Disability Studies · Rhetoric

Cripping Ancient Rhetorics

“[W]e judge men’s characters, like their bodies, by their movements.”

 – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (qtd. in Hawhee 156)

One class I’ve really struggled with this semester is Ancient Rhetorics. I want so badly to understand and engage with the content, but every week, I struggle to come up with a single intelligent thing to say about the readings. I fought my way through excerpts from Plato, Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, and even some of the readings related to global rhetorics–a focus I thought for sure I’d be able to grasp.

It wasn’t until this past week and our focus on bodily rhetorics that I finally felt like I had an “a-ha!” moment. Initially, I thought I had one when we talked about Isocrates. We read Jaeger’s article, “The Rhetoric of Isocrates and Its Cultural Ideal,” and I was drawn to the physical descriptions of Isocrates. Jaeger writes, “He says himself that physically he had a weak constitution. His voice was not nearly powerful enough to reach large audiences; and he had an invincible fear of making a public appearance. Crowds terrified him” (124). Because of these “personal disabilities,” he was an “unfit” orator (124). The idea that even Isocrates, a celebrated critical mind, was a poor orator shocked me.

Then, Christopher Johnstone’s argument about the power of physical speech and Debra Hawhee’s attention to the connections between athletic and rhetorical training made more pieces click into place.

In “‘Speech Is a Powerful Lord’: Speech, Sound, and Enchantment in Greek Oratorical Performance,” Johnstone’s analysis of Gorgias is focused predominantly on the power of voice, which he claims can only be understood within the context of Greek culture and the oral tradition (4). Within this context, then, cultural preservation depends on speech that is easy to remember, that is “friendly to the ear and appeal[s] to one’s auditory appetites. It must have cadences, rhythms, inflections, and sound-combinations that both aid retention and engage the listener’s imagination and emotions” (5). Speech becomes not just a way to communicate but a way to engage people’s feelings, to preserve cultural heritage, and to construct the realities in which people live their lives (6). This reality, of course, is an able-bodied one.

For example, Gorgias describes the invisible body as the “finest,” the ideal.  It is the able body that is invisible and able to seamlessly blend in. Disability by its very nature of difference makes the body visible, Other. Perhaps for Gorgias, this visibility would take the form of stuttering that interrupts the cadence of speech or partial deafness that affects pitch and volume. If an orator is physically unable to perfect this delivery of rhythmic enchantment, to pass as an able-bodied orator, they are unable to affect the emotional state of their listeners, ultimately failing to move those listeners to action (10).

Similarly, in “Bodily Pedagogies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs,” Hawhee argues for the necessity of physical ability. The focus on gymnasia as spaces for sports and informal rhetorical training, the emphasis on rhetoric as a bodily art (“an art learned, practiced, and performed by and with the body as well as the mind” [144]), and the focus on habituation all emphasize physical ability. Music, for example, produces an awareness of rhythm and, when repeated “becomes bodily rather than conscious, and habituation ensues” (149). However, such habituation can only be afforded to the person who is not constantly aware of her body and how it must be controlled in particular ways in order to pass as appropriate and acceptable. If one struggles to stand or walk, can such practices that link body and mind be habituated? If not, does this mean that person is unable to be a successful orator?

Where I really felt the gears clicking into place is the association to Robert McRuer’s work in Crip Theory (which I’ve mentioned before…). The connections between physical ability and “good” oratorical (or rhetorical) skills are still relevant today—particularly in the composition classroom. McRuer discusses composition as a corporate institution that demands standard writing produced by standard bodies:

Contemporary composition is a highly monitored cultural practice, and those doing the monitoring (on some level, all of us involved) are intent on producing order and efficiency where there was none and, ultimately, on forgetting the messy composing process and the composing bodies that experience it. 152

We demand the same able-bodied delivery, but we ask for it in a different medium. To crip composition, or to crip the way we imagine rhetoric, makes room for the multiple ways our different bodies interact with these messy composing processes. If we imagine these not as errors but as rhetorical choices or ways of being that reflect the critical composing processes of the writer, perhaps we can create space for those historically neglected within our rhetorical tradition.

What happens when we redefine which bodies are able to speak and rethink the appropriate ways that they are allowed to speak? What can we gain by “cripping” ancient rhetoric?



Hawhee, Debra. “Bodily Pedagogies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs.” College English 65.2 (Nov. 2002): 142-62.

Jaeger, Werner. “The Rhetoric of Isocrates and Its Cultural Ideal.” Landmark Essays on Classical Greek Rhetoric. Ed. Edward Schiappa. Vol. 3. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994. 119-41. Print.

Johnstone, Christopher Lyle. “‘Speech Is a Powerful Lord’: Speech, Sound, and Enchantment in Greek Oratorical Performance.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric. Ed. Robert N. Gaines. Vol. 8. American Society for the History of Rhetoric: College Park, MD, 2005. 1-20. Print.

McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NY: New York UP, 2006. Print.


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