Review: A Responsive Rhetorical Art: Artistic Methods for a Contemporary Public Life by Elenore Long

Reviewed by Aly Higgins (she/her), University of Arizona

A yellow line stretching across the page
The book cover for A Responsive Rhetorical Art by Elenore Long. The cover includes a photo of a person with dark skin wearing a green head scarf, gold jewlery, and a green dress.
Image courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh Press
288 Pages | October, 2018 | ISBN: 9780822965503


For the last year, I have been working with a local coalition organizing against displacement and gentrification in the westside barrios and neighborhoods that situate downtown Tucson. While I have primarily been helping with logistics like note taking and recording feedback from community outreach events, I have also been reflecting on how my training as a rhetoric and composition student and the field's disciplinary concepts could be utilized to ethically support the work of the coalition. Moreover, accelerating urban development around downtown Tucson and new government proposals to incentivize luxury development projects in predominantly Latinx South Tucson have added exigency to our work, pushing the coalition to reevaluate what organizing we require to do work with the communities most vulnerable to eviction, housing discrimination, and rising rents. In other words, we are asking ourselves: How do we turn words into action, and how can our group be a catalyst to community and organizational efforts that are already working to preserve community in the face of accelerating urban change?

At our most recent meeting, we decided to take the time to renegotiate our goals, practices, and priorities. What became clear during the meeting is that the coalition's members brought diverse experiences and desires to the group, and the issue of displacement that we were trying to address appeared to be far-reaching and hard to prevent. We realized we needed to critically reflect on who we were as a group and identify the desires of individual members by participating in a mapping activity that highlighted who was in the room, who needed to be in the room, and what action steps were most pressing. This map documented possible pathways forward and included ideas for educational events, recording our work, and learning from local and national organizations. Unbeknownst to us, by engaging in the process of collaborative critical reflection and mapping pathways forward, our group was enacting a "responsive rhetorical art," which community literacy scholar Elenore Long comprehensively defines, tests, and experiences in her recent book, A Responsive Rhetorical Art: Artistic Methods for a Contemporary Public Life.

Long's A Responsive Rhetorical Art has offered me questions, practices, and tools to think through the coalition's work and future directions. In addition to impacting my own organizing experience, Long's work is an important contribution to the field of community literacy, introducing a responsive rhetorical art as an active tool that seeks to theorize a pathway forward amidst conflict between institutional practices and a community's ability to thrive. A responsive rhetorical art goes beyond institutional critique to offer practices and questions that bring people together in emerging publics in order to bear witness to community needs and participate in public world-making practices that have the potential to redress harmful institutional practices. Importantly, a responsive rhetorical art is nameable, but also malleable, as it emerges from particular contexts to address situated exigencies. Long builds on prominent community literacy scholarship from Ellen Cushman, Lorraine Higgins, and Jennifer Clifton to ask two important questions in her work: How do people come together to envision change when the issue at hand and the relationships amongst people are not fully formed? And, how can rhetoric, composition, and literacy scholars and their disciplinary practices be reenvisioned to support the work of these emerging publics?

Book Overview

At its core, Long's project is a humanizing one, as she redefines the role of scholar from "fixer" to someone who understands their ability to thrive as inherently bound with others' ability to thrive. The thematic thread that holds the various applications of a responsive rhetorical art together across different geographic and public contexts is Long's emphasis on the public world making of displaced people and communities. This emphasis makes her work compelling and timely in the midst of growing concern about the consequences of climate change and the rise of increasingly xenophobic and militarized immigration policies in the United States and other Western nation-states. On a personal note, Long's emphasis on world making with communities who are building their lives in the midst of displacement has helped me reflect on how the downtown Tucson coalition could collaborate with communities to address the failure of development practices and build equitable placemaking alternatives.

From this broader social and political context, Long asks us to reimagine how the teaching and practice of rhetoric could have an active role in transforming publics to serve the well-being of community members who have historically been targeted and harmed by public institutional practices, including the practices of the universities we work within. What is most compelling about Long's contribution to the field of community literacy is her emphasis on the "who" and the "how": Who will be centered in our work? And, how can rhetorical education be in service of communities seeking to redress harmful institutional practices during early rhetorical uptake?

To answer these questions, Long brings the reader into many worlds. Through five distinct case studies in Arizona and New England, Long expands the field's understanding of art and invention as techne that are capable of transforming public life via collaboration in newly formed publics and emerging issues. To redefine the field's understanding and application of these disciplinary concepts as foundational to enacting a responsive rhetorical art, Long writes with community partners and other rhetorical scholars in order to demonstrate, question, and think through the active potential of a responsive rhetorical art during the early uptake of a shared issue that brings diverse people together in an emerging public. By her own admission, the multi-site scope of her project can be disorientating for those used to traditional, linear academic inquiry. However, I believe the broad scale and diversity of Long's case studies that continually question the work of a responsive rhetorical art mirror the fast paced, messy, and recursive nature of emerging publics. Due to how Long diversely applies a responsive rhetorical art, I believe Long's book is best read as a guide that readers can return to when in need of support in designing tools to bring people together to engage in public world making.

Review Preview

This review will first discuss the key terms and theories that Long adopts to make sense of a responsive rhetorical art. The theoretical overview will serve as a foundation for the second part of the review, which will evaluate Long's methodological frameworks and methods by mapping these research practices within the geographic and social contexts of the five case studies Long discusses in the second half of the book. My intention in this section is to demonstate how Long's five case studies illuminate the various functions of a responsive rhetorical art and to reveal how central themes move across the case studies to demonstrate the performative, iterative, and contextual nature of a responsive rhetorical art. Finally, I will conclude with an overview of my evaluation and future implications for Long's work.