A Fullness of Feeling: Queer Rhetorical Listening and Emotional Receptivity
Author: Timothy Oleksiak
Bio: Timothy Oleksiak is a low-femme assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he also directs the Professional and New Media Writing program. His academic work appears or is forthcoming in College Composition and Communication, Pedagogy, Pre/Text, Composition Studies, and in the collections Reinventing (with) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies and The Cultural Impact of RuPaul’s Drag Race.Tags: emotional receptivity, erotic, nepantla, queer, rhetorical listening
When I first read Rhetorical Listening, I felt it deeply.1 What excited me was the way Ratcliffe centers receptivity and openness. More specifically, Ratcliffe makes the clever inversion of “standing under” the discourses of others which calls on each of us to “transpose a desire for mastery into a self-conscious desire for receptivity” (29, emphasis added). Whether or not openness is a choice was less interesting than the call for an openness toward others, a taking into ourselves the ideas, thoughts, and ways of thinking that are not our own. With Rhetorical Listening, Ratcliffe offers ways in which we might enact this sense of openness and how that openness can transform us. However, throughout Rhetorical Listening the focus on the pragmatic enactments of rhetorical listening is animated by a rational approach to cross-cultural rhetorical negotiation. What would it look like if we focused more purposefully not only on desire but the theorizing of feeling that structures rhetorical listening?
I come at the question of receptivity and transformation with a call for greater attention to feelings that structure rhetorical listening. I follow Ann Cvetkovich’s understanding of feelings as a concept that is “intentionally imprecise, retaining the ambiguity between feelings as embodied sensations and feelings as psychic or cognitive experiences” (4). What follows is a thinking through of the depth and range of feelings that one may experience when they enter into the place and time of non-identification. Attending to the feelings experienced within this space of non-identification enlarges the concept and allows us to theorize the space in more complex ways. I hope that this contribution offers resources for thinking about non-identification in ways that allow us to receive the emotional states of others into our own ways of being. Rhetorical listening, with its focus on receptivity’s role in invention, offers us a solid framework for developing emotional receptivity.
What follows is part of a larger project on the role of emotional receptivity as an element of queer rhetorical listening. The process of erotically composing one’s own past, including one’s engagements with cultural logics that were not explicitly recognized as such, enables one to listen rhetorically, in the present, to those cultural logics that threaten one’s own being. Listening is an ethical commitment to continued rhetorical negotiation as a person desiring radical openness. Queer rhetorical listening leans into those moments when being with another is not the drudgery of politics but the charge of togetherness as both painful and pleasurable.
Embracing the Erotic
In her often cited “The Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde’s direct appeal to Black women is to experience joy—a “self-affirming” fullness that comes from recognizing that a capacity for joy matches a capacity for exploitative dread. That we are more than the terror we feel brings us into a necessary fullness. Lorde’s conceptualization of the erotic is a reinvestment and reintegration of the emotional depth of ourselves which makes us whole. This wholeness of self, this depth of feeling, this striving toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be seen as an impossibility or a delayed longing. Lorde states, “[t]he internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others… The aims of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible” (55).
Richer and more possible…
In his reading of “The Uses of the Erotic,” Roderick A. Ferguson notes that Lorde’s work in the 1970s and 1980s is located within a “historical moment in which the elaboration of aesthetics of existence and the release of immense energies became part of the language used to mark new and insurgent social formations” (297). The erotic, when fully felt, allows us to recognize excellence within ourselves and to resist demands that we make ourselves less in the presence of others. In Ferguson’s reading, “excellence,” for Lorde, “is the outcome of passionate engagements designed to produce new visions of and efforts toward a just and compassionate world” (298). The erotic structures a political project of self-affirmation and a generosity toward others that is individual, communal, and horizonal.
In “The Uses of the Erotic” Lorde distances the erotic from the pornographic. This distancing can be considered a savvy rhetorical move to not resist patriarchal engagements that reduce the erotic to sex. However, as Ariane Cruz notes in The Color of Kink, Lorde’s essay “sets the stage for a black feminist critique of pornography, conceptualized as a monolithic cultural entity, that closes off critical consideration of pornography’s erotic potential” (35). While it is beyond the scope of this contribution to play out the stakes of pornography’s erotic potential, Lorde’s criticism of pornography as a pathway to that fullness of self can be an uncomfortable place for those whose BDSM practices are part of their pathways to a fullness of self. Additionally, as Juana María Rodríguez notes, “For so many [female and feminized sex workers], we are not only threatened physically, we are often punished personally and politically for even stating a desire to participate in these alternative sexual formations that exist outside monogamy and domesticity” (14). This is to say that while Lorde’s separation of the pornographic from the erotic is understandable within her historic context, this bracketing need not be part of the ways we understand the erotic today. More importantly, bringing up challenges to Lorde’s understanding of BDSM should not be seen as an attempt to discredit what the erotic can do for our understanding Lorde or rhetorical listening. Lorde’s sense of the erotic is crucial for understanding the ways we can listen to our past relationships with cultural logics that we no longer hold onto.
