A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Heritage Claims as a Civic Art for Rhetorical Circulation

Jonathan L. Bradshaw, Western Carolina University

Published April 18, 2017

John Analoe Phillips is a traditional Appalachian ballad singer and storyteller from the mountains of western North Carolina. Now in his sixties, he was the only child in his family to stay home with his parents and ailing grandparents, who have all since passed. He is often called upon by his community to perform the old songs, to sing at religious events and funerals, and to offer his knowledge of local history. A couple years ago I interviewed John about his practice of telling stories and singing songs, and he told me:

Well, I’ve not traveled that much. But it seems like in the North, people are more busy and they don’t really have time to even remember, or [they] resent even quoting histories or something—want to go from here on instead of from here back. That’s what held old people back, is their memories. And now they want to go on and do something big. [laughs]

Figure 1: John Analo Phillips. To left, Phillips is telling stories on his property in western North Carolina. To the right is the barn that Phillips built with his grandfather’s ploughshares on display.

Even with his overgeneralization of northerners, John’s description of “from here on” and “from here back” indicates two important rhetorical trajectories worth consideration. The statement “That’s what held old people back, is their memories” offers a poignant difference to some rhetorics of progress and change. The phrase “held back” is often used as synonymous with stagnation or failure. In this context I believe John meant it as something that keeps people connected and places positive value on remaining—as if to “move on” would disconnect a person from a rich resource.

Of course, we cannot argue an entire cultural strategy from the one case of a traditional artist. However, such heritage claims to a particular cultural community and/or material tradition can provide a civic art for inventing, producing, and moving compositions. In many ways, heritage claims function as a civic techne. Janet Atwill explains that a techne “is often associated with the transgression of an existing boundary . . . knowledge as production, not product; intervention and articulation, rather than representation” (7). For the rhetor, techne “both finds and makes a path that will provide him with a way out” (68). As I will show, when bound up in civic rhetorics, heritage claims offer similar path-finding and path-making potential for rhetors and a techne for making decisions about rhetorical circulation.

In this article, I bring the concerns of cultural rhetorics and circulation studies together to study the rhetoricity of heritage claims. Cultural rhetorics scholarship articulates the cultural dynamics of rhetorical action (Baca; Banks; Bernard-Donals and Fernheimer; Cushman; Gray-Rosendale and Gruber; Haas, “Race;” Mao; Powell; Powell, et al.; Ridolfo; Rumsey; Sano-Franchini; Stromberg). This body of scholarship often points to the civic consequence of material traditions. For instance, Angela Haas has shown how creating wampum belts is a hypertextual practice that provides “records of important civil affairs” through rhetorical linking that “remembers civic responsibility” (“Wampum” 78; 93). Similarly, Damián Baca has shown how mestiz@ codex rhetorics reworked the signs of dominant discourses by “inventing between cultural paradigms” of alphabetic writing and cultural image traditions. Other scholars have shown how cultural rhetorics can be leveraged as direct civic intervention. For instance, Scott Richard Lyons uses the concept of “rhetorical sovereignty” to show how a people’s communicative agency is rooted in efforts to keep their own modes, practices, and geographical affiliations. Such studies highlight the ways that cultural heritages are often tied to civic intervention and offer strategies for active civic struggle.

Rhetorical circulation studies likewise account for the materiality and “consequentiality” of rhetorical productions (Gries, “Agential”) . Laurie Gries describes circulation studies as “an interdisciplinary approach to studying discourse in motion” where “scholars investigate not only how discourse is produced and distributed, but also how once delivered, it circulates, transforms, and affects change through its material encounters” (“Iconographic” 333). Circulation studies have explored the movements and transformations of texts and other media over time (Ridolfo and DeVoss; Edbauer; Gries), have argued that considerations of rhetorical delivery should shape invention from the outset (Trimbur; Sheridan, Ridolfo and Michel; Porter), and have demonstrated that circulation is simultaneously a rhetorical and material consideration for rhetors (Edbauer; Gries, “Dingrhetoriks;” Rivers and Weber; Syverson). Such contributions of circulation studies expand classical considerations of audience, argument, persuasion, and assent by foregrounding rhetorical delivery, transformation, materiality, and movement.

Together, cultural rhetorics and circulation studies hold important implications for how we account for (and design) civic rhetorics and their impacts. Like circulation studies, cultural rhetorics scholarship foreground continuance, persistence, material tradition, and heritage. Both fields also assume that there is no singular forum where members deliberate and persuade, then adjust their togas and go home. The forum is the community (or public) in which rhetorics move and have consequences for communication, civic intervention, and social change. Combining lines of inquiry from both fields enables us to ask, then: How do cultural rhetorics circulate and prompt change? 

