Seminar in the History of Global Rhetorics

We’ve revised our graduate seminar in the history of rhetoric away from its focus on classical rhetoric. (Here’s a version from ten years ago.) I’m very happy with the revisions: it’s now a course very different from what my generational cohort would have recognized as a history of rhetoric graduate seminar. The driving tension throughout operates between rhetoric’s reach toward engaging alterity (Wayne Booth, Kenneth Burke, Krista Ratcliffe) and the complex alterity-denying move toward coercive agreement (Shadi Bartsch, Achille Mbembe, Tacitus).1

English 509: Rhetoric and Empire (Fall 2024)

The history of rhetoric, when engaged carefully, is remarkable. It’s got power, lust, avarice, slander, philosophy, adultery, humor, treason, ethics, invective, murder, scandal, and redemption. It’s also easy to represent poorly, often as a loose collection of obsolete ideas. My goal for this seminar is to investigate, with you, the history of global rhetoric in its material practice: as something that humans like us performed, practiced, theorized, researched, lived, and contested. We will use the concept of empire to investigate the problematic notion of a Western-oriented rhetorical tradition and canon and propose a more diverse array of rhetorical practices. While rhetorics ostensibly rely on persuasion, they are often sustained or advanced by unequal relations of imperial power and domination. This seminar proposes that those unequal relations of power merit investigation: no rhetorical tradition exists outside of politics or materiality, and persuasion often blurs into coercion. For those reasons, we will investigate readings from global rhetorical traditions in their historical and material contexts, often from the liminal spaces between coercion and persuasion, offering participants an introductory familiarity with those texts and asking participants to complicate problematic traditional notions of rhetorical canonicity.

Required Texts

The following books are on order at the WSU Bookie:

Additionally, the following excerpts and other supplemental readings will be available through the WSU libraries or in Canvas:

Agamben, Giorgio. Excerpt from State of Exception. (Week 5)

Anderson, Benedict. “Introduction” to Imagined Communities. (Week 11)

Aspasia and/or Pericles, “Athenian Funeral Oration.” (Week 3)

Baca, Damián, and Victor Villanueva, editors. Excerpts from Rhetorics of the Americas 3114 BCE to 2012 CE. (Week 10)

Bartsch, Shadi. Excerpts from Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian. (Week 8)

Blight, David, editor. Excerpts from The Columbian Orator. (Week 12)

Cicero. Excerpts from De Oratore and Pro Ligario. (Week 5)

Douglass, Frederick. Excerpts from My Bondage and My Freedom. (Week 12)

Ezzaher, Lancen, editor. Excerpts from Three Arabic Treatises on Aristotle’s Rhetoric: The Commentaries of al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes. (Week 4)

Gorgias. “Encomium of Helen.” (Week 2)

Hortensia. “Oration Before the Triumvirs.” (Week 4)

Miller, Susan. Excerpts from Trust in Texts: A Different History of Rhetoric. (Week 2)

Nāgārjuna. “Dispeller of Disputes.” (Week 1)

Quintilian. Excerpts from the Institutio Oratoria. (Week 8)

Renan, Ernest. “What Is a Nation?” (Week 11)

Said, Edward. “Introduction” to Orientalism. (Week 4)

Seneca the Elder. Excerpts from the Controversiae et Suasoriae. (Week 8)

Stromberg, Ernest, editor. Excerpts from American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance. (Week 10)

Tacitus. Dialogus de Oratoribus. (Week 8)

Wilson, Shirley Logan. Excerpts from With Pen and Voice: A Critical Anthology of Nineteenth-century African-American Women. (Week 12)


Participation, professionalism, peer support (ongoing): 80 points

Discussion forums (10 @ 30, lowest 2 dropped): 240 points

Lesson leadership (one class meeting): 80 points

Essays (2 @ 80, weeks 4 and 11): 160 points

Midterm presentation (week 7): 80 points

Midterm proposal (week 7): 80 points

Final presentation (week 14): 80 points

Final project (finals week): 200 points

Total possible: 1000 points


Stuff we might discuss, views we might try out, questions we might engage. The sequence is intended as roughly chronological, but with big swerves in approach, method, or perspective from week to week.

Week 1: Overview and the rhetorical map‘s terra ignota. Problems with dead white guys and the history of rhetoric. What is a canon? Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country” and Jameson’s “Always historicize”: like Ireneo Funes always always? Uses and abuses of history. Possible starting points beyond agonism: Nāgārjuna and the “Dispeller of disputes.” Whose rhetorical traditions? The deixis of representer and represented: locating the “we” and the “they” in the sometimes sous rature voices of historical writing. Philology, cultural studies, and questions of evidence in classical and contemporary historiography. Rhetorical toolkits from Richard Lanham and the Silva Rhetoricae. Location: a view from above.
DF (discussion forum)1: Choose three keywords (Raymond Williams original list, Keywords project expanded list) to introduce yourself to the seminar and propose your questions, interests, or approach.

