Challenges to rhetoric’s canon often occur under the rubric of revising that canon and its foundational, shared meaning. Read through the strategies of deconstruction, the secret offers a common ground for recanonizing approaches by centering either a concealed quantity in ancient rhetoric’s granular archive (the secret in discourse) or an unfolding idea whose transformation has rendered it unrecognizable to its original version (the secret of discourse). This article draws on Jacques Derrida’s “White Mythology” (1974) and A Taste for the Secret (2001) before addressing how the secret’s registers in and of discourse animate de- and recanonizing readings of ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric. Its implications address scholars distressed by the durable forms of oppression ensconced in rhetoric’s ancient canon.

Should ancient Greek and Roman history and terminology remain the defining foundation of rhetorical studies’ canon? The stakes of this question are de- and recanonization, or what it might require to unsettle and transform what rhetorical scholarship is and can be. An increasingly common criticism among rhetorical studies scholars is that celebrations of ancient Western worldviews belie an entrenched commitment to hegemonic Whiteness and masculinity. Some rhetoricians continue work on the rhetorical tradition that begins with Plato, Aristotle, and the sophists with renewed attention to the Greeks’ misogyny and xenophobia (Ballif 2001; Jarratt and Ong 1995; Sutton and Mifsud 2015). Others recommend a wholesale rejection of the Greek rhetorical tradition, which begins in the fourth century BCE (Baugh-Harris and Wanzer Serrano 2018; Law and Corrigan 2018), or the adoption of new historiographies that refuse to ground rhetoric in ancient Greek or Roman concepts at all (Lipson and Binkley 2004; Pittman 2006). This contemporary movement to transform the canon aspires to a more representative body of rhetorical scholarship that attends to undercited and unacknowledged histories, peoples, geographies, traditions, and cultures. By departing from the White and Western European tradition’s limited reception of Greek and Roman knowledge, this most recent turn in rhetorical studies promises a wholesale transformation of the discipline by confronting rhetoricians’ fidelity to a disciplinary history grounded in exclusionary violence.

Current efforts to revise the canon also build on long-term conversations grappling with logics of inclusion/exclusion binding textual interpretation to the exercise of power. One example is the combined feminist and postcolonial effort in the 1990s to revise rhetoric’s canon by noting the discipline’s de facto emphasis on public address by White men of Western European descent (Campbell 1989; Condit 1993; Dow 1995; Shome 1996). Efforts to displace this patriarchal emphasis stimulated further debate as to whether including women’s public address in the canon was sufficient or whether this gesture merely repeated an existing logic of canon formation (Biesecker 1992; Campbell 1993). Although the present struggle to dismantle the pervasive influence of White supremacy departs significantly from earlier scholarship by highlighting the erasure of, for instance, Black, Indigenous, and immigrant peoples from the rhetorical tradition, imperatives to rethink rhetoric’s canon have a familiar ring.

This essay contributes the concept-metaphor of “the secret” as one way to understand the stakes of recanonization and accounts for rhetoric as both (1) a hidden meaning contained in forgotten scenes of rhetoric’s Greek emergence and (2) an iterative transformation of rhetoric’s foundations. The distinction between these two registers is captured by the prepositional phrases in discourse and of discourse. Whereas secrets in discourse are grounded in the objective hiddenness of rhetoric’s past, the secret of discourse describes rhetoric’s unpredictable futurity. Rhetoric is concerned with the secret in discourse when attention is paid to what its canon has concealed, such as the Greeks’ well-documented acts of exclusionary violence. In practice, the secret in discourse illustrates how the philosophical invention of rhetoric effaces the women, resident aliens, and enslaved peoples who are subtly written in as hidden figures. By comparison, the secret of discourse describes how rhetoric’s conceptual evolution has made it progressively more unrecognizable, turning away from earlier foundations to favor what is urgent and timely. I elaborate on the secret of discourse by rehearsing the conceptual evolution of metaphor from Greece to Rome, in which Cicero retroactively rewrites the Aristotelian theory of trope to foreground how linguistic violence is foundational to rhetoric.

The first section of this essay reviews secrecy’s role as an interpretive framework across wisdom traditions and as theorized by Jacques Derrida in “White Mythology” (1974). The second section addresses revisionist and critical accounts of rhetoric’s ancient Greek history. The final sections develop the concept-metaphor of the secret as a reading strategy vis-à-vis deconstructive registers in and of discourse. At stake in the secret is a reading strategy that establishes the value of retelling rhetoric’s ancient history, one that also avows the mechanisms that instantiate Whiteness as the persisting ground for rhetorical scholarship. My hope is that this approach helps navigate new routes that further unsettle, reimagine, and transform rhetoric’s histories and disciplinary foundations.

Rhetorical Secrets and White Mythologies

Secret-keeping practices have a long-standing centrality across many wisdom traditions, for millennia and across geographies and cultures. In the Islamic tradition, secrecy is a feature of sacred written texts and dictates norms regarding individual identity (Khan 2008). In the Christian tradition, the distinction between typological interpretation and apocalyptic interpretation differentiates between prophecies that have already come to fruition and biblical secrets that have yet to be revealed (Reid 1983). Secrecy is also a theme of Christian and Hebrew narrative: the book of Judges describes the unique pronunciations of the word shibboleth among the warring Ephraimite and Gileadite tribes. Following their victory, the Gileadites turned the word into a secret password that, when mispronounced, had fatal consequences for the conquered (Gunn 2005, xix). Other standard terms for secrecy carry similarly esoteric histories of use. The Latin arcanum, often attributed to Publius Cornelius Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome (1996), metaphorically invokes a sealed coffin, chest, or treasury. Arcana captures “secrecy as a legitimate dimension of government and emphasizes the stabilizing effects of secrecy and discretion,” acknowledging the ruler’s authority to judge whether to keep secrets permanently locked away (Horn 2011, 108). The contemporary English secret derives from the Latin secretum, whose noun form (secernere) likens the passage of concealed information to the passage of fine materials through a sieve (Bok 1989, 6; Horn 2011, 109). A descendant of secretum, the word secretary references the rich history of information seepage conducted by aristocratic managers of secrecy, who used clandestine missives to communicate sensitive messages (Macrakis 2014; Singh 2000). Practices of secret writing inform ancient modes of encryption (Al-Kadi 1992; Kahn 1996), the Greek and Roman conduct of war (Sheldon 2005, 2012), and insurgent resistance to autocratic power (Taussig 1999). Across and beyond these exemplary contexts, secrets secure identity, manage sensitive data, and restrict a text’s availability for interpretation.

