An Archival Analysis of the “Material Turn” in Feminist Rhetorics
Author(s): Michelle C. Smith and Haley Swartz
Michelle C. Smith is an Associate Professor of English at Clemson University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in feminist rhetorics, rhetorical theory, and material and cultural rhetorics. Her publications include her monograph, Utopian Genderscapes (2021), as well as articles in College English, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Peitho, among others. Her current research explores archives and feminist memory through an extended study of the WWII-era image popularly known as Rosie the Riveter.
Haley Swartz is a PhD student in Rhetoric, Communication and Information Design at Clemson University. She is a writing, media and communication educator with experience in a variety of secondary and higher education settings. Her research focuses on gender and health; her dissertation examines U.S. women’s health activism through alternative health practices and self-help texts and technologies over the past century in light of their implications for and definitions of women’s health and wellness.
Abstract: In narrating the story of feminist rhetorics, Michelle Smith highlights a shift from women’s rhetorics to rhetorics of gender, a shift that parallels the material turn in rhetorical studies. This essay revisits this narrative through an archival analysis of the Coalition’s Newsletter, seeking evidence of the shift and considering what the archival evidence indicates about what the narrative reveals or obscures. The authors find that the shift from analyses of women’s rhetorics to rhetorical processes of gendering was evident, but that this increase in attention to material factors percolated from within the field of feminist rhetorics, following naturally from the awareness of positionality animating the Coalition’s mentoring and community building initiatives. Rather than pursuing any methodological goal in isolation, feminist scholars evade linear trajectories by perpetually pushing, playing, challenging, and reconsidering the moves and possibilities of feminist research and activismTags: archives, material rhetorics, methodology
In the call for this Cluster Conversation, the editorial board of Peitho asked us to meditate on our stories of the discipline. Reading the call, I (Michelle) thought immediately of the way that I narrate the story of feminist rhetorics for my students: a narration describing three historical approaches to feminist rhetorical research. Because we consider these approaches largely through readings in Lindal Buchanan’s and Kathleen Ryan’s anthology, Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics, I’ll briefly explain them here with reference to examples in that collection.
First, I explain, feminist scholars worked to recover women’s rhetorics, adding women’s speaking and writing to the rhetorical canon. As they began considering historical women’s words, feminist scholars also considered what led those voices to be silenced in the first place, enacting a revision of rhetorical criteria and reworking central theoretical concepts in the field. In the Buchanan and Ryan collection, some examples of this mode of feminist rhetorical scholarship are Krista Ratcliffe’s work on Anglo-American feminist theories of rhetoric, Jane Donawerth’s analysis of Renaissance women’s conversational rhetoric, and Shirley Logan’s analysis of black women’s nineteenth-century oratory.
The second approach I describe is the study of what people say about women’s words. This approach might include studies of the reception of or injunctions against women’s public speaking, for instance, or pedagogical texts and conduct literature instructing women in “appropriate” rhetorical means. Vicki Tolar Collins Burton’s study of the texts surrounding Methodist Hester Ann Rogers’s diary is one example in Walking and Talking, as is Susan Zaeske’s examination of the designation of the “promiscuous audience” in the nineteenth-century U.S. As I acknowledge, some scholars who might have hoped to do recovery work are forced into this second kind of research due to a lack of extant primary sources: Cheryl Glenn’s work on Aspasia is a prime example in the anthology.
Finally, I introduce the third approach: the study of the rhetorical gendering of spaces, objects, occupations, roles, and technologies. I explain that studies of how women came to occupy masculine-associated spaces like the platform and the pulpit led scholars to wonder how those spaces and roles had become gendered masculine in the first place. My own interest in the rhetorical gendering of space was piqued in just this way by Roxanne Mountford’s The Gendered Pulpit, which explores first the masculine gendering of the pulpit in fictional and theological texts before examining how contemporary female preachers occupy and speak from that space. This area of inquiry has been expanded through a variety of works that consider the rhetorical circulation of gender apart from any necessary connection to sexed or gendered bodies. While the essays in Walking and Talking largely precede this turn, my students routinely remark upon a telling moment in Carol Mattingly’s analysis of the WCTU’s Woman’s Temple that indicates the promise of a material approach: specifically, Mattingly describes how particular architectural styles were gendered masculine (modern, straight lines, right angles) or feminine (ornate, curved edges, nooks) (294-96). We also read more recent work modeling this third approach by scholars like Sarah Hallenbeck and Jessica Enoch.
