Rhetoric, Organizational Communication,
and Sartre's Theory of Practical Groups
Michael Calvin McGee
The University of Iowa
This text was presented as a Lecture,
"Rhetoric, Organizational Communication, and Sartre's Theory of Group
Praxis," Second Annual B. Aubrey Fisher Memorial Lecture (Salt Lake
City, UT: University of Utah, 1989).
I want to thank you, once again, for a warm welcome to the state
of Utah. I've never missed a summer conference on argumentation
at Alta, and once before you invited me to lecture here. And now,
as with every visit, I feel right at home.
I also want to thank you for an opportunity to develop an argument
I have wanted to make for years about the centrality of group
communication to all the fields of communication studies that
housed Aubrey Fisher's many electic interests. I will argue this
evening that this relatively unattended specialization within
the field ought to be its conceptual center.
My method of proceeding might be a bit scatter-brained and mirthsome-at
least that was the first reaction of my friend and colleague John
Lyne. He heard my title and crossed the line of chuckle right
into giggle. When I asked what was so funny, he said "Sounds like
you're going to Utah to play 'connect the dots'." I caught the
reference to the child's game in the comic pages every Sunday.
John clearly appreciates rhetoric, and though we have shared a
laugh or two at the expense of some papers in group and organizational
communication that probably shouldn't have been written, he is
Scott Poole's classmate and Randy Hirokawa's colleague, so I know
he has respect for the better work that is done in that area.
Both Sartre's marxism and his existentialism are considered passe
by some, but I know John reads the old master with some appreciation.
Because he likely does not object to any of the parts of my discourse,
I guess John must simply be reacting to the appearance that these
subjects have nothing to do with one another.
And in that impression, John is not alone. Nearly everyone in
the field would agree that rhetoric, organizational communication,
and Western marxist theory a la Sartre are such separate discourses
that they must be considered separately. I hope to persuade you
that this appearance is deceiving. All three bodies of theoretical
discourse require a similar concept to refer to human beings acting
in concert. Rhetoric needs a theory of audiences, organizational
communication needs a theory of groups, and social theory needs
a theory of class. My claim tonight is that when Sartre theorized
class as a special instance of groupness, he exemplified a strategy
of thinking that will prove as useful in rhetorical theory and
in organizational communication as it ought to have been in marxist
SARTRE'S DEBATE WITH LOUIS ALTHUSSER
Sartre will be remembered for such literary efforts as his play
Huis Clos, and for his magnificent definitive statement
of the philosophy of existentialism, Being and Nothingness.
But in my mind his greatest work was his last major book, Critique
of Dialectical Reason: The Theory of Practical Groups.
It appeared in Paris in 1960, but it was quickly lost in the avant
garde reconstruction of philosophical problems that swept France
from the mid 1950's to the mid 1970's. Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland
Barthes, Jean Piaget, and company were busy developing structuralism,
and its method semiotics, as legitimate alternatives to positivism
and behaviorism in social science. Louis Althusser, Lucien Goldmann,
and company were taking the principles of structuralism directly
to politics, offering a unique Western marxist interpretation
of social problems. Jacques Lacan was rereading Freud and revolutionizing
our understanding of psychoanalysis. In this company, Sartre was
old-fashioned. By May, 1968--the watershed year in French intellectual
life-his book had withered into insignificance. He was washed
to sea by new wave after new wave (Michel Foucault and company,
Gilles DeLeuze and company, Jean-Francois Lyotard and company,
Jean Baudrillard and company). By the time the book was translated
into English in 1976, even New Left Books, the publisher that
makes its list available to less wealthy readers, was forced to
charge $35.00 to break even on production costs.
Sartre's basic problem with his audience was that while the rest
of the intellectual world was looking to ideas of structure to
explain contemporary politics, Sartre wanted us to look more closely
at the dynamics of human interaction. Let me explain this tension
by describing, as I understand it, the origins and context of
the debate where Sartre found himself a universal and all-too-fixed
After World War II, Sartre's thought took on an increasingly
political cast. Along with Andre Malraux, he was widely thought
of as the major intellectual apologist for the French Left. Of
course he was not an active Communist Party member who demonstrated
his good faith by adhering to an orthodox party line. He believed
that Marxist politics were fundamentally correct, but that they
needed far more rigorous intellectual defense than they had been
given. He recognized that a number of theoretical difficulties
had beset classic 19th-century statements of marxist
theory, making it increasingly less acceptable to anyone who bothered
to think critically. The most important of these difficulties
is the problem of class dialectics.
