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Audience Studies, Seriously

av Sara McKinnon


Jens E. Kjeldsen (ed.): Rhetorical Audience Studies and Reception of Rhetoric: Exploring Audiences Empirically. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.


Recensent: Sara McKinnon is Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.

Om anmeldelsen
Ingår i: Rhetorica Scandinavica 77, 2017, 90-96.



Attention to the audience has waxed and waned with rhetorical studies’ development as a field. While audience was originally conceived as the body or collective who received the original discourse, theorizing of the audience has diversified to include a wide range of possibilities. We now regularly consider the universal and particular audience,[1] the silenced or negated audience,[2] the invisible “winked” at audience,[3] and the audience who so constrained, remains silent.[4] These important clarifications of the rhetorical audience all seek to address where power is and how it operates in the rhetorical encounter, and how we can conceive of audience not as a flat corps, but a body robust with rich contradiction and complex agency.

I have long been interested in both theories and methods that allow rhetoricians to consider more dynamically the agency of the audience in the rhetorical encounter. The audience has the ability to “license” speech as famed performance scholar Richard Schechner argued. The stakes of this licensing have been starkly clear to me in my own research where I analyze cases of asylum seekers fleeing gender and sexuality related persecution. The difference between refuge and deportation, quite literally, comes down to the immigration judge’s evaluation of the arguments and evidence presented on behalf of petitioners. A significant aspect of my work centers on identifying “how audiences use their own identities and histories as sieves to categorize, interpret, and acknowledge those who stand and speak in their presence.”[5] To do this, I ask questions about audiencing rather than the audience. As I argue, such an approach “shifts the action im­plied in the noun audience into a verb, to audience. Such a shift allows the critic to examine the practices of the audience as an active subject—a subject whose practices have gone largely unexamined because of a preoccupation in critical analysis with the speaker and the text.”[6] It is with this in mind that when invited to review Jens E. Kjeldsens’ edited volume Rhetorical Audience Studies and Reception of Rhetoric I enthusiastically agreed. Any project that is taking seriously the agentic and active nature of the audience is one that I want to closely study.

Kjeldsen’s volume will be a fantastic entry point for scholars and students looking to nuance their understanding and approach to the audience. While contributors in the volume do not explicitly argue that their proposals enable rethinking of approaches to rhetorical agency, I see this as an obvious implication that this monograph might enable. The authors do this through their innovations on method. One might say that rhetoric is experiencing a bit of a “methods” moment right now.[7] Rhetorical Audience Studies contributes to this moment by demonstrating unique and diverse approaches to study the of audience reception. This is a bold move for the rhetorical critic. There is an uneasiness in rhetorical studies with the notion that critics might use methods to ask actual audiences what they think and believe. How scandalous to consider the interpretations of the audience: “That’s science!” many say, others baulk at the slightest implication that the sovereignty of their critical judgment is being delimited. 

Kjeldsen and contributors dive right in to this concern with their work, offering what reads as a “Why not?” to skeptic readers.

The methods proposed in the chapters, if taken up, have the potential to shift rhetorical studies’ purview to develop more nuanced attention to the agentic and active nature in which audiences receive rhetoric. The volume historicizes and contextualizes ideas of the rhetorical audience (Chapters 1 and 2). The chapters then narrow in on specific methods that might diversify the way we approach the audience. Among the methods surveyed include familiar approaches such as a textual analysis (Toye, Chapter 3; Hertzberg, Chapter 9; Hariman and Lucaites, Chapter 11), thematic analysis of audience responses (Iversen, Chapter 4), focus groups (Stormer-Gally and Schiappa, Chapter 2, Vatnøy, Chapter 5), interviews (Bjørkdahl and Carlsen, Chapter 10), and field work (Hess, Chapter 8). Other chapters provide seemingly new approaches to access information about the audience, such as Think-Aloud Reading (Bengtsson, Chapter 6), and Aesthetic Protocol Analysis (Kock, Chapter 7). Others still suggest for a “triangulated” approach that draws from textual and qualitative methods together to answer the research questions from multiple angles. Kjeldsen and Anderson (Chapter 12) offer the most thorough accounting and example of triangulation, but a similar approach is evidenced in Bjørkdahl and Carlsen’s analysis of public memory of the 2009 Swine flu epidemic (Chapter 9). As a collection, these chapters offer critics a valuable reminder of the tools we have at our disposal to engage critically with the agency of the audience.

