Matthew S. May and Kate Siegfried
Louis Pierre Althusser (1918–1990) is widely recognized as one of the most significant and influential Marxist philosophers associated with the structuralist turn in the middle of the 20th century. The ongoing publication of scholarly monographs that develop his conceptual legacy, the depth of his impact in disciplinary debates in fields across the humanities and social sciences, and the continued translation of his work from French into multiple languages, to offer only a few examples, testify to the consensus regarding the enduring importance of his theoretical innovations and often controversial interventions. He devoted tremendous intellectual energy toward a critique of humanism and phenomenological-based Marxism even as he eschewed traditional positivist economic explanations of history and exploitation—engaging in what amounts to nothing less than an effort to fundamentally shift the way the West reads and interprets Marx. Despite the controversial aspects of his interventions, there is little disagreement that the concepts produced by Althusser irreversibly affected and continue to affect the trajectory of Marxist and post-Marxist thought throughout the world, albeit often through the back door, smuggled in and unrecognized—in his lexicon: as an embedded but nevertheless absent cause.
Marouf Hasian Jr.
Critical studies of humanitarian discourses involve the study of the arguments, claims, and evidence that are used to justify intervention or non-intervention in key local, regional, national, or international contexts. These discourses can take the form of arguing over whether we should practice isolationism and not intervene in the sovereign affairs of other countries, or they can take the form of deliberations over the transcend needs of populations that cope with myriad disasters. In some cases these discourses are produced by foreigners who believe that the less fortunate need to be rescued from their misery, while at other times humanitarian discourses can be used in discussions about the human rights of the disempowered. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), nation-states, celebrities, medical communications, and militaries are just a few of the rhetors that produce all of these humanitarian discourses.
Rebecca S. Richards
For much of human history, “femininity” and “masculinity” were unknown terms. But that does not mean that the concept of gender did not exist. Indeed, many societies in recorded history had conceptions of what it means to be a gendered person—most often noted in the binary of “man” and “woman”—but these conceptions were normative and perceived as intrinsic to human behavior and culture. Masculinity and femininity were naturalized concepts, assumed to be the ways in which men and women should act, look, or communicate.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars and activists noted that femininity and masculinity are social constructions of a gendered society, often denoting the ways in which people, objects, and practices conform to or transgress gendered expectations. Both terms are highly contingent upon the cultural, historical, and geopolitical locations in which they are used, meaning that they can only be accurately understood or defined for a given time or context; it is impossible to define either term in a universal manner. Femininity, as an articulated concept, has a longer history of being visible and enforced by communities. Masculinity, on the contrary, historically elided critique or visibility because its attributes were often the normative and prized values and characteristics of a given social context. However, feminist movements and intellectual projects have brought masculinity to light, showing the ways in which masculinity, just as much as femininity, is a learned and enforced way of viewing actions, people, and things.
In communication studies, current scholarship on masculinity and femininity examine how they circulate in a globalized world, picking up new definitions and often restructuring people’s lives. Even though both terms are abstractions with shifting definitions and applications, they create the conditions for people’s sense of identity and limit or enhance their ability to engage in communicative acts. Differently stated, while abstract concepts, they have material consequences. To understand how an abstract social construction creates material consequences, communication scholars have looked at several research locations where masculinity and femininity most obviously manifest, such as leadership and authority, media representations, rhetorical style and delivery, and interpersonal communications.
Ronald C. Arnett
Signification of human meaning dwells in ethics and culture, finding expression in and through rhetorical practices. Ethics and culture consist of goods and practices that gather the meaningful and the important together, yielding urgency for rhetorical employment of those practices. The union of ethics, culture, and rhetoric offers a coherent dwelling for the protection and promotion of the consequential. Ethics and culture house actions of meaningfulness that compel rhetorical expression, announcing a stance attentive to the vital, reminding self and informing other of a particular account of the consequential. Ethics and culture adjudicate a sense of ground that nourishes rhetorical understanding and engagement with the world. Rhetoric explicates practices of import that reflect the performative reality of ethics and culture, retelling self and other about the crucial. Rhetoric permits self and other to interrogate a ground of distinctive goods and practices that structure the noteworthy. Rhetoric facilitates discovery, testing, and knowledgeable implementation. It moves ethics and culture from points of abstraction to knowing public coordinates in a communicative social world that is impactful on self and others. The interplay of ethics, culture, and rhetoric in their triconstruction and enactment engenders human meaning. Rhetoric thrusts unique versions of ethics and culture into the public domain, and such action renders practical awareness of the existence of contrasting content of import. Acknowledging dissimilarity exposes and probes contrasting goods and practices. Rhetoric enhances public knowledge of differences undergirding juxtaposed ethical and cultural stances.
