Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Ian Hill

The Malthusian Paradox: Weapons Rhetoric Before the Bomb

The Malthusian Paradox is a longitudinal case study of weapons rhetoric leading up to WWII. It examines how influential weapons rhetors negotiated a technological conundrum that I call the “Malthusian Paradox.” The Malthusian Paradox is the commonplace belief that while technology will destroy humanity, technology also provides humanity’s only means of preservation. The Malthusian Paradox not only clarifies what Thomas R. Malthus thought about populations and political economy at the end of the 18th century in London, but it also clarifies an enduring pattern of deliberation about technology’s effects on overpopulation, globalization, and war. This scheme of ideas began to inform how rhetors navigated weapons discourse, and in turn, the proliferation of the Paradox in weapons rhetoric reiterated and re-inscribed the concept such that it has acquired an aura of permanence, immutability, and inescapability. I argue that analysis of the Paradox shows how it can be construed as a gauge to compare and assess the strategies and tactics of weapons rhetors communicating in discrete historical contexts across time. I therefore implement a longitudinal case study that combines close textual analyses of specific documents with historical analyses of how weapons and their compatible technological logics developed. I suggest that analyzing how weapons rhetors negotiate the Malthusian Paradox grants insight into how people have invented the current technological conditions, understand war, formulate ideologies, and get anxious about weapons. The case studies examine Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), accused Haymarket bomb conspirator August Spies’s courtroom address (1886), Amos A. Fries’s and Clarence J. West’s army textbook Chemical Warfare (1921), and selected correspondence and Manhattan Project memos of nuclear physicist Leo Szilard. As rhetoric and the Paradox smashed into each other over the historical development of weapons, certain overriding strategies have emerged, demonstrating that many of the rhetorical tactics and strategies associated with the Bomb and modern-day terrorism have much older origins. These overriding strategies function as windows into what might be thought of as the dominant network of weapons discourse that help to constitute their political and ideological presence in the world, and bring populations “before the Bomb.”

Ian Hill
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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