Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In this project, I develop a framework for treating rhetoric as a system for managing vulnerabilities to and through discourse. I contend that, through rhetoric, we are all put into a fundamentally precarious position, an unavoidable state of exposure to material, social, institutional, and rhetorical forces that work to condition us as both agents and audiences. Rhetoric is not simply something we use; it is also something that we respond to, something to which we are continuously exposed, whether we like it or not. There is, in other words, a necessary concern for vulnerability at the heart of rhetorical theory and praxis, which makes it possible to analyze rhetorical genres and situations in terms of how vulnerabilities are managed by rhetors, audiences, and others. In my first chapter, I examine current scholarship on vulnerability within and beyond rhetorical studies, ultimately arguing that vulnerability is both a universal condition and a unique position. I then apply this framework in my next chapter to the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which I describe as “trolling rhetoric” designed to provoke responses rather than persuade audiences. In my third chapter, I examine how opponents of the WBC attempt to manage their rhetorical vulnerability through legal appeals to decorum. Finally, in my fourth chapter, I examine the citational composing methods of the God Loves Poetry movement, an online initiative that manages rhetorical vulnerability by redacting the WBC’s documents into poems.



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Committee Chair

Peckham, Irvin