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Materialist Rhetoric

Summary and Keywords

The term materialist rhetoric refers to scholarly approaches that seek to account for the relationship between rhetoric and the world that it inhabits. Rhetoricians have differed sharply on the character of this relationship and how it should inform rhetorical theory, criticism, and practice. To be a materialist is to insist that there exists a world outside of human agency that exerts force on human affairs. Marxism is the most influential philosophical tradition for materialist rhetoric, although rhetoricians vary in terms of their adherence to and interpretation of its principles. Karl Marx argued that the antagonistic class relations at the core of capitalism were the chief material determinant for social being. Historical materialism is the primary methodology of Marxist critique, and it rests on the premise that the character of class relations is not governed solely by human volition. Rather, these relations create the conditions of possibility for and shape the trajectory of social life.

While Marxism has informed the liveliest debates regarding materialist rhetoric, not all materialist rhetoricians are Marxists. The earliest iterations of materialist rhetoric drew on Marxism for inspiration, but did not adopt an explicitly anticapitalist orientation. Rather, materialist rhetoric initially referred to calls for rhetoricians to better account for the material character of rhetoric itself. Later developments in materialist rhetoric emerged from debates regarding the nature of Marxism as a rhetorical method, the question of whether rhetoric is representational or constitutive, the character of rhetorical agency, and the existence of a knowable material world outside of rhetoric. Classical Marxists in rhetoric have argued that scholars should predicate their work on the presumption of an experiential reality outside of discourse that exerts force on human symbolic activity. They argue that grounding rhetorical critique in a nondiscursive materiality is necessary for ethical judgment and political practice. Others who reject classical Marxism embrace the claim that rhetoric is material—so much so, in fact, that it comprises every dimension of social being.

Debates between these perspectives hinge largely on how different scholars theorize contemporary capitalism. Whereas classical Marxists retain faith in the revolutionary agency of the working class, their critics contend that rhetoric itself has become the central modality of labor in the modern economy and, therefore, the chief resource for resistance. Other materialist perspectives do not dwell on theoretical debates regarding Marxism, but instead attend to other dimensions of being beyond human symbol use. Whereas some scholars are interested in rhetoric’s relationship to the human body and physical spaces, others theorize rhetoric in ways that reach beyond the limits of human cognition.

Keywords: capitalism, class, critical rhetoric, ideology, labor, materialism, Marxism, representation, communication and critical studies


Materialism is a trajectory of philosophical thought holding that the material world shapes and determines lived phenomena. Such thinking functions as a critique of idealism, or philosophical orientations asserting that ideas are the engine of history. The term materialist rhetoric refers to the uptake of materialism by rhetoricians. While rhetorical scholars disagree sharply on what it means to be a rhetorical materialist and on the nature of materiality itself, all share an investment in the existence of forces outside human agency and their capacity to shape symbolic action. In other words, materialist rhetoric rejects the notion that rhetoric is transparent, value-neutral, or uninhibited by forces beyond the intentions of the rhetoric. To paraphrase Karl Marx (1978), whose writings have had the greatest influence on the development of materialist rhetoric, rhetors may make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.

Numerous questions guide the debates that have given form to materialist rhetoric. These include: What is the relationship between the material world and rhetoric? What is the relationship between capitalism and rhetoric? Is rhetoric itself material? What is the role of ethics and judgment in rhetorical scholarship? What is the nature of rhetorical agency? In what ways should rhetorical scholars conceptualize domination and resistance? Rooted in rhetorical scholars’ growing interest in continental philosophy and political change during the late 20th century, materialist rhetoric is fundamentally interested in questions of power and change. This shared interest has led scholars to diverse conclusions that have mobilized much debate in the pages of rhetorical studies journals and monographs. While the conversation regarding materialist rhetoric is nowhere near its conclusion, it remains one of the most important developments in contemporary rhetorical scholarship.

Materialism’s Marxist Roots

While Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were by no means the world’s first materialist thinkers, their anticapitalist project provided the conceptual foundation for materialist rhetoric. Rhetoricians have engaged the Marxist tradition in a variety of ways. Classical Marxism broadly draws on Marx and Engels’s original writings, the revolutionary tradition espoused by Vladimir Lenin (1992) and Leon Trotsky (2005), and the writings of Antonio Gramsci (1971). On balance, classical Marxists characterize rhetoric as a mediating and instrumental force capable of both sustaining and challenging capitalist ideology. Other Marxist thinkers inspired by figures such as Louis Althusser (1994), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1994), and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) complicate and, in some cases, collapse the distinction between discourse and materiality. They conceptualize class struggle as always contingent and occurring at the level of rhetorical production. Thus, debates regarding materialist rhetoric are also debates over the meaning of Marxism.

