Anda di halaman 1dari 11

Oratory, Democracy, and the Culture of Participation

Sproule, J. Michael, 1949-

Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2002,

pp. 301-310 (Article)

Published by Michigan State University Press

DOI: 10.1353/rap.2002.0042

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by Harvard University at 11/16/10 10:13PM GMT

 

Against a backdrop of declining civic participation in the United States, political com-
mentators offer remedies such as Web-based communication and the deliberative poll.
The tradition of performative oral culture, once practiced widely in American homes
and schools and at civic gatherings, offers an alternate means for revitalizing the pub-
lic sphere. Renewing oratory and declamation in the schools would be central to estab-
lishing new habits of direct personal engagement with community concerns and

T he central question of this issue—“Does the United States have the cultural and
rhetorical resources for constructing a democratic public?”—prompts me to
offer an affirmative, albeit ironic, answer. Yes, there are available cultural resources
to sustain a participatory form of democracy within the mass-society conditions of
the 21st-century United States. However, successful application of these resources
depends less upon the technological and mass-mediated solutions often proposed
and more upon a recourse to certain face-to-face and neighborly communicative
practices associated with oratorical culture.
The single most important contribution to the participatory ethos of sociocul-
tural communication in nineteenth-century America was oratory as practiced in
the home, the school, and the community. Oratorical contexts, both public and pri-
vate, supplied people with immediate, practical experiences of directly listening to
or presenting viewpoints. By nourishing a deliberative setting within a directly
experienced speech community, oratory established the very condition that John
Dewey, in The Public and Its Problems, identified as essential for democracy.1 Dewey
emphasized the limitations inherent to looking at democracy as merely the collect-
ing or tabulating of individual preferences and decisions. Supplementing Dewey’s
cautionary note, Hannah Arendt stressed the related performative component of
oral speech, calling attention to the unique capacity of talk to permit vital human
contact. She saw speech as helping to create a true polis by giving meaning to what

J. Michael Sproule is Professor and Director of the School of Communication Studies at Bowling
Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.

© Rhetoric & Public Affairs

Vol. 5, No. 2, 2002, pp. 301-310
ISSN 1094-8392

people were able to build.2 In McLuhanesque terms, we may add that, for both
speakers and listeners, oratorical performance provided a sensory-rich experience
in contrast to print-based communication’s emphasis on message as an artifact to
be perceived and decoded privately.3
Dewey’s, Arendt’s, and McLuhan’s observations establish a framework for under-
standing how oratory, as a medium, encourages personal performance and sym-
bolic engagement within a communitarian context. Oratory ever reminds
participants that there is an inescapable communal dimension to political and
social conflict whereas, when writing and other less participatory media are used to
express controversy, the result is to minimize the idea of social conversation and to
highlight the individual invention and communication of ideas. When orators
articulated moral principles, they were able to draw upon a community fealty to
accepted principles such that civil authority took on a moral and not just an insti-
tutional ethos.
But if oratory truly was the vessel of participatory democracy, what accounts for
its obvious relegation in our time to the status of a vestigial structure in the body
politic? Does not the fact of oratory’s virtual replacement by newer media (notably
television) and newer communication professions (notably advertising, marketing,
public relations, and journalism) prove that speechmaking fully deserves its pre-
sent-day artifactual character? Clearly oratory’s decline in our contemporary setting
of communication media and professions establishes a burden for those who would
dare propose reinvigorating the old medium of participatory democracy. Yet I
would argue that oratory’s decline proves only that it was vulnerable to popular cul-
ture—not that face-to-face speech is dispensable in a functioning democracy.
However much oratory was built around immediate involvement, it was not
strictly a popular vernacular. Rather, speechmaking was a learned language code
and so lost out to the simpler popular speech provided by the alliance of market and
popular culture.4 News of the polis, particularly when marketed widely as enter-
taining vicarious experience, offered a palaver to compensate for professionalized
journalism’s lesser level of public participation. In addition, popular culture, as
expressed in the rise of film, radio, and professional sports, offered noncivic vehi-
cles of participation whereby people felt involved and connected without actually
engaging their powers of citizenship. As evidence of the rise of “Ballyhoo” culture
in the 1920s, Silas Bent juxtaposed the growth of sports journalism (increasing
from 5 percent of content in 1900 to 25 percent in 1925) and the corresponding
decline of editorials and opinion (7 percent in 1900 versus 2 percent in 1925).5
Looking at the process from an even more abstract perspective of market vectors
gaining sway over civic forces, we may say that the performative prowess aspect of
oratory made it susceptible to decline as part of that larger process, identified by
Veblen, whereby performative exploit was replaced by property as the favored route
to social esteem. In other words, where oratorical performance was a vital status-

