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My research addresses issues of public culture, with a special emphasis on uses of what rhetoricians call the epideictic mode, or, as Aristotle understood it, the presentations of praise and blame in civic discourse. Current conversations in social networking and civil society inform the public possibilities available to activists and artists who engage contemporary issues without access to deliberative address. While I teach with an emphasis on civic engagement and publish on the limitations and strategies of participants in public situations, my primary research contributes a broad perspective on the rhetorical strategies of activists who use art, poetry, performance, and other media to influence civic environments.

Current Research Projects

My book with the University of Alabama Press appeared in 2012. It focuses on occasions of dissent in U. S. popular culture as provided through poetry and performance. These civic disruptions are framed by theoretical discussions of rhetorical modality described by Nancy S. Struever, and the descriptions of the public sphere of Jürgen Habermas. Within this framework I show how poetry responds to moments of crisis during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, Reagan-era deregulation in the 1980s, and, more recently, through objections to the U. S. War on Terror. To perform this critical analysis of historical moments in U. S. society, I rely on scholarship from critics of social movements and public culture, such as Cary Nelson, Joseph Harrington, Maria Damon, Sharon Crowley, Rita Raley, and Michael Warner. Framing the public events created by episodes of engagement through performative texts and symbolic confrontations allows us to better understand how the epideictic mode of rhetoric contributes to formations of civic engagement. This happens, moreover, in ways unforeseen by Habermas’s emphasis on deliberative processes in the construction of public consensus.

Future Research Projects

I am eager to explore the various contexts in which public issues are confronted, reinforced, prepared for deliberation, and expanded to renew possibilities in a variety of public contexts. Current research on the structural changes to the public sphere introduced by internet technology inspired an article, co-authored with James J. Brown and currently under review at Public Culture, on what happens when communication is no longer broadcast from centralized sources, but is distributed, instead, through systems of internet protocol. The influence of the internet on public communication invites further considerations of how activists interact with public actors at specific moments to create influential messages. Likewise, changes in the circulation of public media also invite speculation over ways publics identify with political messages, influence social change, and renew relationships in public culture.

The tensions that exist between popular culture and the public sphere also require greater investigation. During the revision of my dissertation into a book I argued that public figures like Allen Ginsberg derived their significance for readers due to changes in how social events were valued. While he is often associated with messages of revolutionary change, it was not so much a revolution as a transformation in individual attitudes and beliefs that prefigured the responses in U. S. public culture to Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam. Therefore, I wonder: What does it mean to engage in contemporary society when the historical promise of revolution fades from view? How do activists address public issues even as popular culture so often denies space for critical inquiry and engagement? My overall research agenda seeks to account for how activists working outside deliberative contexts intervene in the development and diffusion of new public possibilities.


A 25-page selection from the introduction to Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship and Dissent after 1960 can be found here. A recent book chapter co-written with Joshua Gunn is available in Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Life, and an interview on rhetoric and Mexican photography with Roberto Tejada is available in Viz, a visual rhetoric blog maintained by the Digital Writing and Research Lab of the University of Texas at Austin. A presentation I gave at the conference of the Rhetoric Society of America won the Gerard A. Hauser Graduate Scholarship and is available in PDF format here: Smith-RSA-Final.

For more details about my current and future research, please contact me at possumego at gmail dot com.

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