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Review Essay: Assessing Rhetorics of Social Resistance

"In this essay, Ott reviews five books concerning rhetoric and resistance: Christina Foust, Transgression as a Mode of Resistance: Rethinking Social Movement in an Era of Corporate Globalization (Landham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), vii245 pp.
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  BOOK REVIEWS Cara A. Finnegan, Editor Review EssayAssessing Rhetorics of Social Resistance Brian L. Ott Christina Foust,  Transgression as a Mode of Resistance: Rethinking Social Movement in an Era of  Corporate Globalization   (Landham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), vii  245 pp. $75.00 (clothand e-book).Christine Harold,  OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture   (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 2007), ix   190 pp. $24.95 (cloth); $20.00 (paper).Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp,  In the Wake of Violence: Image and Social Reform  (East Lansing:Michigan State University Press, 2008), vii  349 pp. $59.95 (cloth).Kerry Kathleen Riley,  Everyday Subversion: From Joking to Revolting in the German Democratic Republic   (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2007), ix   375 pp. $69.95 (cloth).Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner,  Making Camp: Rhetorics of Transgression in US Popular Culture   (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008), vii  189 pp. $39.75(cloth), $23.20 (e-book).In 1952, Leland Griffin challenged rhetorical scholars to broaden the scope of inquiry beyondthe narrow confines of the ‘‘individual orator’’ to include the social or ‘‘historical movement.’’ 1 In urging critics to attend to the ‘‘pattern of public discussion, the configuration of discourse,the physiognomy of persuasion, peculiar to the movement,’’ the study of social movementrhetoric (SMR) was born. 2 Though exceedingly diverse, the SMR tradition generally isconcerned with how rhetorics of protest and discourses of dissension foster and facilitatesocial change. In the early years, social movement criticism ‘‘tended to stress the radical, therevolutionary, and the extreme.’’ 3 But in the ensuing decades, scholars observed that therhetorical modes and means of effecting social change vary greatly by cultural and historical Brian L. Ott is a teacher    scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Denver.The author gratefully acknowledges the helpful suggestions and insights of book review editor Cara A. Finneganand the careful editorial assistance of Courtney Caudle. Correspondence to: Brian L. Ott, Department of Communication, University of Colorado Denver, Denver, CO 80217-3364, USA. Email: ISSN 0033-5630 (print)/ISSN 1479-5779 (online) # 2011 National Communication AssociationDOI: 10.1080/00335630.2011.585171 Quarterly Journal of Speech Vol. 97, No. 3, August 2011, pp. 334     347   context. Not only do the symbolic actions that promote and bring about social change neednot be drastic and confrontational, 4 but also they need not be especially unified, organized, oreven intentional. Indeed, treating the discourses of dissension on a given social issue as a‘‘movement’’ dangerously risks homogenizing a diverse set of voices, viewpoints, and volitionsunder a single label, motive, and purpose.As a conceptual banner to describe the diverse and distinctive ways that rhetorics of socialagitation operate in the contemporary moment, SMR has its shortcomings. These short-comings have been intuited by some scholars who have begun to utilize alternative conceptualvocabularies such as publics/counterpublics and image-based movements. 5 Despite theincreasing appearance of such vocabularies in rhetorical scholarship, the ‘‘social movement’’moniker stubbornly has persisted in university course catalogs, creating an ever-growingdisjuncture between our scholarship and pedagogy. As a way to bridge this widening gap,I propose the notion of   rhetorics of social resistance   (RSR) to account for the expanding rangeof practices that once fell comfortably under the umbrella of social movement rhetoric. Theconcept of resistance is, of course, a notoriously difficult one to define, and it is frequently invoked by critics without careful explication or reflection. So as not to further contribute toits already elusive character, I define resistance as any discourse, performance, or aestheticpractice, which through its symbolic and/or material enactment, transgresses, subverts,disrupts, and/or rebels against the social codes, customs, and/or conventions that  *  throughtheir everyday operation  *  create, sustain, and naturalize the prevailing relations of power in aparticular time and place. 