I heard about G. Thomas Goodnight when I was at the scientific rhetoric pre-conference at Rhetoric of Society this year. Almost immediately, I saw the ramifications of what he was saying on my own research.
Goodnight basically says that there are three different spheres of discourse: public, private, and technical. He describes how each works and says that the private and technical are beginning to take over the public. When I first heard about it, I applied it to my analysis of Autism Speaks and realized that they combine all three as an organization. They talk to the public while sharing private stories and scientific information that they have found. They combine all three, but organizations that are trying to fight them are only inhabiting public and technical. But, all that is for another post.
As soon as I started reading the book “Active Voices: Composing a Rhetoric for Social Movements,” I realized that they were talking about discourse and referencing Goodnight’s work in some for or another. Specifically when the write:
Despite discomfort with this trend toward the dissolution of boundaries between public and private discourses and the actions that include them, the malevolence of this emerging reality is not guaranteed.
What is most interesting is the sentence that comes after the quote above.
Notions of “public” and “private” have long been understood as existing in a changing relationship to one another.
So, in a sense, the authors are challenging Goodnight’s criticism and lamentation that the public sphere of discourse is dissipating and being sucked into the private. This quote is saying that rhetoricians have long realized that there is a very fine line between public and private and it is constantly shifting.
And now, I find myself wanting to go back to Autism Speaks’ analysis. They are the catalysts that have generated the newest shift. What the quote above doesn’t mention is the technical, or scientific.
If we look at the history of autism discourse, we can see that when it was first given a name by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, discourse on autism was solely in the technical sphere. It remained in the technical sphere until around 1990, I would say when Rain Man came out (Now, I could be completely wrong here, I haven’t done an in-depth analysis of autism discourse. I’m just looking at what I know of off the top of my head.)
After Rain Man came out, autism discourse was on two fronts: technical (because scientists were still trying to understand it and treat it) and public (the movie showed people that autism existed).
But then, in 2005, Autism Speaks comes along and changes the discourse. They come on the scene as the self-described “world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.” So, they inhabit the scientific sphere by funding science and having a scientific board; they inhabit the public sphere, originally through public service announcements (e.g., This is Autism, Autism Everyday, I am Autism, etc.), and now just by word of mouth; and they inhabit the private sphere because they share the stories of parents and families “affected by autism.”
They inhabit all of these spheres. And the presenter at the scientific rhetoric pre-converence pointed out that the in-betweens of the spheres is an incredibly. Inhabiting several discursive spheres makes it difficult to figure out how best to challenge and have a discourse with them.
Do we (autistic people) carry out a public conversation with Autism Speaks? Well, that doesn’t work because they ignore us.
Do we carry out a private conversation with Autism Speaks? Well, that doesn’t work because they say we are not like their child, shout at us, or ignore us. And sometimes, worse.
Okay, so what about a scientific conversation with Autism Speaks? Well, they are the “world’s leading autism science organization,” and many of us don’t have science degrees, plus we aren’t like their child, so we clearly don’t have any authority to talk about autism at all because we are not autistic nor are we scientists.
So, how? Well, the authors actually have an answer already. It is a definition of rhetoric that I hadn’t thought about before, at least not as explicitly as they state it.
Any comprehensive definition of rhetoric, then, must speak to the agency of those who employ it, consciously or otherwise.
In other words: we can have agency and the ability to discourse (what is the verb of discourse?) with each other if we understand rhetoric.
So, this has been a post that took one small thing that the chapter reminded me of and, yeah.