A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Toward Sustainable Public Subjects: A Review of Rice's Distant Publics

Review of Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and The Subject of Crisis
by Jenny Rice 2012; University of Pittsburgh Press

Chris Earle, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/public-subjects
(Published: November 5, 2013)

If people would only talk. This popular refrain, held dear by rhetoricians, pundits, and citizens alike, assumes that more or better talk, discourse, and debate leads to a more ethical and just polity. Such a normative approach to discourse is thought to remedy a range of public issues, including the crises of place and development that Jenny Rice investigates in Distant Publics. However, Rice's unique and compelling study resists this evocation. In order to promote sustainable interventions into crises of place and development, Rice instead looks to how our common patterns of public discourse may actually work to cultivate public subjects who are both engaged and disengaged, participatory and distant (48). The problem, according to Rice, is not a lack of public talk, but that the public subjectivities produced through this talk are ill suited for making sustainable interventions into crises of place.

Figure 1

Contributing to studies of rhetoric and place, material rhetorics, and publics theory, Rice makes two central arguments. First, Rice offers what she calls a publics approach to place which is different from, but not incompatible with, other rhetorical theories concerning place. Rather than examining the production (or writing) of space or theorizing writing as situated in places and ecologies—important approaches undertaken by Nedra Reynolds, Marilyn Cooper, Sid Dobrin, Christian Weisser, among others—a publics approach to place identifies publics and public discourse as the best site for rhetorical intervention into crises of place (7). In offering a publics approach, Rice directs our attention not only to the need to interrogate place but also to encourage public subjects who are capable of intervening in crises (7-8). For Rice, examining public discourse is necessary since discourses of place and development help constitute public subjectivities and because it is through public talk that subjects write themselves into and out of rhetorical acts (15). A focus on examining place and ecology, according to Rice, will not be sufficient unless troubled public subjectivities are transformed.

Second, Rice identifies those not oriented toward making sustainable interventions as exceptional public subjects. Drawing from Carl Schmitt's and Giorgio Agamben's theorization of the "state of exception," Rice identifies an exceptional subject as one who is both inside and outside of publicness (66). An exceptional subject is one who may withdraw from or seem to refuse public engagement but paradoxically maintain an orientation to the public precisely through his or her affective relationship to public crises (67). As Rice argues, the exceptional public subject is oriented away from but still in relation to publicness. Nonparticipation—resulting from boredom, apathy, or disinterest—should not be read, then, as marking a lack of publicness since the exceptional subject is oriented in relation to (and away from) publics by feeling (55). Given that feeling becomes the site for public engagement, encouraging rhetors to be public subjects or to become invested in public matters is redundant and promises to be ineffective (62). As Rice cogently details, feelings about public crises facilitate the public orientation of participants and nonparticipants alike.

Examining development rhetoric in and around Austin, Texas, Rice identifies how commonplaces, or topoi, play an inventional role in discourse, providing both an entry point into public debate and delimiting the way subjects relate to crisis. Importantly, all these topoi are undergirded by feeling. Rice focuses on three topoi—injury claims (Chapter Three), memory claims (Chapter Four), and equivalence claims (Chapter Five)—that arise in development discourse. For instance, both anti- and prodevelopment rhetors may feel injured as they believe something precious and valuable—popular springs in Austin, a way of life, economic opportunity and growth—is being encroached upon and irreparably harmed by development or the blocking of that development (76). Similarly, antidevelopment rhetors may narrate memories of "old Austin," expressing feelings of loss and displacement at the whim of development (101). Marking yet another response, rhetors may conclude that gentrification is both good and bad (131). Importantly, these topoi help produce both engaged public subjects and distant exceptional subjects, and, then, the conditions for both participation and nonparticipation.

For those engaged in public debates concerning place, these topoi delimit the types of rhetorical actions and interventions they may undertake. For instance, in chapters three and four Rice persuasively offers that both injury and memory claims restrict rhetors' agency and capacity to make sustainable interventions. Rice illustrates how a focus on injury works to obscure how development is implicated in a series of networks connecting agents and global capital flows, thereby limiting paths for sustainable intervention (84-5). Similarly, Rice offers that the memory claims of antidevelopment rhetors situate them as objects of change who are affected by, but powerless to affect, agents of change—"outsiders" from California, corporations, the high tech-industry (120). In this way, injury and memory claims generate exceptional public subjects, those who are both inside and outside of publicness, those who occupy a relation to the development crisis but who write themselves out of deliberation. Beyond restricting agency, Rice shows how these topoi may encourage feelings of distance or awayness. For instance, subjects who don't feel injured by development are likely to withdraw from the scene of debate (86). Likewise, a focus on memory claims may promote rhetors' withdrawal from deliberation as a result of feeling distant from contemporary publics ("new Austin"), occluding their implication in those publics and in development networks (113).