Here I take up the concerns of cultural rhetorics and circulation studies to analyze heritage claims in central Appalachia. In this region, heritage claims provide pivotal rhetorical resources for deliberations about economic futures. In particular, I focus on the work of Appalshop, a multimedia nonprofit located in eastern Kentucky. First, I distinguish heritage claims from nostalgic appeals, illustrating that heritage is not inherently progressive or regressive—it takes on those qualities through rhetorical intervention. Next, I discuss the civic potential of heritage claims by contrasting examples from Appalshop’s media and the work of coal advocacy groups. These examples show how heritage claims can open new pathways of invention, provide rhetorical stability in civic deliberations, and suggest particular circulation strategies. Part of my analysis draws on interviews conducted with media producers as a part of participatory research with Appalshop during July 2014 and August 2015. The case of these competing rhetorics highlights ways that heritage claims can provide a civic techne for rhetorical circulation. 

Nostalgia vs. The Civic Potential of Heritage Claims

Heritage claims differ from rhetorics of nostalgia in the ways they rhetorically engage the past. Heritage claims build continuities between the past and current civic deliberations whereas nostalgic rhetorics often draw a line of difference between the past and the present. To see this difference, consider the rhetorics at play in “I Miss West Virginia Coal Towns,” a popular Facebook group with nearly twelve thousand members. Users regularly post memories, crowdsource questions about old towns in the state, and share recipes. In a video pinned to the top of the page, the group’s creator, Mark Combs, details the purpose of the group:

I miss my West Virginia coal town, and I know you guys do, too. I love to hear about our culture and our heritage. In fact, I want this group to be just like walking through a coal town or coal camp and all those cool conversations you heard on the porch. And you’re going to hear jokes. And you’re going to see recipes. And you’re going to see all kinds of different things. But they are absolutely necessary. They’re necessary because it’s pretty much what you heard on the porch. And if you want to ask about family members, or graves, or if towns are still around, or whatever it may be—or coal artifacts, like scrip, fossils, or how mining was done, that’s beautiful. (Combs)

The video also details what content is not allowed in the group: spam, pornography, and politics. Combs describes politics as “these kinds of things that can cause instantaneous division and argument among the group . . .” (Combs). Emphasizing that the page is not a space for deliberation, Combs says, “How I vote, what I buy, and where I go is nobody’s business. How you vote, what you buy, and what you believe in is none of my business. And it certainly has no place on this page” (Combs). Instead, this page is a space for nostalgic reminiscence. Nostalgia, in this case, runs along the line of its own intrinsic value and excludes the uptake of public memory as a motivator for civic action.

Still, such nostalgia does perform important rhetorical work and can have civic consequences. Jenny Rice examines nostalgic appeals similar to those described above as “memory claims.” In her analysis of how Austin, Texas residents responded to urban development, Rice argues, “Memory claims create both possibilities for engagement, as well as spaces of exceptionality and nonparticipation” (103). One typical pattern Rice finds is the sense that “old” places—like local coffee shops—were open spaces for culture and “weirdness,” while new locations—like the Starbucks that replaced them—are private and alienating. The “spaces of exceptionality” thus created enable “memory rhetors [to] anchor themselves in a different deliberative scene than the one taking place in the new place” (103). As in the case of “I Miss West Virginia Coal Towns,” the group provides an avenue to connect back to romanticized front porches but resists connecting those memorial spaces to civic deliberation. While the effects of such rhetorics of nostalgia may be innocuous in many cases, they can also redirect or derail civic strategies that depend upon them. For instance, W. Michele Simmons studies the social media strategy around city revitalization in postindustrial Hamilton, Ohio. She shows how social media strategists posted images and notes of former historical buildings and figures in order to lay the groundwork for public uptake of city revitalization initiatives. Strategists intended to motivate residents to envision further growth by positioning Hamilton as a historical city of entrepreneurs. Instead, Simmons shows how nostalgic social media posts recirculated as longings for lost spaces and consequently disrupted reimagining new spaces and initiatives. However portable it is, nostalgia offers flimsy tools for civic uptake. Nostalgia, it seems, is a past passed.

