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The Conceit of Context

Resituating Domains in Rhetorical Studies


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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10 A Brief History of a Utopian Gesture (Dave Tell)


Dave Tell

What follows is a brief history of a particular utopian gesture. I understand the genre of the utopian gesture in the most straightforward sense of the two terms: a bodily comportment to which utopian hopes have been attached. When it is understood in these terms the utopian gesture has had a profound influence in histories of high-modern theory, masculine privilege, and the built environment. For this reason, a simple definition of the utopian gesture can provide a concrete history against which Kelly E. Happe’s theoretical elaborations of the genre might be measured. Using Black Lives Matter as her case study, Happe concludes that, as a genre, the utopian gesture “opens up the possibility of non-hegemonic notions of the human.” By engaging the political history of the genre, however, my case study suggests an alternate, less-inspiring politics. This, in turn, forces us to ask questions of the form itself: what turns the utopian gesture to one politics or the other? It also forces us to ask questions of the body: under what conditions can bodies/flesh be resources for radical change. Happe sees just this potential in the utopian gesture; I remain unconvinced. At issue here is a particular contextual matter—gender—that permeates efforts at address. By demonstrating the ways in which gender contextualizes the utopian gesture, I provide a concrete instance in which a recurring context proves to be all-important.

The particular utopian gesture I propose to use as a historical backdrop...

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