By charting these approaches, I narrate the history of the field as a shift from studies of women’s rhetorics to studies of rhetorics of gender, a shift that parallels the material turn in rhetorical studies and the humanities writ large. As Enoch explains, scholars of the “rhetorical process of gendering” must examine not only the discursive, but also the material and embodied “articulations and performances that create and disturb gendered distinctions, social categories, and asymmetrical power relationships” (68). Thus, our use of the term “material” in this essay follows the contours of the material turn in rhetoric by insisting upon three tenets that frame the relationship of rhetoric and materiality. First, we understand rhetoric itself as material, recognizing that words and ideas are not free floating or abstract but always—and essentially—circulated through material means, among and between bodies, human and nonhuman. Second, we maintain that material entities have rhetorical force, that bodies, objects, and spaces have suasive force beyond and apart from the words on, within, or surrounding them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we embrace a theoretical and scholarly stance that sees rhetoric and materiality as mutually imbricated, refusing common dichotomies of words and things, meaning and materiality. Each of these tenets addresses what Wendy Sharer identifies as a key “omission from scholarship in the history of rhetoric—a hesitancy to address the physical and material,” an omission that “has had a disproportionate impact on how bodies gendered as women have been studied” (386). Attention to materiality thus opens and expands the field of feminist rhetorics; however, charting the course of the material turn does not tell the whole story of the field’s development.
In this essay, we analyze the shift from analyses of women’s rhetorics to rhetorical processes of gendering through an archival analysis of the Coalition’s Newsletter archives. As it has become commonplace to locate the 1992-93 Campbell/Biesecker debate in Philosophy and Rhetoric—also anthologized in Walking and Talking—as an initiating moment in this transition, the timing of the Newsletter’s inaugural issue in 1996 provides an opportunity to explore how the Coalition engaged these concerns. In addition to searching for direct references to the debate or Biesecker’s article, we also sought evidence of a material turn in feminist rhetorics through references to materiality (material, materialist, materialism) and material rhetorical analysis (of space, bodies, time, dress, things, objects, technology) throughout the Newsletter archives. Through this analysis, we aim to investigate and complicate the narrative of a shift from recovery to material analyses of gender. We ask: was such a shift evidenced in the Coalition’s Newsletter? How else might this shift of attention or priority be narrated, and towards what ends? More broadly, with the expectation that all three “types” of research sketched above coexist (sometimes within a single work) and continue in the present, what can an archival analysis show about what this narrative reveals or obscures?
The archives of the Coalition’s Newsletter suggest two major findings relevant to a (re)consideration of the story of feminist rhetorical studies. First, while in general the Newsletter achieves a balance between recovery and theoretical approaches like those suggested by Biesecker, there is also evidence that recovery was a more dominant mode in earlier years (and for newer members of the discipline), with more attention to materiality and rhetorical gendering (particularly by more established scholars) around and after the turn of the twenty-first century. Second, while there is indeed some evidence of the “material turn,” the Newsletter archives illustrate that this interest in materiality derived in large part from the Coalition’s attention to questions of mentorship and positionality in and beyond academia.