Bryan J. McCann
The term materialist rhetoric refers to scholarly approaches that seek to account for the relationship between rhetoric and the world that it inhabits. Rhetoricians have differed sharply on the character of this relationship and how it should inform rhetorical theory, criticism, and practice. To be a materialist is to insist that there exists a world outside of human agency that exerts force on human affairs. Marxism is the most influential philosophical tradition for materialist rhetoric, although rhetoricians vary in terms of their adherence to and interpretation of its principles. Karl Marx argued that the antagonistic class relations at the core of capitalism were the chief material determinant for social being. Historical materialism is the primary methodology of Marxist critique, and it rests on the premise that the character of class relations is not governed solely by human volition. Rather, these relations create the conditions of possibility for and shape the trajectory of social life.
While Marxism has informed the liveliest debates regarding materialist rhetoric, not all materialist rhetoricians are Marxists. The earliest iterations of materialist rhetoric drew on Marxism for inspiration, but did not adopt an explicitly anticapitalist orientation. Rather, materialist rhetoric initially referred to calls for rhetoricians to better account for the material character of rhetoric itself. Later developments in materialist rhetoric emerged from debates regarding the nature of Marxism as a rhetorical method, the question of whether rhetoric is representational or constitutive, the character of rhetorical agency, and the existence of a knowable material world outside of rhetoric. Classical Marxists in rhetoric have argued that scholars should predicate their work on the presumption of an experiential reality outside of discourse that exerts force on human symbolic activity. They argue that grounding rhetorical critique in a nondiscursive materiality is necessary for ethical judgment and political practice. Others who reject classical Marxism embrace the claim that rhetoric is material—so much so, in fact, that it comprises every dimension of social being.
Debates between these perspectives hinge largely on how different scholars theorize contemporary capitalism. Whereas classical Marxists retain faith in the revolutionary agency of the working class, their critics contend that rhetoric itself has become the central modality of labor in the modern economy and, therefore, the chief resource for resistance. Other materialist perspectives do not dwell on theoretical debates regarding Marxism, but instead attend to other dimensions of being beyond human symbol use. Whereas some scholars are interested in rhetoric’s relationship to the human body and physical spaces, others theorize rhetoric in ways that reach beyond the limits of human cognition.
Matthew Bost and Matthew S. May
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are among the most powerful theorists of communication and social change under present-day global capitalism. In their Empire trilogy and other individual and collaborative works, Hardt and Negri argue for the fundamentally communicative nature of contemporary power. Their analyses demonstrate the ways that media technology, global flows of finance capital, and the contemporary shift to economies based on information and affective or emotional labor create new, more complex networks of oppression and new possibilities for more democratic social change. Hardt and Negri’s work, therefore, shifts the focus of critical communication and cultural theory from attaining or challenging political power within the nation-state and invites scholars to rethink sovereignty as empire: an interconnected global phenomenon appertaining to capitalism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They furthermore reimagine dissent as a constitutive process of resistance and mutual aid through which the multitude simultaneously withdraws from empire and composes itself through the social communication of struggles across time and space. Hardt and Negri’s work has been taken up in communication studies to theorize the materiality of communication; the labor performed in cognitive, communication, and service industries; contemporary media audiences and reception; and historical and contemporary social movements, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Michel Foucault, who was born in 1926 into an upper-middle-class family, came of age in post-World War II Paris, studied with Louis Althusser, and rose to intellectual prominence in the 1970s, died on June 25, 1984. The near celebrity status that he acquired during his lifetime has multiplied since his death as the Foucault of disciplinary power has been supplemented with the Foucault of neoliberalism, biopolitics, aesthetics of the self, and the ontology of the present. These different forms of Foucauldian analysis are often grouped into three phases of scholarship that include the archeological, the genealogical, and the ethical. The first period, produced throughout the 1960s, focuses on the relationship between discourse and knowledge; the second period, developed throughout the 1970s, zeroes in on diverse structures of historically evolving power relations; and, the Foucault that emerged in the 1980s explores technologies of the self or the work of the self on the self. This well-recognized periodization highlights the triangulated structure of associations among knowledge, power, and subjectivity that animated his work. Because a number of decentered relations, something he called governmentality, are woven through everyday experience, Foucault questioned the assumption that communication takes place between autonomous, self-aware individuals who use language to negotiate and organize community formation and argued instead that this web of discourse practices and power relations produces subjects differentially suited to the contingencies of particular historical epochs.
