Dissertation Abstract

In my dissertation, Rhetorical Parasites, Parasitic Rhetoric: A Proliferation of Thirds, I position rhetorical relation alongside the logic of the parasite. Relation, figured through the law of excluded middle, is fixed within a binary that excludes any middle ground or third position. But a parasitic logic, as elaborated by Michel Serres, refigures that excluded middle as an interruption that is both necessary and prior to the emergence of relation. To draw rhetoric and the parasite together I examine a series of inseparable relations—humans and the earth, humans and animals, humans and technology—that situates my inquiry within discourses of disastrous climate change, biologically mediated persuasion, and plagiarism. Grounded in a deliberately posthuman perspective, this project begins with a structure of persuasion that flattens the exchange between beings while attending to the differences between them. I model relations that emerge through interruption and operate in oscillating flux rather than a fixed binary, developing an avenue for rhetorical intervention in which rhetoric is positioned as fundamentally parasitic.

My first chapter draws Michel Serres’ concept of the parasite into rhetorical studies and develops the basic structure of parasitic rhetoric. I argue that Serres’ parasite operates as materially-specific interruption and that it marks the beginning, not the end, of relation. The Anthropocene is one such beginning. It exposes an ongoing exclusion: there is a fraught, oscillating relationship between Homo sapiens and the earth persists as an unsustainable binary through the continued exclusion of a third. Alongside Diane Davis’ theory of rhetoricity, the parasite provides us a heuristic for including the excluded third and holding relation in flux. In this chapter I propose that the Anthropocene can be taken up as an interruptive event that, if included rather than excluded, can create space for shared responsibility.

My second chapter continues this explication of parasitic rhetoric, taking up human-animal relations via the cat parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. Rather than examining T.gondii’s ability to alter human brain chemistry and behavior as an assault on agency, I argue that any I is already both the result and the perpetrator of interruption. Drawing a comparison between parasitic and sophistic rhetoric, I highlight the risks inherent in interruption; parasitic rhetoric gives way to an autoimmune impulse that I posit is pedagogical.

In my last chapter I examine human-technology relations through instances of plagiarism. Exposed as a kind of interrupted writing, I contend that plagiarism showcases the pedagogical autoimmunity introduced in the previous chapter. Here I bring together Amit Pinchevski’s work on the rhetorical space generated by interruption and Serres’ parasite to argue for a new materialist and posthuman understanding of rhetorical interruption. Following new materialist scholarship, I take up what Serres calls pathologies-of-communication—accidental but essential difference that makes communication possible—to advance a theory of pathologies-of-being: the rhetorically grounded interruption through which relation, and thus being emerges.

Parasitic Rhetoric draws upon scholarship that engages with sophistic rhetoric and the inclusion of excluded thirds in both rhetorical scholarship and continental philosophy, and it is in conversation with recent rhetorical theory that addresses new materialism, posthumanism, and environmental rhetoric. The parasitic rhetoric that I argue for is ultimately a method for figuring relation from the perspective of the excluded third—the interruptive parasite—and including it. This rhetoric works to acknowledge an interruptive response-ability that is at the core of any relation. Exclusion, the fixing of identity through a binary logic, is a cessation of responsibility; by excluding, we deny both our responsibility and the other’s ability to respond.