Edbauer (Rice), “Unframing models of public discourse”

Edbauer (Rice), Jenny. “Unframing models of public distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” Rhetorical Society Quarterly. 35.4 (2005): 5-24. (21 pages)

Jenny Rice (neé Edbuaer) offers a model of discourse that uses an ecological metaphor as its guiding principle rather than situation (as outlined by Bitzer). The use of ecology—as demonstrated through Austin’s Keep Austin Weird campaign—allows Rice to make particular claims about discourse and its impact on the construction of public.

Citing Warner, “no single text can create a public…since a public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. It is not the texts themselves that create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time…it is not mere consecutiveness in time, but a context of interaction” (Warner 62 qtd in Rice 6). As indicated by this quote, Rice is concerned with the “concatenation of texts” and how those texts facilitate encounters and interactions among people, creating affective bonds. Public discourse, then, is self-organizing and relies upon “preexisting forms and channels of circulation” to facilitate the self-organization (Warner 75 qtd in Rice 6). Taken as her model of discourse, situation becomes an inadequate metaphor since it does not account for channels of circulation. Furthermore, such sender-receiver models “describe rhetorica as a totality of discrete elements: audience, rhetor, exigence, constraints, and text” (7); this is what she calls rhetoric as “elemental conglomerations.” What she offers, instead, is a model of discourse where the dynamics of each element are constantly in flux.

She takes up a few of Bitzer’s ideas to show how rhetoric is in a constant state of flux; for example, she looks to a new understanding of exigence: “the exigence is more like a complex of various audience/speaker perceptions and institutional or material constraints…there can be no pure exigence that does not involve various mixes of felt interests…the exigence does not exist per se, but is instead an amalgamation of processes and encounters…what we dub exigence is a more like a shorthand way of escribing a series of events” (8). Put simply, the motivation for discourse cannot simply be pointed to a Bitzerian rhetorical exigence; rather, exigence is a rationalized way to discuss the affective motivations of creating encounters and constructing contexts of interaction. This is exigence in a model of public rhetoric that is more an affective ecology, a circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events”(9).

Key to an affective ecology is the network: “the social does not reside in fixed sites, but rather in a networked space of flows and connections” (9). The network refers to both the ways people are bonded together, but also the ways that message and meaning are not isolated from the network of reproduced and disseminated texts. The network of people and the network of propagation is tied here: people are bonded together through the reproduction and dissemination/circulation of text (using genre and channels of circulation to facilitate). Furthermore, Rice’s embrace of the network allows her to discuss how people develop a sense of place, creating contact among strangers: “Place becomes a network of contacts, which are always changing and never discrete. The contact between two people on a busy city street is never simply a matter of those two bodies; rather, the two bodies carry with them the traces of effects from the whole fields of culture and social histories. This is what it means to say that the social field is networked, connected, rather than a matter of place, sites, and home” (10). What Rice also says here is that networking—and place making—is also necessarily embodied: people’s bodies are always predisposed with other cultural baggage that are likewise in contact within public discourse. Place is navigated through affective meaning-making: where is contact facilitated? Where am I comfortable? Where do I belong?

As such, a city is not so much a noun that people inhabit; rather, city should be considered more of a verb: “we do city, rather than exist in the city” (11). Cities rely upon developing networks and networks similarly rely upon circulation to facilitate those networks. This work, as indicated with the work of Warner, can never be about the single individual or single text because the “work” of the city (and of rhetoric) is necessarily distributed among various participants.Succinctly, Rice defines her model: “An ecological, or affective, rhetorical model is one that reads rhetoric both as a process of distributed emergence and as an ongoing circulation process” (13). And later she distills her model further: distribution, concatenation, encounter (19).

Her model allows us to look more closely at viral economies and how text transforms as it moves along channels of circulation. In a viral economy, we can look at two texts that we might consider coming from two “species”—e.g. a cat and a baboon. In Rice’s model, we can explain how such “species” of text are connected by energies and processes that thread these together through circulation. In the example of Keep Austin Weird, the phrase enters and leaves various contexts in such a way that transforms the text for other purposes: “we’re simply shifting field and ground of the same scene…the original rhetoric has been expanded in the course of new calls, which adopt the phrase and transform it to fit other purposes” (17). In other words, the text may appear very similar, and yet there is hardly overlap in terms of exigence and audience. In fact, even when there appears to be a counter-campaign (e.g. “Keep Austin Normal” or KAW used by Cingular Wireless), they are still tied together within the same discourse.


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