Laura Sells and Joshua Gunn
Louisiana State University

In a recent special issue of The Western Journal of Communication devoted to evaluating the status of “rhetorical criticism,” James Jasinski describes a well-known imaginary skirmish between what he terms the “close reading” and “critical rhetoric tribes.”[1] Like Jasinski, we question the degree of clash in this skirmish (e.g., over theory and method, over text and context, over close reading and “conceptual thickening”). We do believe, however, that this imaginary debate has discouraged the study of public address from a critical cultural perspective. In this essay we attempt to clear a conceptual space for the project of using cultural studies to analyze oratory. We do not intend to promote a resolution to the debate, nor do we hope to advance a third, transcendent perspective that encompasses both approaches. Rather, we intend to exhume an element of our existing critical repertoire to show how a critical approach to public address is in keeping with the disciplinary tradition.[2]

We term our perspective “critical public address,” which we understand as restoring a formal gesture of retrojection first encountered in Neo-Aristotelian criticism. We hope that restoring retrojection, which the OED defines as “the action of putting back to an earlier date,”[3] will resurrect reverence for the oratorical moment that has been occluded in both critical cultural studies and in traditional public address. Traditional public address studies, on the one hand, loses sight of this moment by focusing on texts. Cultural studies, on the other, rejects this moment through its neglect of oratory. By advancing the notion of critical public address, we hope to reconnect the texts of speeches back to their moment of origin. The difference between Neo-Aristotelian criticism and critical public address, however, is the way in which the retrojective gesture is understood. For founding scholars like Marie Hochmuth Nichols, retrojection revealed and helped to evaluate a “public speaker’s interpretation of the world around him” on the basis of a representative text.[4] For critical public address scholars, the gesture of retrojection is recognized as the creation of a fictional origin for contemporary political ends,[5] the politics of which is sometimes recognized as the distinguishing characteristic of critical cultural studies.[6]

The Gesture of Retrojection

A review of Neo-Aristotelian criticism reveals that the gesture of retrojection typically concerns the assumed immediacy of an oratorical moment. The magic of the moment is captured in two ways: (1) a thick description of the context or “rhetorical situation”; and (2) a stress on the possibility of impending change, sometimes revolutionary potential, by means positing an Edenic moment of face-to-face, oratorical encounter. The earliest criticism of our discipline—sadly dismissed as “puerile biography and vacuous history,”[7] is obsessed with retrojection and highlights these two features. Consider, for example, Nichol’s fecund and fictional description of the setting for Lincoln’s First Inaugural:

“Spring comes gently to Washington always,” observed the poet-historian, Carl Sandburg. “In early March the green of the grass brightens, the magnolia softens. Elms and chestnuts burgeon. Redbud and lilac carry on preparations soon to bloom. The lovemaking and birthing in many sunny corners go on no matter what or who the blue-prints and personages behind the discreet bureau and departmental walls.” Spring of 1861 was little different from other springs in physical aspect. March [fourth] dawned as other march [fourths], no doubt, wavering between clearness and cloudiness. At daylight clouds hung dark and heavy in the sky. Early in the morning a few drops of rain fell, but scarcely enough to lay the dust. A northwest wind swept down the cross streets to Pennsylvania Avenue. The weather was cool and bracing, and on the whole, “favorable to the ceremonies of the day.” The sun had come out.[8]

Although the move is veiled in the historical positivism of the day, Nichols has consciously crystallized an event in which time stops, a frozen kernel of the oral, sonorous, tactile, and scenic that harbors a vision of the world, a pregnant, potentially revolutionary vision portending change.[9]

