Fracking and the Construction of Proximity: The Public Rhetoric of Place in an Environmental Controversy
Author: Justin Mando
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2016
This dissertation investigates the rhetorical strategies of speakers at county-level public hearings on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) with specific focus on the role of the place-based appeal as an argumentative resource to deliberative rhetoric. This study begins with a March 10, 2011 hearing on hydraulic fracturing held at the Allegheny County Courthouse and expands to include seven other public hearings on the same topic. These public hearings are viewed as sites of “ordinary democracy” where local government and citizens work vocally for the common good of their community. The ordinary democracy approach requires a withholding of normative theories of the public sphere to first study democracy as it exists in its local institutions. To examine this corpus of public deliberative rhetoric by citizen speakers, this study uses a combination of discourse analysis, rhetorical analysis and computer-aided corpus analysis.
My analysis reveals that place-based arguments are a ubiquitous rhetorical resource in the dispute over hydraulic fracturing and perhaps more broadly. In the hydraulic fracturing controversy, fracking supporters (pro-frackers) and opponents (anti-frackers) use their experience in places to build ethos, communicate risk, identify with their audience, and to advance deliberative argument. Despite these common aims, pro- and anti-frackers represent places in markedly different ways. Pro-frackers tend to represent places from an “aerial view” that is zoomed out and emphasizes coverage over detail. Anti-frackers use a different strategy that presents an “on-the-ground” view of the places they depict, providing detailed representations of single scenes. In my second chapter, I show that anti- and pro-frackers use synecdoche differently to represent natural, industrial and home sites as, respectively, a whole made of unique parts or a whole that subsumes its parts with implications on the need to protect these places. In the third and fourth chapters, I introduce vicarious proximity appeals and use them as a unit of analysis to further differentiate rhetorical strategies used by pro- and anti-frackers. Vicarious proximity appeals are first-person descriptive accounts that bear witness to changes in places. These appeals are attempts to provide audience members with the vicarious experience of being in a place. Speakers at the hearings report how places have transformed over time, such as state park space that is now the site of a drilling operation or a small town previously destitute that is now bustling. Speakers use these appeals because they believe if the audience experienced what they have experienced, their positions on the issue would match. As a unit of analysis, vicarious proximity appeals show how place is used in deliberative argument, but it also reveals micro-rhetorical features of place representation that are used as a strategy of apologia, or image repair.
I conclude by arguing that place-based rhetoric is a valuable tool in public deliberation to communicate risk, identify with audiences, and establish ethos. Place-based rhetoric also functions as an interface that connects the global and the local. Supported by the differing representational practices of the groups I have studied, my dissertation demonstrates the power of the discursively-constructed place as a lens for analysis and insight. My work also encourages citizens to draw on shared places as a rhetorical resource when they go public.