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Ethics, Rhetoric, and Culture

Summary and Keywords

Signification of human meaning dwells in ethics and culture, finding expression in and through rhetorical practices. Ethics and culture consist of goods and practices that gather the meaningful and the important together, yielding urgency for rhetorical employment of those practices. The union of ethics, culture, and rhetoric offers a coherent dwelling for the protection and promotion of the consequential. Ethics and culture house actions of meaningfulness that compel rhetorical expression, announcing a stance attentive to the vital, reminding self and informing other of a particular account of the consequential. Ethics and culture adjudicate a sense of ground that nourishes rhetorical understanding and engagement with the world. Rhetoric explicates practices of import that reflect the performative reality of ethics and culture, retelling self and other about the crucial. Rhetoric permits self and other to interrogate a ground of distinctive goods and practices that structure the noteworthy. Rhetoric facilitates discovery, testing, and knowledgeable implementation. It moves ethics and culture from points of abstraction to knowing public coordinates in a communicative social world that is impactful on self and others. The interplay of ethics, culture, and rhetoric in their triconstruction and enactment engenders human meaning. Rhetoric thrusts unique versions of ethics and culture into the public domain, and such action renders practical awareness of the existence of contrasting content of import. Acknowledging dissimilarity exposes and probes contrasting goods and practices. Rhetoric enhances public knowledge of differences undergirding juxtaposed ethical and cultural stances.

Keywords: ethics, culture, rhetoric, hypermodernity, narrative, hypertextuality, habitus, contention, social goods, storytelling, virtue, communication and critical studies

Storytelling as Narrative Imagination

Engaging philosophical hermeneutics as a form of storytelling uncovers the roots of the evocative. Ethics, culture, and rhetoric together form a horizon of height and weight resistive to imposition of a single master conclusion composed of a metanarrative of undisputed confidence. Hans-Georg Gadamer (2013), a central figure in philosophical hermeneutics, contrasted the notion of a horizon with a concept, with the former composed of multiple possibilities and the latter operationally determined and controlled. A horizon houses manifold meanings and potentials. Connecting performative metaphors within the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics announces a horizon that carries assorted directions and options. The outlook from which one announces this trimetaphorical tale makes all the difference, proclaiming the reality of multiple alternative perspectives on goods and practices of significance. Each viewpoint decrees a story about the partnership of ethics, culture, and rhetoric together. Hanna Meretoja’s (2018) The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible provides a superb account of how an interpreter fuses ideas of necessary prominence. The interpretive result is a creative construction of how a combination of notions permits one to understand the vital. Metaphors that are distinctly and collectively understood frame a story that shares public space with divergent accounts. Such a public accounting requires combing through contrasting and compelling story versions. Meretoja proposes that “narrative imagination . . . animates our engagements with the past, the present, and the not-yet” (p. 307). The inimitableness of gathering information gives warrant to the disclosure of a situated story that directs focus of attention and coordination of the meaningful in a definitive fashion.

This article constitutes a conversation about beginnings in the first section, “Origins,” which gives rise to grounds that fuel imagination and novel insight. The second part, “Ethics in Dispute,” describes the nature of a world no longer able to fantasize about narrative and virtue agreement as capable of guiding collective human action. The third segment, “Culture and Resistance,” interrogates and affirms the existence of contrary actions, questioning modern efforts at assimilation. The final section, “Rhetorical Practices,”explores the manner in which difference is a unifying metaphor in an age of dispute and resistance. Rhetoric is key to the public domain, discerning and acknowledging the reality of dissimilarity.

In an era of narrative and virtue contention, any assemblage of metaphors can drive a story, shaping its particularity of course. Such knowledge necessitates interpretive awareness of what Gadamer (2013) termed “prejudice” and “bias” in the acts of telling and interpretation. A single story in its collection, understanding, and telling of ideas and actions of merit yields signification and meaning. This specific descriptive story about the essential commences with examination of certain accounts, petite tales about ethics, culture, and rhetoric, followed by an inclusive portrayal of their collective enactment. The performative trinity of this article calls forth a documented story that declares communicative import in action. Each of the terms (ethics, culture, and rhetoric) carries specific valences located and embedded within a given set of assumptions. Individually and collectively, the terrain of each of the three major points/ideas suggests an understanding attentive to depth of assumptions, direction, and implications. The manner of understanding ethics, culture, and rhetoric in union frames this story within a distinctive perspective.


Following the interpretive spirit of Gadamer, this section acknowledges performative metaphors as naturally limited in their discernment. The power of rhetoric rests in unmasking significance from situated and specific historical and conceptual backgrounds and moments. The ground that undergirds individual ideas is creative soil that lends shape and direction to a given account. The signification of origins of key metaphors guides narration, influencing a perspective consistent with the theme of Charles Taylor’s (2006) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor repeatedly proclaims the reality of narrative ground under one’s feet as instrumental in influencing identity and decision-making. Distinctive originative soil matters; it carries rhetorical authority and power.

Petite Narratives

The central themes of ethics, culture, and rhetoric jointly adjudicate diverse impressionistic pictures of the important; the fashion of their expression depends upon their mutual collaboration and the custom of the narration, which is a consequence of their interaction. Unlike a modernist master narrative that articulates a single “correct” reading of the mutual significance of ethics, culture, and rhetoric, the perspective of this work assumes the impossibility of discerning a true glimpse of their “ultimate” meaning. There is no absolute universal tale applicable. One must acknowledge shifting environments and historical circumstances. The partisan story that follows attempts to illuminate the existence of one of many possible understandings of the union of ethics, culture, and rhetoric. The origins of ethics and culture, understood as meaningful goods and practices, give rise to particular forms of rhetorical conduct and urgency. Perceptivity of a given story-laden account dwells within the realm of particularity, eschewing the false confidence of universal certainty lodged within the bad faith of modern assurance and arrogance.

