Course Description

This seminar will attend to the scene of responsive engagement with or among nonhuman others. Traditionally, rhetoric names a specifically human art or science, requiring at least one discrete human subject at the center of its operations. Even what the discipline of communication studies calls “extrapersonal communication,” which involves communication with a nonhuman other (an animal, a plant, a deity, a ghost, an object, a machine, etc.), presumes first of all a preexisting human subject who uses rhetoric to establish the connection. However, in this seminar we will honor this weighty inheritance in the tradition of what Avital Ronell calls the noble traitor, taking it up in order to expose its limits and presumptions.

We will, for example, examine the ways in which

  • the figure of “the human” is produced through ahuman or inhuman communications very broadly conceived;
  • attend to a generalized notion of rhetoricity—a fundamental affectability, persuadability, or responsivity—that remains irreducible to “speech” and symbolic exchange more generally;
  • interrogate the predicament of addressivity or responsivity in the face of (or among) animals, objects, deities, and the dead (and/or undead)
  • —and/but also deconstruct the clean distinctions implied in such designations as “the animal,” the object,” “the dead,” and “the divine,” exposing the ways in which these dangerous supplements are mobilized in the name of the collective noun “the human.”

The downside of this broad approach is that we’ll have time only for a kind of speed-date rendezvous with some of the most engaging articulations of contemporary rhetorical theory. As you’ll see when you browse the list of texts for the course, so very, very much has had to be left out. The modest aim here, then, will be to open a space for provocative reflection on extrahuman—rhetorical—relations, on what takes place at the dimly lit intersection of these three terms. We won’t be interested in finally wrapping up the nagging question of extrahuman rhetorics, obviously, but in holding it open, probing and pushing the limits of the anthropos, in part by interrogating the relations that constitute the conditions for the appearance of the figure of “the human” itself.

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