New Materialism

Matter 1 - The Rhetoric of Science, Technology, Health, and Medicine


The controversy over epistemic rhetoric spawned discipline-wide movements that aspired to turn away from the objectivist/ debate entirely. The first and most notable of these movements was the Rhetoric of Inquiry, started at the University of Iowa, and which claimed to bring a uniquely rhetorical perspective to technical discourses. Committed scholars argued that they had “move[d] beyond both objectivism and relativism” (Lyne 1985, 66), bridging disciplinary divides by characterizing objectivism as a persuasive process. Through a systematic analysis of the foundational texts and research of biology, economics, chemistry, and optics,  rhetoricians of science endeavored to “[reconstruct] the means by which scientists convince themselves and others that their claims are true of the world” (Gross 1988, 2). The rhetoric of inquiry also claimed to set itself apart because it brought focus back onto rhetoric as the method and means of analyzing discourse:

For more than a decade, specialists have examined how rhetoric is epistemic: how it can produce and shape as well as communicate knowledge. Thus far, however, few of the epistemic inspirations for rhetoric of inquiry come from communication theory. Partly they come instead from reconsiderations of foundationalism in philosophy; partly they stem from the practical rhetorics of research in diverse fields of the human sciences; but mostly they spring from explorations of rhetorical theory by scholars outside of rhetorical studies. (Nelson and Megill 1986, 23)

A full summary of the knowledge covered by the rhetoric of science cannot be provided here. As Solomon (as well as Condit and Happe) illustrate(s), the Rhetoric of Science has deep roots in using rhetorical tools to identify subtle mechanisms that uphold scientific racism. Research in the rhetoric of science often embraces a social-constructivist view of scientific discourse, and has historically sought to expand on work done by sociologists and philosophers of science (Merton, Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, Jasanoff, Latour) by linking terms of art proper to rhetoric and argumentation to scientific writing (Prelli) scientific controversy (Ceccarelli, Walsh), and the demarcations of scientific knowledge (Gieryn, Taylor, Ploeger).

But even as the rhetoricians of inquiry and rhetoricians of science sought to set themselves apart from the epistemic debate, they also risked muddying their signature term: rhetoric. As Dilip Gaonkar noted in 1993/7, the diverse methodological commitments made the ‘rhetoric’ of Rhetoric of Science unspecific and ambiguous (36).  In some instances ‘rhetoric’ was intentioned persuasion, in others neo-Aristotelian categories, while still others pledged allegiance to phenomenological, hermeneutical, rational deliberative, and post-structural theories all at once.  This diffusion of approaches to rhetoric indicated that rhetoric’s umbrella had become too expansive because it had embraced a widened object domain at the expense of a cogent or complete theory of rhetoric itself.

Part 1: The Rhetoric of Inquiry

You’ll remember from earlier in the course the role of rhetoric in demonstrating and explicating a constructivist epistemology. This is an alternative to a classical modernist, positivist epistemology that posits the existence of absolute truths independent of language, which merely describes – not constitutes – the world.

A transition from the latter to the former view occurred in the mid-20th century in the variously named field(s) of history/sociology/philosophy/rhetoric of science/inquiry (though, ironically, perhaps not in science itself – see McCloskey). In the early 1900’s, philosophers like Karl Popper and Carl Hempel dominated the field with their positivist theories of scientific inquiry. The enterprise was defined by these scholars through appeal to concepts of falsifiability, testability and prediction, deduction, and, above all else, the pursuit of Truth (with a capital T).

The publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962 fundamentally altered the field when he introduced the idea of scientific revolution, now commonly called a paradigm shift. Kuhn argued that scientific fields do not slowly accumulate always-consistent, always-correct knowledge, as prior theorizing from Popper and others suggested. Instead, Kuhn argued, scientific fields function within the scope of paradigms that change over time, leading scientists to reject prior work and adopt new understandings of prior observations. (Some easy examples: geocentrism was rejected in favor of heliocentrism, and relativity replaced Newtonian mechanics.) Kuhn’s historical work demonstrated in scientific practice the limitations of modernism and objectivity that had been explored theoretically in philosophical work from Nietzsche and Wittgenstein; in rhetorical work on the “rhetorical construction of reality” from Derrida and Foucault; and pragmatic work from Habermas, Rorty, and Cavell that attempted to bridge the gap between rhetoric and philosophy. (This history is presented in various forms by Nelson, Megill, & McCloskey; Lyne; and McCloskey, and supplemented with my own background in the philosophy of science.)

Appropriately (and not a little ironically), Kuhn’s work was the impetus for a paradigm shift in the philosophy of science, towards a view of science as constructed, negotiated, and, therefore, rhetorical. This prompted a flurry of work exploring the rhetoric of science, of which today’s readings are a few prominent pieces. John Lyne, Alan Gross, and Diedre (formerly Donald) McCloskey all provide arguments for the importance of a rhetorical examination of science, i.e. the rhetoric of inquiry or ROI. Lyne argues that academic discourse is rhetorical and explores possible definitions of “academic rhetoric” and implications for the methodologies of ROI. Gross’s piece applies the method of ROI historically to Descartes and Newton’s optical work. By providing an example of the effects of rhetorical practice on scientific consensus, Gross demonstrates the importance of ROI and provides an example of an application of an ROI method. Similarly, McCloskey uses the rhetoric of economics as an example to demonstrate the rhetoricity of scientific discourse and argue for the importance and utility of the acknowledgement of the rhetoricity of science for academic fields.

Since many of the points of these authors overlap, I’m going to summarize thematically rather than by author … so bear with me. The supplemental reading from Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey also provides helpful context and summary, so I’ll be referencing that as well.

The Rhetoricity of Science

ROI emerged from a context of epistemological social constructionism in rhetoric and (sometimes) philosophy, but a commitment to and assumption of positivism in the sciences. These authors use ROI to establish that the sciences in fact already function with a methodology of social constructivism.

Gross does this work through the history of science, examining the optical texts of Descartes and Newton to demonstrate the role persuasion already plays in the adoption of scientific ideas. He begins by stating, “In science, there are two sorts of rhetorical masterpieces: those powerful enough to provoke a revolution, and those ingenious enough to avoid it” (Gross p.1). Unlike famously contentious paradigm shifts spurred by Galileo and Darwin that “caused more debate than assent, more turmoil than change,” Descartes and Newton introduced new and revolutionary ideas in a way that was quiet and unthreatening and thus made it easier for other scientists to accept their work. Gross demonstrates this through a rhetorical analysis of Descartes and Newton’s work which illuminated the rhetorical strategies they used to emphasize continuity between their own work and that of previous scientists, even when their work dissented or broke away from previous texts in important ways. Although Descartes viewed the role of reason in the identification of scientific laws very differently from previous scientists, his work emphasized ways in which “the argument field of Cartesian optics is continuous with that of traditional optics” and the assumptions he shared with traditional optics while downplaying epistemological tensions (p. 7).

Even more interesting is the case of Newton’s Optiks. In this text, Newton presented old theories of his that had been met with skepticism in a more rhetorically effective way, and thus persuaded his audience much more successfully. According to Gross, in initially presenting optical research, Newton “clearly and uncompromisingly reverses the traditional and Cartesian roles of reason and experiment … relying for its persuasive effect on a clash of principles” (Gross pp. 9-10). The result was “a failure of persuasion” – the document was met with extensive criticism from other scientists, whom it generally failed to impress. In the Optiks, in contrast, Newton suppressed the appearance of paradigmatic inconsistency, and the reception of his work was much more charitable. Gross argues that Newton “create[d] the impression of historical continuity and logical inevitability” by arranging his text in the traditional Euclidian proof format, thus lowering resistance to his new theories. Newton also presented of an abundance of experimental evidence and used rhetorical questions in order to persuade (Gross). Notably, it was this rhetorical activity, not a difference in the quality of the science, that lead the Optiks to be more persuasive than Newton’s earlier papers.

Gross uses these examples to illustrate the essentially rhetorical character of scientific progress; “the triumph of the Optiks,” he writes, “is wholly rhetorical because science is rhetorically constituted, a network of persuasive structures, patterns that extend upward through style and arrangement to invention itself, to science itself” (Gross, p. 13). He also uses this science to complicate Kuhn’s theory. Kuhn diagnosed pre-Newtonian optics as “pre-paradigmatic” because Newton’s work was easily adopted rather than the subject of a contentious revolution, but Gross argues that Newton’s work was revolutionary, but simply not recognized as such. Gross writes, “Historical continuity and discontinuity are not discovered; they are invented by rhetorical means to suit particular persuasive purposes” (p. 13).

McCloskey applies a similar method to Gross’s to the contemporary field of economics. Drawing from a variety of examples of prominent theories and arguments in economics, e.g. the “Keynesian revolution,” she demonstrates that economists do not actually use the strict positivist methods they claim (McCloskey). Instead, she argues, they often use metaphors and other literary devices to argue (McCloskey). And yet the unwillingness to recognize these methods leads to problematic methods-based criticism that stalls conversations and to unnecessarily ineffective teaching and research practices (McCloskey). McCloskey also specifically refutes the argument that modernist positivist science is a useful, if ultimately unachievable, ideal; she posits instead that the recommendations of positivist science are not just unachievable, but illogical (McCloskey pp. 487-488, 510). “The literal application of modernist methodology,” she writes, “cannot give a useful economics” (McCloskey p. 488).

A resulting epistemological question raised in several of these articles is what standard of judgment should replace positivist scientific principles in making judgments of science if a constructivist ROI is adopted. Lyne argues for the importance of negotiated judgments of scientific work that are openly positioned in a paradigm; he argues against analysis that “presuppose[s] fixed standards” (p. 70). McCloskey, similarly, emphasizes the discursive character of actual economic judgments, writing “The invitation to rhetoric … is not an invitation to irrationality in argument. Quite the contrary. It is an invitation to leave the irrationality of an artificially narrowed range of arguments and to move to the rationality of arguing like human beings” (p. 509). Later, she adds, “One cannot tell whether an assertion is persuasive by knowing at which portion of the scientific/humanistic circle it came from. One can only tell whether it is persuasive only by thinking about it” (McCloskey p. 511). In true constructivist fashion, these authors emphasize negotiated, contextually bound judgments of truth as alternatives to supposedly-objective criteria.

ROI Methods

ROI is fundamentally empirical: it “examine[s] rhetoric within actual practices, academic or otherwise” (Newton, Megill, & McCloskey, p. 15). More specifically, ROI focuses on extant texts from the academic fields being studied; Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey state that “rhetoric of inquiry begins with texts. It is literary,” even though it is applied outside the boundaries of literary studies (p. 14). The rhetorical methods that can be applied to those texts vary widely, however, ranging from traditional analyses of persuasion like Gross’s to Foucauldian critical theory (Newton, Megill, & McCloskey). We see this demonstrated in both Gross and McCloskey’s work, which can be read not only as arguments for the constructed nature of science but also as examples of the application of varied methods of ROI, including theorizing and rhetorical analysis of primary texts.

A related question also raised in several of these pieces is that of the relationship between ROI and academic disciplines. One dimension of this question focuses on its place within academic organizational charts: do ROI scholars live within science departments, or is ROI a field unto itself (Lyne, p. 72)? Also relevant is the question of the relationship theory from ROI could or ought to have to the day-to-day work of scientists. McCloskey argues in her piece that ROI and constructivist views of science have been largely ignored by practicing economists, to their detriment (p. 485). If economists accepted the essentially rhetorical nature of their field, she argues, the benefits for the field would be far-reaching, including better writing and teaching, improved interdisciplinary communication, increased scholarly politeness, and greater overall research success (McCloskey pp. 512-514).

Defining Rhetoric for ROI

The most obvious interpretation of rhetoric in ROI is rhetoric as a hermeneutic, a definition that all three authors touch on. This is the definition that Newton, Megill, & McCloskey endorse when they write that “rhetoric of inquiry begins with texts. It is literary” (p. 14). However, other definitions of rhetoric are also at play in these texts. Gross performs a fairly traditional analysis of the persuasive strategies used in two texts, an approach that fits the narrowest definition of rhetoric we’ve discussed in this course (rhetoric as “the good man speaking well”). On the other end of the spectrum, these demonstrations of the rhetoricity of science also invite a more radical and broad-reaching critique of the supposed “objectivity of science” – not just noting that persuasion is used inevitably in scientific texts, but also that those texts (and even individual scientists’ understanding of the world) are necessarily rhetorical because they are linguistically constituted.