Perhaps the best way to understand this critical gesture is to focus on the second element of retrojection, the “impossible Edenic moment.” The impossible Edenic moment is a “black box” term that we offer to describe lived, embodied, face-to-face oratory in which a speaker addresses an audience. In science, the black box represents a conceptual placeholder. Colloquially, a black box is “where you know what goes in, and you know what comes out, but you don’t know what goes on inside.” In other words, it refers to an unexplainable operation, but one necessary to make a theory function. By analogy, in rhetorical studies we can ascertain what goes in (the context of a speech, the polished or well-crafted components of a speech), and what comes out (the rhetorical quality of the speech, its eloquence, its limited or enduring historical or political success or value). We can make some educated guesses about how and why a speech succeeds or fails and what makes an eloquent speech withstand the test of time. From a critical rhetoric perspective, we can even admit that history, social circumstance, and power relations inform our guesses and judgments regarding rhetorical artistry or political success. Yet, we cannot tell, with any precision, “how it works.” The original moment of delivery is, ironically, an ineffable moment.

Contemporary scholarship in public address frequently relies on the identification of an Edenic moment, but often without directly acknowledging the political investments of the gesture. Kirt H. Wilson’s exemplary study of the desegregation debate during Reconstruction, for example, begins

On the evening of 22 October 1883, Lincoln Hall in Washington, D.C., roared with noisy conversation. Packed closely together, some three thousand people gathered to hear two of the nineteenth-century’s most celebrated orators [Frederick Douglass and Robert G. Ingersoll]. Those who could not find a seat were forced to stand on the edges, in the hallway, down the stairs, and outside the building. If fortunate enough to gain entry, one noticed that this was no ordinary assembly. The sheer number of people so exceeded the room’s capacity that the crowd broke one of two windows.[10]

Wilson’s study opens with the promise of broken glass, a thick description of a ripe, contingent moment of jostling elbows, impossible to recover yet nevertheless posited. Similarly, Angela G. Ray’s analysis of the symbolic womanhood of Hester Vaughn begins

On a cold Friday morning in Philadelphia in February 1868, as the well-to-do of the city looked forward to hearing the visiting novelist Charles Dickens give a public reading the following weekend, an immigrant Englishwoman gave birth, alone, in an unheated garret on Girard Avenue. When Hester Vaughn was found a few days later, the baby was dead. Vaughn was taken to prison and, five months later, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang.[11]

Ray does not merely recount the opening scene in factual detail, but hints at a political alignment and a deep sympathy with the middle class woman, the real Hester Vaughn. The Edenic moment here, the moment when Vaughn became symbolic, is one of identification and respect for the dead.

These two examples from current public address studies, like the earlier neo-Aristotelian works, illustrate a retrojective gesture to original oratory. Retrojection, however, is not merely a critical gesture, but a metacritical one functioning as a disciplinary origin tale, our Garden of Eden. There are two metacritical levels of retrojection evoked in any one critical act. First, on a disciplinary level, oratory in its mythical form serves as the quintessential example of rhetoric. Traditional oratory consists of a black box moment in which a speaker, who has immediate or unmediated contact with an audience or an “other,” addresses the audience in a face-to-face situation in “real time.” The orality of rhetoric is the foundation of our discipline, initiated with classical oratory as the premiere example of rhetoric, secured in the twentieth century when we left English departments to study “Oral English”[12] and then reduplicated in the laboratory of the public speaking classroom.

At the second level, despite the ineffability of oratory, traditional public address scholars still certify their claims by referring to “the speech.” This certification, however, substitutes a mythical “text” for the original but permanently unavailable moment. Unfortunately, the fetishizing of texts has become a major point of dispute, defining and dividing the two tribes of rhetorical studies. For traditional public address scholars, the origin tale justifies the unique disciplinary position of public address: “Public address is a unique type of rhetorical criticism because public address texts are ‘fixed’ representations of ephemeral moments, in closer ‘proximity’ to their original reference than other rhetorical artifacts.”[13] Indeed, close textual critics hail the return of the text once lost to the bombast of neo-Aristotelian criticism. Conversely, some critical cultural studies scholars abandoned public address because of its fetish for texts; the “new critical” impulses of close textual analysis tend to objectify texts, create narrow definitions of what counts as legitimate texts for analysis, and focus on the strategic, intentional calculus of the rhetorical moment, thereby demanding a humanist conception of authorship and audience.

