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Trinity as Trope
The Relational Turn in
Communication Studies
Dennis Cali
University of Texas at Tyler
Previous “systems” of rhetoric, which have arisen as responses to felt
needs, emphasize an individualist paradigm whereas the contemporary system, responding to current impulses, tends toward a relational
paradigm. The “Trinity” is proposed here as a trope that both prefigures this relational and dialogical turn in communication studies and
suggests the ethical ends toward which communication praxis should
aim. In particular, the Trinitarian thought of Chiara Lubich offers a
unique perspective on the relational current in communication studies,
especially its links of ontology with praxis, relational being with communication, and kenosis with perichoresis.
Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2013)
50–67 © 2013
C L A R I TAS | Journal of Dialogue & Culture | Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2013)
ouglas Ehninger’s groundbreaking synthesis of historic
patterns in communication studies, which appeared in
Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1968, recognizes common characteristics of rhetorical inquiries arising out of felt needs within
three respective eras. Ehninger calls rhetorical investigations that
participate in a common response to needs of these given periods
“systems of rhetoric.” Implicit in each of these “systems” is a philosophy of being: for the period that Ehninger names “Classical,”
persons are rational beings; for the “Enlightenment Period,” persons are cognitive beings; and for the Modern Period, persons are
social beings. Three loci of inquiry correspond with Ehninger’s three
systems and attendant philosophies. For Classic rhetorical theory,
the syllogism could locate much of rhetorical investigation. For the
Enlightenment Period, the mind or thought could be viewed as the
central site of exploration. And for the Modern Period, the society takes central spot. Almost prophetically, in characterizing the
Modern Period as “sociological” in its concern with human relations and social cohesion,1 Ehninger anticipates a fourth period
that is the subject of this essay.
We are now removed more than 40 years from the period at
which Ehninger’s review stops. An updating or extension of the
Modern Period profile into what can be called the Contemporary
Period thus seems warranted. Modern theories that Ehninger described in his article continue to exert influence today, yet substantial
new theories have taken their place alongside the feted rhetorical
ideas advanced during the middle to late part of the twentieth
century. This essay will focus on one significant development in
1. Douglas Ehninger, “On Systems of Rhetoric,” Philosophy and Rhetoric (1968): 131–
contemporary theory anticipated in Enhinger’s analysis: the dialogical current.
This extension of Ehninger’s analysis will revisit his depiction
of the “felt need” of our times and will identify key strands of communication studies2 that arise out of that exigency and work to
remedy it. In so doing, I seek to deepen our understanding of an
evolution in emphasis begun within the past half-century, from
the three previous systems’ emphasis on individualist paradigms of
discrete speakers, texts, and thought processes to a communitarian
paradigm that stresses both the re-definition of beings as social,
relational creatures and the interconnectedness of communicators and their jointly constructed messages. In the realm of new
media, for example, Chen and Ding find that a linear, monologic
and technique-oriented model has given way to a relationshiporiented and dialogic model.3 Examination of such a shift sheds
light on the collective nature of communication inquiry as we come
to understand how theorists respond together, even if unwittingly,
to common impulses and as we consider the good to which new
grasps of communication might be put.
My aim in this analysis is to identify the ontological view that
contemporary theories advance. To do so, I begin with a profile of
“the felt need” out of which contemporary theory arises and present that theory, dialogical in nature, as a response to “the felt need.”
Next, I present “the Trinity” as a theoretical trope that prefigures
this theory and functions as an emblem of the collective qualities
in contemporary theory. Finally, I contemplate a relational communication ethic that might derive from the Trinity trope as a
2. Hereafter, I shall abbreviate “communication and rhetorical studies” as “communication studies.”
3. X. Chen and G. Ding, “New Media as Relations,” Chinese Journal of Communication
2 (2009): 367–379.
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fitting response to contemporary impulses. In short, this essay situates and sketches a major current in communication studies and
points to the ends toward which contemporary communication
studies might work.
