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.
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.
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.
Matthew Houdek and Kendall R. Phillips
The term public memory refers to the circulation of recollections among members of a given community. These recollections are far from being perfect records of the past; rather, they entail what we remember, the ways we frame it, and what aspects we forget. Broadly, public memory differs from official histories in that the former is more informal, diverse, and mutable where the latter is often presented as formal, singular, and stable. Beginning in the 1980s, scholars from various disciplines became interested in the way ideas about the past were crafted, circulated, and contested. A wide variety of artifacts give evidence of public memory, including public speeches, memorials, museums, holidays, and films. Scholars interested in public memory have observed the importance of such informal practices in relation to the conception of the nation-state, as well as a growing sense of an interconnected transnational or global network of memories. While the study of public memory spans multiple disciplines, its uptake in communication and rhetorical studies has produced a wealth of critical and theoretical perspectives that continues to shape the field.
Myra Washington and Kent A. Ono
Race is important within U.S. society and globally. However, race also plays a significant role in communication, and research on its influence cuts across every conceivable area of the field, ranging from rhetoric to organizational communication to film studies to health communication. Race is discussed so much within communication that this article, although expansive, cannot refer to all the important work that has been done. Research on race and communication considers a broad range of racial, multiracial, and ethnic groups. Scholarship also ranges from more applied research to purely theoretical work.
Critical and cultural studies work has significantly affected the way scholars think about communication and race. Specifically, concepts developed and explored have provided new lenses through which to understand communication and race. Nationalism, for example is significant. A nation is a collectively shared and discursively constructed identity. In thinking about nations as imagined communities cultural ties (such as language, ethnicity, and shared memories) are part of that identity. For racially marginalized groups, a nation may be a political organization at the same time as it is a collectively identified political group based on racial ethnic ties, ancestry, or simply politics. The concept of transnationalism, on the other hand, relates to cross or “trans” national relations, ties, and processes, processes that globalization has accelerated and strengthened, such as the movement of capital, media, and people which in turn has shaped local happenings and vice versa. When coupled with nationalism and transnationalism, race plays a mediating role, helping to govern and regulate people, relationships, and sometimes the very reason for relationships existing.
Davi Johnson Thornton
Communication studies identifies bodies as both objects of communication and producers (or sites) of communication. Communication about bodies—for example, gendered bodies, disabled bodies, obese bodies, and surgically modified bodies—influences bodies at the physical, material level by determining how they are treated in social interactions, in medical settings, and in public institutions. Communication about bodies also forges cultural consensus about what types of bodies fit in particular roles and settings. In addition to analyzing the stakes of communication about bodies, communication studies identifies bodies as communicating forces that cannot be accounted for by standards of reason, meaning, and decorum. Bodies are physical, material, affective beings that communicate because of, not in spite of, their messy, ineffable status. Moreover, communication is an embodied process that involves a range of material supports, including human bodies, technological bodies, and other nonhuman physical and biological bodies. Investigating bodies as communicating forces compels an understanding of communication that is not exclusively rational, meaning-oriented, and nonviolent.
Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.