An Ideology + Rhetoric Primer

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Ideology Criticism



The study of ideology in rhetorical studies is often the tracing of Marx’s uptake in rhetoric and Communication Studies more widely. Most often, when we reference the concept of ideology, it is Marx’s definitions that we are referencing. It’s hard to say when the adoption of Marx starts exactly. In 1970, for instance, Edwin Black was talking about “ideology in the sense that Marx used the term: the network of interconnected convictions that functions in a man epistemically and that shapes his identity by determining how he views the world” -- in order to theorize the second persona. I do not claim all of the writing contained in this document as my own. I have cited the sources I have drawn from wherever possible to thoroughly document my own borrowing. Ideology is a massive concept, and many classes could be taught on this topic alone. I invite folks to recommend additions to this document or to submit additions to it; my hope that it will remain a useful resource.  -- Atilla Hallsby, 11/1/2020

Part 1: Marx’s Dialectical Materialism

Karl Marx’s theories of ideology and capital are often characterized as a historical or dialectical materialism. The notion of materialism in rhetorical theory is often credited to this conceptualization of materiality, although we should also be clear to distinguish it from other concepts like “objectivism,” “positivism,” and “feminist new materialism.” Each of these could have a similarly thorough history told about them, with different touchstones and conversations. Marx writes:

There is no specific difference between German idealism and the ideology of all the other nations. The latter too regards the world as dominated by ideas, ideas and concepts as the determining principles, and certain notions as the mystery of the material world accessible to the philosophers.

(crossed-out portion from Marx, The German Ideology, p. 30)

If in all ideology men and their relations appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

(Marx, The German Ideology, p.42.)

The “camera obscura” quotation is especially famous. For some media theorists, the ability to conceive ideological consciousness through the metaphor of visual media is deeply significant because it suggests that there is a connection between our consciousness and the technologies we have available to describe it. It is also significant for the way that it materializes the “inversion” of his theory. If in Hegel ideas are determinative of the real world, in Marx, the real, material world is determinative of our ideas. The camera is therefore more than a metaphor; it is one way of thinking about the limit of what can be thought.

Responding to Hegel: From Idealism to Materialism

The purpose of Marx’s project is to demonstrate that material reality determines culture, that is, the economic structures within which individuals must work to survive dictate the forms of the relationships between human beings. Inverse of Hegel, the physical world takes precedence, and shapes the ways in which individuals understand themselves, rather than a physical world which is simply mediated through consciousness and logic.

It is clear that Marx conceived of his own project as a transformation of the Hegelian “idealist” framework, in which the world was composed out of ideas. Marx’s conception of the world is materialist in the sense that it affirms belief in an objective reality outside or beyond our ideas about it. In a crossed-out portion of The German Ideology, Marx writes:

Hegel completed positive idealism. He not only turned the whole material world into a world of ideas and the whole of history mto a history of ideas. He was not content with recording thought entities, he also sought to describe the act of creation. …  All the German philosophical critics assert that the real World of men has hitherto been dominated and determined by ideas, images, concepts, and that the real world is a product of the world of ideas. This has been the case up to now, but it ought to be changed. … According to the Hegelian system ideas, thoughts and concepts have produced, determined, dominated the real life of men [sic], their material world, their actual relations.  (crossed-out portion of The German Ideology, p. 30)

Marx’s response to the Hegelian system is to situation materialism where Hegel situates idealism. Materialism begins from the following premises:

The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way. The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man [sic] finds himself -- geological, oro-hydrographical, climatic and so on. All historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men [sic].
Men [sic] can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they began to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men [sic] are indirectly producing their material life. The way in which men [sic] produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the means of subsistence they actually find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. Hence what individuals are depends on the material conditions of their production.

(Marx, The German Ideology pp.36-37)

Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism is often simplified in the following way: (1) Ruling ideas are imposed on lower classes and (2) Each class has its own ideology. Ideology is ultimately a theory of class consciousness: it describes the source of this consciousness in terms of class hierarchy and it describes the unique internalization of this consciousness by distinct classes. Stuart Hall specifically expands upon the idea that ideological consciousness is particular to distinct groups of people, refusing a blanket characterization of the proletariat as a homogenous group.

A society’s ideology consists of the religious, artistic, moral and philosophical beliefs contained within society. It may also be explained in terms of its economic structure. Many activities may combine aspects of superstructure and ideology: for example, a religion is constituted by both institutions and a set of beliefs. Even though one can criticize particular behaviour from within an economic structure as unjust (and theft under capitalism would be an example) it is not possible to criticise capitalism as a whole. To state that something is just under capitalism is simply a judgement applied to those elements of the system that will tend to have the effect of advancing capitalism. According to Marx, in any society the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class; the core of the theory of ideology. According to Ziyad Husami, however, even if this is true, this does not mean that other ideas do not exist, and concomitantly, and that contained within these other ideas are other notions of justice that would render the whole of capitalism unjust or immoral.

Contradictions Under Capital

Contradiction is central to Marx’s notions of historical and dialectical materialism. Indeed, the “dialectic” is one way of stating that there is a contradiction or tension between distinct concepts or foundational ideas, such as the opposition between “ideas” and “material,” between “base” and “superstructure” or between “the subject’s immersion in class consciousness” and the ways that this consciousness undermines or contradicts itself, leading subjects into convoluted and ritualistic behaviors that function as ways of justifying the impossibility of ethical life under capital.

Slavoj Zizek’s psychoanalytic theory of ideology places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of “contradiction,” locating it in the everyday act of disavowal. Disavowal is the way that the subject “knows very well” how they act in the service of capital but “nonetheless” act in ways that work against their own self-interest, in the service of capitalism, or both at once. In this clip from his documentary, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Zizek describes this function using  the film They Live, where humans are ruled over by an extraterrestrial species and willingly participate in their being ruled over because they cannot see through their conquerors’ disguises. In the film, the main character is able to break free from class consciousness by putting on a pair of glasses that illuminate the true sign-value/signification of objects that have been overdetermined by capital.