Lyne explores the various definitions of rhetoric at play in ROI most explicitly, arguing that there are five different conceptions of “academic rhetoric”:

  1. “Rhetoric as argument,” i.e. rhetoric as the practices of scientific persuasion that can be identified in scientific texts and used by scientists to persuade more effectively (Lyne pp. 66-67).
  2. “Rhetoric as socializing discourse,” i.e. the shared argumentative strategies and jargon that unite and define a disciplinary discourse community (Lyne pp. 67-69).
  3. “Rhetoric as configuration,” or “the ways academics mount their knowledge claims on figurative scaffolding.” Here, Lyne collapses the distinction between literature and “reality,” emphasizing their shared narrative constitution. Rhetoric, on this definition, is the shared “narrative and imagistic structure” that binds a discourse community (Lyne p. 69). (This is also notably similar to Kuhn’s understanding of a paradigm.)
  4. “Rhetoric as critical practice,” a way of “demand[ing] … accountability” from sciences otherwise content to deal in myths of objectivity and, most damagingly, ignore the impact that hegemonic social structures have on science, especially when their potential influence is ignored (Lyne p. 70).
  5. “Rhetoric as means of empowerment” (and disempowerment) – something that can be used or manipulated to the benefit or detriment of those affected by the rhetoric (Lyne p. 71).

The broad and multiplicitous definitions of rhetoric laid out by authors like Lyne and employed in work like McCloskey’s became a site of criticism of work on ROI shortly after these pieces were published. Perhaps most famously, Gaonkar argued that ROI construed the definition of rhetoric too broadly, moving (problematically, in his mind) away from the Aristotelian tradition and being transmuted too easily into postmodern theory. He variously describes the contemporary use of rhetoric, including in ROI, as “careless,” lacking intellectual rigor, and even “promiscuous” – though, he acknowledges, it is also “a culturally significant phenomenon” (Gaonkar p. 38). Gaonkar’s work spurred an incarnation of the Big Rhetoric/Little Rhetoric debate which struggled over the question of rhetoric’s scope in light of ROI’s expansion of the field of rhetorical objects to include basically all scientific work (Schiappa p. 270, McCloskey “Big”).


Gross, A.G. “On the Shoulders of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field.”

Quarterly Journal of Speech 74:1 (1988), pp. 1-17.

Hempel, C. Philosophy of Natural Science. Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962.

Lyne, J. “Rhetorics of Inquiry.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 71 (1985), pp. 65-73.

Gross, A.G. “On the Shoulders of Giants: Seventeenth-Century Optics as an Argument Field.”

McCloskey, D.N. “The Rhetoric of Economics.” Journal of Economic Literature XXI (1983), pp.


Nelson, J.S., A. Megill, & D.N. McCloskey. “Rhetoric of Inquiry.” In Rhetoric of the Human

Sciences, pp. 3-18.

Popper, K. The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Invention and Interpretation in the Age of Science. Eds. A.G. Gross &

W.M. Keith. SUNY Press, 1996.  (Includes Goankar, D.P. “The Idea of Rhetoric in the

Rhetoric of Science,” and McCloskey, D., “Big Rhetoric, Little Rhetoric: Gaonkar on the Rhetoric of Science.”)

“Rhetoric of the Human Sciences” series through University of Wisconsin Press. Eds. D.N.

McCloskey & J.S. Nelson. See

Schiappa, E. “Second Thoughts on the Critiques of Big Rhetoric.” In Philosophy and Rhetoric

34:3 (2001), pp. 260-274.

WAC Clearinghouse. “What is Writing in the Disciplines?”

Part 2: Foundations in the Rhetoric of Science, Technology, Health and Medicine

Atilla Hallsby

The readings gathered in this section by Solomon, Gaonkar, and Ceccarelli seek to illustrate two major points. First, that the work of the rhetoric of science has aligned and continues to align with the criticism of racist or authoritarian speech, taking as a primary focus the scientific writing which allows such hegemonic perspectives to take root in plain sight, or with the approval of a public sufficiently distance from dehumanization through the medium of rhetoric. Solomon is exemplary in this regard because her analysis of the Tuskeegee report (more correctly, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male”) employs a Burkean dramatistic vocabulary in order to leverage a powerful indictment of the neutrality of scientific discourse as well as the ways that it has been used in the United States to mask the harm of an institutionally authorized eugenics program targeting Black men.

Key Terms

A few terms deserve attention that come out of Solomon’s work. These include ...

  1. The Principle of Discontinuity” is a pattern of distancing oneself from others using speech by highlighting differences. In Solomon’s words, this principle is evident given that “the reports encouraged readers to dissociate themselves from the subjects by highlighting the differences between the two groups and by dehumanizing the men involved.” (234)
  2. Dramatism. According to Burke, we read and understand the world rhetorically, that is, through the frame of reference of the narratives and theatrics with which we are familiar. It’s not that “art (or theater) imitates life” or even the reverse. Instead, Burke is of the opinion that we process communicative phenomena through a restricted set of categories that he likens to a stage-act, which consists of a scene, actors/agents, and agency.
  3. Scene describes where the action is happening. If medical reports are using the Tuskeegee patients as the “scene” where their results may be found or witnessed, making these victims a passive ‘scene’ also requires avoiding emotionally connotative language (p.238) and the use of the “host” metaphor to describe victims.
  4. Actors/Agents are the ones doing ‘the doing.’ In other words, actors are active in the scene and make some sort of change. In Solomon’s article, the agents/actors are both the disease, which is ‘active’ relative to the patients’ ‘passive’ bodies.
  5. Agency is understood as “the capacity to act” or the ability to make some kind of change.  Solomon is bearing witness to the agency exercised by medical documents that actively dehumanized the Tuskegee patients. Although it may seem evident that the suffering patients are deprived of agency because they are made into the instruments through which the doctors achieve their purpose, Solomon claims that the patients are the agency, or that “the journal accounts [by the Tuskegee doctors] featured [them] as noble agents pursuing knowledge and the afflicted patients as their agency for gaining information.” Without these dehumanized patients, the doctors would have no capacity to act. As Solomon writes: “Agency is clear: the patients are the instruments or means through which the doctors achieve their purpose.” (p. 240)

Assembling a theoretical perspective inspired by Kenneth Burke, Solomon argued that the Tuskegee progress reports, printed in major medical journals from 1936 to 1973, functioned as “rhetoric of dehumanization” (p. 231). Claiming this as a feature of scientific writing writ large, Solomon condemned the dehumanizing characteristics of this prose (p. 241). Partly because the Tuskegee reports “avoided emotionally connotative language,” researchers and readers became passive observers dissociated from the afflicted men, which ultimately deflected attention from human suffering, racism, and the possibility of intervention (pp. 237-238, 244). The core rhetorical/Burkean claim is that doctors treated patients as the scene and as an agency while denying their role as ‘actors’ (or for that matter, humans). The scientific method encourages these distinctions and the investigation of their significance.

  1. Objectivity and detachment are desiderata (something wanted or needed).
  2. Science assumes knowledge as a primary value.
  3. The scientific approach is consistent across subject matter areas

The key point is that “these elements structure, constrain, and focus our perceptions,” and for the worse as much as for the better. “Inherently, then, the study’s avowed purpose of tracing the impact of syphilis on Black persons creates the basis for the dissociation between investigators and subjects. Instead of encouraging questions about the validity of racial stereotypes, the study implicitly justifies their significance. Science encourages the acquisition of knowledge to the point of becoming … a mechanism for encouraging racism.” (p.242)

The following passage from Solomon’s article describes the way that patients are made into the rhetorical “agencies” of the report, or into a mere instrument or vehicle for the pursuit of medical knowledge. I’ve selected this as an important moment in the article because of the difficulty of the term agency, relative to Solomon’s description of scene:

While [the] perspective of patients-as-agency is inherent in the nature of such a medical project, regarding human subject s as agencies tends also to dehumanize them in a most literal sense: "The shortening of life expectancy observed in man" has "a counterpart in the white mouse, in which animal it has been shown by Rosahn that a syphilitic group has a significantly lessened life expectancy" (Olansky et al., "Untreated Syphilis" 177). Although the attitude toward the patients as agencies is usually detached, occasionally a hint of condescension appears. A 1954 report, for instance, examining the possibility that environmental factors might be a confounding factor in the observed impact of syphilis, comments on the "nonchalant attitude of the patients toward calendars and time-reckonings." The description of their diet concludes "these men like relatively few dishes. As a rule they were interested only in meat (pork or chicken, never beef) and bread, and would select vegetables only upon the suggestion they do so" (Olansky et al., "Environmental Factors" 697). In a similar vein, the report in 1953 dealing with non-medical aspects of the study suggests the naivete and limited perspectives of the patients: "Incentives for maximum cooperation of the patients must be kept in mind . What appears to be a real incentive to an outsider's way of thinking may have little appeal for the patient. In our case, free hot meals meant more to the men than $50 worth of free medical examination." Significantly, the researchers also note that "because of the low educational status of the majority of the patients , it was impossible to appeal to them from a purely scientific approach" (Rivers et al. 394)

Agency is enacted in this case by making the patients into a ‘host,’ something active to the extent that it enabled Tuskegee medical doctors to discover new knowledge or document syphilis degeneration. Patients weren’t just where the disease took its course, they were also a means to an end, in which the end was (ostensibly) objective scientific knowledge. What Solomon points out is that this was achieved by dehumanizing the patients, who are compared to lab mice and are repeatedly characterized in explicitly racist terms. Scientists recognize that the patients are necessary for ‘the doing’ of the experiment, moreover, because they appeal to them at the level of their poverty, while ignoring the same social factors as contributing to their diet or overall wellness -- which are chalked up to race alone. Patients are the agency because they are made into the cogs for the experiment, which need upkeep, but are somehow undeserving of human emotions or care.

Language matters a great deal, and the way that deception appears in research can take many forms. The Black men who were enlisted for the study were repeatedly deceived into thinking that they were receiving treatment even when they were not, and were discouraged from pursuing other more effective treatments as part of their participation in the study. The dehumanizing language of scientific detachment and objectivity implicitly claims that whatever was witnessed in a study would have happened anyhow, with or without the intervention of the observer. That too, is a major issue -- scientists are never merely passive observers, but engaged participants whose rhetorical gestures has real-world impacts for the human subjects they study.

Reflecting on readings already completed in this seminar, we should hear the resonance between the work done by Solomon and that performed by Kelly Happe, or for that matter the research we will consider in the next section by Condit on “Race and Genetics from a Modal Material Perspective.” Rhetorical scholar John Lynch similarly has work to be released in 2020 on the way that racism and public memory work together to create a version of scientific progress that is cleansed of the choices that favor white supremacy, or at least construct versions of history that throw the commitments of the scientific community from whence eugenics programs originate into sharp relief. If there is a point of continuity between the early days of the rhetoric of science and today, it is perhaps captured by Alan Gross’s observation that rhetorical analysis pays necessary attention to a “moral order in the process of formation,” and that the critic’s role is to exercise judgment in addition to description. Solomon would likely value the recent rhetorical shift to rehumanization, what we claim is a new function and feature of pathos-laden popular science writing today. In the passage that closed her essay, Solomon (1985) rehabilitated emotion as central to a humane pursuit of scientific knowledge:

While all of us appreciate the importance of reason in human affairs, we also recognize the value of human emotion in tempering our behavior. Insistence on objectivity and detachment is a great asset in the pursuit of knowledge, but that stance reflects only one aspect of a broad spectrum of human concerns… If allegiance to objectivity and detachment blinds us to other values, it produces neither human behavior nor sound science. (p. 245)

The Limits of the Rhetoric of Science

A second major point is that there has historically been disagreement over what the proper limits of “the Rhetoric of Science” ought to be. The difference of opinion between Gaonkar and Ceccarelli is a clear example of this disagreement. Gaonkar argued that a historic separation between interpretation and performance is a key problem that rhetoricians of science had yet to grapple with it. As Gaonkar stated in his essay:

Our critical studies are sustained by the vocabulary of classical rhetoric, a vocabulary primarily fashioned for directing performance rather than facilitating understanding. The question remains unanswered as to whether this vocabulary of performance can be adequately translated into a vocabulary of interpretation. (32)

The move to define rhetoric “as a way of reading the endless discursive debris that surrounds us” demonstrated that rhetorical critics had been “seduced by the dream [of hermeneutics].” (25) By giving in to this seduction, the discipline had reduced itself to the study of social epistemology, and had sacrificed its claim to a substantive and discrete historical identity. He claims instead that “in RS literature one finds three basic recuperative strategies,” (the ‘communitarian,’ ‘epistemological,’ and ‘inventional’ p. 42) each of which stipulates the “rhetorical [as] invariably an effect of one’s reading rather than a quality intrinsic to what is being read.” (p.29) His major criticism is that