Although a critical consensus has endorsed this three-part taxonomy of Foucault’s scholarship, the interpretation of these periods varies. Some view them through a linear progression in which the failures of one moment lay the groundwork for the superseding moment: his discursive emphasis in the archeological phase gave way to his emphasis on power in the genealogical phase which, in turn, gave way to his focus on subjectivity in the ethical phase. Others, such as Jeffrey Nealon, understand the shifts as “intensifications” (p. 5) wherein each phase tightens his theoretical grip, triangulating knowledge, power, and subjectivity ever more densely. Still others suggest that the technologies of the self that undergird Foucault’s ethical period displace the leftist orientation of his early work with a latent conservatism. Regardless of where one lands on this debate, Foucault’s three intellectual phases cohere around an ongoing analysis of the relationships among knowledge, power, and subjectivity—associations at the heart of communication studies.
Focused on how different subjects experience the established “regime of truth,” Foucault’s historical investigations, while obviously diverse, maintain a similar methodology, one he labeled the history of thought and contrasted with the history of ideas. As he conceives it, the history of ideas attempts to determine the origin and evolution of a particular concept through an uninterrupted teleology. He distinguishes his method, the history of thought, through its focus on historical problematization. This approach explores “the way institutions, practices, habits, and behavior become a problem for people who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions.” In short, he studies how people and society deal with a phenomenon that has become a problem for them. This approach transforms the narrative of human progress into a history broken by concrete political, economic, and cultural problems whose resolution requires reconstituting the prevailing knowledge–power–subject dynamics. Put differently, Foucault illuminates historical breaks and the shifts required for their repair. Whereas the history of ideas erases the discontinuity among events, he highlights those differences and studies the process by which they dissolve within a singular historical narrative. Glossing his entire oeuvre, he suggests that his method can address myriad concerns, including “for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth.” An overarching approach that intervenes into dominant narratives in order to demonstrate their silencing effects, the history of thought undergirds all three of Foucault’s externally imposed periods. Each period explores knowledge, power, and subjectivity while stressing one nodal point of the relationship: archeology stresses knowledge formation; genealogy emphasizes power formation; and the ethical period highlights subject formation. This strikingly original critical approach has left its mark on a wide range of theorists, including such notable thinkers as Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Donna Haraway, and Judith Butler, and has influenced critical communication scholars such as Raymie McKerrow, Ronald Greene, Kendell Phillips, Jeremy Packer, and Laurie Ouellete.
Diane Marie Keeling and Marguerite Nguyen Lehman
Posthumanism is a philosophical perspective of how change is enacted in the world. As a conceptualization and historicization of both agency and the “human,” it is different from those conceived through humanism. Whereas a humanist perspective frequently assumes the human is autonomous, conscious, intentional, and exceptional in acts of change, a posthumanist perspective assumes agency is distributed through dynamic forces of which the human participates but does not completely intend or control. Posthumanist philosophy constitutes the human as: (a) physically, chemically, and biologically enmeshed and dependent on the environment; (b) moved to action through interactions that generate affects, habits, and reason; and (c) possessing no attribute that is uniquely human but is instead made up of a larger evolving ecosystem. There is little consensus in posthumanist scholarship about the degree to which a conscious human subject can actively create change, but the human does participate in change.