Alternately, heritage claims offer a techne to guide rhetorical intervention in civic deliberation. Janet Atwill’s recovery of techne as a model of knowledge that provides useful (not predictive) heuristics for navigating unforeseen situations is helpful here. A techne “can be retraced, modified, adapted, and ‘shared’” (69), though it mainly “aims to create paths in uncharted territories—to help one find one’s way in the dark” (68). There is boundedness in techne that calls attention to rhetorical constraints, directs rhetorical invention toward certain trajectories (e.g., “from here back,” rather than “from here on”), and offers guidance in bringing those perspectives to bear on new situations. Thinking of heritage as techne differs from thinking about heritage as a persuasive tactic that provides the warrant for a line of argument: “Our ancestors did things this way, so we should too.” As techne, heritage claims provide rhetorical continuities that can be used as pivot points for change in uncertain moments; they also provide a method for inventing new civic positions by maintaining connections to important elements of a community’s experiences over time. 

Of course, such usages are not always toward inclusive ends. Heritage is also often used to stabilize national identities and politics at the expense of articulating regional, cultural, local, or personal differences as viable positions. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, is a politically conservative think tank that deploys a familiar “traditional American values” claim in order to firmly situate its positioning on issues like limited government, family, and marriage. Their positions are forwarded as consistent with the “principles and ideas of the American Founding” (“About Heritage”). In such discourses, heritage claims work to censure various gendered, religious, and political identities, as well as to block inclusive processes of change. Within the Appalachian region, where “traditional” practice is highly valued, similar rhetorical usages of heritage are certainly active as well. Writing from his own experiences growing up in a West Virginia coal town, for instance, literacy scholar Todd Snyder shows how rhetorics of holme (his vernacular rendering of “home”)— “the actual physical land on which your ancestors were born, lived, and died” (81)—can discourage youth from higher education and the acquisition of certain academic literacies.

Even in acknowledging heritage’s constraining potential, we should be careful not to characterize all heritage claims as backwards or as roadblocks to progress. We should also not broadly discount cultural traditions as “resistant” or as “a conservative or corrective force, not an instrument of change,” as George Kennedy does in his Comparative Rhetoric (40; 79). To do so would be to dismiss useful trajectories of rhetorical practice. As I show in the following sections, heritage claims offer guidance for redirecting discursive and material flows. I begin by analyzing ways Appalshop media make the argument that heritage is integral (not counter) to regional progress; then I show how their rhetoric circulates among the persistent heritage claims of coal industry advocates in the region. This case helps us better account for the ways some communities use heritage claims to make and re-make the scenes of civic deliberation.

Heritage and Change: Appalshop

Appalshop is a multimedia nonprofit in Whitesburg, Kentucky, situated in the coalfields of central Appalachia. Central Appalachia has been long beset by interpretations of its people by outside media. Typical “flows” of media tend to perpetuate stereotypes from larger national and corporate entities to the mountains. Appalshop’s work reorients those flows by offering alternate rhetorical trajectories: it features knowledge generated from the mountains, and it circulates perspectives within the region as well as out to national contexts.

Figure 2: Screenshot from Appalshop. https://www.appalshop.org/about-us/

The organization began in 1969 as the Community Film Workshop of Appalachia, a program funded through a grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as a part of the federal War on Poverty. OEO funded similar workshops for youth in some of the nation’s poorest areas so that they could apply skills to growing American media industries like television and Hollywood. Without any local media industry in central Appalachia at the time, the Whitesburg film workshops were essentially job-training programs so that participants could flee the region. The Whitesburg youth, however, used the skills and equipment to remain in Appalachia and to document underrepresented voices in their own communities. When federal funding dried up about two years later, the group became a film cooperative that supported individual artists’ documentary film projects about the region.

Figure 3: A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) short video about Appalshop’s history and vision, including an interview with original Appalshop filmmaker Herb E. Smith.

Appalshop today is a regional center for circulating media that feature Appalachian cultural and civic voices. They offer an extensive and growing body of over one hundred film documentaries produced over the last four decades, and they regularly distribute content about the region and civic issues via social media, its website, radio broadcasts, and various community programs. They house perhaps the most extensive multimedia production archives in the region, including film, photo, and video production materials. Appalshop’s Roadside Theater engages in community-cultural-development-residencies and original-play-creation, and their own recording label, June Appal Records, has been an alternate recording avenue for some of the region’s top traditional artists to gain wider circulation of their work.

Figure 4: Screenshot from Appalshop. https://www.appalshop.org/projects/

Much of Appalshop’s work makes the claim that heritage is integral to regional progress, not counter to it. To that end, they often juxtapose Appalachian traditions and progressive positions. For example, Tomorrow’s People (1973) is an early Appalshop film that features Appalachian music and scenes without narration. Juxtaposing the aural and visual illustrates the dynamic variety of Appalachian traditions; the film features traditional banjo, fiddle, and guitar music; dance traditions; and other material traditions such as quilting (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: A scene from Tomorrow’s People on YouTube.