This perspective on storytelling, consistent with the insights of Gadamer and Meretoja, does not suggest that all explications of possibilities are equally viable and true. It is possible to conceive of interpretations that venture outside the horizon of accuracy and veracity. Modernity centers on a basic assumption that each person has equal access to universal rationality. Postmodernity is less grandiose about a human’s reach and situates rationality within petite narratives composed of goods and practices that shape a story, which then directs rationality from an origin of a petite narrative. Each petite narrative consists of story-directed goods and practices that can move outside the horizon of meaningfulness within a conversation. For instance, Thomas B. Edsall’s (2018) op-ed in the New York Times responded to journalists on the left and right who criticized President Donald Trump as a postmodern president. Edsall surveys leading academics on the meaning of the term “postmodern” and its connection to Trump, including philosophers such as Judith Butler and John Caputo, who express concern about the misattribution of the term’s philosophical meaning. Ultimately, Edsall contends that Trump is not postmodern but is, instead, “a nihilist who seeks to trample, to trash, to blight, to break and to burn” (Edsall, 2018, para. 43). The more appropriate term is “hypermodern” (Lipovetsky, 2005).

Donald Trump is not part of a postmodern tradition that recognizes the reality of multiple narratives giving rise to contrasting rationalities. He does not locate deeds in situated rationality that acknowledges differing petite narratives. Trump’s confidence rests within hypermodernity, where truth finds sufficient ratification in one’s own personal framing. Hypermodernity assumes the importance of excessive personal choice, a form of hyperindividualism. Truth then emerges from the self that imposes attributes upon the object under consideration.

Emphasis on the inaccurate and the misspoken underlined in Edsall’s “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” proclaims the importance of the fourth estate, journalism, in moments of public dispute over differences in opinion. Edsall is a fine journalist with numerous awards.1 His column does what intelligent journalism must do in and for the public arena. It responds to those who misdiagnose issues. In this case, the Trump phenomenon is not postmodern, and use of the term is derogative and inaccurate, lending further credence to public wariness about a contemporary liberal arts education.

The admittedly trendy word “postmodern” invites confusion that Edsall sought to rectify. The mistake of framing Trump as postmodern opens the door to those wanting to gallop back to an earlier era constituted by a single modern universal: the conviction that one can stand above the human fray and, like a deity, pursue and attain objective Truth. This modernist belief of assurance finds challenge in the scholarship of postmodernity, which questions objective confidence capable of propelling totalitarian and colonial acts of imposition that subordinate persons and ideas of difference. Postmodernity champions a modest, situated rationality that emerges from petite narratives of gathered meaning, eschewing perceived abstract claims of universal reasoning. Modernity’s confidence in its ability to reason and discern a universal Truth yields a world of undue confidence embodied by the privileged. Pushed to the extreme, modernity morphs—not into postmodernity, but into a hypermodernity capable of propelling another era of Manifest Destiny.2 Hypermodernity no longer recognizes that “my” or “our” perspective is one of many possibilities. It pushes its own orientation as undisputed Truth with singular conviction.

Postmodernity gives rise to a pragmatic humility that recognizes different rationalities situated within distinctive narrative structures. Hypermodernity, on the other hand, resembles Alasdair MacIntyre’s (2016) depiction of “emotivism,” decision-making propelled by personal preference (pp. 17–18). Hypermodernity uses the self as the point of rationality and Truth. Christopher Lasch (1984) challenged modernity with The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. He sought to expose an exhausted self, created and left at the side of the road in modernity’s march toward the continuing decay of roots necessary for situating persons and ideas within the human condition. If Lasch were writing in an age of hypermodernity, he might have labeled his book The Maximal Self or The Sovereign Self. Lasch understood the temptation to rely on the self in an era of metanarrative decline and feigned confidence in the self. Lasch understood the eventual weariness that transpires as a direct result of an unfaltering self-focus. What he did not foresee was the self, standing alone and fueled with a conviction of maximal strength. Lasch’s minimal self is an exhausted version of a caricature understanding of Nietzsche’s (1973) “will to power.”

Conventional conceptions of Nietzsche’s will to power are quite different from the way in which he framed this expression. Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power owed more to his sister than to his own thinking.3 He articulated a will capable of confronting existence on its own terms, shunning metaphysical, metanarrative abstraction and God talk. Nietzsche, one of the first to challenge metanarrative certainty of modernity, did not frame a hypermodern, confident self. His work called for the person to pay attention to existence and respond with the whole being. Hypermodernity misses the horizon of existence and centers on the self.

Gilles Lipovetsky (2005) offered a thoughtful description of the hyperactive focus on self in Hypermodern Times. This article offers a different interpretation, understanding postmodernity as a form of hypertextuality as detailed by Umberto Eco (2005). However, Lipovetsky’s argument is worth exploring. Lipovetsky (2005) begins his story by recounting postmodernity’s early connection to architecture and loss of confidence in historical progress with an emphasis on “social temporality,” “precariousness,” and “ephemerality” (p. 29). The horizons of vision narrowed as some wrongly embraced postmodernity as a replacement for modernity, asserting that modernity was passé. On the contrary, modernity was not dead, which is reminiscent of the famous line from Mark Twain: “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (White, 1897). Instead of the death of modernity, hypermodernity arose.