Marx and Engels developed their extensive body of work during tumultuous times in Western history. The middle and late 19th century found Europe in the throes of revolutionary upheaval, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States was immersed in the Civil War. Marx and Engels concluded that capitalism, which was still in its infancy at the time, was the common thread linking the events that so captured their attention.

In his most systematic and influential study of capitalism, Das Kapital, Marx (1992) characterized this relatively new economic system as inherently exploitative. He argued that capitalists, or those who owned the means of production, were driven solely by the desire to generate profit through the production of commodities and to expand their opportunities to do so. The drive for profit required capitalists to hire workers, or the proletariat, to produce commodities and, therefore, value. While workers earned a wage for their time and energy, the vast majority of the value that they produced went to capitalists. For Marx, Engels, and many others, the relationship between the working and ruling classes was fundamentally antagonistic. That is, the interests of workers were diametrically opposed to those of capitalists. While capitalism’s survival hinged on the continued availability of labor to produce value, Marxists and other anticapitalists claimed that workers would be better served by the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism followed by the implementation of a democratic and egalitarian mode of production—that is, socialism.

Historical materialism is the critical method that drove Marx and Engel’s critiques of capitalism. Its development came in response to the strong idealist character of German philosophy during the 19th century. The work of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was especially influential at this time, and debates regarding his legacy informed many significant developments in European philosophy. Hegel’s theory of the dialectic was particularly central to Marx’s thinking regarding the development of capitalism, although he revised the concept in significant ways. The Hegelian dialectic advances contradiction as the chief engine of historical development. For Hegel (1976), the intermingling and resolution of contradictions produced self-consciousness and rational unity. This mode of dialectical thinking was distinctly idealist, as Hegel believed that it was the contradictions between ideas that mobilized human progress.

While Marx appreciated Hegel’s attention to contradiction as the determining force in human affairs, he rejected the influential philosopher’s idealism. Marx developed a materialist dialectic in which he claimed the contradictions inherent to social relations drove human history. Specifically, Marx argued that capitalism, the system of material relations at the center of the Marxist tradition, was inherently contradictory. He, along with Engels and those who would later adopt and develop historical materialism, noted that capitalism’s survival hinged on creating the conditions of possibility for its own undoing. In order to create value, capitalists require the labor of working people. Because the logic of capitalism is inherently expansionary, capitalists must employ more workers consistently to exploit their labor and produce more value. The result, Marx argued, was the creation of a working class, or proletariat, that possessed both the means and motivation to bring production to a halt and, ultimately, supplant capitalism with socialism. This is why Marx and Engels (1988) claimed in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism produced its own gravediggers.

Contrary to many characterizations of Marxism as a crudely deterministic theory of history claiming that socialist revolution, and therefore the resolution of the capitalist dialectic, was inevitable, Marx recognized that revolution was not a given. Rather, arguing that material conditions gave form to ideas, Marx viewed the radicalization of workers (or turning them into what he described as a class for itself) as a necessary condition for overthrowing capitalism. Noting that a period’s ruling ideas are those of the ruling class, Marx (1978) argued that the potential for socialist revolution hinged on the production and dissemination of ideas that better reflected capitalism’s inherent contradictions. This required the critique of ruling ideas, or ideology, in order to illuminate their role in mystifying class antagonisms, as well as disseminating alternative arguments about the nature of capitalism that might motivate working people to organize around their shared interests in bringing an end to exploitation. Such a project is fundamentally rhetorical in that it necessitates the critique of discourses that obscure capitalism’s contradictions and the use of rhetoric to persuade workers to fight for socialism.

Marxist materialism, or historical materialism, begins from the premise that economic relations exert force on human agents in ways that influence the circulation of ideology and its expression through public discourse. The task of the materialist critic, working from such a perspective, is to identify and critique ideological discourses, while amplifying alternatives that better reflect the exploitative and antagonistic nature of capitalism. This is a distinctly partisan critical project.

It is hardly surprising, then, that critical rhetoricians interested in the capacity of rhetorical theory and criticism to function as modes of social critique have long been drawn to the Marxist tradition. While no firm definition of materialism or Marxism exists in rhetorical studies, the central role of Marxism in materialist rhetoric is undeniable.

