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The Conceit of Context

Resituating Domains in Rhetorical Studies

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Edited By Charles E. Morris III and Kendall R. Phillips

This edited volume features essays derived from presentations delivered at the 15th Biennial Public Address Conference held at Syracuse University in October 2016, as well as additional material. The Conceit of Context explores the often invoked—indeed a central term in the history of rhetorical studies—but less often engaged concept of context. In this volume, we center the notion of context as the site of engagement, critique, and imagination, seeking to deepen the critical and political promise of context in the study of public discourse.

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8 Rhetoric and the Utopian Gesture: Rethinking Context’s Spatio-Temporal Logics (Kelly E. Happe)

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Kelly E. Happe

When rhetorical critics consider “context,” they typically mean historical events and material conditions, knowledge of which help with the task of interpretation and assigning meaning to a given speech act or set of texts. Historical context helps the critic avoid anachronistic analysis; for contemporary texts, critics will employ various iterations of exigence, situation, and intent to ascertain the enabling conditions of a text’s emergence and what, if anything, we can say about audience, goals, and the like.

Although I am admittedly painting the use of context with broad-brush strokes, it is nevertheless the case that we can say with some confidence that a particular (and normative) understanding of temporality is at work when we engage a text. It is assumed, for instance, that a rhetor is addressing an exigence specific to the time in which the speech occurs; if the speaker is calling for change, it is assumed that such change is both concrete and representable and so emerging from the needs, desires, and possibilities of the present (or even framed as possible because of historical events preceding it). There is also a sense in which context is seen to be rhetoric’s spatial limit—it constrains what can be said, what should be said, what cannot be said. This then leads to a generally shared assumption that understanding the limits of context allows for us to expand the possibilities for speech by either enlarging the sphere of the political and/or by...

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