One example of secrecy’s pervasiveness across wisdom traditions occurs in “The World, The Text, and the Critic,” where Edward Said (1983, 32) describes two eleventh-century variations on Islamic interpretation. On the one hand, the Andalusian Batinites maintained that the Koran’s correct interpretation was primarily dependent on its originating context. According to this notion, this generative situation existed as “a hidden level beneath words, available only to initiates” (36). On the other hand, the Zahirites insisted that koranic meaning evolved as part of a situational flux that allowed sacred words to ring true across distinct moments in time. Unlike the Batinites, the Zahirites focused “on the phenomenal words themselves” by refusing the lure of deep, hidden meanings. This dispute thus revolved around one theory of interpretation (Batinite) whereby any reading of the sacred text must reference the Koran’s singular beginning and another (Zahirite) whereby hidden religious meanings lay in plain sight as “the recognizable, repeatable, preservable sign of an author who reckons with an audience” (32). Whether locating the Koran’s meaning in a recoverable past or identifying it as a function of repeatable utterances, both perspectives provided access to the sacred text by imposing limits on interpretation.

In the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first, rhetorical studies scholars also theorized secrecy as related to problems and possibilities of interpretation. Edwin Black (1988) argued that the forms of secrecy and disclosure are embodied in the figure of the translator, the arbiter of interpretation who inhabits roles like priest, seer, and psychoanalyst. He also claimed that the rhetorical forms of secrecy inform the “paranoid style” (Hofstadter 1965) of conspiracy-minded rhetors who compel audiences to believe that “whatever is hidden is evil” and that “hostile conspiracies rule the world” (Black 1988, 138). In The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode (1979) likewise highlighted secrecy as one of “the forces that make interpretation necessary and virtually impossible” (125). Once a narrative is credited “with high authority,” he claimed, continuous and repetitive study deepens the sense that the canonical text conceals a latent mystery, one glimpsed only “through the meshes” or as “a momentary radiance” (144). Secrecy also informs how audiences interpret speech or written text. For instance, Charles Morris’s (2002) “fourth persona” describes J. Edgar Hoover’s speeches as separating addressees into two groups: dupes unaware of the textual wink disclosing Hoover’s hidden homosexuality and passers who understood and remained silent about the secret subtext (241). In similar fashion, Joshua Gunn’s (2008) “inexhaustible secret” accounts for how secrecy creates identification. To cohere, secret societies like the Freemasons make continual reference to a hidden textual core that is both inaccessible and subjected to relentless interpretation (252).

In “White Mythology” (1974), Jacques Derrida regularly alludes to secrecy and hiddenness in his discussions of rhetoric as the generative force of philosophical interpretation and meaning making (8, 44, 46, 52, 68). The essay was initially published in French and titled “La mythologie blanche.” In French, blanche carries a twofold signification, meaning both “blank” and “white.” This double entendre offers a central concept-metaphor for the endemic contradictions of Western metaphysics, namely, its simultaneous reliance on and disavowal of rhetoric. Metaphor is a crucial structural element of Western philosophy that philosophy renders invisible to lend its discourse the appearance of autochthony and neutrality. It lends White mythology the double meaning of being both a racial reference to the white European canon and a “White Lie,” a falsehood that gives the false impression of being harmless.

A vivid example of the blank/white secret theorized by “White Mythology” is presented by the ninth-century Kitāb sirr al-asrār (Manzalaoui 1974, 159). The Kitāb is an enigmatic text owing to its speculative origin, possible Aristotelian authorship, and focus on esoteric wisdom handed down by kings. The Arabic title, Kitāb sirr al-asrār, signifies “Book on the Secret of Secrets.” The Kitāb’s purpose was to transmit al firasa, “the science of judging internal meanings from external forms,” by connecting the study of topics like human anatomy and animal behavior to outwardly visible signs and divine wisdom (El Shakry 2017, 34–35). However, before the first modern print edition appeared in 1954, the Kitāb was largely unknown as such. It was, instead, known by the title Secretum secretorum, the “Secret Book of Secrets” (Manzalaoui 1974, 147). The translation marks a shift from a singular form of secret knowledge (the “Secret of Secrets”) to the secrecy surrounding the book itself (“Secret Book”). In medieval Europe, the Secretum secretorum was one of the most widely circulated texts of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries (Gilbert 1928, 85–86). Its popularity rivaled that of the Bible, and over five hundred confirmed versions exist (Thorndike 1922, 267). According to William Eamon (1985): “[T]he Secretum secretorum not only professed to reveal the deepest, esoteric wisdom of Aristotle but also promulgated the view that, with the aid of this secret knowledge, limitless things are possible in the material world” (323–24). The many later variations of the Secretum secretorum are attributed to Pseudo-Aristotle, which is typical for redacted1 medieval texts on “experiment, alchemy, astrology, spirits, occult virtues of stones and herbs, chiromancy and physiognomy” (Thorndike 1922, 231). In the six centuries after its greatest popularity, the Secretum secretorum became unrecognizable as a revision of the Kitāb. Its transit through Western Europe is, therefore, significant both for the esoteric knowledge it contains and for the formal displacement it performs as “the Aristotle that re-entered European scholarship” during the Middle Ages was “an Arabic Aristotle . . . [a notion] that threw the Latin European community into a spin in the twelfth century” (Borrowman 2008, 342). Its displacement also illustrates that “White mythology” is the product of epistemic erasures that produce “new” knowledge as the unique provenance of a European redactors.

In “White Mythology” (1974), Derrida presents blankness and Whiteness as two faces of the rhetorical secret inhabiting Western metaphysics. He explains that Western metaphysics employs rhetoric to produce “a transparent figure, equivalent to a proper meaning” (8–9). This transparent, proper, or “blank” quality obscures a split inherent in the writing of philosophy. On the one hand, Western metaphysics aims to recover and produce transcendent knowledge. On the other, Western philosophers must reconstruct older meanings using rhetorical tropes such as metaphor and analogy. The contradiction arises because philosophy not only seeks to recover “what was originally represented” but must also create this meaning by using rhetorical tropes (8). For that reason, philosophers have historically disavowed their reliance on rhetoric, and this disavowal lends rhetoric its characteristic hiddenness in the text of philosophy. As Derrida writes, metaphor “at once conceals and is concealed.” Once “put in circulation in philosophical discourse,” a metaphor “is no longer noticed, and . . . is taken for the proper meaning” (9). Relatedly, once the Secretum secretorum was put in circulation, the act of translation that brought it forth was “no longer noticed,” and the new title was taken for the proper one.

Second, White mythology describes a circular, contradictory, and mutually supporting relationship between metaphysics’ claims to transcendence and its implicit White and Western European biases. This dynamic is especially apparent when Derrida defines Western metaphysics as White mythology and vice versa: “What is metaphysics? A white mythology which assembles and reflects Western culture: the white man takes his own mythology (that is, Indo-European mythology), his logos—that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that which it is still his inescapable desire to call Reason. . . . What is white mythology? It is metaphysics which has effaced in itself that fabulous scene which brought it into being, and which yet remains, active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible drawing covered over in the palimpsest” (1974, 11). Erasure lends White mythology the status of an open secret, something known but unstated. Like the palimpsest, a White Indo-European mythology is made secret by erasing the writing of philosophy as a rhetorical act while leaving some lingering trace of the effacement/displacement. Derrida’s account of this self-effacing structure resonates with, for instance, the political theorist Charles Mills’s (1997) assertion: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” (1). White supremacy inhabits the reception of Plato and Aristotle in Western Europe and omits the overwhelming racial privilege accorded White authors. As Mills writes, those who perpetuate the mythology “do not even see it as political, as a form of domination” (1). Like the erasure of the Kitāb sirr al-asrār, the Whiteness of philosophy is an open secret because the generative racial, social, and geographic differences that produced it are continuously disavowed and overwritten.

