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320 pages


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Rhetoric in Civic Life

second edition

Catherine Helen Palczewski
University of Northern Iowa

Richard Ice
College of Saint Benedict | Saint John's University

John Fritch
University of Northern Iowa


Rhetoric in Civic Life is intended for introductory rhetorical theory courses; persuasion courses that adopt a rhetorical approach; courses on rhetoric, civic life, and civic engagement; and rhetorical criticism courses that approach criticism as an inventional practice. It could also be used for advanced rhetorical theory courses, perhaps supplemented with primary texts from core theorists.

The impetus for writing this book came from our desire for a textbook for our own courses that would approach rhetoric from a conceptual perspective, rather than unfolding chronologically or focusing on key theorists. We wanted to provide our students with a sense of the disciplinary evolution of rhetorical concepts, but with an emphasis on the concepts, rather than on who said what and when.

The impetus for the second edition was to update the book to reflect recent theoretical perspectives and issues such as the role of the rhetor in a digital and postmodern world, the emergence of networked public spheres, and the importance of emotion in public life. The second edition continues our commitment to provide examples that make rhetorical theories and concepts come alive. It also continues our commitment to work closely with our peers and colleagues who have used the book, reviewed  our ideas for revisions, and recommended changes for the book on the basis of their own classroom needs and experiences. We have sought to incorporate the feedback we have received in ways that would make the book accessible yet thoughtful; timely, yet building on historical as well as contemporary examples; and relevant, while also engaging the timeless concepts of rhetoric.

Our goal with this edition, as with the first, was to provide an introduction that would help students understand how rhetoric shapes and creates meaning in the full range of civic life, from the instrumental rhetoric of deliberative and electoral politics to the constitutive rhetoric of public memory and identity formation. We wanted to write a textbook that students would find useful and engaging, and that also presented scholarship clearly and substantively, describing complex theories with the nuance and subtlety they deserve. We reference a range of classical and contemporary theories and theorists, comparing and interweaving ideas from the rise of ancient Greek democracy (Aristotle, Plato, Isocrates, and the Sophists), to twentieth-century theorists (including Kenneth Burke, Susanne K. Langer, Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Chaïm Perelman), to the most recent cutting-edge research appearing in the discipline’s books and journals. We wrote this book from the perspective that rhetoric—whether verbal, visual, argumentative, or narrative—is symbolic action with consequences and, as such, deserves careful study.

We strove for writing that is clear and concise, but not oversimplified, providing extensive documentation through endnotes. We endeavored to define terms and concepts clearly and to provide an abundance of  detailed examples that would resonate with students. By including short texts and offering brief analyses that deploy the concepts covered, we attempted to show students how a rhetorical approach offers an enhanced understanding of how social reality is created, maintained, and challenged.


Emphasis on civic life: Although the book discusses rhetoric across its many theoretical, cultural, and practical contexts, the central emphasis is on rhetoric in civic life—not only the discourse of people in political power, but also deliberative debates about policy and cultural debates about civic identity. We wanted students to understand that all members of a public have a role to play in civic life, and to understand the range of, and limits on, each person’s power. We wanted them to understand that rhetoric has consequences—particularly for identity, power, memory, and ideology—and, thus, shapes social reality.

Conceptual approach: We have attempted to provide a heuristic vocabulary that will help students make sense of rhetoric’s forms, functions, and consequences. The textbook explores theories and theorists from an integrated, topical perspective. Thus, the contributions of some theorists appear in multiple chapters. We do not dictate a particular methodological approach, but rather offer a range of concepts that enable more subtle and nuanced analyses of symbolic action. The concepts should be generative; they should enable students to ask smarter questions about the symbolic actions they encounter.

