UB professor receives major award for book on democracy, rhetoric and rights

portrait of Arabella Lyon

Arabella Lyon has received the 2014 RSA Book Award for her provocative book, “Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric and Rights.”

She proposes “performative rhetoric”as a useful approach to cultural, political conflicts

Release Date: June 23, 2014

Cover of the book “Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric and Rights.”
“In changing her location and interlocutors, al-Obeidi not only remade the event itself, but its possible interpretation and outcome.”
Arabella Lyon, professor of English
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. —Arabella Lyon, PhD, professor of English and director of the Center for Excellence in Writing at the University at Buffalo, has received the 2014 Book Award from the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) for the best work in rhetorical study published in 2013.

She received the award for her provocative book, “Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric and Rights” (Penn State University Press, 2013), which provides an incisive and detailed analysis of the theoretical premises underlying dominant Western rhetoric, the art of public discussion.

In “Deliberative Acts,” Lyon, rather than conceiving of deliberation within the familiar frameworks of persuasion, identification or procedural democracy, accords a higher value to speech acts and bodily enactments that constitute deliberation itself.

An example of such an enactment, she says, took place in 2011 when Libyan lawyer Eman al-Obeidi burst into Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel to tell the international press corps there that Libyan troops had kidnapped, beaten and gang-raped her. Her public statement challenged both the Gaddafi government and the taboo against discussing sex crimes in Libya.

“In changing her location and interlocutors,” says Lyon, “al-Obeidi not only remade the event itself, but its possible interpretation and outcome. She redefined woman’s shame as Gaddafi’s shame and demanded a different kind of recognition and relationship than she would have found in the Libyan legal system.”

Rhetoric is a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, and has played a central role in the Western tradition from ancient times.It aims to improve the capacity of writers or speakers to inform, persuade or motivate a situated audience to act.

Because the 21st century is characterized by the often rapid global circulation of cultures, norms, representations, discourses and human rights claims, Lyon says the collision of often disparate ideas provokes conflicts of many kinds.

“Understanding and resolving them,” she says, “requires us to find new ways, not only of making decisions, but of understanding the conflicts themselves.

“The example of al-Obeidi’s performative rhetoric,” she explains, “illustrates how deliberative theory can be reoriented away from outcomes and toward the initiating moment of recognition, a moment in which those taking part in the conversation are positioned in relationship to each other and so may begin to define their shared world. ”

In approaching human rights not as universals, laws or immutable concepts, but as agreements among people, Lyon says she conceives of them as ongoing political and historical projects that can develop agreed-upon norms through global and cross-cultural interactions.

The annual RSA award is presented on the basis of a book’s originality, strength and persuasiveness of argument; readability; potential to promote rhetoric among scholars from other fields; and potential to promote the understanding of rhetoric among the general public.

Of Lyon’s selection, one member of the selection committee said, “The articulation of performance and performativity is a welcome intervention into contemporary theories and practices of deliberation. Lyon’s discussion builds productively off of the insights of thinkers such as Aristotle, Arendt and Austin to offer an innovative take on how rights and rhetoric might be thought anew.

“I was especially pleased (and frankly excited) to see an engagement of Butler’s theories of identity and agency, the latter of which deserves more attention in our field,” the committee member said. “The work is provocative and innovative, clearly forwarding important conversations in the field.”

Lyon is co-editor of “Human Rights Rhetoric: Traditions of Testifying and Witnessing” (Routledge, 2012), with Lester Olson, and author of “Intentions: Negotiated, Contested and Ignored” (Penn State University Press, 1998), which won the 1998 W. Ross Winterowd Book Award for the most outstanding book on composition theory from JAC, the Journal of Rhetoric, Culture and Politics.

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