Rhetoric and the Gift, taking as its starting point the Homeric idea of the gift and Aristotle’s related rhetorical theory, explores rhetoric not only at the level of the artful response but at the level of the call and response. Mari Lee Mifsud takes up a number of questions crucial to thinking about contemporary communication: What does it mean that communication is a system of exchange with others? How are we to deal with questions of ethics in an economic system of power and authority? Can exchange ever be truly generous, and can communication, then, ever be free? Is there a more ethical way of relating and communicating, and might there be a different self-other relationship more conducive to a free people?
As a historian of ancient Greek rhetorical theory, Mifsud examines these questions of contemporary significance by turning first to Aristotle’s many citations of and references to Homer in order to discern the emergence of a system of exchange thought to be appropriate for a democratic polis. As she elucidates, the Homeric system of exchange — gift-giving — was used by Aristotle as a metaphor for rhetoric’s function, as he distinguished the gift as a system of exchange within the functioning of the polis, operating between individuals and society to bind people to people and cultures to cultures. These ancient ideas are shown to relate directly to our modern arguments concerning exception and exceptionalism as they play out in politics, law, and culture.
Such questions of exchange, thus, are shown to reverberate and continue to circulate through conversations in philosophy and communication, ranging across a great deal of recent study. Mifsud’s discussion of a variety of contemporary thinkers, together with her historical and theoretical approach, offers rich possibilities for new trajectories of relating the self and other, providing the critical, hermeneutical, and theoretical resources for thinking otherwise about rhetorical conceptions of relational ethics in communication, on both a personal and political level.