6 Though the possible modes of resistance are infinitely diverse,those possibilities can meaningfully be mapped along the intersecting axes of agent(individual/collective) and action (coordinated/disjointed). Figure 1 identifies the resultingpossibilities as transgression, subversion, disruption, and rebellion, though obviously thesemodes may intersect in complex ways.While RSR retains SMR’s commitment to understanding how rhetoric participates inprocesses of social change, it is both conceptually broader and more attuned to the uniquely decentered, fragmented condition of late modernity. When acts of resistance exist inincreasingly complex, loosely connected, and ever shifting networks of power, ostensibly independent or isolated discourses and actions may have unintended and unforeseenaggregative effects. As a way of exploring the critical avenues available to rhetorical scholarsinterested in acts of resistance (be they highly coordinated and strategic or more disjointedand tactical), I place several recent books concerned with such rhetorical phenomena in TransgressionSubversionDisruptionRebellion IndividualCollectiveCoordinated & Calculated(strategic)Disjointed & Improvised(tactical) Violation of    theStatus Quo to   theStatus Quo Opposition  Figure 1.  Modes of resistance. Review Essay   335  conversation with one another. Doing so allows me to highlight five key heuristics for engagingand assessing rhetorics of social resistance: materiality, visuality, corporeality, performativity,and publicity. Though these critical prompts are not mutually exclusive (in fact, a few of themarise in several of the books under consideration), I maintain that the five selected works eachprivilege one of the key heuristics. My aim in reading these works through and, at times,against one another is to underscore the rich array of perspectives available to rhetoricalscholars for understanding resistance and social change, as well as to suggest the drawbacks of becoming too steeped in any one perspective. Materiality  Kerry Kathleen Riley’s  Everyday Subversion: From Joking to Revolting in the German Democratic Republic   is perhaps the most ambitious of the books I examine. Utilizing interviews,ethnographic accounts, and primary source materials to examine how ‘‘average East Germansresisted, rebelled, and revolted  *  not just in 1989, but over the course of the GDR’s [GermanDemocratic Republic’s] forty years,’’  Everyday Subversion   is impressive in both its diversemethods of data collection and historical scope (7). The former German Democratic Republicfurnishes an especially rich and instructive case for studying resistance and rebellion. First, itconcerns the nonviolent, yet subversive rhetorical practices undertaken by ordinary peoplerather than high profile leaders or carefully orchestrated, well-funded social organizations.Second, it affords an opportunity to study dissent and social change in a context that does notpresume democracy or even basic citizenship rights, as studies of protest rhetoric in the USfrequently do. Third, it allows for consideration of how a vast array of oppositional rhetoricalforms  *  ranging from political jokes and  samizdat   (dissident publications) to weekly ‘‘peaceprayers’’ and public demonstrations (17    18)  *  interanimate one another, producing socialeffects that none could achieve in isolation.After explicating the official political culture and ideology of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany ( Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands   or SED) in chapter 2, Riley traces what sheterms ‘‘a rhetorical trajectory’’ of resistance, ‘‘a progression of dissent in the GDR, from privateto quasi-public to public forms of resistance and opposition’’ (285). In each of the three stagesthat comprise this rhetorical trajectory, Riley perceptively analyzes how the symbolic actions of ordinary people enacted democratic values and transformed the material conditions of theirown existence. ‘‘Antiregime rhetoric was not,’’ she insists, ‘‘[merely] an intellectual or verbalexercise  . . . . This rhetoric changed lives’’ (314). The centrality of   materiality   to Riley’sperspective and approach is evident throughout the study in her keen attention to how common and seemingly innocuous (but oppositional) rhetorical actions improved theeveryday lives of East Germans and challenged the repressive social structures of the SED. 7 In chapter 3, for instance, Riley undertakes an analysis of underground, antiregime jokes,specifically ‘‘riddle’’ or question-answer jokes, and their role in  Buschfunk   or ‘‘bush-casting.’’ 