[The] case studies by Campbell, Gross, and Prelli, though fascinating on their own, neither endorse a revival of the classical model, nor authorize deglobalization, nor make a case (even a practical case) for conceptual precision. On the contrary, they put into question the humanist ideology that gives rise to such recommendations that are largely divorced from the actual practice of criticism. (49)

Gaonkar then presents three readings that illustrate how the different approaches to “the Rhetoric of Science” offer discontinuous and/or contradictory accounts of rhetoric, focusing primarily on the “inventional” category laid out above:

  1. “Campbell and the model of Intentional Persuasion.” (pp. 50-59) “The indelible mark that makes Campbell’s reading rhetorical is his absolute and sustained commitment to an agent-centered model of persuasion. (51) Campbell’s preferred explanation focuses on Darwin’s rhetorical labors, both textual and extratextual, that facilitated the rapid acceptance of evolutionism both by the scientific community and the educated public. … On Campbell’s account, the cultural grammer into which the Origin was interjected consisted of a complex interplay between science and religion.” (53) However, Campbell himself starts to dilute the intentional agency of Darwin when folding in a “constitutive” model of rhetoric, rather than the “strategic” model of persuasion that would center a single human agent’s inventional agency. (p.59) The point is that the “intentional” and the “intertextual” come into conflict, and thus muddy the waters on the subject of rhetorical ontology (what rhetoric is) in the essay.
  2. “Gross and the Neo-Aristotelian RS.” (pp. 60-65) Gross “insists on taking Aristotle’s Rhetoric as his master text. He accomplishes this maneuver by decontextualizing Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as the art of finding ‘in each case the existing means of persuasion.’ For Gross, this definition, which he regards as essentially sophistic in spirit, authorizes a global view of rhetoric. Further Gross believes that once science is shown to be susceptible to rhetorical analysis, the Aristotelian limits will simply wither away.” (60) However, Gaonkar takes issue with the continuity of the theory of rhetoric in Gross’s essay because “Gross is eclectic in the choice of his case studies … [and] … “is relatively promiscuous in drawing interpretive constructs from various sources -- speech act theory, Habermas’s “ideal speech situation,” Victor Turner on “social drama,” Propp on narrative, etc.” This leads Gaonkar to conclude that “Gross’s neo-Aristotelianism is a phantom; it does not exist. And his critical practice is unhampered by its absence.” (64)
  3. “Prelli and the Model of Topical Invention.” (pp. 65-75) Finally, Gaonkar critiques Lawrence Prelli’s A Rhetoric of Science (1989) on the basis that this work demonstrates how the author “is one of the most promiscuous users of the word rhetoric. Not content to give a topical analysis in a vocabulary that is already dense, Prelli saturates his reading with the word rhetoric and its two variants rhetorical and rhetor.” (71) The problem is at some level one of precision and differentiation. “Symbol using, symbol selecting, and rhetoric are analytically inseparable. If choosing among symbols is always rhetorical and if we are always choosing among symbols, rhetoric is unavoidable, but alas, also unspecifiable.” (72)

Against Gaonkar, Cecarelli claims that “none of [the] differences between scientific and public texts bars a rhetorical reading,” effectively authorizing a more ‘global’ attitude toward rhetoric while rebuking the indictment of ‘promiscuity’ as a mark of academic conservativism. As noted early in the essay, Ceccarelli responds to the idea “that scholarship in the subfield dangerously globalizes rhetorical theory” (p.315) by first summarizing Gaonkar’s argument that “to find the presence of rhetoric in all discourse genres, the theoretical vocabulary will have to be made so ‘thin’  that it will lose any disciplinary force.” (322) Then, Ceccarelli states that “a look at the literature of the subfield shows that the worst fears of critics are not realized in practice” and that “rhetoricians of science are not the only contemporary rhetorical scholars to enlarge the scope of the art.” (323) She then proposes  that critics “can recognize our unique ability to explain influence through the identification of important  microscopic features of texts, and we can affirm a non-hierarchical conception of theory that allows for a variety of insights to be linked in web-like fashion rather than force-fitted into a hierarchically arranged globalized system.” (323-324) Part and parcel of the latter approach is “to abandon any lingering scientistic attachment to the ‘strong version’ of theory, in which academic workers seek to develop a hierarchically unified conceptual scheme, and instead promote a more pragmatic and humanistic conception of theory.” (324)

Part 3: Network, Media, Modal-Materialist Perspectives

Stuart Deets

Bruno Latour, “CRISIS” and “CONSTITUTION” in We Have Never Been Modern, 1-48.

Peter Galison, “Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time,” Critical Inquiry 26 (2000): 355-89.

Celeste M. Condit, “Race and Genetics from a Modal Materialist Perspective,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94 (2008), 383-406.


All of the readings this week focused on networks, media, and at least a little bit, science. By selecting the network as the site of analysis, we take a different tack than assemblage theory. What’s at stake in that move? Networks insist that agency is entirely mediated, and brought about through relations. They are also more concrete and maybe easier to write about and capture. And according to at least one source, they have a stronger relationship to politics. There are politics, and ontological politics (cosmopolitics) that recognizes the networks of forces that are constantly drawing together and becoming more powerful.

Peter Galison, “Einstein’s Clocks: The Place of Time,” Critical Inquiry 26 (2000): 355-89.

Galison examines Einstein’s work in the wake of a two networks:

  1. Network theory
  2. The proposed network of clocks that would unite the world in one time.

The problem that Einstein’s paper examines is “distant simultaneity,” in which, for instance, a train arrives at 7 PM, and his watch also reads 7 PM. “Two events judged simultaneous with respect to one origin will not be simultaneous if the origin is moved,” writes Galison, and then he moves to a consideration of the networks of clocks in early 20th century Germany and Austria. Essentially, every place and town had its own time, which was fine, but the advent of the railroad and train times made some kind of standardized time essential. The military is invoked by the Prussians in an attempt to force standardization. Different networks are all drawing together around the object of organized and standardized time. Enter the work of patent Einstein, who all day would look at patents and think like patents, and such events as the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the International Congress on Chronometry, which are all drawing together different agents into a network. The final frontier of measurement, however, remained unbreached.

Indeed, as standardization spread through the place where Einstein lived, order became literally visible. “Time coordination arcane subject; it was front and center for the clock industry, the military, and the railroad as well as a symbol of the interconnected, sped up world of modernity.” Standardized time could not only be put in the clock towers of churches, but could be sent out to ships at sea.

The “clock coordination system, introduced by Einstein was, in a nontrivial sense, a world-machine, a vast, at first only imagined network of clocks.” It is, a network, drawing together agents to become more powerful. But it is a network without a center, only an infinite grid of time and space. By removing Berlin from the center, Einstein “upends metaphysical centrality.” Galison argues that by exploring the “material culture” of clocks, we can look down, towards clocks, in order to “look up” to questions of power, politics, “empire, metaphysics and civil society.”

Bruno Latour, “CRISIS” and “CONSTITUTION” in We Have Never Been Modern, 1-48.

Latour opens by considering a newspaper, which holds within in a gordian knot of problems on every page. “Heads of state, chemists, biologists, desperate patients, and industrialists” for example cannot find solutions, and are caught up in binds that they cannot seem to escape. Hybrids are everywhere, between politics, science, economy, law, technology, fiction… For Latour, he contends that too often, we segment things into politics, nature, or discourse, when they often cross all three. He believes that rhetoricians do rhetorical things, and political actors will do political things, and on. Latour argues for “a delicate shuttle” that might weave together disparate actors.

He goes on to look at the ozone layer. He acknowledges that “scientific facts are indeed constructed, but they cannot be reduced to the social dimension because this dimension is populated by objects mobilized to construct it. But what he is really interested in is modernity.

To be modern is to “designate a break in the regular passage of time, and it designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished.” Latour is really proposing a cosmopolitics, a moving of heaven and earth. He contends that modernity contains two different practices, translation and purification. Translation makes mixtures, hybrids, of nature and culture. Purification separates--humans on one side, and nonhumans on the other side. Translation has to do with networks, and purifications with the modern critical stance. Now is a time in which these things are becoming mixed up, and translation and purification are not considered separately. Latour’s solution is a different kind of democracy, which will require slowing down, reorientation, and regulation of the monsters.

Latour says that scientists consistently forget about political power, and have continued to deny the existence of hybrids and their role while constantly multiplying them.

Latour then moves to a long discussion of Boyle and Hobbes, and their interrelated metaphysics, rhetoric, and politics. The key insight here is the focus on actors and networks. Rather than focusing on the humans, Latour focuses on the key contributions of the air pump. Without the technology, the ‘Big Science’ Boyle would not have been believed. Without the witnesses, the reputable witnesses (see rhetoric, and who counts as a reputable witness or speaker). As Latour writes “We know the nature of the facts because we have developed them in circumstances that are under complete control.” We have become gods through the network. “Our weakness has become a strength, provided that we limit knowledge to the instrumentalized nature of the facts and leave aside the interpretation of causes.” It is through the network of Boyle, witnesses, and the material facts of the tubes that we can know things.

Who carries authority in the world of science? For Boyle, it is laboratory experiments. And yet, it is always socially produced--and mediated--by actors. “Inert bodies, incapable of will and bias but capable of showing, signing, writing, and scribbling on laboratory instruments before trustworthy instruments.” Inanimate objects become rhetorical objects.

Latour asks how does something become universal then? Such as Boyle’s Law? And he answers that it never does. The network simply extends and begins drawing in disparate objects together, such as university physics departments and industrial machines. Boyle’s weighing of air creates a universal in a network, rather than a universal. It spreads at the rate that the community (network) of experimenters can develop. In essence, Boyle and his followers (all of us) do not only discover the laws of nature--the fabricate them as well. This is an important distinction to make, similar to the idea of the universal in a network. The facts escape all human fabrication (purification), but they are also artificially constructed in the lab (translation).

Latour then concludes by examining the different ways that society has attempted to handle excesses in the different processes (for example he identifies a second Enlightenment in the 19th century that separates ideology from science even further).

Celeste M. Condit, “Race and Genetics from a Modal Materialist Perspective,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 94 (2008), 383-406.

Condit’s article examines the rhetorics around an article that was published in the journal Science and later written up in the New York Times. In response she posits a “modal form of materialism as an alternative to prevailing models of knowledge predicated on idealism or on existing forms of materialism.” Her argument here is that “it was not a set of facts about the genetics of intelligence of different racialized bodies that drove publications” but “rather a rhetoric of science that failed to take account of the material effects of embodied discursive matter.”

Condit defines idealism as a set of beliefs that “the real of ultimately causative forces in the universe are “ideas” that stand outside the world of physical matter and appearance.” Research can attempt to discover and language can try to convey these facts about the world. Conversely, we can conceive of the world as a materialist might, in which the world is characterized as material “rather than merely representational of mental and empirical phenomena.”

“Media matter, and human bodies are a medium with specific properties that drive and shape discourse both in the moment and through time.” Condit, rather than inventing her own terms, would rather rework and rearticulate what terms mean, both conscious and subconscious.

She contends that without bodies “driven by such specific interests and desires” such as racism [(economic and social and otherwise)], “would not have appeared in Science…” Drawing on Marxist ideas, believes that “bodies are the kinds of things that are moved by interests.” Modal materialism adds to this, since it can identify the character and influence that arise when different forces come together, in this case, racism, science, and publishing, among others. It is a redefining of the “practice of science in light of an understanding of the fuller complexities of human being…”

Condit notes that scientists can be sloppy in their word choice and their rhetorics, employing different definitions of terms in their studies of different racial groups in regards to their genetics, complicating matters. She claims that Lahn (the scientist in question) did not merely spread the past discourses of race, but rather created new ones that privileged his body, whether he intended to or not. In other words, this science created a cosmopolitics that went unregarded in scientific discourse, but not unregarded in other discourses. Specifically, the NYT was even more sloppy in its use of terms, and framed the evidence as politically controversial. Drawing on other scholars, she claims that the writer’s decision to amplify this particular scientific discourse was a motivated act.

Condit then explores the specific errors committed in the data analyzed by Lahn and reported by Wade, claiming that she does not deny that there are patterns of genetic data that exist in the world, while also claiming that the 5 populations vocabulary is not fit to use scientifically. But Lahn’s claims are not just ideas, they also participate in discourse, and are activated by different social parties.

Science then made a rhetorical move in which they simultaneously published a refutation of the previous article while attempting to defend their own institution, which published the original article. They did so by invoking the human actor (Lahn), on a “solitary quest to battle ignorance and politics.” This is a kind of discourse, a rhetorical move, for Condit. In essence, they “aligned science with the material world of things and placed “discourse,” especially discourse as method, with the immaterial.”

