Keynote address by David Zarefsky – University of Copenhagen

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Is Rhetorical Criticism Subversive of Democracy?

David Zarefsky, Northwestern University

Rhetoric can be divided into studies of theory and studies of practice, with the latter further divided into constructive studies (offering advice and guidance to rhetors) and critical studies (offering interpretation or assessment of rhetorical performance). I will explore the question of whether our field’s emphasis on rhetorical criticism undermines the ability of practicing rhetors to build community through appeals to common bonds and transcendent values. There is an element of mystery in such appeals, and by demystifying rhetoric, criticism may doom it to failure. This risk is especially serious for democracies since rhetorical appeals are their only means for mobilizing public judgment and decision. Can we have strong rhetorical practice and strong criticism too, or are they inherently at odds? In studying and teaching rhetorical criticism for over forty years, have I helped or hurt the democratic prospect?