The Materiality of Rhetoric

Rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee (1982) advanced the first explicit conceptualization of materialist rhetoric in an edited volume celebrating the legacy of rhetorical luminary Douglas Ehninger. While McGee drew specifically from the Marxist tradition in his essay, entitled “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric,” his primary objective was not orienting rhetorical scholarship in the service of anticapitalist critique. Rather, reflecting a pervasive tendency in rhetorical studies, McGee adapted a Marxist vocabulary to his specific intellectual needs. During the late 1970s and 1980s, rhetorical scholars engaged in two distinct but overlapping debates regarding the mission of rhetorical studies. First, rhetoricians at this time began debating the nature of the text, or rhetorical studies’ central object of analysis. For most of its history, contemporary rhetorical scholarship focused on the close textual analysis of exemplary orations. Driven by a pedagogical imperative to identify best practices associated with public address, critical essays in rhetoric focused almost exclusively on analyzing and celebrating the oratorical works of prominent public figures (the vast majority of whom were white cisgender men). Second, rhetoricians at this time began engaging in robust debates about the capacity of rhetorical criticism to function as a form of social critique. For a discipline invested primarily in identifying the makings of exemplary rhetorical documents, the notion of judging texts in ways that attended to power, politics, and ethics was provocative. For most of the 20th century, rhetorical scholars insisted that their only task was to comment on a text’s capacity to persuade an audience.

McGee’s materialist rhetoric challenged both of these disciplinary assumptions. Starting from the Marxist premise that ideas are shaped by the material activities associated with social life, he pushed rhetoricians to recognize that the same was true of rhetoric. In other words, rhetoric did not exist in a vacuum but was immersed in its historical context. Whereas a generation of contemporary rhetorical scholars regarded texts as exemplary models of oration whose authors had mastered their sense of audience and context, McGee argued that his colleagues should understand texts as parts of broad and complex social processes. Rather than seeking to develop formal definitions of rhetoric suitable for analyzing any text in any situation, McGee envisioned a rhetorical criticism that was fundamentally relational. To call rhetoric material was to appreciate its status as a social force whose capacity to coerce and transform public life depended on its sociohistorical context. The text, McGee argued, was a material artifact of human relations.

In addition to prescribing new ways of imagining the role of the text in public life, McGee’s materialist rhetoric participated in a broader conversation about the ethical and political character of rhetorical studies. McGee joined scholars such as Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (1972), Raymie E. McKerrow (1989), and Philip C. Wander (1983) in challenging the assumption that rhetorical critics can or should remain politically neutral. McGee contributed to this conversation by insisting that rhetoric itself was anything but neutral. Rather, he argued that rhetoric is a material force that constitutes social and political relationships and gives form to consciousness. Such an understanding of rhetoric required scholars to attend to questions of power, domination, and resistance. In short, if one accepted McGee’s claim that rhetoric was nothing less than the substance of collective life, one could not deny its political character.

McGee was one of the most influential figures in contemporary rhetorical studies. His arguments about the materiality of rhetoric are one of the chief reasons that he remains so prominent. By drawing on a Marxist vocabulary, while also bypassing the explicit political commitments of Marxism itself, McGee challenged rhetoricians to reconceptualize their object of study. Rather than viewing texts as exemplary works of art, he argued that rhetorical scholars should understand that encounters between speaker and audience are material, for rhetoric is the force that makes such encounters possible and consequential. McGee’s opening provocation generated a series of generative debates in rhetorical studies that continue to make the relationship between materiality and rhetoric a subject of controversy.

Recovering the Marxist Tradition

While McGee drew on Marxism to develop his arguments about a materialist rhetoric, the project was not explicitly rooted in an anticapitalist politics. He was not alone in adapting Marxist vocabularies for theoretical projects that were not distinctly Marxist in character. For example, Wander’s influential writings regarding ideology and criticism were not premised on an attention to the dialectics of capitalism and rhetoric’s role in obscuring class antagonisms. For most of the late 20th century, classical Marxism had relatively little purchase in rhetorical studies. A growing number of rhetoricians influenced by the works of French structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers such as Louis Althusser (1994), Jacques Derrida (1974), Michel Foucault (1971), and Laclau and Mouffe (1985) regarded classical Marxism as outmoded. They claimed that it was reductionist and deterministic in its emphasis on class relations, overly optimistic about the revolutionary agency of the working class, and dogmatic in its recourse to a material reality outside of discourse. As an alternative to a classical Marxist understanding of rhetoric as a mediator between ideology and materiality, scholars such as Barbara Biesecker (1992) and Maurice Charland (1987) characterized rhetoric as constitutive of social reality. In other words, they rejected any firm distinction between discourse and the material world, arguing instead that rhetoric produced subjectivity and, therefore, the conditions of possibility for social action.

Mindful of such trends in rhetorical studies and invested in the value of classical Marxism as a resource for critique, Dana L. Cloud published extensively on the role of historical materialism in rhetorical theory and criticism. Beginning with an essay in which she characterized the materiality of discourse as an oxymoronic notion, Cloud (1994) argued that critical rhetoric’s dismissal of classical Marxism came at the expense of its own critical commitments. If critical rhetoricians were invested in social critique, she insisted that such work required a theory of materiality rooted in the concrete social relations that shaped human experience and, in her view, mobilized rhetorical invention. She claimed that classical historical materialism was best suited for such a task. Cloud identified three key shortcomings of other approaches to critical rhetoric and materiality.