The blank/White secret of “White Mythology” departs notably from how rhetoricians have described secrecy in the past. Often, they account for it as an intentional form or a hidden content. Under this rubric, secrecy becomes a discourse: a text that emerges from translation, covert addressivity, or (de)mystification. Alternatively, it can be described as a phenomenon, something consciously perceived as appearance, illusion, or experience. However, the concept-metaphor of the secret is neither: not a discrete text and not an experience of sensation. Instead, it describes something beyond knowability or experience: a not knowing that can be shared, spoken about, but that consistently defies being said: “Somehow, this secret we speak of but are unable to say is, paradoxically, like good sense in Descartes, the best-shared thing in the world; but it is the sharing of what is not shared: we know in common that we have nothing in common. . . . Why elect the word ‘secret’ to say this? Why privilege this word rather than the word same, or logos, or being? The choice is not insignificant: it is a strategy, in a definite philosophical scene [sic], that wishes to insist on separation, isolation” (Derrida and Ferraris 2001, 58). Derrida insists on the singular noun form, secret. It is as if to say that there is only one secret that remains undisclosed and endlessly insists on remaining so by holding concept and metaphor in suspense. In other words, as a concept-metaphor, the secret is neither a fundamental structure of reasoning (i.e., the philosophical concept) nor a peripheral form of embellishment (i.e., trope or metaphor). It is both, a constant toggle between these antinomies. To place the two in tension means that, like the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric described in “White Mythology,” the secret is repetitive and ceaseless. Any aprioristic concept depends on rhetorical (re)writing, and any metaphoric understanding undermines its status as rhetoric to become a philosophical concept. The secret, always becoming other to itself, describes a similar “destruction of the origin . . . [that] also works to destroy the trace of the work of destruction” (Khan 2020, 140).

Revising Rhetoric’s Canon

Like Derrida’s “White Mythology,” the canon of rhetorical studies is also becoming other to what it once was. By canon, I mean both the conventional narrative about rhetoric’s genesis in ancient Greece and Rome and the negotiated foundation defining the scope and limits of what rhetoric is/can be. Often, canon offers a bedrock of history and terminology assuring student and teacher alike that they are members of the same academic discipline and have related understandings of the shared core. Of course, disciplines can and do support the White mythology that a Western Europe–derived canon offers a neutral basis for shared scholarly knowledge. This tendency is especially evident in rhetorical studies, which is “one of very few intellectual formations that continues to understand and to authorize itself largely through its own originary assertions” and has often disparagingly labeled scholarship “insufficiently disciplinary (and disciplined) when lacking familiar ancient rhetorical terms” (Kennerly 2021, 2).

One possible account grounding the canonical meaning of the discipline’s central term begins with rhetoric’s emergence as a retrospective description of the Greek sophists, “itinerant orators and teachers” who lived between 5 and 4 BCE (Schiappa 1999, 6). Amid the profound social and political changes of Athenian democracy, the term sophist became associated with resident aliens who were, for some, unwelcome guests (Poulakos 1995, 16). According to Isocrates (1929), the sophists “vaunt their powers with utter disregard of the truth” (Against the Sophists 13.1), “hold their hands out for a trifling gain” (13.4), and incorrectly apply “hard and fast rules to a creative process” (13.12). Plato and his teacher-protagonist Socrates routinely allege that they are dangerous purveyors of moral ambivalence in their dialogues, which are titled for the sophists who are their interlocutors. For instance, the sophists’ willingness to accept money for teaching leads Plato (2015) to define them as “paid hunter[s] of rich young men” (Sophist 23d 2–3). In the Gorgias, Plato (1979) appears to coin the word rhêtorikê, describing it as a counterfeit image (eidolon) of truer arts like justice and legislation (463b). In the Phaedrus, Plato (2002) describes rhetoric as a near-impossible science that shackles orators to their lascivious appetites. It is also where he is most optimistic about rhetoric, stating that, at its best, it is the art of leading the soul away from such appetites and toward philosophy by means of speech. In the Phaedrus, his proposal for an ideal rhetorical art disciplines uncontrolled “mania” with “sōphrosunē,” or self-possessing reason (271 a–b). In the Protagoras, finally, Plato (2006) disputes whether it is even possible to teach “the civic science, and undertak[e] to make men [sic] good citizens,” as Protagoras claims to do (319 a). By repeatedly dividing the sophist from the philosopher, Plato “provided a favorable emotive and technical meaning for ‘philosophers’ and a negative emotive and technical meaning for ‘sophists’” (Schiappa 2013, 6). He would, thus, have us believe that Socrates’s philosophy is very different from the sophists’ teachings.

Of course, attaching rhetoric’s canonical terminology and history to the destruction of sophistry erases other, less heroic aspects of Greek history. It is no secret that ancient Athens was not an ideal, egalitarian democracy. Instead, it retained traces of earlier tyrannies and oligarchies by restrictively excluding women, enslaved peoples, and foreign-born noncitizens from political life (Allen 2010, 103). Its novel democratic innovations, like a lottery system for choosing officeholders and public juries of more than two hundred people, made sophists’ promise of esoteric speaking knowledge attractive to a male, property-owning elite (Conley 1990, 5). In the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, the uncritical glorification of ancient Greek and Roman history also supports White supremacy. Hate groups continuously reference this past to bolster their legitimacy, up to and including the contemporary glorification of warlike Sparta and the adoption of “vaporwave” visual aesthetics blending “Greco-Roman marbles with Tron-like grids” (Pinto 2019, 328). According to Carl J. Richard (2009), in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries White Americans elevated ancient Greek aesthetics, government, and history because these offered a whitewashed analogy to chattel slavery, making systemic inequality palatable and natural features of American democracy (181–203). Given that neither the classical tradition nor its uptake in the past two centuries offers a grounding for rhetoric’s canon, rhetoricians must seek other ways to address rhetoric’s past and its present-day political resonances.