The “Felt Need” of Our Times and the Quest for a Solution
Rapid sociopolitical change has produced “anomie in the past several decades.” 4 The effects of anomie, as Durkheim noted, have
been a lack of regulation (social norms) and a lack of integration
(concern for welfare of others).5 A profound sense of separation
from God, from one another, and from oneself permeates the
land. With this separateness have come disillusionment and the
experience of loss.6 The incidence of two world wars in the twentieth century and persistent regional and international conflicts and
wars in the twentieth-first century, to say nothing of terrorism,
attest that the fabric of the human family is torn. As early as 1985,
Bellah and his collaborators had declared that we live in a time and
“culture of separation.” 7 Today deep fractures within and among
nations, religions, ethnic and other identity groups, political parties, families, and individual selves can be seen. The rise of pluralism
often intensifies the rift as groups pit themselves against perceived
detractors in asserting their rights and privileges and elbow one
another for a more prominent place at the table. As Papa and her
4. Ruohui Zhao and Liqun Cao, “Social Change and Anomie: A Cross-National
Study,” Social Forces 88 (2010): 1210.
5. Hayden P. Smith and Robert M. Bohm, “Beyond Anomie: Alienation and Crime,”
Critical Criminology: An International Journal 16 (2008): 2.
6. Robert Pippin, Modernism as a Philosophical Problem, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1999), p. 150.
7. Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen,William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life ( New York:
Harper and Row, 1985), p. 277.
collaborators lament: “Fragmentation occurs when there are multiple voices and interpretations present in a cultural setting. This
multivocality separates people from one another rather than unifying them into a consensus.”8 Communication theory itself often
eschews unifying critical schemes, warding them off as authoritarian devices that oppress and silence powerless peoples, advocating,
instead, an “uncivil tongue.” 9
Communication praxis mirrors this pervasive disconnectedness. This is evident in the fragmentary, polemic, and often inflammatory forms that messages take, particularly during election
cycles, as they fly toward us on cable television, talk radio, and web
logs. Even the vaunted “connectivity” of our times leaves “users” at
once wired but remote as electronic devices tend to be consumed
privately and remain to the individual user as solitary “my-spaces,”
leaving us, in the words by which Sherry Turkle has entitled her
recent book, “Alone Together.” 10
In the face of the decided thrust toward separation and division, however, a countercurrent within communication studies,
intensified in the closing decades of the twentieth century, works
to restore human community and mutual understanding. “Our
time is marked by a yearning for wholeness,” writes Rushing.11
A discourse of “connection” has emerged, particularly in feminist
8. Wendy Papa, Michael Papa, Krishna Kandath, Tracy Worrell, and Nithya Muthuswamy, “Dialectic of Unity and Fragmentation in Feeding the Homeless: Promoting
Social Justice through Communication,” Atlantic Journal of Communication 13 (2005):
9. Nina Lozano-Reich, and Dana Cloud, “The Uncivil Tongue: Invitational Rhetoric
and the Problem of Inequality,” Western Journal of Communication 73 (2009): 220–236.
10. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from
Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
11. Janice Hocker Rushing, “E. T. as Rhetorical Transcendence,” Quarterly Journal of
Speech 71 (1985): 188.
C LAR ITAS | Journal of Dialogue & Culture | Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2013)
and environmental rhetorics, in which we find metaphors such as
“bridge,” “web,” and “consensus” as legitimating epistemological
and argumentative standards.12 “Solidarity” ranks among the cardinal virtues as “a key virtue needed to address the problems of our
world.” 13 “There is a basic movement in the human world,” writes
Stewart, “and it is toward relation, not division.” 14
Within the past several decades, communication studies have
engaged in this discourse of connection by pushing vertically and
horizontally. Along the vertical axis, Rushing, for example, looks
to myth as a unifying scheme that works over and above the divergent factors existing in culture at a given time.15 In the area of mass
communication, Newcomb searches out the embeddedness of
character types and plots within a “larger dialog.” 16 Frank assesses
the constructive contribution of the “new rhetoric” as “nesting different and incompatible values within a larger realm of rhetoric.” 17
The vertical gaze contemplates a “big tent” in which divergent
ideas find agreement stretched-out above in a transcendent vision.
