- Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis by Jenny Rice
Rhetoricians have long been concerned with questions regarding participation in a democratic public sphere. Contemporary theory regarding publics and counterpublics is concerned with how everyone might have a voice, how everyone’s concerns might be represented in the face of interlocking systems of power. Often, such questions revolve around groups who are fighting for access to the public sphere—but what about those who seem to actively choose disengagement? What are we to make of the citizens who appear uninterested in the political world by which they are surrounded? And how can we help facilitate their active participation in the public sphere? It is to these questions that Jenny Rice turns in Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis. These “exceptional public subjects,” according to Rice, are people who “occup[y] a pre- carious position between publicness and a withdrawal from publicness The exceptional subject can often seem apathetic … but unlike apathetic or lazy citizens, this subject position does not consider itself outside the realm of public life” (5). Exceptional subjects imagine themselves as part of a public, [End Page 358] but this imagination is rooted in feeling, rather than action. Thus, while they might consider themselves engaged, they appear to be nonparticipatory. Grounded in an analysis of urban development rhetoric, Rice seeks to understand how the exceptional public subject is formed.
Rice is concerned with issues of overdevelopment and sustainability in urban settings, both as an activist and as a scholar. Her focus is primarily on development rhetorics in Austin, Texas, where she received her Ph.D. Although public debates about urban development are always conversations about what should happen in space and place, Rice is not interested in any of the places she features as text. Instead, she advocates for a “publics approach to place,” wherein the focus is on “how people imagine themselves in relation to (and as part of) those publics that populate, change, and undergo the effects of material places” (14).
Half the book is devoted to an examination of three key topoi that Rice sees recurring in public conversations about development: injury claims, memory claims, and claims of equivalence. As topoi, these claims serve as rhetorical commonplaces for people making arguments on all sides of an issue. Injury claims are used to create a sense of victimhood. They are made by people who argue that the construction of a new Wal-Mart will destroy the local landscape and culture. They are also made by those who say that refusing the store would harm the city by rejecting new job opportunities and more affordable goods that its citizens need. Memory claims rely on a sense of shared public memory about a place—“Austin used to be. …” These claims tend to divide rhetors into binaries of new versus old, public space versus private space, and insider versus outsider. For instance, residents who want to “Keep Austin Weird” have regularly faced off with developers promising a greater future for the city through an influx of new businesses. Claims of equivalence are arguments of “undecidability,” where something is judged to be both “good” and “bad.” Claims of equivalence regarding gentrification, as an example, involve an understanding that it can raise property values, bring in new economic resources, and make neighborhoods safer, but that it does so while pushing historically marginalized populations even further toward the margin.
Although this analysis is interesting on its own, these topoi are presented to demonstrate that how public subjects think of themselves as related to a wider public is rooted in feeling. This is the crux of Rice’s argument. In her view, both the actively engaged citizen and the exceptional [End Page 359] public subject develop their publicness in an emotional response to discourse. Both kinds of subjects feel something in response to injury claims or memory claims, even if it is a feeling of indifference. One subject responds by speaking up, while the other responds with inaction. Because...