In what is the most thorough justification for audience analysis in the book, Jens Kjeldsen’s introductory chapter is best likened to a master-class in audience studies of the field. It is a concise and convincing justification for the utility of the innovative methods elaborated in subsequent chapters.  This chapter offers many significant access points for rhetorical critics. First, Kjeldsen provides readers with a concise and clear justification for why we should attend to the audience. “Without audiences,” he states plainly, “there would be no rhetoric.” (1). Kjeldsen elaborates this argument into a lucid and compelling synthesis of the ways rhetoricians have theorized the rhetorical audience. This synthesis leads into a discussion of the various ways rhetorical scholars have and should examine the audience. From historical criticism and ethnographic methods, to more novel protocol and participatory forms, Kjeldsen presents rhetorical critics with a clear path for approaching the audience. This chapter will become a key text in my rhetorical criticism and theory courses as a review of approaches to the rhetorical audience.

In chapter 2, Jennifer Stromer-Galley and Edward Schiappa offer a reprint of an article published in Communication Theory in 1998. The authors reintroduce the text with a discussion of the essay’s journey to publication, providing “conjectures” as to why audience reception has been largely danced around in rhetorical studies. The authors’ insight about rhetoric’s reticence to consider audience perspectives is a major strength of this chapter. Even if you are not interested in considering audience reception in your own work, this chapter will outline with precision and argumentative force why the field has been more inclined to situate critique in “audience conjectures” or how the critic assumes that the audience receives the text (47).

Stromer-Galley and Schiappa also create a forceful argument for why we might want to consider the audiences’ point of view. To do so, they return readers to the canonical text by Wayne Brockriede to draw out ethical implications in engaging the audience.[8] As the authors remind us, Brockriede was an early advocate for attention to the audience through what he suggested as a confrontational ethic that critics might deploy. As Stromer-Galley and Schiappa synthesize, “confrontation means that critics share their rationale so that criticism remains in the realm of persuasion or invitation rather than coercion; it also means that critics remain open to the possibility their claims will be modified or even abandoned by readers” (46). The authors interpret this call for confrontation as an early suggestion that rhetoricians consider the audience.

But how to do that work? Stromer-Galley and Schiappa offer readers one method to consider—focus groups. As they demonstrate, focus groups provide insight into the plurality and polysemy of how audiences receive and contextualize rhetorical claims. But, my question at the end of this chapter was, toward what end? Toward what end is it necessary to verify how audiences receive, make sense of, and interpret discourse? How does this verifiable information then translate into interpretations and arguments that are evocative and illuminating? An undergirding tension throughout this chapter—and in some ways throughout the volume—is how to balance the empirical with the interpretive, the social scientific with the humanities mode of interpretation. It is a tension between finding out what audiences think, but not collapsing the critic’s judgment into those found interpretations and perspectives. For their own part, Stromer-Galley and Schiappa seem to anticipate this criticism when they suggest that concerns about empiricism exceed projects that engage the audience. As they write, “whereas many critics may not intend to make empirical statements about effects, they sometimes write as if they do” (75). Whether intentional or not, criticism can sometime read as though it offers some right or true interpretation. For this reason, Stromer-Galley and Schiappa suggest that critics consider the following: either preface our interpretations or do the empirical work to get a sense of what the audience actually thinks.

In chapter 5, Eirik Vatnøy also suggests that focus groups could be useful to critics who engage the audience. What is unique about this contribution is not necessarily the method, but the texts to which Vatnøy suggests we apply audience-receptive methods. As a text, social media is an unruly and daunting beast for rhetoricians.[9] For his part, Vatnøy contextualizes media studies’ adoption of focus group methods to gain sense of how audiences perceive and make sense of texts. The author also addresses the benefits and challenges of focus groups, and in so doing, provides rhetoricians with important points to consider before engaging the methods to collect data. With social media in mind, Vatnøy suggests that focus groups help critics examine “how users read and interpret practices that are made possible by the relational properties of social media” (141). Focus groups can tap into vernacular modes of sense making, but also vernacular expressions, which Vatnøy describes as the “informal, common, everyday conversations and symbolic actions through which ordinary citizens engage in public opinion” (142). Focus groups help critics understand how audiences interpret the relationship between verbal and visual elements of a message such as a tweet, but also how they decide to interact through liking and re-tweeting. This chapter calls critics even further into the dynamism of the rhetorical encounter between text, rhetor, audience, and context to consider the agentic and participatory nature of rhetoric-making in our contemporary world.