The following quotations are from Slavoj Zizek’s book, The Sublime Object of Ideology. The first describes contradiction in terms of dialectical resolution similar to Marx, the second adopts contradiction as a psychoanalytic concept to explain communicative/discursive behavior:

  • Contradiction as dialectical resolution: If a contradiction is to become “active in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of circumstances and currents so that whatever their origin and sense . . They 'fuse' into a ruptural unity (p.32).
  • Contradiction as unconscious disavowal: What they do not know is that social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion structuring their social activity. They know very well how things really are, but they are still doing it as if they did not know (p.32).

The contradictions that make up class consciousness are often considered foundational to the notion of ideological analysis, as Ernesto Laclau explains below:

“Contradictions are seen in a hierarchical system that can be directly or indirectly reduced to a class contradiction. Any element or contradiction at the political and ideological level is, therefore, a class appurtenance. The paradoxical result is that theoretical practice has no need to correct the connotative articulations of political discourse, because if all political and ideological determinations have a necessary class ascription, they are also therefore expressive of the class essence of the subject. Since all of them, taken individually, express this subject equally, concretization of analysis can then only consist of the progressive unfolding of this essence.” (Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, p. 11)

Wage, Labor, and Capital

In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884, Marx posits labor not as liberating but a source of estrangement. The logic of estrangement is rooted in political economy, more specifically a labor theory of value. Under capitalism’s designations of private property, workers add value to raw materials via their labor, creating commodities to be bought and sold. For Marx, labor cannot liberate as it is inherently coercive. Individuals must work to survive, and in doing so generate profit for their employers. One can identify traces of Hegels’ Slave/Master dialectic here, but Marx argues that labor does not liberate, but estranges in four ways:

  • (1) estrangement from product of work;
  • (2) estrangement from activity of production;
  • (3) estrangement from species-being; and
  • (4) estrangement of “man to man.”

Work does not help an individual come to understand the world, and their place in it, but actually obscures it, entrenching them within a partial and illusory version of it. Marx is explicit that liberation requires revolution, or, practical change to things in the physical world. Marx reaches this conclusion in The German Ideology, in which he lays out a materialist conception of history. “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly intwerwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men — the language of real life” (42).

Part 2: After Marx

The Sign, Ideology, and Representation

The theory of the sign is often attributed to one of two 20th century philosophers: Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’). Peirce developed, among other theories, a three-part theory of the icon (a sensory resemblance), the index (a referential relationship) and the symbol (a meaning governed by convention). Saussure is known for his modernist theory of the language, in which the sign gives a form to meaning and its structural transformation.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s schema of the sign, with the signified (concept) over the signifier (sound-image) and arrows to indicate the mutual dependence of the terms upon one another. 

One important aspect of the sign is that it gains its force and value through its differential relationship to other signs. A sign is a sign by virtue that it is not other signs, that it means something in its difference from other signs that inhabit the sign system. This is, for instance, how Michael McGee (who borrows from Roland Barthes without citing him) conceptualizes the ideograph, which at a given (synchronic) moment of time, draws its meaning from other ideologically-charged signs.

Saussure’s theory of language is revised by Roland Barthes who proposes that ideology works through the process of second order signification which he also terms myth. When ideology operates through the logic of the sign, it means that the concepts implied by our language contribute signifiers to a larger reservoir of shared meaning-making that defines our relationships to governing (imperialist or capitalist) structures.

Barthes’ semiotic diagram of myth and a second diagram helpful for conceptualizing the way that myth mimics/resembles the structure of the sign. 

It should also be noted that Barthes’s demonstration of second-order signification is a magazine cover whose mythic signification is French colonialism in Algeria. The Lacanian extension of this reasoning by Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object of Ideology describes the disavowal of the commodity-form as a fundamental operation of ideology. Disavowal takes the form of a logical excusal or self-justification: “I know very well that …, but nonetheless ….” For example, I know very well that capitalism is causing climate change and that my consumption habits partake in the problem, but nonetheless I continue purchasing products and goods, to the point of purchasing “eco-friendly” and “greenwashed” products to compensate for my complicity in that system. To the extent that we use language to keep what we know at bay, ideology is both unconscious and exists at the level of the signs we use.

“Knowledge, whether ideological or scientific, is the production of a practice. It is not the reflection of the real in discourse, in language. Social relations have to be "represented in speech and language" to acquire meaning. Meaning is produced as a result of ideological or theoretical work. It is not simply a result of an empiricist epistemology.” Stuart Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology” (1985) p.98

Overdetermination and Demystification in Ideology Criticism

One tradition of ideology criticism, represented prominently by scholars like Michael Calvin McGee and Dana Cloud, assumes a transcendental ruling class or ‘double consciousness,’ identifies with socially, epistemically, or ontologically oppressed subjectivities, and frequently understands ideologically-motivated rhetoric as overdetermined propaganda. Overdetermination may be understood the way that repressive content in dreams (Freud) or insurrection to seize the means of production is kept at bay by a range of co-existing and non-contradictory socially-generated meanings.

  • Mystification occurs through overdetermination. In dreams, “overdetermined” content refers to the way that non-threating everyday imagery covers over emotionally intense latent content. It means that a thing is ‘over-represented’ or covered over with representations.
  • Ideological mystification reproduces ideology. “It is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they ‘really are’, of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how social reality cannot reproduce itself without this ideological mystification.”
  • Myriad representations respond to and coexist within a given ideological apparatus. Althusser asserts “a way of thinking about the multiple, often opposed, forces active at once in any political situation, without falling into an overly simple idea of these forces being simply "contradictory."

