Speaking to power: 5 questions for Samuel McCormick

Associate Professor of Communication Studies Samuel McCormick has received the National Communication Association's 2014 Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression, in recognition of his 2011 book "Letters to Power: Public Advocacy Without Public Intellectuals."

Samuel McCormick teaching a class at SF State.

Associate Professor of Communication Studies Samuel McCormick.

The award is given annually to an NCA member who has authored outstanding published research on freedom of expression over the past three years. "Letters to Power" explores the political and cultural impact of public letters, from the epistles of Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger to today's online advocacy.

McCormick will be presented with the award at the NCA's 100th annual convention, which will be held in Chicago from Nov. 20 to 23. The NCA is the largest communication association in the United States and supports research and teaching of communication as an academic discipline.

Below, McCormick shares his thoughts on "Letters to Power," public advocacy and freedom of expression.


What inspired you to write "Letters to Power"?

A decade-long conversation with three scholars: intellectual historian David J. Depew, rhetorical theorist James Patrick McDaniel and media scholar John Durham Peters. More directly, though, it was the scarcity of public intellectuals among today's academic professionals. This gave me pause, but it also encouraged me to search for alternate forms of political intelligence, ultimately leading me to ancient, medieval and modern traditions of learned advocacy. "Letters to Power" is an account of this journey.


What are the ways in which written advocacy has impacted society?

It's difficult to overestimate -- and even more challenging to summarize -- the social and political impacts of written advocacy. From ancient graffiti to the latest tweet, public advocates of every stripe have used the written word to address mass audiences and inspire social movements. This is why smartphones and the mobile Internet are as crucial to the history of written advocacy as the printing press and the newspaper. More than information technologies, they are resources for social change.


What does "letter writing" look like today? Has its role changed, and, if so, how?

Letter writing has always imitated face-to-face conversation, and its latest form, texting, is no exception. Text messages are often informal, unedited and treated as ephemera. Words are clipped, simplified and phonetically rewritten. Articles, subjects, modals, vowels and spaces continue to disappear. And punctuation increasingly has followed suit, rekindling its ancient romance with spoken discourse. How else are we to account for emoticons? Today's letters smile, laugh, frown, wink, cry, cheer, rage, yawn, kiss, blush, stick out their tongues, tie their tongues and sometimes even seal their lips -- just like participants in a face-to-face conversation. This mashup of orality and literacy is as old as letter-writing itself, but it's never been livelier -- or more central to human communication -- than it is today.


Why is freedom of expression important?

There are many answers to this question, and most of them are anchored in democratic imaginaries. Freedom of expression is often thought to be the foundation of democratic public culture. If we live in a democracy, so the argument goes, it's because we enjoy freedom of expression. In "Letters to Power," I suggest something different. Freedom of expression is not the foundation of democratic public culture, but instead its basic communicative horizon. Strictly speaking, freedom of expression does not exist. Last I checked, the phrase itself -- "freedom of expression" -- was even trademarked. As a principle, though, it has never ceased to inspire us, calling our attention to areas of public culture where more freedom of expression, and thus more democratic practice, is in order. "Letters to Power" is a book about public advocacy in the meantime, when freedom of expression and democracy itself are still to come.


What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on two new books. The first, tentatively titled "Elementary Republics," focuses on the civic engagements of local community actors, paying special attention to the ambiguous forms of citizenship, civic virtue and deliberative discourse that shore up ordinary American political culture. The second, tentatively titled “Everyday Talk,” considers the largely unexplored tradition of elite, intellectual discourse on the civic engagements of local community actors.


In addition to the Haiman award, "Letters to Power" is the winner of the 2012 Everett Lee Hunt Award presented by the Eastern Communication Association and the James A. Winans-Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address from the National Communication Association. For more information about the NCA's awards program, visit http://www.natcom.org/awards/

-- Jonathan Morales