producing element of middle-class life in pre–Gilded Age America, the proper con-
sumption of goods and experiences increasingly became the means for demon-
strating social worthiness.6
There is little doubt that contemporary journalism—with its televisual techno-
glitz and Internet print-and-picture immediacy—may be made to seem more “with
it” than traditional oratory. On the other hand, after nearly a century of exposure
to news that focuses on extreme positions (an emphasis consistent with popular
culture’s bias toward what easily produces attention), the public shows signs of
becoming weary of the journalism of outrage.7 Here the older, performative ora-
torical culture probably is less likely to shortchange the middle ground in contem-
porary disputation and so actually may become attractive for a public dissatisfied
with today’s privileging of ideological polarities. Oratory’s enduring contribution
was, and is, its ability to respond to what Dewey described as the chief problem of
democracy, that is, finding a way for the public to express and define its interests.
Bringing Dewey’s thinking into the 1990s, Christopher Lasch sees neighborly con-
versation as the essential basis for building social conscience such that this kind of
public talk becomes the essence of civic life. Acknowledging that the Left often sees
local communities as sites for bigotry, Lasch emphasizes that engaged conversation
is most promising on the local level because the neighborhood is where people best
see each other as real persons.8 In this way, our contemporary tendency to retreat
into spaces of the likeminded may represent a flight from real human engagement
in a democratic context. Localities may be exactly the place where we may begin to
reinvigorate oratory as the last, best medium of participatory democracy.
If the medium of oratory fits contemporary yearnings for engagement with
those around us—imperatives that popular culture’s palaver cannot completely
assuage—then the issue becomes how to recover the performative and communi-
tarian dimensions of oratory within a cultural framework that has become defined,
on the one hand, by the individual consumption of popular pleasures and, on the
other, by the personal pursuit of advantage through the framework of the market.
We should look at what oratory was, and then consider how to recover its essential
pro-democracy aspects.
Beginning with home-based practices of oratory, we may observe that, before the
rise of popular culture, stories and music were important ways for families to pass
the time. Singing around the piano was so much a part of parlor culture that the
very presence of a piano signified middle-class aspirations. Children often per-
formed readings and music for guests and, in a larger home gathering, a number of
persons—both guests and hosts—might participate in a formal program of enter-
tainment. In The Ideal Book of Elocution, Oratory and Entertainment (1902), we find
a representative playbill of home entertainment consisting of five selections of read-
ing or recitation, two items of dialogue and theatrical scene, and two musical fea-
tures.9 The formal and somewhat public character of parlor culture created a

market for how-to books about elocution, works that plated a thin layer of instruc-
tion over a large vessel of excerpts suitable for reading and declamation. The cul-
tural continuity of elocutionary parlor practices may be seen in the similarities of
these books across the nineteenth century. Noah Webster’s An American Selection of
Lessons in Reading and Speaking (1806), consisting of five pages of elocutionary
rules and a succeeding 220 pages devoted to selections from literature and oratory,
defined a genre that continued into the early twentieth century. Typical of the later
books was Henry D. Northrop’s The Peerless Reciter or Popular Program (1894).
After 40 pages of various instructions in the art of reading, the remainder of the
Northrop volume (about 450 pages) provided literary selections classified under
such headings as “Readings with Accompaniment of Music,” “Descriptive and
Dramatic Readings,” “Grave and Pathetic Readings,” “Humorous Readings,” and
“Readings for Juveniles.”10
As with parlor elocution, school oratory similarly denoted localized communi-
ties of expression. During the regular school day, of course, students gained prac-
tice in reading aloud from the textbook and in reciting memorized passages. By
stipulating that lessons be recited aloud, both academic content and scholarly per-
formance became subject to public observation and approval. In one fictional
account of the era’s high-school recitation format, a schoolboy proves his lack of
preparation for his geography lesson by orally misconstruing “Straits of the Darning
Needles” for “Straits of the Dardanelles.”11 In addition, regular school exhibitions
gave students opportunities—not limited to annual commencements—to display
their mastery of the oratorical medium.
Beyond everyday recitation, schools and colleges offered extracurricular practice
in oratorical work. In grade schools, a common institution was the Friday afternoon
literary exercises. Lee Bassett, later a Stanford University elocution professor,
recalled how grade-school kids in the 1880s welcomed the Friday program, often
student-run, as a respite from books. “Sometimes our parents came, and sometimes
we entertained the whole school of the neighboring district—especially in win-
ter.”12 The importance of the college literary and debating societies needs no reiter-
ation here. Student life in our colleges was organized around such institutions in the
days before organized sports and recreational clubs emerged as alternatives.
Speaking in the wider community also was a notable feature of participatory oral
culture in America. The history of lyceum and Chautauqua often has been told. The
diary of 14-year-old Isaac Mickle reveals how his social world in 1837 revolved
around attending the community debating societies and lyceum meetings as well as
participating in the special “Youth’s Debating Society” and “Youth’s Lyceum.”13 At
the same time, no civic event was thought complete until the audience had heard
from one or more chosen orators. The archetype of speaking on the public hustings,
of course, was the Fourth of July program that contained music and salutes, and
culminated in the featured oration. As an act of civic pride, organizers often made

sure that their community’s Independence Day oration was published for sale in the
In home, school, and hustings, oratorical culture provided a close link of
speaker, audience, and local community. On the one hand, orators sought to artic-
ulate principles accepted by the community and on the other hand, from the audi-
ence’s perspective, came an appreciation for the gratifications produced by orality’s
emotional-moral uplift and reinforcing of beliefs.14
We must recognize, however, that oratory never was an uncontested medium.
Even in the heyday of the elocutionary era one finds criticisms of the grandilo-
quence that might crop up either from various excesses of the speaker (for example,
the romanticism of the planter class in the South) or sundry deficiencies of the
audience (for example, lack of education).15 And it is true that, from our 21st-cen-
tury perspective, oratorical texts read now as somewhat formulaic. (This latter fea-
ture flowed from the tendency of a society constituted by oral media to reflect
“tradition expressed in fixed statements.”)16
But we should not carry our modernist and postmodernist assumptions too far
with regard to how orators approached and audiences received the speech perfor-
mances of the earlier period. An oratorical society was not necessarily a self-satis-
fied and static culture because orators could—and regularly did—work to promote
revolutionary views within a traditional framework. A classic case in point may be
seen in Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” where the
orator challenges the audience to live up to a fuller understanding of traditional
democratic and constitutional principles. It is worth observing, also, that Emerson,
the era’s prime sage and lecturer, desired that controversial topics play an important
part in the lyceum so that the community might repair itself.17 Not without its
faults and limitations, oratory nevertheless provided a respected and popular venue
for a highly participatory interaction style in the home, school, and community.
Members of the middle class particularly were trained up from an early age to speak
and to listen with close involvement. Oratorical culture directly provided for the
regular appearance of certain discursive elements that many of today’s commenta-
tors wish were more in evidence in the contemporary scene. As an example of this
yearning we may turn to James Darsey’s recognition that a greater invocation of
spiritual, even religious, principles can help sustain community in our time.18
In contrast to the nineteenth-century oratorical world of direct channels of self-
expression and immediate access to others’ viewpoints, the outside consumer mar-
ket often functions now as a key source of self-definition. In this way movies create
a sense of involvement with others and clothing becomes a surrogate language of
self-expression and group expression.19 The twentieth-century leap from oratory to
popular culture is one marker of the larger social transformation whereby a culture
of community performance has metamorphosed into an individualist, profession-
alized, institution-framed milieu.20 Until the Great War, the lingering conventions

of oratorical culture blurred the impact of the emerging figure of the privatized cit-
izen. The turning point came in the 1920s when broadcasting’s ethereal voice ren-
dered obsolete the recent wartime program of the Committee on Public
Information whereby 50,000 opinion-leader orators had, in their respective com-
munities, cast broadly the Wilson administration’s war program.21
The process by which popular culture invaded home and hustings during the
1920s was chronicled at the time by Robert and Helen Lynd. Home-based practices
of parlor elocution and choral singing around the piano were overwhelmed by
radio and phonograph; family and neighborhood gatherings gave way to age-
group-specific socializing; school speaking was supplanted by social clubs and
sports; the press and entertainment media together displaced community speech-
making.22 The result of this cultural shift was a gradual breakdown in what during
republican times had been a well-understood distinction between active and passive
public participation. Holding sway instead was an idea that liberal-capitalist citi-
zenship could be satisfied by a distant and indirect connection to public affairs. It is
not surprising that rhetoricians dismiss the contemporary oratorical scene as
unable to prepare people for citizenship. Ours is a symbolic world in which state-
ments circulate without proof and media managers consciously spurn extended
speech and debate.23
Many recent proposals for reinvigorating citizen involvement with public life
have put emphasis on representational and/or mass-mediated experiences. One
example of the former is the deliberative poll proposed by James S. Fishkin. In this
conception, a group of selected individuals deliberates public issues before the eyes
of a larger audience that these speakers represent. Fishkin touts his plan as respond-
ing to the fundamental reality that Americans must be governed by representative
institutions. Amitai Etzioni’s communitarian vision of participation similarly
focuses on mass media, in this case extending old progressive reforms to new tech-
nologies such that the domination of political action committee money will be
diluted in favor of televisual debating. Robert D. Putnam’s vision of an America
where people no longer bowl alone places faith in both television and the Internet
as means for reinforcing face-to-face communities and for permitting citizen
announcements and debates.24 Common to these proposals is the assumption that
participation in a nation of one-quarter-billion people necessitates depending upon
surrogate speakers whose ideas must intersect remotely and be diffused widely
through media. In other words, participation by the viewing/listening majority
somehow will be sown from the seeds of their nonparticipation. The Latin expres-
sion for a sower’s planting of seedlings is pro pagare, whence springs our term “pro-
paganda.” By raising the specter of propaganda, mass persuasion highlights a
discursive dilemma of democracy whereby the propagator’s freedom to circulate
opinions widely must be accommodated to the public’s equally important freedom
to find and express its own conclusions. If an elite orchestration of a top-down solu-

tion is our only option for cultivating the ethos of involvement, then exactly how
may the freedom to persuade be reconciled with a freedom from manipulation?
Oratorical culture supplies an alternative to the approach of virtual representa-
tion through media and minions. True, it has been more than two generations since
the market dried up for elocutionary readers and speakers that had been sold for
use in the home and school as well as for public entertainment and civic events. Yet,
the practice of original oratory and memorized oratorical readings has remained as
part of student speech contests. The expansion of these events to the school at large
would require no great stretch of curricular imagination. Now we would hardly
expect that the impetus for annual orations and declamations by elementary and
high-school students would come from print-oriented English teachers or media-
savvy social studies faculty. Speech teachers would be similarly indisposed given
their small numbers, scant influence, and taint of self-serving purpose. So boards of
education probably would need to put oratory programs into operation as a “new”
curricular innovation. (With any luck, a Harvard professor would discover oratory
and get a big federal grant to get the ball rolling.) As students practiced their school
orations and declamations at home, before small audiences of family and friends,
oratorical culture would have been doubly reestablished in two of its most local set-
tings. Assembled for annual or semesterly displays of student work, parents and
friends would supply the nucleus for oratory’s growth in the larger community set-
ting. The practice of K–12 declamation and oratory (beginning with short memo-
rized pieces for the younger kids) might then expand further into the hustings as
churches, civic clubs, and service groups sponsored speech contests on particular
topics or around events such as the Fourth of July.
The other essays in this special number of Rhetoric & Public Affairs suggest a
number of implications for my proposal to revitalize democratic communication
through K–12 education. The most direct application is that of William Keith, who
gives us a detailed picture of how the forum movement gained ground in the 1930s
under the auspices of the public schools. To avoid the stigma of government spon-
sorship that dampened some of the movement’s democratic ethos, I would rec-
ommend strictly local initiation and control of oratory’s K–12 context. A less
immediate but far broader connection between oratory and democracy may be
discerned in Yuki Ishikawa’s description of the democratic society as one in which
individuals find opportunities to meet and speak. His characterization of America
as “the de facto paradigm of democracy” juxtaposes the tradition of public debate
in the United States to the relative absence in Japan of expectations for individual-
ized speech. To the extent that capitalism’s penetration into civil society squeezes
out noncommercial aspects of life, as Richard Harvey Brown posits, Ishikawa
envisages an Internet that can enhance a participatory form of democracy by pro-
viding virtual space for individuals. Even granting Keith’s cautionary note about
virtual communities becoming havens for the like-minded, Ishikawa’s democracy