One way of addressing this past is captured by the phrase revisionist historiography, which has often taken the form of scholarly resistance to canonical accounts lionizing rhetoric’s Greek and Roman contexts. Volumes like The Ends of Rhetoric (Bender and Wellbery 1990a), Rethinking the History of Rhetoric (Poulakos 1993), Writing Histories of Rhetoric (Vitanza 1994), Reclaiming Rhetorica (Lunsford 1995), Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric (Ballif 2013), and A Revolution in Tropes: Alloiostrophic Rhetoric (Sutton and Mifsud 2015) take up the project of revisionist historiography, each uniquely posing the question of “what it might mean to rewrite histories of rhetoric by regendering or revising them” (Ballif 2013, 1). According to Gerald Graff and Michael Leff (2005), revisionism’s signature gesture is to expose the power dynamics latent in rhetoric’s historical narrative: “[The] revisionist position opposes itself to any grand narrative about the history of rhetoric constructed from a supposedly fixed and neutral perspective. It privileges the local instead of the universal and directs attention to sociopolitical contexts and how they influence both the theory and practice of rhetoric. The new historiography is to be, above all, critical; it searches for biases and exclusions, for disguised tactics of repression and marginalization, and it applies that critical sensibility to the act of writing history itself” (21). Among rhetorical scholars in the early twenty-first century, attitudes toward revisionism conflict dramatically. Skeptical of the revisionist project, Graff and Leff downplay the need for critical approaches, claiming that “revisionist complaints are not always well-considered and the older scholarship is hardly as monolithic or stultifying as it is sometimes represented” (2005, 12). In contrast, Ryan Skinnell (2015) is skeptical of historical revisionism for an opposing reason: recent revisionist histories are not sufficiently critical because they have “come to serve preservative, regulatory functions” (113). Both too critical and not critical enough, revisionist historiography retells the past with a purpose: to unsettle (or, in some cases, reinforce) rhetoric’s long-standing meaning by revisiting its ancient past(s).

Rhetoricians have developed many revisionist approaches to the history of rhetoric, all of which share the desire to change the discipline’s long-standing significance or meaning. Some rhetoricians, drawing on Continental philosophy, have advanced Nietzschean (Whitson and Poulakos 1993), Foucauldian (Bender and Wellbery 1990b), and Derridean (Ballif 2013; Vitanza 1997) frameworks to unsettle rhetoric’s conventional historical narratives. Other scholars propose novel methods such as “pan-historiography” (Hawhee and Olson 2013), which toggles between sweeping and focused histories, or emphasize queer frameworks such as gossip (VanHaitsma 2016) and the sensory dimensions of archival texts (Cram 2016; Sutton 2013). The cultural rhetorics tradition, seeking to “describe rhetorical approaches in particular cultures that differ from the dominant paradigm,” situates rhetoric in histories that predate the Hellenistic context, including ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China (Lipson and Binkley 2004, 10). Representing only some ways rhetorical studies has taken up revisionist historiography, these approaches have sought to redefine how rhetorical history is told and what counts as a rhetorical history.

Revising rhetoric’s canon is also an urgent matter given the long-standing peripherality of race in rhetorical studies and the “need to examine our academic discourses against a larger backdrop of Western hegemony, neocolonial, and racial politics” (Shome 1996, 45). As Lisa Flores (2016) explains: “[E]dited volumes and special editions of journals reflecting on the field of rhetorical criticism often leave racial analysis out of the primary focus of the field, naming it only a newer development, an add-on” (5). To resituate race as canon would not just reverse the vestigial or vaguely honorific status that it has historically achieved in our journals. It would also acknowledge the insidious permanence of a tacitly White canon and dismantle the system of scholarly value that transforms the inclusion of non-White experts into psychological relief or an escape from White and Western privilege: “In fact, even when we do sometimes try to break out of the Eurocentric canons informing contemporary academic scholarship by including alternate cultural and racial perspectives in our syllabi, we often do not realize that instead of really breaking free of the canon, all that we do is stretch it, add things to it. But the canon remains the same and unchallenged. Instead of examining how the canon itself is rooted in a larger discourse of colonialism and Western hegemony, we frequently use the canon to appropriate ‘other’ voices” (Shome 1996, 46). How, then, to transform rhetoric’s canon? Flores (2016) argues that, in order to canonize racial rhetorical criticism, “we must do so through an intentional politics of inclusion” (10). Deliberately expanding the canon to refuse mandates of Whiteness, purity, and continuity would stretch the boundaries of inclusion, making the discipline unrecognizably distinct from its present version. Taking a stance against canon, Sara Baugh-Harris and Darrell Wanzer-Serrano (2018) “question the long-held assumption that ‘canon’ should be a goal at all” owing to their skepticism that any universal organizing principle even can “result in the inclusion of all” (337–38). Any canon, they argue, “occurs through a lens of normativity” and is “articulated to modern/colonial ways of knowing” (339–40). According to these scholars, transforming the discipline means that we must either work relentlessly to canonize racial rhetorical criticism or abandon the idea of a mutually binding canon in favor of intentional citational practices that undermine existing networks of disciplinary power.

Similar arguments have been made about teaching Greek and Roman rhetoric as part of rhetoric’s canon. Do we revise this history or abandon it? Martin Law and Lisa Corrigan (2018) make a forceful case for rejecting the Greeks once and for all. They describe ancient Greek terminology in rhetoric scholarship as “white-speak,” or a gatekeeping practice used to separate “legitimate” scholars—those who keep the White and Western canon alive—from those who do not. White speak describes “the modalities, practices, and expectations of White speech as well as . . . the expectations created in the discipline pertaining to the modes, theories, methods, and personas accompanying rhetorical criticism and history” (326). Because White speak bars the inclusion of scholars of color by design, Law and Corrigan recommend that we erase, forget, or negate histories that act as the citational scaffolding for White supremacy: “Because white-speak has this academic gatekeeping function (particularly when deployed by dissertation committees, professional mentors, and editors), mere gestures of inclusion are an insufficient corrective without addressing—eliminating—the critical vocabularies and commonplaces that presume and police the whiteness of critics of color. Thus, we see the addition of racial critique by scholars of color as obvious, but we are also interested in what we might subtract from the field. Rather than simply ‘adding on’ nonwhite critique in special conference programming, focused monographs, or edited collections, we wonder: what should we cut from the [White] canon?” (327). By negating the Greeks in toto, Law and Corrigan implicitly argue for the necessity of making the Greeks secret, or of burying their influence. Their position invites us to ask whether there is any purpose to Greek revisionist historiography and whether it is up to the challenge of addressing its own White speak. It invites rhetoricians to consider whether redefining the canon requires erasure in the sense of removal or deletion, the production of new scholarship that actively challenges rhetoric’s inherited Western European canon, or both.

The Secret in/of Discourse

According to Davin Allen Grindstaff (2014), “rhetorical secrets” have four features. First, they are retroactive, meaning that they arise as after-the-fact realizations (24–25). Second, they impute an epistemic division between public/private spaces, like the extimate/intimate relationships that constitute “the closet” (25–26). Third, they describe a fantasy of mastery that grants unique or restrictive access to a hidden textual meaning (27–28). Finally, they are antimemory devices, both in the sense of forgotten knowledge and as a productive displacement of existing hegemonic or normative frameworks (28–30). Grindstaff’s useful framework embraces the conventional understanding of secrets as discourse itself, that is, as a specific hidden content that is only ever partly accessible.

