Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening

Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening

Author: Michael J. Faris

Bio: Michael J. Faris is an associate professor in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, where he co-administers the First-Year Writing program. He has published on digital rhetorics and literacies, queer theory, and writing program administration in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Composition Forum, Kairos, The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, and other journals in the field.

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I have found Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of rhetorical listening quite generative in my own teaching, administration, and scholarship. I co-administer the First-Year Writing (FYW) program at Texas Tech, and our program has made listening—informed by Ratcliffe and others—a central value in our curriculum. In a time of hyper-partisanship, toxic rhetoric, post-truth rhetoric, violence, demagoguery, resentment, and a paucity of goodwill, curiosity, and spirit (see Duffy; Engels; McComiskey; Roberts-Miller)—a list that exhausts me—I believe that the virtue and practice of listening to and understanding others’ perspectives and arguments is incredibly important. Our FYW program has developed a curriculum that asks students to patiently and fairly listen to oppositional arguments and to use stasis theory and practices of critical reading and rhetorical listening to understand where and how various stakeholders agree and disagree on issues of public concern.

Despite this enthusiasm for rhetorical listening, I do have reservations about it as a rhetorical theory, especially as we consider how rhetoric is often a nonrational, material, embodied, and sensorial practice. I worry that Ratcliffe’s theory may privilege the rational subject that the field has too often held up as a civic and pedagogical norm but that we’ve increasingly come to question and challenge. Further, I am concerned that rhetorical listening privileges the discursive and epistemic at the expense of the embodied and material. 

I am not the first to make these observations. In Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price challenges the concept of rhetorical listening for how it privileges a rational, able-bodied subject, arguing that a pedagogy based on rhetorical listening may inadvertently marginalize students with mental disabilities who don’t “make sense” (42) or “speak well” (44) in conventional, recognizably rational ways. And Gavin P. Johnson extends Ratcliffe’s concept of eavesdropping by first observing how her conceptualization “privileges the discursive while necessarily maintaining the binary between the material (body) and the discursive (identity)” (126). Drawing upon materialist understandings of rhetoric, Johnson suggests that rhetorical listening is framed “as a wholly discursive practice [in which] the actual body is left unaccounted for across space and time” (126).

I want to turn to the material and embodied in order to explore what listening might look like when we attend to materiality, embodiment, sensations, and affect. Much of my thinking here is indebted to post-discursive turns in rhetorical studies that understand rhetoric as not solely epistemic—about meaning—but rather as a matter of affect and embodied habits (e.g., Boyle; Hawhee, Bodily Arts, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium”). Kinesthetics and embodiment have become important frameworks for rhetorical studies. For instance, Jennifer Lin LeMesurier pushes against views of bodies as purely representational and advances “an understanding of the body that also sees it as a functional, inventional actor and bearer of ideological weight, capable of producing rhetorical influence” (“Somatic Metaphors” 363). Elsewhere, she argues that the field needs to attend to kinesiologies of racial formations and practices, and she shows how “logics of racial embodiment emerge in everyday performances and interactions between bodies” (“Winking at Excess” 140). Karma R. Chávez’s discussion of performativity and spatiality shows how bodies can become ecstatic—“unravel and becoming unhinged” (2)—in moments in which undocumented migrants in detention centers encounter bodily crises, and this ecstasy can lead to new, loving, and collective relations across difference, even if those relations are short-lived (9-11).

These arguments in rhetoric have resonance with queer thinking in the field. In her introduction to the 1992 special issue of Pre/Text, Margaret Morrison calls for a queer rhetoric that attends to corporeality and discourse in ways that force us “to begin to think differently” about rhetoric (13). Morrison challenges readers to re-think rhetoric, and particularly queer rhetoric, as “perverse movement” (20). Such an understanding of rhetoric as perverse movement, in my reading of Morrison’s essay, involves disrupting traditional binaries between discursivity and materiality, challenging us to see how rhetoric is always about the intertwinement of bodies, desires, sensations, affects, materiality, and discourse.

