Jenell Johnson

Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture




6037 Vilas Hall

Current and Future Projects

  • The use of wonder to stimulate public interest in the US space program in the 1970s and 1980s
  • Claims of certainty in life detection experiments in the Viking mission to Mars in the late 1970s and their relation to public support of NASA.

Expertise and Activities

My research interests include the rhetoric of health and medicine, science and technology studies, disability studies, bioethics, and environmental communication. My research focuses on the circulation of scientific and medical information in the public sphere, with an emphasis on the social and political dimensions of nonexpert engagement with science, medicine, and technology. Much of my work has explored the meaning of neuroscience, psychiatry, and mental disability in scientific and cultural contexts. These interests are best illustrated by my book American Lobotomy, which explores how representations of psychosurgery shaped the rise, fall, and return of lobotomy in US medicine, and the co-edited collection The Neuroscientific Turn, a collection of essays from humanists and scientists reflecting on the growth of the neuro-disciplines. More recently, my research focus has shifted from the brain to the ethics and politics of life. My most recent book, Every Living Thing, examines how life itself is used to create rhetorical and ethical connections between humans and other living creatures.

In addition to my position in Communication Arts, I am affiliated faculty in Life Sciences Communication, Gender and Women’s Studies, and the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, serve on the steering committees of the Health and Humanities certificate and I am the director of UW’s Disability Studies Initiative. I am also one of the inaugural Mellon-Morgridge Professors in the Constellations program, a transdisciplinary initiative for undergraduates at UW-Madison.


  • Ph.D. The Pennsylvania State University, 2008
  • M.A. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2002
  • B.A. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 1999


  • Romnes Faculty Fellowship, 2021
  • Charles Kneupper RSQ Essay Award, 2021
  • Institute for Research in the Humanities Residential Fellowship, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019
  • Mellon-Morgridge Professor of the Humanities, 2017
  • Public Outreach Fellowship, Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, 2016
  • Research-Service Award, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014
  • Top Papers, Peace and Conflict Division, National Communication Association, 2014


  • 2023. Every Living Thing: The Politics of Life in Common. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.
  • 2020. The Rhetoric of Health and Medicine As/Is: Theories and Approaches for the Field (co-edited with Lisa Meloncon, S. Scott Graham, John A. Lynch, and Cynthia Ryan). Columbus, OH: OSU Press.
  • 2018. Graphic Reproduction: A Comics Anthology. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press.
  • 2018. Biocitizenship: Lively Subjects, Embodied Action, and Posthuman Politics (co-edited with Kelly Happe and Marina Levina). New York: NYU Press.
  • 2014. American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • 2012. The Neuroscientific Turn: Trandisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain (co-edited with Melissa Littlefield). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Selected Articles

  • 2020. “Breaking Down: On Publicity as Capacity.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 50, no. 3.
  • 2020.“The End of the World, The Future of the Earth: Bioplurality and the Politics of Human Extinction.” Journal of the History of Rhetoric 23, no. 1.
  • 2019. “Building Better Bridges: Toward a Transdisciplinary Science Communication.” With Michael Xenos. Technical Communication Quarterly 28, no. 2.
  • 2016. “‘A Man’s Mouth Is His Castle’: The Midcentury Fluoridation Controversy and the Visceral Public.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 102, no. 1.
  • 2016. “Bioethics as a Way of Life: The Radical Bioethos of Van Rennselaer Potter.” Literature & Medicine 34, no. 1.
  • 2015. “The Limits of Persuasion: Rhetoric and Resistance in the Last Battle of the Korean War.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 100, no. 3
  • 2013. “Negotiating Autism in an Epidemic of Discourse (Review Essay).” Disability Studies Quarterly,
  • 2012. “Disability, Animals, and the Rhetorical Boundaries of Personhood.” JAC, (32.1-2): 372-382.
  • 2011. “Thinking with the Thalamus: Lobotomy and the Rhetoric of Emotional Impairment.” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 1.
  • 2010. “The Skeleton on the Couch: The Eagleton Affair, Rhetorical Disability, and the Stigma of Mental Illness (reprinted in Neurorhetorics, forthcoming from Routledge).” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40 no.5.
  • 2009. “A Dark History: Memories of Lobotomy in the New Era of Psychosurgery.” Medicine Studies, 1, no. 4.

Selected Book Chapters

  • 2014. “The Golden Voice of Neuroscience: Fact Finding in Popular Buddhist Magazines.” Neuroscience and Media: New Understandings and Representations, Michael Grabowski, ed. New York: Routledge.
  • 2014. “Symmetry.” The Object of Rhetoric: Assembling and Disassembling Bruno Latour, Nathaniel Rivers and Paul Lynch, eds. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press (with James J. Brown, Jr.).
  • 2012. “Theorizing the Neuroscientific Turn: Critical Perspectives on a Translational Discipline.” The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinarity in the Age of the Brain, Melissa Littlefield and Jenell Johnson Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (with Melissa Littlefield), 1-30.
  • 2011. “Lost and Found in Translation: Popular Neuroscience in the Emerging Neurodisciplines.” Advances in Medical Sociology, Martyn Pickersgill and Ira Van Keulen London: Emerald Insight (with Melissa Littlefield), In Press.

Selected Lectures/Keynotes

  • 2019. “A Dark History: Memories of Lobotomy in the New Age of Psychosurgery,” Richardson Seminar, Cornell University, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City.
  • 2018. “Not Your Father’s Lobotomy.” Montgomery Lecture, Co-sponsored by the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities and Institute for Public Health and Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. March 22, 2018.
  • 2014. “A Political History of the Brain,” Network for Neuro-Cultures Conference keynote, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, February 22, 2014.
  • 2013. “Thinking with the Thalamus: Lobotomy and the Rhetoric of Emotional Impairment,” University of Copenhagen, Medical Museion, March 11, 2013.


  • CA 262 – Theory and Practice of Argumentation and Debate
  • CA 310 – Rhetoric and Climate Change
  • CA 310 – Environmental Rhetoric
  • CA 310 – Comics as Visual Rhetoric
  • CA 317 – Rhetoric and Health
  • CA 472 – Rhetoric and Technology
  • CA 570 – Classical Rhetorical Theory
  • CA 610 – Limits of the Human
  • CA 610 – Introduction to Disability Studies
  • CA 969 – Rhetorical Historiography (grad seminar)
  • CA 966 – Rhetoric and the Body (grad seminar)

For more on my books: