Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English



First Advisor

Nedra Reynolds


Cynics, Spaces, and Subjects: Toward a Tactical Ethics of Rhetoric explores the problem of ethics within the postmodern, a moment, as well as a theoretical posture, that leaves questions of transformative subjectivity and agency to be answered by an ethical "anything goes." In response to the often destabilizing tendencies of postmodern ethical theory, my dissertation is a rhetorical response to claims that there are no foundations for ethical thought and action. I argue that rhetorical theory is well-suited for this task because of its emphasis on action and discourse. At the same time, however, I borrow some of the insights and strategies of postmodern theory—its penchant for space and its emphasis on the local, contingent, and tactical uses of discourse--to create tactical rhetorics that can help to meet the problem of ethics in the postmodern. These strategies are important for negotiating what is essentially an either/or dichotomy in ethical theory: on one hand, we encounter the radical skepticism of postmodern ethical theory, and on the other, the foundational tenets of universalist positions.

As I argue in Chapter One, there is a "space-between" the rather strategic use of this dichotomy in the rhetorical concept of kairos (timing). Kairos combines contingencies of context with an ethic of action. A kairotic ethics is, then, one of several rhetorical strategies employed to meet the problem of ethics in the postmodern. Chapters Two and Three are dedicated to excavating the rhetorical repertoire of the ancient Cynics, a roving band of philosophers who were committed to living and speaking their ethical stances. The tactics of parrhesia, diatribe, and exile are explored for their ethical and political contributions for contemporary rhetorical theory. I then examine the field of rhetoric and composition to trace historically how ethics gradually disappeared from college writing curricula as training for business and professions became vital to emerging American industry. In response to what I see as the field's continued ambivalence toward ethics, I conclude my dissertation with a pedagogical project that serves to revive critical ethics in the classroom.



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