As a concept-metaphor, however, the secret is set apart from discourse. Rather than discourse itself, the concept-metaphor of the secret describes interlocking and opposed procedures performed on discourse. This secret is less the hidden contents (e.g., of a letter) than it is procedures that modulate a wide field of meanings. These procedures are distinguished by the prepositions in and of, which bear directly on projects of recanonization. Whereas the secret in discourse refers to how a canon can be built from what is hidden in the past or between the lines of a text, the secret of discourse describes the processual and contingent mutation of a canon as terms become meaningful, both iteratively and retrospectively.

The secret in discourse describes a relationship to knowledge that is only partially accessible or beyond view. It defines a relationship to the destroyed, lost, or forgotten document and the allure of the name protected by anonymity or subtracted by intentional omission. It is the pull of subtle meaning that requires reading between the lines for catachresis and double entendre. Like pink herrings (Morris 2002) and secret passwords (Gunn 2005), the secret in discourse posits a relationship between a signifier and a broader discourse that contains and conceals it. In rhetorical studies, it describes a fixation on heretofore ignored marginalia concealed in a moment of history, the meaning of which is made recoverable through an interrogation of the surrounding text and context. Thus situated, the secret in the classical canon is not only that Socrates and Plato were the likeliest inventors of the word rhetoric but also that this creation has obfuscated rhetoric’s other sources of invention. It insists on attending to what was said and who was speaking, embracing “the recuperative work of locating ‘lost voices’ in order to ‘speak back’ as a critical memory practice” (Cram 2016, 112)

Unlike the secret in discourse, which recovers an ignored or forgotten meaning, the secret of discourse retroactively displaces and erases its former self. Rather than found knowledge, it is produced knowledge, a discourse born of repetition and against the grain of what has come before. The secret of discourse is a relationship to knowledge that is obscured because it is available only on arrival. It is gotten only retroactively or after the fact. It describes an iterative transformation of discourse, as witnessed by the generational emergence of neologisms or the wax and wane of a term’s historically polyvalent significations. In that way, it is analogous to rhetorical tropes whose function is to dislocate words and phrases from a proper reference or a canonical meaning. What the term means presently would be unintelligible in retrospect, that is, relative to its earlier “self.”

The secret names the system in and of discourse that displaces understandings of rhetoric that would liken it to a search for hidden meaning. Instead, it captures the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of elaborating one discursive register without also unsettling the other. As a deconstructive reading strategy, it offers “a way of reading that seeks to come to terms with the way in which the language of any given text signifies the complicated attempt to form a unity out of a division” (Biesecker 1989, 112). Like dialectical approaches that would situate the problem of modifying the classical canon between poles of hyperinclusivity and hypercanonicity, deconstruction refuses to presume that any textual body constitutes a static or sufficient whole. The two approaches are, therefore, similar in that they both seek creatively to connect different points in a textual web in which knowledge is “tactical, contingent, and fluid at any given point in time or place” (Güthenke and Holmes 2018, 71). However, deconstruction is also unique because it shores up the procedures by which rhetoric unceasingly revises its “potentially unlimited and indeterminate textuality” (Biesecker 1989, 111). In other words, it does not assume that the canon can be reformed through conscious reflection alone. By recentering the secret, it seeks out the conditions that have lent a canon self-evident presence: what a canon must hide or erase to preserve its apparent dominion. In terms of the ancient meaning of rhetoric, the secret in and of discourse locates rhetoric as hidden in the text of history as a function of repeatedly retelling it with a difference. As Susan Jarratt (1991) writes, it is necessary to look “not only at the fate of the sophists in history, but to their own historicist writing to develop a theory of history for rhetoric” (xx). To engage in this kind of deconstructive reading would entail both confronting the historical moments where rhetoric’s meaning is concealed and examining how this history has been repeated with a difference to make rhetoric unrecognizable to its original—that is, its allegedly first—self.

Rhetoric’s Secret in Discourse

The secret in discourse describes a relationship to an object hidden in a granular archive. It invites historical and terminological excavation because something remains concealed in an established canon. One example is Schiappa’s (1992) argument that Plato invented rhêtorikê, which allegedly reveals the hidden datum that the sophists were never truly rhetoricians. However, this invention also conceals other secrets because Plato names rhetoric to cover up the craft’s other originators. By this understanding, the foreign-born sophists, women, and the enslaved peoples of ancient Greece give rise to the secret in discourse: what is hidden in an original context or the subtle resonances of rhetoric’s received meaning.

One way to understand the phrase in discourse is through the concept of tragic knowledge, whereby a hidden word or phrase (logos) conveys forbidden and fearsome information. The subject who receives this knowledge is sometimes literally blinded by the logos, unable to withstand the misfortune it brings. In Oedipus Rex, for instance, Oedipus gains access to the secret in discourse when he learns his surname. It reveals him as a dupe to fate and the gods, having fulfilled a prophecy that he is destined to murder his father and commit incest: “It is because a word has been uttered from afar and above—an enigmatic word, with double meaning, which [the tragic hero] does and does not understand, which reassures him [sic], but nevertheless troubles him [sic]. . . . Oedipus does not look at the secret but the secret looks at him, it does not take its eyes off him, and seeks to capture him by finally striking him” (Foucault 2013, 13–14). As a model of the secret in discourse, tragic knowledge has several features in common with Plato’s alleged invention of rhêtorikê. Both imply erasure: just as Oedipus had lost his family origins, so too had the sophists lost sight of a unified pedagogical doctrine. Both the family name and rhêtorikê reimagine a once-heroic figure—Oedipus and the sophist—as tyrants. They are secrets in discourse because discovering these fearsome words conjures a traumatizing past. Just as Oedipus’s discovery allows the reality of his past actions to sink in, rhêtorikê restores reality in an original form by making sophistry into philosophy’s diminutive, dysfunctional counterpart.

Part of what lends rhetoric’s invention the texture of the secret in discourse is the palpable continuity between Plato’s thought and his sophistic antecedents (Derrida 1981, 79). Plato’s dialogues enact prosopopoeia, “the fiction of the voice-from-beyond-the-grave,” by speaking in the character of his deceased teacher, Socrates (Foley 2010, 394). Plato also mimics sophistic disputation; his dialogues are often bouts of argumentative grappling that divide opponents’ claims into irreconcilable opposites (diaeresis). The first appearance of rhêtorikê in the Gorgias draws on rhetorical resemblances, drawing competing analogies between cookery/rhetoric and medicine/justice. Rhetoric’s naming in the Gorgias is, finally, an instance of paralepsis, a rhetorical trope that names a topic to negate or dismiss it (Fahnestock 1993, 268). These techniques illustrate how Plato’s philosophy/rhetoric distinction relies on the sophistry he so vehemently criticizes. In other words, they show how rhetoric (i.e., a deliberately strategic use of language) is secretly embedded in the very discourse that allegedly establishes it as a disparaging term of art.