Below, we explore each of these findings in more detail, concluding with some reflections on what the narrative of a shift from women’s rhetorics to rhetorics of gender obscures. We stress that the language of “turning” away from recovery or of a “debate” between recovery and material methods depicts these approaches as more oppositional and exclusionary than the engagement in the archive suggests. In addition, the insight that the material turn in feminist rhetoric was homegrown, stemming from our work as mentors and teachers—from our commitment to fostering feminist community—is a refreshing corrective to the impetus to attribute especial value and status to theoretical approaches imported from outside the discipline, particularly those stemming from continental philosophy.
Into the Archives
The inaugural newsletter of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition was published, without a name, in the fall of 1996. By the second issue one year later, the Newsletter had its title: Peitho, the Greek goddess of persuasion (see Fig. 1). In total, the Peitho Newsletter covers nearly 15 years with 21 issues, spanning 1996-2012, when Peitho transitioned to a peer-reviewed journal. The Newsletter was largely a space to garner community: its contents document proceedings from the coalition meetings at CCCC’s, promote mentorship opportunities, announce newly published monographs and edited collections of interest, and provide an outlet for emerging feminist scholarship.
As I (Haley) began reading through the Newsletter archives, I found myself seeking a neat, linear narrative of the field. But trajectories of a discipline are hardly ever linear. In the pages of the Peitho Newsletter, feminist rhetorics coalesces as a growing field grappling with its scholarly and institutional identity. Below, we consider these impulses, with a particular focus on the conversations that emerge regarding recovery, re-theorizing, and materiality. First, we elaborate scholarly response to the Campbell/Biesecker debate and outline a general shift in research emphasis from recovery to materiality. Then, we show how materiality percolated through the Coalition’s attention to mentorship and positionality––mirroring but not dependent upon the broad material turn beyond feminist rhetorics––adding nuance to any linear narratives about the progression of the field.
A Shift in Emphasis: From Recovery to Rhetorical Gendering
In Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics, Buchanan and Ryan present the Biesecker/Campbell controversy as a “discussion of the relative merits and dangers of recovery work versus retheorizing rhetoric,” where Campbell represents a camp dedicated to “recuperating forgotten women rhetors and rhetorics” while Biesecker promotes scholarship “interrogating the exclusionary premises and practices responsible for [women’s] silence” (336). Buchanan and Ryan initially position Campbell and Biesecker’s viewpoints as mutually exclusive; however, they conclude by recognizing that feminist scholars largely engage recovery and retheorizing as “complementary efforts” (Ibid). There is clear evidence of this engagement in the early issues of the Peitho Newsletter; the featured scholars seem to take as a given that both recovery and retheorizing are necessary to advance the field. The figure of Peitho, the ambiguous Greek goddess that resists clear definition, herself embodies the balance between recovery and retheorizing: as a female deity, Peitho’s ability to cross boundaries represents women who “broke out of conventional feminine frames” as well as those who “wrote and spoke from within them” (Halasek and Jarratt 8). Kristen Kennedy articulates this balance in the first piece of original scholarship published in the Newsletter, an article version of her 1997 Coalition meeting presentation. On the surface, Kennedy seems to be doing recovery work in “Hipparchia the Cynic;” however, she frames her analysis of Hipparchia beyond recovering a forgotten rhetor, urging scholars to theorize how recoveries themselves can lead to inquiry regarding “important issues of gender, sexual difference, and embodiment” (6-7). In particular, Kennedy explores a feminist ethic of rhetoric––an ethic that is only revealed by retheorizing traditional ethical theories through recovery work.
This early example of retheorizing bespoke established scholars’ interest in expanding the field beyond recovery, a commitment that becomes apparent by the 1999 issue. A summary of presentations from the previous year’s Coalition meeting shows a scholarly impulse to balance recovery and re-theorizing, evident especially in Malea Powell’s “I Write the Words with Blood and Bone” and Charlotte Hogg’s “My Grandma’s Stories.” Nonetheless, the first issues of the Newsletter devoted space to scholarship that is specifically recovery work. For example, the Fall 1997 issue features a summary piece by Janet Carey Eldred and Peter Mortensen that recovers women instructors of rhetoric, and the next issue (Winter 1999) features original scholarship by Jacqueline Rhodes, a graduate student at the time. In “A Vichian Vindication,” Rhodes confronts contradictions between Mary Wollstonecraft’s public and private life. This rehearsal of recovery work demonstrates the Coalition’s commitment to furthering established lines of inquiry in its publications, even as meeting notes indicate scholars’ inclination to balance recovery and retheorizing.
