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Indiana University Bloomington

Rhetoric and Public Culture

Studying Rhetoric

Rhetoric has persisted as a scholarly discipline for thousands of years, its past inextricably intertwined with the history of academia itself. Today, in its most familiar usage, rhetoric is often oversimplified and denigrated as a synonym for language without consequence, appearance without substance, a superficial fašade merely obscuring a deeper reality. Yet, by drawing on a tradition that precedes and rebuts the Platonic distinction between rhetoric and philosophy, rhetoric insists that the style, manner, and medium in which we communicate is intrinsic to the substance of persuasive argument and worldly efficacy. Indeed, rhetoric's heritage as a practice that constitutes social and political life places it in critical tension with a series of modern binaries, such as form and content, text and context, practice and theory, production and interpretation. As a disciplinary approach, rhetoric is a pragmatic endeavor that always has been contextual, creative, audience-centered, and concerned with the possibilities of artful and persuasive intervention in contingent, complex, and particular circumstances. More than a deceitful cover, or a method of persuasion to apply without regard to ethics, we believe rhetoric is best imagined and enacted as engaged critique -- a praxis that ideally continues to goad us to strive for a more just world.

Studying Public Culture

Public culture research seeks to promote democratic imaginaries beyond current possibilities and in non-instrumentalist ways by engaging in critique of existing structures and habits of interaction. From this perspective, democracy is understood to entail a range of principles and practices, including dissent, justice, equality, liberty, prudence, and poetic invention. It shares with public sphere theory a normative concern for the promotion of democratic imaginaries that envision the self-governing of publics. Public culture research, however, does not necessarily share the same normative commitments articulated in some public sphere research to deliberation through consensus, narrowly-defined rational norms of debate, or circumscribed arenas of public address. Rather, public culture research is interested in the histories, aesthetics, invention, consumption, reception, and circulation of communication in so far as such practices or performances are significant to democratic imaginaries and self-reflexive notions of publicity. Indeed, public culture research necessarily is a multi-disciplinary endeavor in that it draws on the expertise of any field that can help fashion theoretically informed critiques of actually existing democracies and promote expanded democratic imaginaries.

Studying Rhetoric & Public Culture at Indiana University

Situated within the interdisciplinary Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University's program in Rhetoric and Public Culture articulates or links rhetoric with public culture to emphasize critique as a mode of engagement in democratic life. The sociality or publicness of rhetoric is vital to efforts to examine, adapt, or enact ethical social relations. As a transformative project, Rhetoric and Public Culture engages rhetorical theory and practice to analyze, interpret, and critique political life, addressing democratic tensions and imaginaries. This requires that we take seriously the tasks raised by historical and contemporary contexts, including both oppressive and resistant discourses constituting war and dissent, death and desire, law and judgment, race and ethnicity, feminism and sexuality, nature and environmentalism, and class disparity in a global economy. Through examining how rhetorical judgment and invention are articulated by democratic exigencies, we aim to challenge constraints to freedom and to foster a more participatory and responsible citizenry.

We value rhetoric as a critical mode of cultural production that operates with a wide range of communicative performances, including language, embodied gesture, and visual image -- it includes interpersonal, mediated and cross-cultural communication. Such a robust enterprise hones our skills as rhetorical critics and inevitably requires a rigorous interdisciplinary plan of study both within our department and outside, often involving areas such as media studies, visual culture, political and social theory, American studies, and cultural studies. At Indiana University, we offer an opportunity to study with leading scholars in the field of rhetoric who are shaping and redefining the conversations that matter most to the discipline of rhetoric. Our faculty have served as the editors of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and Culture, Theory, and Critique.

Since 2000, we have published books on iconic photographs, environmental and environmental justice movements, Malcolm X, democratic dissent and institutions, and interdisciplinary approaches to image culture. Further, we not only circulate our research within the academy but also are involved in local, national, and international politics that are grappling with the most exigent questions of our times. Indiana University graduate students receive competitive jobs, awards, and grants that recognize their unique perspectives undoubtedly will have an impact on the future of the field -- and already are.