As much as it is an exhibition of traditions and daily life, Tomorrow’s People is also a clever rebuttal to Jack E. Weller’s 1965 book Yesterday’s People in which Weller offered a rather simplistic take on Appalachian culture that gained fairly wide circulation at the time. Weller’s book derides mountaineers for their “traditionalism” and “regressivism” as opposed to middle-class American “progressivism” (33-34). He claimed the mountaineer is “unlike the middle class person” (88) and contrasts the “upwardly mobile” with “those who choose to remain . . . who do not have what seem to us worthwhile goals, who do not give any sign of wanting to improve their lot in life and resist all attempts at change” (142)—views that aligned with national stereotypes of Appalachians. At the time of Weller’s publication and Appalshop’s beginnings, American media was fascinated with images of poverty and squalor in Appalachia. Whereas Weller repeatedly refers to the “dull life” and prospects of Appalachians, the title of Tomorrow’s People and its subject matter implicitly highlight the contemporary, dynamic nature of Appalachian traditions. The audio-visual pairing of musical and material traditions in the short film—such as driving banjo, fiddle, and guitar music interspersed with scenes of living in the region—show a living repertoire of practices and recomposes Weller’s stagnant, past-oriented Appalachia as a dynamic, persistent present. The region is featured as a place full of inspiring people—a place where someone might actually want to belong.

Another important move in tying heritage to progress is made by reinventing productive relationships between tradition and social change. One early Appalshop film, Nimrod Workman: To Fit My Own Category (1975) features National Heritage Award recipient Nimrod Workman. Workman’s singing is interspersed with stories of his life in the mountains, the difficulties of coalmining work, and strong union commitments. The film positions Workman’s multiple identities as a miner, traditional practitioner, and union member as intertwined—the presence of one aspect makes possible the co-presence of the others.

Figure 6: Scene from Nimrod Workman: To Fit My Own Category on YouTube.

Reworking these relationships in Nimrod Workman was not a neutral cultural synthesis at the time the film was made, a time when union support was sometimes construed as an anti-coal position. Alternately, the Nimrod Workman documentary demonstrates how pro-union positioning can be in keeping with Appalachian heritage. The film offers a rhetorical position from which audiences can simultaneously critique the socioeconomic impacts of a coal-based economy and keep with an Appalachian sense of heritage.

Through such films, Appalshop’s heritage claims provide more than a way of “looking at” the world—they offer suggestions for how to move through the various rhetorical ecologies of central Appalachia. Consider, for instance, one of Appalshop’s most famous films: Mimi Pickering’s Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975). The film documents a 1972 tragedy caused by a poorly designed coal-waste dam in West Virginia that killed 125 people. The company responsible for the dam dodged responsibility, claiming the flood was “an act of God”—a claim the film’s subtitle clearly challenges. The film foregoes direct narration; instead, it places us right in people’s homes as they talk about experiencing the tragedy and in public meetings where community members passionately make their claims against company representatives.     

Figure 7: Sample video from Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man on YouTube. Appalshop films often offer critiques of damaging industry practices, providing media as a platform for the voices of the local community.

Featuring central Appalachian scenery, voices, and music firmly situates the scene of deliberation within the community and extends the film’s circulatory potential beyond the moment of deliberation it documents. Including “Appalachian” cultural elements in the film and designing accompanying online content increases the film’s rhetorical velocity (Ridolfo and DeVoss; Sheridan, et al.)—not because it can move quickly but because it can retain its value in future situations. In doing so, a sense of heritage provides a civic art of path-finding and path-making for Appalachian advocates in moments of civic deliberation—as when activists use Buffalo Creek as an organizing tool in communities to offset or face some environmental crisis.

These and other films at Appalshop are a part of a broader multimedia rhetorical strategy of circulation. Much of Appalshop’s early work focused on issues of cultural representation and coal industry abuses in the region; in light of the coal industry’s marked decline in the region, much of Appalshop’s current work fosters local participation in civic discourses about the region’s economic future. Appalshop advocates for developing alternate economic possibilities in order to curb outmigration. As Appalshop’s media work focuses more and more on economic transitions, their work must both rely on heritage claims and circulate among other competing heritage claims active in the region.