Recognizing this balance in the early issues of the Peitho Newsletter requires readers to pay particular attention to the scholarly work being done outside of the Newsletter’s pages: the work presented at the Coalition meetings and monographs being published, several of which appear as book reviews. Reviews of Jacqueline Jones Royster’s Traces of a Stream and Shirley Wilson Logan’s We are Coming, both featured in the Spring/Summer 2001 issue, show that the Newsletter’s writers frame retheorization as part and parcel of recovery work, focusing more on the recovery aspect of the research rather than contributions to retheorizing the field of rhetoric. A specific call to retheorize did not appear until 2002, in a review of Nan Johnson’s Gender and Rhetorical Space written by Jacqueline Bacon; tellingly, this was also the first reference to the Campbell/Biesecker debate. Bacon writes that Johnson negotiates the tension between recovery and retheorizing, suggesting that scholars must both revise the canon and consider “how canons are formed and why” (8). This clear call articulates the ethos of balance in the early issues of the Newsletter: a pattern that negotiates any disciplinary divide by engaging the possibility of a both/and imperative. Retheorizing would not necessarily disrupt the field or negate the important work of recovering women rhetors, but it would allow scholars to engage more deeply with why this recovery work was both imperative and tricky.
Within this space, the inaugural issues also offer a glimpse into the beginnings of the material turn. Kennedy’s 1997 Hipparchia article is an early example: she considers how location and corporeality might provide new insights into recovery work. It is worth noting here that Kennedy’s work is significantly influenced by feminist philosophy and a full, revised version of the article is published in Hypatia in 1999, suggesting that Kennedy’s attention to materiality may have derived from developments beyond rhetorical studies. As diverse fields began to contend with corporeality in new ways, the Newsletter shows that feminist rhetoricians deployed these ideas as a means of weaving recovery with re-theorizing. Articles engaging materiality in this way begin to appear by the Fall 2000 issue. At first, materiality is a hint, a suggestion, as in Jill Swiencicki’s allusions to phenomena such as the “gendered conditions of rhetorical production” (7). Tellingly, Swiencicki cites the afterword of Reclaiming Rhetorica as inspiring her perspective: “I further a notion of rhetoric that sees it not as a single set of options for realizing one’s self, but a set of discursive and spatial norms which bring certain selves into being and which validate certain selves over others” (3). Although Reclaiming is largely focused on recovery, its afterward includes provocations from contributors, including Cheryl Glenn’s invitation to accept “the plasticity of rhetoric”––to redefine rhetoric through the material differences of gendered rhetorical activity (329). Swiencicki and others answer this call through attention to the material within the realm of recovery work.
The pages of the Peitho Newsletter negotiate this balance of recovery and retheorization, hinting toward materiality as a route to retheorize; nonetheless, recovery is present throughout the issues, as are references to Campbell’s Man Cannot Speak for Her. Scholars continued to build on Campbell’s work, largely without referencing Biesecker. This clearly demonstrates, as Buchanan and Ryan suggest, that scholars’ response to the Campbell/Biesecker debate was largely to supplement recovery work with retheorization, to expand the field without surrendering its initial impulses. An outlier to this broad characterization, however, appears in the Spring/Fall 2010 issue of the Peitho Newsletter. Here, Lisa Mastrangelo and Lynée Lewis Gaillet ponder methodology, flouting any talk of material turns, instead arguing for historical research for the sake of history. They ask, “Is it because our discipline is relatively new…that we feel the need to be sure that our history is recognized as ‘legitimate’ by connecting it to current practices and theories at every turn?” (22). Challenging the scholarly trend to retheorize, to examine materiality in order to “do history,” Mastrangelo and Gaillet urge scholars to “acknowledge the important work that history can do on its own” (23). Despite this, retheorization through recovery work, particularly incorporating considerations of materiality, blossoms as a scholarly pursuit throughout the Newsletter. As the next section suggests, we can see the material turn as emerging from the Coalition’s early imperatives.
