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  • Rhetoric, Narrative, and the Lifeworld: The Construction of Collective Identity
  • Alan G. Gross

At the beginning of King Lear, at the point of ceding his throne to his three daughters, Lear asks each for a public acknowledgment of her love. Goneril and Regan flatter their father with effusive declarations, but Lear’s youngest, and his favorite, Cordelia, refuses to do so:

I love your Majesty According to my bond; no more or less. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Good my lord, You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I Return those duties back as are right fit, Obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty. Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, To love my father all.

(1936, 1.1.94–107) [End Page 118]

Furious, Lear disinherits his daughter.

Cordelia’s speech is remarkable only in its articulation of what Lear should have known; its dramatic impact is a consequence of Lear’s reaction to his daughter’s argument for divided loyalty that is based on a string of commonplaces that are part of the lifeworld that Lear and his daughter—and every other person in the play—inhabit. Any part of this lifeworld may be thematized, of course; it may be brought out into the open as a topic of discussion. That is what Cordelia does; under duress, she shifts from what Jürgen Habermas calls communicative action to a level he calls discourse, a level that reveals the relationship between the personal and the social as well as their underlying cultural presuppositions. Because Lear refuses to grasp the obvious, the narrative progress of the play is temporarily interrupted and permanently veers off course. Although on occasion we can thematize aspects of our lifeworld, the lifeworld as a whole cannot be subject to scrutiny; it is the totality of certainties, skills, practices, and interpretative frames that we take for granted as we each find our way in the everyday worlds that form the changing horizons of our experience. I take it for granted that too many cooks spoil the broth; telephoning is a skill I do not puzzle over; waiting patiently in line is a social behavior I practice without thinking; with no special effort, I interpret the intimacy of a couple’s relationship by the way they publicly behave toward each other.

The lifeworld, a concept initiated by Edmund Husserl and elaborated by Alfred Schütz, Martin Heidegger, and Jürgen Habermas, has been largely neglected by rhetorical theorists and critics. It is the purpose of this paper to show that remedying this neglect opens up fruitful avenues of critical practice and theory. I proceed, first, by defining the lifeworld. Next, I shift perspectives: I analyze how collectivities make sense of their lives by telling stories about themselves grounded in their lifeworld values. It is in the lifeworld’s role in storytelling that, I claim, Aristotle’s Rhetoric becomes an important part of the picture. This is because the Rhetoric is, at bottom, a theory of the way lifeworld values enter into the public sphere. This characterization of the Rhetoric permits us to reconcile two important instantiations of the lifeworld, Habermas’s and Aristotle’s, a reconciliation in which communicative action becomes a special case of rhetorical interaction. Finally, from the perspective of the lifeworld, I reflect on the significance of an exemplary case of the construction of collective identity, the Selma march. [End Page 119]

Defining the Lifeworld

Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences contains the first explicit philosophical analysis of the lifeworld as “the world that is constantly pregiven, valid constantly and in advance as existing. . . . Every end presupposes it; even the universal end of knowing it in scientific truth presupposes it, and in advance” (1970, 382). Because the lifeworld is presupposed in everyday communication, it can be entered only by disciplined reflection: “Contemplation is privileged to the extent that it reveals the structures of the world and has them as theme” (1973, 65). Although the lifeworld...


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