Appraisals and Comments

Appraisals and Comments

Studies in Rhetoric and Culture


Keith Hart

Comments on the 4th International Rhetoric Culture Conference


The Fourth International Rhetoric Culture Conference on “Rhetoric in Politics and Economics”, held at Johannes Gutenberg University , Mainz in July 2005, brought an end to the conferencing phase of this ambitious project. Now over a dozen books are planned for publication by Berghahn Books of Oxford and New York . The event itself was something of a marathon, combining around forty presentations (plus their discussants) delivered over five days in conditions that were often oppressively hot. Some specialists confined their participation to one half of the proceedings, but a good number stuck it out for both. Our hosts insisted on entertaining us for dinner most nights, so we ended up seeing quite a lot of each other. This was an unmitigated bonus for me, since no less than fifteen of my old friends had also been invited, suggesting that there might be something to the concept of rhetoric culture after all.


I came as a newcomer to ‘rhetoric culture', but I enjoy public speaking and hoped to pick up some tips on the use of rhetoric for anthropological purposes. Although I am a bad advertisement for the classical British social anthropology that gave me my training, I suppose I retain from that experience distaste for the word ‘culture' which has been amplified by the liberal education I acquired afterwards. I can't help associating the idea with early modern Europe 's courts and then with nationalism. But we are living today in the biggest culture boom ever, with cultural services (entertainment, media and communications, education, religion, the arts, information services generally) rapidly becoming the dominant sector of the world market. So, as a would-be populist, I have begun to take the idea seriously. The future of the human economy is for people to trade at distance, not just things, but what they do for each other. Maybe ‘culture' expresses best the infinite variety of what that entails. I still prefer the tradition linking citizens to civilization, but we can't always have what we want.


Our final session on publication strategy raised, not for the first or last time, the standing of this term ‘rhetoric culture'. The anglophones, especially the British, are desperately keen to introduce a conjunctive or to make one term an adjective. I suggested, only half-joking, the term ‘RhetoricKultur' in support of Ivo as the enterprise's main poet. It is important to have a name that implies just one thing, not two in tentative juxtaposition. And, if the expression strikes some people as odd now, they will think differently when all those books have hit the shelves. This conference gave me several glimpses of Ivo's impassioned articulation of the idea. Who could forget him thrusting a long Hamar stick at the appropriate angle while expounding how culture is rhetoric and rhetoric culture? Long live ‘rhetoric culture'.


The two halves of the conference differed in the prominence they gave to its ostensible theme. The ‘politics' section stayed closer to it, perhaps because the purpose of rhetoric is political. The other section quickly fell into a longstanding argument about the relationship between anthropology and economics, where the idea of rhetoric was left largely implicit. In any case, the issue of where rhetoric culture begins and ends was unresolved. The organizers obviously had in mind that presentations might acknowledge the rhetorical theme in their form. But most people read out a summary of their paper and those who didn't were often just poorly prepared (including your reporter). There is a contradiction between form and content here that will become even more manifest in a series of publications. Rhetoric as cultural activity is perhaps better expressed in plays or movies than in academic monographs. But we will see.


I can't resist mentioning some of the highlights of this conference for me. Francesca Merlan's outstanding take on rhetorics of indignity; Kwesi Yankah's representation of chiefly protocol as an eternal feature of Ghanaian culture; Felix Girke's clear ethnographic account of bond-friendship; Gerard Hauser's poignant analysis of civil resistance in prisons; Chris Gregory's lucid critique of the economics of Indian marriage; Ruben Oliven's innocent Brazilian abroad in America; Jane Guyer's remarkably precise depiction of a Nigerian crisis; and Deborah Gewertz's declamation of the history of lamb flaps in the Pacific. A test of endurance, yes. But also a lively encounter between anthropology and related disciplines at their best. Congratulations to our hosts – Ivo, Jean, Anna-Maria, Felix, Christian. I would like to think we might meet again, but now the enterprise is going virtual, as it must if we are to reach a wider audience.