The idea of a social class is now so well-accepted that it is
not clearly associated with marxism at all. Sociologists and economists
have tried to make divisions among upper, lower, and middle classes
into bland categories based on the division of wealth. Membership
in a socio-economic class, however, is like belonging to a club
with no privileges. You belong in the group by virtue of your
income, but the class is not active, and you are not considered
virtuous or vicious because of the degree to which you are a good
citizen of your class. You'll never see a Ruling Elite Club float
in the Rose Bowl parade. Indeed, for most writers, class is simply
a technical term making it easier to think about differences in
the quality of life that result from wealth and prestige.
This neutered conception of class is missing its most useful
feature. Classes of people are enabled or disabled by the amount
of money they have to spend on the things in life they want, and
it is also true that each class will develop its own culture,
doing and valuing what they can afford to do and enjoy. But Marx
said more than this: He suggested that classes make war on each
other. The opposites in the dialectic of history were classes
of people struggling against one another for control of the wealth
of the society. When wealth was divided along capitalistic lines,
the contending classes became the familiar bourgeoisie and proletariat,
capitalists and workers. Each of Marx's predictions about social
and economic justice depends not just on the existence of these
opposite classes, but on their internal homogeneity and their
capacity to act in unison as a group. This is what gave 19th-century
marxism its internationalist flavor. The fact that you were a
worker gave you more in common with a worker in Dusseldorf or
Peiking than you had in common with American capitalists who were
In the 20th-century, Marx's notion of class becomes
problematic, for the more experience we have with social systems,
the more evident it becomes that the sort of class he described
is neither homogeneous nor active. Marx talked about wealth, but
his real subject was survival. Poverty for him was watching your
children starve, and the contradiction between capital and labor
was the stark contrast between subsistence and conspicuous consumption.
This situation prevails today in contrasting life in Los Angeles
with life in most third-world countries, Ethiopia, for example.
But it does not prevail for very large numbers of people (considered
as a proportion of total population) in any of the advanced industrial
states. Yes, we are disgraced because we do little to relieve
the wretched conditions of the homeless who wander the streets
of every major and most minor American cities. But the number
of Americans existing at the subsistence level while laboring
for the benefit of oppulent capitalists is relatively low, a small
percentage of the total population.
Once you get past the problem of survival, the question of wealth
is always correlative. That is, the determination of how much
wealth is enough wealth is a matter of taste, ambition, and desire,
not necessarily a matter of class interest. Stated simply, classes
are not at war with one another. If there is an opposition between
the bourgeois and the proletarian, it is either an academic opposition
with little consequence in practical politics, or it is a cultural
opposition worked out at the box office as a contest to see if
the chips-and-beer "plain folks" style of life is better or worse
than the caviar-and-champaign "rich and famous" style of life.
No one cares that 90% of America's wealth is in the hands of 3.4%
of Americans-for most Americans, the remaining 10% is enough to
The fact that class has become an increasingly minor consideration
in the politics of advanced capitalism, rather than the increasingly
major force Marx thought it would be, is enough to make marxist
social theory seem to be no more than a party line. Some 20th-century
marxists, however, Sartre among them, suggest that the problem
could lie with deficiencies in the conception of class. For Marx,
especially in his later writings, the socio-economic classes were
treated as objective categories. He seems to have thought it self-evident
that class identity and unity would follow from experiencing similar
life conditions, and that motives for action were built into proper
perception of one's advantages and disadvantages in confronting
those life conditions. It follows from this that a description
of the context of class-life conditions common to all class members-is
also and simultaneously an adequate explanation of the formation
and function of class. A formal way of stating this might be to
say that context produces class and clearly entails class identity,
unity, and motive. This inference led Marx, and most marxists
of both the 19th and 20th centuries, to
theorize class as a consequence of social organization. They might
have done better, Sartre suggested, to look at class as a special
case of group formation and political action in general. Classes
are historical forces only when they act in unison and produce
political effects. The decisive questions in theorizing class,
therefore, concern group formation, group consciousness and group
action. We should be theorizing class identity, unity, and motive
Sartre developed such a theory of practical groups, and I will
sketch it for you in a moment. I want to give you a clearer idea
of the rhetorical problems Sartre faced in creating his theory,
however. Before you can understand the ingenuity of his theoretical
strategy, you need glimpse the ingenuity, perhaps the genius,
of his opposition.