I suggest we might understand nondiscursive listening as kinesthetic interlistening. Here I draw on Lisbeth Lipari’s concept interlistening, which she defines as a type of holistic listening that privileges full embodiment, experiences time as synchronic rather than diachronic, is intersubjective, and involves the polyphony of multiple voices (both speaking and listening) (158-174). Like Ratcliffe’s project, Lipari’s book Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement is an attempt at decentering speaking from its central role in our imaginations of communication processes. As she writes, “I use the term ‘interlistening’ to inhibit the speech-centricity of our perspectives and bring the many connotations of ‘inter-’ (i.e., interbeing, interaction, interdependence, intersubjectivity, etc.) into the foreground” (9). And like Steph Ceraso, Lipari theorizes listening as a fully embodied, multisensory practice, asking, “What if our entire body is one giant listening organ, one great resonating chamber? What if we are, in some sense, all ears?” (30). As she observes, sounds are material, and they vibrate through our bodies, meaning that “we actually touch the sound” (31). Listening is polymodal, then, meaning that it “include[s] nonauditory phenomena” (50) and includes all of our senses, not just our hearing. Further, a framework of kinesthetic interlistening affords us an understanding that listening is more of a habituated practice over time rather than isolated moments of listening. 

I draw on two examples to explore kinesthetic interlistening: voguing and an art exhibit composed of candy. I then turn to some pedagogical implications of what Lipari calls “an ethics of attunement.” I’ve titled this contribution “Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening” because I have in mind Cindy Patton’s 1992 Pre/Text article “In Vogue: The ‘Place’ of ‘Gay Theory.’” So allow me to start there.

Listening Kinesthetically: Voguing

Patton’s article is prescient in its early turn toward the nondiscursive. Patton asks “whether queer theory can think gender and sexuality from a kinesthetic standpoint” (152). Drawing on sports and dance, Patton defines kinesthesia as “the sense of tension, movement, position, proximity, etc. which goes into knowing where your body is in space. It is…a knowledge built up over time that let’s [sic] you salsa without tripping yourself or walk upstairs in the dark” (153). In many ways, Patton’s understanding of kinesthesia has much in common with recent turns in rhetoric that understand rhetoric as largely an embodied matter of habit or habitus, rather than singular, epistemic moments of persuasion (Boyle; Hawhee, Bodily Arts).

To explore the potentials for understanding gender and sexuality kinesthetically, Patton turns to voguing, the dance originating in Black and Latinx queer dance hall scenes and then made more widely popular after Madonna’s 1990 song and music video “Vogue.” While we can (and likely should) be concerned about how Madonna’s song erases difference—“makes no difference if you are black or white, if you’re a boy or girl” (quoted in Patton 155)—what’s interesting is how voguing becomes a site of memory and invention in embodied practice. Patton suggests that what is fascinating about voguing is how queer bodies enact a liberation without an explicit memory of feminist or gay rights movements:

But young gay men and women were “coming out” while imitating Madonna’s voguing: they were learning to remember their bodies in a critique of gender autonomous of gay liberation and feminism. The task of gay theory now is to find ways of articulating these special practices to a broader, if fragmentary space, of queer embodiment. (156)

I want to suggest that listening might be an embodied practice that isn’t always tied to the discursive and epistemic, but is embodied and materially practiced, involving a kinesthetic listening to oneself and others that entails remembering our bodies—and ideally, remembering our bodies differently. We can listen to ourselves, suggests Lipari, and in doing so we are engaged in multisensory practice that is intersubjective and dialogic (133). Too, we can listen to music, not solely for the logics of cultural appropriation enacted by Madonna (though this is important), but also for what it allows us to do kinesthetically. Through multisensory listening, through new kinesthetic practices, we can listen to our bodies in ways that challenge the dominant cultural logics of gender and sexuality, inventing new ways of being in the world. And these listening practices can be embodied critiques, as Patton suggests, listening to the cultural logics of gender normativity and subverting them through a habituated, embodied practice.

Listening with Candy

I was recently (late 2019) struck by a Facebook post by Rachael Eliot Barker that responded to the controversial 2019 art installation by Maurizio Cattelan titled Comedian.1 Comedian was simply a banana taped to the wall of a gallery, which sold for an astonishing $120,000. As Barker notes, after the buyer ate the banana, the installation and sale became a massive case of “trolling,” and “The saga was catnip to people who believe that conceptual art is full of shit.” But in her moving Facebook post, Barker turns to another piece of conceptual art to show that the genre is not “full of shit” and can be, when executed well, a site of nondiscursive storytelling.