Week 2: Exploring and exploding the canon. The epistemic stakes of a rhetorical tradition. Susan Miller, Trust in Texts. Generalizable questions and rhetorical hapax legomena. The writer and the writing of history. Questioning the grand narratives of “maps and chaps” and the institutional perspectives of seeing like a state. Archives of ugly histories and memory-holing the Other through damnatio memoriae. Possible starting points beyond agonism: sophistry’s leveling volte-faces in Gorgias and the “Encomium of Helen.” Looking back pluperfectly: reading past histories of rhetoric for what we thought we had known and what we had imperfectly hoped. Location: a view from the side.
DF2: “These fragments I have shored”: what from our incomplete knowledge of various rhetorical traditions would you hope to salvage—and what historical lacunae might you seek to fill?

Week 3: Plato’s evolving views on rhetoric in the Gorgias and Phaedrus. Who can learn, who can teach, and who can rule? Slaves and kings in the imagined republic and the political state. “Nasty, brutish, and short”: the subaltern lot of the helots and the awfulness of Sparta (see how Devereaux uses footnotes!) in the speeches of Isocrates on literacy and governance. Gendered epideixis in the construction of cultural value: Cheryl Glenn’s Aspasia and the Athenian funeral oration upon the end of the Peloponnesian War. Socrates and the politics of Athenian mentorship: is that a scroll under your toga, or are you just happy to see me? Literacy and the arguments of love and justice. Women, war and memorialization in Sappho, Sophocles, and Aspasia. What not to do😜: Takis Poulakos, “Modern Interpretations of Classical Greek Rhetoric.” Location: Ancient Greece.
DF3: Write a pseudo-/semi-/anti-Platonic dialogue on a complex philosophical, theoretical, or rhetorical issue. Then write a postscript discussing and explaining your stylistic techniques and devices—not the content.

Week 4: Xenophobia, shibboleths, and “bar-bar”ians. Arabic revisions and extensions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Alexander’s mentor and the epideixis of colonialism. The transformations of Ancient Mediterranean thought in the Abrahamic traditions. Writing taxonomies and the transition from dialogue to audience. Tradition and the beginnings of codification. Context and empiricism in the available means of persuasion. Long ago when conservatives were erudite: Nicholas Xenos on Leo Strauss and esoteric versus exoteric ancient texts. The precedents of Orientalism in looking through alien eyes: ways of speaking, writing, thinking. Guest lecture. Location: the Ancient Mediterranean, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.
Project 1 due.

Week 5: Roman deliberative rhetoric and the fall of the Republic. Fears of kings and rhetoric: imperium, the role of dictator, and definitions of empire. Multiple audiences and conflicting appeals in Cicero’s theory and practice: the De Oratore and the Pro Ligario. Naming, managing, and formalizing the expanding purposes and canons of rhetoric. The Verrine orations and questions of bodily Roman-ness: in the Curia, only Gauls wear pants. Delivery’s geography, Iupiter Stator, and that “quousque tandem abutere O Catalina” bit. Comedy, politics, and Julius Caesar wearing a wig in the Pro Caelio. Marseille yellowfin, dispositio, and the too-brief narratio of Cicero’s almost-delivered Pro Milone. Hortensius and the projected decadence of the “Asiatic” style. Fulvia’s prize and your filthy little mouth: Catullus, Clodia and the invective of the irrumator. Walter Ong and Cicero’s unblushing letter as metaphysics of presence. Rome’s Campus Martius and Agamben’s state of exception. Location: Republican Rome.
DF4: Dust off those undergrad chops with a Ciceronian rhetorical analysis.

Week 6: Imperial rhetorics and genre in the circulation of government documents. Xiaoye You, Genre Networks and Empire. Decolonial binaries and the erasures of systematization. Agonism and disputation in the genre constraints of cultural production. Rhetoric as medium, material, and message. Argumentative space for remonstrance of the monarch within bureaucracy’s Leviathan. Cross-cultural comparative rhetorics and the philologist’s problems of scale, specificity, and provenance. Location: Imperial Han China.
DF5: Discuss and apply with examples: how much cultural and historical context does one require to compare or inhabit a tradition?

Week 7: Midterm review: playing “What if?” with possible final project ideas. Presentations to the seminar; props and creativity and peer assistance encouraged. Informal discussion with food and drink. Location: a view through a glass, darkly.
Midterm presentation and proposal due.

