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Deliberative Acts

Democracy, Rhetoric, and Rights Arabella Lyon

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Deliberative Acts is the winner of the 2014 Rhetoric Society of America Book Award

Deliberative Acts provides a trenchant critique of the theoretical premises of persuasion, argumentation, and identification dominating Western rhetoric. Arabella Lyon delivers a versatile theory of deliberation as a formative act wherein differences are generative and constitutive of relational agency. Lyon focuses on paradigmatic human rights struggles to reveal the limits of liberal models of democracy and their diminishment of interpretive differences. Her astute analysis of human rights as relationships shows deliberation’s ability to transform our understanding of cross-cultural rights practices. This book is relevant for all interested in how globalization continues to shift our understanding of rights and of deliberation itself.”
“Cross-cultural interactions in the global era call for pluralistic thinking, engagement with situated difference, and keen awareness of one’s own discursive blind spots. Thanks to Arabella Lyon, we now have an insightful and compelling framework for enacting such interactions and performing deliberative acts that privilege contingency, transformation, and initial moments of recognition.”
“Arabella Lyon’s Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric, and Rights is an important and exciting work of rhetorical theory that effectively challenges a central paradigm of rhetoric—persuasion—and argues for a concept of deliberation that is rooted in its performance as a speech act. I was repeatedly impressed by Lyon’s ability to engage the political discourse she analyzes and theorizes. She accomplishes a rare thing: she develops a theory nuanced and powerful enough to provide genuine insight into the complicated and ongoing speech practices that shape and reshape individuals, cultures, and political orders. She does justice to the dynamic interaction between speaker and interlocutor in ways that few works of rhetorical theory have managed to do. The power of Lyon’s theory is borne out in her very helpful analyses of the construction of the abuse of al-Obeidi, the misrepresentation of the Chinese policy of one child, and the complex role of performative speech in the history of the women’s suffrage movement. Her analyses exemplify the dynamic, evolving, and open-ended process of deliberation that she theorizes. This book will change and invigorate the ways we think and speak about the nature and consequences of speech as political action.”
“Arabella Lyon’s Deliberative Acts is an exceptional treatment of human rights rhetoric with consequential ramifications for public deliberation and democratic cultures. Lyon offers readers overlapping concepts of deliberative ‘performance, performatives, and performativity’ as alternatives to the traditional emphasis on persuasion, identification, and consensus, while advancing substantive arguments for dealing with human differences in diverse and transnational contemporary life. Incisive and lucid, Deliberative Acts ranges widely across major philosophical perspectives on deliberative theory, considering classical sources such as Aristotle and Confucius, as well as twentieth-century writers such as Hannah Arendt, Kenneth Burke, John L. Austin, Judith Butler, and several accomplished feminist epistemologists and social justice theorists. Lyon’s sustained engagement with these intellectuals’ works scrutinizes their limitations respectfully, salvaging useful concepts and insights along the way, and places them in dialogue with each other to generate alternatives.”
“Arabella Lyon’s Deliberative Acts challenges the central assumptions of deliberative rhetoric and offers exciting new ways of reading, responding to, and creating democratic forms of life. This absorbing book analyzes human rights discourses from the perspective of performance theory, emphasizing issues of recognition, difference, and agency. Lyon develops her analysis by examining a wide range of cases: missing women in Asia, the Rigoberta Menchú controversy, and debates about women’s studies in the United States, Uzbekistan, China, and Japan.”
“In Deliberative Acts, Arabella Lyon presents a cogent argument for the performative role of deliberative rhetoric in addressing the problem of human rights. She powerfully advocates what might be called a rhetorical hermeneutics of narrative aimed at achieving a more complex recognition of others as a ground for global human rights deliberation leading to political action.”
“Lyon’s critique of deliberation in human rights discourse, particularly her departure from identification as a valid tool in persuasion across difference, is important and should be a foundational one for those of us working in rights discourse because it cuts to the very methodology on which rights claims, particularly within official channels like the UN, have historically been predicated.”

The twenty-first century is characterized by the global circulation of cultures, norms, representations, discourses, and human rights claims; the arising conflicts require innovative understandings of decision making. Deliberative Acts develops a new, cogent theory of performative deliberation. Rather than conceiving deliberation within the familiar frameworks of persuasion, identification, or procedural democracy, it privileges speech acts and bodily enactments that constitute deliberation itself, reorienting deliberative theory toward the initiating moment of recognition, a moment in which interlocutors are positioned in relationship to each other and so may begin to construct a new lifeworld. By approaching human rights not as norms or laws, but as deliberative acts, Lyon conceives rights as relationships among people and as ongoing political and historical projects developing communal norms through global and cross-cultural interactions.

Arabella Lyon is Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo. Her 1998 book Intentions: Negotiated, Contested, and Ignored (Penn State) won the W. Ross Winterowd Award from the Association of Teachers of Advanced Composition.



Introduction: Deliberation in the Global Era

1 Defining Deliberative Space: Rethinking Persuasion, Position, and Identification

2 Performative Deliberation and the Narratable Who

3 Narrating Rights, Creating Agents: Missing Women in the U.S. Media

4 The Beauty of Arendt’s Lies: Menchú’s Political Strategy

5 Voting like a Girl: Declarations, Paradoxes of Deliberation, and Embodied Citizens as a Difference in Kind


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