Expansive range of rhetorical theories:
The textbook grounds each chapter in traditional rhetorical theories, describing the core concept (rhetor, audience, argument, and so on), then extends the study of that concept by drawing from recent scholarship. For example, in the discussion of rhetors, we cover the classical conceptions of ethos, but also problematize the very notion of the rhetor with a careful consideration of the role if authorial intent in meaning making, how rhetors may both invent and be invented by rhetoric, and the possibility of rhetoric without rhetors in an age of algorithms. We also focus on identity as intersectional (rather than essential) and the possibilities of using strategic essentialism as a rhetorical resource. This approach enables the study of rhetorical forms from legislative debates and public address to body argument and visual rhetorics.

Detailed examples: Abundant historical and contemporary examples show how words, images, arguments, and stories have consequences. These examples include presidential speeches in times of crisis, criticisms of NSA surveillance and drone warfare, youth activism on same sex marriage and campus sexual violence, a city council meeting about whether to protect local merchants or permit “big box” stores, abolitionist speakers who caused northerners to think of slaves as suffering human beings, image events and street theatre in political protest, political campaigns, national monuments that celebrate a shared history and reinforce a shared set of values, public debates over issues such as health care and immigration, and events and issues in students’ personal and campus lives.


In the new edition, the book has been revised in response to our own classroom experiences with the book, as well as feedback from people who have used the first edition. We have also updated the book in several significant respects. The revisions include:

Expanded and clarified explanations of difficult concepts. In particular, we have expanded the discussion of the role of classical rhetoric in Chapter 1, with attention to how more recent theory has been influenced by and developed from its historical roots. We have also enhanced the explanation of power, identification, and agency, with the hope of making these complex ideas clearer to students.

Updated discussions of current theory. The second edition pays particular attention to advances in rhetorical theory over the past few years, especially  the implications of posthumanist rhetorical theory of agency and the roles of rhetors (especially in Chapter 3), as well as current theory regarding public emotion (Chapter 7) and networked publics (Chapter 9).

Increased emphasis on digital discourse and social media.
Reflecting the increasingly complex nature of public discourse in our mass-mediated and digitally connected world, this edition includes new discussions of networked publics, public screens, networked activism, and slacktivism; numerous examples drawn from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube campaigns; and a heightened focus on how contemporary theoreticians incorporate social media.

Updated examples. Continuing our focus on providing examples that are both timeless and timely, the new edition has numerous new examples drawn from current issues and controversies, recent events, and the manner in which people come to understand their world through rhetoric. Many of the examples that begin chapters are also new. Among the new extended examples are those on NSA surveillance, same sex marriage, LeBron James’ return to Cleveland, legalization of marijuana, drone warfare, youth activism on campus, and sexual violence.


Rhetoric in Civic Life is composed of nine chapters, organized into three parts. The chapters are organized around the central facets of rhetoric’s form and function. The organization of chapters is flexible; we believe instructors can teach the chapters in any order they wish, according to their own needs.

Part I, “Introduction,” consists of a single chapter.

Chapter 1, “Rhetoric as Symbolic Action,” defines rhetoric and explains its historical foundation in democratic traditions. It explains rhetoric as a form of symbolic action; as a central means of enacting civic engagement; and as both a creator and practice of ideology, public memory, and power. In this edition, we have expanded the discussion of the roots of current theory in classical rhetoric, endeavored to develop a keener understanding of agency as it operates in a post-humanist world, and revised the sections on power, identification, and rhetorical agency.

Part II, “Forms of Symbolic Action,” includes four chapters.

Chapter 2, “Language,” introduces language as symbolic action, a novel idea for many students. Drawing on theories of linguistic relativity, semiotics, and dramatism, the chapter shows that language is not merely a means by which humans transmit information; it also constitutes social reality. The chapter explores the ways that a public vocabulary forms social reality (through characterizations, metaphors, and ideographs), as well as the possibilities of resignification.

Chapter 3, “Visual Rhetoric,” encourages students to ask not just “What does an image mean?” but also “What does an image do?” The chapter examines the power of four categories of visual rhetoric: iconic photographs, monuments, bodies, and image events. A new section develops the concept of presence as it relates to visual rhetoric.

