Foreword to Cluster on Queer Rhetorical Listening

Foreword to Cluster on Queer Rhetorical Listening

Author: Cheryl Glenn

Bio: Cheryl Glenn is University Distinguished Professor of English and Women’s Studies, Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, and co-founder of the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University. Glenn is widely recognized as a guiding force in the field, whose scholarship and activism have helped transform the discipline into a more inclusive and representative one that recognizes the language/dialect, experience, and ethics of all communicators. Her three monographs, numerous edited collections, two co-edited book series, essays, and textbooks insist on the crucial links among rhetoric, writing, literacy, medium of delivery, and human lives. The sustained cultivation of this goal has earned her distinguished appointments, certifications, and honors, both nationally and globally.

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September 18, 2020

I’ve just finished watching a terrific documentary-music-video of 2Fik, a French-Moroccan multimedia artist who lives in Quebec. 2Fik’s provocative art includes embodying various contemporary identities, from that of a devout Muslim man and an haute couture feminine runway model to all the characters (men and women) in iconic paintings by Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, and Benjamin West. In the manner of U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman, 2Fik explores the concept of identity by representing each character as having a full back story. In the video, 2Fik sometimes presents as a long-haired woman, other times as a clean-shaven man, and still other times, 2Fik complicates these presentations as trans, sporting a full beard, stiletto booties, a poofy skirt, and what looks to be a waterproof fisherman’s hijab—all the while opera, classical music, electronica, and rap play in the background. 

Self-identified as an agnostic, former Muslim, homosexual fashionista, 2Fik represents an artistic movement known as S.A.P.E. (The Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes or The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). As part of this movement, 2Fik disturbs traditional notions of identity, whether ascribed by others or by the self, asking, “When you see a bearded Muslim, why do you immediately think ‘danger’?” “When you see a woman in a short skirt, why do you think ‘easy’?” 2Fik wonders why we  judge so quickly, especially when, if we take the time, we realize we are often wrong (rather than right, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Blink).

Thus, 2Fik’s artistic goal is to complicate our notions of identity, our own as well as that of others. 2Fik induces us to realize that our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs, and pushes the envelope of identity until we must admit that we are all humans whose identities are open to many interpretations. It is our humanness that 2Fik leverages, admonishing us to embrace and respect other humans, reminding us that identities scare people, even (maybe even especially) those people who strongly embrace an allegedly stable identity for themselves. These same people seem to be afraid of those identities heralded by notions of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, phenotype, clothing, and religion. 2Fik is not afraid. 

Like the authors of the following essays, 2Fik launches an intellectual project at the intersection of race, gender, and public power, that same intersection that legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw mapped out for us in 1989. Her map guides 2Fik into deeper territory—just short of the point where identity meets disability, the specific disability called aging, and rhetorical power (though, to be sure, 2Fik demonstrates incalculable rhetorical power). When I watched 2Fik in action, I thought of Timothy Oleksiak and his intellectual project, which lies at the nexus of identities and rhetorical power, and the ways Timothy has found purchase in his own identities to that end. 

I first met Timothy at the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), when I served as a panelist on how best to become active in the organization. Although the room was filled with interested, questioning people, Timothy is the only one I remember, for he easily distinguished himself with his insightful questions, obvious brilliance, good humor, and already-in-place sense of activism. I feel sure that he didn’t need our advice so much as he needed reassurance that he was headed in the right direction—which he so obviously is, as he serves or has served on the CCCC Executive Committee, the Lavender Rhetoric Award Committee, the Newcomers Welcoming Committee, the Stonewall Service Award Committee, and the Queer Caucus Standing Group. 

So it comes as no surprise to me that Timothy would recruit some of the best minds in his academic cohort to interrogate the ways multiple, sometimes overlapping identities, intersect with rhetorical power and weakness, with the grammar of who speaks, who remains silent, who listens, who refuses to listen, who is discounted or ignored, what can/must/cannot be said, and what those listeners can/not do. Timothy (University of Massachusetts Boston) and Violet Livingston (Michigan State University) have been working at this intersection since at least 2014, when they presented a forward-looking CCCC panel on listening and love in Indianapolis. Together, these two scholars, along with Johnathan Smilges (Texas Woman’s University), Rachel Lewis (Northeastern University), Michael Faris (Texas Tech University), and Storm Christine Pilloff (University of Wisconsin-Madison)—feminist killjoys all—profess their opposition to systems and regulations that marginalize groups of people due to their identities, in the manner of all good feminist killjoys (Ahmed).

Back last century when Kris Ratcliffe (who has written the Afterword) and I were graduate students, sitting together in the rhetoric seminars of Edward P.J. Corbett, we shared the challenge of writing women into the history of rhetoric. After all, we had been told point blank that “there weren’t any.” We might have been proto-killjoy-feminists (uncomfortable with the status quo), but we hadn’t been forged in the crucible of intersectionality like the scholars in this collection who are blasting off from Cape Crenshaw to take up and queer up Kris’s theory of rhetorical listening. In a cascade of cogent essays, they help us appreciate “bad” listeners (à la Roxane Gay’s “bad” feminists), the terms of engagement for listening, the kinesthetics and attunement of listening, the failure of rhetorical listening, the grammar of consent (of being listened to), and the emotional receptivity of queer rhetorical listening. 

Each of these essays complicates, builds on, and extends Kris’s ground-breaking theory to the point that they break the barrier of the speaker-listener dyad itself. When rhetorical listening is in play, who is actually the rhetor, and who is the audience? Is it the rhetor or the listener who is controlling the artistic appeals? Whose ethos is more important here? Which participant is establishing good will, good sense, good moral character? Who is actually devising the stasis, the foundation of common ground?  Who is making sense of the cultural logics that divide them? Who holds the power? How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us? All these essays overlap at the convergence of these questions. And it is that final question (“How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us?”) that will challenge our discipline for at least a generation. 

When rhetorical listening is placed in the foreground (Daly), I wonder what is happening in the background—which brings me back to 2Fik. Underscoring 2Fik’s social media platforms, transmedia performances, and interviews is a backbeat of humanness that propels 2Fik’s thesis: we are human. Our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs. Our identities are not our humanity. Our humanity is not our identities. 

2Fik is not afraid—not of identities, homophobes, or fundamentalists. 2Fik respects the humanness of all human beings. Although he describes himself as homosexual and agnostic, he speaks of loving respect for his human parents, his heterosexual, fundamentalist, devout Muslim parents. How hard would it be for us to think along the same terms, to listen rhetorically to those whose identities are unlike ours in order to establish, remember, and honor what he have in common: our humanness, theirs as well as our own?

Works Cited

  • 2Fik.  “L’identité: sélon 2Fik.” Second regard. TV Hebdo. ICI Radio-Canada.ca.Télé. 2 December 2018.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique. of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, article 1989, pp. 139-67.
  • Daly, Mary, in cahoots with Jane Caputi. Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Beacon, 1987.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Back Bay, 2007.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.