Aaron Hess’ offerings in chapter eight reminds readers of another method that has gained popularity recent years for its utility in approaching the rhetorical triad from different angles. This chapter may be familiar to readers, as it reads similar to other projects in recent years where Hess advocates ethnographic methods.[10] The contribution in this iteration is to suggest an attention to affect and the sensorial. As Hess explains, “sensorial and affective elements of rhetoric are often missed in textual analysis alone. Feelings of material connection, intensities of people/space connections, and those affected shivers that run down the spine of critics and audience members alike can be experienced and apprehended by critics who pick up ethnographic approaches within their critical projects” (214). Jamie Landau’s “feeling rhetorical critic,”[11] Alina Haluliac’s “audiencing critic,”[12]  and Carole Blair’s landmark essay charting what it means to be a body in public doing rhetorical analysis all resonate deeply with the approach in this chapter.[13] Hess synthesizes the literature on public memory, affect, and ethnographic methods, and ends with an exemplar that demonstrates the utility of engaging the critic’s perspective (and feelings) as if the critic was audience. This chapter serves as yet another affirmation of the utility of field methods to enliven, through bodily experience and emotive perception, the study of public memory and memorials.

One of the most innovative methodological contributions of the volume is Mette Bengtsson’s development of a “Think Aloud Reading” approach in chapter 6. Think aloud happens when “the respondent is asked to read aloud, pause and verbalize whatever comes into mind” (164). The method involves audiences in the text and the meaning-making production process, and in that way, it connects to the spirit of other contributions in the volume that blur the boundaries between rhetoric, text, and audience. Bengtsson’s project suggests a performative nature to the role of audiences in the rhetorical situation. Think aloud reading not only positions the audience as performer, but then provides space for documentation of sense-making and judgment that happens as audiences receive rhetoric. Think aloud reading resonates with methods common in performance studies, such as reader-response criticism, trigger-scripting, and playback theatre;[14] the method that draw attention to the agentic ways audiences receive and interpret texts. In addition to being a useful method for critics attempting to analyze audience reception, I encourage engagement with Bengtsson’s chapter for the way it inspires critics to consider method as a creative practice that helps us to answer our research questions. When extant methods won’t quite do, we can just as easily turn to innovate and invent our own. Bengtsson’s chapter demonstrats what that looks like and why critics should be involved in the task of methodological innovation.

For all of the methodological innovation of this volume, I will say that I missed the theoretical and interpretive rigor that critical approaches not so tied to empirical methods enable. There is a richness of understanding when we imagine audience as constituted at the moment of interpellation, or when we consider the possibility of a palimpsest text that speaks across space and time to multiple audiences. Can these interpretations be verified? Not really. But criticism’s purpose is to help us imagine, consider, and complicate the fuller range of elements involved in a text’s influence.

In chapter 11 Robert Hariman and John Lucaites satisfy this gap by returning readers to critical argument as theory building. Their argument is that iconic images and audiences coproduce meaning as photographs circulate. As they explain “because the iconic photograph depends on wide circulation and audience uptake, and because that uptake often involves reproducing or reworking the image for additional communicative action, the icon becomes a rework of images that can be studied to understand the coproduction of meaning” (286). The authors provide useful tools for considering iconic photographs’ circulation, appropriation, and reappropriation as a means to understand audience reception. Critics following this approach examine the way a text moves. They look for iterations and re-iterations of a text, and then interpret what these appropriations mean or do as they circulate. This is a method of the vernacular and fragmented; a method of mashup and remix.  Can the interpretations be verified? Again, probably not. But, there are important lessons to be gained from criticism that focuses on the contingent and possible.

