Response to Gross's 'Cautionary Tale'.

Position:Alan Gross - Critical essay


Catherine Helen Palczewski and John Fritch,editors

In the last issue of Argumentation and Advocacy, we had the pleasure to publish a lively collection of essays reflecting on the anniversary of Jurgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. One of those essays, written by Professor Alan Gross, used the chance to defend a Habermasian conception of the public sphere as "properly construed as centered on rational debate" (p. 142). In particular, Gross argued that

some rhetorical critics ... have championed a public sphere in which rationality is sidelined in favor of alien components that undermine its force.... Because they do not see that historical changes in the nature of the public sphere have made rational debate on significant public issues difficult or impossible, they mistake the effect of these changes for their cause. (p. 142)

Gross critiqued four essays as representative of this mistake.

Given this is a journal devoted to argumentation and advocacy, we thought it only appropriate that those scholars identified by Gross be given an opportunity to respond to his criticism. What follows are their rebuttals, rejoinders, and refutations.


Dr. Jiyeon Kang, Assistant Professor, University of Iowa, and Dr. Cara A. Finnegan, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Gross iconoclasm: "A blunt, general critique that argues that images are dangerous to the practice of healthy public communication." (Finnegan & Kang, 2004, p. 380)

We have been invited by the editors to respond to Alan Gross's critique of ideas about visuality and public sphere theory found in our Quarterly Journal of Speech essay, "'Sighting' the Public: Iconoclasm and Public Sphere Theory" (2004). Gross (2012) states that we, among others, "have championed a public sphere in which rationality is sidelined in favor of alien components that undermine its force," and he accuses us specifically of "illegitimately extending the scope of the public sphere" (p. 142). We find that Gross's critique performs the very conceptual tensions that we wrote the piece to illuminate. Indeed, as an iconoclast of the sort we define in the essay, he is straight from central casting: Alan Gross, the gross iconoclast.

Our earlier essay was prompted by our concern that the field's growing (and, we argued, valuable) investment in discursive approaches to the public might uncritically "rely on a largely talk-and-text model of communication" and, thus "may be blind to other ways of envisioning publicity," limiting scholars' "ability to embrace the hybridity and multiplicity of discursive forms" (Finnegan & Kang, 2004, p. 378). Because we recognized that issues of visuality have been central to key scholars' understanding of the public, we sought to "sight" the public--that is, to bring into focus the ways that images and vision occupy a place of tension in both canonical (e.g., Dewey and Habermas) and contemporary rhetorical approaches to publics theory. We did not add images and vision into the story; rather, we identified their place in the story as the "perennial tension" of iconoclasm, or "the will to control images and vision" (p. 377). If images and vision are "alien" forces in publics theory, then any fair reading of our essay must acknowledge them to be an alien within (Gross, 2012, p.142).

Gross's specific critique centers on our reading of Habermas. Gross (2012) says we wrongly conflate "fine arts" with "images and vision," when Habermas means only to allow the former any power to "contribute indirectly to the health and strength of the public sphere" (p. 142). We do not in fact conflate these; instead, we recognize them as producing different kinds of iconoclasm. Our essay notes that much of Habermas "proceeds with a will to purge images and vision" (Finnegan & Kang, 2004, p. 386). However, we also acknowledge those few places in the Habermasian corpus where a seemingly more positive visuality emerges. Habermas allows for visuality in his conception of the public, as long as it is subsumed within a broader critical and decidedly linguistic rationality. We describe this move as emblematic of a "subtle iconoclasm" (p. 389). Gross is troubled by our engagement with scholarship that seeks to tease out a Habermasian aesthetics, as limited as that aesthetics may be.

Indeed, Gross contests the entire project of sighting the public. For Gross (2012), the nature of the public sphere "must be discursive" (p. 142) and that discursivity must exclude images and vision. But stigmatizing the visual actually makes it more difficult to do what Gross says rhetorical critics should do: "discover and encourage arenas in which rational public debate exists despite the well-known pressures against its formation and persistence" (p. 144). On this point it is instructive to conclude with an example. In 2002, two South Korean schoolgirls hit and killed by a U.S. military vehicle in a suburb of Seoul did not receive public attention. But three months later, when a U.S. military court acquitted the vehicle operators of negligent homicide, pictures of the girls under the jaw of the vehicle, taken by a local photographer, began to circulate on the internet. The images not only led to memorials for the girls but also to debates about the necessity and terms of the U.S. military presence...

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