Aune – Marxism and Rhetorical Theory

Aune, James Arnt. “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory.” Rhetoric and Marxism. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc, 1994. 539-551. Print. Polemic Series .

James Arnt Aune began his essay from the position that rhetorical theory could benefit by filiing in the gaps between it and Marxism and questioned what Marxist rhetoric would look like in times past and at the time he wrote his text. He claimed that if in fact Marxism had been silent about rhetoric, which he asserted, then rhetoric had been just about as silent about Marxism.

One major difference between rhetoric and Marxism Aune noted was that the while he claimed the term “ideology” had attained quasi-conanical status in rhetorical criticism, Marx’s central focus was on class struggle; this focus Aune posited had been “thoroughly ignored” by rhetorical scholars.

His major critique is that rhetorical criticism was not as productive as it could or should be because scholars hadn’t “seriously” examined the root of how capitalism has affected the theory and practice of rhetoric: “The ambiguous position of academics within the class structure of advanced capitalism makes ideological criticism appealing but scarcely more useful politically than when the Frankfurt school invented it in the 1930s” (540).

To this end, Aune focused on the repression of rhetoric in Marxist theory and the reading of the history of theories of public argument in Marxist terms in order to present the beginnings of a theory of Marxist rhetoric. To do this he identified limitations of both Marxist traditions that specifically address communication, and rhetorical studies’ emphasis on ideology.

On page 549, he concluded and summarized the main themes of his overall argument in the context of some of his theses toward a Marxist rhetorical theory:

  1. “By foregrounding the role of labor in constructing our human world, a Marxist approach to communication may help revitalize the criticism of public discourse.”
  2. “By foregrounding class struggle rather than public consensus, a Marxist rhetorical theory may be better able to explain broad historical shifts in rhetorical practice and pedagogy than do existing alternatives.”
  3. “Traditional rhetoric, in privileging common sense as a starting point for the construction of enthymemes, may provide a needed corrective to Marxism’s tendency to view the common sense of a culture merely as a rationalization of that culture’s relations of domination.”
  4. “Uniting Marxism’s traditional concern for economic democracy with traditional (if at times ambiguous) concern for political democracy may provide a narrative structure for a new politics, one that views revolution as a struggle against racial, sexual, and economic oppression and against the specialized languages of expertise, which have characterized “liberal” reform in this century. Marxism needs to correct rhetoric’s avoidance of the category of labor in the construction of the social world, while rhetoric needs to correct Marxism’s one-sided focus on labor at the expense of other forms of domination.” (549)

Aune’s main argument is “…that a revitalized conception of traditional rhetoric, one informed by Marxist theory and practice, may be of some use in advancing, in not the Revolution, at least the humane practice of public argument” (549).

“What Marxism has taught us, in admittedly flawed ways, is that human beings have the potential to build a heroic society. What students of rhetoric and communication can give Marxism is a more human way of bridging the critique of ideology with political action. The ultimate point is that audiences, when presented with the contradictions inherent in their social systems, have a choice about the ideological narratives to which they will subscribe or which they will create. That these narratives will not be limited to the banal yet frightening ones of the White House or the Kremlin depends on our ability to extend our imaginative range. As Marx (1975) himself wrote, “Every emancipation is a restoration of the human world and of human relationships to man himself” (p. 240).” (550)

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