A Percolating Turn: Materiality in Service to Mentorship and Community
To coherently narrate the evolution of feminist rhetorics (and other disciplines), it is tempting to delineate a clear material turn: that scholars one day decided that materiality mattered and immediately and irrevocably changed their modes of research. The pages of the Peitho Newsletter elide this neat narrative; instead, the archive shows material concerns and questions percolating through the pages of the Newsletter, seeping into the field from disparate sources and congealing in new and surprising ways as the field applied, engaged, and experimented with its possibilities. The material “turn”––writ large––is of course a broad shift across disciplines, but in the pages of the Peitho Newsletter, scholars initially engage materialist methods through discussions of positionality in pedagogy, in the academy, and in research. The archive conveys the Coalition’s impulse for mentorship and attention to positionality, providing feminist scholars with tools for considering embodiment and materiality that begin to manifest in research topics and methodologies. In this section, we provide an alternate reading of the material turn, one that emerges not from some prestigious scholarly trend outside feminist rhetorics––as Mastrangelo and Gaillet fear––but from a feminist attention to the embodiment of the researcher, a researcher who is also a teacher, mentor, colleague, and collaborator.
Early talk of materiality in the Peitho Newsletter emerges in the second issue as scholars begin to consider their own positionality within research and the academy. In her reflection on the Coalition meeting in March 1997, Rebecca Greenberg Taylor writes that several presenters spoke to need to “consider our selves, bodies, and corporeal and material positions” (2). This comment is echoed in the 1999 Coalition caucus theme, “We Are All Bound Up Together: Women Writing, Writing Women,” which explicitly ties scholars’ embodiment to both research and mentorship. The subsequent summary of the caucus is equally telling, as Tara Pauliny writes: “These presentations by women scholars, which articulated other women’s relationship to their identities, their professions, and their wider cultural spaces helped me to recognize my own position within the field” (2). Through these examples, we can see how the material turn speaks to the imperative to consider positionality and subjectivity—the embodiment—of women scholars.
This approach to materiality is also seen in increasing consideration of the archive and attention to the positionality of researchers in archival scholarship. The Fall 2002 issue invites scholars to “send a letter to your younger colleagues [to be published in the Newsletter], sharing the benefits of your experience and providing mentorship by way of example and narrative. This invitation, the editors note, follows a “new level of attention to archival research in rhetoric and composition” (Jarratt and Romano 10). The letters published in subsequent issues (2003-2004) dispense research advice through first-person and conversational accounts of the process of archival scholarship. Importantly, these accounts repeatedly emphasize the materiality of the process through positionality. In Fall 2003, Jane Donawerth and Lisa Zimerelli explain: “Feminist archival research demands that we not only find lost women of the past but also become conscious of our positionality in relation to their positionality” (4). And in Fall 2004, Gesa Kirsch takes readers on a journey of recovering the writings of an early 20th-century female physician, weaving a discussion of her own positionality throughout. Kirsch writes:
The simple fact of being there, in Berkeley, walking across campus many times, jogging on the local trails, joining a campus tour, reading street and building names––all these activities made it much easier for me to decipher the hand-written correspondence and diary entries which prominently featured local places and events. Suddenly I understood what it had meant when a fire swept down Strawberry Canyon…and I could picture the events organized by women students…social gatherings in the Hearst Women’s Gymnasium…or recitals held in the Greek Theater….History came to life as I walked the streets of Berkeley. (4)
Kirsch’s example demonstrates that the material turn does not require scholars to turn away from recovery work, but rather to consider how materiality might complement the enduring project of feminist scholarship.