First, Cloud argued that McGee’s materialist rhetoric was, contrary to its own ambitions, idealist. McGee staged his own arguments about materiality and rhetoric as counterpoints to what he regarded as the prevailing idealist tendencies of contemporary rhetorical scholarship. While Cloud agreed with McGee that rhetoric has material consequences, she challenged his claim that such consequences make rhetoric material in its own right. As an alternative, Cloud advanced classical Marxist critique as a resource for rhetorical criticism that contextualized the critical act in the dialectics of capitalism. Such an approach, she argued, allowed critics to understand the material interests motivating ideological discourses.

Cloud claimed that McGee’s materialism failed in this regard. Rather than attending to the ways in which rhetoric mediated and mystified antagonistic social relations, McGee’s approach required critics to resist the very notion of a materiality outside of rhetoric. Rhetoric was, after all, material for McGee. Furthermore, Cloud claimed that McGee’s (1990) insistence that audiences are themselves authors of texts who assemble meaning out of rhetorical fragments circulating in public culture granted audiences too much agency. For Cloud, even a fragmented culture must serve certain masters; for her, those masters were the ruling class.

Finally, Cloud noted that McGee’s materialism did not point toward concrete political action. She argued that a properly critical rhetoric would engage texts with an eye toward collective oppositional practices on the parts of exploited and oppressed people against forces of domination. McGee, she argued, preferred to dwell at the level of the text, without attending to the sensual realities associated with class struggle. Without recourse to a materiality outside of the text or a theory of social struggle that illuminated the material interests at play in any given rhetorical situation, McGee’s claims, in Cloud’s estimation, amounted to idealism masquerading as materialism.

In addition to identifying idealist tendencies in McGee’s materialist rhetoric, Cloud argued that classical Marxism provided critical rhetoric with an important basis for judgment. Classical Marxism is predicated on the belief that class antagonisms exist outside of discourse. The exploitation of labor and the consequences thereof are not, in Cloud’s tradition of historical materialism, reducible to their representation through rhetoric. Rather, class struggle exists regardless of the kinds of labels that rhetors affix to it. The insistence that material relations under capitalism exist as concrete realities provides the basis for classical ideological critique. If one understands ideology as the mystification of class antagonisms, one must possess a theory of materiality against which one can judge ideological discourse.

Cloud contended that scholars of critical rhetoric and other intellectual figures adhering to poststructuralist and post-Marxist epistemologies provided no reliable basis for critical judgment. For example, whereas McKerrow argued that critical rhetoric should engage in the critique of domination, he claimed that it was equally important to critique what we might understand as freedom. In other words, the critical task is never complete because one can never be certain if what appears to be freedom is actually a cunning modality of domination.

While McKerrow’s argument resonates with classical ideology critique in some important ways (i.e., classical Marxists argue that ideology functions to the extent that it motivates people to accept and even enjoy their own exploitation), Cloud contended that his explicit insistence on a relativist orientation toward rhetoric precluded the kinds of judgment necessary for critique and political practice. Furthermore, Cloud claimed that the influential work of Laclau and Mouffe was equally problematic in this regard. Laclau and Mouffe advanced a post-Marxist politics that was antifoundationalist. They rejected the notion of a unitary working class or any prediscursive political subject. Instead, they argued that the struggle for hegemony occurred at the level of contingent discursive nodal points. Both McKerrow and Laclau and Mouffe, Cloud argued, reduced social struggle to the realm of the symbolic. She cautioned that a critical project lacking recourse to a material world outside of rhetoric was incapable of making substantive normative claims about the nature of power and domination in public life.

Finally, Cloud (2006) argued that poststructuralist and post-Marxist modes of critical rhetoric lack a compelling theory of agency. Whereas the classical Marxist tradition views the working class as a distinct collective agent capable of bringing capitalism to an end by virtue of its material relationship to production, theoretical projects that abandon or revise Marxism reject the notion of a unitary working class. Cloud argued that theories of rhetoric that acknowledge no materiality outside of discourse presume intense limitations of individual and collective agency. Focusing specifically on the work of Althusser, who argued that subjects are always already interpolated by ideology, and Foucault, who characterized power as a diffuse discursive network of relations, Cloud notes that poststructuralist theories of resistance that posit a fragmented, or postmodern, subject typically provide only two avenues for imagining resistance. Either subjects are all always already entrenched in suffocating regimes of ideology that render even the most earnest attempts at resistance complicit in the maintenance of the status quo, or resistance can take place only at the level of discourse. The latter approach, Cloud argued, envisions resistance solely in terms of localized, sometimes quotidian efforts to disrupt the syntax of dominant ideologies.