8 Unlike broadcasting, which was tightly controlled by the SED, ‘‘bush-casting’’ was a mode of communication that ‘‘occurred within one’s network of family, friends, and close acquain-tances from work’’ (57). Political jokes, as a prevalent form of ‘‘bush-casting,’’ constituted animportant ‘‘form of resistance’’ (60), for they succinctly captured antiregime sentiments,undermined the state’s authority, fostered a sense of belonging and identification, promoteddemocratic feelings, and functioned therapeutically to ‘‘help people cope with and maintainpsychological distance from the regime’’ (66). The ultimate rhetorical effect of antiregime jokes, Riley concludes, was anti-socialization, as ‘‘[j]okes undercut, year after year, the SED’slegitimacy and its attempts to sovietize the GDR people’’ (84). In so doing, political jokesspecifically and ‘‘bush-casting’’ more generally set the stage for more open and outwardresistive activities. 336  B. L. Ott   In chapters 4, 5, and 6, Riley shifts her focus from the private sphere and political jokes tothe ‘‘quasi-public sphere’’ and the role played by the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a ‘‘shelterof alternative thinking’’ (23). For example, chapter 6 presents an illuminating examination of  Friedensgebete  , or the weekly peace prayers conducted on Monday evenings at St. Nicholas’sChurch in Leipzig beginning in September 1982 under the direction of Pastor Christian Fu¨hrer(149    50). The prayers involved (a) recounting current events such as recent arrests or theharassment of Church members; (b) meditation on such events and deep compassion forthose involved; and (c) intercession on behalf of those who were suffering. Combining politicsand spirituality, and employing information to create urgency and promote action, the prayers‘‘contributed to the subversion of the SED’s public political culture’’ (151). Explains Riley,‘‘Prayer, which presented an opportunity to suffer in solidarity with others, led to ever moreconcrete social action, with the audience’s direct involvement in aiding the persecuted[by providing sanctuary or raising collections to pay fines]’’ (152).The remaining chapters in  Everyday Subversion   explore the public actions leading up to the‘‘fall’’ of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Chapter 7 traces how six key public events,which occurred during the first eight months of 1989, helped mobilize previously uninvolvedcitizens to join the ‘‘seasoned activists in laying claim to the street and other aspects of theSED’s public political culture’’ (179). Chapters 8 and 9 concern the two major phases of therevolution itself, which are reflected in the evolution of antiregime rhetoric from primarily oral chants to printed banners. Public protests were a dangerous activity and chants providedprotestors with a degree of anonymity and hence safety. As support swelled, however,protestors became more brazen and antiregime banners became more common. Since therewas ‘‘no English-language compendium of slogans available’’ (27) at the time, these twochapters draw heavily upon Riley’s three trips to the former GDR over a ten-year period(1990    2000), during which she consulted various archival resources and conducted extensivestreet interviews. Drawing upon a combination of museum artifacts, photographs of therevolution, primary documents, and first-hand interviews, Riley weaves a compelling narrativeof how tens of thousands of East Germans won the street through peaceful protests anddemonstrations.Though the oppositional groups and transgressive actions detailed in Riley’s book havelargely been established in previous historical literature on the GDR, her study neverthelessmakes a number of important contributions to rhetorical scholarship. 9 Chief among them is ademonstration of how disparate, often uncoordinated and anonymous resistive rhetorical actswith ill-defined political aims contribute to systemic social change. ‘‘With no professionalsocial movement organizations, charismatic leaders, or polished mass media campaigns tocloud the picture,’’ observes Riley, ‘‘we can see how social change can be nurtured, overdecades, by means of rather simple (low-tech, low-cost), everyday communication activities’’(311). In light of Riley’s study, critics would be well advised to recognize that the rhetoricalwinds of social change, though transformative, are more unpredictable, inconsistent, andmultidirectional than is commonly assumed. Riley’s project succeeds in large part because shegathers data that were not widely available in the written or electronic record. Indeed, themain disappointment of   Everyday Subversion   is that Riley spends very little time reflecting onher own methods and how they aided her in telling the story of ‘‘the people.’’ Visuality  While Riley’s  Everyday Subversion   locates resistance primarily in the oral activities of ordinary people, Christine Harold’s  OurSpace: Resisting the Corporate Control of Culture   finds resistancein the largely visual politics of culture jammers, ‘‘a diverse, international alliance of activists  . . . responding  . . .  