Hypermodernity brings a commitment to “consumption,” “commercialization,” and “rampant individualism” (Lipovetsky, 2005, pp. 29–31). Lipovetsky (2005) writes, “A second modernity, deregulated and globalized, has shot into orbit: it has no opposite, and is absolutely modern, resting essentially on three axiomatic elements constitutive of modernity itself: the market, technocratic efficiency and the individual. We had a limited modernity: now is the time of consummate modernity” (pp. 31–32). Hypermodernity reveals hypercapitalism and hyperindividualism. Contrary to the perspective of this article, Lipovetsky individualizes postmodernity and discusses it in linear terms. He refers to postmodernity as an oxymoron living within a realm of “frivolity and anxiety, euphoria and vulnerability, playfulness and dread” (p. 40). Such a view of postmodernity misses its contribution of narrative multiplicity, with its disruption of undue confidence carried by individual agency. Postmodernity, on the other hand, is a juncture recognizing the ongoing power and existence of co-present historical eras in which multiple narrative structures yield contrasting views of ethical goods and cultural practices.

The idea of postmodernity disrupts metanarrative certainty and brings forth recognition of multiplicity of narrative structures. Eco’s (2005) description of postmodernity as a form of hypertextuality assists in that postmodernity becomes a juncture that acknowledges the coexistence of all historical periods. One witnesses this reality in Eco’s (1983) novel The Name of the Rose, with the layering of multiple historical periods. Postmodernity and hypertextuality shift perception from a modern or hypermodern conception of the self to competing narrative grounds that fight for an opportunity to undergird the life of a communicative agent. Such a perspective underlines the sources of the self that generate rhetorical influence on the communicator.

Hypermodernity is the full-blown expression of modernity operating within an abstract space where there is an extreme vacuum of narrative roots. Terms such as the reified self, the sovereign self, the authentic self, and the narcissistic self all point to some common coordinates of modernity and its “hyper” version. First, the self lives in abstraction, above the give and take of social restraint. Second, the self becomes the origin and the point of Truth, eschewing external data and evidence. Third, the self rejects embeddedness within a particular narrative and works from the position of a minimal self, self-adorned with its maximal fascination of influence. The self remains reified within a confidence that is unalterable and reflects undue single-mindedness, which defines hypermodernity. The contrast between hypermodernity and postmodernity includes the distinction between a focus on self and narrative embeddedness that gives rise to human identity.

Contrary to a self-focus, a postmodern/hypertextual understanding of existence does not commence with the speaker—narratives propel one rhetorically. The one common misconception advanced by Lipovetsky (2005) about his assessment of postmodernity is the assertion of a self-focus. The juncture of postmodernity does not center on the self or totally ignore the self. Assertions such as the “death of the author” (Barthes, 1977) seek to unmask the totalitarian singular emphasis on the self and replace it with an embedded conception of the self without obliterating the notion of self. A postmodern/hypertextual understanding of the self conceptualizes identity as emerging as a by-product via narratives that situate, embed, and ground the self within sources that shape identity. Postmodernity/hypertextuality illustrates an embedded and situated self and rejects a reified version of the self. Jean-François Lyotard (1984) writes:

This breaking up of the grand Narratives . . . leads to what some authors analyze in terms of the dissolution of the social bond and the disintegration of social aggregates into a mass of individual atoms thrown into the absurdity of Brownian motion. Nothing of the kind is happening . . . A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is . . . more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at “nodal points” of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be. (p. 15)

Postmodernity/hypertextuality acknowledges two basic assumptions: the importance of difference as a key to learning and understanding and the necessity of disputing hegemonic power and influence that masquerades as absolute certainty through a universal metanarrative. Narrative ground of particularity constitutes and situates the soil, nurturing goods and practices that frame a storied understanding of self.

Ethics, culture, and rhetoric are three dimensions of narrative ground that compose human identity. Human beings are meaning-driven creatures, constituted by what is important within informative narrative sources. Identity and understanding of oneself and the other emerge from performative knowledge of imperative frames of meaning that act as narrative ground or sources of the self (Taylor, 2006). Identity comes from that which one practices and those practices that one knowingly (or otherwise) does not follow. From this orientation, human identity emerges from both action and inaction. This perspective is consistent with a performative understanding of identity, which propels the insights of Judith Butler (2015). She offers a version of self-identity that refuses reification and attends to learning in the meeting of everyday existence.

Ethics, culture, and rhetoric function as a performative trinity of signification operating within the influence of hypertextuality. The three terms do not yield a linear conception of life; they mutually influence one another, making signification possible. The following emphasis on the coordinates of ethics, culture, and rhetoric includes particular practices and simultaneously points to a postmodern/hypertextual position that naturally acknowledges the existence of competing goods and practices.

Ethics in Dispute

Hypertextuality assumes that as one accepts ethics as a social good, one also accepts the reality of competing social goods emerging from different sources of narrative rationality. Such a perspective on ethics abjures a solidified template, a paradigm, or an abstract theory imposed a priori to human meeting. Speaking otherwise than from a reified tradition, communication ethics emerges as a performative act that protects and promotes a given good or goods supported by petite narratives and practices. Communication ethics understood from this perspective consists of practices, stories, narratives, and collective concurrence on the importance of a given good or multiple goods.

