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Rhetoric, Secrecy, and Surveillance

Workshop Leaders:

Robert C. Rowland, The University of Kansas
David Frank, The University of Oregon

Secrecy and surveillance have become defining issues in U.S. politics and culture. While Barack Obama was elected on a platform calling for a dramatic reining in of Bush era surveillance and secrecy policies, in the view of many critics his administration has in fact maintained and in some cases expanded those policies. Rhetorical interchange about policies ranging from drone violations of privacy, bulk collection of phone records, surveillance of email and social networks, and others reveals several surprising situations. On issues of surveillance, the usual left-right split in American politics does not hold, with strong opposition coming from both the left and the right to many programs.  At the same time, while opinion polls reveal public opposition to many programs, that opposition has been surprisingly muted, producing little pressure for reform. Moreover, strong arguments are made that secrecy and surveillance both directly threaten democratic value and are essential to protect those values. In addition, issues related to secrecy and surveillance resonate beyond deliberative political communication as dominant themes across many forms of public culture. It could even be argued that secrecy and surveillance are defining tropes for contemporary American rhetoric and culture.

A variety of rhetorical approaches have obvious potential to illuminate issues of secrecy and surveillance. Scholars might take an argumentative approach to explain the resonance or lack of resonance of the issue in the public sphere. Alternatively, the myth-based character of the claims both for and against action on the issue could be explored. Ideological critique informed by Madisonian liberal or Marxist critical (or a host of other possible perspectives) usefully could be applied to the topic. In addition, cultural critique has obvious potential to explore how issues of secrecy and surveillance are reflected across our society, with a television shows such as Homeland as an obvious example.

The workshop will consist of two parts. One will focus on how to approach a critical controversy defined by Edward Snowden’s leaks about NSA surveillance and the Obama administration’s defense of the NSA and proposed reform. The workshop leaders will distribute representative texts and then lead the workshop through an analysis focused on generating a number of possible critical responses to the controversy. The second part will focus on the presentation by participants of a paper relating to the general topic of the workshop. The leaders will then facilitate a discussion of each paper, focused on sharpening the argument and preparing the paper for journal submission.

Questions should be directed to Robert C. Rowland, rrowland@ku.edu


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