Cloud lamented that such thinking reduces critical rhetoricians to celebrating forms of microresistance that rarely pose meaningful threats to capitalism as a whole and dismissing the efficacy of larger-scale mobilizations against oppression and exploitation. Working from a classical Marxist perspective, she argued that rhetoric should not dispense with the notion that large-scale, even revolutionary changes are still possible. She also noted that such a theory of agency requires an understanding that social struggle is not reducible to its manifestations as rhetoric. Rather, working-class agency rests upon ordinary people’s embodied relationships to social structures and their capacity, due to their large numbers and central role in production, to bring the system to a halt.

Cloud’s defenses of classical Marxism have served as an alternative to McGee’s materialist rhetoric and other theories of materialism. Ultimately, her argument rests on the premise that material relations exist outside of discourse and are ultimately economic in nature. Cloud and other classical Marxists, such as Lee Artz (2006), Deepa Kumar (2004), Steve Macek (2006), Ashley Noel Mack (2016), and Mary E. Triece (2007), have noted that such a perspective need not come at the expense of critiquing discourse related to race, gender, sexuality, and other modes of identity. Indeed, near the end of his life, Engels (1978) clarified his and Marx’s work by claiming that while class antagonisms were the primary determining force in social life, they were by no means the only such force. While classical historical materialists argue that racism, gender oppression, and other forms of identity-based subjugation derive from and serve the interests of capitalism, they also take on a life of their own in ways that have profound, often devastating impacts on working people (e.g., Guillaumin, 2002). Nonetheless, scholars writing in the classical Marxist tradition contend that in order for rhetorical theory and criticism to function as resources for social critique, scholars must contextualize their work in actually existing material relations that exist outside of and exert influence on discourse.

Materialist Rhetoric in Postmodern Capitalism

McGee’s inaugural conceptualization of materialist rhetoric relied on a Marxist vocabulary without an explicit investment in the political entailments thereof. Later, Cloud called for an explicit commitment to the classical Marxist tradition by advancing historical materialism as an orientation that avoided the pitfalls of idealism, relativism, and what she regarded as inadequate theories of agency. While Cloud’s work responded to McGee’s arguments about materiality, she also critiqued figures such as Althusser and Foucault, whose work proved especially influential for late-20th-century rhetoric. Writing with an investment in the critique of capitalism and a commitment to the theoretical repertoires that Cloud deemed problematic, Ronald Walter Greene developed yet another type of materialist rhetoric that he argued was better suited to address the role of rhetoric in capitalism at the turn of the century. Greene (1998) argued in his opening provocation that neither McGee nor Cloud provided an adequate theory of materialist rhetoric. Working from both Foucauldian and Althusserian perspectives, and drawing heavily on his training in cultural studies, Greene claimed that both his colleagues wrote with a problematic investment in rhetoric as representational and what philosopher Paul Ricœur (1977) described as a hermeneutics of suspicion.

In critiquing what he called the “politics of representation” (p. 22) at play in McGee and Cloud’s materialist scholarship, Greene embraced a constitutive view of rhetoric. First advanced by Maurice Charland, a constitutive perspective attends to rhetoric’s capacity to construct social reality and call subjects into being. Drawing on Althusser’s theories of interpellation, Charland and those who have embraced this perspective claim that rhetoric produces subjects through the generation of categories and the location of subjects therein. In other words, rhetoric is in the business of naming and, therefore, providing the foundation for social being. Categories such as class, race, gender, and nationality are all understood as fundamentally rhetorical. Whereas classical Marxists insist that politics exist outside of rhetoric, given their recourse to nondiscursive social relations, a constitutive perspective rejects the distinction between rhetoric and social relations. Rather, such a perspective characterizes rhetoric as being part and parcel of such relations.

Greene reasoned that because rhetoric produces subjectivity and, therefore, social life, it is fundamentally material. Rejecting the notion that extradiscursive material factors enable and constrain subjectivity, Greene argued that subjectivity is a rhetorical effect. He proceeded to distinguish his perspective from McGee’s and Cloud’s. First, while he found much value in McGee’s germinal claim that rhetoric is a material force, Greene challenged the notion that rhetoric is a mediating force between speaker and audience. In making this argument, Greene also distinguished himself from Charland, whose constitutive view of rhetoric positioned the rhetor as the agent who constituted an audience. For Greene, both speaker and audience are constituted through rhetoric.

