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Winter 2008, 38:1, pages 25-45

Speaking on Behalf of Others: Rhetorical Agency and Epideictic Functions in Official Apologies

Abstract: The official apology is a discursive phenomenon with complex rhetorical significance and must be distinguished from the apologia. The main difference is that the official apology entails an element of regret and acknowledgement of wrongdoing that makes it an even more delicate rhetorical matter than the apologia-not least because it involves a collectivity such as a nation state. The symbolic nature of the assumption of guilt is therefore particularly clear. This article argues that official apologies, however circumscribed by public skepticism, nevertheless may serve important functions as loci for articulating the norms of a society at a given time. The article discusses how the official apology raises a host of issues concerning rhetorical agency and argues that this particular type of rhetoric is promising point of departure in the ongoing pedagogical and theoretical exploration of the concept of rhetorical agency. By integrating theories of epideictic rhetoric and of rhetorical agency, the complexity of the official apology is analyzed, and through a reading of an official apology by the Danish Prime minister, the essay examines how rhetorical agency is both established and undercut by the speaker.