(Mis)recognition and Emotional Pain
I take seriously Jim Corder’s insight that “contending narratives” are threatening for ourselves and others (19). Those who study Foucault hear him maintain that it is not the sex we have that makes queers “disturbing” but the forms of life our sex enables (“Friendship”). Corder’s and Foucault’s works on threat highlight the emotional consequences of difference. To an extent, my lived and learned experiences as a queer person with low-femme gender expression confirm this. A distinct sense of the world that is contrary to queer logics disturbs because I understand it as life-negating and world-destroying. I understand it this way because I have learned to trust that when life-negating rhetoric comes my way, I should believe that the rhetor believes it. My belief is a learned practice of queer survival that includes both deep feelings of terror and joy. I deserve a life and the freedom to create the worlds I envision for myself and my people.
But a question haunting rhetorical listening is this: How can I listen rhetorically to a person whose cultural logics imagine my death? But more importantly, I can imagine the same can be said to the person who believes in religious fundamentalism, logics that understand homosexuality as sinful and worthy of eradication through prayer or policy. We threaten each other. Contact risks eradication. Difference doesn’t automatically lead to transformation when feelings of repulsion or fear or distain co-exist with the cultural logics that order our worlds. Those operating under cultural logics more than two steps away understand that some cultural logics cannot co-exist. And one of the greatest requests of Rhetorical Listening is that we take such risk. But without a fuller sense of feeling, we cannot understand the terror and joy involved in such a risk. Simply, it is not enough to counter difference through counter-logics. Some cultural logics must be eradicated, even if (or maybe especially when) they are felt deeply by individuals willing to emotionally or physically imperil others. If we are going to take such risks, we cannot go into cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations unless we are equipped with a powerful sense of the erotic. Attending to one’s own experiences is important here because it eroticizes abstract logics and fleshes out these experiences, charging them with an emotional power they would otherwise lack.
Holding Two Cultural Logics at Once
Rhetorical Listening makes a series of powerful and bold requests. I lingered on the assertion that rhetors should analyze “claims as well as the cultural logics within which these claims function” (26, emphasis original). Part of this work of attending to claims and cultural logics animating them is to recognize that all language is tropological. Tropes have contested meanings and such contestations have material consequences for individuals whose meanings significantly differ. Race and gender, the two tropes centered in Ratcliffe’s work, mean differently depending on the person’s or community’s cultural logics. Table 1 details the cultural logics Ratcliffe describes and offers four additional cultural logics relating to the trope of sexuality. I include the additional cultural logics because one of the ways Rhetorical Listening kept me at a distance was the fact that while Ratcliffe cites lesbian and queer women throughout her work, sexuality does not play a constitutive role in her framework. To heal from this absence and to create a space for myself and my queer communities it is important to structure a space for sexuality in rhetorical listening in ways that do not deny rhetorical listening’s interrogation of whiteness and its effects. Critical Race Theory (CRT), postmodern commonalities and differences, and queer logics offer greater power to struggle more concretely with conflicting cultural logics. This is why, in part, those cultural logics at the top are more desirable. Queer logics, postmodern commonalities and differences, and Critical Race Theory are better equipped to attend to the emotional resonances and consequences of differences that emerge during the process of cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations.
