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The Rhetoric of the Commons: Forum Discourses in Politics and Society


by Manfred Stanley - 1988

This article discusses the concept of the forum as a form of "political conversation" in America. Two forum models (liberal and democratic) are contrasted on the basis of educational objective, experiential analogy, consensus goal, and forum participants. (Source: ERIC)

What is the significance of speech in a democracy? Is it primarily a medium of information necessary for rational decisions? Is it an age-old mode of representation whose fate is replacement by first the written and now the electronic "word"? Or is it somehow constitutive of the political world itself-- the ultimate form of action? Particularly since World War II, disputes over the significance of speech in a democracy have affected the contours of the social sciences. Within the discipline of history, the rise of social history to virtual predominance reflects in part the critique of elitism in disciplinary perceptions of how human history is made. Social historiography embodies the desire to recover for the record the creative voices and labors of common folk. In sociology, the rise of microsociologies and methods of field research have explicitly reflected the so-called linguistic turn in philosophy stimulated by the later Wittgenstein and by movements in literary criticism. ¹ The micro-sociology movement has likewise been accompanied by an anti-elitist critique. In a nutshell, the argument is that macrosociological models (such as structural functionalism), imposed on the popular imagination as the "expert" view of how the world works, really reflect an elitist politics of administrative management in an increasingly corporatist civilization.2 Microsociology, it is argued, can serve politically to restore the world-making voices of ordinary people, which have been rendered mute by the abstractions of macrosociology.

In this article my concern is with the topic of political conversation, more specifically, the idea of the forum. An aura of nostalgia beclouds this topic. With visions of Athens and New England in mind, even advocates of direct democracy unwittingly can serve reactionary sensibilities when they advocate uncritically a return to the linguistic rigors of face-to-face assemblies. Scholars are in the process of telling us that the past contained no golden age of democracy, at least so far as our present notion of democracy is concerned, affected as it is by liberalized Christianity, science, economic liberalism, and the celebration of social pluralism.3 Political conversation in contemporary democracy needs to be thought about in light of modern developments in rhetoric, philosophy of language, and social science. The forum adequate to capture the educational demands of democracy in a sophisticated secular age remains to be invented. Such a forum must find its way not only into the community lives of ordinary citizens, but also into the great cities of science and the rofessions. An adequate critique of elitism does not deny the existence of expertise; rather it builds bridges of demystification between worlds of discourse by revealing the ways in which the politics of discourse implicates us all in the dynamics of world-making.4

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 1, 1988, p. 1-17
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 483, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 8:59:27 AM

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