Chapter 4, “Argument,” describes the role of argument in civic life, the classical concept of logos, and approaches to analyzing an argument. It explores argument as a thing and as an interactional process, drawing on the Toulmin model and on theory about spheres of argument (technical, personal, and public).

Chapter 5, “Narrative,” is informed by Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm and by Kenneth Burke’s representative anecdote and comic/tragic frames, providing students with a critical approach to understanding narrative.

Part III, “Components of Symbolic Action,” includes four chapters.

Chapter 6, “Rhetors,” explores the concept of the rhetor as both producing and produced by rhetorical action. The chapter introduces students to the idea of persona and its various facets. It explains identity as a social construction and as intersectional. The second edition explores the complex roles and functions of rhetors in new ways, with particular attention to how rhetors function in a postmodern world. The role of authorial intent in meaning making, how rhetors may both invent and be invented by rhetoric, and the possibility of rhetoric without rhetors in an age of algorithms is explored.

Chapter 7, “Audiences,” revisits the basic premise that rhetoric is, at its core, addressed, and that the audience is both the receiver and the product of rhetorical action. The chapter shows how when one audience is created (a second persona), another may be denied existence (a third persona), and yet another may emerge as eavesdropping or silently complicit (a fourth persona). The second edition works to build a better understanding of public emotion and audience agency.

Chapter 8, “Rhetorical Situations,” takes a synergistic approach, drawing on Bitzer’s discussion of the basic components of the rhetorical situation, on his argument that rhetoric is situational, and on Vatz’s argument that situations are rhetorical. The chapter also explores Branham and Pearce’s discussion of the various ways that a rhetor may react to a situation. In this edition, we have expanded and clarified the discussion of genre.

Chapter 9, “Publics and Counterpublics,” introduces students to current theories of public sphere discourse, beginning with Habermas’s basic model and incorporating current theories that recognize the possibility and productivity of multiple publics, as well as ways in which digital technologies have complicated traditional understandings of what constitutes a public and how publics emerge. The new edition explores networked publics, networked public screens, and digital activism (and slacktivism).


Key Concepts: Every chapter opens with a list of key concepts, each of which is highlighted and defined within the chapter. The chapter itself offers definitions of each term, followed by examples.

Discussion Questions: Each chapter ends with a series of questions, updated in this edition, that guide discussion and encourage students to apply concepts to the use of rhetoric in civic life.

Recommended Readings:
Every chapter ends with a short list of recommended readings that students can use to explore the foundational literature of the field.

Instructor’s Manual: The manual contains a variety of ancillary materials, including sample syllabi, discussion guides, and selected bibliographies for each concept from which additional readings can be assigned. Updated in the new edition, the instructor’s manual now also includes case studies for each chapter.


Scholarship is never an isolated endeavor. We are not, and should not be, confined to an ivory tower. Conversations with colleagues, fellow scholars, and friends always enliven our writing and thinking. Many of the examples and felicitous phrasings come from conversations with members of our intellectual family. In particular, we want to thank Robert Asen and Daniel Brouwer for help with all things public and counterpublic; G. Thomas Goodnight for help with all things rhetoric; Donn Parson, Arnie Madsen, and David Williams for help with all things Burke; Bettina Fabos for help with all things visual; Damien Pfister for help with all things networked; Francesca Soans for help with obscure yet perfectly apt examples; Christopher Martin for conversations about current events; Terence Check and Jeanmarie Cook for their conversations about pedagogy; Isaac West for refining our understanding of identification; Bonnie Dow and Roseann Mandziuk for correcting our misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth; Ryan McGeough for help with all things classical; Christian O. Lundberg and Joshua G. Gunn for help with all things posthumanist; Carole Blair for help with all things material and monumental; Brenda J. Allen for help with expanding the diversity of our examples; and Heather Bart for thoughtful examples. The colleagues listed above come from a range of institutions and career locations. But they all share one thing in common: Whenever we sent a message asking for a bibliography on a topic, a review of new content, a conversation about a thorny theoretical issue, a confirmation that we got their research right, or just a word of encouragement, they delivered. Richard thanks the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University for a generous sabbatical leave that enabled him to work on this book’s first edition. Richard and John also would like to thank their children (Hannah, Noah, Garrett, and Byron) for being tolerant and supportive throughout this process. We thank the University of Northern Iowa and the Communication Studies department for funding student worker Justus Thompson who helped map the examples.  We also want to recognize three students who introduced us to some of the powerful new examples we used in the second edition: Nicole Brennan, Zoe Russell, and Evan Schares.