Connections between the texts and centering rhetoric

Each of these different texts engages with rhetoric in different ways. Rhetoric is never centered, but is usually glanced off of. All three engage with cosmopolitics, with materialistic discourses, and with science. For Galison, rhetoric is a force that organizes, such as the Prussian military officer that implores the government to standardize the time. He makes arguments about the way that the world should be, and imposes an order onto it, which in this case is standardized time. But the network also functions to impose an order, and a rhetoric; the railroads require a standardized time, and they persuade it into being, through networks of funding, of desire. Networks, for Latour, desire to draw objects into themselves and become stronger. They persuade objects to join them, and thus might move rhetorically and materially. For Latour’s analysis of Boyle, scientific facts are rhetorically produced in many ways--they are not only produced socially, but through the act of witnessing, through complicated ways of drawing together, through persuasion. But they are not only rhetorically produced, because it is always a universal in a network, and the universe is not only socially and rhetorically produced, but also real.

What are the rhetorical objects, however? For Galison, I would argue they are:

  1. Speeches made by different people
  2. The writings of Einstein
  3. The networks proposed and real

For Latour, I would argue:

  1. It is modernity
  2. Science
  3. The writings of Boyle and Hobbes

And for Condit, rhetoric is in the decisions that are made in publication:

  1. Whether things are published
  2. How they are published (are they featured, are there photos, how is the article arranged)

But rhetoric also works in the discourse, persuading researchers, creating words and their definitions:

  1. The definitions of population and people
  2. The publishing houses as institutions

By using that modal materialist lens, she is able to see not only rhetorics but also reality and attempt to understand how the two functions together. She does not deny the material world but is probably influenced by how Latour conceives of both reality and reality which is produced.

Discussion Questions:

  • How would a modal materialist deal with or write about something like the anti-vaxx movement?
  • What is the usefulness of network theory vs. assemblage theory?
  • Is rhetoric useful for network theory or is it only useful as one of a variety of disciplines used?

Matter 2 - Dialectical Materialism and Technologies of Power

Part 1: Foundations of Dialectical Materialism

Presentation by Austin Fleming

  • Alexandre Kojève, “In Place of an Introduction,” in Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 3-30.
  • Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 3. Dirk J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959)
  • Karl Marx, “Wage, Labor, Capital,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 167-190.
  • Karl Marx, Selections from The German Ideology, 29-34.
  • Michael Calvin McGee, “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric,” in Rhetoric, Materiality, and Politics, eds. Barbara A. Biesecker and John Louis Lucaites, (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010), 17-42.

Introduction/Connecting the Readings

This section of readings can be understood as providing the foundations for materialist conceptions of rhetoric. As such, I begin with Kojève and Marx readings, which highlight the tension between Hegelian idealism and materialism, before moving to McGee who situates this tension in the field of rhetoric.

Alexandre Kojève, “In Place of an Introduction,” in Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 3-30.

Kojève’s work is compiled from a series of lectures in which he explicates Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I’ve tried to condense his view into its essence, particularly that to which Marx responds. I find it useful to start with this imagined scenario:

The ‘first’ man who meets another man for the first time already attributes an autonomous, absolute reality and an autonomous, value to himself: we can say that he believes himself to be a man, that he has the ‘subjective certainty’ of being a man. But his certainty is not yet knowledge. The value that he attributes to himself could be illusory; the idea that he has of himself could be false or mad. For that idea to be a truth, it must reveal an objective reality—i.e., an entity that is valid and exists not only for itself, but also for realities other than itself.” (11)

Kojève here imagines two almost primitive humans meeting for the first time, and from this interaction extrapolates the ways in which individuals come to understand themselves in the ontology of idealism.

These two imagined individuals gain a sense of self as they understand the other as a distinct entity in relation to themselves. They then enter a metaphorical battle to the death as they struggle for recognition as humans with one another. However, in order to recognize the other as human, one must recognize that the other individual is seeking the same recognition: to be seen as human. In order to avoid death, one must capitulate to the other, occupying a lesser position as Slave to their opponent, the Master.

The individual as Slave continues to desire recognition, and fights for freedom. The experience of this fight is one of transcendence for the Slave. In working for freedom, the Slave comes to know what it is to be both free and not free, a complete knowledge that the Master can never attain. The Master never has to struggle to fulfill his desires, and therefore never actually fulfills them.

Through work humans achieve transcendence, by understanding both what they are, and are not. They are not nature, for they have transformed it through work, and they have a true understanding of their subjective reality. An implication here is that reality is only understood subjectively, and therefore resides in human consciousness. The physical world becomes a negative entity, that which humans are not. Consciousness mediates reality, and all of the world is experienced subjectively through the individual.

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 3. Dirk J. Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959); “Wage, Labor, Capital,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 167-190; Selections from The German Ideology, 29-34.

This selection of readings can be understood as a response to Hegelian idealism, and provides a foundation for the Marxist idea of historical 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.

In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884, Marx, in contrast to Kojève, posits labor not as liberating but a source of estrangement. This logic of estrangement is rooted in political economy, more specifically a labor theory of value. Under capitalism’s 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.” Thus, in this way work does not help an individual come to understand the world, and their place in it, but actually obscures 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). To illustrate this point, Marx discusses three epochs, or divisions of labor and forms of property: tribal, ancient, and feudal. In each given epoch, the means of production, or economic relationships in which individuals work for subsistence, dictates social relationships as well, be it kinship, serfdom or slavery.

Michael Calvin McGee, “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric,” in Rhetoric, Materiality, and Politics, eds. Barbara A. Biesecker and John Louis Lucaites, (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010), 17-42.

McGee brings the idealism/materialism debate to rhetoric, arguing that idealism has dominated the field, and as a result has become a set of prescriptive principles rooted in philosophy, rather than observation of rhetoric in action. As a solution, McGee proposes a matereialist theory of rhetoric which “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” (18-19).

Rhetoricians have become more interested in perfecting speeches for some flaw of morality or effectivity, rather than describing how rhetoric functions based on observation. McGee argues: “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” (22).

Rhetoric, when rooted in idealism, views communication as something to be perfected through consciousness. That is to say, culture or society can be improved by improving communication. Drawing from Marx, however, McGee argues that communication, or rhetoric, is shaped by the existing relationships between humans which stem from the material conditions which shape those relationships. He therefore identifies three levels at which rhetoric operates: the microrhetorical experience, in which concrete individuals interact with one another, the sociorhetorical experience which is mediated by public-facing roles, and the macrorhetorical experience, in which institutions communicate through representation, ultimately trying to express the will of “the people.”

It is important to note the conversation to which McGee is contributing, that is one of rhetoric as addressivity and persuasion. As such, McGee grounds the vocabulary of rhetoric in speaker/speech/audience/occasion/change. Such terms lose their effectivity in idealism he argues, as they are understood as discrete parts that may severed and privileged, masking 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. This three-dimensionsal shape 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 leaves us with a definition of rhetoric, describing it 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). Perhaps the most salient implication for this definition is the relationship between exigency, discourse, and rhetoric. McGee is critical of Bitzer, who is right to suggest the necessity of analyzing exigency, but fails to provide the means to actually account for it, he can only presuppose 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. To account for exigency requires placing it in the context of larger discourses, not merely pressing political events.

McGee employs the metaphor of a nuclear explosion to illustrate the relationship between rhetoric and discourse (think Sum of All Fears), 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 in a master category above discourse, for there is no discourse which cannot operate as a speech in a material rhetoric (32), discourses merely take on the quality of rhetorical.

McGee asks us to rethink the field of rhetoric from the ground up, using Marx’s historical materialism as a guide. In doing so, rhetoric may abandon its idealistic roots, and account for the means of production which dictate the social relationships that shape communication. As we’ll see with this week’s remaining readings, this project has been taken up, and developed by others.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the relationship between rhetoric and discourse?
  • McGee, like a lot materialists, is dismissive of “traditional conceptions of rhetoric” without being very clear what those are. If we had to chart this course from most idealist to most materialist, what might that look like?
  • What is practical discourse? How do we make distinctions between types of discourses?
  • If rhetoric becomes more focused on how discourse functions will it eventually meld with the social sciences?

Related Readings

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.

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

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.

Part 2: Althusser’s Paradigm

Ryan Wold

WRIT 5776, Spring 2019

  • Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127-186.
  • Stuart Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2 (1985): 91-114.
  • Maurice Charland,Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 133-150.


In this set of articles YOU are introduced to the concept of interpellation and why it is significant for rhetorical theory. Interpellation plays a role in perpetuating dominant ideologies, but it can also be a tool for tracing back the origins of those ideologies and defining the limits of their influence.

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 127-186.

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). Focusing on capitalists societies of his time 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 in America, 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 Apparatuses 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.

Through ideology individuals become subject to the state. Althusser develops the concept of interpellation to explain this phenomenon. He describes interpellation as the process of being subjected. He uses 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. This example of interpellation taking place on the street is just metaphorical. The actual interpellation takes place in ideology. Althusser wrote, “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects” (p. 171). When a student identifies with the ‘you’ that wants to get an education in order to get a good job that student then becomes a subject.

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). He uses the example of Christianity to demonstrate how the mirror like structure facilitates subjection. Humans are created in God’s image, so they see themselves in God. God incarnates in the form of Jesus, so God sees himself in the human form.

Within the sports industrial complex you can see this mirror like structure in action. Some little kids are lucky to get to hold the hand of a soccer player during the national anthem. This reproduces patriotism, the desire to play sports, buy Nike cleats, and eat McDonalds in both the kids, players, and the club’s marketing marketing team that orchestrates the spectacle.

Stuart Hall, “Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 2 (1985): 91-114.

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. 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).

Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 133-150.

Charland relies on Burke’s concept of identification to demonstrate the rhetorical significance of 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.

To explore this issue he focuses on the case of the Québécois independence movement. In this movement residents of the Canadien province of Quebec wanted Quebec recognized as an independent nation. Charland evaluates the materials circulated in favor of this movement and explains that the movement centered around the word Québécois. This word referred to a ‘people’ of Quebec. Charland argued that the persuasive techniques used in the white papers explaining why the Québécois should have independence were secondary to the word Québécois. If people believed that there were a Québécois people then necessarily they would need to have a country, because the definition of Québécois said so. 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 extrarhetorical” (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?)

The power of 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.

Connecting the Readings

Each of the readings recognizes the significance of the concept of interpellation. Althusser cites the subjugation that happens to a baby that is still in the womb to claim that everyone is always already interpellated. Hall agrees that much interpellation takes place outside of the an individuals control and much of it happens prior to a person’s birth however he notes the importance of not accepting interpellation as an ‘always and already’ concept. He reminds us that the meaning of the terms used for interpellation (in his case black, brown, and colored) have a specific, historic origin. Recognizing that and discussing the nature of that origin creates the grounds for ideological struggle. This leads to Hall’s conclusion that ideology does not necessarily reproduce the conditions for the ruling class to dominate. Ideology can also be used to mark the boundaries of the ruling class’ domination and to change the practice as well. Charland’s treatment of the Québécois case also provides an example that interpellation need not be ‘always already’. Charland and Hall showed examples of specific ideologies that had origin points, but they could not show that there was ever a point where interpellating was not taking place. Trying to imagine a time prior to interpellation is like trying to imagine a time prior to language or narrative. We are too enmeshed in the current conditions to have the capacity to imagine what a state of being would be like.

Each of the authors demonstrate the material nature of discourse and rhetoric. For Althusser all ideology is material and all practice is ideological. Each action a person makes reveals an ideology. Hall and Charland were not as willing to accept that ideas could not exist separate from practice yet they demonstrated that there were material repercussions resulting from interpellation. For Hall it was the treatment of black Jamaicans. The ideological struggle about the word black had a material effect in the treatment of the people called black and to many other material changes such as the popularity of Bob Marley posters in the dorms of white college students in rural Minnesota. For hall the material effect of failed interpellation resulted in Quebec remaining a province of Canada.

Centering Rhetoric

These articles together create an important way for rhetoricians to think about audience. The concept of interpellation shows that the creation of an audience is significant as it demonstrates one’s subjectivity to the state (or insert your capital S subjector of choice). Charland explains why this concept should be considered rhetorical, “Interpellation has a significance to rhetoric, for the acknowledgement of an address entails an acceptance of an imputed self-understanding which can form the basis for an appeal.” (p. 138). This leads rhetoricians to move beyond thinking of audiences as a transcendent given. It encourages us to adopt Burke’s notion of identification as being primary to rhetoric and preceding the presence of persuasion. The process of interpellation is where the action really happens.

