Submitted by Jim Aune on October 12, 2006 - 11:43am
I attended the 10th annual Public Address Conference last weekend at Vanderbilt. John Sloop and his colleagues put together an efficiently-run and interesting conference on the general theme of "Epideictic." This is a biennial conference that moves from university to university--in 2008, it will be held at UW-Madison, the site of the first conference in 1988 (and I'm hoping to propose Texas A&M as the site for 2010). The backstory: the 1970's were hard times for rhetoricians in the then Speech Communication Association. A number of departments were taken over by hard-core quantitative social scientists who could not tolerate humanistic inquiry (and who were able to pad their vitae and impress deans by publishing article upon article simply by tweaking a variable here and there). SCA also had always been more of a teaching discipline, so there was not a large body of scholarship, particularly in the analysis of public discourse, to create a viable academic tradition. Enter Michael Leff, then at Wisconsin, who believed that identifying a canon of public address, mainly speeches, and then subjecting them to close textual analysis, would revitalize the field. Which it did. Each subsequent Public Address conference consisted of a series of papers on a single speech or related documents, with critical responses, and a keynote address on the conference theme. There were almost no scholarly books on public address published by 1988; now it is difficult to keep up on the important books published each year.
Since this conference was itself conducted in an epideictic mood, it was interesting to observe the underlying tensions among different approaches to scholarship. The original impulse of the conference, best represented by Leff-Zarefsky-Medhurst, was to reject theoretical inquiry (either in the humanities sense of Big Theory or in the Rod Hart sense of theory construction), and focusing either on close reading (Leff, Browne, others) or on archival reconstruction of strategies (Karlyn Campbell and her students, Medhurst, Hogan, Zarefsky). Both Dilip Gaonkar and I had warned in 1988 that we should be careful about "theory-bashing" if we wanted to converse with the rest of the humanities (and social-science) disciplines. A second strain of public address scholarship, represented, I think, by Bob Hariman, Maurice Charland, John Lucaites, Celeste Condit, and me, is more interested in "macro" issues--how individual rhetorical performances get aggregated into "ideologies." And, finally, a funny bit of tension emerged at the conference when we honored Bruce Gronbeck at the Saturday night banquet (each conference also honors a senior person in the field). Bruce had majorly angered some of the major players in the Public Address conference in 1996, when he proposed that the 1998 conference at Iowa would discuss the mass media as public address, thus jettisoning the previous focus on speeches. So Bruce spent a few moments justifying his expansive view of public address to include tv commercials, and even tv drama/comedy. I personally would reject this third option, largely because I believe that we cannot understand present -day law and politics without a thorough understanding of our oratorical past, although I will grant that most political business these days is done in electronic forms.
At any rate, along with RSA and the Alta conference, I believe this is one of the best conferences, and I hope we see more folks from English at future ones.