhetoric and Democracy

Workshop Leaders: Jeremy Engels, Penn State University: Pat Gehrke, University of South Carolina

Workshop Leaders:

Jeremy Engels, Penn State University
Pat Gehrke, University of South Carolina

This workshop investigates the complex relationship between rhetoric and democracy, with specific focus on the foundations and premises of civic idealism and idealized deliberative discourse. This workshop will provide participants with the space and resources to investigate the criticisms and justifications of rhetoric that are at work in contemporary scholarly and popular arguments about democracy. We will work through five major themes over the course of the weekend:

(1) Theorists of democratic deliberation in the tradition of Habermas have explicitly banned rhetoric by making a sharp split between rhetoric and either dialogic or dialectic argument.
(2) In the past decade, many writers on politics have turned to rhetoric to inspire their imaginations of a repaired democratic culture, understanding that suasion is vital to democracy while despairing at the state of contemporary democratic discussion.
(3) At the same time as political theory has taken this “rhetorical turn,” scholars of rhetoric have turned back to American pragmatism, carefully tracing the influence of Dewey and others on the development of rhetorical studies. (4) Many of these writers--whether grounded in political theory, rhetorical theory, or philosophy—have tended to invoke a counter-factual yet normative ideal of discourse. Thus, we come to the shared premise of an idealized deliberative discourse: while there are many problems in our democracy, if only we could practice better communication (rhetorical or otherwise), then democracy would function as it should. (5) This premise undergirds a great deal of the justification of rhetoric as a field of study, and current (or perhaps recurring) challenges to that assumption are likewise challenges to how (and why) we teach and do scholarship in the field of rhetoric. Our goal is to ask what we might learn from theseencounters and how they might improve and extend the work of scholars and teachers of rhetoric.

Each applicant for this workshop should describe her or his own project, question, interest, or focus in terms of one or more of these five themes. Participants should bring some work in progress, which they will distribute to the workshop leaders and attendees in advance. Ideally, each participant will take the foreground in the conversation when her or his own project and interests most directly relates to the theme. We are hopeful that the diverse interests and expertise of the participants produces a scholarly engagement suitable for replicating the complexity of the relationship between rhetoric and democracy. We welcome scholars and students of rhetoric from all backgrounds and at any stage in their careers.

Direct questions to Jeremy Engels at

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