The example Barker turns to is Cuban-American Félix González-Torres’s 1991 “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), an installation that simply involved a pile of candy (Fig. 1). Designed so that museum curators could reproduce his art, Untitled had a simple rule: the pile of candy had to weigh exactly 175 pounds—the weight of González-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock at the height of his health before he died of AIDS in 1991 (Barker; Rapoport 3). In her Facebook post, Barker describes González-Torres’s decision to use candy:

In 1991, public funding for the arts and public funding for AIDS research were both the hottest of hot-button issues. HIV positive gay male artists were being targeted for censorship. González-Torres was desperate to be heard, and part of the logic of “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) was that you can’t censor free candy without looking ridiculous. The replicability of the piece makes it indestructible; González-Torres had an intuitive, ahead-of-its-time understanding of virality that came from dealing with an actual virus rather than the internet.

While, like Barker, I too have great admiration of González-Torres’s inventional ingenuity, I want to turn to the embodied and sensual experiences of engaging with Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Visitors of the exhibition are invited to partake of the candy—to actually eat part of the installation. Interactions with “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) show how such engagements can act as interlistening. For example, Sarah Rapoport describes her encounter with Untitled:

each of my five senses is activated: the sight of the pile; the feel of the cellophane against my skin and the weight of the candies upon my hand; the quiet crinkling of wrappers in my ears; the barely perceptible sweet smell released from an unwrapped candy; the taste of sugar. (2)

Rapoport describes the affectivity of Untitled as one that raises awareness of both one’s own sensorial experiences but also one’s relationship to others: “the ultimate success of a work such as this lies in the ability of the work itself to acutely heighten the viewer’s consciousness of the phenomenological conditions of a space through engagement with each of the senses” (17). Through using “one’s visual, tactile, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory organs,” a participant in the installation also becomes self-conscious about one’s relations to others: “This activation of our own bodies in relation to our environment forces us to consider the ways in which our own bodies engage with and have the potential to act upon those around us, as well as the vulnerability of our bodies to be acted upon” (17).

Photo shows a museum exhibit of colorfully wrapped candy piled into a heap in the corner of a room. A museum patron bends down to pick a piece of candy from the pile.

Fig. 1. A museum patron taking candy from “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Félix González-Torres at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Mark Mauna. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) License.

Barker’s point in her Facebook post is that effective conceptual art is about storytelling “without words.” But we can also conclude from this post—in conversation with other interactions with Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) like Rapoport’s—that interlistening has possibilities for revealing interconnectedness, intersubjectivities, and vulnerabilities.

Listening Pedagogically: An Ethics of Attunement

In her quite useful chapter on listening pedagogically, Ratcliffe compares teaching to jazz, noting that the improvisation of teaching (like jazz) involves “listen[ing] and respond[ing] to the other players in the room (the students)” (141). I delight in this metaphor, not only because Ratcliffe reminds us that effective teaching requires listening to our students, but also because of the affective and embodied associations of music: we hate some music (often because we’re not familiar with its genres, traditions, or styles); we cannot resist the urge to dance or sing along to some music; some songs evoke visceral memories of times past; and some music (usually in communion with others) invites us to practice and remember our bodies differently (as “Vogue” did for many queer bodies).

While I find Ratcliffe’s discussion about listening pedagogically quite useful, embodiment barely surfaces in the chapter. The chapter discusses useful discursive practices for teachers in the classroom, attending to tropes and logics without confronting sensations, affects, or embodied material experiences. Ratcliffe writes that one of her goals is “to resist our own resistance” (159) and suggests that this “resistance is not always based on an unwillingness to hear but sometimes on an incapacity to hear, an incapacity grounded in a lack of reflective lived experience or in a lack of the work necessary to understand commonalities and differences” (147).

