Date of Award

Fall 2019

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures

First Advisor

Chris Holcomb


A confluence of factors has sparked a sustained, public preoccupation with conversation. Brewing since the fifteenth century and overtly public since the middle of the nineteenth century, the explosion of public models of conversation that emerged in the European and American rhetorical traditions is significant—without precedent—in the history of rhetoric. This interest in conversation is so pronounced as to penetrate not just public speaking practices, but subtler interpretations of law, philosophy, commerce, and government. I identify this as the conversational turn. The extent to which this saturation was truly conversational is the subject of much debate. However, the contours of this debate are little understood. This is both a historical and theoretical problem.

While the art of face-to-face conversation is said to be either irrevocably in decline or in desperate need of reclaiming, practically every modern communication invention has conspired to make the rhetorical metaphor and structure of conversation not just possible in public life, but desired and expected. In an effort to understand how and why the public conversational dynamic rose to prominence in the way that it did, this study brings together underlying social and political dynamics that animate the conversational turn, particularly as they developed in the United States. By doing so, this project recasts the dominant narrative about the public shift away from oratory and toward conversation in contemporary, democratic societies.


© 2019, Hannah Goff Spicher