Sartre's most important opponent was Louis Althusser. Althusser
(like other Western marxists such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Gramsci,
and Lukacs) addressed the problem of the apparent failure of class
dialectics. Unlike Sartre, however, he was an active member of
the French Communist Party, and in the eyes of the political left,
this gave Althusser a presumption of moral superiority. (We're
all familiar with this old bromide about the relationship of theory
and practice, aren't we? Why engage in the critical study of morals
and politics when you could be practicing both and improving the
conditions we force upon the oppressed? Why listen to David Eason
teach you critical thinking about journalistic practice when you
could be learning how to write "feature stories," thus making
yourself more employable by the Salt Lake Tribune?)
In addition to their apparently greater degree of political correctness,
Althusser's responses (Althusser, 1971) had the additional advantage
of riding the tide of intellectual fashion in France. He relied
on the objective structure of social control institutions to explain
how the capitalist elite had impeded the progress of the dialectic
and thus temporarily forestalled the march of history toward scientific
socialism. Unlike most other orthodox marxist thinkers, Althusser
followed Gramsci in the argument that ruling elites maintain their
power less through direct action than through social organization.
It is true that the police and armies (what he called the "repressive
state apparatus") will intervene with bloody force to forestall
attempts at reform and revolution. But the far more effective
means of social control is basic socialization itself, controlling
what each generation will take to be "reality" by conditioning
people from cradle to grave to believe that the way society is
now organized is natural, necessary, and fundamentally good. Just
as society formally organizes a repressive state apparatus into
institutions such as police, courts, prisons, and armies, so too
it organizes socialization into an "ideological state apparatus."
Thus each institution of society responsible for acquainting citizens
with the structure and rules of the community participates in
perpetuating an economic and political order that favors the elite
and oppresses the poor. Schools, churches, families, the work-place,
newspapers, television, and all the popular arts that have a didactic
quality about them are "sites" where capitalist ideology is taught
as the silent, subtle, but most significant lesson. You get a
different angle on social control at each site where basic socialization
occurs, but the fundamental lesson of ooperating with dominant
politics is the same. Because there are so many effective teachers
of it, located in so many different places, your participation
in the ideology of advanced capitalism is "overdetermined," produced
by so many causes that only a hermit who never came down from
the Wasatch could escape.
Althusser departed from 19th-century orthodox marxism
in two ways that make him a very significant figure in contemporary
First, as I have just suggested, he changed the concept of ideology
so drastically that we needed the new word hegemony to keep it
clear that you can successfully resist at one site where ideology
is learned, but succumb to the state at others. Run from the state
to religion, and religion will do the job. Run from religion to
home and family, and all the books you read to learn how to be
good at parenting will simultaneously teach you the dominant ideology.
We do not have a single, rigid interpretation of the world as
a result of capitalism, Althusser claimed; rather, we have a multiple,
flexible interpretation of the world that defends ruling class
interests even when it seems that ruling class interests are being
Secondly, Althusser abandoned the orthodox marxist attitude toward
history. Old marxism studied history to discover principles of
causation, the reasons why a thing came to be in the first place.
So, for example, you would study the history of economic transformations
and political turmoil that accompanied them in order to find our
what determined that a bourgeois class would emerge. In contrast,
Althusser's analysis of the ideological state apparatus presupposes
that the decisive object of study is not the origin or production
of the bourgeois class, but its reproduction. History is not a
study of causation so much as it is a study of "re-causation,"
an idea of explanation dependent on the principles of generation
in a biological sense.
Althusser did not depart from 19th-century orthodox
marxism in two ways that bear importantly on our understanding
of Sartre's project in his Critique of Dialectical Reason:
First, he continued to view dialectic as an objective historical
force rather than as a system of logic; something which is manifested
in particular relationships something to be observed in the clash
of opposing political ideas, for example, or in the Utopian vision
of a proletarian revolution) rather than created in particular
relationships (chosen as a strategy of explanation in theory,
for example, or of persuasion in political action).
Second, he continued to think of class as an objective social
category. Although he made great strides in explaining how individual
human beings are socialized to think that they fit into the category
"bourgeoisie," for example, he said nothing new about the "groupness"
of a social class, the phenomenon of whole classes thinking as
with one mind, speaking as with one voice, acting as if in one
I have taken so much time describing Althusser's thought, not
just to show you what a difficult set of rhetorical problems Sartre
faced, but also to demonstrate that 20th-century marxist
social theory has the same blind spot clearly apparent in contemporary
rhetorical theory and in contemporary organizational communication
theory. That blind spot is a tendency to begin one's thinking
about a subject, not in the subject itself, but in the context
or field of the subject, and then to discover little more about
the subject than has already been noticed in descriptions of the
context or field. Though there are myriad points of clash between
Sartre and Althusser, I think it's not too oversimplified to suggest
that most of them derive from Althusser's commitment to draw inferences
from a structured context and Sartre's contrary commitment to
draw inferences from the human inclination to make structured
contexts. Althusser wants to describe dialectic and class in terms
of a world where context is a kind of prison that is simply there.
