In this provocative and forcefully written book, Steven Mailloux takes issue with the validity of a number of distinctions commonly made in contemporary literary theory and cultural studies—distinctions between theory and cultural studies, reader and text, truth and ideology, aesthetics and politics. Rhetorical Power offers both a practical proposal for approaching texts rhetorically in their historical contexts and a bold theoretical statement of the historical specificity of every interpretive act and the impossibility of foundationalist accounts of interpretation in general. Mailloux first presents the case for a rhetorical hermeneutics and against foundationalist theories of interpretation. Doing hermeneutic theory, he argues, entails doing rhetorical history.
By means of a detailed analysis of reader-response criticism, he highlights the connections between institutional politics and the interpretive rhetoric of academic literary criticism. Mailloux then uses Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as an exemplary text, not only pursuing his theoretical argument about interpretation but developing a broader claim for the potential role of rhetoric within cultural studies. In the final part of the book, he restates his critique of foundationalist hermeneutics through readings of Ken Kesey, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Richard Rorty, and he concludes by examining the role of rhetoric and theory in a congressional dispute over the Reagan administration's reinterpretation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.