Last summer here, I lamented the opaque and soundproof wall between working rhetoricians (like the folks who make up the Professional Speechwriters Association) and the academics who belong to the Rhetoric Society of America.
Then, my Norwegian rhetoric professor friend Jens Kjeldsen and I got an idea: On long runs and in beery conversations during his visit here last June, Jens and I talked about submitting a proposal for a panel discussion at the 2020 RSA Conference, in Portland. He and I could form a human bridge between the two worlds, leading a conversation about how the RSA and its scholarly members could be of more practical use to w0rking speechwriters—and meanwhile, working pros could become more theoretically grounded in their work and more conversant in current rhetorical scholarship.
Good idea, right?!
Well, last month the RSA issued its call for papers.
The theme of the RSA 2020 biennial conference, “Rhetoric / Hospitality,” asks us to contemplate hospitality as a gesture of generous reception of the other, one that invites inclusive rhetorical practices and relations, but also as a gesture of sovereign power that asserts the right to welcome or to refuse the other. The theme of hospitality asks us to deliberate about how rhetorical practices can open doors, invite new solidarities, make new understandings possible; it also asks us to consider how they can be used to foreclose such possibilities, as evidenced daily in today’s political and social climate. We need not look far to see multiple instances of inhospitable rhetorical practices that fuel discriminatory stereotypes and prejudices.
I think this means they'll be discussing how rhetoric can be used to bring people together, or drive people apart.
Which is a good conversation to have at any rhetoric conference—and perhaps at every one.
But the RSA conference theme is more complicated than that:
Hospitality, then, as a theory and a practice is not as simple as opening a door, literally or rhetorically. The notion that I can (and should) welcome the other into my home, my department, my country itself rests on a presumption of sovereignty and signals the extent to which traditional notions of hospitality—as the ethical, generous welcome of the other—are complicit with power: every welcome I extend or deny confirms my sovereign power as host and reiterates normative limits and conditions of hospitality.
So basically, the act of being hospitable is inhospitable—a reminder to the "guest" that the host is large and in charge. Indubitably. But lamentably? Apparently!
But is hospitality limitable? The very idea of hospitality seems to require that it be limitless, unconditional, extended to every other, beyond any subject’s power to do so. Yet, any attempt to operationalize a hospitality without conditions would self-destruct, obliterating the putative boundaries of the “home” that make it offerable. Each attempt to respond to the ethics of an unconditional hospitality would necessarily—and paradoxically—call for the institution of certain limits and conditions, without which no hospitality could concretely arrive.
I smell electrical smoke.
What are those limits and conditions? How are they to be decided? When and by whom? Can or should these limits and conditions be normed? What are the risks of norming them? What are the risks of not norming them? Hospitality is risky business, either way. The goal, as Jacques Derrida puts it, is to “[c]alculate the risks,” but without slamming “the door on what cannot be calculated, meaning the future and the foreigner” (Paper Machine 67).
We invite you to calculate the risks of hospitable rhetorical practices by reflecting on contemporary concerns about, for example: the movement of peoples across borders (including immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers); access to spaces and technologies; the environment; health care; social services; non-human animals; state violence; capitalism; sovereignty; civility; the nation; publics; the classroom; the archive; oppression based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, language, and education. . . .
Jens and I decided not to submit a proposal.
I think he's afraid of what I might say.
And I'm afraid I wouldn't feel welcome.