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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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16 The Butterfly in the Machine (Matthew S. May)


Matthew S. May

The tendency of rhetorical critics to understand movement discourses and artifacts as material instantiations of social change rather than as representations of change has had a profound effect on the way in which we study processes of resistance and even decolonization.1 As David Cisneros explains, protest art for immigrant rights functions in the same way as music did and still does for civil rights: it is as much about the movement as it is the movement enacted, in Gorgio Agamben’s terminology, the music constitutes an unalloyed means, an immediate difference marked in the social machine, without end or, in other words, beyond instrumental politics.2 To be sure, rhetorical critics must demarcate context, evaluate instrumental effectivity, and map or diagram the logics of situational overdetermination but still there persists a sense in which the compositional power of movement discourses is uncontainable, marked by an inevitable surplus. This surplus is, put as axiomatically as possible, conceptualized here as the material reality of the non-coincidence of instances of struggle with themselves. Even as we materialist critics insist on the immediate character of deviations in tension with the totality—the failed totality called by the name of global capitalism, Empire, or whatever—we also resist reducing those deviations to the mark they leave in the actual. This virtual surplus is the conceptual reservoir from which the inventional resources of class struggle open the possible to new horizons—horizons, which, oftentimes the rhetorical critic may be in a...

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