“Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”
- Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism)
Debate over what constitutes a proper attitude towards nature – or an “environmental ethic” – has amplified over the past half century, thanks in large part to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (first published in 1962), which is credited with helping jump-start the environmental movement. Despite a widening debate and increased environmental activism, however, the values and ethics that most significantly influence how nature is actually treated are still those of late capitalism. In late capitalism, legal systems tend to regard natural communities as commodities whose primary function is to fuel rapid economic growth. As a matter of course, what qualifies as growth is also dictated by the values and ethics of late capitalism. As Barry Brummett remarks in his assessment of the power of late capitalism:
“The market context seals off its base of power in late capitalism.… This may be cause for despair, but late capitalism has figured out how to seal off its roots from being dug up, and that’s the way it is.… The market context is the frozen floor of meanings upon which rhetoric dances; it is largely impervious to rhetorical means to change it” (Brummett 125).
Late capitalism has indeed grown deep roots, and Brummett does hedge his claim by saying “largely impervious” not “wholly impervious.” What struck me, however, was not simply the implication of late capitalism as a perpetually victorious ideology, but that this claim takes place in the middle of a rigorous defense of rhetoric. What are the ramifications for rhetoric, I wondered, if Brummett is right? Is it possible through effective discursive practices that late capitalism be re-produced with different features? What are the stylistic features of rhetorics that attempt to replace the market context with a different “frozen floor of meanings?”
At the time I became interested in these questions I began an inquiry into the rhetorical styles of a group of citizen-activists in Decorah, Iowa. I was intrigued as to how this diverse group of people spoke to me using such similar terminology, and with such similar passion and clarity about the issue of extracting natural gas via the process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” (an issue which I knew almost nothing about). They seemed to use the same phrases, make the same arguments, and reference the same stories. They knew something about Ecuador’s constitution.
I took steps towards answering the above questions not only through research, but in spending time with citizen-activists in Decorah. They introduced me to the idea that rights of nature advocates enter the arena of politics with arguments based on ideals that exist mostly outside of the market context. I want to tell the stories of these arguments and attempt to discern their stylistic features; in so doing I hope to explore questions regarding the possibilities for poly-vocal rhetorics in postmodern America, a nation imbued with the ethos of late capitalism. Further, I will strive not to reduce rights of nature advocates (hereafter RoNA) to the subjective intentions of individuals, but instead attempt to outline the aesthetic and discursive features of the group as a whole.
A rhetorical analysis of RoNA as a subculture is a worthy scholarly pursuit because it leads to pertinent questions about where agency exists within late capitalist societies, and what type of rhetorical styles, if any, appear to be creating space for such agency. To achieve such an analysis we look at the ongoing debate over fracking, which has become a powerful force in motivating RoNA; indeed, there would not be nearly as many people who identify with this subculture if not for the fracking boom. My thesis paper also analyzes the fracking debate online, in particular how both camps utilize Facebook to craft a recognizable style. Hopefully, these chapters work together to present a clear idea of RoNA as a rhetorical movement.
Late capitalism’s growing presence in decision-making processes is increasingly evident. In academia we see evidence of this trend in what is sometimes referred to as the “adjunct crisis,” as universities increasingly look to hire cheaper and less experienced labor (Boldt). The business model is more prevalent than ever before, and globalization suggests its proliferation. RoNA employ a rhetoric that has proven effective in arguing for other models – an environmental ethic, for example – to be given consideration in legal settings.
Arguing that nature has rights poses a direct challenge to the dominant ideology of late capitalism. And, as Darrel Enck-Wanzer argues in an article titled, “Trashing the System: Social Movement, Intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive,” scholars interested in analyzing the rhetoric of a particular movement should try to understand not just the discourses of a particular group, but to assess the contextual discourse at large. Enck-Wanzer suggests that a “movement is a measurement of the discourse itself; to talk about social movement is to talk about the ways in which a discourse represents a shift away from or challenge to a dominant social imaginary as evident in narratives, ideographs, and other rhetorics” [author’s emphasis] (177). RoNA shift the discourse by arguing that natural resources have rights, a direct threat to late capitalism’s notions of private property, of natural resources, of corporate rights. It is still early going for this movement, but such a rhetorical maneuver is important for rhetorical scholars to consider, particularly those grappling with questions of where and how much agency exists in our postmodern world.
Boldt, Josh. “First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments.” Order of Education
Brummett, Barry. A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, Print.
Enck-Wanzer, Darrel. “Trashing the System: Social Movement, Intersectional Rhetoric, and Collective Agency in the Young Lords Organization’s Garbage Offensive.” Quarterly Journal of Speech. 92.2 (2006): 174-201.