McGee, Michael Calvin. "In Search of ‘the People’: A Rhetorical Alternative."
McGee, Michael Calvin. “In Search of ‘the People’: A Rhetorical Alternative.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.3 (1975): 235-249.
This is reprinted in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, edited by John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit, and Sally Caudill, 1999: 341-56.
A simple statement of the problem: “How can one conceive the idea ‘people’ in a way which accounts for the rhetorical function of ‘the people’ in arguments designed to warrant social action, even society itself?” (343).
The audience agrees to participate in a collective fantasy dreamed up by an advocate
“‘The people’… are not objectively real in the sense that they exist as a collective entity in nature; rather, they are a fiction dreamed by an advocate and infused with an artificial, rhetorical reality by the agreement of an audience to participate in a collective fantasy” (343). Then the rhetoric becomes the reality.
When the leader is created
“The advocate is recognized as Leader only when he transcends his own individuality in the estimation of his audience” (345).
Only human reality is individual – all groups are infused with an artificial reality
Individuals must be seduced into abandoning their individuality
“So, from a rhetorical perspective, the entire socialization process is nothing but intensive and continual exercises in persuasion: individuals must be seduced into abandoning their individuality, convinced of their sociality, not only when their mothers attempt to housebreak them, but also later in life when governors ask them to obey a law or to die in war for God and country” (345).
McGee says that there are four stages of metamorphosis into ‘a people’
1. the seeds of collectivism are dormant
2. incipient political myths are organized from the seeds
3. the people believe the myth and publicly exhibit behaviors that ratify it
4. the rhetoric decays
Edmund Burke’s Present Discontents contains all four stages.
Myth is identical with the convictions of a group.
A new rhetoric is needed when there is no fundamental belief
“When there is no fundamental belied, one senses a crisis which can only be met with a new rhetoric, a new mythology” (347). A new political myth conflicts with “objective reality” and with all previous myths.
“Generations” don’t rest on circumstances but on the acceptance of a general rhetorical vision.
“the people” exist in competitive relationships “which develop between a myth and antithetical visions of the collective life” (348).
Tension: stable vs. vital impulses must be renegotiated within each biological generation
“political myths are purely rhetorical phenomena, ontological appeals constructed from artistic proofs and intended to redefine an uncomfortable and oppressive reality” (348).
The people are the social and political myths they accept
“Burke… argued that studies of rhetoric should contribute positively to understanding the social process and the human condition” (349).
McGee argues for a different understanding of history to include human thought.
Social theory is relevant
“In its broader contemporary sense, then, rhetoricians have a stake in, and can make significant contributions to the sort of conceptual, cultural dialogues envisioned in the Hegelian social/philosophical tradition” (351).
Public figures are not represented in portrait, but in caricature (356).
Whatever men wish to be is nearer reality
“‘Whatever men wish to be, rather than seem, is the greater good, since it is nearer reality‘” (from Aristotle’s Rhetoric; itals added by McGee, 356).
What seems to be a dependence on the advocate. In some ways, this is a very traditional way of thinking about rhetoric as fueled by the leader.
McGee writes a lot that’s relevant to social movement theory, so Lois doesn’t think he’s guilty of always privileging the leader, but to what extent is it possible for a people to form itself without the advocate role that he makes so central.
What kinds of transformations going on are not only responding to changing notions of the people, but are also contributing to creating new versions of what the people are.
What is it that’s happening and what is rhetoric making happen in terms of how people are imagined in the academy?