Selzer, Jack and Sharon Crowley, eds. Rhetorical Bodies. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999. Print.


This edited collection is based on work presented at the 1997 Penn State conference on material rhetoric, a term that Jack Selzer defines in the book’s introduction as a two-sided interest in the material dimensions of language and the rhetorical nature of the material. Barbara Dickson adds to this understanding of material rhetoric by describing it as an analysis of the non-linguistic signification of the material and the corporeal. She further explains that material rhetoric is interested in the ways multiple discourses work to produce objects, with a particular concern for the ways in which this production effects agency. Despite what the book’s title might seem to indicate, it’s essays are not strictly focused on the human body although the collection as a whole does reflect what Dickson characterizes as material rhetoric’s special interest in the corporeal body and the way its representation affects lived experience.

In his introduction to the book, Selzer grounds the collection as a response to the “discursive turn” in the academy, a movement he explains as an increased interest across discipline in language and its role in the production of culture. While Selzer acknowledges that this growing concern for language lends legitimacy to disciplines like Rhetoric and Composition, he also troubles the “discursive turn” by pointing to conventional associations of language with the ephemeral. To push materiality to the side, Selzer argues, ignores a crucial aspect of language–its dynamic relationship with the material.  Selzer then frames the collection as a first step towards returning our focus on the material, with an eye for understanding the way that language and materiality intersect. In her afterword, Sharon Crowley argues that this work in material rhetoric is that reaffirms the fact that naming and organizing are never disinterested acts. And as repeatedly named and organized entities, bodies are likewise never disinterested–a kind of partisanship that is surely important to the study of rhetoric.

While the chapters included in the collection represent a wide variety of topics and approaches, rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, and archival work stand out as particularly important methods. Likewise, questions about representation, the language used to talk about the body, the material conditions in which texts are created and preserved, literacy, and rhetorics of science and medicine repeatedly appear throughout the book.

Chapters of Interest

  • Carole Blair’s “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars  of Rhetoric’s Materiality” (16-57): Argues that the difficulty we experience in trying to account for the materialty of language emerges from rhetoric’s close ties with the tradition of liberal humanism. Liberal humanism has us believe that rhetoric is under our control and that its most important function is to help us achieve our goals, and so we focus primarily on the production of rhetoric rather than its consequences. In response, Blair examines several American memorial sites in order to ask how their specific materiality and the implications of this materiality (for example, the way it is viewed/read or its relative vulnerability) can help us better understand the materiality of rhetoric.
  • Susan Wells’s “Legible Bodies: Nineteenth Century Women Physicians and the Rhetoric of Dissection” (58-74): Looks at archival accounts of women medical students in the mid-19th century dissecting bodies, which highlight both a different kind of scientific gaze and the pleasure women felt at seeing the beauty of the body and getting the rare visual it provided for understanding illness. She argues that dissection is important for material rhetoric because it illustrates how the corporeal and the constructed, the material and the abstract, are intertwined.
  • Christine De Vinne’s “Conspicuous Consumption: Cannibal Bodies and the Rhetoric of the American West” (75-97): Looks at narratives of the Donner party and the way they were received by the public as part of a fascination with the most extreme ends of the cannibalizing/consuming project of settling the west. De Vinne is interested in the way in which these narratives involves a textual consumption (or cannibalizing) of both the Donner survivors and the dead.
  • Wendy B. Sharer’s “Disintegrating Bodies of Knowledge: Historical Material and Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric” (120-42): Focuses on the material conditions that affect the creation of archives, as well as their preservation and accessibility. Throughout the chapter, she explores the politics of what is deemed worthy of a “proper” archive, a politics that can not only result in archives that are gendered, raced, classed, etc. but that can also effect decisions about what gets preserved when resources become limited. Sharer also discusses at length the effects that time, financial resources, and the availability of space have on the work archivists are able to do.
  • Peter Mortensen’s “Figuring Illiteracy: Rustic Bodies and Unlettered Minds in Rural America” (143-70): Mortensen traces discourses about illiteracy that reflect fears about racial degeneration, fears that were also very much connected to the desire to modernize rural, agricultural areas. These discourses gradually elevated from a call for more education in rural areas to the concern that the illiterate were merely “feeble-minded” idiots who needed to be colonized in order to prevent bringing the rest of society down with them.
  • Christina Haas’s “Materializing Public and Private: The Spatialization of Conceptual Categories in Discourses of Abortion” (218-38): This piece is based off of ethnographic work and spatial analysis of an Ohio abortion clinic. The piece looks specifically at a Permanent Injunction posted on the clinic door and, drawing on Arendt, Habermas, and Fraser, highlights the spatial metaphors used to delineate private and public. While these spatial metaphors have the potential to constrain our notions of the public and private and to give further power to the distinction, they also have a pragmatic effect in the space of the clinic that allows the work of the clinic to continue unobstructed.
  • Barbara Dickson’s “Reading Maternity Materially: The Case of Demi Moore” (297-313): This chapter is a discourse analysis focused on a Vanity Fair cover that featured a pregnant and nude Demi Moore. According to Dickson, Moore’s photo argues that the pregnant body is still desirable and the pregnant woman is still an agent–an argument that responds to popular discourse that treats pregnancy as a temporary failure of feminine norms. Dickson argues that material rhetoric helps us see how the body disrupts expectations and how the body is understood within larger discursive practices. This piece has an extended discussion of material rhetoric as a method or lens, complete with some helpful definitions.
  • Celeste Condit’s “The Materiality of Coding: Rhetoric, Genetics, and the Matter of Life” (326-56): Condit is looking at DNA coding to challenge the poststructuralist emphasis on language and to point to the material origins of language. DNA code highlights tensions between the material and the signified–we objectify something that we have to social object for in order to talk about it, but it still exists even if we have no social object. For Condit, this tension points to the limits of language.

Quotable Quotes:

“No text is a text, nor does it have meaning, influence, political stance, or legibility, in the absence of material form. Rhetoric is not rhetoric until it is uttered, written, or otherwise manifested or given presence.” (Carole Blair 18)

“In sum, then, material rhetoric, as a mode of interpretation, reads for the ways persons inscribe on their corporeal bodies the culture that produces them and that they mutually produce. It seeks invention in the improvisations of the bodily writings; agency, in the ways these improvisations resist hegemonic structurings of the body and so change the relationships between these corporeal bodies and the structures they inhabit; and persuasion, in the ways these changed relationships more fully satisfy the desire of the acting body.” (Barbara Dickson 298)