Rhetoric and the Animal Course Description

In a 1917 essay, Freud noted that modern science had dealt three devastating blows to human pride: the Copernican revelation that the earth revolves around the sun, the Darwinian revelation that man shares a common ancestor with apes, and his own revelation that consciousness is mostly ruled by the unconscious. Of these narcissistic wounds, each still gaping today, the second will be the focus of this course, specifically inasmuch as its panicked deflection continues to ground contemporary theories of rhetoric. The myth of the knowing and speaking subject who understands the world and communicates that understanding with eloquence and grace has been massively and probably permanently interrupted by, among other things, the first and third of these revelations. However, even the most sophisticated posthumanist theories of symbolic exchange, those fully embracing the Copernican and Freudian revelations, tend (explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously) to refuse the Darwinian revelation, along with its philosophical and—more to the point for us—rhetorical implications. Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas, for example, each articulates a strictly human(ist) description of the language relation, presuming that the gulf that separates “the human” from “the animal” is uncrossable, having something to do with the former’s capacity for language and the latter’s captivation by its environment, or by the imaginary, or by its own “being,” respectively. And rhetorical studies on the whole agrees: rhetoric, at the very least, requires an engagement with the symbolic. This engagement, while it defines the human (“the symbol-using animal,” “the rational animal”), is what nonhuman animals purportedly lack.

In this course, we will first of all question the certainty of this conviction—and so the putatively solid border between “the human” and “the animal” that grounds the history of philosophy from Plato to Levinas and the history of rhetoric from Plato to Burke, not to mention all Judeo-Christian religions, even western culture itself. We will examine the ways in which this conceptual border has both enabled and constrained theories of persuasion and identification in rhetorical studies, and we will consider the implications (for rhetorical studies, for ethics, for politics) of the deconstruction of this dichotomy.

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