Carnegie Mellon University

Appetite for Imagination: The Rhetoric of Hunger Advocacy and Political Imaginaries

Author: Alexander Helberg

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2021

This dissertation introduces a new analytic paradigm for exploring the deep structures of belief that undergird our thinking about public problems like hunger. I propose a revitalized rhetorical concept of political imaginaries, defined here as collective, conceptual understandings of how political systems function. I unpack this concept from a rhetorical perspective to focus on how discursive framings of problems, solutions, conceptual metaphors, and identities are rendered and circulated publicly by activist and advocacy organizations seeking to create social and political change. The public problem of hunger is, I contend, an ideal issue through which to examine rhetorics of political imaginaries, since its invocation invites a wide array of interpretations that rely on collective assumptions about who deserves aid and whose responsibility it is to provide basic means of survival on a societal level. An analysis of public rhetorics around hunger, viewed through the lens of political imaginaries, also helps answer questions about why some activist and advocacy rhetorics circulate more broadly and achieve a greater hegemonic standing than others, and what the consequences of this selective uptake might be for people conducting future aid work in local communities.


Through a comparative case study of two Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger organizations – a nonprofit organization with ostensibly apolitical messaging and an activist collective with a highly political message – I show how these public arguments each represent accessible (though diametrically opposed) political imaginaries to give public audiences frameworks for understanding hunger, warrants for believing basic “facts” about how political systems work, and ultimately, channels for agentive public participation. In this defense, I will present my analyses of the political imaginaries framed for public dissemination by these two organizations. I show that while one organization renders hunger as a merely “logistical” issue that can be solved by redistributing food waste directly from over-producing businesses to food insecure people, the other more vociferously argues for a new mode of political thinking about taking action against hunger, which rejects and transcends the political status quo. I then turn to an examination of how each organization’s discourse circulates in news media and among political leaders in the local public sphere, which reveals how the material and discursive logics of local public rhetorical ecologies function from a social movement perspective. From this, I illustrate how future activist and advocacy organizations can strategically orient their communications with rhetorical circulation in mind – a stance which could make social and political change more readily achievable.