Similarly, materiality manifests in scholarship that considers the embodiment of women rhetors and the spaces they occupy. The Newsletter contains early references to such approaches, specifically through a quote attributed to Jacqueline Jones Royster in 1999 suggesting the need to get at “the materiality of what it means to live and do work as women” (Pauliny 4). That year’s panelists—which included June Hadden Hobbs, Carol Mattingly, and Cheryl Glenn, among several others—presented work that expanded the notion of rhetorical texts and subjects to incorporate materiality: Hobbs explored how women used hymns, cemetery icons, and epitaphs; Mattingly examined the material affordances of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and Glenn considered silence as rhetorical. In the next Newsletter, Danielle Mitchell reviews the 2000 Coalition panel, noting that Nan Johnson “makes room for exploring how history, language, and texts construct the world––both overtly and covertly––as forms of cultural power that privilege some sociopolitical positions over others” in the graduate classroom (3). This shows the impulse to reframe graduate education in rhetoric through materiality and intimates attention to the rhetoric of gender as an area of study distinct from “women’s rhetorics.”
Attention to the material becomes overt by the time Susan Romano becomes Newsletter co-editor in 2002 (see Fig. 2). In her article featured in the Fall 2002 issue, Romano articulates clear material feminist arguments, noting that her “analysis derives from propositions advanced by a group of social theorists who consider patterns of bodily movement and spatial structures as fundamentally involved in the production of human agencies and ideologies” (2). Here, Romano gestures toward theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, John Law, Allan Pred, and Nigel Thrift in order to account for her use of body and theories of spatialization in analyzing historical figures, particularly “given the scant and suppressed documentary evidence of writing or speech” (Ibid). Romano frames materiality and rhetorical gendering in service to recovery, a move that feminist scholars rehearse throughout the Newsletter. For example, in a review of Jacqueline Jones Royster’s Traces of a Stream, Roxanne Harde highlights Royster’s project as recovery, recognizing the literacy practices of African American women, rather than emphasizing Royster’s contribution in theorizing the material conditions that contribute to these practices. In a later review of Jaqueline Bacon’s monograph, The Humblest May Stand Forth, Shevaun E. Watson writes that Bacon uses a plethora of primary sources beyond traditional rhetorical texts “not only to glean rhetorical strategies, but also to understand the racialized and gendered notions of nineteenth century Americans” (7-8). But here again, the materialist methodology and notions of gendering are superseded by recovery. Watson contends: “the force of Bacon’s work is both her compilation of alternative abolitionist rhetoric into one definitive resource and her astute analysis of their diverse texts” (8). Through these examples, the Newsletter demonstrates how a feminist materiality percolates from diverse fields as well as from imperatives within feminist historiography, emerging simultaneously from unexpected and unanticipated spaces rather than from a desire to capitulate to broader scholarly trends.
Regardless of its origins, the material turn and attention to the rhetorics of gender seems to be solidified in the pages of the Peitho Newsletter by Spring 2005, in an issue featuring a bibliography compiled by Victoria Smith and Susan Jarratt (see Fig. 3). In their introduction, Smith and Jarratt note that what unites the works included is the scholarly commitment to recognize “the embodied nature of all writing” and the fact that “these bodies [that are writing] have material significance and thus powerful rhetorical, political, and ideological significances” (1). Smith and Jarratt further note that the diverse works invite questions about spatiality, about marked and unmarked bodies, and about the rhetorical work of gender. By curating such a bibliography, Smith and Jarratt outline what they see (and, ostensibly, what the editors of the Peitho Newsletter and coalition members view) as essential moves in feminist research. This involves sustained attention to materiality in addition to the Coalition’s evergreen commitment to recovery work.
