Date of Award


Document type


Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


First Advisor

Stephen Gencarella

Second Advisor

Briankle Chang

Third Advisor

Randall Knoper

Subject Categories



Although there has been an outpouring of scholarship on the “rhetorical body” in the last two decades, nearly all analyzes and critiques discourses about the body. Very little work in contemporary rhetorical studies addresses the ways in which rhetoric affects and alters the central nervous system, and thereby exerts influence at a level of subjective experience prior to cognitive and linguistic apprehension. Recent neuroscientific research into affect, identity, and decision-making echoes many of the claims made by ancient rhetoricians: namely, that rhetorical activity is corporeally transformative, and that the material transformations wrought by rhetoric have profound implications for subjects’ capacity to engage in critical thought and agential judgment. This study demonstrates that emotional political rhetoric is physiologically addictive, that the brain and body can make decisions independently of the will of the thinking subject, and that symbolic violence can physically reconfigure the neural networks that make critical cognition possible.

As public culture and discourse becomes increasingly imagistic, non-rational, and emotionally charged, critics must develop theoretical resources capable of recognizing and responding to new varieties of constitutive phenomena. Neuroscience can supplement traditional rhetorical criticism by offering insight into the physiological processes by which destructive ideas become self-sustaining, and it can help critics devise more sophisticated rhetorical approaches to the task of promoting social healing. To advance this conversation, this dissertation outlines a critical neurorhetorical theory that is attuned to the Sophistic and Burkean rhetorical tradition, informed by contemporary neuroscience, and responsive to the unique cultural and social conditions of the 21st century.


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