Both tribes, however, share a common and open distaste for declamations of burgeoning chestnut trees in neo-Aristotelian studies. In both cases, the specter that haunts rhetorical studies is the sonorous moment of the speech itself, the irretrievable Edenic origin of the text. The Neo-Aristotelian rhapsodies about delivery, packed church houses, and northwest winds at least acknowledge that specter.

Some Implications

Thus far we have suggested that the imaginary skirmish between “close textualists” and critical rhetors has unfortunately led to the eclipse of oratory in rhetorical studies. Speaking and utterance is the native precondition of suasive assent in public address scholarship, and speech in the moment of contingency lends public address its specificity. For this reason, we think that critical public address should restore oratory as the center of public address scholarship.[14]

Understood in light of the centrality of oratory, the differences between critical public address and critical rhetoric become pronounced. A heavily Foucault-inflected paradigm, McKerrow’s critical rhetoric encourages critics to demystify and intervene in the power relations wrought by texts. This goal requires inverting the traditional notion of “public address” to “discourse which addresses publics,” a move that places the critic in the role of “inventor” or co-creator of the texts that they study.[15] Although we agree that the critic is an inventor, we resist the inversion of public address to addressing publics precisely because it jettisons oratory.

More specifically, we can isolate three key differences between critical public address and McKerrow’s critical rhetoric. First, by inverting the terms of public address, critical rhetoric validates the long-developing shift in disciplinary focus away from oratory and toward a myriad of texts for analysis. This validation overlaps with a crucial moment in the resurgence of interest in public address. Indeed, the publication of McKerrow’s article on critical rhetoric coincides with what Stephen Lucas identifies as the rebirth of American public address,[16] a coincidence in which oratory gets lost in the skirmish over textuality between the two tribes. Critical public address re-centers interest in oratory while keeping the questions of text, rhetor, audience, and power relations—important concerns of critical cultural studies—open for debate.

Second, by maintaining a scholarly (and political) focus on oratory, critical public address provides a stopgap measure against the relativism often associated with critical rhetoric. Critical cultural scholars identify the ways in which work using McKerrow’s project threatens to slip into solipsism because the approach of critical rhetoric fails to provide standards of judgment even while promoting the value of critical intervention into power relations.[17] Critical public address supplements the goals of critical rhetoric by adding rhetorical grounds for judgment. The political “interventions” associated with critical rhetoric are thereby bound or constrained by rhetorical standards of public address. Adding this dimension does not preclude judgment on political grounds, nor does it suggest that rhetorical standards are apolitical. It does, however, open for discussion what constitutes rhetorical grounds and what the intersection of rhetorical and political grounds might be—a discussion directly within the province of rhetorical studies.

Last, despite his stated intent to remain broad and perspectival, McKerrow articulates a fixed, programmatic orientation. As appropriate, McKerrow has consistently explored, defined, and refined his particular conceptions of text, rhetor, audience, and power relations.[18] Within the vast domain of postmodern studies, however, there are multiple constructions of these categories. Often identified as “McKerrow’s Critical Rhetoric,” critical rhetoric has lost its naming capacity as an umbrella term. Critical public address should offer what McKerrow originally intended, a perspective rather than a protocol.

Refracted through the prism of a focus on oratory, critical theory, and reflexivity, the traditional understanding of public address scholarship is fragmented into a number of colorful shards—author, audience, text, and power—that only cohere in criticism as a result of retrojection. Because of the formal stress on speech, texts are de-fetishized. This does not mean, of course, that the only texts studied should be speeches, but rather, that a focus on oratory and speaking as a formal center to public address criticism serves to remind the critic of the fiction of her retrojective gesture: She looks neither for invariant (objective) structures, nor for aesthetic essences. Rather, she understands texts and critical texts about them as political fictions deployed for some present end. Similarly, “audiences” of a given rhetorical act are fictions as well; to be sure there are empirically verifiable people, and an understanding of the danger of retrojection should command respect for those rhetors exhumed and examined. As John Hartley has remarked, however, we need to remember that audiences are fictions that critics bring into being.[19] In addition, the recognition of the fictional and political dimensions of retrojection allows the critical public address scholar to assume agents and agency have an impossible yet necessary existence in history, bracketing for the purpose of criticism the mind-bogglingly confusing critique of subjectivity offered by our post-humanist colleagues in literary theory, philosophy, and cultural studies. Finally, critical public address sets aside the pseudo-debate over historical accuracy and fidelity. Indeed, the mindful gesture of retrojection requires careful attention to historical fact, along with recognition that all facts are subject to political agendas.

