Discourse of Hysteria: The topoi of Humility, Physicality, and Authority in Women’s Rhetoric

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This study analyzes the rhetorical strategies of five women, (Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Aphra Behn, Sojourner Truth, and Hélène Cixous), from different historical periods. The author finds commonalities constituting a discourse of hysteria, deriving from and making productive use of women’s historical position at the margins of institutionalized power in our culture.


“. . . opens up new territories for scholarly studies, beginning the work of identifying unrecognized, and therefore unexplored, practices and strategies for using language to negotiate meaning and power within a given culture.” – Prof. Teena A.M. Carnegie, Eastern Washington University

“. . . an important contribution to the history of Western rhetoric and more specifically to new approaches to the history of women’s rhetoric. Greene extends much of the recent work that undoes the erasure of women’s rhetoric, demonstrating how her fairly simple but powerful “commonalities of women’s rhetoric” can provide new insights into some familiar historical figures. Using a deft combination of strategies from historiography, traditional and postmodern rhetorical criticism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Greene argues convincingly that a “rhetoric of hysteria” can be seen as threaded across Western historical history, and that this rhetorical strategy has allowed many women rhetors to effectively manipulate and perhaps occasionally overturn the conventions of the master discourse.” – Prof. Charles Paine, University of New Mexico

“Rather than criticize the widespread tendency to associate hysteria with women and femininity, Logan Dale Greene instead regards hysteria as the foundation of an effective rhetorical strategy. Borrowing from Lacanian discourse theory, Greene regards hysterical discourse as a challenge to the master discourse. Greene offers a detailed examination of the rhetoric of Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Aphra Behn, Sojourner Truth, and Hélène Cixous. This examination reveals that, despite their obvious cultural and historical differences, each of these women makes use of the various topoi that Greene takes to be constitutive of hysterical rhetoric. Specifically, according to Greene, hysterical rhetoric is characterized by humility, physicality, and authority. – Prof. Mimi Marinucci, Eastern Washington University

"Due to its broad nature, this book is more illuminating to a nonmedievalist as an argument for the inclusion of medieval female writers in the history of female rhetoric than it is to a medievalist. However, this is in keeping with the stated intention of the book, as a contribution to the history of rhetoric rather than a criticism of medieval literature or of any other period covered. Her conclusion does, however, serve a challenge to medievalists." - Prof. Virginia Langum, Umea University

Table of Contents

Foreword by Prof. Teena A.M. Carnegie, Eastern Washington University
1. Prolegomenon to a Theory of Women’s Rhetoric
2. A New History of Rhetoric
3. The Redemptive Function of the Hysteric
4. The Power of Humility: Hildegard of Binge
5. The Power of Hysteria: Margery Kempe
6. The Sexualization of Hysteria: Aphra Behn
7. A New Sign: Sojourner Truth
8. Écriture féminine: Hélène Cixous
9. A Theory of Women’s Rhetoric
Works Cited

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