These articles also remind us how the narrative structure of the interpellation process has material consequences for the physical world. Althusser’s essay is a mainstay in the works cited list of material rhetoricians. Rhetoricians can use these articles to think critically and challenge the way audiences are interpellated within the educational institution we work and study and new and emerging technologies. (I’m thinking of the mandatory meet and greet with TCF Bank representatives in order to get a U Card and the TV screens that begin hailing me as soon as I begin pumping gas in my car.) The Hall essay reminds us that these interpellations can be challenged through ideological struggle and this leads to changes in society even though Althusser suggest it may not ever be possible to escape the interpellative hail.

Discussion Questions

  • How does this class contribute to the reproduction of the conditions for production?
  • What interpellative hails do you respond to by advancing in the academic world?
  • What are we to make of Althusser’s life story, particularly his insanity and his strangling his wife to death, are these incidents that exist independently of his work, are they the result of his intellectual dismantling of the social conditions in which he lived, should we still read his work?

Additional Readings

  • Ronald Greene, “Another Materialist Rhetoric,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 15 (1998): 21-40).
  • Judith Butler, “Bodies that matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex,” Routledge Press. London, England. 2011.
  • Charles Alan Taylor, “Defining Science: A Rhetoric of Demarcation,” University of Wisconsin Press. Madison, WI. 1996

Part 3: The Dialectical-Materialist Turn in Rhetoric

Katlynne Davis

WRIT 5776, Spring 2019


  • Michael Calvin McGee, “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 66 (1980): 1-16.
  • Ronald Walter Greene, “Another Materialist Rhetoric,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15 (1998): 21-41.
  • Dana L. Cloud, “Beyond Evil: Understanding Power Materially and Rhetorically,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 6 (2003): 531-538.
  • Matthew May, “Spinoza and Class Struggle,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6 (2009): 204-208.


Together, McGee, Greene, Cloud, and May position rhetorical criticism in relationship to conversations about dialectical materialism. This dialectical-materialist framework traditionally refers back to Marxist theory, which holds that conflict and power are connected to the material conditions in a society. In each of these pieces, the material, as lived experience, is important for understanding rhetorical power. However, a few of these authors also represent a turn away from binaries present in dialectic by arguing that critics should view rhetoric as distributed and articulated across institutional structures.

Michael Calvin McGee, “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 66 (1980): 1-16.

McGee addresses problems involving ideology’s usage in rhetorical studies to describe political influence on mass consciousness. He argues that in turning to the “philosophy of myth” or using “ideology” in simplistic ways, rhetorical scholars have not accounted for the ways in which collectivity affects human thought and behavior. McGee explains how various rhetorical approaches (Marxists, symbolists, and materialists) view this issue, arguing that despite these differences, no approach is in the wrong. Instead, the real problem occurs when scholars maintain that “myth” and “ideology” are conflicting ideas.

McGee argues that how symbolism accounts for the affect the nonmaterial has on social reality is unclear. Symbolism should be “supplemental” to not separate from our understanding of political consciousness. In order for us to understand persuasion at this scale, scholars need to develop a model that brings together “ideology” and “myth” -- this model would not reject the idea that individuals have the potential to control power through symbol-use, nor would 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).

In opposition to Marx’s overly deterministic claims about ideological power, McGee writes that the only way to diminish power as it’s being used is through prior persuasion (before an act takes place). This “social control” is an a priori control over consciousness. 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 them ideographs. They have an inherent force that signal certain accepted propositions to all members of a community. Additionally, ideographs are not invented, but rather become part of people’s real lives as “agents of political consciousness” (p. 7). McGee’s continued explanation of ideographs revolves around their use within language. The usage of ideographs both unites and divides nations because they are a definitive part of the social and material conditions into which various individuals are born -- one community will have accepted a set of ideographs that differs from others. Furthermore, while ideographs represent a usage that is social and material, they 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. But the true quote was unimportant here because Wirt was concerned with defining the ideograph of liberty so that it would act as a precedent in the future for judgments.

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.    

Ronald Walter Greene, “Another Materialist Rhetoric”

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 in which 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.

Greene explores how rhetorical critics have constructed a materialist rhetoric. He critiques McGee’s work on materialism, explaining that McGee’s understanding is centered around a persuasion-focused theory of rhetoric that sees rhetorical effectivity through a logic of influence -- this influence is problematic because in viewing speech as mediation, it 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 constructs rhetoric as the 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 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.

Greene analyzes McGee’s concept of fragmentation in order to further his focus on 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).

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).

Dana Cloud, “Beyond Evil: Understanding Power Materially and Rhetorically”

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.

Matthew S. 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.  

Centering Rhetoric & Connections

Throughout the readings, the following conceptions of rhetoric stood out to me:

Binaries & Articulations of Power

Each of these readings is clearly concerned with how rhetoric’s role as an exercise of power, and how we as critics should understand how that power is enacted. On the one hand, rhetoric is discussed as the activation of distributed power articulated in various ways across various institutions. Greene and May each take up this perspective -- Greene writes that articulation theory is a way for critics to move beyond rhetoric as representational of binary conceptions of power. These conceptions usually involve a ruling class that exerts power over the masses. In taking up this theory, critics miss the ways that power is productive, and how it is distributed materially across structures and within practices. Similarly, May’s rhetorical “strategy of refusal” is grounded in a conception of power that is connected to articulation. Labor power, like Spinoza’s discussion of bodies, exists when it is activated or enacted, meaning that for May, power is a productive rhetorical force made available, either more or less, through institutional structures.

However, McGee and Cloud both appear to be caught up in thinking about rhetorical power in binaries, or at least the language of binaries is prevalent in their work. For example, McGee’s whole discussion of ideographs is grounded in his claims about a diachronic “grammar” ideology and a synchronic “rhetorical” ideology -- these are supposed to be applied together, but still represent a binary. McGee also talks about a rhetoric of control that asserts power through ideographs, which have these binary elements. In the same way, Cloud’s arguments about power hinge on a binary between relativist and Marxist/Trotskyist modes of thought about yet another binary between good and evil. For Cloud, Power is used rhetorically in a way that I suspect Greene would critique as being part of a logic or politics of representation.  

Historical Context & Materialism

For each of these authors, rhetorical criticism involves some nod to rhetoric’s past uses, which also ends up being a nod to materiality, though in differing ways. This is especially the case with McGee and Cloud’s work. A big part of McGee’s arguments about ideographs is that they have a diachronic dimension that encourages critics to examine how past meanings constrain what an ideograph can mean presently. Contextualizing ideographs historically means recognizing how they are part of the material and social conditions that the public lives within. Cloud’s arguments are more explicitly situated in the historical -- she claims that in historically contextualizing rhetorical deployments of morality, critics can form opinions and take action, although it is unclear how she accounts for the moral obligations of the critic in doing this work.

Greene and May also point to the significance of historical context in regards to materialism, though perhaps less explicitly. In essence, Greene’s project is to provide a historical review of how critics have connected rhetoric to materialism. And part of Greene’s arguments about articulation involves “historicizing” the positions rhetorical practices occupy in institutions in order to better understand how rhetoric is used presently. May also looks to the past, to Spinoza and to Marx, to more securely connect rhetoric to the materiality of the body. Here, rhetoric is fundamentally material, as the working class body can activate power to wield some impact on capitalist structures.

Discussion Questions

  1. Cloud argues that contextualizing discourse politically, historically, and materially can help us avoid the inaction and cynicism of a relativist perspective. Do you agree with this? How do you see contextualization as helping you or others form morally-aware opinions?
  2. As I was reading these pieces, I was constantly thinking about how each author would describe rhetorical agency. How do you think each of these authors would conceive of agency? Are there differences or similarities between these discussions of agency and how assemblage theory talks about agency?  

Additional Readings

  • Dana L. Cloud, “"The Materiality of Discourse as Oxymoron: A Challenge to Critical Rhetoric," Western Journal of Communication 58 (1994): 141-63.
  • Lawrence Grossberg, We Gotta Get out of This Place, (London: Routledge, 1992).
  • Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777-795.
  • Ronald W. Greene, "Rhetoric and Capitalism: Rhetorical Agency as Communicative Labor," Philosophy and Rhetoric 37 (2004): 188-206.

Matter 3: The Body

Part 1: Theories of Corporeality

Jacqueline James

WRIT 5776, Spring 2019

  • Carole Blair, “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality,” in Rhetorical Bodies, 16-53.
  • Debra Hawhee, “Introduction: An “Excursion” and “Conclusion: Action in Motion” in Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language, 1-11; 156-168.
  • Annie Hill, “Breast Cancer’s Rhetoricity: Bodily Border Crisis and Bridge to Corporeal Solidarity,” Review of Communication 16 (2016): 281-298.

Hawhee, Blair, and Hill all present examples of ontology this week. Ontology is focused on creating theories of being, rather than theories of knowing (aka epistemology). These three pieces represent different approaches to conceptualizing bodies as primarily rhetorical entities. In all three, bodies are substantial—of the material world, experiencing haptic and temporal sensation—and inherently rhetorical. Hawhee removes bodies from canonical rhetorical discussion and invites us to question why and how bodies are rhetorical; she encourages us to think about the interaction of minds, bodies, and sensation on a spectrum basis rather than on a binary/pole basis. Hawhee’s perspective lives in shades of sensation and pushes beyond a simplistic understanding of Burke’s symbolic action/nonsymbolic motion paradigm. Beyond conceiving rhetoric as itself a material object, Blair is concerned with the ways our bodies move through space and made to feel or experience sensation by movement through space. Hill takes a new materialist approach to corporeality and attempts to sketch a new vision of criticism and activism, which she conceives as a more ethical and objective model for challenging hegemonic discourse/reality. All three of these readings are concerned with bodies; challenging binary ways of thinking about the relationship between bodies and symbol; and ways in which we can move beyond a reductive, static understanding of bodies as rhetorical entities.

Debra Hawhee, “Introduction: An “Excursion” and “Conclusion: Action in Motion” in Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language, 1-11; 156-168.

Main Argument: Burke’s work is transdisciplinary in that it attempts to articulate the relationship between bodies, language, and symbolic action more holistically than other “myopic” interdisciplinary approaches. Hawhee argues, with Burke’s work as her foundation, that bodies are the origin and site of all symbolic action, and that minds and bodies are not obverse but rather work in tandem, inextricably, to process, create, and interpret meaning. Hawhee asserts that moving should be incorporated into our understanding of traditional “offices” of rhetoric. Hawhee envisions rhetoric as a way of thinking that should value the physical, sensory elements of communication, rather than focusing on the reasoning and conscious thought that normally dominates the attention of rhetorical studies.

Author’s conception of the purpose of rhetorical criticism/analysis: Hawhee wants to temper and attenuate what she views as misreadings and harmful conceptions of the role of bodies and minds in meaning making. Hawhee broadens our understanding of what movement might be; she calls our attention Burke’s unit for analysis, “the smallest, concrete detail,”; and herself describes how brain waves and vibration constitute motion as much as walking about. In doing so, she opens up a space for us to consider the role of exchange. She offers Burke’s musing on the reactive air conditioner in a movie theater, which is attentive to the mood shifts of the audience, as an example of how our bodies have the capacity to “respond in the realms of motion and action.” What she values in Burke’s approach is his “transdisciplinary” vision of bodies, movement, and symbol. Through this mode of thought, Burke is able to synthesize a variety of opposing perspectives, from mysticism to endocrinology. This is important to Hawhee because it is a form of analysis and theory that is more attuned to the materiality and temporality of human experience. Transdisciplinary approaches offer a way to reframe an incorporate methods and modes of analysis from outside our own realm of comfort and expertise; it is different from interdisciplinary approaches in that it does not seek to extend or bend an existing disciplinary toolset beyond its practical reach, but instead frees us from disciplinary boundaries that stunt useful analysis.

Constituent rhetorical elements to which the essay attends: Hawhee eschews traditional and Aristotelian conceptions of audience, rhetor, and topic in favor of examining Burkean concepts of bodies, nonsymbolic motion, and symbolic action. She extends special attention to elucidating Burke’s distinction between nonsymbolic motion and symbolic action; she asks us to consider the line between these two concepts as being a spectrum rather than polar opposites, and similarly asks that we complicate our understanding of body-mind interaction. A quote from the concluding chapter is particularly instructive for understanding Hawhee’s reframed, transdisciplinary perspective: “Bodies and language, then, are irreducibly distinct and yet parallel and complementary, mediated by sensation and attitude—at times undermining, at others duplicating each other, but often, if not always, in effect moving together” (p. 166). Hawhee challenges our concerns with epistemology, or knowing, and claims that what is at stake when we focus on bodies is “an emphasis on moving.” She asserts that her focus on moving is meant to complicate our understanding of traditional “offices” of rhetoric, which include “to please, to instruct, and to move” (p. 166)

Hawhee calls attention to how Burkean synecdoche—and “body clusters”—inform her argument. Synecdoche and clustering invite a way of thinking and asking about the role of bodies: instead of asking questions of category and definition (e.g. “What distinguishes body from mind or language?”) Hawhee sets out to ask questions of proximity and association (e.g. “What (else) do we talk about when we talk about bodies (or mind, or language)?”).

