Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition


Lois Agnew

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Rhetoric and Composition


My dissertation reimagines the work of four prominent rhetorical theorists—Aristotle, Plato, Augustine of Hippo, and Kenneth Burke—through the lens of psychoanalysis to develop a theory of rhetorical ethics that accounts for the subject’s relationship to libidinal satisfaction, or jouissance. In each chapter, I will examine a useful example of conspiracist rhetoric, which will double as both a case study and a point of departure for a Lacanian reimaging of a prominent rhetorical theory or concept. In the first chapter, I examine the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy and the January 6th insurrection to argue that Aristotle’s description of akrasia, or moral incontinence, should be supplemented with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the death drive to explain the persistence and appeal of white grievance politics. In the second chapter, I discuss the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to explain why Plato’s theory of mimesis should be interpreted as a theory of persuasion that centers what Lacan calls the “split subject” and serves as the foundation for a psychoanalytic theory of rhetorical ethics. This sets the stage for the third chapter, which examines Augustine of Hippo’s doctrine of original sin alongside Freud’s discovery of the unconscious to explain how the subject’s pursuit of libidinal satisfaction can undermine even the most selfless acts of altruism. In the fourth chapter, I turn to the controversial subreddit r/HermanCainAward, which gives posthumous awards to antivax conspiracy theorists who die of Covid-19, ostensibly for the purpose of convincing other people to get vaccinated. I argue r/HermanCainAward is an example of what Burke calls “pure persuasion,” a term he uses to define any rhetoric that undermines its own goals or strategic considerations in pursuit of jouissance. Taken together, these chapters offer a broad outline of how a psychoanalytic approach to rhetorical ethics can help us respond to the challenges, opportunities, and dilemmas of contemporary discourse.


Open Access