As Diane Davis (2010) argues, the coherence of opposed identities like philosopher and sophist depends not only on words like rhêtorikê but also on performatively invoked ontological categories (e.g., insider/outsider or Athenian/foreigner) that support these otherwise arbitrary distinctions (21). Athens is often the figural center of intellectual life in ancient Greece. However, most sophists were migrant noncitizens scapegoated by philosophers for lacking allegiance to the city-state (Tell 2011, 22). Many lived as traveling diplomats, entertainers, and pedagogues. In almost all cases, they maintained some level of independence from the city-states they visited as members of an “international elite” or xenia (101–12).

However, if the sophist is ontologically an outsider to the polis, it is also contradictory to label philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle insiders. For instance, Socrates is overtly an outsider to the Athenian polis, the most famous case being his trial and death in the Apology (Dubois 2003, 153–69). The Phaedrus, Plato’s early dialogue about rhetoric, also transpires outside Athens following a speech by the sophist Lysias. Like the sophists, Plato teaches his craft beyond the city limits. Similarly, Aristotle was an outsider who fled to Lesbos in 348 BCE after Plato’s death because he was widely suspected to be a Macedonian spy. Later, in 335 BCE, he founded his school, the Lyceum, outside Athens under the protection of Antipater, who was a known Macedonian agent (Chroust 1967, 40; Richmond 1998, 3). The secret in discourse is that the insider-citizen/outsider-foreigner distinction is a logical contradiction that legitimates philosophy at the expense of sophistry. Rhetoricians’ contemporary conceits also mirror this contradiction. For example, when examining the twenty-first-century staging of the citizen/noncitizen distinction in La Gran Marcha, Josue David Cisneros (2011) shows “how migrants, who embody a ‘troublesome’ ambivalence and ambiguity as transnational subjects, resist and rewrite dominant representations of the ideal US citizen” (27). Transnational migrants are, like the sophists, caught in a contradiction between the inside and the outside of governing notions about civic belonging. Although Plato and Aristotle are not the only sources of rhetoric’s gatekeeping exclusions, their status as outsiders is a secret that undermines a strict separation between those celebrated as philosophers and those dismissed as rhetoricians.

Calls to attend to women sophists in the classical tradition draw attention to a second secret in discourse: Plato’s grounding of reason and rhetoric in heteropatriarchal norms. As Susan Jarratt states: “[T]here can be no doubt that material reality for women in Greek antiquity was oppressive, and that, relatively speaking, the first sophists were privileged by their gender, if not through full citizenship” (Jarratt 1991, 63). Ancient speeches on Helen of Troy either depicted her as a secretive seductress who deliberately absconded with Paris or denied that she possessed any agency (Ballif 2001, 87). Likewise, in the Phaedrus, Socrates likens the rhetoric-led polis to the unruly horse (or polos) of his charioteer myth, metaphorically linking the idea of the feminine to an animal whose secret instincts must be tamed. The charge of excessive secrecy characterized not just rhetoric but also women, who were commanded to efface themselves and could exercise agency only in contained, nonpublic settings (Sutton 1992, 115). Plato also makes women a secret in rhetoric’s ancient history because he and Socrates openly appropriated their intellectual contributions. Tell-tale references to midwifery give away his ruse: In the Theaetetus, Plato (2015) accounts for Socrates’s dialectical method as a maieutikê technê, a form of midwifery practiced on men instead of women to “supervise the labor of their minds, not their bodies” (150b). Although he claims to have originated the idea because he was the son of a midwife, in the Menexenus he all but admits that his metaphor is indebted to the sophist Aspasia. A student of Gorgias, a partner to Pericles, and a practitioner of midwifery (maieutikê), Aspasia led couples “through a series of analogous questions, leading each to an embarrassed aporia, an admission of dissatisfaction with his or her spouse” (Jarratt and Ong 1995, 15). Plato does not just dramatically understate Aspasia’s importance; his dialogues leave her idea hidden in plain sight.

A third (though certainly not final) way to locate rhetoric’s secret in discourse relates to Greek institutions of slavery. According to Page DuBois: “[S]lavery and slaves are everywhere in Greek antiquity: in the archaeological record, in the literary, historical, forensic, and philosophical texts that constitute our knowledge of the ancient world. Slavery enters into the very definitions of life, death, and human beings’ relationship to the gods” (Dubois 2003, 27). For instance, human enslavement is an important part of the Meno, where Socrates refutes “the Sophistic argument that one can never find out anything new” by calling on Meno’s unnamed slave to solve a geometry problem (Plato 2006, 81b; see also Harris 2017, 15–16). Similarly, Aristotle theorizes persuasion to subdue one’s slavish self while appropriating enslaved peoples’ rhetorical inventions (Garnsey 1996). In On Rhetoric, Aristotle (1991) seizes on terms like epideictic, which were appropriated from enslaved people in service of his theory of rhetoric. The term allegedly originates with Korax and Tisias, who reference it as the invention of the enslaved peoples of ancient Syracuse. By this account, epideictic was a mode of gestural language, a “proto-rhetorical dancing” used by enslaved people to communicate messages silently when the tyrants Hieron and Gelon prohibited their speech (Farenga 1979, 1040). However, Aristotle claims it as his own and fashions it as one of his three “original” rhetorical genres. As Victor Vitanza (1997) explains: “[R]hetoric arose out of tyranny only to return (us all, ironically) back to tyranny” (326). The word epideictic offers a striking example: it illustrates how rhetoric arose as resistance to power only to be reinscribed in a narrative that erased these beginnings.

Metaphor and the Secret of Discourse

The secret of discourse is a relation to meaning that is hidden because it has yet to unfold. It is of discourse because the secret is the product or yield of discourse repeating itself across history, becoming perceptible only after some delay. When a specific signifier is repeated, it carries a novel inflection that changes how it has previously meant. For that reason, this meaning is not buried but belated, like an a-ha! that comes with the benefit of hindsight. As a way of understanding rhetoric’s canon, it means that foundational knowledge arises as a retroactive (or after-the-fact) encounter. The repeated revisions of metaphor in the ancient history of rhetoric offer a detailed illustration of this term’s transformation over its four-hundred-year transit from Greece to Rome. Beginning with Cicero’s De oratore, metaphor’s function of transferring meaning was split across the new terms translatio and abusio (or catachresis), the latter of which carried resonances of violently imposed or forced naming. This refashioning of metaphor conjures the secret of discourse because it illustrates the processual transformation of metaphor from a singular master trope into an arsenal of linguistic tropes, thereby displacing the given understanding of rhetoric.