Heritage Claims and Rhetorical Stability: Coal Advocates in Central Appalachia

In the examples above, we can see that heritage claims can open pathways to form new civic identities and offer rhetorical guidance in moments of crisis. However, a competing coal-as-heritage claim simultaneously works to position coal as an integral part of central Appalachia’s heritage and the region’s most viable economic option. As coal has taken on and retained value as a cultural heritage, it has accumulated rhetorical stability and become an essential element affecting the circulation of arguments about economic alternatives.

A notable point about coal advocates’ claims to the economic centrality of coal is that coal is not the region’s top employer. A 2014 report by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) does show “Coal, Gas, and Other Mining” as having the highest job growth in the 2000-2010 period, and performing well against national standards, but the industry is also described as one of the smallest employers in the region at 1.1% (1). Moreover, the report’s “Forecast 2010-2020” groups together mining and “industries exhibiting the smallest expected job growth in Appalachian employment” (10)—a prediction that has borne out as many major coal companies have since closed or filed bankruptcy. So how does one of the smallest employers in a region mobilize a public that believes coal is pivotal to the region’s economic future?

A number of organizations and individuals on both regional and national stages use the coal-as-heritage claim to forward a “War on Coal” rhetoric that figures the industry as embattled and endangered. One major contributor to this rhetoric is The Friends of Coal (FOC), an advocacy group based in West Virginia that extends its voice into other U.S. coalmining states.

For instance, in a 2010 FOC report West Virginia Coal Association president Bill Raney positions coal as integral to economic diversification in the region:

I also see a new future for the coalfields—one in which our coal industry is seen as an active partner in the development and diversification of the region’s economy. I see houses, shopping centers, parks, hospitals, schools and businesses taking root on our former surface mines, freeing our people from the constant threat of flooding and letting loose the pent-up entrepreneurial spirit that characterized our state for so long. We can have a new West Virginia—one that is a destination for families seeking opportunity and a better quality of life, and no longer loose [sic] our best and brightest to other states. (Raney 5)

In order to realize this possible future, Raney argues, “We have to come together as a people, see the potential and embrace a new vision for our state and region. And we have to turn aside the assault on coal and our way of life from those who would rob us of our future” (Raney 5, emphasis added).

Much in the way the Appalshop examples above use heritage to rework civic relationships, coal advocates figure “coal” as a pivotal cultural heritage. They do this by binding material culture to a rhetoric of progress. The FOC’s “A History of Coal in West Virginia” page exemplifies this move:

Coal has a rich heritage in West Virginia and has contributed significantly to the progress and well-being of West Virginians since it was first discovered in what is now Boone County in 1742 by Peter Salley, more than a century before West Virginia became a state. The coal industry has played a major role in the state’s economic, political and social history. The industry has also been a center of controversy and the brunt of unfounded criticism, giving rise to battles in the arenas of labor, environment and safety . . . It was coal that transformed West Virginia from a frontier state to an industrial state. . . Over the next half century, tonnage and employment increased dramatically. By 1950, some 125,000 West Virginia coal miners lived and worked in more than 500 company towns built to house them and their families. Whole new cities sprang up where silent mountains had rested for centuries. (McGehee, emphasis added)

In these examples from the FOC, the heritage claim generates part of its circulatory potential through its defensive tone. Coal is circulated as a “way of life” and the pathway to sustained economic vitality in the region, thus mobilizing audiences to defend it (as in the video below). The coal-as-heritage claim thus offers a rhetorical stability for “War on Coal” rhetoric that increases its circulatory potential in public discourse.                   

Figure 8: “Coal=Jobs” by americaspower.org on YouTube. An example of “War on Coal” rhetoric.

“War on Coal” rhetoric accumulates its circulatory successes, in part, through multimodal public relations campaigns such as an official state license plate in coal-mining states, bumper stickers on cars, and decals posted on the doors of restaurants and businesses throughout the coalfields. Campaigns like “Coal Keeps the Lights On” provide commonplaces that rightly implicate us all in energy consumption, yet also close off conversation. As a bumper sticker I have seen in eastern Kentucky reads: “If you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity!”

