Rhetoric of Material Culture
176 001 | CCN: 31213
Things, Places, and People
Instructor: Michael Dalebout
Date / Time: Mo/We/Fr 2:00pm - 2:59pm
Traditionally, rhetoric has been understood as the study of how human beings manipulate symbols in
order to constitute a foundation for collective action when one is found to be lacking. One problematic
of this view of rhetoric is that it positions human actors at the heart of our studies of persuasion. In
fixating upon particularly human experiences of consciousness, subjectivity, and agency, however, the
rhetoricity of nonhuman things is routinely overlooked. Notwithstanding the importance of rhetorical
evaluations of the construction of knowledge, matter matters.
This course explores the agentic role of material things in human life, and acknowledges the suasiveness
of matter, more generally. In our survey, we will consider: how material culture is used to substantiate
our knowledge of humans past and present; how the circulation of commodities, gifts, and things shapes
social life; the social life of technical things and the human use of technical prostheses; the transience of
things across time and across the globe; assemblages, and the disassembly of ways of being; and how
material affects political identity and social action. Above all, this course argues that rhetorical praxis is
neither an ornamental nor symbolic manipulation of signs, but an attunement to the intraaction of
things, places, and human and nonhuman others.
This course is an elective in the Public Discourse emphasis of the Rhetoric BA. Though we will engage
with theoretical readings, we will also read a wide-range of scholarly materials, including from
anthropology, archaeology, sociology, political science, library science, indigenous studies, trans studies,
African American studies. This assemblage of materials is not intended to give a comprehensive,
complete account of the issues we will encounter. Rather, it is a “continuous, self-vibrating region of
intensity,” or a plateau, created to encourage students to explore the interrelation of material, culture,
history, society, personal and political identity, and technology.
The goals of this course include the development of sensitivities and sensibilities with material culture
and matter, and the acquisition of intellectual tools and skills for more richly participating in the
articulation of things, places, and people. Course activities—including in-class discussions, weekly blog
entries, collaborative reading, and a multipart assignment—are designed to help students wayfind their
way through materials, and to prepare students for political participation within their (material) cultures
beyond the classroom.