Interpellation and Subjectivation in Ideology Criticism

A further tradition of ideological criticism, prioritized by scholars like Maurice Charland, Judith Butler, and Ronald Walter Greene, describes the subject’s participation in the operation of ideology, describes the constitution of a subject as a rhetorical (i.e. both symbolic and performative) process through interpellation, and asserts a rigorous and complex set of discourse-mediated relations as constituting of both the subject and ideology.

  • Interpellation is an act of naming that renders one a subject to ideology, the state, and its institutions. In rhetorical studies, it is one way that scholars have articulated the criticism of the ideological state apparatus to speech act theory.
  • Interpellation constitutes the subject. The category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects. (Althusser, p. 171)
  • Interpellation transforms the subject. I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, ad which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ (Althusser, p.174)
The so-called smart bomb records its target as it moves to destroy it-a bomb with a camera attached in front ... relays that film back to a command control and that film is re-filmed on television, effectively constituting the television screen and its viewer as the extended apparatus of the bomb itself. In this sense, by viewing we are bombing, identified with both bomber and bomb, flying through space, transported from the North American continent to Iraq, and yet securely wedged in the couch in one's own living room. (Judith Buter, "Contingent Foundations" (1992) p.11)

Althusser, “Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses”

Atilla’s detailed notes on this essay.

Althusser starts out his essay claiming, “In order to exist, every social formation must reproduce the [material] conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce” (p. 128). Althusser explains that in order to perpetuate the conditions of production society must not only have a sufficient supply of the materials for production (wood, coal, steel, etc), but also the labor necessary for production. The firms that profit from the production assure the labor force will return by providing wages. The wages allow workers to cover their basic needs, and the desire for more wages leads the workers to come back to work again the next day.However wages are only sufficient if the labor force is both competent and obedient. Althusser notices that the competence and obedience are created outside of the firm. He found it fascinating that institutions outside of the firm were creating the conditions necessary for the firms to thrive, so began his exploration into the institutions that were perpetuating the ideology and recreating the conditions necessary for production.

Within the Marxist framework the Repressive State Apparatus, constituted of the army, police, courts, and prisons, is unified and maintains control primarily through violence and force. What Althusser observed is that the institutions that were (on paper) free of the repressive state apparatus, such as churches, schools, families, political parties, and sports leagues, played a major role in recreating the conditions for production. Althusser names these institutions the ideological state apparatuses. The ideological state apparatus is an ununified plurality and functions primarily through ideology rather than violence.

Althusser then explores the significance of the Ideological State Apparatus and argues that the education system is the most powerful ideological state apparatus. It replaced the church as the most influential institution. It gets full control over children from a young age and presents itself to society as non ideological.  Althusser claimed that every social formation must reproduce the material conditions for production, and he explains how the education system does that by proving that ideology is material. He uses a quote from Pascal’s description of church goers to help prove his point, “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe” (p. 168). For Althusser, actions reveal ideologies. How people spend their time (going to work, spending wages, developing economic know-how) reveal an ideology.

  • Interpellation is the ideological process through which individuals are named and thereby become subject to the state. Althusser describes interpellation as the process of being subjected, using the example of a police officer shouting “Hey you!” in the street. By turning around and acknowledging the police officer that individual becomes a subject of the state.In order for ideology’s interpellative function to work there must be a mirror-like function where the subject identifies with the Subject (Althusser refers to the subjector as a capital S Subject).
  • Interpellation constitutes the subject: The category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of ‘constituting’ concrete individuals as subjects. (p. 171)
  • Interpellation transforms the subject: I shall then suggest that ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, ad which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: ‘Hey, you there!’ (p.174)

Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology”

According to Althusser the function of ideology is to reproduce the social relations of production. For Hall, this definition of ideology is unsatisfactory, because it provides no answer for how ideologies of resistance get created. Stuart Hall claims Althusser failed by not sufficiently connecting the ideas of the reproduction of social conditions and interpellation.

Hall agrees with Althusser that social relations exist beyond the control of individuals. Babies are born into the world with a family, social class, and sex, thus they are already a subject before they are even born. Althusser sees that as proof that people are ‘always already’ subjects. Hall disagrees. He uses the example of the meaning of the term Black to prove his point. Hall explains how he has been interpellated as Black, brown, coloured, immigrant, etc. depending on where he was living, but there is not a unified ideology that holds all these interpellations together. The terms mean markedly different things on different continents. Hall explains that you can trace the ‘ideological chain’ of a term to a specific historic origin. In the case of the term Black the ideological chain can be traced back to colonization and slavery. Ideological struggle can then take place by redefining the meaning of terms. Hall describes the ideological struggle over a term as “more than an idealistic exchange of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning; or a struggle which takes place only in discourse” (p. 113). The result of the ideological struggle has material results for how people are treated. Regarding the ideological struggle over the word black Hall wrote, “If it becomes strong enough, it stops the society reproducing itself functionally, in that old way. Social reproduction itself becomes a contested process.” (p. 113). Differing from Althusser, Hall believes ideology does not only reproduce the social relations of production, but it also “sets limits to the degree to which a society-in-dominance can easily, smoothly and functionally reproduce itself” (p. 113).

Part 3: Rhetorical Materialism

“A materialist rhetoric would attend itself to how ‘real speeches which are demonstrably useful to an end or are failures. Such an approach would … aim … at the description, explanation, perhaps even prediction, of the formulation of consciousness.”  Michael Calvin McGee, "A Materialist's Conception of Rhetoric"

McGee, “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric”

McGee argues that idealism has dominated the field, which has become a set of prescriptive principles rooted in philosophy and not the observation of rhetoric in action. McGee proposes a materialist theory of rhetoric. This theory …

Begins with real speeches which are demonstrably useful to an end or are failures. Such an approach to theory would not aim at making rules of composition, but rather at the description, explanation, perhaps even prediction of the formation of consciousness itself” (p. 18-19).  

When rooted in idealism, rhetoric views communication as something to be perfected through consciousness.