Second, Greene rejected Cloud’s position regarding the representational character of ideology. Whereas Cloud argued that rhetoric represented social struggle in ways that varied in terms of its fidelity to materiality, Greene contended that such a perspective adopted too narrow a view of rhetoric. Social struggle, for him, was not simply a matter of social movements developing superior arguments capable of demystifying ideology. He claimed that the very conditions of possibility for persuasion were always already constrained and enabled by the materiality of rhetoric.

As an alternative to the materialisms advanced by McGee and Cloud, Greene encouraged rhetorical scholars to dispense with a hermeneutics of suspicion, or an approach to critique invested in pulling back the curtains of ideological mystification in order to reveal the reality of social control. He advocated a rhetorical cartography that attended to the ways in which rhetoric operated as a technology of social control. Rhetoric, Greene argued, did not represent and mediate relations of control, but functioned as the very grounds thereof by distributing subjects onto what he called a “governing apparatus” (p. 22). Agreeing with Foucault that power is better understood as productive and affirmative, as opposed to solely repressive, Greene claimed that rhetoricians should attend to the vast assemblages of social life that are rife with contradictions and possibilities. Yes, rhetoric was capable of rationalizing the misery of certain populations, but, Greene noted, it was equally in the business of improving public welfare. Both manifestations of rhetoric, he insisted, were expressions of power and testaments to rhetoric’s status as a material technology of governance.

While Greene was deeply critical of the classical Marxism advanced by Cloud and others, he agreed that critical rhetoric can and should play a role in resisting capitalism. He simply differed with them regarding what kind of materialist rhetoric was best suited for the task. Agreeing with post-Marxist scholars such as Laclau and Mouffe that historical materialism advanced too essentialist a characterization of the ruling and working classes, Greene argued that a new materialist rhetoric, invested in a cartographic engagement with rhetoric as a technology of governance, was better suited to navigate the complex terrain of social and political life. Greene argued that subjectivity was always in a state of flux given the radical contingency of rhetoric. Thus, rhetorical critics required a vocabulary capable of attending to these rapid and unpredictable shifts. Classical Marxism, Greene lamented, was simply too committed to a crude and narrow conceptualization of class politics.

Several years after his initial materialist gambit, Greene (2004) further developed his theory of materialist rhetoric with an eye toward emancipatory struggle. Building on his Althuserrian and Foucauldian perspective, Greene added Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri to his theoretical repertoire. Inspired by the writings of Foucault, Benedict de Spinoza (2005), Deleuze and Guattari, and the traditions of Italian, or autonomist, Marxism (e.g., Virno & Hardt, 2006), Hardt and Negri (2000) endeavored to develop what they characterized as a Marxism for the 21st century. Arguing that classical Marxism was no longer relevant to the realities of global capitalism, or what they called “empire,” Hardt and Negri rejected Leninist-inspired theories of class struggle that advanced the mass mobilization of a discrete working class as the precondition for a postcapitalist society. Rather, they replaced the concept of the working class with the amorphous multitude.

Hardt and Negri (2000) argued that empire saturated all domains of social being and was always in the business of adapting to and capturing alternative modes of subjectivity. They claimed that empire’s nimbleness rendered notions of mass resistance to capitalism all but obsolete. The alternative, Hardt and Negri argued, was attending to autonomous modes of resistance that held the potential to disrupt and escape empire. They also insisted that, under contemporary global capitalism, the commodification of information and affect had supplanted industrial labor as the predominant mode of producing value. Thus, for Hardt and Negri, the fight against empire should be waged at the level of communication, not on the factory floor.

Inspired by the centrality of communication in Hardt and Negri’s work, Greene argued that a new materialist rhetoric should envision rhetoric itself as a form of labor. Accepting the premise that contemporary politics and economics were primarily predicated on the circulation of information and affects, Greene argued that rhetoric was consequentially central, rather than peripheral to capitalist production. He characterized rhetorical agency as “communicative labor” (p. 201) and conceptualized the commodification of rhetoric as “money/speech” (2007, p. 329). Rather than viewing the role of rhetoric as training talented orators to advocate on behalf of the working class (e.g., Aune, 1994), mobilizing an essentialized working class against capital, or engaging in a hermeneutics of suspicion, Greene (2004) emphasized rhetoric’s nimble character. If capitalism was, as Hardt and Negri argued, predicated on the capture and exploitation of human potential, then such potential remained intact even as it languished under the forces of empire. A surplus always remained, and therein laid the potential for resistance. Whereas capitalism extracted value from communicative labor, Greene (2006, p. 86) claimed that rhetors, or what he called “orator-communists” should engage in forms of rhetorical invention that create alternative values and constitute more emancipatory ways of being outside of the commands of capital.

