English | Contemporary Theories in Rhetoric & Compostion
W602 | 27019 | D. Anderson

9:30a – 10:45a TR


One of the architectonic questions of the past three decades of
critical theory has been the question of agency.  What is the nature
of human action?  Where does the capacity to act originate—in the
person, in structure, in between, or somewhere else?  Or is the idea
that we decide, deliberate, and otherwise carry out our own plans
and intentions simply a pernicious illusion?  These are some of the
larger questions we’ll explore, with a particular focus on how
theories of agency concern rhetoric, the study of people acting
persuasively upon themselves and each other through language.  The
overall goal of the course will be for participants to develop an
informed and independent perspective on the relationships between
the person, society, action, and language that they can productively
employ in their different areas of English study.

Our reading will be necessarily, gloriously heterodox.  Because
theories of agency and language are hardly a 20th-Century invention,
we will begin by examining how some of the oldest philosophical
quarrels between sophistry, Plato, and Aristotle still frame current
inquiries into the relationship between language and action.  We
will then read Kenneth Burke (sections of A Grammar of Motives and
Language as Symbolic Action) as a figure who begins to seriously
consider rhetoric in light of structural and psychological concerns
still central to theories of agency.

We will then read a variety of different attempts to steer around
the nefarious either/or internal/external polarities of agency by
theorists of a more dialectical bent, including Judith Butler
(Bodies that Matter and The Psychic Life of Power), Terry Eagleton,
Pierre Bourdieu (The Logic of Practice and Outline of a Theory of
Practice), Paul Smith (Discerning the Subject), and Calvin Schrag
(The Self After Postmodernity).  We will complement and focus these
perspectives by reading the work of theorists within rhetoric and
composition, including Arabella Lyon, Susan Miller, and Victor
Vitanza (among others).  While our reading might seem a bit rarefied
at times, the goal of the course is unflaggingly practical, aiming
to provide participants with a body of concepts they can apply in
exploring language as perhaps the most defining human means and
medium of action.

Assignments will include various shorter analytical responses to
prompts I will provide, one five-page midterm paper about one of the
texts we’ve discussed, and a longer final paper that synthesizes
and/or applies our readings to a particular text outside of our
readings.  Course participants will also give an in-class
presentation on their final projects to share their insights with
the group.

Email me any time if you’d like to talk more about the course or its
potential contribution to your own interests and ideas.