The Danger of a Single Story
In the prior two sections, we answered our first two research questions. Having asked— “Was such a shift [from recovery to material, gendered analysis] evidenced in the Coalition’s Newsletter?”—we found that this shift was evident, but that there was also a broad commitment to balancing recovery and retheorizing (with attention to the material construction of gender) throughout the Coalition’s archive. Our second research question asked: “How else might this shift of attention or priority be narrated?” We were intrigued to find that the Peitho Newsletter illustrates a material turn percolating from within rather than one imposed or introduced from without. The increased attention to material factors in our research followed naturally from the attention to positionality animating the Coalition’s mentoring and community building initiatives.
Beyond the newsletter, authors publishing in the Peitho Journal have carried material and gendered analysis forward and further. From Erin Frost’s 2014 analysis of activism as apparent feminism and David Gold’s 2015 investigation of bobbed hair to more recent studies like Jennifer Clary-Lemon’s 2022 reading of scrap crafts (or selvedges) as rhetorical artifacts, a focus on the material as both methodological move and object of analysis pervades recent feminist scholarship. Additionally, scholars have complicated gendered analysis by questioning the rhetorical logics of gendered binaries. With the 2020 special issue on transgender rhetorics, Peitho invited more intersectional and interactional commitments in feminist research and pedagogy. Trans scholarship, and in particular transfeminist scholarship, urges us to expose the colonial, racist, and cisheterosexist nature of gender itself––a key move in Lore/tta LeMaster’s analysis of gender reveal party fails. Reading such fails as ideological ruptures, LeMaster calls attention to “compulsory gender performance” and designates failure as an “energetic force” of trans rage (para. 20). LeMaster’s material analysis of the gender reveal party is imbued by an interrogation of gendering as cultural process, marking gendering as both dangerous and violent. Such scholarship demonstrates that the trajectory of material/gendered analysis evades narratives of linear shifts; scholars constantly push, play, challenge, and reconsider the moves of feminist research and activism, and we would do well to remind ourselves of the imperative for steady revision of what constitutes feminist rhetorical scholarship.
In addition to continuing our examination of material-discursive processes of gendering, we’d like to conclude by suggesting feminist scholars should be cautious about how we tell the story of our discipline. To this end, we turn to our third question: “What can an archival analysis show about what this narrative [of a turn from recovery to material analysis] reveals or obscures?” One thing the narrative of the material turn in feminist rhetorics—and perhaps most descriptions of fields as having “turned” away or towards some or another object of attention—obscures is that the various pursuits of feminist rhetoricians are not mutually exclusive. Some of our challenges in writing this piece stemmed from the fact that prior scholars have narrated the field’s dedication to recovery, retheorizing, and material/gendered analysis in a number of ways: some see recovery and retheorizing going hand-in-hand, while others see them in opposition; similarly, some position material analysis as an alternative to retheorizing, and others, as perhaps is our bent here, frame retheorizing as a forerunner to material/gendered analysis. In fact, none of what we found suggests that feminist rhetoricians have ever been pursuing any of these goals in isolation: much scholarship currently framed in terms of rhetorical gendering, for instance, continues to value the voices of historical individuals gendered as women in much the same way that recovery always has. Moving forward, we might be more cautious when applying categories such as “recovery” to existing and new research in the field.
Perhaps a less anticipated finding of our research was that increasing attention to materiality stemmed as much or more from the natural extension of the field’s awareness of positionality in our research, teaching, and mentorship than from catching wind of exciting new developments in capital-t Theory, cultural studies, and other fields beyond rhetoric. While Biesecker’s article turns to continental philosophy to elaborate her call for attention to collective rhetorics of gender, such moves were, in hindsight, not necessary given that the enduring interests and commitments of feminist rhetoricians were sufficient to direct our gaze towards the material. In the future, then, we would do well to credit feminist rhetoricians for their insights into the material-rhetorical production of gender. Perhaps we find ourselves in a disciplinary moment where we need not gesture outwards to continental philosophy or new materialist theory to justify our interests and pursuits; perhaps it is sufficient to observe that our own lived experience demands attention to materiality as we attempt to understand and intervene in inequity and inequality.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “the danger of a single story,” and this warning is as apt for the stories we tell of our discipline, amongst ourselves, as for broader cultural narratives about individuals and groups. In thinking about the metaphor of the “turn,” it occurs to us that turning is something we do when we are otherwise proceeding in a straight line—not a particularly apt description of the status quo of academic research. The notion of a field having “turned” away from its own prior impulses is part and parcel of a larger agonistic framework for academic discourse, one that feminists (and feminist rhetoricians) have challenged, and we should be cautious of how our disciplinary narratives perhaps unconsciously reiterate counterfactual narratives of linear academic progress from less to more sophisticated analysis.
