Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Byron Hawk

Second Advisor

Pat J. Gehrke


Amidst rising agricultural pollution, poor conditions for livestock animals, and disparity between “high” and “low” food cultures, gustatory taste has entered contemporary public rhetoric as a significant modality of intervention. This dissertation considers the environmentalist and social potential of this public embrace of sensory rhetoric. To do so, I build a rhetorical theory of sensation through a sensory re-engagement of the rhetorical tradition. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, I argue, embraced aesthetic taste as a site where rhetoric and ethics mingle, and yet in promoting its cultivation, they fell into elitism. The subsequent, Marxist discourse on sensory emancipation developed rhetoric’s sensory and taste-based connections to ethics, taking an historical rather than an individualist perspective. I evaluate to what extent this discourse overcame Enlightenment elitism, and forge connections between the Marxist tradition and the current call among new materialists such as Bruno Latour for an immanent, compositionist reworking of critique. My final two chapters examine how a theory and critical practice of sensory rhetoric is elaborated in contemporary activist efforts from the industrial food exposé to the slow food and farm to school movements. Contributing to work in rhetoric and politics, my project provides an account of rhetoric’s materiality that closely links processes of materialization and practices of sensation. Contributing to work in rhetoric and ethics, I demonstrate that the ethico-rhetorical capacity for response abides not in the individual subject alone, but among all participants in the evolving zone of sensory contact. To the extent that those sensory collectives can recognize and embrace their ambient, inventive, and ever-evolving character, they harbor the potential to break with the Enlightenment ideal of a standard of taste and its associated elitism.


© 2015, Justine Beatrice Wells