to the proliferation of commercialization in civic life’’ (xxv). Harold’s book,which begins with the premise that corporate branding dominates public life and culture in Review Essay   337  late modernity, seeks to chart the possibilities available for political action in this context(xxvii). Toward that end, her study investigates the dialectic ‘‘between markets and publics(between TheirSpace and OurSpace)’’ (xxxiii). In the introductory chapter, Harold reflects onwhat previous scholars  *  such as Naomi Klein in  No Logo   and Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in  Nation of Rebels   *  have had to say about this relationship. This initial reflectionleads her to reject both the notion that there is an ‘‘authentic’’ public space outside thehegemony of the market  and   the idea that the space of the public can ever fully be colonized by commercial culture.Harold dismisses, then, the possibility of autonomous opposition from some sort of independent counterpublic, which she views as overly romantic, and the concept of completemarket co-optation and corporate control, which she regards as overly monolithic. In theirstead, she proposes another possibility: a liminal, third place from which anticorporateactivists can work both  with(in)  and  against   the logic of postindustrial capitalism. To clarify this third place,  OurSpace   identifies and assesses three resistive strategies in which culture jammers have historically engaged: sabotage, appropriation, and intensification.The first strategy, sabotage, is one of interruption in which activists seek to stop, or at leastslow down, ‘‘the machinery of the Spectacle’’: a society in which carefully constructedadvertising images promise fulfillment in the consumption of corresponding products (2    3).Harold’s examination of sabotage begins by engaging the work of Guy Debord and theactivities of the Situationist International (SI), a group of Marxist revolutionaries committedto creating life experiences uncorrupted by capitalism in 1960s France. She maintains that theSI’s practices of   de ´ tournement  ,  de ´ rive  , and psychogeography constitute historical antecedentsto the strategy of sabotage. The practice of   de ´ tournement   involves satirically mimicking(parodying) familiar spectacular messages such as art and media to create new, antitheticalmeanings, while the practices of   de ´ rive   (the drift) and psychogeography refer to imaginativeand unconventional movements in and (re)mapping of urban spaces. Though these practicesmay appear unrelated, their resistive character arises from the critical interruption of conventional visual codes and the meanings and movements such codes sanction.In chapter 2, Harold deftly illustrates how the oppositional visual logics of the situationistsanimate the contemporary practices of The Media Foundation and  Adbusters  , whoseadvertising parodies deconstruct and denaturalize marketing codes. For example, a parody of Calvin Klein’s ‘‘Obsession for Women’’ advertisements depicts a naked young woman who,at first glance, appears to be in throws of sexual ecstasy, but upon closer inspection can be seenleaning over a toilet, vomiting. ‘‘Like the Calvin Klein ads it parodies,’’ explains Harold, ‘‘the Adbusters   spoof garners its rhetorical force from images, not verbal claims’’ (40). While Adbusters’   parodies are disturbing and disruptive, Harold ultimately judges sabotage to be aproblematic strategy, for it ‘‘engages primarily in negative critique’’ (xxx) and thus reproducesan oppositional dialectic between the market and the public.Harold is slightly more optimistic about the strategy of appropriation, which ‘‘fold[s]’’ (77)the logic of spectacle  *  ‘‘the image rhetoric of consumerism’’ (69)  *  against itself eitherthrough media pranking or pirating. Chapter 3 explores the ‘‘image events’’ of performanceartists and media pranksters such as Joey Skaggs, the Barbie Liberation Organization, TheBionic Baking Brigade, The Yes Men, and the INFKT Truth campaign. In one way or another,each of these groups co-opted the mainstream media by staging or creating a prepackagednews event to dispense its message. The Barbie Liberation Organization, for instance,purchased thousands of Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, switched their voice chips, and returnedthem to stores just before the Christmas holiday. The altered dolls included a message urgingconsumers to alert the media. ‘‘Pranking,’’ as Harold demonstrates through the fiveaforementioned case studies, ‘‘is often comedic, but not in a satirical, derisive sense thatprescribes a ‘correct’ political position’’ (108). Whereas sabotage involves parodyingspectacular messages, appropriation entails hijacking the media apparatus itself. 338  B. L. Ott 
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