I might suggest that this incapacity to hear also arises from our embodied trainings in how we engage with texts and with others. Like Ratcliffe, Lipari understands that we have developed habits that make it difficult to listen. She writes of this “listening habitus”: “we each develop ways of listening (or not) that are partly shaped by culture and our social location within it, and partly by our personalities and particular life experiences” (52). In another resonance with Ratcliffe’s work, Lipari describes “a politics of listening, [which…] relates to who speaks and who doesn’t, what is and is not said, how what is said is said, as well as, of course, to whom it is said and what is and is not heard, and how what is heard is heard” (53). Rather than ask students to listen solely to arguments, Lipari turns to the work of R. Murray Shafer and suggests that students engage in embodied listening activities to call attention to how their bodies have been trained to listen and move through the world in certain ways. For instance, in one activity, students “[refrain] from speaking for one day” and reflect on this silence and on how they listened differently; in another, the whole class goes on “a listening walk” in which they pay attention to sounds they might never have noticed before (54). Lipari describes her goals as “attempting to listen beyond words and meanings to the sounds and sensations of the world around us” (54).

Lipari’s suggestion to engage students in embodied experiments to listen anew and reflect on those experiences is perhaps familiar to new media rhetoricians. Ceraso suggests that “through multimodal listening practices we might retrain our bodies to be more aware, alert, and attuned to sonic events in all of their complexity” (103). Likewise, Milena Droumeva and David Murphy propose focusing on developing within students “a deep and discerning listening sensibility” (“Background”). This sensibility involves an “attunement between listener, materials, and environment” (“4. Composing with/in Media Texts”). 

We often extol our students to listen to arguments in order to understand their perspectives. I wonder if, from a queer or new media perspective, this might be a limited approach. What gets lost in such a discourse-centric understanding of listening is our embodied and sensuous engagements with texts, others, and environments. If, as Ratcliffe suggests, “rhetorical listening may precede our conscious identifications” (48), I wonder if we might back up to the initial encounter with texts or with others, attending to the material, embodied, sensuous experiences of engaging with those texts and others. Perhaps an ethics of attunement precedes rhetorical listening—a kinesthetic interlistening practice that precedes the conscious rhetorical listening of reading, interpreting, and understanding.

Lipari concludes her book by advocating for what she calls an ethics of attunement, which she describes as “an awareness of and attention to the harmonic interconnectivity of all beings” (2). As she observes, one of our biggest cultural problems is “our inability to listen to others”: “We witness and participate in obliteration of families, of the wildlife, of the earth, but we neither listen for nor hear the cries” (206). She suggests that an ethics of attunement is “the relations between resonance and temporality,” an intertwinement of kairos and akroasis (207). Lipari suggests understanding kairos “as an ethical relation enacted through an openness that cannot be anything other than listening” (213). Understanding akroasis as a form of listening that “[invokes] the idea of secret, esoteric teachings” (207) and “rooted in Pythagorean harmonics” that attend to the gestalt (27), Lipari concludes:

Thus, we might say that kairotic temporality requires harmonic attunement and thereby involves the embodied rhythmic aspects of timing, coordination, syncopation, repetition, punctuation, and so forth, as well as the tensed aspects of grammar and narrative time, and nonlinear psychological movements where “past and present lie ‘all at once’ in temporality.” Thus, kairos is an ethical virtue inextricable from akroasis, it is an attunement to others and the dance of circumstance. It is not timely in the mechanical sense of efficiency or serendipity, or as a well-timed shot into the goal, or timely as an intervention in the future “just in time.” Instead, kairos is the tangle of braided nonlinear moment choosing us—speakers and listeners—as we move rhythmically together in harmonically attuned, responsive movement. (213-214, quoting Heidegger)

Lipari’s understanding of kairos as an embodied ethical virtue resonates with Debra Hawhee’s conception of kairos, which asks us to de-center the rationality of the rhetor who assesses the timeliness of a situation: “Rather, the rhetor opens him or herself up to the immediate situation, allowing for more of an exchange than the creation or accommodation models of kairos allow” (Bodily Arts 71). An ethics of attunement, Lipari argues, involves an interconnectedness that gives rise to generosity (215), works through bodily repetition (217), “requires a kind of courage to move outside the familiar and already known” (218), and necessitates acceptance of our own humility and impermanence (220-221).

While Lipari theorizes interlistening not as an ethical imperative but rather as an actual practice we all engage in (157), her call for an ethics of attunement is an ethical call to encourage us all to be more attuned and interconnected to each other and to our environments. Such a call, in terms of listening pedagogically, might involve the sorts of retraining of bodies advocated by Lipari, Ceraso, and others. The question now becomes not how we can engage our students discursively (or solely discursively) but how to engage through embodied practice. How can we affect—encourage change—in our students’ embodied interlistening practices to encourage an ethics of attunement?

