Mapping Authority

The theme of the 2014 Public Address Conference is “Mapping Authority.” At a time when American public address engages with longstanding topics that have nonetheless acquired global urgency, the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites now typically mourn the nation’s apparent incapacity to cogently assess information, to respond in reasonable ways to articulated and passionately held but perhaps incommensurable ideological chasms, and to engage respectfully with ideas emerging from other perspectives. Never before in human history have public utterances been so thoroughly dissected, fragmented, circulated and deconstructed and yet so quickly discredited and dismissed. A paradox of contemporary public discourse is that as the digital archives expand, no statement or image made anywhere may ever evade retrieval, but the ocean of information makes any given utterance almost instantly forgettable.   Publics are better informed than ever, but also astonishingly ignorant. Sources of information are richer than ever but serious intellectual work is fully co-mingled online with rumor and wholesale conspiracy and fiction. Meanwhile, the social exigencies that invite public discussion remain momentous and historically compelling, and the same informational ecosystems that so often eviscerate the capacity for collective decision still give rise to instances of astonishing and even sublime eloquence.

These dimensions of the contemporary rhetorical situation foreground the issue of authority, which might be thought of, rhetorically, as being at the intersection of ethos and the enthymeme. For centuries, authority was closely tied to literacy, to the ability to read and write and speak, and later, to the ability to broadcast electronically. The link between access to means of message production and interpretation and authority is signaled by the relation of “author” and “authority.” Western history, perhaps since the Reformation, has seen a steady erosion of authority as authorship has become more and more democratic. Today, blogs and Tweets make everyone a broadcaster, our most popular source of information, Wikipedia, is one of the great experiments in democratic education.

A number of communication scholars, not to mention researchers across the domains of the humanities and social/behavioral sciences, have attended to “authority” as a signifier of theoretical significance. Among the work done in this area are the following:


Patricia Bizzell, “Beyond Anti-Foundationalism to Rhetorical Authority: Problems Dealing with “Cultural Literacy,” College English 52(1990): 661-675.

Lynn Clarke, “Contesting Definitional Authority in the Collective,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91(2005): 1-36.

Violet Ducher, “The Rhetorical Politics of Thomas Nashe in ‘The Unfortunate Traveller,'” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (47th, Milwaukee, WI, March 27-30, 1996).

Robert Hariman, “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 72(1986): 38-54.

Ray D. Heising & David J. Trebing, “Authority and Legitimacy: A Rhetorical Case Study of the Iranian Revolution,” Communication Monographs 53(1986): 295-310.

Joseph Jeyaraj, “Liminality and Othering: The Issue of Rhetorical Authority in Technical Discourse,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 26(2012): 277-310.

Kate Lenzo, “Reinventing Ethos: Validity, Authority, and the Transgressive Self,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New Orleans, LA, April 4-8, 1994).

Cal M. Logue, “The Rhetorical Appeals of Whites to Blacks During Reconstruction,” Communication Monographs 44(1977): 241-251.

John L. Lucaites, “Rhetorical Legitimacy, Public Trust, and the Presidential Debates,” Argumentation and Advocacy 25(1989): 231-238.

Arabella Lyon, “Rhetorical Authority in Athenian Democracy and the Chinese Legalism of Han Fei,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 41(2008): 51-71.

Richard Marback, “The Rhetorical Space of Robben Island,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 34(2004): 7-27.

John M. Murphy, “Inventing Authority: Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Orchestration of Rhetorical Traditions,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 83(1997): 71-89.

Christa J. Olson, “Performing Embodiable Topoi: Strategic Indigeneity and the Incorporation of Ecuadorian National Identity,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 96(2010): 300-323.

Tarla Rai Peterson, “The Rhetorical Construction of Institutional Authority in a Senate Subcommittee Hearing on Wilderness Legislation,” Western Journal of Speech Communication 52(1988): 259-276.

Virginia Perdue, “Confidence vs. Authority: Visions of the Writer in Rhetorical Theory,” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (38th, Atlanta, GA, March 19-21, 1987).

Charles Alan Taylor, “Of Audience, Expertise and Authority: The Evolving Creationism Debate,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 78(1992): 277-295.

John Woods & Douglas Walton, “Argumentum ad vercundiam,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 7(1974): 135-153.

Stephen R. Yarborough, “Jonathan Edwards on Rhetorical Authority,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47(1986): 395-408.


David L. Barr, Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Thomas Farrell, Norms of Rhetorical Culture

Christina R. Foust, Transgression as a Mode of Resistance: Rethinking Social Movements in an Era of Corporate Globalization

Cheryl Glenn & Krista Ratcliffe, eds. Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts

Erik Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self

Jason Haslam & Julia M. Wright, eds., Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century

Gerald Hauser, Vernacular Voices

Gerald Hauser, Prisoners of Conscience

Amy Heyse, Women’s Rhetorical Authority and Collective memory: The Daughters of the Confederacy Remember the South

Theo Hobson, Rhetorical Word: Protestant Theology and the Rhetoric of Authority

Stephen Mailloux, Rhetorical Power

Takis Polakos, ed., Rethinking the History of Rhetoric: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Rhetorical Tradition

Jane Sutton, The House of My Sojourn: Rhetoric, Women, and the Question of Authority

Jeffrey Tulis, The Rhetorical Presidency