Unsettling rhetorical patterns and the fate of democracy



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The traditional master-narrative in histories of rhetoric assumes that formal democratic institutions make possible a flourishing rhetorical culture (as at Athens in the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E.). This dissertation, however, offers a counter-view, with two main lines of argument. On one hand, the traditional master-narrative is open to critique for failing to recognize or fully attend to rhetorical activity outside of operative democracies, and it also fails to account for rhetorical activities that are not recognized as legitimate speech within democracies. On the other hand, one may argue that rhetorical activities (or certain kinds) embody practices that make democracy possible, whether formal democratic institutions exist or not. This dissertation, then, contends that rhetorical practices that presuppose equality are not a product of democracy, but are democracy’s condition of possibility. This counter-narrative is developed through four chapters. Chapter One hypothesizes that individuals presuppose equality while engaging in rhetorical practices that disrupt the smooth operation of “settled” ideologies. Turning to specific cases, I examine politics in Athens during the fifth century B.C.E. (Chapter Two), education in nineteenth-century Europe (Chapter Three), and digital media in the present era (Chapter Four) as public spheres in which unauthorized voices speak with as much rhetorical effect as credentialed experts. When a community tries to account for these voices, I conclude, moments of democracy occur. This alternative vision of rhetorical practices as proto-democratic activities both offers a new way to account for instances of marginalized rhetorical activity and an intervention in rhetorical studies generally. If there is a presumption of equality inherent in certain kinds rhetorical activity, and if that presumption is a precondition for democracy, then we might write the history of rhetoric differently, and reconceive its relation to formal civic institutions.