Sartre wants to describe dialectic and class in terms of a world
where human action subtly creates its own constraining context.
A TERMINISTIC DESCRIPTION OF SARTRE'S THEORY OF PRACTICAL GROUPS
It's time now to sketch Sartre's theory of practical groups.
I've given it such a dramatic build-up, however, that a preliminary
word of caution is in order. I do not regard the theory of practical
groups I'm about to describe as the right, true, or best possible
theory. It is only an illustration of the kind of theory I believe
we should look for. Sartre asked old questions in a new way, and
he came up, not just with new answers, but with a new way of answering.
And it's the way of answering I'm recommending for your consideration.
Let's pose the question with reference to rhetoric and organizational
communication as well as social theory:
These three different bodies of theoretical discourse have a
similar blind-spot, the tendency to treat the context or field
of investigation as an objective, necessary starting-point for
serious scholarly inquiry. Further, each body of discourse prominently
features a very similar concept, a term meant to signify the phenomenon
of human beings thinking and acting in concert: No rhetorical
theory is complete without an accounting of the audience targeted
by persuasive discourse (in Aristotelian terms) or constituted
into a unit through identification (in Burkean terms). No theory
of organizational communication is complete without an accounting
of groups. No theory of society is complete without an accounting
of the classes into which human societies are apparently divided.
Finally, in thinking about audiences, groups, and classes, the
three bodies of theoretical discourse typically speak about things
unconnected with groupness. In rhetoric, audiences are discussed
in terms of the speaker's perceptions and the constraints of the
rhetorical situation. In organizational communication, groups
are described either as wholly arbitrary, or as products of "inputs"
extraneous to the immediate communication situation. In social
theory, the classes are discussed as a consequence of the division
of wealth and labor in a particular society. This all leads to
a common-denominator question: What is groupness, and how can
we account for it?
Sartre adopts an unusual strategy of response for a marxist,
the view of radical empiricism we ordinarily associate with hermeneutics
and the sort of metaphysics Martin Heidegger championed. (Of course
this is not surprising, since Sartre was probably the central
figure in the popularization-if not in the development-of existential
philosophy.) Sartre wants to know how it is in everyday life that
we are able to distinguish a chance collection of human beings
from an organized group of human beings, what it is that members
of a group do to signal their groupness. He then follows this
line of thinking by asking how it is in everyday life that we
are able to recognize degrees of groupness and to respond to our
perceptions that some groups are more legitimate and natural than
others, more permanent and noteworthy than others. Sartre's arguments
are elaborate and intricate, but I think I can adumbrate them
here without doing them violence by using a terministic strategy:
Fundamentally, the theory is an articulation of eleven terms
that signify types of human groups and the relationships that
prevail among individuals in groups. The groups are related to
one another developmentally, so that one group type emerges from
a transformation in a more primitive group type. I think I can
give you a good idea of the theory by defining the eleven terms
and discussing each stage of the developmental process.
The necessity of Sartre's first term, ensemble, illustrates the
thing I find so fascinating about his theory, his attempt to think
about all groups in human experience along lines intrinsic to
the groups themselves rather than with regard to their origins
or their purposes. If you think about it, there is a paucity of
terms in any language to signify groups, though the number of
different kinds of group in any advanced culture is almost countless.
In the English language we usually feature group and organization.
We have other terms (corporation, team, club, and association,
for example), but these refer more to the structural function
of groups in relation to one another than to anything internal
to the group itself. The terms, in other words, give us no clue
about how one's behavior or consciousness of belonging or pattern
of communication differs in association as opposed to club, for
example. Interestingly, unless we use the word group itself technically
(as I have done throughout this lecture) we have no generic term
to signify all groups at once. This is the reference Sartre reserved
for ensemble. An ensemble is any collection of individuals however
constituted, regardless of context, together for whatever purpose.
Sartre's second and third terms, alterity and reciprocity, describe
relations among human beings. They are a dialectical pair drawn
directly from the "Self-Other" or "I-Thou" dialectics so familiar
in Sartre's earlier work, in Martin Buber, in Jose Ortega y Gassett,
and in Heidegger, among others.