From an idealist’s perspective, rhetoric is concerned with practical discourse not as a process requiring description and explanation, but as the product of an imperfect world which has dictated the production of bad literature, prose too clear and intentional to be beautiful” (p. 22).

McGee’s alternative is that communication, or rhetoric, is shaped by the existing relationships between humans which stem from the material conditions which shape those relationships. He identifies three levels at which rhetoric operates:

  • micro rhetorical experience, in which concrete individuals interact with one another,
  • socio-rhetorical experience, which is mediated by public-facing roles,
  • macro rhetorical experience, where institutions use representation to express the will of “the people.”

McGee contributes to an ongoing conversation that conceives of rhetoric as addressivity and persuasion. He grounds the vocabulary of rhetoric in speaker/ speech/ audience/ occasion/ change. He argues that these terms lose their effectiveness in idealism because they mask the gestalt of relationships necessary for rhetoric to occur. McGee proposes a molecular model of rhetoric, one in which  speaker/ speech/ audience/ occasion/ change are all connected to one another so as to demonstrate the system of relationships that underpins each element. He describes it as a three-dimensional shape that can contort as necessary so as to highlight particular elements that may be more prominent at any particular moment, but without severing ties to the other elements which are always present to some degree. McGee defines rhetoric as

a natural social phenomenon in the context of which symbolic claims are made on the behavior and/or belief of one or more persons, allegedly in the interest of such individuals, and with the strong presumption that such claims will cause meaningful change” (31).

McGee is critical of Bitzer, who is right to analyze exigencies, but fails to provide the means to actually account for it. This error stems from idealist rhetoric’s conflation of rhetoric and discourse, as its emphasis on speaker/ speech/ audience/ occasion/ change in isolation cannot account for discourse as whole, which can only be understood with McGee’s molecular model which places these elements as necessary in relationship with one another.

McGee employs the metaphor of a nuclear explosion, stating, “we can reconstruct the nature, scope, and consequence of a nuclear explosion by analyzing its residue when the raw matter and even the energy inherent in its occurrence have dissipated. Thus, it is possible to reconstruct the nature, scope, and consequence of rhetoric by analyzing ‘speech’ even when ‘speaker,’ ‘audience,’ occasion,’ and ‘change’ dissipate into half-remembered history” (32). McGee seems to place rhetoric above discourse in terms of importance, for there is no discourse which cannot operate as a speech in a material rhetoric (32) because discourses take on rhetorical qualities.

McGee, “The Ideograph”

In this essay, McGee addresses how rhetoric, conceived as political influence, works on mass consciousness. McGee explains that the real problem occurs when scholars maintain that “myth” and “ideology” are conflicting ideas. The ideograph is a model that brings together “ideology” and “myth”. It does not reject the idea that individuals have the potential to control power through symbol-use, nor does it overestimate the influence of power over individuals. McGee argues that “ideology in practice is a political language, preserved in rhetorical documents, with the capacity to dictate decision and control public belief and behavior” (p. 5). Ideographs, which are used within this language, expose interconnected “‘structures’” of public motives” that represent diachronic and synchronic formations of political consciousness. These formations have the ability to “control ‘power’ and to influence [...] the shape and texture of each individual’s reality” (p. 5).

McGee writes that the only way to diminish power is through prior persuasion, conditioning the meaning of an act before it takes place. Individuals are “conditioned” mainly through certain “concepts that function as guides, warrants, reasons, or excuses for behavior and belief” (p. 6). The result is a “rhetoric of control” that suggests persuasion will be effective on an entire community (p. 6). The words that become the vocabulary of this rhetoric (like “liberty,” “freedom of speech,” and “rule of law”) form the basic units of ideology -- McGee calls these ideographs. They signal certain accepted propositions to all members of a community. Ideographs are not invented, but become part of people’s real lives as “agents of political consciousness” (p. 7). Ideographs unite and divide nations because they are a definitive part of the social and material conditions into which various individuals are born, and one community will have accepted a set of ideographs that differs from others. In accordance with McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric,” ideographs represent a usage that is social and material, but cannot represent pure thought or truth.

Turning to analysis, McGee delineates the importance of vertical (diachronic) and horizontal (synchronic) dimensions of ideographs. The diachronic dimension references the usage of an ideograph throughout time. Individuals look through an ideograph’s usage historically to locate “touchstones” and “precedents” that help judge what is an acceptable use of that ideograph. As McGee writes, meanings may evolve, but the current meaning of an ideograph is determined in part by its past context of use. For example, Patrick Henry’s explanation, “give me liberty or give me death!” may have been fabricated by the historian William Wirt.

However, McGee contends that ideographs should also be understood synchronically, or through the ways the ideograph is used in practice, in the present. This synchronic structure represents ideographs as a force via their rhetorical capacities. Through the emergence of various situations, they may conflict with other ideographs and through this conflict may change meaning, as can be seen with Nixon attempting to alter the meaning of the ideograph “confidentiality” in relationship to “rule of law.” Participating in an ideological debate means using ideographs in ways that may change present structures, or relationships among ideographs. Overall, McGee argues that understanding both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of ideology are necessary -- we must see ideology as a “grammar” (diachronically) to know what changes have happened,  and also as a “rhetoric” (horizontally) to know how present situations alter the relationships among ideographs.

Wander, “The Third Persona”

Wander’s description of the third persona comes toward the end of a lengthy essay in which he is responding to critics of his previous essay “The Ideological Turn.” Wander, similar to Black, believes that critics should make socially, morally, and politically significant arguments in their work. Wander comes to the creation of the third persona in response to arguments that his ‘ideological turn’ pulls discourse that some critics and even the authors claim to be apolitical into the realm of the political and moral. Specifically, Wander is trying to answer the question, “Where does the critic get permission to link events in the material world with the ideas in a speech when the speaker does not refer to or may even deny the relevance of such things in the speech?” (p. 208). To answer this question Wander creates the third persona, “This link calls for an augmentation of the concept of audience in rhetorical theory to include audiences not present, audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or the speaking situation. This audience I shall call the Third Persona” (p. 209).

