Rhetorical agency is a primary concern of composition studies, especially in light of postmodern theory. Rhetorical agency in this context raises the question of how a rhetor can be a fixed subject in a specific socio-historical condition while still maintaining a fluid identity who is able to resist the implications of this fixed state. Further, this context reveals the struggle to develop a theory of rhetorical agency that is both grounded in contingency and vulnerability.
One solution to this rhetorical agency problem, according to Judith Butler, is to recognize that these very rhetorical constraints are what lead to eruptions of agency. What comes out of these reactions to these constraints is a type of rhetorical agency that isn’t the product of willing structure or the social structure itself. As Cynthia Haynes points out, “This agency does not escape structure, since it takes place within structural limitations, but it does end up exceeding structure, and without returning to pre-structuralist notions of subjectivity.”
Further, as Diane Davis points out, individual agency is reconfigured in a communitarian sense. She argues for a type of literacy that understands reading and writing as functions of this original sociality, “as expositions not of who one is (identity) but of the fact that “we” are (community).”
Krista Ratcliffe identifies one element of rhetorical agency in terms of listening-(similar to how Donald Davidson’s notion of charity is used in argumentation.” This listening also embraces contact zones as contexts where this type of agency can take place. Further, listening is also an essential element of dialogism, communitarian literacy, and collaboration. In argumentation theory, the idea of common ground, or the element of identification posed by Rogerian rhetoric, similar to this concept of listening, insists that by being open to being persuaded is the first step to having any rhetorical agency.
In the activist function of feminism, rhetorical agency is a crucial consideration. Similar to the concept of freewill in philosophical discourse, rhetorical agency raises the question of how much power any individual has in the face of social pressure. In feminism, the third wave has embraced the notion of contradictions as a way for agency to take place, allowing choices to occur in the context of rejecting dichotomies, as pointed out by Piepmeier and Heywood. In feminism, there is a rich tradition in rooting agency in the possibilities of language use, in which language can transform the social climate, making possible further freedoms in gender expression.