A Rhetoric of Touch: Disability and the Reshaping of Rhetorical Bodies

Open Access
Walters, Shannon Kelly
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 03, 2007
Committee Members:
  • Susan Merrill Squier, Committee Chair
  • John L Selzer, Committee Member
  • Stuart Selber, Committee Member
  • Michael Francis Berube, Committee Member
  • Carolyn Elizabeth Sachs, Committee Member
  • Disability Studies
  • Rhetoric
In “A Rhetoric of Touch,” I ask how rhetorical and composition studies can value the contributions of contemporary writers with disabilities. I trace a trend of tactile rhetorics among today’s disabled rhetors, such as Temple Grandin, Nancy Mairs, Dawn Prince-Hughes and Eli Clare, all of whom use the sense of touch in order to enable rhetorical production. After exploring the dominant tradition’s discomfort with touch and disability, I show that disability is actually integral to the shaping of the able orator. Theories from disability studies regarding how the disabled body has been medicalized, rehabilitated, and normalized illuminate how rhetoric and rhetorical bodies have been similarly treated by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian. As an alternative to this tradition, I redefine the sophistic concepts of logos, metis, and kairos as tactile rhetorics, arguing that these flexible practices can reshape rhetoric for a wide range of rhetors. I draw on Empedocles’ theories of fleshy logos and integrate current writing by people with disabilities to redefine logos as multi logos. Similarly, I blend sophistic theories and disabled rhetorics to redefine metis as tactile intelligence (rather than cunning intelligence) and kairos as tactile timing (rather than simple timing). I construct a theory of “rhetoric reshaped” which stretches contemporary rhetoric and composition studies to respond to the needs and contributions of disabled rhetors. Rhetoric reshaped transforms the traditional rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos and logos and the traditional canons of invention, arrangement, style, delivery and memory, for a range of rhetorical situations. I coordinate between neo-sophistic studies, feminist rhetorics and disability studies to explore the possibilities disabled rhetors offer to contemporary rhetorical and composition studies.