In total, Kjeldsen’s Rhetorical Audience Studies presents a compelling argument for flipping the script on the way we study rhetoric. This reversal resonates with the methodological turn in the field and holds significant potential for the way scholars approach the agency and dynamism of those who receive rhetoric. The volume will be a helpful starting place for critics interested in attending to rhetoric’s other angles and vistas.

[1] Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrecht-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (South Bend, ID: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).

[2] Philip Wander, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory,” Communication Studies 33 (1984): 197-216.

[3] Charles E. Morris Iii, “Pink Herring & the Fourth Persona: J. Edgar Hoover’s Sex Crime Panic,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88, no. 2 (2002): 228-244.

[4] Dana L. Cloud, “The Null Persona: Race and the Rhetoric of Silence in the Uprising of ’34,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 2, no. 2 (1999): 177-209.

[5] Sara L. McKinnon, “Essentialism, Intersectionality and Recognition: A Feminist Rhetorical Approach to the Audience,” in Standing in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices in Communication, ed. Karma R. Chavez and Cindy L. Griffin (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2012), 189-210.

[6] Sara L. McKinnon, Gendered Asylum: Race and Violence in Us Law and Politics (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 13.

[7] Sara L. McKinnon et al., Text + Field: Innovations in Rhetorical Method (University Park, Penn: Penn State University Press, 2016); Michael K. Middleton et al., Participatory Critical Rhetoric: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations for Studying Rhetoric (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016).

[8] Wayne Brockriede, “Rhetorical Criticism as Argument,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 60, no. 2 (1974): 165-175.

[9] Christina R. Foust and Kate Drazner Hoyt, “Social Movement 2.0: Integrating and Assessing Scholarship on Social Media and Movement,” Review of Communication 18, no. 1 (2018): 37-55; Lei Gou and Lorin Lee, “The Critique of Youtube-Based Vernacular Discourse: A Case Study of Youtube’s Asian Community,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30, no. 5 (2013): 391-409; Robert Glenn Howard, Digital Jesus: The Making of a New Christian Fundamentalist Community (New York: New York University Press, 2011); J. David Cisneros and Thomas K. Nakayama, “New Media, Old Racisms: Twitter, Miss America, and Cutural Logics of Race,” Journal of International & Intercultural Communication 8, no. 2 (2015): 108-127.

[10] Aaron Hess, “Critical-Rhetorical Ethnography: Rethinking the Place and Process of Rhetoric,” Communication Studies 62, no. 2 (2011): 127-152; Danielle Endres et al., “In Situ Rhetoric: Intersections between Qualitative Inquiry, Fieldwork, and Rhetoric,” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 16, no. 6 (2016): 511-524; Middleton et al., Participatory Critical Rhetoric: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations for Studying Rhetoric.

[11] Jamie Landau, “Feeling Rhetorical Critics: Another Affective-Emotional Field Method for Rhetorical Studies,” in Text + Field: Innovations in Rhetorical Method, ed. Sara L. McKinnon, et al. (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2016), 56-71.

[12] Alina Haliliuc, “Being, Evoking, and Reflecting from the Field: A Case for Critical Ethnography in Audience-Centered Rhetorical Criticism,” ibid. (Penn State Press), 133-147.

[13] Carole Blair, “Reflections on Criticism and Bodies: Parables from Public Places,” Western Journal of Communication 65, no. 3 (2001): 271-294.

[14] Michelle Miller-Rassulo and Michael L. Hecht, “Performance as Persuasion: Trigger Scripting as a Tool for Education and Persuasion,” Literature in Performance 8, no. 2 (1988): 40-55; Linda M. Park-Fuller, “Audiencing the Audience: Playback Theatre, Performative Writing, and Social Activism,” Text and Performance Quarterly 23 (2003): 288-310; Steven Mailloux, “Learning to Read: Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 12, no. 1 (1979): 93-109; Rebecca Carroll, “A Reader-Response Reading of Robert Frost’s ‘Home Burial’,” Text and Performance Quarterly 10 (1990): 143-156.

Sara McKinnon

Sara McKinnon is Associate Professor of Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture at the University of Madison-Wisconsin

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