Figure 9: T-shirt from the Friends of Coal online store. Friends of Coal runs an embodied, multimodal campaign. Strategies like the one pictured here ask supporters to embody the argument themselves. friendsofcoal.org

As we can see in these examples, the rhetorical stability offered by heritage claims can sometimes provide convenient topoi that guide rigid pathways of invention and intervention. In particular, coal advocates set the terms for the industry’s deliberation by transforming and recirculating economic- and industry-based terms as identity-based terms. For instance, Martin Richards, Executive Director of the Community Farm Alliance (CFA)[1]—another economic transitions organization in Kentucky—likens the current economic transitions conversation to that of the tobacco industry decades before. Tobacco had been a major Kentucky industry that faced a similar decline:

I was a tobacco farmer and there are a lot of parallels between coal and tobacco. One is that they both have very strong cultural components to them. People in communities identify with coal and tobacco very strongly. There’s that sense of heritage there, there’s a sense of generations being linked together by coal or tobacco. And people’s identities and communities’ identities are tied up in coal and tobacco. It’s the same with tobacco. Tobacco is coming under fire because—it does, it kills people. It’s not good for you. [laughs] But tobacco communities, they felt assaulted like coal feels assaulted by Environmental Protection—for tobacco, it was the Federal Drug Administration—assaulted by federal policy and not recognizing the importance to communities’ self-identity. I think that’s a part of a bigger picture and bigger narrative that is not being told . . . There’s something about when people work very hard, side by side under harsh conditions—it creates these bonds. And when that happens over multiple generations, it just becomes part of the whole. (Richards)

Richards’ concept of heritage industry helps us understand coal as more than just a job—it is a heritage that retains its cultural value regardless of employment or market trends.

Figure 10: Friends of Coal license plates for coal-mining states.

Such a strong link between coal and heritage holds implications for the ways rhetors form arguments for alternate positions. In this context, even critiquing the industry’s practices and economic viability can cause intense negative backlash for organizations. As Parker Hobson, the former Co-General Manager of Appalshop’s local radio station, explained the situation to me, coal organizations “totally control the discourse that way: ‘You either have a Friends of Coal sticker in your window or you are completely against us and our way of life’” (Hobson; 21 Nov. 2014). [2]  This is a situation Appalshop knows well. For instance, one of the volunteer programmers at Appalshop’s radio station once went on a forty-minute, on-air tirade, charging Appalshop with being anti-coal. As a result, many community members felt betrayed by the station and pulled their financial support (Kirby). As I demonstrate in the following section, such situations indicate that advocates for alternate economic possibilities in central Appalachia have to do more than simply argue against coal—they need savvy rhetorical understandings of heritage to guide their circulation strategies for alternate positions.

Rhetorical Persistence as Cultural Circulation Strategy

Though the rhetorical stability afforded by the coal-as-heritage claim in central Appalachia may seem immovable, Chris Mays contends that such “stubborn” rhetorics are actually evidence of significant upkeep, movement, and adjustment (Mays). In this sense, circulation refers not to the publication and speed of particular texts moving and transforming through public spheres but to rhetorical persistence in public discourse. This persistence is the movement of a rhetorical force—or “affectivity” (Edbauer; Chaput)—that activates its own continuous mobilizations and impedes the movement of competing rhetorics. As we have seen above, heritage claims contribute to “stubbornness” by rooting discourses like the “War on Coal” in deeply held traditions of support.

Yet, heritage claims can also help rhetors strategize for the persistence of counter-rhetorics over time. Such is the case in Appalshop’s media efforts around economic transitions away from extractive industry. Much of this work is carried forward through their 24/7, commercial-free local radio station WMMT FM: Mountain Community Radio, and Making Connections News, whose multimedia initiative is to document and to intervene in economic transitions as they are happening. WMMT broadcasts locally, streams online (wmmt.org), and is staffed mostly by community volunteers who offer a variety of local perspectives. As Hobson described their efforts:

WMMT is this 24-hour counter narrative. Our community is diverse. Just turn on the radio and you’ll hear all kinds of people with different opinions. Some of them very much contradicting each other, and that’s okay. You know, we’re not a monolithic people, as we are often portrayed. (Hobson; 18 Sept. 2014)

Such diverse perspectives lead to a variety of programming—from traditional, old-time fiddle and banjo music, to punk rock, to cooking shows, to gospel music, to social-justice initiatives—that appeals to a wide range of audiences in the area. As people tune in for various reasons, Appalshop has an opportunity to connect with them about pertinent issues.

Figure 11: “Calls from Home: Prison Radio in Appalachia,” a short video by Field Studio about WMMT’s “Calls from Home” series that broadcasts families’ long-form audio postcards to inmates who have been placed in large maximum-security prisons in rural Appalachia. The “Calls from Home” series has recently expanded to restorativeradio.org.