Such narratives indulge not only in the parlance of “turns,” but also in evolutionary metaphors. To this impulse, we offer an example from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, a parable about anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. In one scene, Quinn tells the story of creation as narrated by a jellyfish. Having recounted the appearance of the universe, solar system, planet, oceans, slime, and other microorganisms, the anecdote concludes: “‘But finally,’ the creature said, turning quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of his story, ‘but finally jellyfish appeared!’” (54-56). In narrating the “creation myths” of our own disciplines, we run the risk of being too like the jellyfish, positioning our moment (and our own scholarship) as the evolutionary climax of the discipline. Of course, such narrations are often rewarded with funding and publication and so bespeak more than simple hubris. Indeed, we might do more to consider and acknowledge how even our stories of the discipline are grounded in the material realities of not only gender, but also publication, promotion, seniority, and precarity.
Carole Blair’s work on contemporary U.S. memorials is a particularly apt illustration of this aspect of the material turn, insisting that rhetoric has too often been defined by its symbolicity and we must acknowledge rhetoric’s materiality to grasp its effects and partisan nature (16-20). As Elizabeth Fleitz explains, feminist rhetoricians have explored rhetoric’s materiality by studying genres of composing that involve material practices: needlework, cookbooks, journals, and letter writing (34). Moreover, Fleitz observes, the “material conditions of women’s lives, from their bodies to their living situations, have historically had a major influence on their ability to be literate and produce rhetoric” (36).
For example, Thomas Rickert argues that rhetoric must diffuse outward to include the material environment, things, embodiment, and ecological relationality (3). As feminist rhetorician Sarah Hallenbeck explains, in this view, “materials that might otherwise be relegated to the background of a study as ‘context’ are in fact vital elements in a network of material-semiotic relations within which gender is negotiated” (18). Conceiving of material entities as having suasive force means recognizing, as new materialist Jane Bennett maintains, that materiality can be forceful without being purposive (62).
Indeed, Jenny Edbauer’s early work on rhetorical ecologies called for rhetorical theory to address “this mutuality of material practice, embodied experience, and discursive representation” (21). Similarly, material feminist Karen Barad insists that materiality is discursive and discursive practices are material, highlighting the conjoined material-discursive nature of constraints, conditions, and practices (141). A similar stance is articulated by new materialists Coole and Frost, who maintain that while everything is material, nothing is reducible to that (9).
For others who reference this debate or the Biesecker article in this vein, see, for example, Hallenbeck’s “Toward a Posthuman Perspective” and Enoch’s “Releasing Hold.” For a more detailed exploration of how I (Michelle) narrate the “material turn” in feminist rhetorics, see my “‘Indoor Duties’ in Utopia” and the introduction to Utopian Genderscapes.
We additionally join other scholars cautioning against a reliance on some strains of new materialist scholarship that circulate ecological themes and insights central to indigenous and feminist thought but without crediting those conversations. See Grant and Vealey and Layne.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2013, November). The Danger of a Single Story [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Bacon, Jacqueline. “Review of Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910, by
Nan Johnson.” Peitho Newsletter, vol. 7, no. 1, 2002, pp. 7-9.
Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Material Feminisms, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, Indiana UP, 2008, pp. 120-156.
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