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Readings on
Rhetoric and Performance

Stephen Olbrys Gencarella
University of Massachusetts

Phaedra C. Pezzullo
Indiana University


In the past few decades, a renaissance of scholarship has emerged at the intersection of rhetorical and performance studies. As scholars and teachers trained in both traditions, we have long recognized the need for a volume that would serve as an introduction for our students to this unique movement. At conferences and on our campuses, we have also discovered a growing cohort energized by the synergy between rhetoric and performance, and similarly desiring an introduction to this innovative and interdisciplinary scholarship.

Readings on Rhetoric and Performance is an effort to respond to this need. It brings together twenty essays that represent the diverse research trajectories this scholarship has fostered. For students and scholars seeking an introduction to these exciting developments and for those who wish to have a resource for teaching and reflection, this volume identifies existing conversations and ongoing possibilities for rhetorical and performance studies.

We do not mean for this volume to provide an exhaustive account or final word on the dynamic exchanges between rhetorical and performance studies, but rather to highlight key trends that make this intersection so productive for contemporary classrooms and scholarship. The purpose of this book is to provide a convenient, affordable, and inspiring volume for use in courses that introduce rhetorical and performance studies (and especially those that are designed to explore the overlap between the two), either as the central focus of the course or as part of a broader course. In addition to serving courses taught in departments of rhetoric or performance studies, this volume may also be useful to students and scholars in communication studies, critical cultural studies, and folklore studies. It may also be a resource for courses taught in departments of anthropology, English, political science, and theater, as rhetoric and performance increasingly become focal points in those disciplines.

This book foregrounds significant contemporary intellectual trends, notable voices in a variety of fields, and a diversity of topics that we hope students will enjoy discussing and scholars will continue to address. We hope the ideas presented here will foster further discussion and debate about the relationships between rhetoric and performance—and between rhetorical and performance studies—of the past and the present, as well as those that may thrive in the future.


The growing body of work being produced in the intersections between rhetorical and performance studies can be witnessed in academic journals and scholarly books, as well as in current directions in the organization and new faculty hires in university departments. In the past few decades, more and more rhetoricians are citing performance studies scholars and terminology, while more and more performance studies scholars are engaging rhetoricians and rhetorical concepts. In this collection, we sought to embody that burgeoning energy and represent its wide range of influence.

We have chosen published work that we believe will be accessible and exciting for students in terms of cultural diversity, empirical richness, and intellectual stimulation. We wanted to represent both established scholarly traditions as well as emerging turns. Each section balances essays that are more theoretically or conceptually driven with those that are more empirically based, and includes essays that blend the two. Topics include, but are not limited to, social movements, human rights, gangs, war, nationalism, oppression, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, labor, memory, sports, elections, health, and mass media. The essays reflect diverse inquiries that span the globe (for example, of Argentina, Ghana, Greece, India, Israel, and the United States) and historical periods (from antiquity to today), demonstrating the ubiquity and range of contexts for which issues surrounding rhetoric and performance manifest. We also chose authors for each section who represent diverse ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, and nationalities.

For obvious reasons, we could not include every essay that engages the intersection of rhetorical and performance studies in significant ways. A “Further Readings” section at the end of this book identifies additional works that we hope will be useful to students and scholars who wish to continue pursuing this fascinating intersection of scholarship.


Our introduction to the volume identifies the key terms, tensions, and convergences of rhetoric and performance studies. It provides a brief historical overview of their relationship from the initial movement in antiquity, through the flourishing developments in the 1980s, to the current millennium. It identifies the notions of body politics, social drama, and public culture as foundational themes that inform the rhetoric-performance nexus and virtually all of the readings in the book.

Reflecting the wide range of disciplines and topics this intersection has provoked, the essays that follow are organized in five sections that represent important themes in rhetorical and performance studies: ethnography, performative writing and recording, performative acts, publics, and visual culture. Each section includes four essays that embody the synergy between rhetorical and performance studies, introduces foundational research questions and broader critical theoretical discussions, and demonstrates appropriate research methods for exploring rhetoric and performance. (That said, this book is meant to offer a “map,” but like all maps, it is selective; many essays we chose could have been placed in more than one section.) An introduction to each section describes the context and significance of the overarching theme and of each essay.