WMMT crafts regular short news features through “The Coal Report” series, and a biweekly thirty-minute segment called “Mountain News & World Report.” Shorter features are initially compiled together in “Mountain News and World Report,” then separate features are circulated on-air, sometimes through other regional radio stations and sometimes through national outlets like NPR. In a region where discussions about coal can be polarizing, features like “The Coal Report” catalog weekly updates about the coal industry, safety issues, and jobs-related information in an effort to inform the public and to challenge pro-coal/anti-coal topoi with more nuanced information.

Figure 12: A posting of the “Coal Report” by WMMT. The program synthesizes local, national, and international coal news from various sources and often calls attention to mine-related tragedies. This piece does not editorialize about coal but does document the first mining-related death of 2016.

In this work, WMMT and Making Connections News walk a fine line. As a civic techne, heritage claims suggest to rhetors that direct lines of argument about the coal industry will close off deliberation about alternate possibilities because they are so intimately tied to local heritages. Heritage also suggests that the potential for rhetorical intervention depends on rhetors’ abilities to connect to—not disavow—the rhetorical potential of those heritage claims. Take for example the following 2015 audio piece from Appalshop’s Making Connections News (Figure 13):

Figure 13: “Appalachian Youth: Coal Helped, It’s Not Our Future”. Making Connections News audio piece by Appalshop Appalachian Media Institute intern Destiny Caldwell.

This piece features young people from eastern Kentucky and their perspectives on the coal industry. Each interviewee expresses an ambivalent attitude toward coal—both pride in a coalmining heritage and the economic necessity of moving away from it. One nineteen-year-old interviewee says coal “was definitely a great part of our history. It’s what this area was built on; it’s where a lot of people got their starts. That being said, it’s not a great part of our future. I do believe we should use it, but I believe we should diversify.” A college student from the Whitesburg area expresses a similar sentiment:

I’m proud of coalminers that live here. I’m proud of the people who live here. I’m proud that coalmining is a part of our heritage. What I’m not proud of is that there has been this culture created where I feel like people here are almost brainwashed to support big coal companies and to propagate that coal is what’s going to bring us prosperity . . . coal’s what’s going to keep the lights on. And trying to somehow conflate the heritage of coal with the future of coal and the future of Appalachia.

Such content documents a cultural ambivalence that both acknowledges continuities with the region’s rhetorical and material past while also opening deliberative space for imagining more- than-polarized responses to coal. According to filmmaker and Making Connections News producer Mimi Pickering, this strategy aims to redirect the pathways of civic invention from a coal-or-poverty choice to “the diversity of possibilities” in the region by featuring Appalachians’ own experiences with economic alternatives. That diversification of possibility requires the cultural work of changing public perception. As Pickering said:

When public perceptions change, that leads to policy change. And we’re really suffering in this region from public perception based on this “War on Coal.” That’s been a huge campaign with millions of dollars invested in it to convince people that really all of this progressive agenda is all against their heritage and against their future. So I think . . . we can do our small part in changing those perceptions, and with it hopefully changes in how people vote and what policies they support . . . . (Pickering)

In this theory, important policy changes come about through the slow work of cultural shifts, attitudinal shifts, and the alteration of the rhetorical terms of social change in the region—a theory that requires strategies of rhetorical persistence. Appalshop believes that persistence comes from featuring the rhetorical power of Appalachians’ own stories. Sylvia Ryerson, Director of Public Affairs at Appalshop’s WMMT during the time of my research there (pictured in Figure 11 above), told me:

It really comes back to the overall Appalshop aesthetic of letting people talk for themselves and tell their stories, and this idea of self-representation. We try to focus on people from here in this region who are coming up with solutions so that it will resonate with local audiences, so that it’s not somebody else coming up with ideas that are supposed to work. A part of Making Connections is for people to hear their own realities and beliefs reflected in their own stories and how they see themselves reflected as a part of the solution in a way that is really grounded in the stories of right-here. (Ryerson) 

Such tactics indirectly challenge the discursive dominance of coal by slowly altering cultural narratives around coal. In that sense, Appalshop’s real persuasive work is cumulative—continuous efforts at circulating civic positions are made so that they gain enough rhetorical persistence to affect civic invention and cultural change. Such rhetorical motivations shape the ways they think of circulation, as Ryerson describes:

The coal industry is going to continue spewing pro-coal propaganda into this region, and we have to continue creating this kind of counter-narrative of what else is possible [her emphasis]. And it’s a main goal, rather than the most spectacular story. Those moments do come up but you never know going into it what story is going to stick and what isn’t. So there are those moments where you create this piece that resonates with a lot of people, but part of it to me is that actual process of having this consistent narrative of other possibilities in an ongoing way. (Ryerson) 

Ryerson’s emphasis on continued efforts here implies rhetorical persistence. That differs from viral models of circulation that privilege speedy distribution to wide audiences. Instead, strategies of persistent circulation over time mean designing content—or at least rhetorical positions—to remain in circulation.

