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Rhetoric and Sensation

Seminar leaders: Debra Hawhee, Penn State University; Vanessa Beasley, Vanderbilt University

Seminar leaders:

Debra Hawhee, Penn State University
Vanessa Beasley, Vanderbilt University

It took a few millennia, but rhetoric is finally coming to its—or to the—senses. Or has it been in touch with sensation all along, just beneath its hyper-rational surface? In this seminar, participants will re-examine rhetorical theory in relation to sensation, defined preliminarily (and broadly) as feelings emanating from perceptual contact. One of the seminar’s lead concepts will be the “sensorium,” derived from Marshall McLuhan’s mid-twentieth-century writing but also stretching back to Darwin, More, and others. The concept simultaneously evokes sensation and sensory ecologies, mediating technologies and bodies. Much as the concept of the sensorium refuses to isolate the senses from each other, the seminar will focus specifically on interanimating methods used so far in sense-based areas of visual, sonic, haptic, and even olfactory rhetoric. We will necessarily explore the political dimensions of sense-based rhetoric and venture into cultural studies to think about “public feelings” as a potentially useful approach to rhetorical studies.

This seminar, then, will blend historical, theoretical, and explicitly methodological approaches to the subject at hand. Participants can expect to do the following:

  • Work through a core set of transdisciplinary readings (including but not limited to Marshall McLuhan, Cara Finnegan, Aristotle, Ann Cvetkovich, Davide Panagia, Thomas Rickert, Brian Ott, and Walter Ong).
  • Develop an agenda for emerging and future studies of rhetoric and sensation. This agenda will begin with research questions contributed by participants, questions that will be revisited and revised as the seminar progresses.
  • Generate a crowd-sourced history of rhetoric’s sensorium. The history will be based on individual mini-presentations about select rhetorical and cultural theorists, contemporary to ancient, familiar to new (e.g., Kenneth Burke, Lauren Berlant, Augustine, Elizabeth Wilson).
  • Discuss sensation research with scholars from across disciplines at UW-Madison.
  • Participate in methodology working groups. During daily breakout sessions, participants will articulate and strategize ways for meeting challenges posed by studying sensation in a specific and field-shaping way.

Questions should be directed to Debra Hawhee,

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