Like those of gender and race, cultural logics relating to sexuality codify the ways sexuality is made meaningful for ourselves and others. And, on the basis of this meaning, all of us act and react in distinct ways. Importantly, sexuality, gender, and race inform each other such that a fuller sense of CRT can trouble the whiteness of queer and postmodern commonalities and differences logics to the same extent that queer logics can trouble CRT and postmodern commonalities and differences. What is meaningful, moreover, leads to particular forms of (mis)recognition. As a white, queer cisgender man with low-femme gender expression, for example, I often feel anxious in spaces where cisgender white men who have patriarchal, white supremacist values based in specific interpretations of religious texts are allowed free or unremarked reign to speak and move. Historically, but not consistently or even entirely, when my people are harmed it is by people who rely on these logics. My gender expression is (mis)recognized as a threat and as harmful. Their presence in my space is (mis)recognized as threatening, too. The very inconsistency of the threat (will they/won’t they, and if they do, will I?) evidences the emotional and physical tensions queer people face in patriarchal, white supremacist, and religious fundamentalist communities. These anxieties, if they are felt at all, are differently felt based on race, gender, and a host of other perceived and experienced identities and identifications. These feelings of danger, harm, or discomfort are part of my felt sense of safety in the world. I cling to my right as a queer, cisgender man with low-femme gender expression to live.
Place this hypothetical (though as real as the cop who pulled my ex-boyfriend over and made him sit in the cruiser during our walk home from Minneapolis Pride many years ago) person in a drag bar and his threat dissipates. The location at which these tensions take place mediates but does not eradicate harm. Though his threat within a queer space diminishes, it is never entirely gone, as the Pulse night club massacre makes too clear. So, too, might the threat become inverted: a straight person in a queer space could feel threatened by the queer excess of the space. Thus, the material consequences of our felt senses of difference are known only in the moments of their interpretation by those with varying emotional proximities to the situation.2 These feelings do not come easily, neatly, nor fully-formed when we shift the cultural logics which order our worlds.
“Non-identification”—that space between identification and disidentification—felt like a very queer space for me. It felt like I did for most of my life. I came out at 15 and spent the next three years thinking about what it meant to be a gay man in a world that was not kind to gay men. This was 1995. I had no gay or lesbian people in my life, though gay cultural issues were part of positive conversations in my family. We talked about HIV/AIDS and the viscous negligence of the Reagan administration. I cried when Bill Clinton spoke positively of gays and lesbians in his State of the Union address because I felt seen. I sat angry at his terrible policies on policing, gays in the military, and the stupid Defense of Marriage Act. I knew then that to be recognized as a gay person was an unqualified good while the “tough on crime” polices of his 1994 crime bill were an unmitigated disaster for Black and brown people. I grew up in a household whose cultural logics were rooted in human rights, equal rights, and emergent Critical Race Theory. But for much of my formative years leading into my 20s, I was too scared of sex to do anything but pine for the straight boys. Though I didn’t know it at the time, they felt safe. I could take on the loathing and anxiety because anything was better than my fear of sex and its consequences. But these negative feelings, I came to understand, were based on internalized homophobia, conflicting messages about LGBTQIA+ people, and a fear that if I leaned too hard into my sexuality, I’d give up everything for it. These guilt, blame, and shame logics kept me prudent as they kept me suspended. They were not unproductive, in other words, they were a part of me. But I could not sit in the loathing and anxiety because these feelings alienated me from a fullness of self inherent in Lorde’s erotic. The erotic propelled me to seek out differences and to move toward a fuller sense of self that could experience more than negative feelings.
My coming into queer cultural logics is marked by a deep, felt sense that overwhelmed me. I felt my way through cultural logics. I didn’t think I was supposed to be alive. I felt like a biological abnormality until I realized that I was biologically gay. Then I felt like that cultural logic no longer mattered because “gay” did not seem like a reasonable rationale for exclusion from the rights and privileges afforded straight people. Obtaining a full (or full enough) hold on the erotic wasn’t only a result of contemplating my place in the world. It was living and experiencing and sharing desires and learning that those desires expanded to include always more people. The erotic charge of a protest, the collective of bodies that smell and radiate heat, the sounds and noises, and the link to those protesting online with us offered me a felt sense of belonging. The desires to have a cocktail out on my apartment’s front balcony with my husband and dance to gay pop music for all our neighbors to see linked me to a full sense of self.
My balcony is Lorde’s laying on the grass with a lover.
While my story seems like one of identifications and disidentificaitons, it is not. It is the story of sitting in a space of non-identification between cultural logics. Non-identification is a state of emotional crisis that is necessary as we move toward more capacious cultural logics, logics that allow us to experience a fully felt sense of self. What I am after here, is that non-identification is an experience of feeling that challenges our disconnect from the erotic itself. There are very real challenges we face when moving from one cultural logic to the next and these challenges are not without significant emotional consequences. Loss, grief, shame, and other negative feelings are built into the system of rhetorical listening, whether they are productive feelings or not. The experience of non-identification compounds the challenges of rhetorical listening but also makes rhetorical listening all the more important for oppressed peoples because it is through listening that we are able to emerge from the space of non-identification with a greater depth of feeling.