Ryerson contrasts that strategy with national news outlets where audio composers build in sound bites rather than build from local “actualities”:

To me, when you listen to those pieces, it feels like they’re really framed for a national audience. And you can tell that in the script and the narration who they’re speaking to—it’s people who aren’t living here and knowing this reality. . . . Practically speaking, I think that our pieces tend to be less script-heavy than the standard NPR report. . . “Actuality” is the radio word for a sound bite from the interviewee. We sort of think about script the way a filmmaker would think of subtitles in a documentary film. It’s often necessary, but not always. The script is there to support what the actualities are saying, not vice versa. . . . writing the script is the last step. It’s not like I write a script then find sound bites to drop into it. I cut the audio, have all the audio in order, know what I want the piece to be, then write the script in between to have it make sense for the listener. . . the script comes from the voices in that particular piece. It’s sort of following their lead. (Ryerson)

Taking the script from the community refuses participation in pro-coal/anti-coal rhetoric and increases the circulatory potential of Appalshop media. The individual voices they document take on potential to become community voices and provide traction for arguments about economic diversification. Such strategies help make the case that Appalachians can fruitfully remain in the region beyond coal without dismissing Appalachians’ deep heritages with coal. Such media efforts at rhetorical persistence accumulate rhetorical affect over time in order to set the conditions for the circulatory successes of alternate rhetorical positions. 


If memory claims, as Rice suggests, create spaces of exceptionality that allow rhetors to talk about the past but disengage from civic deliberation, heritage claims are doing something different. Heritage claims are immersive and distributive. To inform civic positioning, heritage claims must facilitate cultural continuation, not preservation (Cushman). As we can see through the above examples, heritage claims are tied to civic action and directed towards ends other than the moment of persuasion. Accounting for “coal” as a heritage claim helps understand it as a persistent element in the rhetorical ecology of central Appalachia. Through heritage claims, rhetors are able to unpack coal’s potential to provide a material boundary that affords rhetorical stability and persistence. In the case of groups like Appalshop, the heritage claim also provides a pivot point for change and helps rhetors redirect attention to new positions.

The real persuasive work of heritage claims comes from seeing a rhetorical position (e.g., on coal, on transitions) circulate often enough that it affects the invention of new possibilities. In the work of both coal advocates and transitions advocates, the heritage claim suggests an art of invention for creating civic positions and recomposing traditional positions. On one hand, heritages introduce a rhetorical constraint that suggests certain trajectories for rhetorical invention; on another, they introduce a civic techne to guide decisions about the development and circulation of content and rhetorical positionings. Rhetors and organizations that deploy such heritage claims often understand that social change is not the same as civic victory. Social movements have to continue in order to maintain the ground they gain in policy wins and to strategize for persuasion as more than a momentary act.

Heritage claims help us theorize persuasion as a persistent practice. Whereas classical models of rhetoric teach us to think of argument as affecting persuasive transformation from one position to another, heritage claims show us that cultural change is slow, not momentary. Persuasion in such cases is not necessarily a loosening from one positioning and a tying to another, but often requires revolution around and recomposition of deeply rooted community positionings. As the case of Appalshop shows, WMMT and Making Connection News’s persuasive work is cumulative, expanding the economic narrative over time and opening up conversations about economic possibility. Heritage claims thus operate at the productive intersection of cultural rhetorics and rhetorical circulation. Persistent material traditions suggest rhetorical strategies for composing publics, and those traditions circulate as resources that guide pathways for deliberative positioning. In the case of central Appalachia, heritage claims provide a cultural understanding of circulation that shapes the rhetorical decisions community advocates make.

Of course, the type of slow, persistent circulation that heritage claims suggest may require too much compromise in cases where the potential for immediate health and harm calls for radical change. However, for needed changes that require attitudinal and cultural shifts (i.e., the deeply entrenched economic traditions and theories at work in areas with heritage industries), heritage claims suggest strategies for circulating and sustaining alternate positions over the long haul. Heritages can help create pathways for alternate theories to gain traction in future deliberations.

[1] CFA advocates for farm- and food-based economic alternatives across Kentucky, including the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Theirs is a story-based strategy that seeks ways to get individual and community stories heard by policymakers. CFA also strives to have stories heard by fellow communities in order to aid in imagining what else is possible.

[2] Hobson left Appalshop since the completion of my research with the organization.

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