Multiplicity of Goods

A postmodern/hypertextual telling of a story about communication ethics commences with one major assertion: there is no one correct conception of communication ethics. The term “communication ethics” is a placeholder for what a person, group, society, culture, and so on considers as good(s) worthy of protecting and promoting. This perspective assumes that communication ethics begins a conversation as a carrier of the significant that calls forth learning from all participants. Understanding what good or goods another wants to protect and promote permits a conversation to move toward potential dialogue. Understanding protected goods only initiates a conversation; such knowledge does not conclude the exchange with an answer. One of the colloquial lines routinely uttered is, “That is unethical.” Translated within the perspective of this article, this phrase suggests that what another protects and promotes is a foolish good in contrast to one’s own position. A better beginning is to understand the goods of another and then consider their implications. Such an orientation does not assure agreement, but it does encourage learning and understanding as ethical first principles.

Differing goods immediately present themselves in dissimilarity of protected and promoted significances. Classical life protected and promoted the good of the polis. Medieval life protected and promoted the good of the Church. Modernity protected and promoted the good of the individual. (Note: the good in classical and medieval conceptions of life dwells external to the person.) The shift in modernity is a Copernican Revolution from the external to the internal; modernity is an aberration. Postmodernity resituates the good within narrative ground with full recognition of multiplicity of narrative sources that offer parameters for decision-making judgment. Postmodernity/hypertextuality assumes that each historical period continues to coexist, dependent upon the region of the world and a given historical-temporal context. Convictions gather within goods, practices, stories, and multiple historical moments, which announce hypertextuality in action. Indeed, there is not one good or one historical era that can capture and reify a definition of the ethical. Competing narrative positions welcome different rationalities.

The work of Arnett, Fritz, and McManus (2018) in Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference respects the assumption that multiple goods or contrasting communication ethics are co-present. Communication ethics literacy centers on reading what goods another protects and promotes, which may or may not align with another’s verbal assertions about a given ethical position. “Communication ethics” is a term that represents the carrying of goods that matter in everyday engagement between and among persons and practically signals a breadth of perspectives on what is ethical. An era of acknowledged hypertextuality yields a communicative environment composed of diversity of goods that shape contrasting communication ethics—dwellings that transport different sets of goods.

Take, for example, the classic essay penned by Karl R. Wallace (1955), “An Ethical Basis of Communication.” Read with an eye of hypertextuality, this piece illustrates the existence of differing goods.4 Wallace’s concise and thoughtful essay on ethics in the field reflects its publication date of 1955. The essay reflects the discipline within modernity in a historical moment marked by increasing unrest. In the decade of the 1950’s, there was a clamoring for universal truth that makes difference dangerous, as the communist scares of that age attest (Bateson, 1972, p. 70; Immerman & Goedde, 2013).5 It was a moment of perceived clarity by parties on all sides, with each viewing the other as wrongheaded and incorrect. Upon closer examination, the essay lends credence to contrasting communication ethics.

Wallace’s essay pivots on what he designated as “four ‘moralities’—the duty of search and inquiry, allegiance to accuracy, fairness, and justice in the selection and treatment of ideas and arguments, the willingness to submit private motivations to public scrutiny, and the toleration of dissent—which provide the ethic of communication in a free society” (1955, p. 9). Questions linger around interpretations of these phrases when the notion of universal rationality as a given meets a postmodern/hypertextual understanding of the human condition. Daily disputes erupt regarding the fairness or unfairness of news and political coverage. A willingness to examine private motivations and their impact on public policy drives one special counsel after another into a realm defined by pragmatic suspicion. Dissent supported by the assumption of one Truth calls for barriers, walls, and ad hominem attacks on those embodying differing positions.

It is difficult to disagree with Wallace’s suggestions; contention happens as differing parties seek to implement the lofty language of correct action. The problem surrounds the notion of communication ethics. Agreement on the importance of the term does not guarantee unity on the question of implementation of particular goods. During Wallace’s era of writing, disputes about social changes involving labor representation, race relations, and inclusion of gender, race, and affectivity arose with increasing intensity. Throughout the essay Wallace responds to McCarthyism, which flourished from 1950 to 1954. Cold War ideological tensions invited narrow and provincial conceptions of truth. The late 1950s defined public disputes that surfaced and had composition in deeper and much longer-reaching roots within the United States.6

The president of the United States during this era of kinetic potential for change was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general of the Allied forces during World War II and two-term president. He also functioned as an astute observer of emerging social change as he recognized clashes over differing goods. He fought in the Second World War in the midst of grand disputes. What shifted was not argument over differences, but the acknowledged clash of goods within his country. At a macro level, he stated that an ongoing social crisis in the United States would center on the emerging and seemingly permanent growth of a new social pattern, the industrial-military complex. From this vantage point, interests divided persons under the guise of protection and promotion of particular principles.

At the conclusion of his presidency in 1961, Eisenhower delivered his famous “Farewell Address to the Nation,” citing danger attributed to the industrial-military complex. He even predicted industrial-military complex funding realities on university campuses. Eisenhower stated, “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded” (1961, para. 22). As a conservative Republican president and former Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower warned of an age of commercialization in which “the good” would become a commodity. Eisenhower had been the president of Columbia University in New York from 1948 until 1953. He did not leave much of a legacy for that institution, other than aligning his name with the school. However, at the end of his presidency of the country, he warned about the growing commercialized sector that seeks to control the direction of scholarship. This storyline continues to pick up momentum long after Eisenhower’s death in 1969.