As distinguished from posthumanism, humanism is credited with attributing the conscious and intentional human subject as the dominant source of agency most worthy of scholarly attention. Since its inception during the Renaissance, humanism has been constituted in various ways throughout history, but as a collective body of literature, the human is typically constituted through humanism as: (a) autonomous from nature given the intellectual faculties of the mind that controls the body, (b) uniquely capable of and motivated by speech and reason, and (c) an exceptional animal that is superior to other creatures. Humanist assumptions concerning the human are infused throughout Western philosophy and reinforce a nature/culture dualism where human culture is distinct from nature. In contrast, a posthumanist scholar rejects this dichotomy through understanding the human as entangled with its environment. A posthumanist scholar of communication typically integrates scholarship from a variety of other disciplines including, but not limited to: art, architecture, cybernetics, ecology, ethology, geology, music, psychoanalysis, and quantum physics.
Nathan A. Crick
Poststructuralism represents a set of attitudes and a style of critique that developed in critical response to the growth and identification of the logic of structural relations that underlie social institutions—whether they exist in terms of politics, economics, education, medicine, literature, or the sciences. Poststructuralism should therefore not be thought of as a distinct philosophy that exists separately as its own “structure”—a proposition that would undermine its most fundamental attitudes. Rather, poststructuralism should be thought of as developing or arising only in response to pre-existing structures and, as a set of attitudes, helping us better understand, interpret, and alter our social environment by calling established meanings into question, revealing the points of ambiguity and indeterminacy inherent in any system, rejecting the rationalistic piety that all systems are internally coherent and circle around an unchanging center, showing how discourses are carriers of power capable of turning us into subjects, and placing upon us the burden of ethical responsibility that accompanies the acceptance of freedom.
Although poststructuralism by its very nature as a set of attitudes denies any attempt at comprehensive definition, this essay examines three of the major postructuralist thinkers in order to relate their thought to the study of communication. First, following Derrida, poststructuralist thought invites a critical deconstruction of any discourse that presents itself as completely coherent, centered, and rational. Poststructuralist approaches thus do not argue against a position by harnessing counterarguments drawing on a different set of principles. Rather, it deconstructs a discourse by occupying it and exposing the gaps, contradictions, paradoxes, and deferments, thus revealing its established hierarchies, binaries, logical conclusions, and principles to be far more loosely structured and poly-vocal than its advocates wish to present them. Second, following Barthes, poststructuralism refuses to locate any single point of origin of any text that can ground its meaning—particularly by pointing to some ground of the author. Although not denying that writers exist, Barthes refuses to identify the meaning of a text with the author’s biography and intentions, instead inviting multiple interpretations from the perspective of individual readers who encounter the text as a unique event. Therefore, just as discourses do not have a unified structure, neither do individual texts or the authors that produce them. Lastly, following Fouacult, poststructuralism invites an inquiry into how discourses, texts, and acts of communication are always implicated in relations of power that act upon possible actions. Following the first two propositions, poststructuralism does not analyze these relations of power as completely structured and determinate, however. Power relations are always within a dynamic relationship with acts of resistance, thereby constantly leaving space for freedom and possibility.
The concept of public culture refers most broadly to the dynamic negotiation of beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding collective association through media and other social practices that are defined by norms of open access and voluntary response. The concept is a recent innovation and applies primarily to modern societies, where public culture is the envelope of communication practices within which public opinion is formed; those practices can include news, entertainment, the arts, advertising, social media, and many other means for representing and judging any individual, institution, or custom having collective significance. The term “public” emphasizes relatively unrestricted communication across civil society regarding governance and other matters affecting the general welfare. The term “culture” emphasizes that public opinion depends on contextual factors that emerge through multiple media and embodied responsiveness. These considerations provide a basis for analysis of distinctively modern relationships across civil society, media technologies, and political action in a global context.