• Katie McWain

Debra Hawhee's "Rhetoric's Sensorium"


How might we reenvision rhetoric’s relationship to sensation—to the senses, the body, and sensory experience?

Debra Hawhee considers this question through a historical lens in her 2015 Quarterly Journal of Speech article, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium.” Hawhee, Professor of English and of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University, studies histories of rhetoric—especially the rhetorical intersections of language and bodies. She approaches this retrospective piece for the centennial anniversary of the QJS in a similar fashion, searching through the journal’s archives to study how past rhetorical scholars have taken up the concept of “sensuous activity” and its intersections with language, knowledge, and speech (2). Hawhee’s aims in this article are twofold: to explore work on sensation and the senses over the past hundred years, and to think about where such work might extend in the future. She begins her study with a close examination of the image reproduced above—a chart that originally appeared in the journal in 1934. Hawhee points out that while this diagram shares similarities with the contemporary rhetorical triangle, highlighting the speaker, subject, and audience, it also emphasizes sensuous considerations: touch, smell, hearing, sight, the “internal senses,” and “visceral organ senses” (2-3). This image, as she sees it, illuminates how the discipline of rhetoric has historically been concerned with more than just reason, rationality, and language. The diagram additionally utilizes the language of electricity (“resistance,” “voltage,” “reactor,” etc.) to depict rhetorical energy as a force in motion, a metaphor Hawhee returns to throughout her piece.

To shed further light on the importance of sensation in contemporary rhetoric, Hawhee unpacks the concept of the “sensorium,” which has appeared in discourses of art and science since the seventeenth century. The sensorium might be envisioned as a hub or a node where all of the senses converge, their potentials combining to shape sensory perception. In Hawhee’s words, then, “the sensorium, that excitable point of conjoining, is the corporeal limn that guides sensory perception” (5). She explains that we might think of the sensorium as a “locus of feeling,” but a locus that is not just confined to the body, extending beyond it to wider ecologies of sensation (5). Hawhee sees the sensorium as a useful commonplace for expanding our thinking about rhetoric toward greater possibilities for connectivity and participation through the senses.

She then moves to a close reading of key articles from different periods in the journal’s history, in order to illustrate the three major approaches to sensation she found in the archives: sensation in the philosophy of language, sensation in speech pathology, and sensation in aesthetics. In the early issues of the journal, Hawhee points out, articles often reference sense and sensation. Toward the middle of the century, however, these mentions drop off sharply—a trend she attributes to the rise of epistemic rhetoric in the 1960s. This shifting notion of rhetoric as based in theory and knowledge—as a way of knowing rather than a way of sensing—seems at odds with the return of aesthetic rhetoric toward the end of the century, Hawhee argues. Although perhaps epistemic and aesthetic rhetoric need not be diametrically opposed, Hawhee does point out that the aesthetic paradigm places greater value on the body and the senses, rather than simply the mind. A purely epistemic framework, by that logic, limits the rhetorical possibilities we might imagine. Hawhee notes, for example, that most contemporary journal articles addressing the sensorium do so through the lenses of film and music, rather than through rhetoric writ large. So where does this retrospective leave us now, as we look toward the next hundred years of writing on rhetoric? Hawhee admits that “finding the places where rhetoric and sensation converge is less challenging than knowing what to do from there” (13). She leaves readers, instead, with a few key lines of inquiry that might guide their future thinking, research, and journal contributions: —Is it useful to distinguish between affect and sensation? —How does sensation inform rhetorical processes? —How can we write about sensation without overemphasizing the individual/sameness at the expense of the collective/communal? While these complex questions are, of course, impossible to answer in a single article, Hawhee does suggest some habits of mind that might help readers begin to explore them. She raises the possibility of dwelling in or exploiting the intensity of feeling, rather than attempting to divorce emotion from affect. Feeling might even be a useful concept for breaking down this binary, she points out, as we become more comfortable with its ambiguity. The idea of attunement, “an act of attention that involves sensation centrally but not exclusively” (13), might also help us conceptualize rhetoric as a kind of energy that engages our senses, our bodies, and our minds. We might rethink our understanding of rhetoric to see it as more recursive, as always bouncing between criticism and theory and sensation and back again. Hawhee gestures, too, towards the increasingly digital nature of our social worlds, and how theories of the sensorium might help us expand our thinking about the media’s constitution of these worlds.

Although Hawhee's article does not deal extensively with education, it nevertheless raises interesting implications for teaching and writing—for the rhetoric of pedagogy and process. What might it mean for instructors of rhetoric to teach the sensorium alongside traditional appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos—or to use the 1934 diagram of the rhetorical triangle to help students think about the role of sensory experience in their writing? How could teachers-as-rhetors practice attunement in their classrooms, or cultivate stances of feeling and recursivity in their interactions with students? Rhetoric is such a vast, patchworked disciplinary tradition that any attempt to sound its hidden depths opens up new possibilities for all of its many iterations—reminding us, as Hawhee does, to be open to new possibilities rather than delineating fixed categories.

Photo Credit: Quarterly Journal of Speech

Work Cited Hawhee, Debra. “Rhetoric’s Sensorium.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 101.1 (2015): 2-17.

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