Communication ethics represents the fact that differing goods propel persons and organizations. The emerging good within hypermodernity is commodification—anything and everything is for sale. Work by multiple scholars associated with an emphasis on otherness and confirmation of persons emerges, challenging commodification, even the selling of the human smile (Arnett, 1992; Hochschild, 2012). The ethical concerns of dialogue sought to address the ongoing movement toward commodification, countered by an ethic attentive to persons and otherness. Martin Buber (1958) differentiated the I–Thou and the I–It. A similar framework emerged from the thoughtful insight of Gabriel Marcel (1965). One can also witness the stress on Saying and Said from Emmanuel Levinas (1969) and the argument of Hannah Arendt (2006) about the “banality of evil.” Arendt’s critique of Eichmann’s performance as a bureaucrat, falsely claiming Kant’s understanding of duty, announced a thoughtless lack of concern for others, limiting his attention to career advancement. For Arendt, the bureaucrat turns a calling into a commoditized activity, a career. The bureaucrat then seeks to build the career, forgetting the purpose of work, such as service to family, friends, and the larger social environment. Life bought and sold in a commoditized career declares, in performative terms, Karl Marx’s claim of “alienated labor” (1967, p. 287). Commoditization ends up alienating the worker from the product, its process, and its relational connections. This point centers Philip Slater’s (1976) critique of the West in The Pursuit of Loneliness. The cycle of commodification begins with a form of colonialization that eventuates in the buying and selling of a place or an era no longer phenomenologically present. One begins to sell nostalgia. Commodification dismisses and bundles the initiatives of others by selling and buying their use value. One hears cries about commodification of higher education through works such as The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Ginsberg, 2013). The lament pivots on basic knowledge: it is not enough to run a university by administrative careers alone. This historical commodification reading manifests itself in multiple professions, from medicine to law. Such complaints find dismissive reactions, with some wrongheadedly calling such perception melancholy. Eco’s (2005) “hypertextuality” assumes the reality of co-present texts and experiences. Only in an era that sells its soul to progress can one dismiss co-present hypertextual realities. Having multiple experiences invites the ability to function as a critic rather than as an unreflective apologist for the not-yet of modernity’s progress.

The task of intellectuals is to gather experiences beyond the immediacy of the moment. Their hypertextual understanding makes them dangerous to those wanting a single paradigmatic direction to govern all action. Commodification seeks to destroy the reality of conflicting perspectives. Lasch, in what may be his most important work, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1981), outlines what it means to embrace a paradigmatic reality that goes undisputed: the new. Hypertextuality ceases to exist, and only one path offers insight for those who follow. Progress is the taken-for-granted assumption that propels buying and selling, that which markets the “not yet.” Hypermodernity leads to reliance upon a single text; the commodification and selling of all, including the self. The self becomes another commodity propelled by efforts at personal branding. This juncture of hypermodern ethics manifests itself in the work and life of Andy Warhol (1928–1987). Sarah DeIuliis (2018) frames Warhol as a major cultural marker of hypermodernity in action—a commodity fetish of selling and buying tied to a narrow sovereign conception of self-branding.

Communication ethics works most often within this modern frame of the self, giving suggestions for different ways to guide a personality. Summaries of different approaches in communication ethics (Arnett, 1987; Arnett, Arneson, & Bell, 2006; Chesebro, 1969) generally side with a contextual assessment of the way in which ethical goods dwell within a culture. For instance, an emphasis on narrative composed of practices, story, and some collective agreement contrasts with a stress on ethical codes ordered by self-direction alone. What these approaches share in common is their gathering of goods, rendering what Michel Foucault (1977) termed a Discourse background that assists in understanding decision-making discourse in foreground action.7 Background or Discourse is the key to understanding the principal contribution of communication ethics: seeking to understand what matters to oneself and to others.

The Handbook of Communication Ethics, edited by George Cheney, Steve May, and Debashish Munshi (2011), offers a textured understanding of the communication ethics landscape that pivots around the interplay of Discourse as background and discourse as foreground action. In the foreword, Robert T. Craig (2011) outlines four basic approaches to communication ethics: (1) specific concerns that focus on deception and free speech; (2) generalized communication principles that embrace the universal assumptions of Habermas’s (1990) discourse ethics; (3) attentiveness to material conditions and the limits of neoliberal rhetoric that necessitate ethical examination and critique; and (4) awareness of contrasts in practices fundamental to culture and standpoint that situate ethics within time, space, and place.

Foucault’s (1977) understanding of Discourse, understood as a communication ethics background, links ethics and cultural practices within an era of narrative and virtue contention. In order to unmask the power of hypermodernity and commodification in the buying and selling of material conditions and to explicate what practices matters to those in power, communication ethics carves boundaries, professions, religions, and calls for security with Discourse assumptions masquerading as discourse implementation. Critique begins with hypertextual knowledge of ethical differences and includes resistance to cultural imposition.

Culture and Resistance

The conceptual link between communication ethics and culture is material conditions and practices that form the habitus of a people, which consists of embodied dispositions of social, economic, and symbolic capital carrying a temperament that values particular things over others. Habitus is a taken-for-granted situating of practices that shape a culture. This connection drives the scholarship of Pierre Bourdieu (1984). He opposed the practices of neoliberalism and globalization, both of which deny the vitality of locality. Additionally, Bourdieu was instrumental in defining the development of the notion of precarity (Standing, 2011). In a hypermodern and commodification culture, one buys and sells one’s life piecemeal. Making a living becomes a form of economic fragmentation where rich corporations move risk to the part-time worker (Arnett, 2016; Bourdieu, 2016). The taken-for-granted nature of habitus houses what Arendt (2006) termed the “banality of evil”; that is, within the space of habitus, thoughtless practices and unexamined assumptions drive decision-making.

