What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.
Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
Sara Ahmed is a feminist philosopher specializing in how the cultural politics of language use and discourse mediate social and embodied encounters with difference. She has published field-shaping contributions to queer and feminist theory, critical race and postcolonial theory, affect and emotion studies, and phenomenology. Since the publication of Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism in 1998, her work has epitomized the value of contemporary feminist cultural studies to speak to and against the masculinist traditions of continental philosophy. Unequivocally inserting feminist politics into the rarified air of academic theory, it crosses the sexist boundary which corrals feminist thought into the category of “studies” while opposing it to male-authored philosophy—the latter automatically authorized to speak on the social and material “Real.” In doing so, her work sits squarely within discourse-analytical traditions that seek to expose how various epistemic scenes – activism, the media, and academia, to name a few -- sediment false authority on such issues as happiness, utility, and the good. Moreover, in contesting New Materialism’s search for some monist “matter” beneath experience, she traces how those linguistic moves impose insidiously singular concepts of what social “reality” is, and how it unfolds, for real people. As a field, communication studies concerns itself centrally with matters of social influence, scale, and power, such as the electoral effects of political speech, or the ability of a message to morph as it reaches new audiences. Turning a critical eye upon the (re)production of cultural norms and social structure through interpersonal and institutional encounters, Ahmed’s oeuvre explores the discursive logics and speech acts that sediment or transform the social meanings of race, gender, and other differences.