In her contribution to a forum on Bodily Arts, Hawhee speculates about the pedagogical implications of her book, asking, “can we teach the non-rational, bodily, nonverbal features of rhetoric to our students? And to what end?” (“Rhetorics, Bodies” 160). After suggesting that students engage in art and public material spaces outside of the classroom, Hawhee concludes:

Our classes can really take seriously Aristotle’s notion of rhetoric as an art of discovery. They can do so by attending to the material, mobile activities of everyday lives as lived in cities and parks, streets and museums, and yes, hallways, mailrooms, and classrooms, all of which yield something like Aristotle’s “available means” or [Wayne] Booth’s “range of resources that human beings share for producing effects.” Put another way, the discovery, use, and effects of such “available means” of rhetorical action transpires through bodies, spaces, and the visual as much as it happens through the presumed twin-media of rhetoric—the written and spoken word. (163)

Because I am a new media scholar, Hawhee’s suggestion that students engage in material and mobile activities in our rhetoric and writing classes brings to mind Anne Frances Wysocki’s discussion of sensuous training. Wysocki shows that new media critics often see the potential for new media as allowing for a new ethics through sensations: “They argue that what we know about the world through our senses (not necessarily at the level of the discursive) becomes the ground for opening up the potentials of how we live together, socially, ethically” (102-103). However, Wysocki shows that these arguments ignore how we have been trained sensuously: “our senses are trained through repetition. Sensuous training happens simply through growing up: we are raised into the sensory patterns and habits of our culture, and the training therefore seems to have never happened because it is simply part of the day-to-day of growing up” (104)—a description that should remind readers of Ratcliffe’s discussion of incapacities to hear and Lipari’s discussion of listening habitus, but also Hawhee’s discussion of rhetoric as bodily training. Wysocki’s concept of sensuous training helps us to see that our senses are socially trained through engagement with media, objects, and people, and that a retraining of ethics cannot come simply from an individualized aesthetic experience, but must instead be social: “if we want to use aesthetic experience to help us link perception to ethics—we need to learn to be bodies that somehow perceive not alone but socially” (107). 

Put differently, what makes Rapoport’s experience with Untitled” (A Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and queer bodies voguing potential sites for an ethics of attunement? It is that they’re relearning their bodies socially, not in isolation. Wysocki suggests that sensuous training cannot simply be undone through individual encounters, but likely must be repetitive—or, if not repetitive, reflected upon: “such openings are most likely to occur…with encouragement, with the sort of questioning that comes with practiced and overt instruction” (109).

Conclusion

What might this sensuous (re)training of interlistening look like in a rhetoric and writing class that values rhetorical listening? I guess I am asking what makes us affect-able by others—what makes us open to listening to others and to our environments. My guess is that many of us have been trained—sensuously, through practice—to not listen, to not even pay attention. How can we re-train ourselves through embodied, material practices? How might we introduce moments of collective re-practicing (like voguing?) or moments of embodied re-engagements with our environments (like encountering a pile of candy in a museum?) to our students? If we value rhetorical listening as a pedagogical practice (and I do), I think we need to think through the embodied practices that might encourage our students to attune differently and practice their bodies differently. Earlier, I mentioned Morrison’s call for understanding queer rhetoric as “perverse movement.” What might it look like to think of listening kinesthetically, as acts of movement? And what might it look like to think of listening practices perversely, as perverse movements? My thoughts here have been somewhat speculative, but (I hope) also generative for further thinking in the field.

Acknowledgment

I would like to acknowledge that this contribution was written within the historical territories of the Teya, Jumano, Apache, and Comanche peoples. While such a statement is only a small step toward dismantling colonial logics and practices, I believe it is a necessary step to call attention to the fact that the work of scholarship is conducted on lands taken from Indigenous peoples.

Endnote

  1. Barker’s Facebook post is, as of this writing in June 2020, public, and has been shared over 22,000 times and liked or reacted to by 18,000 users. As a new media scholar, I consider the ethics of quoting and citing social media posts, which some users might understand as private (written to friends in places online) even if they’re publicly available (see McKee and Porter 81). Given the relatively broad circulation of Barker’s post, I feel comfortable quoting and citing it here.

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