A relationship of alterity is the relationship that prevails
among strangers. You recognize the humanity of the other people
around you, and you do not mind "sharing your space" with them,
for you have been taught that they have just as much right to
be there as you do. You are usually noncommittal, neither friendly
nor hostile. If communication occurs at all in a relationship
of alterity, it is highly conventionalized and reveals little
about the speakers. The Other, the Alter, is just another material
part of your environment, the equivalent of a rock or tree, for
all practical purposes a hunk of meat you have no interest in.
The opposite of alterity is reciprocity, the relation that prevails
among people who know at least a little bit about each other.
You are usually committed in a relationship of reciprocity, one
way or the other; that is, you're friendly (most of the time)
or you're hostile. In either case, your conduct indicates that
you care about the relationship, that the other is capable of
pleasing you or agitating you. You are willing to adapt your plans
and alter your activity in light of your perception of someone
else's expectations of you. And you expect reciprocation, that
others will take you into account as they act. Though it may be
very reserved, communication in a relationship of reciprocity
is more abundant and more self-disclosive than in relationships
of alterity. You are more than a hunk of meat. In reciprocity,
others recognize at least an element of your subjectivity, acting
on the faith that your personhood is similar to their own.
Sartre's fourth and fifth terms are also a dialectical pair,
derived from his belief that alterity and reciprocity characterize
all relationships. Sartre claims that the first, and most general,
difference we notice among the various kinds of ensemble is evidence
of degrees of alterity and reciprocity. He uses the term series
to signify an ensemble each of whose members is determined in
alterity by the others. An ensemble of people waiting for a bus
or in line to purchase a ticket to a film recognize themselves,
and are easily recognizable by others, as a collection of individuals
brought together by more than the rules of chance. They may be
able to call each other by name. But their relationship is defined
more by the bus or the film than by anything intrinsic to their
groupness. They are a distinctive ensemble because they exist
in a relationship of alterity to one another, despite other outward
signs that they may have more in common than waiting in line.
(Bus riders in American society, for example, could be assumed
to have an economic condition in common, if that's the only transport
they can afford, or common political opionions, if they're committed
to mass transit as a way cutting down on air pollution.)
Sartre reserves the term group to signify the dialectical opposite
of a series. A group is an ensemble each of whose members is determined
by the others in a relationship of reciprocity. An ensemble of
diners at the same table in a restaurant, for example, may see
another individual they know and invite that person to join them.
Everyone is eating, just as everyone at a bus stop is waiting
for a bus. But the meal is a subordinate feature of the event,
something the ensemble is doing that has very little to do with
the conditions of their being together. They are a distinctive
ensemble because they define their existence together as a relationship
of reciprocity, ready to identify the person asked to join them
as "my friend" or "my business associate" or "our old professor's
newest student." (As a footnote here, you may be interested to
notice that, in Sartre's terms, researchers using the clinical
approach to the study of group communication have yet to study
groups at all. Their insistence on studying "zero-history" groups
in a task-oriented laboratory setting means that they are always
studying a human series. They must always either forge and force
a sense of reciprocity in the series before their study can begin,
or ignore reciprocity as an interesting variable in group behavior.)
I must be clear that the relationship between series and group
is a dialectical one. These are not distinctive categories into
which we can file the ensembles we encounter in everyday life.
Every ensemble possesses a degree or a potential for both alterity
and reciprocity. This situation might be an example of an element
of reciprocity in a series: If one person in line for a movie
ticket in downtown Salt Lake addresses another, the other will
likely reciprocate, respond to the communication so as to suggest
that he or she speaks English and is capable of a reciprocal relationship.
And if we imagine a group most rigidly insistent on its reciprocity,
still an element of alterity is noticable: A monastic order in
the Catholic church, for example, dresses in uniform, performs
the same daily rituals, and practices a belief in the universal
brotherhood of Christians. But if a member of the order from Italy
visits a monastery in Canada, he will, at least initially, be
defined with regard to the rest of the group in a relation of
Sartre's sixth term has to do with the potential for groupness
evident in some series. A series which is capable of constituting
a group is called a gathering. In principle, every series could
constitute a group; but only a few have that potential practically.
Unless you are together in an alien culture and isolated by your
clumsiness with an alien language, your culture and your language
are insufficient common denominators to form a group. An "American
Club" in Calcutta makes some sense, but I'd be surprised to find
a group by that name in Provo. A gathering must have some substantial
interests in common apart from their current relations of alterity,
something people care about that can become the basis of reciprocity.