Wander uses Heidegger’s 1933 lecture on art to illustrate the presence of the third persona. Those critical of Wander’s claims questioned how a lecture about esoteric ideas of time, being, and art could be related to the political conditions of Germany at the time. Wander makes the connection by stating that if we believe an audience member could make the connection between discussion of fine food and the experience of starvation then you are on your way to seeing how Heidegger’s lectures on art and being relate to the atrocities being committed by the German government outside the lecture hall in which he spoke (p. 210). Wander’s idea of the third persona moves beyond the rhetor and the audience and considers the totality of the world, the public space in which discourse takes place and all those affiliated with that public space. Wander emphasizes the high moral standard he imposes by encouraging critics to consider the third persona as he dramatically ends his essay with the following sentence, “Properly understood, it involves the unity of humanity and the wholeness of the human problem” (p. 216).

Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric”

Maurice Charland relies on Burke’s concept of identification to establish a connection between rhetoric and Althusser’s theory of interpellation. Burke claims that identification exists prior to persuasion. Referring to sexuality, class, and social identity he wrote, “Such identifications are rhetorical, for they are discursive effects that induce human cooperation. They are also, however, prior to persuasion” (p. 133). Referencing the Ancient joke that “it is easier to praise Athenians in Athens” Charland dedicates his essay to figuring out how it is that Athenians became Athenians.

He focuses on the case of the Québécois independence movement, in which residents of the Canadian province of Quebec wanted recognition as an independent nation. Charland explains that the movement centered around the word Québécois, which refers to a ‘people’ of Quebec. Charland argued that the persuasive techniques used in the white papers explaining why the Québécois should have independence feature the constitutive force of Québécois. The white papers framed the debate about whether or not the Québécois should get independence, but Charland suggests the actual debate was about whether or not a Québécois people exists. Charland explains how this tactic is effective, “The ideological ‘trick’ of such a rhetoric is that it presents that which is most rhetorical, the existence of a people, or of a subject, as extra-rhetorical” (p. 137).The independence movement essentially came down to whether or not the attempts at interpellation were successful. The Québécois was a fiction that could only come into reality if people accepted the living within the political myth (p. 138). (Would they turn their head when someone yelled hey Québécois?)

Constitutive rhetoric is only realized if the audience members are successfully interpellated and “the tautological logic of constitutive rhetoric necessitates action in the material world.” The action referred to is the way constitutive rhetoric leverages the narrative structure. Charland explains this, “While classical narratives have an ending, constitutive rhetorics leave the task of narrative closure to their constituted subjects” (p. 143). In the case of the Quebec independence movement if people identified with Québécois they would then feel compelled to achieve the dream of independence outlined in the narrative.

Cloud, “The Materiality of Discourse as Oxymoron”

Cloud’s article addresses itself to the two contradictory pitfalls of rhetorical materialism, which she argues are composed of scholars committed to an “anti-realist” or “relativist” framework and another group committed to an “idealist” or “anti-materialist” notion of discourse. (p. 142) The article “defends the tradition of materialist, realist ideology criticism as the version of the materiality of discourse hypothesis most consonant with the project of political critique.” Opposing the work of McGee and McKerrow, Cloud argues that these scholars respectively represent “the limited claim that discourse is material because it has material effects and serves material interests in the world” (McGee) and the claim that “discourse not only influences material reality, it is that reality” (McKerrow). Whereas McGee’s perspective tends toward idealism, McKerrow’s tends toward relativism.  The essay defines a range of concepts including materialism, idealism, realism, and relativism. Cloud defines materialism in two ways, with the second as the more foundational or preferred one.

“[The first understanding of materialism requires that] people must be understood as historically located and socially constituted. This idea is the starting point of materialist language theory's emphasis on the subject as a historically situated product of discourses and relations (an idea that has been given renewed vigor by postmodernists, but which did not originate with them).” … The second and broader definition of materialism consists in the idea that the mode of production or the way in which goods are made and distributed in society determines the social relations and form of consciousness of any given epoch. Engels (1880/1978) summarized this position:
The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; thal in every society that has appeared in history the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided in classes or orders is dependent on what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final cause of all social changes and political revolution are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. (p. 701)
On this view, the task of a critique of culture is to unmask the shared illusion of a society as ideas promulgated by and serving the interest of the ruling class, or those who control the production and distribution of material goods. In Marx's (1978b) words, "Life is not determined by consciousness but con ciou ness by life'' (p. 155). Ideally, when defined in opposition to historical materialism, refers not to the commonsense notions of wishful thinking or hopefulness about the possibility of social change, but rather to the tendency to overemphasize consciousness, speech, and text as the determinants of such change (pp. 144-145).

Cloud also leverages a specific criticism of McGee (idealism) and McKerrow (relativism), specifying with examples what each of their respective theories are able to explain.

McGee’s “‘cultural fragments’ model cannot fathom the interest-governed systematicity of ideological texts. If one were to follow McGee's (1990) critical model into the texts of the Persian Gulf War, it would be possible to affirm or ignore the totalizing nationalistic hype, the euphemisms ("collateral damage," " surgical strike' ) obscuring the impact of weaponry and the Iraqi death toll, and the almost seamles ideological narrative that, convinced u that the Persian Gulf War was just and its consequences benign (p.152).

Cloud addresses McKerrow’s relativism, or the understanding of discourse as constituting material reality, using Jean Baudrillard’s articles, “Reality Gulf” and “The Gulf War Never Took Place.”

The problem with the various poststructuralist intellectual movements, Norris argues, is their treatment of language and texts as entities without reference to a world we might designate as ''real.'' We need not deny that the war seemed to television news audiences to be an "unreal" product of textual construction to suggest that the fabrication of a ns of unreality was a persuasive ideological strategy That diminished our capacity to respond critically and politically to the consequence of the war” (p. 156).