The book was transformed throughout the writing process as a result of feedback from numerous reviewers: Lin Allen, University of Northern Colorado; Jennifer Asenas, California State University, Long Beach; Linda Czuba Brigance, State University of New York, Fredonia; Bonnie Dow, Vanderbilt University; Janis L. Edwards, University of Alabama; Pat J. Gehrke, University of South Carolina; Zac Gershberg, Keene State College; Ron Greene, University of Minnesota; Judith Hendry, University of New Mexico; Jim A. Kuypers, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Lenore Langsdorf, Southern Illinois University; Noemi Marin, Florida Atlantic University; Michael McFarland, Stetson University; Jerry Miller, Ohio University; Emily Plec, Western Oregon University; Lawrence Prelli, University of New Hampshire; Jennifer Reem, Nova Southeastern University; Steven Schwarze, University of Montana; John M. Sloop, Vanderbilt University; Matthew J. Sobnosky, Hofstra University; Stacey K. Sowards, University of Texas at El Paso; Nathan Stormer, University of Maine; Richard Vatz, Towson University; and Dylan Wolfe, Clemson University. Their challenges, corrections, and questions made the book immeasurably better. Any errors that remain are ours, not theirs.

Faculty who used the first edition of the book were extremely helpful in providing feedback through survey responses and conversations about the text. This edition was shaped by their generous sharing of their experiences: Alina Haliliuc, Denison University; Brandon Inabinet, Furman University; Jack Kay, Eastern Michigan University; Ilon Lauer, Western Illinois University; Heather Lettner-Rust, Longwood University; David M. Lucas, Ohio University; Billie Murray, Villanova University; Tony Palmeri, University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh; Emily Plec, Western Oregon University; Kara Shultz, Bloomsburg University; Elizabeth Chiseri Strater, University of North Carolina–Greensboro; and Isaac West, Vanderbilt University.

We would like to extend a special thank you to Jack Kay. Jack passed away in early 2015. His influence on one of the authors, John, began when Jack was John’s undergraduate director of forensics. His influence is seen in the textbook in many of the examples and understandings of rhetoric. During his final months, he helped us by providing examples and thoughts about the book and the direction of culture.

We also would like to thank the reviewers of the second edition of the text. Their insights helped shape the text in a number of wants, both in our explanations of large concepts and in our attention to detail in many of the examples: Roger Aden, Ohio University; M. Kelly Carr, University of Baltimore; Alina Haliliuc, Denison University; Janice Hamlet, Northern Illinois University; Christine Harold, University of Washington; Heather Ashley Hayes, Whitman College; Nate Kreuter, Western Carolina University; Heather Lettner-Rust, Longwood University; Billie Murray, Villanova University; Ross Singer, Saginaw Valley State University; Gordon Stables, University of Southern California; Paul Stob, Vanderbilt University; Bryan C. Taylor, University of Colorado; Isaac West, Vanderbilt University; and Leslie Wolcott, University of Central Florida.

We also thank our editor and publisher, Kathleen Domenig, for her patience and guidance throughout the writing of this book. We are sure that working with an authorial triumvirate is an editorial nightmare. We hope the end result made the hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails worth it.




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