This conceptualization of class struggle is at odds with classical Marxist materialism in a number of ways. First, whereas classical Marxists theorize value specifically as something extracted from labor by capitalists in order to generate profit, Greene understood value as something that could exist outside the exploitative relationship between labor and capital. Value, and therefore labor, could operate in emancipatory and life-affirming ways that, when theorized through Greene’s materialism, could be liberated from the grip of empire. Furthermore, Greene’s critics claimed that a model of resistance that eschewed mass mobilization and seizing the means of production in favor of more localized forms of communicative action posed no real threat to capitalism. In other words, they claimed that capitalism was perfectly capable of exploiting, oppressing, and expanding in the face of autonomous forms of resistance that, by their very nature, rejected the constitution of a coherent working-class movement (Cloud, Macek, & Aune, 2006). For Greene, however, rejecting these core principles of classical Marxism was precisely the point. He argued that rhetoric required a new materialism that avoided essentialist categories of class and affirmed the multitudinous forms of resistance circulating within the networks of empire.

Other Materialisms

The vast majority of this entry emphasizes the Marxist genealogy of materialist rhetoric. Such an approach is appropriate given the central role of Marxist theory and critiques thereof in mobilizing key debates regarding the relationship between rhetoric and materiality. This emphasis, however, is not meant to suggest that theories of materialist rhetoric are limited to Marxist or post-Marxist iterations. Other rhetorical scholars have characterized materialism in ways that attend to dimensions of the so-called real world that are not necessarily tethered to capitalism—although economics certainly still enter the critical picture.

One increasingly influential trajectory in materialist rhetoric is an attention to corporeal rhetoric, or the relationship between rhetoric and bodies. Such modes of critical inquiry consider the ways in which rhetoric marks, represents, or constitutes bodies in socially consequential ways, as well as the dialectical relationship between bodies and rhetoric. Attending to corporeal rhetoric raises important questions about the agency of bodies and seeks to account for the embodied character of rhetorical invention. Indebted to the work of theorists such as Foucault, Judith Butler (1993), and many performance studies scholars, corporeal approaches to materialist rhetoric are not explicitly invested in Marxist politics, but they certainly attend to the ways in which bodies occupy social space and ask what this might mean for our understandings of rhetoric. Examples of such approaches include work by scholars who attend to the ways in which racialized, gendered, and otherwise marked bodies use and are used by rhetoric (e.g., Chávez, 2013), as well as rhetoricians interested in critical affect studies (e.g., Rice, 2008). Similarly, scholars such as Celeste Michelle Condit (2008), who study the rhetorical dimensions of science, advocate for paying attention to the biological character of bodies when accounting for materiality. In short, an attention to the materiality of bodies invites rhetorical scholars to consider the ways in which rhetoric interacts with one of the most basic and unwieldy dimensions of materiality: the physical human body.

Several rhetorical scholars have also turned to physical space as a site of rhetorical practice, therefore theorizing materiality at the convergence of bodies, the physical world, and rhetoric. For example, rhetoricians such as Carole Blair (1999) have examined the ways in which our encounters with monuments, museums, and other public spaces are rhetorically generative. Such scholarship insists that one cannot sufficiently analyze the textual, visual, and spatial components of such places without considering the ways in which they function experientially. In other words, a monument’s rhetorical character relies on the bodies walking through it, as well as other physical spaces surrounding it.

A related and emerging mode of rhetorical inquiry draws on ethnography to place critics in physical proximity with the rhetors that they study. Practitioners of rhetorical field methods have argued that, for example, attending protest rallies and organizing meetings supplements critical engagements with social movement texts in ways that illuminate the broader material characteristics thereof. Such fieldwork, these scholars have claimed, allows rhetoricians to witness bodies moving in politically activated spaces, engaging in behind-the-scenes debates, and participating in other nuts-and-bolts aspects of political activism (e.g., Middleton, Senda-Cook, & Endreas, 2011).

Finally, recent developments in materialist rhetoric conceptualize materiality at some of the most primordial levels of being. Emanating largely from many of the poststructuralist traditions that figured into debates regarding the efficacy of Marxist materialism, these modes of materialist thinking accept the premise that subjectivity is constituted through rhetoric, but they also are invested in an ineffable, or incomprehensible, exterior domain. Such theorists imagine materiality as even more fundamental than class or other social relations. Rather, materiality operates in largely unknowable but nonetheless consequential ways.

