Monday, January 26, 2009

Rhetorical Policy Studies: The Lobbying Example

Robert Reich's Monday Jan 26 update to his blog notes the interaction between lobbying and campaign contributions affecting current policy making over the roll out of the second round of the financial bailout  (wonks call it T.A.R.P II; TARP is the acronym for Troubled Asset Relief Program). Political contributions and lobbying, I would contend, are two genres of money/speech that deserve much more attention from rhetorical studies.  President Obama's recent executive order on Ethics Commitments for the Executive Branch is one of the many ways lobbying is regulated and demonstrates how money/speech is often approached from the standpoint of an ethical problematization. As such, these genres might provide important insights for those pursuing the uptake of Foucault's ethical writings in rhetorical and cultural studies.  The genres of money/speech and their regulations, therefore, suggest the need for a more self-reflexive policy turn in rhetorical studies.

The primary tendency of rhetorical studies is to approach public policy as an object of rhetorical concern.  Whether public policy is welfare policy, population policy or military policy is of little concern.  If it is policy, it is fair game for a rhetorical scholar, especially a scholar that might have found his or her way into rhetorical studies from debate or thinks that public argument is a primary object for rhetorical studies.  Occasionally,  even political scientists have noted the rhetorical dimensions of public policy because of the importance of communication/argument/rhetoric/frames to such policy dynamics as agenda setting.  Yet, except in the area of 1st Amendment scholarship, scholarship that seems rarely raised up as an exemplar of contemporary rhetorical studies, I am at a loss to point to research in rhetorical studies on how public policy regulates the communicative ways in which people  are allowed to influence public policy or participate in elections.  The lesson of turning our attention to rhetorical genres  like lobbying is that they call for a more rigorous policy turn in rhetorical studies than that authorized by the phrase rhetoric of policy.  

Just as my friends in cultural policy studies have turned to how culture has become a site of regulation and social management, so too rhetorical studies should become more sensitive to how rhetoric today exists as a highly policed and contested domain of public policy. To keep the analogical structure in play, let's call it rhetorical policy studies. In such a domain, rhetoric exists within specific terms of art (like lobbying) and, as such, our efforts to be oriented toward a history and analysis of the present requires we know much more about these rhetorical genres and their regulations than we currently do.   Such a policy turn should pay off by providing a more direct path for rhetorical studies to use its knowledge for practical/political effects as well as engage more directly into the critical conversations about the ethical dimensions of (governing/leaving) "communicative capitalism." (See Dean 2004, for the origin of the concept communicative capitalism).

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