The cultivation of exceptional public subjects, however, may be most clear in Rice's discussion of equivalence claims in chapter five. The 1990's marked renewed efforts to redevelop East Austin and the encroachment of trendy and upscale condos caused property taxes to soar, displacing many African American and Hispanic residents (131). Rice traces how this gentrification spurred both celebrations of "rebirth" (137) as well as staunch resistance—many rhetors and activists argued that redevelopment was merely a continuation of the racist and segregationist practices that had relegated citizens of color to East Austin in the first place (141). However, Rice also identifies the prevalence of equivalence claims, or a stance of rhetorical undecidability, and differentiates between what she calls complex and simple equivalence claims (144). Exemplified by a blogger who explores his implication in the gentrification of East Austin, or by the homeowner who is being displaced but who may sell his or her home for profit, a complex claim frames gentrification as situated across various networks and prompts rhetors to consider their agency and complicity within these networks (149). On the other hand, Rice identifies many simple equivalence claims, such as the new resident who shrugs off gentrification as inevitable or citizens who simultaneously judge gentrification to be good and bad (149-50). Importantly, Rice details how this indecision does not call for further inquiry, reflection, or deliberation, but instead resolves the issue; undecidability becomes the final judgment (149). As conclusions, or what Rice calls "deliberative dead ends," simple equivalence claims tend to promote exceptional public subjects (144). The exceptional subject, affectively oriented to public crises, writes her or himself out of deliberation.

Rice's analysis has significant implications for how rhetorical studies might promote public subjects capable of making sustainable interventions into development crises and civic issues more broadly. If exceptional public subjects are rooted in feeling, as Rice argues they are, promoting more public talk, engagement, or personal investment is unlikely to be successful. In the final chapter, Rice turns to explore the ways in which rhetorical studies may help foster alternative public subjects. Resisting closure and easy translation, Rice explores rhetorical pedagogy and exceptional public subjects in what may be the most intriguing chapter of the book. Offering that rhetorical pedagogies function as technologies of production which, despite their best intentions, may aid in cultivating exceptional public subjects, Rice turns to actor-network theory to propose a pedagogical practice of inquiry (168). Drawing from the work of Bruno Latour as well as John Law and John Urry's performative ontology, Rice theorizes inquiry as a form of network tracing. Underscoring that intervention must occur within networks, tracing a network requires subjects to explore linkages and to imagine how new relations and meanings might be configured (171-2). Following Law and Urry, Rice reframes rhetorical engagement as less about argument and stasis and more as an inquiry into the constitution of networked relations. Rice offers that rhetors might investigate how networks are composed, how relations are structured, and how those relations might be refigured (169). Such an approach recognizes that agency is distributed across networks, and invites rhetors and audiences to unwrite and rewrite networked relations.

Extending work done in ecocomposition, Rice challenges rhetorical studies to not only account for networked relations but to encourage a public subject of inquiry (196). Analyzing and discussing her own pedagogical successes and failures as well as public writing projects which take up inquiry as network tracing, Rice makes a substantial contribution to rhetorical pedagogy and theory. Reflecting upon an intermediate writing course centering on archival research, Rice was troubled by how her pedagogy led to student arguments—offering both conservative and progressive claims—that closely resembled the topoi circulating in development discourse. In order to encourage alternative public subjects capable of making ethical interventions into crises, Rice designed a class, "The Rhetoric of the Midwest," which asked students to undertake rhetorical inquiry and network tracing. For Rice, the goal was to imagine public subjectivities as rooted not in feeling but in the process of inquiry (186).

In order to encourage an alternative mode of engagement, Rice fostered a different type of public talk, one less reliant on what she calls "feeling-full responses." Through various activities and assignments—including a collaboratively edited and written class wiki and a deep map tracing a geological-rhetorical slice of a place—Rice tasked students with collecting and archiving various ideas, claims, and objects. Rice notes that although students expressed some frustration at not being able to "be themselves," the class considered what it would mean to respond not as subjects grounded in feeling but as archivists tracing connections and linkages within networks. Acknowledging that her class serves merely as an experiment and that some readers may not be satisfied with the outcomes, Rice identifies the potential present in her student's deep maps. Rather than offering the type of closed, feeling-full conclusions she found troubling in the archives course, the deep maps asked readers to relate to places differently; to see themselves as situated within multiple and contradictory networks; and, most importantly, to take up inquiries of their own (192). As a whole, the course encouraged students to perform a different type of public subjectivity, one rooted less in feeling than in questioning, tracing, and inquiring (191).

Whether or not readers ultimately accept Rice's move from an ethic of argument to an ethic of inquiry, her larger project is well worth taking up. Of no small significance, Rice offers that inquiry fosters a public subjectivity not rooted in feeling. For Rice, inquiry becomes a habit, an ethic, one not dependent on feeling in relation to crisis. Instead, an alternative subjectivity is cultivated, one premised on inquiry (174). Rice is careful to clarify that the problem is not that subjects feel, but that feeling too often becomes the basis for publicness and a substitution for rhetorical action; however, it is worth noting, as Rice would likely acknowledge, that inquiry is clearly wrapped up with feeling—from what we choose to inquire into, to why certain objects claim us. Regardless, rhetorical studies would be wise to reflect upon how our pedagogies and theories encourage certain public subjectivities and modes of engagement, taking particular efforts to cultivate, following Rice, alternatives to the exceptional public subject. In particular, Rice's employment of actor-network theory to reconsider rhetorical action should be taken up more broadly in scholarship on publics and citizenship as well as rhetoric and place.