A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Jenny Rice’s Awful Archives: Conspiracy Theory, Rhetoric, and Acts of Evidence

Bess R. H. Myers, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

(Published August 20, 2021)

If in Awful Archives Jenny Rice envisions evidence as a process to productively engage with “bad” evidence, then it is appropriate that my own reading practices have gone, well, badly. I received Awful Archives in fall 2020 and read it in stops and starts in my home-turned-office over the course of many months. Whatever line I’d managed to draw to separate my professional and personal lives had become blurred beyond recognition during the pandemic. If that line disappeared so easily, had it ever really existed?

Awful Archives therefore provided me an ironic parallel during my protracted pandemic reading: Rice makes the case that the line between “good” and “bad” evidence isn’t a line at all, responding to those within and outside of rhetorical studies who envision evidence as an object that sits on either side of the present/absent, authentic/phony dichotomy. Imagining evidence as a physical object “imbue[s] evidence with a kind of thingfulness”—a characteristic that precludes full consideration of the ways evidence operates (Rice 5). Rice instead conceives of evidence as an act. She consequently refashions inquiries from whether evidence exists or whether the existing evidence is true to “What is this evidence of?” (10). This move from “whether” to “what” is a familiar one for rhetoricians. We are trained to approach rhetorical situations from all angles to locate the obscurity hidden beneath superficial certainty. What is novel about Rice’s approach is her reliance on conspiracy theory case studies “to raise a question that many people (both inside and outside academic circles) are asking: Why do traditional modes of argument often fail in the face of claims that rely on bad evidence?” (15). Embedded here is an element of Rice’s book that is among its greatest strengths: Awful Archives deals with evidence as it acts in the everyday world, not only (or even mostly) in traditionally confined and closed-off academic spaces.

Rice herself is a physical presence in the text. She frequently connects new concepts or steps of her argument with her own experiences, illustrating both the inspiration for her rhetorical moves and the connections among seemingly disparate ideas through personal narrative. For example, a flyer taped to a light post in Hong Kong reminds Rice of the condition of hypergraphia, which leads to the image of a young girl writing a crush’s name over and over, then to 9/11 truthers and evidentiary proliferation, and then back to Rice, who asks, “Is proliferation itself evidence of anything?” (64-66).  Rice writes about the shame she felt over not being a better scrapbooker after her father’s death and her panic about forgetting her wallet as she boards a train to Yad Vashem. In this respect, Awful Archives appeared for me at the right time, when my physical confinement progressively amplified my preexisting feelings of scholarly confinement. As a classical rhetorician trained in a conservative and historically exclusionary tradition, I’ve been instructed, explicitly and implicitly, that my person has no place in my scholarship and that my writing should capture a ghostly, Echo-like voice. This insistence on leaving one’s identity and body behind is not unique to Classics or classical rhetoric; in rhetorical theory more broadly, as Karma Chávez underscores, the body has so often only “mattered in an abstract sense, with theorizations that are meant to apply to everybody by acknowledging that rhetorical practice and training are embodied after all, or [that] only an abstract conceptualization of the body is significant for rhetorical practice and theory” (246). Fortunately,  now an abundance of scholarship resists disembodiment, including work that engages with classical rhetorical reception.[1] For Rice, interweaving her own personal narratives and archived experiences as a “performative methodology” underscores the affectivity of evidence while effectively blurring another line: the one between scholars (we) and conspiracy theorists (them) (Rice 27).

Awful Archives is driven by two questions: how does evidence work, really?; and how do rhetoricians respond ethically and productively to claims that are “invalid, intolerable, or just plain wrong”? (15). The first question is addressed in Chapters 1 through 3: Chapter 1 focuses on building archives and “archival aura”; Chapter 2 theorizes the construction of archival aura through proliferation and evidentiary excess; and Chapter 3 speculates on the power of missing evidence and empty archives. The second question is addressed in Chapters 4 and 5: Chapter 4 explores the tactic of “disfigurement” and Chapter 5 illuminates the inventional power of faulty archives. While each chapter is powerful on its own, the arrangement of the chapters, like the archives Rice investigates, aptly synergize to create more than the sum of their parts.

