The Story in the Soil: Toward an Agrarian Rhetoric of Property

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2008


Campus Only

Submission Type


Degree Name



Communication and Rhetorical Studies


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Calvin L. Troup

Committee Member

Janie Harden Fritz

Committee Member

Richard H. Thames


agrarianism, decorum, James Madison, kairos, private property, propriety, recalcitrance, rhetoric, Thomas Jefferson, Wendell Berry


The founders of the American republic believed that the institution of private property served as the foundation of a democratic society. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and others saw property not only as things the right to which must be protected, but they viewed their right to think for themselves and to communicate those thoughts to others as the most important form of property. The institution of private property was strongly linked with the virtue of phronesis. Madison captured this sentiment stating, "as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights."

Despite such importance, private property in the United States has been subject to increasing commodification throughout the nation's history. Commodity property views property primarily as a possession and the rights of ownership refer primarily to the right of alienation, that is, the right to buy, sell, trade, and consume that which one owns. Commodity property is not concerned with the relationship between property and other rights, between property and democracy, or between property and communication.

This dissertation examines vestiges of an alternative notion, property as propriety, in order to recover the more robust model of public discourse to which it has historically been linked. To that end, the author examines the work of agrarians such as Wendell Berry, which boasts a rich vocabulary regarding property and propriety, and employs this vocabulary to articulate the basic categories and preliminary coordinates of an agrarian rhetoric of property, which asks, "what is public discourse like under various property regimes?" The author conveys agrarianism's relevance to contemporary debates surrounding property and public communication, arguing that agrarian thought is attentive both to the rhetoric of property claims as well as what Kenneth Burke describes as the recalcitrance of the land. Decorum and related concepts of kairos and propriety mediate between these dimensions and open a space for the cultivation of phronesis. Private property constructed in accordance with objective standards of decorum constitutes what Bakhtin terms a chronotope that propels embodied civic action and fosters healthy practices of public discourse.





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