Major conversations/players: Hawhee interacts with a number of theorists and theories; chiefly, she focuses on Burke, the cultural theorist Massumi, Frederic Jameson, and a corpus of feminist/materialist scholars. Central to Hawhee’s analysis of Burke is critique of what she characterizes as misreads of his theory. She takes particular issue with Frederic Jameson’s indictment of current body theory as causing a kind of “‘reduction to the present’, or temporality’s end...thereby evacuating history” (p. 6). Hawhee acknowledges how bodies are sometimes necessarily made static by analysis, but gestures towards the transdisciplinary approach as a way of avoiding that pitfall. Hawhee connects the work of feminist and materialist scholars like Grosz, Condit, and Butler with a new perspective on how trends of essentialism and social consitution interact with a transdisciplinary approach to studying bodies. Hawhee notes that a new perspective is made possible by reframing the work of these scholars in the context of science, which helps us understand real meaning making and communicative processes of bodies.

Hawhee expands and elaborates on Burke’s original works with the benefit of being able to view his entire career, areas of focus, and stages of life in context. She calls attention to Burke’s early works as interacting most explicitly with conceptions of bodies and symbol, but also notes that later in his life, as Burke confronted the physical, painful realities of an aging body, his work became concerned with “cloacal criticism” and consciously analyzed the tendency to clean up bodies while theorizing about them (p. 10).

All this pushes us towards an understanding of bodies as the origin and nexus of rhetorical thought. Both Hawhee and Burke insist on bodies and their biological/material interactions with the world as the essential site of meaning and communication; as bodies move through space, experience, process, and perform action on the world, they create and transform meaning. Hawhee resists taxonomies and categorization, and eschews any in depth mention of ancient rhetorical terms in favor of presenting bodies and material experience as the essential lens through which we should understand rhetorical study.

Key terms: essentialism, social construction, nonsymbolic motion, symbolic action, transdisciplinary, bodies, language.

Annie Hill, “Breast Cancer’s Rhetoricity: Bodily Border Crisis and Bridge to Corporeal Solidarity,” Review of Communication 16 (2016): 281-298.

Main Argument: Hill argues that Susan Sontag’s text Illness and Metaphor falls short of establishing an actionable framework for radically theorizing and transforming systemic hegemonies, specifically surrounding disease and its intersections with race, gender, and  class. She posits that “meaning is material,” and humans feel the need to connect ideas to physical anchors. She calls for a new transmaterial, intra-actional approach to conceptualizing disease and challenging violent binary modes of thinking—a move she calls corporeal solidarity.

Author’s conception of the purpose of rhetorical criticism/analysis: Hill, like Hawhee, resists reference and reliance on traditional rhetorical theory as a frame for her critique. Instead, Hill employs rhetorical methods to elucidate how traditional modes of communication through binary frames (man and woman, sick and healthy, disabled and able-bodied) prevent us from understanding bodies as entangled and with no true “pure” form, as Sontag implies in her original work. Hill’s rhetorical analysis moves beyond asserting the body as rhetorical and pushes us to understand how contemporary conceptions of the cancer “survivor” causes material harm and obscures real world suffering and death. She asks what material effects the vision of a feminine bodied, grit-having, white breast cancer survivor has on our understanding and actual reaction to disease across global populations. A specific example of her method is her breakdown of how white women are considered more prone to cancer diagnoses; she reveals the threads that might lead to such a statistic: black women are constantly barraged by a racist society, they are diagnosed with more late stage breast cancers than white women, receive inferior care and ultimately die at higher rates than white women (p. 287). For Hill, rhetoric and acknowledging the inherent rhetorical being of the body is necessary for her to mount a transmaterialist intra-actional approach to doing theory and understanding the material effects of hegemonic reality.

Constituent rhetorical elements to which the essay attends: Hill redefines and coins quite a few terms over the course of her article; she specifically focuses on the terms agential realism and transmaterial intra-actionality. Agential realism is a term derived from the work of Karen Barad that imagines matter as “active in the world’s becoming, not as passive stuff needing human signification to have meaning (p. 283). Her work is attentive to bodies and disease as sites for important and necessary rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical framing of bodies as entangled and transmaterial can transform activism and the way bodies interact with neoliberal, capitalist systems.

Major conversations/players: Hill mainly interacts with Sontag, as this piece is a direct critique of her work. Hill grounds her theory in the agential realism concept coined by Karen Barad, as mentioned above. Hill also complicates and expands upon Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectional theory, which she extends to her new “transmaterial intra-actionality” which implicates more than the human systems and human bodies that the term “intersectional” might. Hill also brushes implicitly against Burke’s assertion that humans are compelled to introduce and enforce hierarchy/order/perfection—she posits that humans create and enforce harmful, violent binaries through rhetorical means. Our act of ordering and sense making forwards Sontag’s vision of “linguistic layers” obscuring “the pure forms of human body and cancer cell” (p. 290) While Sontag asserted that removing these layers would lead us to that pure human form, Hill insists that no such form exists; rather humans are enmeshed, inextricably, from start to finish. Further, these binary ways of thinking disconnect people from each other and position us as opposed. Material reality, with specific regard to systemic racial oppression, is linked to higher rates of disease -- thus binary ways of thinking manifest violence/disease in the physical world. Hill resists modern tendencies to view technology as terrible/savior, opting instead to view it more as an extension of “tender” human touch.

Hill connects with Hawhee’s conversation about clustering; transmaterial conceptualization moves us from questions of difference and essentialism and pushes us to ask questions of “what kinds of bodies have protections against cancer? What longitudinal populations experience cancer?” Some specific cancer cluster questions Hill forwards include: “What does tying breast cancer to cheerful, obliging femininity produce when presented as the surest path to women’s survival?” (p. 294). Hill ends her piece calling for corporeal solidarity, asking us to “dwell on the tails of the bell curve.” She argues that hiding the bodily effects of breast cancer/disease and molding ourselves into able-bodied, traditionally feminine forms disconnects us from “other embodiments” and forces us into a binary understanding of bodies (p.294). She asserts that a transmaterial intra-actional approach mobilizes us in solidarity to dismantle real world violent systems and prevent one bodied (the able bodied survivor) hegemonic figure from enforcing a harmful binary.

Key terms: Transmateriality, intersectionality, agential realism, transmaterial intra-actionality

Carole Blair, “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality,” in Rhetorical Bodies, 16-53.

Main Argument: Blair argues that rhetoric must necessarily be considered a material practice. Blair highlights material as a rhetorical heuristic by using American memorials as her text for analysis. Blair demonstrates how conceptualizing rhetoric as material—despite our lack of materialist language with which to describe material discourse and our narrow understanding of the effects of rhetoric—is a useful and important frame for examining the purpose and consequence of physical text as a mode of rhetoric in society.

Author’s conception of the purpose of rhetorical criticism/analysis: Blair conceives rhetoric as something more than symbolic action; for Blair, much like for Hill, there is something beyond symbolic action missing from our shared understanding of rhetoric in the world. Blair is especially concerned with the narrow understanding of what constitutes “consequence” resulting from rhetorical action; for Blair, conversations about consequence are much too focused on the intent of the rhetor and lack a comprehensive understanding of the diffuse, unpredictable effects of rhetorical action—nor does a traditional, wholly symbolic understanding of rhetoric account for its inherently political, partisan implications. Blair defines rhetoric itself as “any partisan, meaningful, consequential text, with the term text understood broadly as a legible or readable event or object” (18). Blair notes that no text is a text without a material form. It is problematic to treat rhetoric as exclusively or essentially symbolic or meaningful, because symbolism does not account for the consequence of rhetoric nor its partisanship (p. 19). Blair highlights how rhetorical theorists have attempted to reconcile the “symbolicity of rhetoric with consequence” with terms like “speech act”, “ideograph”, “utterance”, and “pragmeme”, with limited success (in her esteem). For Blair, there is some physical understanding missing from the conversation.

Constituent rhetorical elements to which the essay attends:

Blair introduces the following memorials as sites for analysis:

  • Washington DC - Vietnam Veterans Memorial, including the additional soldiers sculpture and women’s memorial
  • Travelling - The NAMES project AIDS victim quilt
  • Montgomery, AL - The Civil Rights Memorial
  • Kent State, OH - Kent State Memorial
  • Salem, MA - Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial (and the Danvers, MA memorial)

And asks the following questions of the memorials:

What is the significance of the text’s material existence?

  • Memorials are built around cultural context. For example, the NAMES project and the Vietnam memorial “announced that those who served their country were worthy of memory” and “marked a place for the veterans and survivors of the dead to come together and form a community of recognition, grieving, healing, and activism that had been all but missing from the public sphere” (34). Memorials, by existing, legitimize the topic of conversation. This is a consequence of its material existence.

What are the apparatuses and degrees of durability displayed by the text?

  • Material of text matters. A text is imbued with importance based on its medium; stone is durable but also uniquely vulnerable to vandalism and desecration because of its longevity. A paradox of fragility/durability is at the heart of medium.

What are the text’s modes or possibilities of reproduction or preservation?

  • Memorials have undeniable physical presence; a picture of a memorial is hardly the same as attending the memorial yourself. However, rhetorical study often requires reviewing a reproduction of text, a version of message, and forces us to consider how mutable a memorial can be. Blair notes that a memorial on a cloudy day is a different experience than on a sunny one (p. 39).

What does the text do to (or with, or against) other texts?

  • Memorials are “enabling, appropriating, contextualizing, supplementing, correcting, challenging, competing, and silencing” (p. 39). They appropriate properties of each other to invoke cultural power (for example, the Kent State Memorial reflects design qualities of the Vietnam memorial to forge a clear link between the two commemorated events). Some memorials contextualize each other (as Kent State and the Vietnam War memorials do). Memorials are supplemented with flowers and tokens, as well as continuing iterations of memorials. Some memorials correct memory, as the Tercentenary Witch Trial memorial corrects historical geography. Some memorials challenge other texts, with differing consequences, as the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery stands among well maintained memorials of Confederacy. Memorials compete, as Danvers’ and Salem’s respective witch trial memorials do. Finally, memorials can silence by limiting our ability to legitimately protest or complain about topics without being labeled perpetually unsatisfied (as the contemporary witches living in Salem experience).

How does the text act on people?

  • Rhetoric acts on a whole person, not just their heart or mind; there is an undeniable physical element to our experience of rhetorical objects and rhetoric at large. Memorials direct our vision, we can touch them, they demand we attend them as a destination and may even cost money to attend as an audience member. They summon us by interrupting our paths or luring us with promise of respite from heat or other unpleasant physical sensations. They often prescribe a pathway, enforcing a uniform physical experience of the space. Importantly, Blair notes that memorials create communal spaces and communal experiences; they often can create a sense of an event.

Major conversations/players: Blair reflects on the difficulties philosophers like Foucalt and Lyotard have had in articulating concepts surrounding material discourse. Generally, she interacts with rhetorical scholarship for the purpose of exposing a gap in knowledge and a failure to reconcile symbolic action with somewhat unknowable consequence. Blair gestures towards a material understanding of rhetoric as being closer to a complete image than narrow conceptualizations of rhetoric as confined to written or oral text. Blair spends less time than Hill or Hawhee theorizing about the role of sensation in producing material consequence, instead choosing to focus pretty exclusively on the purpose of specific memorials and the intended effects of those memorials. Hill and Hawhee help us come to a more complete understanding of what a memorial might accomplish; how moving our living bodies through an inanimate body might produce a profound, shared experience. In a footnote, Blair remarks that memorials draw power explicitly from the communal aspect—the presence of others in proximity to our own. Alone, “the experience is radically different than during the day when other people are present” (p. 53).

Key Terms: Material, appropriate, contextualize, supplement, correct, challenge, compete, silence

Part 2: The Discursive Body

Stuart Deets

WRIT 5776, Spring 2019

Karma Chavez, “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Concept,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 48 (2018): 242-250.

Diane Keeling, “History of (Future) Progress: Hyper-Masculine Transhumanist Virtuality,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 29 (2012): 132-148.

Jasbir Puar, "Introduction" and "Conclusion" to Terrorist Assemblages., 1-36; last 18 pp.


This week’s readings on the discursive body and rhetoric attend to several things. They attend to rhetorical production through the lens of:

  • Discursive production (culturally-produced signifiers are read on the body to identify it)
  • How bodies function in a conventional rhetoric (how does a body affect addresses given)
  • The rhetorics that bodies themselves produce.