One of the aspects of the book that has stuck with me is Rice’s generative use of imagery and metaphor. For example, in Chapter 3, “Distal Evidence and the Power of Empty Archives,” Rice focuses on empty archives, which “are archives that (possibly) exist, but the content is unavailable, missing, unobtainable” (99). When missing or empty archives are used to support a claim, the “source of evidentiary and rhetorical power lies somewhere else besides the archive” (114). Distal evidence which Rice defines with the help of the Toulmin model of argument—drawing on its shape rather than its contents— is located in this “somewhere else." In this way, she transmutes the Toulmin model from theoretical concept into a physical object. Rice likens the Toulmin “T” to Michael Polanyi’s comparison of tacit knowledge to someone using a probe to feel around a room. “To get spacey for a minute,” Rice muses, “we might imagine the top line of the T as a probe extending out from an invisible hand” (115). Distal evidence, then, is not something separate from us, but more “like the registering of a connection made when a hand feels [a] probe hit something solid” (116-117). While not the primary point of this chapter, this theory-as-imagery leads me to ask if rhetorical theory and models of argumentation were physical objects, what would those objects look like, and what could their three-dimensionality tell us about their meaning and utility that their one-dimensionality cannot?

By Chapter 3, a tension emerges between the individual’s experience of the “living process” of evidence and the social (or societal) quality that defines conspiracy discourse (15). In her introduction, Rice notes that “Almost any conspiracy theory can be read as an allegory for the fears, desires, and oppressions that pervade the structures of everyday life” (14); in other words, “conspiracy discourse is both a function and a response to cultural conditions” (14). If evidence is distal, then it becomes difficult to see any one experience of evidence, any individual account of evidence, as absolute. Individuals experience and participate in evidence-as-act, but it is the accumulation of these individual experiences of probing around that give experiences such comprehensive, and often dangerous, explanatory power. Understanding one’s feelings and experiences are a single part of a larger narrative that allows for solidarity, but also allows for participation in conspiracy discourse. Perhaps the solution is the tried-and-true dialectic method of engaging with a single interlocutor, though such a method requires time, energy, and physical and emotional safety. Not all arguments are necessary for all interlocutors at all times. I imagine Rice would agree.

Throughout Awful Archives, Rice approaches conspiracy theorists generously and doesn’t demean them by placating or patronizing them; however,  she doesn’t write them off as somehow harmless, either. In spite of (or because of) this generosity, the question of how, exactly, one should debate a conspiracy theorist remains. How do you persuade someone to see that their evidence is nonsensical and baseless, that their beliefs are dangerous and misguided? In Chapter 4, “Disfigurement: Finding the (Un)Fitting Response,” Rice proposes that, when responding to conspiracy theorists, denying evidence is “not the fullest possible extent of what should be imagined for a fitting response” (148). If we instead zoom outward and view the conspiracy theorist and the interlocutor as members of a community, then a fitting response is not meant to persuade an individual in the present, but rather “to contribute to an ongoing future of responses and discourse” (149). In this way, “The response is not to the one who speaks, but to the lifeworld of a public who can sometimes become stuck with given forms and ways of thinking” (149). The Husserlian sense of “lifeworld” suggests intersubjectivity and points to the relationship between the individual and the collective. In a similar spirit, in the eighties Jim Corder promoted a fundamental shift in the way we think and talk about argument, noting that “argument is not something to present or to display,” which would reduce it to “a matter of my poster against yours”; instead, “It is something to be” (26). If conspiracy theories are allegories for, say, deep-seated fears, then a “fitting response” must somehow acknowledge that fear, even if the responder knows the fear to be unfounded. The aim, then, is to perpetuate the discourse, to have faith in the communal future of the argument—the argument must continue to be.

In the end, this faith underlies and motivates Awful Archives. Conspiracy theories continue to morph and proliferate, but Rice’s work gestures to more productive and inventive ways to address such theories. Even so, to make full use of these methods, first, we must believe that arguing about conspiracy theories will ensure the to be-ness of argumentation itself; and second, that the to be-ness of argument is worth investing our time and energy in the present. As I redraw the boundary between my personal and professional lives, Awful Archives leaves me wondering whether the line between faith and argument and faith in argument, too, is simply a boundary that has blurred, or whether the line ever existed at all.

[1] See, as one example of many, the recent “Special Section on Metis” in Disability Studies Quarterly, especially “What is Metis?” by Jay Dolmage.

Works Cited

Chávez, Karma R. “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Concept.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 2018, pp. 242-250.

Corder, Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 16-32.

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. “What is Metis?” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020.


Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by David Carr. Northwestern UP, 1970.

Polanyi,  Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. U of Chicago Press, 2015.