Readings on Rhetoric and Performance

By Stephen Olbrys Gencarella and Phaedra C. Pezzullo. 2010. State College, PA: Strata Publishing. 410 pages. ISBN: 9781891136252 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Juan Francisco Sans, Universidad Central de Venezuela

[Review length: 1097 words • Review posted on March 6, 2013]


This book gathers in a single volume twenty texts related to rhetoric and performance, previously published as articles in different journals such as Quarterly Journal of Speech, Journal of American Folklore, The Drama Review, Text and Performance Quarterly, Radical Philosophy, Oral Tradition, Communication Monographs, and Critical Studies in Media Communication; as chapters in collective studies like The Ends of Performance or Disappearing Acts; in individual books like Angel Town; or in reference works like Sage Handbook of Performance Studies or Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. These writings appeared between 1992 and 2008, coincidentally with the creation of an increasing number of departments of rhetoric and performance in universities and research institutes around the world.

The work starts with a short preface in which the editors express their aims for this compilation, the features and organization of the book, and the acknowledgments. They explore in the introduction some general definitions of key concepts like performance, rhetoric, body politics, social drama, and public culture, indispensable to understanding the spirit of these writings. The collected texts are grouped into five sections, with four texts apiece, linked thematically to cover the wide scope of topics of concern to these two disciplines and their numerous crossroads and coincidences. Each section begins with an explanation written by the editors, containing a summary of the content of the articles and the reasons why they were chosen for the book and put together. The authors selected are remarkable scholars in the field. Texts are not facsimiles reproduced in this edition, but adapted to a unique standardized format. At the end, a list of further readings is included.

The book tries to give an answer to rhetoricians and scholars of performance studies, who have their own established academic traditions, but perceive that their disciplines are ever more and inevitably engaged. It tries also to provide updated materials for communication studies, critical cultural studies, anthropology, and theater, disciplines that deal with words and actions, and can be very useful for scholars and students interested in these academic topics.

In this sense, the first section of the book begins with a text by Dwight Conquergood that brings together ethnography, rhetoric and performance, inspiring the general mood of the whole volume, emphasizing how ethnographers extract knowledge from contact with others and the crucial role of rhetoric in this process. Soyini Madison explores the possibilities of the intervention of rhetoric and performance in conflicting social situations, where opposed stances (e.g., traditional customs vs. human rights) are involved. Ralph Cintrón’s “Blacktop” constitutes an excellent example of writing ethnography in a marginalized Mexican-American community in the midwestern United States. Christine Lynn Garlough writes about the expression of feminist values in street performances of traditional dances and plays in a conservative society like contemporary India.

The article by Della Pollock opens the second section, dedicated to performative writing and recording. The examination of writing as performance, and the possibilities and limits of rhetoric in this experience, are central to her proposal. Shannon Jackson examines herself as a writer of plays about black culture from the perspective of her own whiteness and white privileges. The third paper in this section, written by Stephen Hartnett, explores the strategies of resistance developed by Hans Eisler, a refugee musician from Germany, to resist the oppression during the period of anticommunist persecution in the United States. Finally, Joshua Gunn writes about the rhetoric of mass media treatment of the recorded voices of people who died in the World Trade Center tragedy on September 11th, 2001.

Performative acts are the main topic of the third section, in which the papers explain how words and actions are indissolubly linked. The section begins with an interview with Judith Butler by Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, in which she explains how sex is essentially performatively determined. Likewise, John Sloop tackles in his article the polemical “John/Joan” case, examining the arguments used by all involved (the parents, the physicians, the public opinion, and John), combining in a real example theories of gender construction biologicall predetermination. E. Patrick Johnson writes about the distinction between “queer” and “quare,” which adds substantive variables like ethnic origin to queer studies. Finally, Diana Taylor offers an essay about the relationship between soccer, identity, nationalism, and policies concerning the disappearing of people applied by the military dictatorship during the period known as the “dirty war” in Argentina (1976-1983).

Cultural Performance and Rhetoric in Public Life is the main theme of the articles of Part Four. Based on the concept coined by Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere is the place where people reveal political differences, negotiate collective decisions, and reach consensus. Rhetoric and performance have a central role in this process. Richard Bauman and Patrick Feaster study how in the late nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century politicians and industrialists use technology, specifically the recordings of their speeches, to persuade their followers. Gerhard Hauser narrates his own experience in the political arena of the 1985 Greek national election, the interaction between the participants and the candidates, from the perspective of an American-born citizen. Phaedra Pezzullo talks about the strong contradictions between the campaign against Breast Cancer and the commercial interest of some sponsors. And Jeffrey A. Bennett refers to passing and protesting in the space of blood donation, specifically by the so-called “risk groups” and their attitudes towards this important social ritual.

The last section tackles the rhetoric and performance of images, and how images, like words, not only show things, but do things. The first article, by Debra Hawhee, demonstrates how visual power has been known and consciously used since the ancient Greeks in athletics games. Dana I. Cloud analyzes how the photographs of Afghanistanis are used to justify arguments concerning the American occupation of this country. Bernardette Marie Calafell and Fernando P. Delgado analyze Americanos, a exhibition of photographs that questions stereotypical portrayals of Latino culture in the United States. Last, Dan Brouwer examines the social effect of defiant tattoos made by persons who are HIV/AIDS positive on their own bodies, advertising that they are infected.

This group of twenty articles provides an extremely rich and up-to-date compendium of relevant materials about performance and rhetoric, and it can be very useful as material for teaching and research. It shows how diverse their applications in many fields, disciplines, and circumstances can be. Perhaps the most interesting thing in the whole volume is its confirmation of the fact that resilience, silence, and passivity are not always bad strategies of resistance and survival, and occasionally they can be more effective than violence, confrontation, and direct struggle.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.