The Politics and Economics of Public (Rhetoric) Spaces

Presentation by James Porter (Miami University).

 Most of the rhetorics of the traditional Western academic canon assume that the rhetor has access to the podium: securing the right to speak is not an issue. The implied audience for the major canonical tracts — from Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Perelman’s The New Rhetoric — is someone who has, or will have, access to speaking rights at the bar, the pulpit, the assembly. Rhetorical power and status are assumed; access is not a problem to be addressed.

Not the case for everybody, obviously. Not the case for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who in 17th century Mexico struggled with her bishop for the right to write as a woman in the Catholic Church. Not for Frederick Douglass, who in 1843 had to fight for the right to speak in public in Richmond, Indiana, and got his arm broken for his efforts. For subordinated and silenced cultures and persons, the question of access to rhetorical spaces is paramount, the starting point of and sine qua non for rhetorical performance.

Fast forward to now. What is the Occupy Wall Street movement if not an effort by the 99% — a subordinated, silenced group — to secure a public space to be seen, if not heard, and to press the case for greater political representation. The Internet has up til now served as a fairly robust public space for speakers and writers. But that status is under attack, given the ongoing threat to “net neutrality” by telecommunications firms attempting to exert greater commercial control over the Internet pipeline (aka podium) and to create a separate space, a slower, duller place for the 99%.

In this presentation, I will examine the concept of “public space” — as well as related terms, such as “public domain” and “commons” — from the point of view of rhetorical theories of delivery and access, economics and politics. In an age where public space is often considered to be waste of space — why not privatize it? — what are the affordances of  maintaining robust public spaces for speakers and writers? What are the economic and political advantages to doing so? Public space is clearly a vital space for building networks, but one conclusion of this talk will be that access to such space can no longer be assumed; it needs to be a rhetorical concern taken up with greater vigor by all of us.

James E. Porter is a Professor of English and Interactive Media Studies at Miami University, where he also directs the first-year composition program. His books include Audience and Rhetoric (1992), Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices (1997, with P. Sullivan), and Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing (1998). His latest book, co-authored with Heidi McKee, is titled The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process. 

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