Each of these readings attempt to explore a different facet of rhetorical production around bodies. If bodies are produced through not only the physical world, but discursively produced, then they are a site of persuasion. If they’re a site of persuasion, then they can be studied and explored by scholars of rhetoric.

Karma Chavez, “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Concept,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 48 (2018): 242-250.

First, Chavez lays out the stakes of her argument and her paper, saying that “these disciplinary questions have acute political implications,” and asking how do bodies come to matter in rhetoric, and which bodies matter at all, or more than others. According to Chavez, as she surveys the rhetorical literature, it seems that rhetoric has been conceived as an argument, as a ‘vehicle for rhetorical performance,’ as a ‘site of rhetorical invention,’ and as much more. In a literature review format, she glosses over a lot of rhetorical scholarship of the body.

However, in the closing pages of this article, she theorizes the textual stare from a situated body, writing that, “My concept of the textual stare gazes at the people I imagine as auditors: rhetors and rhetoricians who live in validated and invisibilized bodies.” This move is a way of de-naturalizing normative bodies (where normative bodies are white, cis-male, and able), by replicating the gaze that has been directed at non-normative bodies. Chavez draws on the history of the 1964 Democratic convention, and the attention paid to the body of Fannie Lou Hamer. Using the Fourth Persona and a textual wink, rhetorican lets the audience know silently to judge this body. Chavez would remind us that “Hamer’s body further directs attention to how bodies and bodily experience are always relevant to rhetoric in situational and particularized ways. The point is that we cannot nor should we try to reduce actual bodies to abstract conceptualizations of “the body” because that at once reductive and totalizing move, like all such moves, enforces and animates systemic oppressions.” In this way, bodies matter doubly.

Diane Keeling, “History of (Future) Progress: Hyper-Masculine Transhumanist Virtuality,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 29 (2012): 132-148.

Keeling’s rhetorical object is not necessarily textual, although she draws on textual sources. Rather, her objects is the graphics used to represent Super Bowl XLII (2008) and the “corresponding lifestyle practices,” which she argues, advances a “hyper-masculine transhumanist rhetoric.” First, she lays out a brief context, explaining what transhumanist and posthumanist stances are. Transhumanists want to use technology to transcend the human body, while posthumanists (notably Deleuze, Deleuze and Guattari, and Haraway) combine poststructuralism, bodily and new materialisms, and ecologically-inspired philosophy to figure out how we might live together.

In taking the graphic body of Cleatus, the robot that Fox uses to advertise, Keeling claims to move from the choosing of arguments (the definition of rhetoric advanced by Aristotle) to the selection of performances (how might we live, or select a particular mode of being). For keeling, to understand how gender works, we do not turn towards the body itself, but rather to performances (Judith Butler) and the body’s “foldings with striated spaces such as sport.” Striated spaces are spaces with limits, positions and boundaries, closed intervals, and predictable patterns, while smooth spaces (such as the body) are those that intensities pass through, forcing, flowing. Sports are inherently a striated space, with defined boundaries (the goal line, and out of bounds), closed intervals (quarters) and predictable patterns (1st downs). These are objective things--and they disguise for Keeling the power relations. Indeed, football is a violent sport for violent men. It has “sustained a hegemonic model of masculinity that prioritizes competitiveness, asceticism, success, winning, aggression, violence, superiority to women, and respect for and compliance with male authority.” Potentially drawing on the ideas of Barthes and mythology, assisting the striation and delineation of the rules is mass media and social media.

When it comes to the male body, and the male gaze, the NFL to Keeling is an unparalleled expression of a particular transhumanist rhetoric. The NFL draft and combine, in which the bodies of men are measured and commodified is a kind of erotic gaze. “Technology does not create new possibilities but assists in a more efficient maintenance of the status quo.”

As the technological abilities of NFL broadcasts has increased, “FOX graphics virtually reproduce a history of (future) progress where perceived memories of football’s past are continuously regenerated in the present to encourage future visions of an ideal aggressive cyborg male body as master of our environment, thus impacting our presently passing practices.” Drawing together the histories of football that have been rhetorically produced, Keeling notes that graphics, such as Cleatus, perform our desire to control and master nature. Superstadiums and graphics have an “anthropocentric rhetoric of domination and control.” Relatedly, NFL players are expected to compete as fearless soldiers. “Cleatus entices viewers to envision a future where the masculine male will feel no pain and will be protected by a technologically advanced body,” in a transhumanist rhetorical stance. The robot, and the attendant transhumanist rhetorics, suggest that a sufficiently advanced cyborg body can achieve human’s potential for intelligence and emotion, while doing away with our pesky and flimsy bodies, that we use for football and other sports. These flimsy bodies, as Keeling points out, only draw greater awareness to our “interdepence on local milieus, highlighting a posthumanist cyborg nature.”

Ethically, the transhumanist stance is unethical, as they adopt a human telos--that humans endpoint will be a “robo sapiens,” and the adoption of perfect cyborg or robot bodies. “The transhumanist cyborgian” performance or rhetoric does not “respect the body in all its diversity or adhere to environmental ethics.” Instead we should not wipe out difference, but rather move between striated and smooth spaces, and resist assimilation into striated spaces. Rhetoric, here, explores how technological mediums are “habitually employed to create more rhetorical force in the foldings of our bodies,” and not merely “about how texts influence us through the mediums of mass communications.”

Jasbir Puar, "Introduction" and "Conclusion" to Terrorist Assemblages., 1-36; last 18 pp.

First, I thought it might be good to discuss the rhetorical object selection. Puar selects the rhetoric of sexual exceptionalism, broadly, while also selecting some photographs. Or rather, she selects the terrorist body both as a rhetorical force that is deployed by entities and institutions and as a rhetorical object unto itself, that is related to a homonationalism--that corresponds with “the coming out of the exceptionalism of American empire.” She explores three interrelated topics

  • sexual exceptionalism
  • queer as regulatory
  • and the ascendancy of whiteness.

To Puar, the exceptionalism is a paradox that signals both difference and mastery, along with suggesting a narrative of progress that is both mastered and departed from. The sexual torture scandal at Abu Ghraib is an example by which the “deferred death of one population recedes as the securitization and valorization of another population” suceeds. As the U.S. launches its war on terror, it must temporarily adopt a commoning rhetoric of sexual exceptionalism that folds within it some homosexuality. Some homosexual rhetorics as well are complicit with heterosexual nationalist rhetorics, rather than being opposed to them by their very nature. U.S. homosexuals and sexual exceptionalism are brought into the national body by being opposed to “other” sexualities and “other” genders, such as “the third world woman.” The construction of the third-world-woman rhetorically, who is perpetually in a state of exceptional vulnerability (which leads to exceptional security needs, which requires exceptional counterterrorism technologies) is mirrored by the U.S. government’s insistence of possible terror risks, which justify the war on terror.

Sexual exceptionalism works by moving over its own boundaries (race, class, gender) in such a way that exceptions (queerness, for instance) do not undermine the hierarchy, but rather are folded into it and may support forms of heteronormativity.

Turning towards the photo of a man in Osama bin Laden drag, holding a sign that says I am a homo-sexual also, the “conventional epistemological and ontological renderings of this body” are interrupted. The incommesurablity of two subject positions (Muslim and queer) reclaim Osama bin Laden (or more broadly fundamental Islam) as a place of queer desires. In the irreconsilable binaries that are everywhere, the terrorist body, the Muslim body, has “supplanted race” in a duality between the Muslim body and the queer body. For those caught in between (both Muslim and queer), it is implied that it is easier to critique homophobia than racism, and that this critique should take rhetorical and real precedence. This continues in other places, most notably in the critique of Israel-Palestine relations, in which Palestine is understood as a site of queer oppression, which justifies the occupation of Palestine by Israel. Indeed, homosexuality may have an ethos, in which gay politicians are given liscence to use anti-Muslim rhetoric to elevate their political parties and insulate them from criticism. Gay marriage becomes less about gay marriage and more about assuring and achieving modernity, in relation to Muslim countries and Muslim rule.

Deviance, and sexual deviance, is rhetorically and actually positioned in such as way that it confirms the exceptionalism and modernity (sexual or otherwise) of white heteronormative nationalisms, but only in relation to Muslim nationalisms.

  1. Queerness as transgressive creates forms of discipline and control, creating queer liberal subjects (who are subjects) against sexually deviant populations targeted for death (Muslim terrorists)
  2. Queerness can be exculpatory for whiteness and violence against races, classes, and genders.
  3. Being complicit does not mean that radical queerness has failed, but can still be “an enabling acknowledgement”
  4. Intersectional models cannot account for “simultaneous or multifarious presences of both or many.”

In attempting to render the world a knowable object, scientific observations, classificatory decisions, and data combine to create racialized and classed subjects, wherein a white woman may be queer, but a brown-skinned man is not. Heteronormativity is the most pivotal of attributes, as Orientalist queerness is always already a given in terrorist bodies.

Connections between the texts and centering rhetoric

In each of these texts, a similar theoretical approach is used. In each text, performances and discourses are identified--in other words, how they identify potential rhetorical objects can be understood as potentially being similar. Keeling and Paur both identify bodies abstractly--the transhumanist hyper-masculine body, and the terrorist body. Both explore the implications of these discursive and abstract (but material) bodies.

In a way, these bodies operate as a conceit for ideologies and specific kinds of rhetorics to manifest themselves in, which can then be unpacked in different ways. Epistemologically, these writers uncover different ways that we attempt to understand, control, or construct bodies through discourse. For instance, the transhumanist hyper-masculine body and the terrorist body are both produced through discourse (like Cleatus, or declarations by the U.S. Department of State or Defense). Both analyses rely on bodies being produced abstractly, but with real material consequences. In essence, the real rhetorical object in Keeling and Paur is not bodies per se, but instead broader discourses around masculinity, the NFL, homonationalisms, and more.

In Chavez, however, rhetoric is attended to by considering the ways that bodies affect, for instance, the persuasive factors of a speech. Rhetoric and discursive arguments can be produced through and by the body--and this has bearing on not only bodies, but our understandings of speeches.

Turning towards the discursive body, I’d like to look at the work of Cindy Sherman. In this piece, Sherman plays as a body that we might see in a film (this work is from a broader series of film stills in which Sherman imitates conventions of women in film). This body is rhetorically produced, which is to say that it is a product of rhetorics around the role of women, the rhetoric around gender and sexuality, and the rhetorical (but not only) portrayals of women in film.

The things that I see here:

  1. Sherman is playing with sexuality. She looks like a mistress, lying in bed, waiting for her lover. We know this because:
  2. She’s in her underwear, wearing a kimono?
  3. Her body is turned suggestively, showcasing her thigh while offering a straight on view of her breasts, and her arm is near her face, in a sensual way
  4. Her lipstick and make-up are strong
  5. Her eyes do not gaze on the camera, as if it were the object of her desire. Instead, she looks blankly into the distance

What’s unusual here is that the rhetorics are unusually visible:

  1. Her make-up is overdetermined
  2. We know that she is wearing a wig
  3. We can see the cable that she uses to activate the camera shutter
  4. It’s a part of a broader series of work that makes rhetorics of the female body visible

Rhetoric works in this art work in that Cindy Sherman helps to make the discursive production of the female body visible. Since discourse produced women as sexual objects, that’s partly what Sherman aesthetically (but also rhetorically, but not only that) presents. However, we can see the cracks, and the “bodies that rhetorically matter.” Sherman, like other rhetoricians, wants to understand how rhetoric works in the world. How, for instance, might we understand speech made by one of Sherman’s characters? I would argue that we would understand it through rhetorical frames of reference, through assemblages of meaning as we piece together not only bodies, but speech and rhetorical context, sign, persona, and text.

Discussion Questions:

  • Are bodies a priori or a posteriori to rhetoric?
  • What does a rhetorical approach bring to bodies? What are the stakes of claiming bodies as a rhetorical object?
  • What are the ontological claims being made in these readings about bodies?

Additional Sources:

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Routledge, 2011.

Chávez, Karma R. “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Concept.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 48, no. 3 (May 27, 2018): 242–50.

Gottschalk-Druschke, Caroline. “A Trophic Future for Rhetorical Ecologies | Enculturation.” Accessed March 14, 2019.

Druschke, Caroline Gottschalk, and Candice Rai. “Making Worlds with Cyborg Fish.” In Tracing Rhetoric and Material Life, edited by Bridie McGreavy, Justine Wells, George F. McHendry, and Samantha Senda-Cook, 197–221. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

Hawhee, Debra. “Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36, no. 2 (July 1, 2006): 155–64.

Hill, Annie. “Breast Cancer’s Rhetoricity: Bodily Border Crisis and Bridge to Corporeal Solidarity,” Review of Communication 16 (2016): 281-298.