When a communication ethic dwells in an environment of habitual practices and repetition, the power and significance of a given narrative produces a more comprehensive and pervasive milieu—a culture. Cultures house multiple goods and multiple narratives, some in agreement and others in contention. Culture permits communicative identification of goods worthy of embracing or rejecting. Culture allows for understanding and comprehension. It does not presuppose isomorphic agreement on all goods and practices. Cultures are problematic when one assumes that only one way of practicing life or one habitus is feasible. Unexamined habitus embraces unthinking assumptions, forging yet another path toward forms of Manifest Destiny, totalitarianism, and colonialism. When one understands culture as hypertextual, composed of multiple practices of habitus, one must choose a given set of practices while acknowledging the viability of others. Such is the reason that two people can work side by side doing the same empirical work while engaged in quite different cultural phenomenological meaning coming from the activity. This reality is one of the major points of separation between Martin Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas. Both met existence on its own terms: the former with the tools naturally at hand and the latter with a sense of joy. One of Levinas’s critiques of Heidegger rests on his stress upon using. For Levinas, joy accompanies responsibility in discerning how to respond to the particular characteristics in a given existential moment. Both Levinas and Heidegger met existence empirically, but they did so within quite different phenomenological worlds (Arnett, 2017). Practices of habitus shift the cultural life world of persons, empirically revealed by Levinas’s commitment to ethics as first principle and Heidegger’s participation in the Nazi Party.

Practices are key for MacIntyre (2016), who contended that the world has witnessed the grave dangers of totalitarianism but must grasp the consequences of fully unleashed emotivism and individualism. Such practices are taken for granted in hypermodernity and invite thoughtlessness that disregards the practices/habitus of oneself and others. Self-focused thoughtlessness is a major decision-making mechanism of hypermodernity that attempts to seek to stand above the constraints of cultural practices. Granted, not all cultural practices should generate loyalty. However, one must know them in order to understand oneself and others. Hypermodernity invites decision-making that commodifies the self into a sovereign entity capable of pursuing singular truth and dismissing the practices of another. The habitus of hypermodernity begins with disdain for the practices under the feet of other people. It erects a culture without roots and without practices capable of nourishing persons. This perspective is key to Arendt’s (1961) Between Past and Future, in which she discussed the dangers of modernity’s active destruction of the ground under one’s feet—that which connects the past with the future. The loss of ground strikes at the heart of Taylor’s (2006) connection between practices and human identity. As practices shift, identity follows. Only modernity abstractly frames a cultural background that ignores the material practices and narrative sources that shape human lives. Hypermodernity welcomes a type of culture without roots, propelled by the paradigmatic assurance of individualism.

Such a critique of the United States is not new. It was central to Alexis de Tocqueville’s (2000) Democracy in America. He offered differentiation between selfishness and individualism, with the former as socially understandable and the latter as socially problematic. Selfishness is social and involves consideration of others, even when using another to one’s advantage. Individualism, on the other hand, is a social disease composed of standing above the restraints and interactions of family, friends, community, and work. Individualism stands above the fray of everyday life. Individualism is an unmoored cultural background. Instead of placing embedded practices of habitus under the feet of persons, individualism attempts to rise above social practices. Individualism sets one apart from others and ignores the ground of practices that makes another distinctive and simultaneously connects one to others. Disconnected social ties lead to reliance upon an expressivistic rhetoric that emerges from a sovereign self functioning as a fulcrum upon which individual decision-making occurs as one discounts the reality of others affected by a given decision. This perspective violates Levinas’s (2007) definition of justice: attending to those not immediately part of the decision-making (p. 159). Justice attempts to account for impact of practices on the distant, not just the proximate. Individualism is an effort to construct a culture without origins, as argued by both Arendt (1961) and Simone Weil (2003). They challenge this effort, carrying forth an argument made in the early nineteenth century by Tocqueville.

The principal problem with the modern individualism experiment is thoughtless cultural disrespect, a dismissal of narrative ground and cultural practices driven by an intense dislike of difference. If culture has roots, the practices are available to examine and challenge, with the possibility of changing over time. However, if one attempts to ground some abstract form of culture in the person alone and walk above the mud of everyday life, dismissive action toward otherness is a natural consequence. Hypermodernity invites judgments of either/or consisting of good people (those who agree with me) and bad people (those who think otherwise) and a refusal to learn from the cultural practices of another. After the devastating events of 9/11, Judith Butler (2006) attempted to generate a conversation centered on learning about different cultural ground under persons’ feet, which gives rise to contrasting practices and worldviews. Her efforts met hostility and indifference (Butler, 2006, pp. 101–127; Gitlin, 2012; Lewin, 2002) and the debate locked in on the frame of the good people and the bad people as emotivistic reasoning dominated the discussion.

Only banality eliminates and eradicates unduly repetitive action within modernity; however, perhaps interruptions from differing cultural practices might do so as well. When individualism functions as an example of a universal standpoint it requires disruption by contrasting cultural positions. The concept of culture is a universal horizon that contains multiple particular renditions. Throughout the work of intercultural communication, one finds similar discussion. For instance, William B. Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey (1988), in their examination of “Culture and Affective Communication,” confirmed that facial expression is universal, but the specific implications and meaning of these expressions vary significantly from culture to culture. Their insights point to T. S. Eliot’s (1949) reminder that culture is difficult to “think” (p. 62; Bhabha, 1996, p. 53). It dwells not in thinking but in performative practices that can be incomprehensible to the stranger. Homi K. Bhabha (1996) articulates culture as “in-between” places of overlap and conflict between and among cultures. The reality of colonial disruption and later reconstruction announces that spaces void of uncontaminated cultures are near extinction. Increasingly, the world comprises multiple and clashing cultures. Jacqueline M. Martinez (2006) outlines the importance of “semiotic phenomenology” in an effort to understand sign systems in order to explicate postcolonial scholarship and its importance for understanding intercultural interaction. She probes habituated practices of discourse that attempt to impose signs rather than encourage reflexive examination of their limits. She refuses to assume taken-for-granted engagement with phrases such as the “war on terrorism” (p. 306). Clashing cultures call for a return to signs and a refusal to accept unreflective understanding of conventional culturally imposed codes.