Within the context of critical public address, the details of how to define the concepts of author, text, audience, and power relations should remain unspecified for now. We urge that scholars interested in critical public address to maintain a commitment to these necessary concepts. Critical cultural studies scholars cannot dismiss author, text, and audience out of hand because they are “oversimplified” in public address scholarship; public address scholars interested in a critical approach, however, must continue to complicate and problematize author, text, and audience while reiterating their central importance to the study of public address.[20] Toward this end, we think that understanding these concepts as important components of the theory-function of the retrojective gesture helps.

Concluding Remarks: Going Critical Address

In this brief essay we have sketched a vision of critical public address that stresses the importance of a theoretical move first made by Neo-Aristotelian critics, retrojection. Retrojection posits an event of contingency that cannot be recovered, the impossible Edenic moment. Critical public address, we suggest, recognizes this theoretical move as necessarily political, yet it also holds that precisely such a move affords public address its specificity and unique strength in the context of an oratorical event. Indeed, one thing that public address scholars do well is fashion a sense of urgency and immediacy; critical public address is mindful of the utopian gesture that creates urgency and immediacy, stressing its centrality to our unique critical practice. Our commitment to the “black box” of oratory, the impossible Edenic moment that defines us as students of rhetoric, is reflected in one of the earliest professional choices we make in our academic careers — to teach public speaking rather than freshman composition. This choice reflects a commitment to a gesture that recognizes oratory as a rich and complex site of contingency. We teach our students that the sonorous, oracular moment is one of magic. By placing oratory rather than texts at the center of its focus, critical public address attempts to conjure and honor the lost, magical event to inspire and engender hope.


[1] James Jasinski, “The Status of Theory and Method in Rhetorical Criticism,” Western Journal of Communication 65 (2001): 249.

[2] For an earlier attempt at a similar project, see Thomas Rosteck, “Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81(1995): 386-421. Although Rosteck attempts to bring a cultural studies approach to public address specifically, his efforts seek a transcendent alternative in a polarized debate between a “radical poststructuralist deconstruction” and a “sentimental perhaps nostalgic humanist formalism” (398). Unlike Rosteck, we seek no transcendent alternative.

[3] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “retroject.”

[4] In Jasinski, “The Status of Theory,” 250.

[5] Such a notion has passed before in terms of what McGee referred to as the assembly of textual fragments. See Michael Calvin McGee, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of American Culture.” Western Speech Communication Journal 54 (1990): 274-289.

[6] This politics, however, does not necessarily mean pragmatic or instrumental politics. See Richard Johnson, “What is Cultural Studies Anyway?” in What Is Cultural Studies: A Reader, edited by John Storey (New York: Arnold, 1996), 75-114. Also see Thomas Rosteck, “Introduction: Approaching the Intersection: Issues of Identity, Politics, and Critical Practice,” in At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999), esp. 8-12.

[7] G. P. Mohrmann, “Elegy in a Critical Grave-Yard.” The Western Journal of Speech 44 (1980): 269.

[8] Marie Hochmuth Nichols, “Lincoln’s First Inaugural,” in Methods of Rhetorical Criticism: A Twentieth Century Perspective, ed. Robert L. Scott and Bernard L. Brock (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1972), 60-61. In an essay often cited as a turning point in close textual studies, Lucas identifies Nichol’s essay as a premiere example of the deficiencies of neo-Aristotelian criticism. Stephen E. Lucas, “The Renaissance of American Public Address: Text and Context in Rhetorical Criticism,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 74 (1988): 241-260.

