- Rhetoric, Materiality, and Politics
In the twentieth century, the object domain of rhetoric has shifted from that of the humanist orator of the ancient Greek polis to symbolic structures more generally. Within such a framework, rhetoric has come to be seen not only as an instrumental art that leads to behavioral change but also a material process that constitutes reality. Although this shift in conceptual models has warranted the rhetorical analysis of texts located outside the traditional purview of rhetorical criticism, as noted by Ronald Walter Greene in his groundbreaking essay “Another Materialist Rhetoric” (1998), it has led to something of a theoretical impasse when it comes to explaining the effectivity of rhetorical practices. By describing rhetoric as the dialectical interplay between a text and its context (to borrow from Michael Leff), scholars of rhetoric have come to produce a static model that tends to oversimplify the radically contingent nature of rhetorical events. That is, either rhetoric is reduced to an ideological force that hides and distorts a more primordial material reality, or rhetoric is described as a constitutive process that produces such realities by virtue of its symbolic utterance. [End Page 394]
Intervening in this conversation, Barbara Biesecker and John Lucaites’s edited volume Rhetoric, Materiality, and Politics is an attempt to solve this conundrum. Using Michael Calvin McGee’s 1982 essay “A Materialist Conception of Rhetoric” as the springboard, the 12 subsequent original essays in this volume all attempt to offer new ways to conceptualize the ontological relationship between rhetoric and the material world. Whether articulating rhetoric to economic, institutional, technological, psychological, or linguistic structures, the scholars in this book all question the charge that rhetoric simply produces or represents the material world.
Accepting McGee’s premise that rhetorical theory has historically abstracted rhetoric from the field of practice (and that this abstraction is in a sense its own form of rhetoric in that it often oversimplifies the role of rhetoric in society), one could argue that the underlying objective of this volume is to move from a representational account of rhetoric’s materiality to one grounded in a logic of rhetorical materialism. Whereas the former views rhetoric as a transcendent practice that is spatially and temporally separate from the material world, rhetorical materialism argues for an immanent and reciprocal understanding of rhetoric and materiality. By situating rhetoric in an amorphous field of irreducibly singular relations (that exceed any logic of representation), rhetorical materialism shifts the ontological terrain of rhetoric from that of phenomenology to what has come to be known in philosophical circles as the event.
The question for this volume thus becomes, What exactly is the unique modality of rhetoric within the immanent logic of the event? Is rhetoric a “failed unicity” that always already destabilizes that which it purports to represent, or is there a qualitative difference between the material act of rhetoric and the institutional and technological apparatuses that suture its effects? Although every essay in the volume offers its own unique perspective on this set of questions, the competing poststructuralist philosophies of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida orient the majority of the responses.
In the Foucauldian camp are scholars such as Ronald Walter Greene, John M. Sloop, Joan Faber McAlister, Bruce Gronbeck, Charles E. Morris, and Nathan Stormer. In their essays—respectively titled “Rhetorical Materialism: The Rhetorical Subject and the General Intellect,” “People Shopping,” “Material Aesthetics in Middle America: Simone Weil, the Problem of Roots, and the Pantopic Suburb,” “Jacob Riis and the Doubly Material Rhetorics of His Politics,” “Hard Evidence: The Vexations of Lincoln’s Queer Corpus,” and “Encomium of Helen’s Body: A Will to Matter”—a model of rhetoric situated [End Page 395] in a network of power relations is proffered. Sloop’s conceptualization of rhetoric “as the energy or flow mediating between bodies, body prosthetics, and semiotic conditions” (70) and Greene’s discussion of rhetorical criticism as a “stance that is less hermeneutic and more diagrammatic” (55) best encapsulate this notion. What unifies these perspectives is that, in the Foucauldian model...