Suppose, for example, that the ensemble waiting for a bus rides
the same bus every day, and that the bus is always driven by the
same jovial, out-going bus driver, Joe Nitfritz. Joe goes out
of his way to call each rider by name as he greets them with a
hearty "Good morning!" Each rider, still in relations of alterity
with one another, develops a relation of reciprocity with Joe.
If for any reason Joe wanted to form a group, or someone else
wanted to form a group with Joe as the focal point, it is likely
that the series could be transformed into a group. It is therefore
a gathering, in this example a gathering around Joe Nitfritz.
Sartre is now in the process of showing developmentally how groups
can become more and less permanent features of the social landscape.
His seventh term is fused group. A fused group is a newly-formed
group, dialectically opposed to seriality in its overriding consciousness
of reciprocity, and as yet unstructured. When a gathering is transformed
into a fused group, it is preoccupied with the newly-discovered
conditions of reciprocity among its members that permit a sense
of groupness. Even if it is to be a task-oriented group, one that
has a problem to solve, very little attention will be payed to
to task until all the possible relations of reciprocity have been
discussed and established. This is the stage of "getting to know
each other." Suppose, for example, that after a long career as
a bus driver, Joe Nitfritz announces his intention to retire to
each of the riders as they board his bus one day. One, or more,
or all of the riders are pleased for Joe, but sad that he will
not be driving their bus any more. The next day at the bus stop,
someone mentions his or her feelings about Joe's retirement. The
others are taken aback, for a person in a relationship of alterity
seems to have read their minds, said something with which they
could identify. Stories are told about each rider's relations
with Joe. Names are exchanged. Someone suggests that Joe deserves
a party. Someone else suggests that the people at this bus stop
could cooperate to give just such a party. Telephone numbers are
exchanged. One rider notices that another is wearing a particularly
attractive hat. Another rider is surprised to find that she has
been working for the same company a fourth rider works for. Let's
get together for a drink after work tonight and talk about this
some more. In a few short minutes, a fused group has been created
from a gathering. (As a footnote here, you might notice that the
"fantasy-chaining" observed by Bales and Bormann is likely evidence
of what Sartre would call the moment of fusion when a clinical
series decides to make itself a group.)
A fused group is capable of being together in a newly-discovered
spirit of reciprocity; but it is not capable of acting together
in more than rudimentary ways (as, for example, talking together
when we consider speech to be a form of action). Sartre's eighth
term signifies the sort of group that is capable of cooperative
action. A pledged group is a group which develops from a fused
group through an organized distribution of rights and duties that
are enforced by a pledge. The decision to act together entails
a distribution of labor, for it would be unproductive chaos to
imagine every group member doing everything necessary to produce
a group action. Suppose, for example, that our bus riders meeting
for a drink after work decide that they will in fact give Joe
Nitfritz a party in honor of his retirement. They'll make a real
spectacle of it, holding it right there on the bus with all the
local radio and television stations alerted of this unusual event.
One rider agrees to take charge of decorations and refreshments,
if another will help with the logistics of getting cake, cider,
bunting, and balloons to the bus. A third rider works for a radio
station and thinks she could manage the publicity. A fourth rider
lives next door to the bus company dispatcher and thinks he can
arrange to decorate the bus before Joe comes to work. A fifth
rider works for a jewelry store and thinks they can get a good
deal on a gold watch, if folks would agree to chip in to cover
the cost. A sixth rider only works part time, and so has all afternoon
to coordinate these activities by telephone. Notice that the pledge
in this case is the commitment to honor Joe. The party is not
a pledge, but a task. The group exhibits a rudimentary structure
because a division of labor is necessary to make the party happen.
An element of power, in the form of moral suasion, has entered
the group, for each person is subject to bearing guilt for the
group's failure if his or her part is not done. The pledge is
not just a declaration of intention, but a means of enforcement:
"What do you mean you haven't checked out the gold watch yet?
Don't you want to do something nice for Joe? Didn't we all contribute?"
As I've just suggested, the pledged group exhibits rudimentary
structure as a consequence of division of labor; but the structure
is temporary, brought into being by the group's commitment to
act. Structure, in other words, is a feature of the pledged group,
but not an essential or defining feature of the group. Sartre's
ninth term, organized group, calls attention to the group making
its structure an abiding and permanent feature of its identity
as a group. An organized group inscribes itself, writes itself
down, formalizes rights and duties by defining membership responsibilities
and transforming some members into office holders. The pledge
is still the locus of the group, but the pledge is now more general,
written in such a way as to imply that the members have made a
permanent commitment. Suppose, for example, that the bus riders
enjoyed themselves so much, felt so good about the good deed they
did for old Joe, that they wanted to stay together and do similar
deeds in the future. They like each other, and they want to continue
to experience the reciprocity they discovered. Further, they think
they did a real service that would be appreciated in the future
by other Joe Nitfritzes. So they form an organized group, the
Greater Salt Lake Joe Nitfritz Benevolent Society. Their idea
is each year to give a party for a city employee about to retire
who best exemplifies the good cheer and service of Joe Nitfritz.