Temporary Stability and Emotional Crisis
What my moving toward queer logics taught me is that between each logic exists a space of crisis that often carries with it a deep sense of pain. Gloria Anzaldúa calls this space nepantla, a state of crisis between two worlds.3 To fully feel the joys of a cultural logics that is different than the ones below it is to feel that the erotic within us and within our communities is possible. When thinking through the project of queering rhetorical listening, nepantla offers the possibility to think about non-identification in ways that allow us to hold onto negative and positive feelings and to think-feel through the erotic in ways that acknowledge the reality of pain and discomfort that is part of rhetorical transformation. But before we can attend to them, it is important to flesh out, literally add flesh to, non-identification and the attendant feelings that surround an individual.
Graduate school made me queer…
More precisely, reading queer theory in graduate school made me queer. Until then, I had kept friends who used gay dating apps and had sex often and with multiple partners at a distance. I was absolutely moralizing against these types of behaviors. Reading Tim Dean, Michael Warner, Judith Butler’s work on gender, and History of Sexuality, vol. 1 turned me queer. And in the turning toward, I turned back to how I felt about sexuality and those who embraced it prior to my learning. I was a judgmental shit. That illumination did not sit right with me, but that discomfort did not dissipate the moment I realized that I was moralizing against an embrace of the erotic that others engaged. It was a slow and painful shift in the ways I experienced self-loathing. Holding onto logics of human rights was a victory to my previous experiences with biological determinism; the presences of queer logics brought into stark relief the limitations of human rights logics. And I felt guilt, shame, and blame in complex ways. The guilt I felt came from the realization that my judgmental attitudes toward those queers who had embraced the erotic was an attempt to deny them the full sense of self that the erotic brings. The experience of non-identification allows me to witness the ways I withheld the potential of fullness of others. I felt shame that I could not bring myself to embrace that fullness myself. These feelings overwhelmed and structured my experiences because the tension between human rights and queer logics did not easily resolve itself.
In Borderlands, Anzaldúa defines nepantilism as “torn between ways” (100). In The Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro Anzaldúa develops nepantla as a “psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future. Nepantla is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition” (17). What makes nepantla distinct is that for Anzaldúa, nepantla is “an emotionally significant event or a radical change in status” (17, emphasis added). Isolation, “unruly emotions,” “anguish” are wrapped up in the experience which ultimately leads to a “different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world” (17).4 Additionally, Sarah De Los Santos Upton describes nepantla as a “liminal, in-between stage characterized by chaos and disorientation, where individuals experience disassociations, breakdowns, and buildups of their identities” (124). In this space individuals may become nepantlera. In her editor’s introduction to Light in the Dark, Analouise Keating states, “nepantleras do not fully belong to any single location. Yet this willingness to remain with/in the threshold enables nepantleras to break partially away from the cultural trance and binary thinking that locks us into the status quo” (xxxv-xxxvi, emphasis original).
The spaces between cultural logics are the spaces where we are torn between ways. This blurring is important not only because sometimes it is very difficult to identify a particular cultural logic but because it also functions as a powerful image of haziness and unknowing. The blur denotes a state of instability. The blurring of the boundaries between cultural logics and the tearing of the self between psychic states carries real pain. Even as Sharon Crowley’s (Toward a Civil Discourse) notion of ideologic helps us see the densely woven articulations that keep individuals within particular ideological perspectives, thinking through cultural logics from Anzaldúa’s concept of nepantla helps us to understand more fully the emotional stakes that come from transforming our perspective and the difficulties surrounding spiritual healing or a willingness to reach into our selves for that full depth of feeling that the erotic offers.
Nepantla is non-identification in the flesh. As Anzaldúa says, “in nepantla we undergo the anguish of changing our perspectives and crossing a series of cruz calles, junctures, and thresholds, some leading to a different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world” (17). The point is to function as a nepantalera, a person who is comfortable with ambiguity and change. They “function disruptively” (84) in order to challenge traditional identity politics. Nepantleras feel a connection to others as global citizens. Anzaldúa states, “as world citizens, las nepantleras learn to move at ease among cultures, countries, and customs” (85). And so, for Anzaldúa, nepantla is a space where nepantlera identity, an identity always in becoming and in flux, emerges.
