This essay throws genealogical light upon contemporary theoretical practice by charting the relatively short history of rhetorical theory as a consequential sign in Anglophone discourse. It advances a historical sociology of knowledge inflected by feminist and postcolonial studies to trace the invention, institutionalization, and changing meanings of rhetorical theory from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the process, it illuminates three structuring patterns: (1) the valorization of European civilization that accompanied U.S. settler colonialism and its manifestation in universities where rhetorical theory materially grounded itself; (2) the gendered production of knowledge within academic institutions, particularly through the masculinization of the postwar university and its shaping of communities of inquiry invested in rhetorical theory; and (3) the power of relevance as a metonym for intellectual, political, and educational initiatives that, beginning in the late 1960s, enlarged rhetorical theory's community of inquiry and range of meanings.

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