In the fourth-century Greek context, metaphor (the combination of meta-, or “over,” and pherein, or “to carry”) had a uniquely rhetorical purpose and function. In contrast, the term catachresis (the combination of kata, or “down,” and khrēsthai, or “use”), which signifies an incorrect meaning or “misuse,” is likely a post-Aristotelian addition to the classical canon. Metaphor alone appears as a rhetorical term of art in On Rhetoric; catachresis does not. Ernesto Grassi (1980) recalls that the word metapherein “originally signified a concrete activity, that of carrying an object from one place to another” (94). In On Rhetoric, Aristotle (1991) describes metaphors as transpositions of meaning according to perceived similarities. His examples liken metaphor to euphemisms or disguises, such as “pirates” who label themselves as “purveyors” of goods (3.2.10). The conceptual distinction between metaphor and catachresis is often attributed to Cicero’s De oratore, written approximately 270 years after Aristotle’s death, and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, written approximately 140 years after De oratore (Parker 1990, 66–68). Here, seemingly older Greek terms are paired with Latin names: translatio for metaphor and abusio for catachresis (Parker 1990, 62).2 Cicero’s distinction between translatio and abusio is predicated on the idea that language cannot name all things in the world. When proper nouns for objects, ideas, peoples, and territories exist, translatio substitutes one name for another. Other times, however, no such name exists, and a new name is coercively applied. Under such circumstances, translatio becomes abusio, the trope of forcible misnaming. Unlike translatio, abusio stems from the presumption that the subject to be named is a priori nameless and that a title must be imposed on it owing to inherent deficiency. In other words, abusio is rhetoric as violence, coercion made possible by the assumption that there is only one language with which to capture the world. Additionally, because there is no instance of catachresis in Aristotle’s available writings on rhetoric, abusio is an example of the linguistic violence it names. Cicero must invent a name for a trope for which there is none, a name that is forcibly added back to rhetoric’s Greek history in both Latin and Greek.3

At their most basic, translatio and abusio exemplify the secret of discourse because Cicero transforms metaphor into an entirely new tropology. This transformation occurs in three stages. First, translatio widens the scope of metaphor. According to Cicero, it is “the replacement of one expression by another” (Grassi 1980, 95). Whereas translatio operates across distinct vernaculars, Aristotle’s metapherein is theorized only as a transfer of meaning in Greek, binding it to one linguistic context. The renaming of metaphor as translatio substitutes a new term (translatio) for an older one (metapherein) in a new language, enacting the rhetorical displacement it theorizes.

Second, Cicero revises Aristotle’s singular master trope, metaphor, by dividing it into two new tropes: translatio and abusio. According to Patricia Parker (1990, 66), the following passage from De oratore, widely cited during the Middle Ages, definitively establishes the opposition between these two terms by attributing the deficiencies of low culture to catachresis/abusio and the surpluses of high culture to metaphor/translatio: “Metaphor [modus transferendi verbi] . . . sprang from necessity [necessitas] due to the pressure of poverty and deficiency [inopia . . . angustiis], but it has been subsequently made popular by its agreeable and entertaining quality. For just as clothes were first invented to protect us against cold and afterwards began to be used for the sake of adornment [ad ornatum] and dignity as well, so the metaphorical employment of words [verbi translatio] was begun because of poverty [inopiae], but was brought into common use for the sake of entertainment [delectationis]” (Cicero 1942, 3.38.155). Whereas Aristotle reserves only metaphor to describe transfers of meaning, Cicero suggests that not all transfers of meaning are identical. Those that go by the name metaphor/translatio are agreeable and entertaining and delight the senses. By comparison, catachresis/abusio assaults the senses because it emerges from base qualities like necessity, poverty, and deficiency.

Finally, translatio and abusio retroactively rearrange the established historical sequence by which tropes first emerged. Beginning with De oratore, Cicero (1942) devises catachresis/abusio well after the fact of Aristotle’s theorizing. He also argues that catachresis constitutes the ground of Aristotelian metaphor as a belatedly discovered antecedent or foundation (see fig. 1). As Parker (1990) explains, this is Cicero’s “little historical progress narrative” in which metaphor/translatio, the elevated and appealing form of linguistic adornment, must start as catachresis/abusio: “Metaphor, in other words, begins in this little progress narrative as catachresis—as a transfer necessitated first by the lack of a sufficient supply of proper terms” (66). Cicero (1939) affirms this progression in Orator when writing: “Aristotle . . . classifies . . . all [rhetorical tropes, including hyperallege and metonymy] under metaphor and includes also the misuse of terms, which they call κατάχρησις or ‘catachresis.’ . . . [F]rom the point of view of classification Aristotle does better in calling them all metaphors” (1.27.94). In effect, Cicero finds catachresis to be foundational despite acknowledging that Aristotle would not have recognized this term as a trope on the same level as metaphor. Catachresis or abusio was, thus, installed as a new ground for an existing canon: it displaced, erased, and retroactively rewrote rhetoric’s history.

Figure 1

Cicero’s retroactive placement of catachresis as the antecedent to Aristotelian metaphor.

Figure 1

Cicero’s retroactive placement of catachresis as the antecedent to Aristotelian metaphor.

Close modal

What is the secret of discourse that Cicero added to rhetoric’s canon? Cicero transforms metaphor into a vehicle of conquest and displacement. Rhetoric was not just any kind of force, nor did it just disparagingly describe the effect of the sophist’s speech on the polis. Instead, it became a form of authorized linguistic violence that took people, language, and territory as things to be named. In the Orator, Cicero’s (1939) examples of translatio/metaphor and abusio/catachresis invoke this primitive state of being by employing names like “dread Africa” and by referring to people dispossessed of their homelands (“I am bereft of citadel and town”) (1.27.93). As Nancy Bentley (2009) argues: “[B]y declaring siblings to be no more than strangers, by claiming a woman’s children belong to ‘no family,’ slavery enacts a willful misuse of language (abusio) congruent with its power over life and death” (276).

The enduring force of Cicero’s account has held the meaning of metaphor and catachresis captive, as evidenced by the continued willingness of philosophers to accept his tropology at face value. Ernesto Laclau (2014), for instance, appears to accept his version of rhetoric because he agrees that catachresis is, in fact, a master trope, calling it “the common denominator of rhetoricity as such”: “Cicero, reflecting on the origin of rhetorical devices, imagined a primitive stage of society in which there were more things to be named than the words available in language, so that it was necessary to use words in more than one sense, deviating them from their literal, primordial meaning. . . . In classical rhetoric, a figural term which cannot be substituted by the literal one was called a catachresis (for instance, when we talk about ‘the leg of a chair’)” (71). Laclau accepts catachresis because it theorizes language as inadequate to represent the whole of reality. Instead, it is a rhetorical redundancy measure, one that allows language to compensate for an inherent inability to name a totality of things in the world (Spivak 2000). However, Cicero’s tropology also carries with it another function: the means to subjugate the world’s unnamed and untamed excess. By Laclau’s admission, Cicero’s vision of rhetoric is predicated on having emerged from “a primitive stage of society.” For that reason, abusio/catachresis would have named not just the parts of furniture but also the unfree people and territories forced into Rome’s possession (Bankston 2012; Garnsey 1996, 38–43).