Section One, “Ethnographies of Rhetoric and Performance,” introduces students to one of the more important arenas of the intersection between rhetorical and performance studies, namely ethnographic approaches to rhetoric and performance. In doing so, it raises foundational questions for rhetoric and performance concerning our human beliefs about epistemology, the more or less productive and ethical relationships between the researcher and the researched, the ways that researchers influence and perform their own work, and the role of bodies and proxemics in knowledge production.

Section Two, “Performative Writing and Recording,” reflects upon the choices we face in communicating our work, politics, and memories. It asks students to consider the ways that our language choices and communication styles convey certain emotions and temperaments, as well as information or knowledges. It also encourages readers to understand how staged theater, written articles, and voice recordings all invite us as authors, performances, readers, listeners, and audiences to respond in very different ways, and draws attention to events in which poetic or ephemeral acts serve political ends.

Section Three, “Performative Acts,” focuses on the ways language constitutes reality. In particular, the essays focus on how speech acts shape identities such as sex, gender, race, and nationalism. This section poses an opportunity to discuss how some of the most taken-for-granted categories of our lives are achievements of rhetoric and performance, how arbitrary ways of performing become the “norm,” and how “troubling” the norm through alternative rhetorical acts and performances may create social change.

Section Four, “Cultural Performance and Rhetoric in Public Life,” addresses how people negotiate living together, particularly focusing on moments in which controversy occurs. This section provokes readers to debate how controversial events, dramas, and choices (such as elections, social movements, and individual decisions to support or protest a policy) shape our lives. It also encourages students to consider the often thorny tension between enacting social change and political critique while demonstrating respect for different attitudes and rhetorical performances about resistance and transgression.

Section Five, “Visualizing Rhetoric and Performance,” considers the politics and poetics of the visual, from ancient Greek stadiums to contemporary photographs and tattoos. It asks students to respond to such pressing issues as the possibilities and limits of seeing and being seen by others; the ways that visual texts and performances reify, reflect, and shape our attitudes about identity; and the means by which spectacles or the circulation of certain images influence a collective sense of who belongs in a community and who is to be considered an outsider or enemy.

Finally, we include a “Further Readings” section as a resource for teachers and students who wish to further explore these trends in rhetorical and performance studies. These suggestions provide extensions for each of the five sections, as well as an additional list on the “Global Roots of Rhetoric and Performance” for those interested in a more rigorous historical perspective. As always, the works cited in the general introduction, the section introductions, and each article signal many more resources for scholars advancing this intersection.

Although we have attempted to reproduce essays as they appeared in their original publication, we did not include images due to the challenges we faced in locating original texts and the costs. In each case, both the originating press and the author granted us permission to leave those images out; we believed that these essays would remain meaningful to students without them. Likewise, we corrected minor typographical errors found in the original publication and converted footnotes to endnotes for consistency throughout this book. In those few cases when the original phrasing was unorthodox, we added a “[sic].” In instances where “[sic]” appears without italics, that notation was in the original essay.


This reader could not exist without the goodwill of many people. Some authors waived their own copyright fees, most presses greatly reduced their prices, and all of the people whom we spoke with were helpful in too many ways for us to list here. We are grateful to everyone who helped make the publication of this collection of articles engaging rhetorical studies and performance studies come to light, especially those who assisted us in gaining permission for the reprinted essays: Aja Baker, J. Robert Cox, Jeanie Denicola, Christina Ellas, Peggy Gough, Diane Grosse, John Miles Foley, Peter Hallward, Susan Hamilton, Kathleen Kornell, Reshma Melwani, Roger Smitter, and Michelle Whittaker.