They write themselves down in a constitution and set of by-laws,
arranging for regular meetings, and establishing a committee structure
to deal with the business of choosing and honoring exemplary public
employees. Still tied to the willingness of "founding members"
to act together, still based on the radically empirical reciprocity
among "founding members," the group nonetheless anticipates its
continuation into an indefinite future. In a word, by inscribing
itself, the group makes itself historical. It will attract new
members, and those new members may not even know Joe Nitfritz
or care about him. The group is now a group by two measures, by
the continued reciprocity of its members and by the formalized
pledge which describes their organization.
Over time, as the original members of an organized group lose
interest or die off, relations of reciprocity lose significance,
perhaps even cease to be characteristic of the group. The formalized
pledge, however, lives on, for it has been written down, and discourse
is not so mortal as human beings. The tenth term Sartre conceptualizes
is meant to signify groups characterized more by their structure
than by task or reciprocity. This is the familiar social term
institution. In Sartre's vocabulary, an institution is a group
which develops from an organized group through the ossification
of its structures and the reemergence of seriality within it.
The most obvious change in moving from organization to institution
is an accretion of new members whose only radically empirical
connection to other members is through common commitment to the
group pledge. The more important point, however, may be that the
pledge of the group becomes less important to members than accomplishing
the subordinate tasks anticipated by the group's structure. It
is not difficult to imagine, for example, that the committees
of the Joe Nitfritz Benevolent Society would be perceived in a
hierarchy of prestige. The decorations committee is just a bunch
of "gofors," a member might think.
The awards committee would be better to be on, because you'd
at least get to shop for interesting gifts. But the real plum,
what I really want to do, that's the selection committee. Those
guys have the real clout, because they get to choose who gets
this year's award. So politics enters the group. But notice that
this is still a relation of reciprocity, a hostility based on
envy and desire for prestige that you expect to be reciprocated
as you compete politically for high status positions within the
group. The more interesting phenomenon is the reemergence of seriality
within the group. As you go about the business of the awards committee,
for example, the people you associate with most are on that committee.
That committee may meet four times a month. The group as a whole
may meet only every other month. In a meeting of the whole group,
you might find yourself not even recognizing some new member who
is on the decorations committee. Indeed, if power relations have
really permeated the group, identification of the new member as
belonging to the decorations committee may be enough in itself
to determine that you'll relate to him or her only in alterity.
The largest ensemble Sartre considers, his eleventh and last
term, is class. Remember that he engaged this whole elaborate
thought system so that he'd be able to explain why orthodox marxist
accounts of the dialectic of class conflict are unsatisfying and
empirically irrelevant. For Sartre, the social class is an ensemble
of ensembles, specifically a totalization (or a unified whole)
of multiple institutions, pledged groups, and series. I must apologize
for changing tactics on you right here at the end of my lecture,
but it is in discussing class that my terministic strategy breaks
down. I can't continue the thematic example of the Joe Nitfritz
Society because I must get you to think about the groupness of
a group of groups, and this is entirely too intricate for this
occasion and for my feeble rhetorical resources.
The basic point is that social classes have to discover and agree
upon conditions of reciprocity among member ensembles that are
roughly parallel to the transformation of a gathering into a fused
group. The proletarian class, for example, is not homogenous,
as so many 19th-century marxist theories assumed. Yes,
there are common experiences based on one's position in the economic
structure; but these are only potential loci of reciprocity, the
same sort of potential for groupness that lies untapped in a gathering.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many of the members
of a class are already grouped. Some, the French Communist Party,
for example, are already institutionalized, marked by internal
politics and seriality which is inconsistent with, and actually
works against, the development of class reciprocity. Other groups,
though they are not institutionalized, are pledged along lines
specific to their activity, and even though they are still determined
in relations of reciprocity, those might not be the same relations
of reciprocity necessary for the emergence of class. The Rainbow
Coalition in American politics, for example, is a group that might
participate in class politics; but it is already pledged in light
of a common reciprocity with a charismatic leader, Jesse Jackson.