Cloud, “Beyond Evil”

Responding to events in the aftermath of 9/11, Cloud argues that contextualizing morality politically can help critics avoid relativist frameworks of thinking that deter individuals from taking action. Cloud writes that in evaluating international events, critics should understand morality as being rhetorically produced throughout history. As is the case with the U.S. response to 9/11, morality has been mobilized to serve a set of interests. Delving into the political and material contexts that inform morality can allow critics to make informed judgments about the ways in which virtue is used rhetorically.

Cloud’s larger arguments are situated in her critique of Nietzsche, and her embrace of Marx and Trotsky. While Cloud writes that she finds value in Nietzsche’s discussions of morality “as rhetorically produced, historically situated, and invested with its creators’ interests,” she pushes against the cynicism of relativism (p.532). Nietzsche’s relativist perspective leads to a withdrawal from communicative situations because he views any attempt at group unity as the opposite of freedom. Persuasion is also suspect in that it can threaten free thought. The real issue with Nietzsche’s relativism, according to Cloud, is that it does not allow critics to make judgements about conflicting perspectives or actions because it obscures how one group exerts power over others through rhetorical conceptions of good and evil. Morality does not function as a means to curtail freedoms, but as a way for elite groups to convince others that a set morality is representative of everyone’s interests.

Cloud turns to Marx and Trotsky to build her argument against relativism, referencing Marx and Engels’ claims that universal truths about morality do not exist. Instead, morality is rhetorically produced in service of certain classes, and in ways that are influenced by material conditions in various times and places throughout history. Cloud points out that many of us understand these claims -- we may not see someone stealing bread to survive as a crime, while a corporation stealing money from employees is a different situation (p. 533). Similarly, Trotsky argues that morality is grounded in our experiences, not in universal truths, and is inherently connected to class. Those with power do not apply moral principles in the same way across classes. From her readings here, Cloud asserts that Marxism along with historical materialism encourages critics to locate how morality is rhetorically enacted within a certain configuration of power relations. These frameworks also avoid articulating all uses of power as being morally equivalent.

Cloud applies her claims about morality to conversations on good and evil circulating after 9/11. Assuming Nietzsche’s perspective in regards to pro or anti-war discourses, Cloud argues that Nietzschean relativism would categorize arguments on both sides as being evil “instruments of conformity and unfreedom” (p. 535). Chomsky’s antiwar sentiment, as one example, condemns the 9/11 attacks and U.S. terroristic policy as evil, grounding his claims in “morally detached terms” (p. 535). Although Cloud notes that Chomsky is not a relativist, she cites other examples of relativist strategies that denounce both sides to an argument, casting morality aside. She explains that relativist approaches can be appealing because on the surface they seem to be “evenhanded [...] no audience feels singled out as being in the wrong” (p. 536). Yet this criticism does nothing for making judgments about violent, corrupt behavior. On the other hand, a historical materialist, in line with Marx or Trotsky, would examine the material interests of groups in power and the ways they have activated moral discourses to support these interests. These approaches would not equally judge two acts of violence. Interrogating the contextual factors surrounding political events allows critics to determine how a seemingly universal morality is being employed rhetorically. More importantly, it encourages critics to determine where they lie in these discussions and to take action in responding to them.

Greene, “Another Materialist Rhetoric”

Rhetorical theory and criticism ought to investigate technologies of deliberation that produce modes of governing, surveillance, and living as discursive effects. Greene argues that rhetorical studies is in need of a new approach to materialism that does not limit rhetoric’s material functions to the binary interactions of power as “domination and resistance” (p. 21). In emphasizing mediated forms of speech, as McGee does, Greene claims that critics ignore the ways rhetoric is used within institutions as a “technology of deliberation” (p. 21). This technology constructs a “governing apparatus,” through which institutions enforce control over material elements -- groups of people, spaces, and objects -- by arranging human technologies into certain “networks of power to improve public welfare” (p. 22). As a technology of deliberation, rhetoric facilitates the governing apparatus’s ability to judge what and how it should govern. Greene argues that a materialist rhetoric should focus on the ways that rhetorical practices allow a governing apparatus to evaluate and inform reality (p. 22). Articulation theory is one way for critics to move past previous methods of rhetorical materialism that construct reality as a binary conflict between dominating forces and forces that seek to expose those forces.

To achieve a different materialism, this paper argues that rhetorical studies investigate the organizational and historical dynamics of a governing apparatus. A governing apparatus exists as a complex field of practical reasoning that invents, circulates, and regulates public problems. Following Foucault’s desire to study the art of government, a governing apparatus polices a population, space, and/or object by articulating an ensemble of human technologies into a functioning network of power to improve public welfare.

Rhetoric, within this framework, names the critical intervention of adjusting the articulations between discourses, institutions, and populations, thereby changing how bodies are distributed and inscribed as effects of power.

From this perspective, rhetorical practices function as a technology of deliberation by distributing discourses, institutions, and populations onto a field of action. In so doing, rhetoric allows for a governing apparatus to make judgments about what it should govern, how it should govern, as well as offering mechanisms for evaluating the success or failure of governing. … articulation theory offers a way to produce a cartography of deliberative rhetoric without reducing its effectivity to the politics of representation.

Greene’s essay offers a detailed review of other materialist perspectives on rhetoric before presenting his own. These include McGee, Charland, McKerrow, and Cloud.

