Oratory in the Age of Obama

A course in rhetoric for the Honors College of Rutgers Camden

Second Paper — Applying Garsten’s Saving Persuasion to the Contemporary Political Scene

Paper #2: Application of Rhetorical Concepts to the Contemporary Scene
in Response to Garsten’s Saving Persuasion (3 pages, double spaced)

Hardcopy draft due: April 6
Electronic draft due: April 8
Useful links:

http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/GARSAV.html (publisher’s e-blurb)
http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2007/2007-02-18.html (insightful, critical review)
http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0108/7908.html (Garsten on Obama–interesting)

This paper asks you to ‘read’ the contemporary political landscape of democratic discourse through the interpretive ‘lens’ provided by Bryan Garsten’s critique, in Saving Persuasion, of early modern political theory, particularly in the works of Hobbes, Rousseau and Kant. This formative period, you will remember, witnessed a movement away from classical and Renaissance perspectives that embraced rhetoric and oratory as necessary and vital to civic affairs to a perspective deeply suspicious of rhetoric and persuasion. Each of the historical figures Garsten examines offer different critiques of rhetoric but all reflect a turn from agonistic (or combative) public debate and efforts to sway a crowd through verbal prowess in search of a more secure and sovereign source of authority. This unease with rhetoric closely parallels three major developments of the modern era: the rise of the nation state, the triumph of the individual over the collective, and the establishment of science as the standard of objective truth. (Interestingly, the return of rhetoric may itself be a sign of a new era of globalism and rapid change.)

In Greater Detail
Your task in this paper is both to respond to Garsten’s project of reading these thinkers and to consider the topics he concerns himself with to the current political landscape. Another way to put this is to say you must demonstrate the relevance of Garsten’s critique (of these philosophers’ critiques) by locating one or more places in the first three chapters of his text that you find particularly interesting and to use this place as a point of embarkation, that is, somewhere from which to set out.

You should, then,  seek first to situate any passage you identity in the overall context of Garsten’s book and his subject’s thought and proceed by moving toward discussing issues raised by the text(s). What aspects do you find puzzling? intriguing? at odds with your prior conceptions or understanding. You need not entirely agree with Garsten–or Hobbes, Rousseau or Kant. To the extent that you find a place to stand that’s different from any that you read, so much the better. You may discover that Garsten overlooks something or perhaps makes too much of a point as he discusses persuasion, judgment, reason, opinion, representation, eloquence, etc.

The first part of your paper–the first page or so– might be understood as “coming to terms” or engaging and explaining the major ideas of the book. You close read a passage and situate it within some broader concern. In the second half, which may be understood as “forwarding” these ideas, you can leveraging the analysis in reference to the contemporary scene by discussing particular speech or a broader trend in public discourse.

One thing to keep in mind here is that your task is not to prove some grand claim but rather to contribute toward an ongoing conversation about civic (if not always civil) discourse.


You will be citing at least three works in this paper: Garsten, one or more works he discusses and something relatively recent that you bring into the conversation. You should thus have a Works Cited list. Excellent work in this paper thus exercises care in the introduction and incorporation of quoted and summarized material. You may consult Purdue University’s OWL site or refer to the Everyday Writer reference text by Andrea Lunsford. Your name and page should appear on every page in a footer/header. A title should appear at the top of the first page.

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