Keeling, Diane Marie. “HisTory of (Future) Progress: Hyper-Masculine Transhumanist Virtuality.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 29, no. 2 (June 2012): 132–48.

Puar, Jasbir K. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Second edition. Next Wave. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Vivian, Bradford. Being Made Strange: Rhetoric beyond Representation. SUNY Series in Communication Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Part 3: The Stakes of Embodiment

The connection between each of the readings this week is straightforward and uncomplicated. Each author is doing genealogical work to uncover the ways in which discourses, in particular contexts of power, have managed subjectivity along various identity lines and situations of life. Let’s begin.

Butler, “Doing Justice to Someone”

Butler’s concern in her piece is the regulatory power which governs the legibility of a subject. What conditions, she asks, make a subject intelligible, or, in other words, what questions do we presuppose that we need answers to in order to “think the human.” Following Foucault, she discusses the “politics of truth” which ultimately determine which bodies of knowledge, and in her specific case which actual bodies, are comprehended. For the subject, such concerns amount to concerns no less important than determining who one can become in a world with predetermined limits and conditions of legible subjectivity. Butler’s project is concerned with those individuals at the fringes of legibility, and her claim for its importance is its relationship to justice because justice, she argues, begins in decisions about what a human is.

Now we move to the concrete. Butler’s specific concern with conditions of legibility involve gender and its status as a precondition to humanness. Further, a clearly defined gender identity is significant in shaping the ways in which we come to understand ourselves. To interrogate this, Butler takes up the case of John/Joan, a saga in which a man, John, was born unambiguously, in culture’s terms, a man, but whose gender, and thus legibility as a human, was undone and redone several times by the medical establishment and the popular press in highly traumatic and public ways.

The event which inaugurated the saga was a botched surgery in which a significant portion of John’s penis was burned away, and his family had to decide how to move forward. John was 8 months old at the time, and thus not fully socialized into a gender identity. At least, this was the position held by John Money, the physician his parents turned to. Money recommended that John receive additional surgery and be raised as a girl. John, or rather, Joan’s parents followed this recommendation, but it not go as planned. By nine years old, Joan’s gender, and thus humanness, was already traipsing the outer limits of legibility. Joan was interested in things that are decidedly coded as male in our culture, like guns and trucks. She liked to urinate standing up and was uninterested in receiving a vagina.

These developments were, of course, handled in a clinical setting in which Joan’s gender identity, her legibility as a human, were consistently under scrutiny. Further, she was subject to significant medical malpractice at the hands of Money. Eventually, Joan became John once again and became a touchstone in cultural debates about gender identity. On one hand, the case, as reported by Money, signified to many the fluidity of masculinity and femininity. In this telling of gender, the “gender identity gate” is equally wide open to intersexed and “fully” male or female children. On the other, the case, as reported by John’s later physician Milton Diamond, exemplified the truth of genital-correlated, deep-seated and immutable gender identities. In this narrative, what is emphasized is the failure of those with reassigned to genders to reach normality, or in Butler’s project’s language, legibility.

In the conflict between these two narratives, Butler finds important paradoxes. The notion that gender is uncomplicatedly fluid is, to some degree undone by the extent to which femininity had to be so forcefully placed upon Joan. Similarly, the naturalness of gender identity is destabilized by the surgery and hormone treatment, decidedly unnatural interventions, required to preserve what is alleged to be immutable.

Butler thus proposes an alternate reading of the saga that attends specifically to John/Joan and the “disciplinary” framework in which they were able to self-understand and self-report their identity. In other words, their grid of self-intelligibility on the basis of gender norms. Butler draws specific attention to the intense policing, interrogation, and medical abuse Joan encountered. Butler argue that the apparatus of knowledge developed during this period is rarely accounted for in the narratives of this saga which are widely circulated. Further, she argues that this aspect is particularly important because it cultivated the perceived audience in which John/Joan’s self-observation and reporting took place in relation to. The constant surveillance and interrogation of John/Joan’s gender identity provided the rubric which they used to measure their own accomplishment of gender.

Ultimately, this draws attention to the ways in which gender identity is so often made legible by recourse to physical signifiers like shoulder-width or a proclivity for either guns or dresses. Butler’s read on this saga, and John’s personal testimony, is that it offers a critical perspective of these preconditions for humanness. Indeed, she argue that John locates his value explicitly beyond people who demand legibility from his genitals. He recognizes his status as somewhat outside of the norm and rejects the possibility of love and acceptance on the basis of his ability to conform to this norm. He thus operates at the limits of legibility and, in doing so, highlights the conditions which determine that very trait.

Happe, “The Body of Race”

Happe’s concern is with uncovering the enduring hold that race as an essential, classificatory term has on scientists. She is interested in making an intervention into public scientific debates about the existence of race which complicatedly disavow racism, and sometimes the scientific basis of race itself, while nonetheless reinforcing a racial ideology. To accomplish this, she turns to performativity as her theoretical framework. She argues that performativity provides a way to move the discussion from one about the evidence for or against race to one about the ways in which race becomes material. She further explains that performativity requires seeing performative utterances as taking place in contingent scenes of address with historically situated, and mutually constitutive, relationships between rhetor, text, and addressee.

In more concrete terms, Happe’s project is to uncover the ways in which biomedical discourse, understood as a complex of performative utterances, treats race as a commonsense explanation in discussions of health disparity and thus naturalizes it as an essentialist category. Ideologically, the enactments of race Happe discusses disavow racism and accommodate egalitarian discourse. She argues that such a disavowal can indeed by beneficial to maintaining race as essential category.

An important theoretical underpinning of Happe’s piece is a reversal of essentialist accounts of race. Historically, then, blackness (the specific racial identity with which she concerns herself) was not the justification for American chattel slavery, but its product. Happe argues that the produced category was retroactively used as an a priori justification of slavery, and contemporary biomedical discourse continues the production of race-as-identity-category by asserting, and thus performing, it’s essential reality. Performative utterances, she explains, enact the effects they name and thus, as a theoretical framework, helps us understand how certain institutions, like race, are dependent on repeated performance.

Happe’s argument is that biomedical discourse does this by presenting genes and genetic heritage as prediscursive and biologically factual. Her object of analysis for taking this argument up is a medical study published in the journal Cancer wherein the specificities of the relationship between African American women and breast cancer are studied by comparing biological traits of American black women and women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such an approach fails to account for the genetic diversity of African American women and performs race.

The fact that similarities were found between the populations further reinforced race as a natural phenomenon. It allowed the African and African American breast to serve as proof race’s essential nature in a way that genetics could not support. Biomedical discourse thus performatively enacts race under the auspices of anti-racism because the research Happe discusses was undertaken in the name of fighting breast cancer among African American women. Happe describes this as a move which establishes an ontology of race where ontology is understood as performative. The piece’s ultimate argument is that undoing a racialized ideology/ontology involves changing material conditions by combating racist policy and conditions of living. Doing so involves significant changes in perspective, like looking to the psychological and environmental conditions of life for African American women as a cause of breast cancer rather than to the continuity between their breasts and those of the women who populate Sub-Saharan African.

Keränen, “Cause Someday We All Die”

This article focuses on medical discourse as well, and specifically practices of end-of-life care. Keränen is specifically concerned with the code statuses, patient preferences worksheets, and the often-truncated processes of discussion and deliberation which determine what, if any, actions are undertaken to revive patients. Her argument is specifically that the patient preferences worksheet works to figure the experience of death as one which emerges from the autonomous decisions made by the dying or their proxies. However, she explains, these worksheets undermine autonomy in significant ways because the decision-making process around the filling-out of these sheets generate particular subjectivities.

Keränen starts the piece by tracing the evolutions in end-of-life care that have created the conditions which allow for contemporary patient subjectivities. Quickly, Keränen details the emergence of CPR practices and the way in which they were enshrined in hospitals’ policies for patient care. Providing these treatments became contentious, however, because they were only beneficial to a minority of patients. Many people who were resuscitated nonetheless never made it out of the hospital and indeed underwent a greater amount of suffering en route to their death. What Keränen highlights about this period is the degree to which the power of decision-making with regard to resuscitation practice rested solely with care-providers and norms came to be established on a hospital-by-hospital basis.

Increasingly, a movement for greater patient autonomy emerged and in subsequent years the AMA released guidelines on how to handle various determinations of code status. Importantly, this movement was borne of the desire to decrease suffering. Equally important, however, are the ways in which the move away from resuscitation-at-all-costs was profitable because it freed beds reduced treatment costs.

The ideal model for code status determination in this new era was collaboration between doctors and patients, as well as clear documentation of their decision for the full team of health care providers who interact with a given patient. Code status thus became increasingly formalized and patient preference worksheets emerged and, as Keränen argues, a genre of institutional medical rhetoric was born. This genre was both the result of medical practice and an attempt to discipline it.

Keränen’s concern is with the ways in which this rhetoric promotes efficiency in a way which obscures the moral dimension of the decision-making processes involved in end-of-life care. While patients or their proxies are required to have discussions about their code status with physicians in the name of patient autonomy, Keränen highlights the ways in which the worksheets which their discussions produce often reduce complex moral decisions to a list of resuscitative practices which are selected by patients or proxies who lack the expertise to consider these practices with the context or larger principles of care. Their autonomy, so valued by the patient preferences worksheet and medical rhetoric, is thus resolutely hollow.

A fundamental argument in this piece is that, in this context, a particular deathbed subjectivity emerges. This subjectivity can entail the naturalization of a good death as a death without technology and other hospital resources. The result of this can be an understanding, on the part of some patients, that they have a duty to die. The deathbed subjectivity is also one which is significantly under corporate, institutional control. It thus becomes a subject of Foucauldian bio-power, a “set of techniques for subjugating and controlling populations…regarding issues of public health.” Again, however, this subject is paradoxically positioned as empowered and autonomous because nothing happens without their explicit (if at times radically uninformed) consent.


Each of these pieces is explicitly concerned with subjectivity. Butler’s rooted in gender, Happe’s in race, and Keränen’s in the subjectivity of the patient in the deathbed. Happe is, I think, the most explicit about stating some of the commonalities that these pieces share. To begin, she explicitly invokes performativity and labels it an ontological force. In other words, the ontology, the status of being, of a given subject is derived from performative practice. This has the effect of rendering ontology secondary to practice and epistemology because it is only through our various knowledges or norms and other constraints that we know how to, as Butler says, think the human.

Genealogy thus emerges as a method which allows us to articulate the ways in which the ontological status of subjects is created in performative action, or discourse, as well as the ways in which power bears upon this process. The concern with power and bodies/subjectivity distinguishes these pieces from archaeological work which is more descriptive in nature. The focus of each of these pieces on a particular topic of subjectivity also reveals genealogical projects to be, at least in some instances, narrower in scope than archaeological ones. Whereas archaeological project attempt to account for entire, era-encompassing epistemes that generally determine the structure of thought across all topics, genealogical ones attend to the progressions of a particular topic, discourse, or subjectivity, even if they do work that accounts for shifts regarding their object of analysis across epistemes.

Centering rhetoric

Each of these readings, for me, leaves questions about the relationship between rhetoric and discourse. For instance, Judith Butler, who is explicitly a professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley, does not use the word rhetoric in her piece. Happe claims that racial ontologies are the result of “rhetorical discourse” as though there is perhaps another sort of discourse that is not rhetorical in nature. She seems to give primacy to rhetoric when she says that it is rhetorical agency which allows subjects re-signify race. This implies that it is rhetoric which drafts subjectivity. On the other hand, later in the piece she assigns this role to discourse by saying that it is “discourse that constitutes a racialized other.” Still later, “discourse…rhetorically performs race.” So, I ask as I read, what is the truth?

Keränen, to my eyes, fares better, at least on the metric of consistency. While Happe, in my opinion, uses the terms rhetoric and discourse indiscriminately, Keränen’s focus on vernacular rhetoric allows a clearer definition of rhetoric to emerge. In this telling, rhetoric is situated. It is a tool the accomplish particular outcomes in particular engagements. Further, there are rhetorics of given topics that articulate what language and strategies are used in their workings and unfoldings. Rhetoric, in her account, seems to exist inside discourse; she speaks of “forms of rhetoric in medical discourse.” It is discourse which “structures decisions” and legitimizes a “fundamental shift” in subjectivity while it is rhetoric that comprises the methods through which this is accomplished.

As I said before, it is hard to position Butler in this arrangement because she exclusively employs discourse as her terminology of choice. However, across the other two readings, a confused idea of rhetoric emerges that I hope we can clarify here today.


  • What image of rhetoric, discourse, and rhetoric vs. discourse emerges from these pieces for you?