He critiques McGee’s work on materialism for its centeredness upon persuasion-focused rhetoric. Persuasion  equates effectivity/effectiveness with a logic of influence that essentializes the speaker and audience as entities existing outside of political, economic, and cultural histories. Rhetoric’s only role then is to mediate relationships of cooperation or coercion between these two “essential substances” (p. 23). McGee’s approach instead makes rhetoric into a process of social control, figuring power as conflict between the powerful who dominate and the oppressed, who’s actions of resistance involve uncovering how domination is enacted through symbolic representation. The issue here is that McGee essentializes power by assuming that it operates outside of its symbolic representations -- mediated speech symbolizes a system of social control that ensures that the speaker is always in a position of power over the audience.

Greene also addresses McGee’s concept of fragmentation to explain the governing apparatus. Fragments serve as the focus of analysis rather than texts, according to McGee. This focus on fragments makes “interpretation the primary task of speakers and writers and text construction the primary task of audiences, reader, and critics” (McGee qtd. In Greene, p. 33). This argument suggests that a critic’s work is to create a text from cultural fragments in order to interpret the “everydayness of practical discourse” (p. 33). However, Greene writes that McGee’s claims about fragmentation fails to acknowledge theories of articulation and keeps materialist thought stuck in a logic of representation where rhetorical practice represents culture. Still, in insisting that critics create their objects of analysis suggests that the focus of meaning for a critic is located in how fragments are articulated within a “structure of signification,” not in how meaning is represented by these fragments. This opening for articulation can help critics to understand the materiality of rhetorical practices in how they are positioned and span institutional structures. It also makes clear how a governing apparatus is composed of articulations of rhetorical practices and how the apparatus itself articulates connections to its context in order to “program reality” (p. 35).

Greene continues in arguing that Charland’s constitutive model of rhetorical effectivity reworks the speaker/audience relationship -- speech acts “more as a form of reality that ‘represents’ a a political sense, speech speaks for a particular subject, while aesthetically, it speaks into existence a figure of a subject” (p. 25). Charland argues that subjects are constituted through rhetoric and that whatever position a subject occupies is an effect of rhetoric. This approach allows critics to see how rhetoric produces subjects in ways that both enable and constrain action or representation. While constitutive rhetoric can facilitate materialist notions of rhetoric by concentrating on how subjects are represented through speech, Greene writes that it also suggests that materialist rhetoric should be primarily concerned with conflicts and contradictions surrounding the way the subject is positioned through language.

To address this, Greene turns to Althusser who claims that ideology represents the “imaginary relationship to the real” (p. 26). This relationship involves how subjects live their lives materially, which allows rhetoric to conceptualize materiality in different ways or “modalities” -- representations “exist in a material form and not as ideas that represent a more primordial (material) reality” (p. 27). Greene also highlights Althusser’s discussion of the ideological and repressive state apparatuses (ISA and RSA) because they allow critics to recognize the materiality of institutions and their connectedness to discourse and ways of governing.

Greene argues that critical rhetoric, along with the Foucauldian concept of practical reasoning can rework critics’s understanding of materialism. Greene points to McKerrow, who he argues errs in claiming that critical rhetoric is concerned with keeping track of power -- this continues to focus material rhetoric within logics of representation. McKerrow’s conception of power upholds a binary between domination and freedom, whereas Foucault and other critics, including Greene, view power as “production” (p. 28). Greene also finds fault with McKerrow’s discussion of practical reasoning for limiting materialist rhetoric to studying the representational rather than the material forms of practical reasoning. Foucault’s work describes practical reasoning as a human technology that involves the coordination of human and other material forces. Conceiving of rhetorical practices, and in Greene’s case a governing apparatus, as collections of human technologies makes it possible for critics to acknowledge the material and distributive aspects of rhetoric as it becomes a discourse of power.

Lastly, Greene turns to Cloud’s piece on the Gulf War to further emphasize how current approaches are guilty of furthering the politics of representation. Cloud places rhetoric’s materiality into a mediating role between the binary of the “ruling classes” and “the masses,” which suggests that materialist rhetoric’s goal is to uncover hidden interests (p .36). Cloud’s analysis is limited in that it fails to account for how rhetorical practices were articulated within structures in ways that made pro-war arguments seem true, right, and persuasive. Cloud claims that “yellow ribbon news” about the war was a hegemonic attempt by government to project unity, and protest as inappropriate for that unity. But, as Greene claims, this does not recognize the ways in which marginalized discourses are distributed across structures alongside and in conjunction with discourses of power. Understanding this allows critics to see past discourses of power as binaries, and to view the complex ways in which they are “transformed, displaced, deployed and/or challenged” (p. 39).

Greene, “Money/Speech”

Greene argues that rhetorical scholars should be attentive to ‘political economy,’ particularly in light of the blurriness of rhetoric’s bounded contextuality and the unbounded, ubiquitous, (acontextuality) of rhetoric. He offers a tripartite structure to “locate rhetoricality within the international division of labor:” communicative labor, money/speech, and neo-liberal governance.Greene’s ‘method’ extends his theorization in “Another Materialist Rhetoric” by introducing a set of tools for critics to begin pursing rhetorical analyses of political economy that translate a specialized language of influence, labor, and capital into motivated acts of speech. Communicative labor, for instance, describes the kinds of organizing work which arrange publics into particular habits of consumption – a perspective which would fit well within a Foucauldian framework but is not necessarily confined to post-structural accounts of political speech given his presentation in this article. (Greene does mention Foucault, but in the context of the necessity of a critique of neo-liberal capitalist governance).

