Riedner, Rachel, and Kevin Mahoney. Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. Print.



In this book, Riedner and Mahoney ask us to think about the place and potential of pedagogy in the current context of neoliberalism. More specifically, they ask: “How can pedagogy be conceptualized as a site in which to intervene in culture and to act politically?” (xiii). As they articulate an understanding of pedagogy as a rich site for political intervention, Riedner and Mahoney explain:

“Pedagogy, as we understand it, is a practice of learning that creates ways of knowing that suggest political possibilities. Pedagogy is a praxis of learning strategies for intervening, reassembling, and inventing sustainable relationships of solidarity, networks of affinity, that hold out the possibility of countering neoliberal hegemony. And pedagogy is always inscribed in a particular context, a particular conjunctural moment.” (3)

Ultimately, Riedner and Mahoney argue for an understanding of pedagogy as rhetorical action. Pedagogy, then, is not just a matter of running the day-to-day of the classroom, but should rather be understood as an important means of producing and reproducing social relations, of producing and reproducing identities, and of intervening into systems of domination and control.

Riedner and Mahoney frame their arguments about pedagogy as rhetorical action within a discussion of neoliberalism as a “strong” rhetoric. Neoliberalism, they argue, is persuasive in that it is an authoritative, dominant discourse that acts materially on bodies, practices, identities and communities. According to Riedner and Mahoney, “Neoliberalism is the pedagogy of Empire” (10).

Thinking about neoliberalism as a strong rhetoric pushes us to focus on the role affect plays in the persuasive power of this rhetoric. Riedner and Mahoney argue that affect is not something that exists outside of capitalist production and reproduction, but rather than affect is central to capitalism’s power to corral labor. As they highlight the centrality of affect in the working of neoliberalism, Riedner and Mahoney draw special attention to the power of despair. They refer to arguments from Thatcher and Fukuyama that insist that there is no alternative to neoliberal policies. Despair works powerfully to convince us that even when we find conditions, practices, or policies deplorable, we have to consent to them because there is nothing else that can be done. Despair works to reinforce a sense of closure or containment that is part of neoliberal rhetoric–that is, the sense that we are in a system that we cannot get out of and our options for changing that system are severely limited.

Riedner and Mahoney argue that it is vital that we understand the role that affect, and despair in particular, play in neoliberal rhetoric so that we understand the importance of pedagogy as rhetorical action that can begin to open up space and possibility in this closed fabric. In the book’s final chapter, Riedner and Mahoney highlight the activist work of the Zapatistas and the scholarly work of people like Judith Butler as both working to rearticulate conditions and practices in order to open up new ways of understanding, establish new vocabularies, and enable new forms of response. Riedner and Mahoney argue that this is the kind of rhetorical action we need to focus on: action that creates a new sense of possibility and enables response, intervention, and hope in the face of despair.

Quotable Quotes:

“In the current moment, in the moment of Empire, in the moment of neoliberalism, pedagogy becomes a space of learning whose purpose is to develop an understanding of new structures and in so doing develop literacies for new, critical perspectives for democracies to come. If we think about pedagogy in this way, it becomes a cultural force for democracy in its own right; a cultural literacy, which intervenes in a multiplicity of systems, institutions, formations, and constituencies to create meaning. As a practice of meaning-making, pedagogy becomes rhetorical action: a political practice of making, reproducing, and remaking of social relations, identities, and intervening in relations of dominance and exploitation.” (7)

“As a rhetoric, as a pedagogy, as a theory, as an ideology, as a means of understanding collectives, selves, and their relationship to each other, neoliberalism produces bodies, emotions and identities. Neoliberal rhetorics do things.” (39)

“Despair works to close off the ability to think or feel alternatives. Despair, reinforced by nostalgia, clues us in to how neoliberalism as a rhetoric has to acknowledge its own incompleteness. Yes, in the very same move, neoliberalism seeks to posit its naturalness and to reduce resistance or hope for alternatives, to an issues of coping and creates its own ‘disorder’—regulating those who would think another world is possible as remnants of days gone by.” (70)

“The collective reworking of emotional master narratives in this way is a form of collective cultural production that stands in direct opposition to the reproduction of the existing social order.” (84)

“[T]he act of creating opening in the fabric of a seemingly settled hegemony—a disruption of the familiar or dominant discursive terrain, a gesture to openness and unknowingness—is a key political action that is an integral aspect for producing even the possibility of counter-hegemonic action.” (91)