For example, many rhetoricians inspired by the work of Jacques Lacan (1998), Slavoj Žižek (2006), and others have drawn on psychoanalysis to theorize the role of desire in mobilizing symbolic action. The Lacanian tradition of psychoanalysis, like most currents in poststructuralism, rejects the notion that a transparent relationship can exist between the signifier and the signified. Where psychoanalysis differs from these other approaches is in the notion of the Real. For Lacan and those inspired by his work, the Real is an inaccessible and unknowable domain with which subjects nonetheless yearn to make contact. The Real does not refer to “the real world” that other materialist approaches refer to, but rather to the absolute limits of our capacity to make sense of social life. Thus, as Christian Lundberg (2012) has argued, rhetoric is best understood as a set of practices that engage in an ultimately fruitless drive for unity with others and a quixotic quest for grasping the Real. Much like historical materialist scholars, rhetoricians working through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis attend to the limits of rhetoric. Unlike those subscribing to the Marxist tradition, scholars such as Lundberg argue that those limits foreclose upon the possibility of a politics whose fidelity to materiality is knowable.

Another trajectory in materialist rhetoric decenters the human agent. Whereas the history of rhetorical studies has been invested, on balance, in the distinct rhetorical agency of the human species, scholars such as Diane Davis (2014) and Thomas Rickert (2013) have advanced a broader ontological orientation toward rhetoric that attends to the suasive potential residing in all kinds of matter. Davis has argued that all living beings possess a “preoriginary rhetoricity” (p. 547) that is the condition of possibility for being in the world. Drawing from the ethical philosophies of Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas (1969), who argued that one’s ethical obligation to the Other precedes the social, Davis claimed that relationality is the necessary condition of being. In other words, Davis argued subjects are always already connected to the Other prior to a rhetorical encounter. Rhetoricity refers to the potential for persuasion; it exists prior to rhetoric as such.

For Davis, this potential is not limited to the human animal. Rickert’s work goes a step further, attending to the possibilities of rhetoric beyond sentient beings. Advancing an ambient approach to rhetoric, Rickert (2013) argued for a diffuse understanding of persuasion that accounts for the role of environments therein. The writing of sociologist Bruno Latour (2005), who argued that scholars should not bracket human behavior from the force the material word exerts upon it, deeply informs Rickert’s work. Furthermore, Rickert reaches outside the humanities and social sciences to draw on quantum physics to theorize the relationship between matter and meaning (e.g., Barad, 2007).

While Marxists and other materialists have theorized the ways in which the world around us shapes the conditions of possibility for persuasion, Rickert’s work invites rhetorical scholars to collapse the distinction between the rhetorically agentive human and a passive materiality. Materiality itself, Rickert argued, is rhetorical. He noted that an ambient perspective of rhetoric is especially salient in the 21st century because we are so saturated with the flow of sounds, images, information, and even less tangible exterior forces. Taken together, Davis’s and Rickert’s contributions to materialist rhetoric, as well as similar work (e.g., Barnet, 2010; Reid, 2012), do not simply challenge the distinction between rhetoric and materiality, but between humans and their relationship to the material world. Such approaches to materialism have inspired scholars in rhetoric and related fields to conceptualize rhetoric as a mode of influence that exists beyond the domain of human language and agency. In other words, some authors have claimed that the material world exerts influence, or persuades, in ways that exceed traditional linguistic understandings of rhetoric (e.g., Pflugfelder, 2015).


The history of materialist rhetoric is complex and shaped by sharp disagreements between some of the most influential scholars in rhetorical studies. There is no firm definition of this concept, but it continues, perhaps for this very reason, to push the boundaries of rhetorical scholarship in fascinating directions. If there is a common thread connecting McGee’s germinal provocations, the defense of historical materialism, and the proliferation of various new materialisms, it is a conviction that rhetoric is something more than a tool in the hands of talented orators. Rather, rhetoric exists in a field of relations that enable and constrain the capacity of subjects to participate in civil society, engage in political resistance, or forge bonds of solidarity with each other. Materialist rhetoric, in short, is just as interested in the limits of rhetoric as in its possibilities.

Further Reading

Artz, L., Macek, S., & Cloud, D. L. (Eds.). (2006). Marxism and communication studies: The point is to change it. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

    Biesecker, B. A., & Lucaites, J. L. (Eds.). (2009). Rhetoric, materiality, and politics. New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

      Bost, M. W. (2016). Entangled exchange: Verkehr and rhetorical capitalism. Review of Communication, 16, 334–351.Find this resource:

        Cloud, D. L., & Feyh, K. E. (2015). Reason in revolt: Emotional fidelity and working class standpoint in the “Internationale.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 45, 300–323.Find this resource:

          Cloud, D. L., & Gunn, J. (2011). Introduction: W(h)ither ideology? Western Journal of Communication, 75, 407–420.Find this resource:

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              Dean, J. (2016). Crowds and party. New York: Verso.Find this resource:

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                        May, M. S. (2013). Soapbox rebellion: The hobo orator union and the free speech fights of the Industrial Workers of the World, 1909–1916. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.Find this resource:

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                            McGee, M. C. (1975). In search of “the people”: A rhetorical alternative. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 61, 235–249.Find this resource:

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