[9] Walter Benjamin, a critic and scholar often associated with the Frankfurt School and critical theory, might describe Nichol’s positing of a fictional essence as a “monad.” Benjamin’s final project, “materialistic historiography,” is in many ways analogous to that of our discipline’s first and second generation of critics. The key difference of Benjamin’s historical criticism was its celebration and recognition of the “danger” of retrojection, which unquestionably concerned the political. The monads crystallized by early rhetorical critics were conscious distortions that, nevertheless, were not recognized as dangerous, political distortions. Critical public address recognizes its retrojection as a political gesture, pitched on the dangerous precipice of the lie, designed to illuminate not so much the past as contemporary regimes of power. See Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arent and translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 262-263; and Ranier Rochlitz, The Disenchantment of Art: The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin (New York: The Guilford Press, 1996), 247-251.

[10] Kirt H. Wilson, The Reconstruction Desegregation Debate: The Politics of Equality and the Rhetoric of Place, 1870-1875 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002), 1.

[11] Angela G. Ray, “Representing the Working Class in Early U.S. Feminist Media: The Case of Hester Vaughn.” Women’s Studies in Communication 26 (2003): 1.

[12] Herman Cohen, The History of Speech Communication: The Emergence of a Discipline: 1914-1945 (Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1994). It is often said that Herbert Wicheln’s 1925 essay, “The Literary Criticism of Oratory,” provided the foundational rationale for the discipline of Speech Communication, but the underlying warrant increasingly seems lost: “human nature being what it is, there is no likelihood that face to face persuasion will cease to be a principle mode of exerting influence.” Herbert A. Wichelns, “The Literary Criticism of Oratory,” in Readings in Rhetorical Criticism, ed. Carl R. Burgchardt (State College, PA: Strata Publishing Company, 1995), 4.

[13] Robert S. Iltis and Stephen H. Browne, “Tradition and Resurgence in Public Address Studies,” in Speech Communication: Essays to Commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Speech Communication Association, ed. Gerald M. Phillips and Julia T. Wood (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989), 85.

[14] Using the analogy of a highly complex chess game, Donald K. Smith argues that public speaking is contingent action, like all forms of human action, which can be viewed in both prospect and retrospect. Although Smith does not explicitly refer to the magic inside the black box, his reverence for the oratorical moment resonates with our project. Donald K. Smith, Man Speaking: A Rhetoric of Public Speech (NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1969).

[15] Raymie E. McKerrow, “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis,” Communication Monographs 56 (1989): 101-102.

[16] Lucas claims that the renaissance emerges after a 30-year eclipse of interest caused when rhetorical studies broadened its scope to include a larger range of critical objects. Stephen Lucas, “The Renaissance of American Public Address: Text and Context in Rhetorical Criticism.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 74 (1988): 241-260.

[17] Kent A. Ono and John M. Sloop, “Commitment to Telos—A Sustained Critical Rhetoric,” Communication Monographs 59 (1992): 48-60; Maurice Charland, “Finding a Horizon and Telos: The Challenge to Critical Rhetoric,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 77 (1991): 71-74.

[18] Raymie E. McKerrow, “Critical Rhetoric and the Possibility of the Subject,” in The Critical Turn: Rhetoric and Philosophy in Postmodern Discourse, ed. Ian Angus and Lenore Langsdorf (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 51-67.

[19] John Hartley, “Invisible Fictions: Television Audiences, Paedocracy, Pleasure,” Textual Practice 1 (1987): 121-138; John Hartley, “‘Text’ and ‘Audience’: One and the Same? Methodological Tensions in Media Research,” Textual Practice 13 (1999): 487-508; also see Bonnie Dow, “Response: Criticism and Authority in the Artistic Mode,” Western Journal of Communication 65 (2001): 336-348.

[20] Rosteck makes a similar point, but with a focus primarily on the question of text, and the text-critic relationship. Rosteck, “Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies,” 399.