Is reciprocity with Jackson consistent with the reciprocity necessary
to transform class from a gathering to a fused group? Finally,
the class gathering also includes series of people who are only
hunks of meat to one another, despite having all of the requisite
common experiences to fund the development of reciprocity. Workers
on the assembly line in Detroit, for example, could coalesce into
a group useful to a working class-that was the dream of the American
labor movement. But in their minds, their work is only a meal
ticket. They do not want to think about their work except while
at work. They live for their time away from work. Since the latent
conditions for a politically active reciprocity among them all
derive from their activity in the workplace, their attitude toward
the relationship between work and leisure makes developing reciprocity
a negative and uncomfortable rhetorical activity. In short, Sartre
alleges, the intellectual problem to solve, if you are interested
in the success of leftist politics, is locating the means to transform
the ensemble-of-ensembles called "the working class" from something
resembling a gathering into something resembling a pledged group.
I said at the beginning of this section that I was less interested
in advocating Sartre's theory than in recommending his way of
answering problems. Let me make that point again for you by comparing
the approach you have just heard with that of Althusser. Recall
that Althusser placed the onus of responsibility for the failure
of French leftist politics on conditions outside the community
of French leftists. By revising our attitude toward history and
theorizing the problem of ideology as a matter of reproduction
rather than a matter of production, he attributed the failure
of the left to the ingenious rhetorical skill of capitalist state
organizers, their ability to create a hegemony by reproducing
ideology at multiple sites, overdetermining that all who live
in capitalistic societies will embrace values at odds with their
true interests. In contrast, Sartre restated in elegant form the
Shakespearean claim: "The fault, dear Louis, lies not so much
in the skill of our opponents as in our own lack of understanding
and skill." He suggested that marxist theory and marxist politics
had approached the central concern of class dialectics from the
wrong angle. Class is a special case of groupness, and the dialectic
is a special case of the relationship of members in a group. Describing
class as a determined effect of economic and political structure
is akin to trying to determine the number of teeth in a horse's
mouth by studying the the horse's available food supply. Reducing
the dialectic to a static system of objective structural relationships
is akin to trying to describe human thought and interaction without
ever studying human beings in the process of thinking and acting.
If this were Chataqua, where three-hour lectures were not uncommon,
and if your patience and my wit and voice held out, I could end
with a Cartesian harmony, being very elaborate in showing you
how Sartre's approach to groups should effect the development
of rhetorical theory, group and organizational communication research,
and the theory of social control. That would not only be dull
and laborious, however; it would also defeat one of my purposes
in choosing this subject for public lecture. I think we should
realize that the questions we ask are more important to the development
of knowledge than the provisional answers we discover. I think
we should take care about the way we ask questions in our field.
The point of theory is to think-explanation is just a chance and
momentary victory in a continual quest for knowledge that is valuable,
mostly, for its own sake. Sartre's theory of practical groups,
therefore, does not exist to be borrowed or merely applied in
new contexts. It exists as an inspiration to find dots to connect,
and then to connect them.
If you are a rhetorician, I'd like you to think about Sartre's
strategy of asking questions that could as well be about audience
as class. I'd be pleased if you agree that our theories should
address the "groupness" of audiences, that accounts which amount
to little more than demographic description of the individuals
in front of a speaker are conceptually, intellectually impoverished.
If you are an organizational communication researcher, I'd be
pleased if you think about the advantages of Sartre's rich understanding
of groups. Even if it suits you to keep conceiving groups and
organizations as only the context of communication, I'd like you
to think about how the nature of relationships changes the identity
of the group. I find it difficult to believe, for example, that
the communicative process of decision-making is essentially the
same in a fused group as in an organized group, or that the clinical
study of a series will yield reliable generalizations about the
pattern of communication in a pledged group. If you are a social
theorist, I'd like you to think about how well Sartre's strategy
of radical empiricism responds to the problems of social order.
Even if it suits you to keep conceiving the dominant ideology
as an objective prison of the mind, I'd like you to keep in mind
that these relations of domination are lived, acted out by human
beings whose primary interest lies less in the objective alterity
of their domination than in the subjective comfort of whatever
relations of reciprocity they can manage to develop. Marx himself
recommended "bottom-up" thinking in his debate with Feuerbach,
and if we follow his suggestion, this means that we should study
class as an instance of groupness, not as a determined, ossified
structure of capitalism.
If you are none of these things, or, heaven help you, if you
are all of them, I'd like you to understand that no matter how
few articles appear in our professional journals under the heading
of group communication, the study of group communication is nonetheless
the conceptual center of any communication study. Understand groups
and group communication, and you have mastered one of the most
important elements of any communication or social theory.
Thank you for your time and your patience.
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