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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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11 “Eloquence” in a Parodic Age (Karrin Vasby Anderson)

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Karrin Vasby Anderson

Nearly thirty years ago, in her book Eloquence in an Electronic Age, Kathleen Hall Jamieson traced the transformation of political rhetoric from speechmaking to sound bite, chronicling the influence of the televisual form on public oratory and noting the ways in which the stylistic demands of television suited the skills of Ronald Reagan. She concluded that “Reagan’s style is to conversational, intimate, electronic communication what the speeches of Cicero were to fiery oratory idealized in his time: each defined the state of the art.”1 Although Jamieson acknowledged that Reagan’s rhetoric left “much to be desired,” he was hailed as the “Great Communicator” in large part because his rhetoric was evaluated as a kairotic response to the mood of its moment.2 Its strategic effectiveness, of course, made it all the more troubling. Rhetorical critics who were contemporaries of Reagan noted the ways in which his discourse was “morally suspect,” constituting, reinforcing, and extending the frontier mythos and narrative of manifest destiny that fueled a violent, imperialist American imagination.3 After Reagan left office, Jamieson speculated that increased attention to presidential speechmaking, along with expanded capacity for circulating messages electronically, could produce a “political world bent on increasing the thoughtful speechmaking in presidential campaigns and the presidency itself.”4 She cautioned, however, that if digital political discourse was not conscripted for the purposes of robust democratic deliberation, a dystopian future could emerge in which “a president would not only be unable to write a coherent...

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