Rhetoric and Power: The Freedom/Domination Problem

Jodi Grossblatt Saunders

Some initial thoughts

The freedom and domination move locates power as implicit in language. In contrast to the traditional notion of power ­ i.e. that individuals attain power by learning how to use rhetoric effectively ­ this move posits power as part of language. In other words, power resides in language and thus the "talk about" always contains elements of both domination and freedom, of oppression and liberation. According to Foucault, domination and freedom is a dialectic and in order to understand this move it is important that we see how both domination and freedom can turn into their opposites.

Knowledge is an important part of understanding Foucault in particular and the freedom and domination problem in general. Building on the theory of rhetoric as epistemic, this move posits knowledge as a construct that we imbue with power. Those who possess the knowledge deemed valuable at a given moment in time/space are deemed powerful. This power, implicit in discourse, then dominates our understanding (notion of discursive formations); it constrains the way that we are able to interpret (conceive of) events, behaviors, situations, etc. In our lives, discursive domination is reflected in "the power of doctors over lunatics, of police over civilians, of experts over laymen, and in the last resort, the power of society over all its members." (Ryan 1)

The rhetoric and power move presents us with enormous challenges. It raises important questions ­ with serious consequences for rhetorical theory ­ that we must consider. Most foundationally, how can we deal with something that is part of our very language? Are freedom and domination inevitable? How can change occur when the very language that we use to create change is severely constrained by discursive forms of domination? Is change even possible or are we to forever remain in this dialectical tension? And if the answer is the latter, how, then can we make this dialectical tension productive?

Questions for your reading:

As well, as you examine this move, please consider the additional questions that follow:

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