If the vertical movement for unity or integration is transcendent, the horizontal thrust is dialogical. It seeks not transcendence
12. Mary Belenky, C. Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule, Women’s Ways
of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986);
Thomas Farrell, “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory,” in J. L. Lucaites,
C. M. Condit, and S. Caudill (eds.), Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader (New
York: Guilford, 1999), p. 144.
13. David Hollenbach, The Common and Good Christian Ethics (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2002), p. 50.
14. John Stewart, Bridges Not Walls: a Book about Interpersonal Communication (Boston,
McGraw Hill, 2009), p. 9.
15. Cf., Rushing.
16. Horace Newcomb, “On the Dialogical Aspects of Mass Communication,” Critical
Studies in Mass Communication 1 (1984): 42.
17. David Frank, “Argumentation Studies in the Wake of The New Rhetoric,” Argumentation and Advocacy 40 (2004): 270.
but lateral “connection” as a mode of managing human affairs.18
For example, Bakhtin, whom rhetorical theorists count among
themselves,19 counsels not a transcendence of pluralism but an
acknowledgment of the inherent unity-diversity dynamic in ordinary human action that he describes as both “centripetal” (tending toward unity) and “centrifugal” (tending toward distinction”).
Noting the “situational nature of rhetoric,” Cherwitz and Darwin
present a “relational” approach to meaning, positing an understanding of language “embodying the dynamic inter relationships
among rhetors, auditors, and other entities in the world” and that
“refers with” instead of “referring to.” 20 Hatch explores a dialogic
rhetoric that fosters racial atonement and reconciliation.21
Whether moving “upward” or “sideways,” an array of contemporary rhetorical and communication studies participates in a
common exploration for that which facilitates community, relationship, understanding, and communion. Thus, one can recognize
within communication theories of the past several decades a shift
in focus from the singular communicator privileged within Ehninger’s first three systems of rhetoric to the collaboration of communicators. Stewart makes this same point: “Humans live in worlds
of meaning, and communication is the process of collaboratively
constructing those meanings.” 22 Recognizing the disciplinary
18. G. T. Fairhurst, and L. Putnam, “Organizations as Discursive Constructions,”
Communication Theory 14 (2004): 5–26.
19. John Murphy, “Mikhail Bakhtin and the Rhetorical Tradition,” Quarterly Journal
of Speech 87 (2001): 259–277.
20. Richard Cherwitz and Thomas Darwin, “Beyond Reductionism in Rhetorical
Theories of Meaning,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 27 (1994): 314, italics theirs.
21. John Hatch, “Dialogic Rhetoric in Letters Across the Divide: A Dance of (Good)
Faith toward Racial Reconciliation,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 12 (2009): 485–532.
22. John Stewart, Bridges Not Walls: a Book about Interpersonal Communication (Boston,
McGraw Hill, 2009), p. 18.
C LAR ITAS | Journal of Dialogue & Culture | Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2013)
coherence of these studies, however, requires a grammar for viewing various studies in the field as a collective unit. Later, this essay
proposes “the Trinity” as providing such a critical grammar.
In the phenomenological tradition, one finds a relational perspective in Carl Rogers’ development of “empathic listening” or
“therapeutic listening.” Widely incorporated in interpersonal
communication studies, Rogers’ approach asks whether two people can get beyond surface impressions and connect on a deeper
level . . . and describes conditions for personality and relationship
change. Rogers’ much-acclaimed “Empathic Understanding” entails temporarily laying aside one’s own views and values and entering into another’s world without prejudice: an active process of
seeking to hear the other’s thoughts, feelings, tones, and meanings. Along similar lines, the Anxiety/Uncertainty Management
(AUM) Theory of Strangers’ Intercultural Adjustment applies this
same perspective in the intercultural realm.23 According to AUM,
successful “sojourners,” in a process of “mindfulness,” step outside
of themselves and their cultural systems to enter a host country
with a goal of attaining effective intercultural communication.24
Cissna and Anderson extract the metaphysical implications of
such dialogic perspectives:
[D]ialogic theory presumes an elemental human truth that
emerges only in the meeting of person with person, with the
moments of I meeting Thou with the serendipity of reply.
Within postmodern assumptions dialogic truth is not a
23. William B Gudykunst, “An Anxiety/Uncertainty Management (AUM) Theory of
Strangers’ Intercultural Adjustment,” in William B. Gudykunst (ed.), Theorizing about
Intercultural Communication (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005): pp. 419–458.