Healthy ecologies have multiple and complex systems that lead to their well-being. Differing cultural practices form knowledge and habitus as ecological, requiring awareness of differing cultural systems and their creative influence on one another. An ecological perspective on the meeting of cultures denounces imperialism and colonialism and acknowledges the position of Augustine (2006): “I have become a question to myself” (p. 217). The question begins with ecology of cultures that frames, shapes, and constantly alters the cultural ground under one’s feet (Sousa Santos, 2007). Turning more directly to the connection of ethics and culture, Ting-Toomey (2011) argues for a reflexivity that invites a performative metaethic as one functions within and among contending cultures.

Ting-Toomey (2011) offers ten reflective engagements with an emphasis on metaethics and culture. First, who benefits from practices within the culture? Second, who resists these practices within the culture? Third, what persons and groups suffer or find pleasure from these practices? Fourth, what is one’s role in an ethical dilemma of competing positions on these practices? Fifth, when should one condemn public practices and then vacate the cultural space? Sixth, when should one assist with reconciliation of cultural differences? Seventh, how can one assist in finding alternatives to an “intolerable cultural practice” (p. 349)? Eighth, is it possible to locate allies for the implementation of a creative solution to a cultural impasse? Ninth, can one work as a change agent to enact grassroots cultural change? Tenth, what are the basic cultural changes needed in order to sustain a given creative change? In Ting-Toomey’s work, one hears the power of rhetoric in generating attention to cultural problems and the necessity of engaging a rhetoric to convince others of the importance of particular ethical cultural changes as one seeks to protect and promote a different set of cultural practices. The unifying feature of communication ethics and culture is that both house goods and practices that matter to a particular person and/or group. Attending to these goods and practices is the first step in rhetorical influence, offering acknowledgment of what matters to another and to oneself. Within culture exist multiple communities of memory of rhetoric. This multiplicity makes a case for continuation of particular practices and, sometimes, the intervention of change.

Rhetorical Practices

Rhetoric in the service of ethical goods and cultural practices has a twofold function. First, rhetoric generates attention about a communication ethic and cultural practices; second, it permits one to influence the continuation or the disputation of particular communication ethics goods and cultural practices. Rhetoric functions as a communicative reminder, advocate, arbitrator, and dissembler of taken-for-granted assumptions about goods and practices. Communication ethics presupposes a multiplicity of goods, and culture houses differing ethical positions/practices. Contention between and among contrasting ethical standpoints emerges as everyday routine. Cultures house differing ethics. Their collisions with one another define an era of diversity of ethical practices within, between, and among cultures. A historical moment of cultures in contention places rhetoric at the epicenter of dispute and difference. Rhetoric assumes an essential role of assisting in the public description of differing ethical goods—articulating and advocating for the implications of one ethical good or set of ethical goods performed in daily communicative life or unmasking the espoused virtues of another. Rhetoric functions as the explicator of what matters and the announcer of implications of the why of ethical goods and cultural practices. Sorting through contrasting claims necessitates attentiveness to what is at stake: acknowledgment of competing ethical goods housed within a single culture and, at times, within differing cultural systems, requiring reflective discernment among contrasting positions. Ethics, culture, and rhetoric function as a performative communicative trinity for understanding difference in an age of hypertextual complexity.

The hypertextual nature of knowledge is the centerpiece of Calvin Schrag’s (1985, 2003) depiction of rhetoric giving birth to philosophy and what he termed the death of philosophy giving a rebirth to rhetoric. From this perspective, philosophy orchestrates a coherent story about what matters as one sorts through the goods of competing communication ethics and the practices of differing cultures. Deconstruction sought to shake the foundations of certainty, technique, and method in philosophy, which made rhetoric pragmatically viable once again. Rhetoric enters the conversation about virtue, narrative, and cultural contention. The task is to make given assumptions public so they lend greater insight and direction. Rhetoric, for Schrag, is an admission of the vitality of hermeneutic work or interpretive engagement within actions of embedded assessment. Schrag cites the work of Michael Hyde and Craig Smith (1979) in their emphasis of the “making-known function” of rhetoric (p. 355), which Hyde (2012) continues to stress. Lived experience embodied and situated within petite narratives gives rise to meaningful and significant perspectives that rhetorically shape discernment between and among differing positions and contrasting communication ethics and cultures. Rationality, for Schrag, emerges from rhetorical positions and practices that house varying views of the good and differing practices within cultures.

Schrag’s position is akin to Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm. Since the publication of Fisher’s (1984) essay, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument,” communication scholars employ work dependent upon narrative, such as Arthur P. Bochner (2016), Walter Brueggemann (1986, 2016), Arthur C. Danto (2007), and W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn (1997). Narrative rationality suggests that insight originates in a unity of practices, story, and collective agreement on the importance of those practices explained and signified in story. The stress on narratives in contention, as opposed to the modern conviction of a grand metanarrative, propels the insights of deconstruction (Derrida, 1996) and contemporary pragmatism (Rorty, 1979). The theme of petite narratives housing ethics and cultural practices in contention is a major part of the continuing scholarship of MacIntyre (2016). One discovers his conviction in one book after another addressing this theme, from his early work on the subject, After Virtue (1984), to his 2016 book, Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reasoning, and Narrative. He continues to frame the importance of the interplay of narrative, ethics, and culture played out in practices of petite rationality.