Let each of us stand in awe of nepantla as a theoretical concept. It is a standing under threatening cultural logics. It is a way of the world. It is that toward which we should strive. When nepantla touches listening, listening can enfold greater emotional complexities and equip us with greater resources for cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations.
Composing is an unveiling of the self and the anticipation and development of the text is part of the eroticism of cross-cultural rhetorical exchanges that we undertake every time we experience difference. In “Queered and Stripped: Erotic Desire/s in Burlesque Performance, Casely Coan argues, “queering of erotic desire reconfigures what and whom can be desired in that space, making a powerful argument for the sexiness of fat women, trans women, women of color, women with disabilities, queer women, etc.” (53). Composing with the erotic in mind, like burlesque, is an unfolding and offering of our fuller selves to others who may experience the eroticism of our texts as invitations to engage their fuller self. Queer rhetorical listening as a practice of desire invents new ways to engage in a desiring radical openness.
This openness can bring us more fully into contact with others. By standing under those cultural logics which bring us to a fuller self of the erotic within us we might stand over those discourses which seek our eradication. In the standing over, we might remember the crisis of emotion that those below experience and offer them a hand up or an invitation to get in touch with the erotic within themselves. After all, the aim of the erotic is to bring ourselves and others into lives that are richer and more possible. But we cannot know this as a possibility unless and until we feel that it is so.
Alongside specific tactics is a theory of queer rhetorical listening based in non-identification’s holding onto pain, pleasure, and the consequences of these desires. These desires that Coan links to are embodied feelings of pleasure and an illustration of the way eroticism on display and in action can link to remind us of the depth of feelings that bring about transformation and change. However, the anguish and experience of an emotionally significant encounter with difference can just as easily call on us to retreat into a cultural logic that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of the erotic. A greater attention to the erotic can thicken our experiences of and strategies for queer feminist persuasion if and when we can bring the erotic into our ways of standing under the discourses of others. We can see the struggle with the erotic as a moment to call each other into fuller sense of self that allow for lives that are richer and more possible.
- This project initially began as a co-authored piece with Kyéra Sterling. After dialoging during its development and because the COVID-19 pandemic impacted us in different ways, Kyéra and I agreed to acknowledge her as a “contributor” and request that further references to this contribution acknowledge this relationship.
- See Jean Bessett’s “Queer Rhetoric in Situ” for more on differing interpretations of rhetorical situations.
- Of the many concepts feminist have considered in Anzaldúa’s work, nepantla is rarely referenced. An important exception to this is the work of Sarah De Los Santos Upton. Two of her works—“Communicating Nepantla: An Anzaldúan Theory of Identity” and “Nepantla Activism and Coalition Building: Locating Identity and Resistance in the Cracks Between Worlds” deftly articulate the multiple strands of Anzaldúa’s complex theories.
- In All about Love, bell hooks teaches us that “there is no change that does not bring with it a feeling of challenge and loss” (181). And while this is surely the case, Anzaldúa’s nepantla frames the issue with greater emotional stakes via a more concrete imagining than does hooks.
- Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Analouise Keating, editor. Duke UP, 2015.
- —. Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd edition, Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
- Bessette, Jean. “Queer Rhetoric in Situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
- Cruz, Ariane. The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography. New York UP, 2016.
- Coan, Casely E. “Queered and Stripped: Erotic Desire/s in Burlesque Performance.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 41-58.
- Corder, Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Rhetoric Review, vol, 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 16-32.
- Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. U of Pittsburg P, 2006.
- Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke UP, 2012.
- Ferguson, Roderick A. “Of Sensual Matters: On Audre Lorde’s ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ and ‘Uses of the Erotic.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol, 40, no. 3&4, 2012, pp. 295- 300.
- Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” Interview with R. de Ceccaty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux. Translated by John Johnston. Gai Pied, 1981. Accessed 10 Sep. 2020.
- hooks, bell. All about Love: New Visions. Perennial, 2000.
- Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing P, 1984/2007, pp. 53-59.
- Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
- Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York UP, 2014.
- Upton, Sarah De Los Santos. “Communicating Nepantla: An Anzaldúan Theory of Identity.” This Bridge We Call Communication: Anzaldúan Approaches to Theory, Method and Practice, edited by Leandra Hinojosa Hernánez and Robert Gutierrez-Perez. Lexington Books, 2019, pp. 123-142.
- —. “Nepantla Activism and Coalition Building: Locating Identity and Resistance in the Cracks Between Worlds.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 42, no. 2, 2019, pp. 135-139.