One of the most laborious tasks of publishing a reader is scanning and editing each essay. Throughout this process, Hari Stephen Kumar provided technical assistance, as well as good humor, that made the seemingly impossible become the easily accomplished; we are extremely grateful for his important contribution.

We are also indebted to Strata Publishing, Inc., for supporting this project as it developed since the original proposal circulated in the summer of 2007. We want to thank Kathleen Domenig for being such a thoughtful and patient publisher, and particularly for encouraging our promotion of the synergy between rhetorical and performance studies. This publication also would not have been possible without Brian Henry’s attention to contract details and more.

Although we did not know their names at the time, we would like to thank the many reviewers who generously offered sage advice about the possibilities of this reader, as well as suggestions for contributions and further readings: Vanessa B. Beasley, Vanderbilt University; Jeffrey A. Bennett, University of Iowa; Bonnie J. Dow, Vanderbilt University; Joshua Gunn, University of Texas at Austin; Robert Glenn Howard, University of Wisconsin–Madison; James F. Klumpp, University of Maryland; Joan Faber McAlister, Drake University; Charles E. Morris III, Boston College; and Della Pollock, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There are numerous colleagues for whose support and advice we wish to extend our gratitude. First among them is Leda Cooks, whose generosity manifested at the earliest stages of this collection and inspired us to its completion. For their conversations about this book and their support in advancing rhetorical and performance studies, Stephen would like to thank: John Brigham, David Fleming, Haivan Hoang, Brett Ingram, Donna LeCourt, Claudio Moreira, David Samuels, Jenny Spencer, and his colleagues in the UMass Amherst Communication Department. Phaedra particularly would like to thank: Angela Aguayo and Charles E. Morris III for being open and generous with their advice on this Byzantine process and their encouragement throughout this project; Donal Carbaugh for arranging her visit to Amherst in October 2008, which enabled her not only to enjoy his company, but also to meet Stephen in person for the first time; and the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University for believing that our strength lies not only in knowing specific areas of knowledge in depth, but also in our ability to negotiate the work that becomes possible only once we blur the possibilities between.

It is hard to imagine our lives without our immediate families. Stephen would like to thank his wife, Winnifred, and their children Angeline, Antonio, Marcella, and Salvatore for their support and patience. Phaedra would like to thank her partner, Ted Striphas, for his patient support, their ongoing conversations as “intellectual hybrids,” and their baby, Niko.

We would like to thank the authors of the articles reprinted in this collection both for taking the time out of their busy lives to give us permission to include them and for their important contributions to this conversation. Other than Dwight Conquergood, who made such an indelible impact despite passing much too early, we were excited and humbled to have the excuse to contact the authors that follow. They are some of our favorite scholars to read—not just for their extraordinary intellectual contributions to rhetorical and performance studies, but also for their audacious imaginations and commitment to a more democratic and just world. We feel honored that each of them was willing to lend their name and work to this project: Richard Bauman, Jeffrey A. Bennett, Dan Brouwer, Judith Butler, Bernadette Maria Calafell, Ralph Cintrón, Dana L. Cloud, Fernando P. Delgado, Patrick Feaster, Christine Lynn Garlough, Joshua Gunn, Stephen Hartnett, Gerard A. Hauser, Debra Hawhee, Shannon Jackson, E. Patrick Johnson, D. Soyini Madison, Della Pollock, John M. Sloop, and Diana Taylor.

Finally, this book would not have been imagined without the passion, risks, and insights of our mentors. Stephen earned a joint Ph.D. from the Department of Communication and Culture and the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University–Bloomington, working with critical theorists in rhetoric and performance, including John Louis Lucaites, Richard Bauman, Robert L. Ivie, and John McDowell. Phaedra earned her Ph.D. from the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, with scholars of rhetoric, performance, and cultural studies who blur simplistic disciplinary categories in provocative and worthwhile ways, including: J. Robert Cox, William V. Balthrop, Carole Blair, Lawrence Grossberg, D. Soyini Madison, and Della Pollock. In profound gratitude we still have for their inspirational scholarship, teaching, and service, we dedicate this book to them.



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