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Is a Rhetorical Ethics Possible?

Workshop Leaders: Frank Farmer, University of Kansas; Margaret Zulick, Wake Forest University

Workshop Leaders:

Frank Farmer (University of Kansas)
Margaret Zulick (Wake Forest University)

This workshop attempts to foster inquiry into a prior question, that is, a question behind a question—not the familiar, "What is a rhetorical ethics?" but instead, "Is a rhetorical ethics possible’?

In one of his early philosophical essays, Bakhtin reiterates a longstanding distinction between a formal ethics and a content ethics. A formal ethics typically offers some device through which correct ethical action may be determined—say, for example, a Golden Rule or a Categorical Imperative. A content ethics, on the other hand, makes explicit certain right and wrong behaviors. Content ethics might assume any variety of forms, ranging from, say, the Ten Commandments to any of the various "Codes of Professional Conduct." But, as Bakhtin observes, when the ethical act is merely referred to an already existing method or rule, the subject (rhetor?) is paradoxically exempted from full, active participation in his or her own ethical act.

Do Bakhtin’s insights have any implications for a rhetorical ethics? If we reject formal principles or coded prescriptions, where, then are we to locate a rhetorical ethics? If, as James Porter argues, "rhetorical ethics "has to do with questions about human relations as they are constructed and maintained through acts of discourse," how exactly is this done? If a rhetorical ethics emerges within a given rhetorical situation, not before or outside of it, what, if anything, can be said about a distinctly rhetorical ethics? Is a rhetorical ethics even possible?

Bakhtin’s insight here serves as a starting point (and only a starting point) for those interested in exploring what kind of rhetorical ethics is possible once we refuse predetermined rules and methods for ethical action.

Before convening, participants will read pre-­‐circulated excerpts of relevant readings. These include, but may not be limited to, readings from Bakhtin, Hyde, Porter, and Gehrke. The workshop itself will be structured topically, with attention devoted to the interests/projects of participants. Participants may be asked to circulate a brief (brief) statement of how their own work intersects with the question of rhetorical ethics. Scholars at all stages of their careers are welcome.

Questions should be directed to Frank Farmer at

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