Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Rajan, Tilottama

2nd Supervisor

Plug, Jan


In the 1960s, Roland Barthes sparked a renewed interest in a monumental, ancient, and largely forgotten institution: the literary-pedagogic-social “empire” of rhetoric, an empire that often commanded French letters, culture, and education until its baffling decline and alleged “death” in the final decades of the nineteenth century. This dissertation argues, however, that rhetoric did not actually die in France. Instead, through a process of “weak survival,” an enduring institution of rhetoric shaped postwar French thought. Through a pedagogic reading of the rhetorical longue durée, I approach a series of political-religious-social quarrels rather than an assemblage of rhetorical theories. These quarrels span from early victories of the Collège de Clermont against the University of Paris to the late nineteenth-century Republicans trying to purge the Jesuit legacy from French education. Educational reforms, the rise of the explication de texte, and triumph of Lansonian literary history ensured that intellectuals born in the early twentieth century would encounter the term “rhetoric” as a pejorative. But when we consider everything from classical languages to agonistic classroom cultures as part of a comprehensive institution of rhetoric, reports of its death would seem greatly exaggerated.

After elaborating rhetoric’s weak survival over multi-century period, I shift to shorter timescales, and take up the rich interwar scene of Rhetoric and Terror as conceived of by Jean Paulhan and encountered by Jean-Paul Sartre. Finally, I end where I began: with Barthes’ passionate relationship to rhetoric, and his anxieties and declarations about its institutional fortunes. I argue that Barthes was more rhetorician than strict structuralist (or poststructuralist), and his intense, mercurial relationship to rhetoric both haunted and inspired him. This dissertation explores rhetoric’s creative potential within French literature and philosophy, as well as an education tyranny that marks the biographies of so many humanistic intellectuals traumatized by elite (and elitist) pedagogy.

Summary for Lay Audience

Rhetoric, the art of persuasion or crafty use of language, played a key role in French education and society for centuries, but seems to have died by the twentieth century according to many scholars. This dissertation, however, argues that rhetoric underwent a process of “weak survival” and did not actually die. I explore the role of rhetoric in the work Jean Paulhan and Roland Barthes, who are among the greatest literary critics of twentieth-century France. In general, I assert the importance of rhetoric in shaping modern French intellectualism.

Included in

Rhetoric Commons