of virtuality certainly will represent a step forward for societies having only limited
expectations of competitive primary oral expression.
Even in loquacious America, Ishikawa’s projected democratic Internet will con-
tribute positively if, as Brown says, the middle class now yearns for quality of life
more than increased material possessions. Many if not all of Brown’s postmaterial-
ist values relate to an imagined discursive world in which various publics register
satisfaction or dissatisfaction about social conditions. Where older communal prac-
tices of speech retain currency, promoting talk in the physical space of the public
schools will have the additional advantage of meeting Rosa Eberly’s plea to rescue
the basic speech course from the corporate model. As students exercise their pow-
ers to discuss issues of personal and community importance, the corporate com-
munication model of speech as technique may seem less attractive to a people who
become socialized into personally engaging community exigencies.
The question of how effective this engagement would be brings us to Kevin
Mattson’s and William Keith’s insights into episodes of actual citizen deliberation.
Both raise the question of what might be the impact of citizens’ speech—Keith
pointing to the seeming hollowness of discourse when everybody just goes home
afterwards and Mattson raising the further question of whether politicians would
listen to localized and small-scale citizen talk. Further, Keith’s juxtaposition of the
fin-de-siècle forum system to our millennial model of talk radio and trash TV raises
the sobering question of whether politicians should listen to a public whose capac-
ity for thoughtfulness has been vitiated by verbal excess and visual distraction.
Citizen frailty and politician myopia never can be entirely discounted. But if delib-
erative speech in the home, at school, and in the community became again com-
monplace, we may posit that a public given to talk would be one that expected
actually to be heard. And if we turn to the symbolic world of the post–September
11th United States, we have reason to believe that the public as a whole is neither
corrupted nor craven, that people are capable of balancing empathy, community
feeling, and pro-con debate.
So then—why oratory and declamation? Going beyond formal procedures (elec-
tions) and indirect (passive) media participation requires that ordinary people join
with others to talk about things that concern them. It is not necessary for some of
the people to talk to all of the people in order for democracy to become real in ordi-
nary life. Because the participatory process is cumulative, it is enough that some of
the people sometimes be talking to some few others. And the place to begin is with
our schools, where students can be given the opportunity to say constructive and
intelligent things about matters that interest them in a framework of informed guid-
ance along with family and community support. The rest, as they say, will be history.
William James once reflected that a theory or new idea goes through three stages.
First, the idea is dismissed as absurd by people in the know. Next, the sophisticates
admit that the idea is true but insist that it is of no significance. Lastly, the idea

becomes so important that those who initially rejected it claim to have discovered
it.25 Such a Jamesean process probably will be required for speechmaking again to
become a vital part of the American cultural scene. Such is the ironic frame whereby
oratory might become reconnected to democracy in the new millennium.

1. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems (Chicago: Swallow, 1927), 111, 101, 107.
2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 198, 236.
3. See W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, Escape into Understanding: A Biography (New York:
Basic Books, 1997), 186–88, 318, 321–22.
4. See Kenneth Cmiel, Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century
America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Harold A. Innis, The Bias of
Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951), 72.
5. Silas Bent, Ballyhoo: The Voice of the Press (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927), 211.
6. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: New
American Library, 1934/1899), 29.
7. See David L. Protess et al., The Journalism of Outrage: Investigative Reporting and Agenda Building
in America (New York: Guilford, 1991); and E. J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 341ff.
8. Dewey, Public and Its Problems, 146; Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of
Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 120ff, 109.
9. Cumnock School of Oratory, The Ideal Book of Elocution, Oratory and Entertainment (n.p., 1902),
10. Noah Webster, An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, new ed. (Utica, N.Y.:
Asahel Seward for Charles R. and George Webster, 1806). Note that Webster’s elocutionary rules are
partly adapted from James Burgh, The Art of Speaking (1st ed. in 1761); and Henry D. Northrop,
The Peerless Reciter or Popular Program (n.p., 1894).
11. Horatio Alger, Jr., Strive and Succeed (Chicago: M. A. Donohue, 1872), 169ff.
12. Lee E. Bassett, “From Doghouse to Doctorate,” Western Speech 15, no. 2 (1951): 12.
13. Isaac Mickle, The Diary of Isaac Mickle, 2 vols., ed. Philip E. Mackey (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1977), 1:3–13.
14. See Eric A. Havelock, “The Alphabetization of Homer,” in Communication Arts in the Ancient World,
ed. Eric A. Havelock and Jackson P. Hershbell (New York: Hastings House, 1978), 15.
15. Waldo W. Braden, The Oral Tradition in the South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,
1983), 23.
16. Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the
Present (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), 70.
17. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” in Three Centuries of American
Rhetorical Discourse: An Anthology and a Review, ed. Ronald F. Reid (Prospect Heights, Ill.:
Waveland, 1988), 371–74; James P. Warren, Culture of Eloquence: Oratory and Reform in Antebellum
America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 14.
18. James Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America (New York: New York
University Press, 1997).
19. Stuart Ewen and Elizabeth Ewen, Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American
Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 96, 88, 126.
20. Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran, introduction to Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century
America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric, ed. Clark and Halloran
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 3.
21. J. Michael Sproule, Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass
Persuasion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 11, 33–37, 59–74.
22. Robert S. Lynd and Helen M. Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (New
York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929).
23. Kathleen H. Jamieson, Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 238–53 especially.
24. James S. Fishkin, The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy (New Haven, Conn.: Yale
University Press, 1995); Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American
Society (New York: Touchstone, 1993); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival
of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
25. William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York: Longmans,
Green, 1907), 198.