Scott R. Stroud (2005, 2014) highlights the role of rhetoric in distinguishing between and among differing positions on ethics and contending cultural practices. The answers do not materialize without contention, disagreement, and attentiveness to the sources that undergird particular positions. Without such consideration, one is incapable of practical reason that seeks temporal truth. Stroud’s (2011, 2014) fascination with Kant and Dewey yields a pragmatic rhetoric akin to Charles Sanders Peirce’s call for “reasonableness” (Peirce, 1960, vol. 2 p. 34), not universal truth, in the discerning of goods and practices worthy of protecting and promoting. The essential case for rhetoric in an era of postmodernity/hypertextuality commences with listening to what matters: goods and practices. Lisbeth Lipari (2012) states: “Listening is the invisible and inaudible enactment of the ethical relation itself; on it, everything depends” (p. 242). Such listening opens one to contrasting perspectives and to contexts and invisible traditions (Lipari, 2014, 2017). The work of Gerard A. Hauser (1998, 2001, 2012) is a call to listen to vernacular voices and the multiplicity of opinions that constitute the public sphere. Hauser adheres to the public diversity position of Arendt, debunking a modernist assumption that one universal metanarrative position can guide the direction and action of the public domain (Arendt, 1998; Arnett, 2013).

Charles E. Morris III (2015), in his article “Context’s Critic, Invisible Traditions, and Queering Rhetorical History,” calls for listening to the rhetoric of assumptions and the necessity of opening oneself to differing interpretations within the public domain. Resisting “narrative norms” requires listening to differing goods and practices, pushing attentiveness to recognition of genuine difference “beyond lip service” (p. 227). The test of rhetoric is not in the words, but within the goods and practices understood. Challenging talking alone necessitates attending to context and the material conditions that give rise to goods and practices. Rhetoric is a carrier of what matters, and what matters requires making known, first by listening, then with reflectivity, and then through expression. Once a position enters public space, it moves this trinity once again, testing via context and the material conditions that actually shape narratives of persons.

Dialectic and rhetoric sort out differences, as discussed by Mari Lee Mifsud and Scott D. Johnson (2000). The authors tie dialogue to listening to contrary positions. In an era of difference, the invitation to dialogue must begin with an emphasis on listening to monologic positions (Arnett, 2012, 2014, 2015), which requires attending to goods and practices contrary to one’s own. The continental view of dialogue begins with the ground under the feet of the communicators—in the form of ethical goods, cultural practices, and limited and situated narrative rationality—that informs one about what matters. Arendt’s (1998) emphasis on action as story-centered does not seek final universal answers, but reasonable temporal directions housed in the interplay of ethics, culture, and rhetoric. Hypertextuality of postmodernity assumes the reality of multiple texts—in this case, diverse positions on ethics and culture. The task of rhetoric is to assist with reasonable discernment and ongoing resistance to proclamations of Truth handed down from on high. Rhetoric is a potential space of resistance, moving from imposed certain views of ethics and culture to listening, reflection, and conversation about petite narratives that offer a unity of contraries of direction and doubt, ever wary of the temptation of the self-righteous wanting to impose upon another and leading historically down paths of colonialism, totalitarianism, and isolationism. On the other hand, a rhetoric that seeks creative productivity first acknowledges a diverse mix of ethics and cultures and then calls forth a tenacious, patient learning that embraces direction more akin to stumbling uncertainty than to unquestioning assurance.

Further Reading

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    Arnett, R. C. (2013). Communication ethics in dark times: Hannah Arendt’s rhetoric of warning and hope. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

      Arnett, R. C. (2017). Levinas’s rhetorical demand: The unending obligation of communication ethics. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

        Arnett, R. C., Fritz, J. M. H., & McManus, L. M. B. (2018). Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing.Find this resource:

          Arnett, R. C., & Holba, A. (2012). An overture to philosophy of communication: The carrier of meaning. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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                        Lipari, L. (2014). Listening, thinking, being: Toward an ethics of attunement. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1.) Edsall’s awards include the Bill Pryor Memorial Award from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (1981), finalist recognition for the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction literature (1992), the Cary McWilliams Award from the American Political Science Association (1994), the Markwell Award of the International Society of Political Psychology (2014), and multiple fellowships at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2.) For more information on Manifest Destiny and American history, see Merk and Merk (1995), Stephanson (1995), and Bass and Cherwitz (1978).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (3.) For more information on the influence of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, on Diethe (2003).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (4.) Wallace is rightly beloved by the discipline of communication. The National Communication Association bestows the Karl R. Wallace Memorial Award in his honor.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (5.) Consider the now-famous broadcast from reporter Edward Murrow (1954) advocating “no fear” in response to McCarthyism. He locates the source of the problem in the American public as a whole, not McCarthy specifically. This argument is akin to Arendt’s (2006) distinguishing between Eichmann and the bureaucrat, with her suggesting that the fundamental problem of modernity is the bureaucrat.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (6.) Civil unrest and social conflict corresponded to instances such as the murder of Emmett Louis Till (1955), Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus (1955), the launching of Sputnik (1957), a growing women’s liberation movement following the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), growing environmental concerns in response to the publication of Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea (1998), US atomic testing throughout the 1950s, and increased automation that eliminated factory jobs throughout the 1950s.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (7.) Mats Alvesson and Dan Karreman (2000) use the term “Discourse,” with a capital “D,” to contrast Foucault’s systemic understanding of “discourse” with its more localized forms. Recent scholarship by Gail Fairhurst (2011) and François Cooren (2015) maintains this distinction between “discourse” and “Discourse.”