Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis
By Jenny Rice
I finished this book a while back, but have only now eked out some time to review it. Here, Jenny Rice examines public discourse set around issues of development in my beloved hometown and the place where Jenny earned her PhD: Austin, Texas. She asks: "How do people argue, debate, and deliberate about the spaces where we live, work, shop, and travel?" And why does development proliferate even though it seems to be so broadly disliked? Her answer revolves around a figure, "the exceptional public subject," who "occupies a precarious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness. It is a subjectivity thoroughly grounded in feeling, which makes this rhetorical position so difficult to change" (p.5). These "exceptional subjects imagine themselves to be part of a wider public simply by feeling" and "feeling too often serves as the primary connective tissue to our public spaces" (p.6). The fallout: "our habits of public discourse can paradoxically contribute to the demise of healthy public discourse" (p.5).
Rice develops this argument via various case studies (not in the Yin sense of an empirical research methodology, but rather in the sense of specific incidents that serve as epicenters for rhetorical analysis). These case studies are well developed, providing interesting and sometimes poignant narratives about development issues: urban (over)development as exemplified by strip malls and the Austin Smart Growth Initiative (Ch.1), eminent domain as illustrated by the Kelo decision (Ch.2), a fight over how a developer would affect Barton Springs and the aquifer (Ch.3), the demise of Austin's beloved Armadillo World Headquarters (Ch.4), and the issue of East Austin gentrification (Ch.5). Each is compelling, and each illustrates different aspects of Rice's argument about public spaces and the exceptional public subjects who feel for them—sometimes with too much affect, but too little effect.
What shall we do, then, about public discourse? In the next chapter, Rice argues that "we must pursue inquiry as a mode of publicness" (p.164). That is, we must stretch past the vernacular talk that tends to generate the exceptional public subject: as composition teachers, rather than asking students to write and argue about things that ignite their passions, perhaps we should ask them to inquire about things first, making inquiry the telos rather than the means by which students are expected to engage their passions (Ch.6, esp. p.168). By encouraging students to write about their passions, Rice says, we are training them to become exceptional public subjects who feel rather than acting; by making inquiry the object, we are training them to become engaged in public inquiry in which they learn how to interrogate the multiple asymmetrical networks in which they are enmeshed (pp.168-169).
Should you read this book? Of course! It's outside my particular research focus, but I'm enmeshed in these multiple public networks and so are you. Take a look, even if you're not specifically interested in public rhetoric and theory. And if you teach, consider taking Ch.6 in particular to heart.