Greene’s techniques offer a set of useful set of heuristics to engage a wide range of discourses that might otherwise be inaccessible. The key features of this framework include:

  • Communicative Labor: “Communicative labor is more than how people talk about their jobs, since work is made more valuable by reading, writing, speaking, and digitizing. Moreover, it includes the social reproduction made possible by teaching communication skills and competencies. Communicative labor helps to capture the social relations embedded in capitalism’s need for and production of ‘‘rhetorical sensitivity.’’ The concept of communicative labor does not doom the rhetorical to always already serving the logics of capitalist accumulation; it describes how social wealth increasingly relies on the political, economic, and cultural values produced by communication. As such, communicative labor points to a political antagonism within capitalism between the exploitation of communication and a mode of cooperation that exceeds capitalist command.”
  • Money/Speech:  Two things require comment: (1) The Court has fused money and speech under the norm of free speech. I want to name this fusion money/ speech. Money/Speech is the overdetermined articulation of money and advocacy that can appear in different rhetorical forms: political advertisements, oratory, lawn signs, lobbying. (2) Money/Speech understands political rhetoric as a financial process: ‘‘Virtually every means of communicating . . . requires the expenditure of money.’’Money/Speech appears in different rhetorical forms, but is more importantly a field of social management that works institutionally to ‘‘embed and socially regularize behavior.’
  • NeoLiberal Governance: Today, the hegemonic form of capitalism is neo-liberal, a rationality that governs the economy by ‘‘freeing markets’’ from regulation. More radically, it calls for the organization of all social life as a market. Thus, one effect of neo-liberalism is to imagine labor power as human capital; that is, as ‘‘an innate component of bodily and genetic equipment, and an acquired component of aptitudes produced as a result of an investment.’’19 Similarly, we might think of rhetorical capital as the capacity to adapt to the shifting character of a rhetorical situation.

May, “Spinoza and Class Struggle”

May argues that Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics can help critics identify a clear relationship between affect and class by reconsidering how Spinoza’s discusses bodies. May connects Spinoza’s ideas to Marxist criticism, claiming that in accepting Spinoza’s formulations of how the body is affected by and can affect other bodies, we can see the ways in which bodies work against, or are antagonistic to, capitalist structures.

May begins by briefly describing Spinoza’s conceptions of bodily composition, which are at odds with a Cartesian dualistic ontology that separates the mind and the body from one another. Spinoza sees bodies as one substance that “can be activated in an infinite number of ways” (p. 204). In this understanding, communication is how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies, and bodies that express “a common motion compose an aggregate body which may itself be part of a larger composition” (p. 204). Bodies are also defined by their potential to engage the power of existence. May points to Deleuze’s example of the tick, which illustrates that the body is a “corporeal locus” that can activate specific affects. All in all, May writes that for Spinoza, bodily composition is the only type of organization, and that the body comes into existence materially through immanent causality --  in short, the body (the cause) cannot exist before or outside of its effects and its effects are an expression of its existence (a paraphrase of Deleuze). May explains that understanding the body in this way also suggests that the concept of surplus gives power to material reality, as Spinoza sees it.

The concept of surplus leads May to discuss the similarities he sees between his reading of Spinoza and his (and Althusser’s) reading of Marx’s concept of labor power. Similar to Spinoza’s claims about the body, Marx argues that labor power is a type of immanent causality. It does not exist before labor, but rather comes into existence when it is activated -- “it sets itself in action only by working” (p. 205). May argues that distinguishing between labor and labor power is important because doing so leads us to discover the potential for antagonism against capitalism. Labor power comes into existence and is given power by the surplus (the material reality of the body). Capital needs the body to exist, but the body itself does not need capital. Capital cannot attain the surplus of labor power. May argues, however, that the surplus of labor power also reflects the potential for moving past capitalism. Organizing against capitalism then involves  working against the “capitalist valorization of surplus [...] by the refusal of labor insofar as labor is capital” (p. 205).

This strategy of refusal means that in order for the working class to fight against conceptions of its labor as capital, it needs to renounce institutional labor movements, like “business unionism” (p. 206). These unions ascribe value to labor based only on its capacity to accrue capital, and they exist to control working bodies and conflicts these bodies might engage in with their institutions. The strategy of refusal offers workers a way to bypass unionism by engaging in “tactical materializations of non-collaboration” including “wildcat strikes, factory occupations, [or] withdrawing efficiency” (p. 206). As May explains, viewing these acts through the lens of Spinoza’s work allows us to see them as material compositional and recompositional processes -- in organizing and coming together, workers enact power by composing and recomposing themselves in relationship to the conception of labor as capital. A Spinozist framework reveals the potential for bodies to activate power within capitalist structures by encouraging critics to ask how bodies affect and are affected by the ways they compose themselves.

Other Resources:

Aune, J.A. 1990. “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory.” In Argumentation Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent, edited by David Cratis Williams and Michael David Hazen, 155–72. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Chaput, Catherine. "Rhetorical Circulation in Late Capitalism: Neoliberalism and the Overdetermination of Affective Energy." Philosophy & Rhetoric 43, no. 1 (2010): 1-25. Accessed November 2, 2020. doi:10.5325/philrhet.43.1.0001.

Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777-795.

Greene, Ronald W.  "Rhetoric and Capitalism: Rhetorical Agency as Communicative Labor," Philosophy and Rhetoric 37 (2004): 188-206.

Grossberg, Lawrence. We Gotta Get out of This Place, (London: Routledge, 1992).

Hanan, Joshua S., Indradeep Ghosh & Kaleb W. Brooks (2014) Banking on the Present: The Ontological Rhetoric of Neo-Classical Economics and Its Relation to the 2008 Financial Crisis, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 100:2, 139-162, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2014.961529

Kuypers, Jim A. 2008. “The Rhetorical River.” Southern Communication Journal 73: 350–58. doi:10.1080/10417940802429475.

McDonald, Robert Olan. (2018) Metastasis and retroactive causality in incentive rhetoric, Quarterly Journal of Speech, 104:4, 400-421, DOI: 10.1080/00335630.2018.1519257

McGuire, Michael. 1990. “Materialism: Reductionist Dogma or Critical Rhetoric?” In Rhetoric and Philosophy, edited by Richard A Cherwitz, 187–212. New York: Routledge.

McKerrow, Raymie E. 1983. “Marxism and a Rhetorical Conception of Ideology.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 69: 192–219.

Voloshinov, V.N. 1973. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Translated by Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik. New York: Seminar Press.