cover of book

Rhetorical Refusals: Defying Audiences' Expectations
by John Schilb
Southern Illinois University Press, 2007
Paper: 978-0-8093-2789-8 | eISBN: 978-0-8093-8761-8
Library of Congress Classification PE1404.S35 2007
Dewey Decimal Classification 808.042


The first book to explore rhetorical refusals—instances in which speakers and writers deliberately flout the conventions of rhetoric and defy their audiences’ expectations— Rhetorical Refusals: Defying Audiences’ Expectations challenges the reader to view these acts of academic rebellion as worthy of deeper analysis than they are commonly accorded, as rhetorical refusals can simultaneously reveal unspoken assumptions behind the very conventions they challenge, while also presenting new rhetorical strategies.

Through a series of case studies, John Schilb demonstrates the deeper meanings contained within rhetorical refusals: when dance critic Arlene Croce refused to see a production that she wrote about; when historian Deborah Lipstadt declined to debate Holocaust deniers; when President Bill Clinton denied a grand jury answers to their questions; and when Frederick Douglass refused to praise Abraham Lincoln unequivocally. Each of these unexpected strategies revealed issues of much greater importance than the subjects at hand. By carefully laying out an underlying framework with which to evaluate these acts, Schilb shows that they can variously point to the undue privilege of authority; the ownership of truth; the illusory divide between public and private lives; and the subjectivity of honor.

According to Schilb, rhetorical refusals have the potential to help political discourse become more inventive. To demonstrate this potential, Schilb looks at some notable cases in which invitations have led to unexpected results: comedian Stephen Colbert’s brazen performance at the White House Press Association dinner; poet Sharon Olds’s refusal to attend the White House Book Fair, and activist Cindy Sheehan’s display of an anti-war message at the 2006 State of the Union Address.

Rhetorical Refusals explores rhetorical theories in accessible language without sacrificing complexity and nuance, revealing the unspoken implications of unexpected deviations from rhetorical norms for classic political concepts like free debate and national memory. With case studies taken from art, politics, literature, and history, this book will appeal to scholars and students of English, communication studies, and history.

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