Is Our Agency Really Ours?

Blake Whiteheart

Keywords: Rhetorical Agency, Narrative, Identity, Ideology, Agency

Agency is one of the unique characteristics that make us human. It gives us the capacity as individuals to act independently and make our own choices. My ability to make decisions gives me a sense of purpose and power and I believe everyone has the right to feel that way, that they are free in the world around them. But with this being said, every act of agency has a predetermined path because of rhetoric. Our agency is consumed by rhetoric in things like tradition, capitalism, and our ability to question things that we as human beings understand and don’t understand. These rhetorical components of agency can be broken down into 5 different categories which help us explain how rhetoric influences or subconsciously directs our decisions when it comes to the agency.

When we think of rhetoric, it’s hard to pinpoint what that means exactly. It’s a broad term. But Jeffery P. Mehltretter Drury theorizes that “agency’s relationship to rhetoric can be condensed around five different kinds of agency: material, discursive, inventional, audience, and textual” (Drury). By condensing rhetoric into these categories, it allows us to home in on how agency ties into these 5 different types of agency. Drury says that material agency is how we as human beings are able to act in the world through our independence (Drury). What we as human beings say and do daily is constantly affected by the rhetoric around us making us make decisions based on it. For example, my football team and coaches create rhetoric that helps me make decisions. For example, I do not drink or party on weekends because the rhetoric that the football coaches push see these decisions as unacceptable.

Discursive agency refers to our capacity to communicate in public discourse. This aspect animates our human concerns about power structures that limit people’s agency (Drury). This category shows how our agency is diminished based on rhetoric and our understanding of how power structures work in our world. Interventional agency is defined as the capacity to generate rhetorical materials (Drury). Our capacity to have agency stems from the origin of particular rhetoric. Rhetoric doesn’t come from thin air, it is created and we as human beings, in turn, use it to make decisions for ourselves. Audience rhetoric is defined by how we as human beings receive the rhetoric given. When we as human beings see rhetoric, we have to internalize it first. After this, we as human beings make a division on how we view it and use it. This, in turn, affects our agency as human beings.

Rhetoric can be seen through these five types of agency: “One of the most widely accepted judgments about traditional humanistic rhetoric is that it contains a strong, almost totalizing, emphasis on the agency of the rhetor” (Leff). Agency and our decision-making fall on the shoulders of the rhetoric in our tradition. As stated above, it’s something that we as human beings don’t think about but at the same time consumes us. We are molded by our traditions as people and gather our identity based on people who become before us as well as social norms. An example from my life is decorating a Christmas tree. A tradition in my household is that the youngest person in the family puts the first ornament on and the oldest puts the last ornament on, this is tradition that was created by my great, great grandparents. The persuasion rhetoric of tradition affects our family because it makes our family continue the tradition. This all stems from the rhetoric that is used. “The technical apparatus is informed and organized from the speaker’s perspective, and the humanistic rhetori- cians construct the orator as a cultural hero and celebrate the magnitude and apparent autonomy of oratorical power” (Leff). We digest the rhetoric that a person of power uses that represents our tradition and this controls our agency and decision-making as humans. Through this understanding, we can see how there is a dependency on the audience and social context. We are the audience to the people who have come before and used rhetoric to create traditions. We then subconsciously use this rhetoric in our own lives and agency.

We can also see how rhetorical agency plays out in politics and communicative labor. “As political action, rhetorical agency often takes on the characteristics of a normative theory of citizenship; a good citizen persuades and is persuaded by the gentle force of the better argument” (Greene). These normative theories direct our agency as humans. Because we consume this rhetoric of good citizenship through our politics, it makes us act in certain ways. In this case, it makes us uphold our beliefs and values. The rhetoric that we see becomes the rhetoric that we use to make daily decisions. “More radical visions of argument might include strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts in the rhetorical arsenal of good citizenship, and some might even flirt with violence as rhetorical action. This model of rhetorical agency requires a translation of the conceptual apparatus of rhetoric and its alignment with the problematics of democratic theory and actually existing democratic regimes” (Greene). This excerpt shows that we also realize that there are other rhetorics that force different ideologies on what is considered good citizenship. Through different rhetorics, it changes the way we think of the same concepts. In this case, it’s citizenship. One rhetoric sees citizenship as following the norms, whereas another rhetoric sees citizenship as standing up against problems seen in government. Both are trying to accomplish the same thing. Our agency though is affected by this rhetoric and causes us to make different decisions to achieve the same goal of being a good citizen.

With all this being said, it’s important that we question our decisions as well as the rhetoric that we listen to. “With the absence of a foundation for reason comes an increased scope for choice in the interpretation of the world and the necessity to persuade others where demonstrative reason is lacking. Hence the ‘rhetorical turn’ accompanies the problematization of knowledge” (Turnbull). When we don’t have a foundation for reason, we have more opportunities to see and interpret things around us how we want to. This is dangerous because it makes us consume rhetoric that we understand instead of venturing out and searching for knowledge about life and situations. Instead of using our agency to search for knowledge and understanding of the world, we instead use our agency to consume rhetoric that we understand. This shows that our agency really is not actually free when we involve rhetoric because it controls our ideology, thoughts, and decisions.

Rhetorical agency is a complex ideology that gives and takes. On one hand, rhetoric guides our agency through traditions and people we trust and listen to. This is a positive thing in some respects because it allows us to communicate effectively and allows us to understand each other. On the other hand, rhetoric can also consume our agency. We don’t search for knowledge and understanding of the world. It’s important that we have a balance of both for us to experience true agency and freedom.

Works Cited

Drury, Jeffrey P. Mehltretter. “Beyond ‘Rhetorical Agency’: Skutnik’s Story in the 1982 State of the Union Address.” Western Journal of Communication, 82, 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 40–58.

Greene, Ronald Walter. “Rhetoric and Capitalism: Rhetorical Agency as Communicative Labor.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 37, 3, 2004, pp. 188–206.

Leff, Michael C. “Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 36, 2, 2003, pp. 135–47.

Turnbull, Nick. “Rhetorical Agency as a Property of Questioning.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, 37, 3, 2004, pp. 207–22.


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Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Blake Whiteheart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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