Week 8: Imperial audiences and the transformation of rhetorical practice into layered irony and indirection. The practical impossibility of Quintilian’s vir bonus dicendi peritus during the Domitianic terror. Rhetoric as hired slander punching down: delatores and the forensics of blame under imperial surveillance. Tacitus and the rhetoric of historiography in prose style and metaphoric distance. Carlin Barton and shame and surveillance in the public construction of identity: Tiberius, isolated on Capri, becomes bestial. Shadi Bartsch on epidemics of fainting at public performances, the claques of paid clappers for Nero citharoedus, and the problems of performing sincerity. Power and the reception of comedy between satire and farce. Seneca’s classroom cloaca maxima: polysemic hyperbole in declamatory form and pedagogy. Alterity, sacrifice, and proselytizing rhetorics in early Abrahamic texts and commentaries. Location: Imperial Rome.
DF6: Use form, genre, doublespeak, and carefully modulated degrees of irony to project an implicitly rhetoricized audience and write a surveilled critical response that demands and rewards esoteric and exoteric readings. Do a dog-whistle, but smarter.

Week 9: Medieval religious and scientific rhetorics across faiths and cultures. Inscription, circulation, and delivery: ﷽. Balancing heresy and parrhesia between scientia and doxa. Augustine and the inheritance of literate philosophy. Ramus against Quintilian: ratio et eloquentia. Representations of divine will, إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللَّٰ, and degrees of rhetorical ambiguity. Externalizing cathedrals of memory and textual technologies of interpretation after print: Frollo’s “ceci tuera cela.” Religious identity and “anti-philosophical” rhetoric. Belief, persuasion, and “Submission.” Philosophical and rhetorical consequences of theological arguments posing divine omniscience against divine omnipotence. Stuart McManus, Empire of Eloquence part 1. Location: The medieval church, mosque, and temple.
DF7: Attempt paratactic authority-deferring arguments in the style of Erasmus’s De Copia.

Week 10: Encounter rhetorics in the Americas. Fault lines in the contact zone and the (non-) evolution of theocratic authoritarianism. Orality, Nahua authority, and genre in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex. Translation, domination, and the liminal spaces of Nepantlisma. Literacy and the telos of “pre-literate” Whig history. Location: the pre- and post-contact Americas. (might swap this lesson with Week 11 depending on relative weight of the readings)
DF8: Compose a polyvocal or otherwise liminal response to an unacceptably alien cultural, ideological, or theoretical position.

Week 11: Enlightenment rhetorics and the Age of Exploration Colonialism. Rights-based rhetorics and ostensible freedoms of conscience and faith. Reading imperial claims of territory through Bizzell & Herzberg’s “Overview of Enlightenment Rhetoric” in The Rhetorical Tradition. Sarah Suleri Goodyear, “Edmund Burke and the Indian Sublime.” Adam Smith and the role of rhetoric in reconciling the mutual exclusions of morality and commerce. Emerging nationalisms, Ernest Renan, and the figurations of orientalism. Rhetoric, force, and the ultima ratio regum. Stuart McManus, Empire of Eloquence part 2. Location: Europe and its pre-C19 colonial outposts.
Project 2 due.

Week 12: Rhetorics of enslavement and liberation in the Americas. Excerpts from Shirley Wilson Logan, With Pen and Voice. Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson’s “yelps,” and the foundations of modern American conservative rhetoric. Nat Turner’s “Confessions” and the problems of coerced authorship. Thomas Malthus, the necropolitical view from power, and the pseudo-egalitarian tragedy of George Fitzhugh’s “Cannibals All!” Expressive testimony and deliberative rhetoric in William Wells Brown’s “The American Slave-Trade.” Law, morality, and apostrophe’s precedent in the Amistad address of John Quincy Adams. The return of Straussian-imperial doublespeak as signifyin(g). Frederick Douglass and the ecstasy of influence from The Columbian Orator. To “make the gallows more holy than the cross”: whiteness and the persuasive violence of the terrorist John Brown. Location: C19 North America.
DF9: Investigate and discuss the rhetorics of exclusions and inclusions in global C19 primary sources on human enslavement.

Week 13: Final project workshopping and peer review.

Week 14: Final project presentations😜.

Week 15: Conclusion and wrap-up on tradition’s affordances. The closed fist and the open hand. Prospects for historiographic research from classicists and philologists in the digital humanities. Decolonial comparative rhetoric in Timothy Mitchell’s “America’s Egypt.” Prospects for global rhetorical research beyond the humanities: the applications of rhetoric in defense, religion, economics, and development. Emerging approaches to imagining the possible futures of alternative histories. Location: a view from below.
DF10: This seminar presented one partial and tentative rhetorical tradition as a resource for historical thinking. Make an inclusive argument addressed to next year’s incoming graduate cohort for a different rhetorical tradition and its potential uses.

Exam week: Class celebration. Final projects due.

Postscript: Historiography as Rhetoric

Plunderers of the world, after having laid everything waste, they run out of land and probe even the sea: if their enemy has wealth, they have greed; if the enemy be poor, they are ambitious; neither East nor West has sated them; alone of mankind they covet poverty with the same passion as wealth. Robbery, butchery, rape they misname empire: they make a wasteland and call it peace.


  1. My underlying assumption is that relations of rhetorical domination are both more common and more complex than much recent scholarship allows. ↩︎
Seminar in the History of Global Rhetorics