To describe the transformation of tropes from Greece to Rome as the secret of discourse is not an admission that Cicero has the last word on rhetoric and even less that rhetoricians today should embrace his justifications of rhetorical violence. On the contrary, his displacement of metaphor is helpful to the extent that it captures the possibility of inverting figure and ground or making future displacements to the bedrock of canonically rhetorical terms. As Derrida (1974) writes: “[I]t is not so much that metaphor is in the text of philosophy (and the coordinated text of rhetoric)—rather these texts are in metaphor” (60). It is less that Cicero authoritatively defines metaphor once and for all than that it is an illustration of how he puts metaphor into a metaphoric relationship with its former self, creating a new meaning for rhetoric that is available only on its Roman reception.

Cicero’s example also means that the secret of discourse places one form of historical violence into a relationship with another: Roman violence in relation to Greek violence, one mode of erasure erasing another. These conditions of domination are written into prevailing theories of rhetoric, each time with a difference. As Megan Foley (2012) writes: “[U]nable to admit rhetoric’s complicity with violence but equally unable to give it up, violence remains as the disavowed center of rhetoric’s definition” (175). To be sure, Isocrates, Plato, and Aristotle each grappled with how to separate persuasion (Peitho) from violence (bia), seeking to address the mutual dependency of these terms (174). So, too, with Cicero, who discovers in metaphor and catachresis a new form for linguistic violence, one unique to his moment, recognized as improper, but nonetheless assumed to be a transcendent theory of the orator’s art.

Toward Secret Histories of Rhetoric

This essay offers several implications for scholars committed to teaching rhetoric’s ancient Greek and Roman canon but distressed by the durable forms of oppression that canon ensconces. First, to read histories of rhetoric as the secret would mean attending to both the secret in discourse, the relation to knowledge that has been removed from availability or use, and the secret of discourse, the relation to produced knowledge that displaces an a prior version of itself. Such histories remain open-ended because the two faces of the secret are opposed and complementary: the secret in discourse revises rhetoric’s meaning by deepening its ancient archive, while the secret of discourse repeats rhetoric’s history, modifying canon through obliterating retroaction. It is impossible to possess or pin down this secret because the shift from in to of (and from of to in) effaces one prepositional relation to prioritize the other. This is a desirable framework for thinking about the history of rhetoric because it imagines rhetoric’s canon as an unfinalized project, one whose accumulation precludes discrete ownership of the totality of rhetoric’s past, present, and future meaning. Indeed, it acknowledges that there is no possibility of “totalizing a field through a zero-point epistemology rooted in a logic of universality” (Baugh-Harris and Wanzer-Serrano 2018, 338). If deconstruction elevates the secret, then it does so without making this concept-metaphor universal or transcendent. Instead, the secret’s form is open-ended and unsettled. It posits a meaning that either has not been found or has yet to arrive and that in both cases undermines the project of totalization.

Second, reading for the secret would expand rhetoric’s canon by drawing attention to the destructive effects of uncritically reproducing rhetoric’s White mythology. In keeping with Law and Corrigan’s (2018) assertions about White speak, attending to the secret can be a practice of making secret, refusing outright the ancient history and terminology that function as tacit support for White supremacy by relegating them to hiddenness. I would also expose the secret, this being understood as the subtending Whiteness and neutrality of rhetoric’s canon. Working in service of this goal, the secret in discourse would account for how agents and contexts falling beyond rhetorical studies’ conventional bounds are made open secrets in the writing of its history. Concomitantly, the secret of discourse would address how rhetoric is the retroactive effect of violence instituted as canon, each time under the guise of neutrality/continuity with the past. In other words, reading for the secret would understand recanonization as a practice that seeks to “actively exclude those vocabularies that reinforce the marginalization of nonwhite scholars” while also exposing the insidiousness of rhetorical vocabularies as historic vehicles of repressive subordination (328). To read Greek and Roman teachings on rhetoric for the secret in discourse would blow the whistle on their historical harms, constitutive exclusions, and buried secrets. As the secret of discourse, reading would expose rhetoric’s canon as itself vulnerable to signifying transformation, in defiance of the long-standing dominion that nonsophists like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero have wielded over it.

Finally, the secret contributes an answer to the question of whether rhetoricians ought to retain fidelity to some shared canon or reject the very idea of canon as commensurate with a universalizing—that is, White and neutral—epistemology. If the conventional idea of canon defines some degree of shared belonging by exacting constitutive and dehumanizing exclusions, then here, too, the concept-metaphor of the secret offers some relief. As Derrida and Ferraris (2001) explain: “[The secret is] the best-shared thing in the world; but it is the sharing of what is not shared: we know in common that we have nothing in common” (58). In other words, the secret posits shared agreement as to why we should attend to canon without prefiguring what canon was, is, or will become. It at once rejects the idea of sharing a singular or monolithic foundation while inviting us to share a canon as an unshared but continually scrutinized object of rhetorical transformation.


I am grateful to Emily Winderman, Justin Eckstein, Kurt Zemlicka, and Paul E. Johnson for their feedback on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank Alessandra Beasley Von Burg for allowing me the opportunity to present this research at the American Society for the History of Rhetoric preconference “Rhetoric in Motu” as well as to Michele Kennerly for generous and generative feedback on that presentation. I also thank the anonymous peer reviewers for the Journal for the History of Rhetoric and the editor, Ned O’Gorman, for their detailed suggestions and helpful comments.


Although today the verb redact denotes the practice of blocking access to a hidden signifier using bar-like lines, the earliest available meaning of redaction is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a scholastic method for splicing heterogeneous documents into a new whole, “to bring together in a single entity; to combine, unite.” Like the processual revision of biblical gospels among medieval scholastics, redaction has ensured that there is not one Secretum but many.


Cicero’s Orator (46 BCE) is distinct from De oratore (55 BCE), although both address rhetoric. Both De oratore and Orator feature tropes absent from Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, including catachresis, hyperallege, and metonymy (Orator: Cicero 1939, 1.92.373).


Catachresis does not appear in Aristotle’s available writings on rhetoric because Cicero’s Aristotelian sources go beyond the available historical record. It is likely that the Aristotelian writings on rhetoric that Cicero references, such as the Gryllus, have been lost to time. George A. Kennedy (1995) notes that Cicero proclaims to write De oratore (On the orator) “in the manner of Aristotle,” but this likely “refers not to On Rhetoric, but to Aristotle’s long-lost dialogues, such as Gryllus” (141). He also states: “On the Orator is . . . the first datable discussion of rhetoric since the time of Theophrastus that shows a direct knowledge of Aristotle’s On Rhetoric” (143). Elsewhere, Kennedy (1972) notes that prominent sources associating Cicero with the Aristotelian tradition “do not prove Cicero was using a ‘Peripatetic’ source directly” (137), although he “mentions Aristotle by name” in a letter written at approximately the same time as De oratore and in connection to a library where a version of On Rhetoric was plausibly available (222). Given the absence of catachresis as a term of art from On Rhetoric, the centuries separating Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric from his early Roman reception by Cicero, and the fact that Cicero’s examples of metaphor and catachresis are drawn from post-Aristotelian sources, this essay’s wager is that Cicero’s distinction between metaphor and catachresis is one he adapts/invents, not one he repeats/ translates.

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