- Rhetorical Touch: Disability, Identification, Haptics by Shannon Walters
In Rhetorical Touch, Shannon Walters asks and answers a difficult question: “How might understanding touch as rhetorical and rhetoric as tactile change how we think of rhetoric, especially regarding what kinds of bodies and minds have access to rhetorical production and its elements, purposes, and possibilities?” (2). In response, Walters reexamines rhetorical histories through the lens of disability studies, focusing on touch-based communication modes. Building on the scholarship of Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, Brenda Brueggemann, and others, she “questions the accepted model of the able, autonomous, independent rhetor and disturbs the boundaries and bodies of rhetoric” (19). The book is rigorous and focused, as Walters is a serious and traditional academic writer. But it is also activist in spirit and scope, as the book is clearly situated in disability studies.
Walters defines rhetorical touch “as a potential for identification among bodies of diverse abilities that takes place in physical, proximal and/or emotional contact” (3). Walters articulates her theory of touch through (re-)reading many rhetorical scholars, particularly Empedocles, Aristotle, and Burke, though she also consider a diverse range of other rhetorical thinkers, including Peitho, Gorgias, Demosthenes, Cicero, Quintilian, and others. In engaging classical rhetoric, she consistently interprets the original texts. Concurrent with her analysis of rhetoric’s all-stars, she analyzes disability studies scholars and artists, such as Harriet McBryde Johnson, Sue Rubin, John Hockenberry, and Section 504 protesters. Indeed, she considers the poetry of Cheryl Marie Wade on the heels of analyzing Isocrates.
While those doing work in disability and rhetoric will clearly be interested in this book, Walters also emphasizes how we all communicate by touch. She refers to “contingencies” that are often “enacted by touch,” such as being fed, bathed, and changed, which all require “close physical contact, interdependency, and trust” (3). By grounding her theory in disability [End Page 350] experience and articulating how touch functions for everyone, Walters makes her haptic theories relevant for all scholars and body types. In reading disability in and through classical rhetoric, her book is similar to Jay Dolmage’s Disability Rhetoric (which came out the same year), though Walters’s audience is more exclusively rhetorical scholars.
Chapter 1 reads rhetorical touch by examining Helen Keller’s touch-based communication strategies in the context of a meaty theoretical interrogation. Walters posits that Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals should be read as “a dynamis [that] emphasizes capability, potentiality, and connection” (34) and considers “Burkean identification as explicitly and implicitly tactile” (39), particularly consubstantiation. Chapter 2 similarly balances theoretical interrogation and analysis of a disability-related example and offers a dedicated, if dense, articulation of identification as a rhetoric of touch through Burke, Merleau-Ponty, Nancy, and Deleuze. She maps this understanding onto the Section 504 protests, which are read as “a victory for identification, as many people with diverse disabilities identified their interests with each other and even with a larger nondisabled public” (58). For me, her rereading of these protests, particularly Joan Tollifson’s story, is particularly successful in connecting disability activism and rhetorical touch.
Chapter 3 centers on understanding Empedocles’s sense of logos as profoundly tactile. The final section of this chapter traces how touch-based logics function in online support groups for those with schizophrenia and depression. In these pages, Walters’s theories of touch come to life. Implicitly challenging the idea of online spaces as unembodied, she suggests that participants in these forums “create the online space as an interface for processing touch, thought, and feeling in words, a rhetorical action that carries over into their real lives” (110). This is convincing, though I would have liked more discussion of why it might be both productive and problematic to analyze these online forums.
Chapter 4 importantly resituates ethos within a neurodiverse perspective, particularly autism. Walters resists positioning autistic bodies as the “problem” in establishing ethos, instead suggesting that “traditional approaches to ethos are problematic, in part because of stereotypes about autism that may affect audience reception and inhibit identification, but...