"What connection does living well actually have with speaking well? The Roman rhetorician Quintilian defined the orator as a good person speaking well. But because it's unclear that virtue actually does breed eloquence, or eloquence virtue for thatmatter, Quintilian evades what Richard Lanham calls the Q Question: Is thegood speaker necessarily a good person?'Gehrke locates places in liberal democratic discourse where the Q Question makes incongruous appearances—such as the federally sponsored "Four-Minute Men" making congenially propagandisticspeeches to U.S. theatergoers. The connection between supposedly hygienic rhetoric and military action became especially troubling when Allied rhetorical strategies against fascism proved nearly impossibleto distinguish from fascist rhetoric against democracy (hence Gehrke's renaming the Q Question as the Hitler Question).Despite our hopes for speech communication to foster mental hygiene and moral excellence, Gehrke writes, "we always seem deep in examples of rhetorical skill void of such excellence."
The intractability of the Q Question has made speech communication a discipline both restless and resourceful. After theearly decades of the 20th century, speech teachers shifted emphases from public oratory to group discussion on the grounds that discussion was more balanced, more objective, arid less triumphalist—only to bump, once again, into the ethics/efficacy dualism. As it turned out, mental hygiene, not to mention rational group discussions, provided little stay against the coerciveness of mass-mediated messaging. The result was a shift in speech communicationfrom the quasi-scientific approach of the 1920s and 1930s to the existentialist philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s. But even while challenging essentialist accounts of speech—especially those treating communication as the transfer of meaning from self to self—existentialism ran into its own variant on the Q Question. For all their ethical sophistication, existentialist-inflected speech theories proved just as preoccupied with efficacy as their essentialist counterparts. The final decades of the 20th century only sharpened the irony as philosophical relativists in speech communication behaved more and more like political absolutists.
Gehrke's story makes no claim to be the Authorized Version: "The point is not whether this work is a comprehensive or synoptic account of the history of a field of thought— it is not—but rather whether it carefully documents the possibility of conceiving of that field of thought or the particular questions within that field in a compelling and viable way." In the final chapter of the book, Gehrke shows how the discipline has deployed aggressively postmodern idioms to wrestle yet again with perennial questions of ethics and politics.
First, the ethics. If it is true that speech does not come from the self, but rather the self from speech—and Gehrke believes the discipline's conversations bear out that contention—then such a speaking self must negotiate an "ethics that cannot privilege oneself or what is common between oneself and others but must privilege something that comes before anything that might be shared or common." He calls what "comes before anything" the eventof "being-communicating," an ongoing encounter with the Other that is always bringing the self into existence: "However, it is not any specific or particular relationship that brings the 'I' into being but rather the sheer fact that there is any relation at all." Accordingly, being-communicating occurs in encounter after encounter in which the Other enlivens and confronts the self with an endless series of ethical choices for which no certain criteria obtain. This ethic has political consequences: we should not "seek to achieve an end state or to realize an ideal vision" but rather make "small moves within the gaps and ruptures in existing political sensibilities."
Compelling and viable the book proves to be, even for those who disagree with Gehrke's immanentist ethical and political sensibilities. Not least, the book suggests that the routinely despised basic speech course belongs in the curriculum. Simply learning how to deliver a speech well, it turns out, confronts us with vital questions about agency arid otherness. Further, Gehrke's history offers a welcome alternativeto the worn cardiocentric trope, "It's what in your heart that counts." Shifting moral analysis from the heart to the tongue, he weaves ethics as closely to speech as St. James does. Finally, the book serves as a corrective to those whose "just do it" approach to cultural engagement collapses ethics into efficacy. Gehrke's small moves" may evokefor some readers what James Davison Hunter calls 'faithful presence.'" --Craig Mattson
(Craig Mattson Books & Culture
About the Author
Pat J. Gehrke is an associate professor of communication at the University of South Carolina and has served as chair of the communication ethics division of the National Communication Association. He has published articles on communication ethics and other topics in a range of journals, including the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Argumentation and Advocacy, Philosophy and Rhetoric, and Philosophy Today.