24. Ibid., pp. 289 ff.
matter of propositions but of presence, and it is available to
be examined not propositionally, but conversationally.25
Similarly, the Theory of Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) maintains that “persons in conversation co-construct
their social realities and are simultaneously shaped by the worlds
they create.” 26 CMM is concerned with “what kind of identities,
episodes, relationships, and cultures are being constructed by the
patterns of communication put together as people interact with
each other.” 27 CMM, like Martin Buber, advocates “dialogic communication” as the optimal form of communication. Buber explains
that dialogic communication “involves remaining in the tension
between holding our own perceptions while being profoundly
open to the other,” a unity-in-distinction tension.28 Like Buber,
Pearce and Pearce hold out the possibility of authentic human
relationships through dialogue—an intentional process in which
“the only agenda both parties have is to understand what it’s like
to be the others.” 29 The impetus for the theory was the resolution
of “conflicts between incommensurate social worlds.” 30
The area of Relational Dialectics also generally maintains that
bonding occurs in both interdependence with and independence
25. K. N. Cissna and R. Anderson, “Theorizing about Dialogic Moments: the BuberRogers Postmodern Themes,” Communication Theory 8 (1998): 88.
26. E. Griffin, A First Look at Communication Theory, 6th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill,
2006), p. 69.
27. W. Barnett Pearce, “The Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM),” in Gudykunst, p. 43.
28. W. B. Pearce and K. A. Pearce, “Combining Passions and Abilities: Toward Dialog
and Virtuosity,” Southern Communication Journal 65 (2000), p. 172.
29. Ibid., p. 171.
30. Pearce, p. 45.
C LAR ITAS | Journal of Dialogue & Culture | Vol. 2, No. 1 (March 2013)
from the other. Baxter and Montgomery 31 are principal protagonists of this area of study, and they draw heavily on Mikhail Bakhtin,
who saw “dialectical tension” as the “deep structure” of all human
experience. They believe that relationships are always in flux, and
they see dialectical tension as providing an opportunity for dialog,
an occasion when partners work out ways mutually to embrace the
conflict between unity with and differentiation from each other.
Baxter, for example, often cites Bakhtin’s core belief that two
voices constitute the minimum for life, the minimum for existence.
Baxter and Montgomery have focused on three overarching relational dialectics present in all relationships (Integration-separation;
Stability-change; and Expression-nonexpression). Likewise, Kim32
in her Culture-Based Conversational Constraints Theory, conceptualizes the independent/interdependent self-construals that
manifest in intercultural communications. She charts the cultural
individualistic-collectivistic axes on which persons operate. People
are “both joined and separate,” wrote Burke, “at once a distinct
substance and consubstantial with one another.” 33 In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself or herself. Yet at the same time he or she remains unique, an
individual locus of motives. Thus he or she is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.34
While Burke states that persuasion results from a sense of oneness that a rhetor could create with another person, Buber has
31. Leslie A. Baxter, and Barbara Montgomery, Relating: Dialogue and Dialectics
(Guilford: New York, 1996).
32. M. Kim, “Culture-Based Conversational Constraints Theory,” in Gudykunst, pp.
33. Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1969), p. 21.
34. Ibid.
written about the essential role of “distance” in “unions.” 35 He
maintains that “distancing” or “setting at a distance” is “plain from
the fact that one can enter into relation only with being which has
been set at a distance, more precisely, has become an independent
opposite.” 36 Czubaroff maintains that such distance is fundamental to communication, including in communication marked by
Where logical unity, synthesis, and agreement are goals in
dialectic, the dialogical meeting of persons is marked by
“over-againstness” and, often, by “tragic conflict” which may
arise because “each is as he is.” However, though a dialogue
may not result in logical agreement or unanimity, it reminds
us that real otherness “can be affirmed in opposing it.” 37
For Buber, however, “the other” is not left “out there.” He views
people as interdependent and affirms their capacity to “commune
and to covenant” with one another.38 In fact, he extols “reciprocity”: “Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal
reciprocity.” 39 Buber set …
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