Queering Rhetorical Listening: An Introduction to a Cluster Conversation

Queering Rhetorical Listening: An Introduction to a Cluster Conversation

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020

Author(s): Timothy Oleksiak

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.

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Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness is a postmodern feminist reclamation of what the ear has to offer rhetorical theory. Krista Ratcliffe defines the practices as “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in cross-cultural exchanges” (1). To rhetorical theory, Ratcliffe offers the idea of non-identification as the location where rhetorical listening takes place. In this abstract space of non-identificaiton, rhetors may interrogate their gendered and racialized identifications (who they are and their processes of attachment to that sense of self) and disidenfications (those things they are not or are actively working against). This interrogation seeks to trouble (un)conscious identifications that prohibit deep understanding of the ways similarities and differences operate in cross-cultural rhetorical negotiation of meaning and the ways whiteness haunts our interactions.

Ratcliffe’s theorizing of the relationships between gender and whiteness inspired two edited collections–Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts (co-edited with Cheryl Glenn) and Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education (co-edited with Tammy Kennedy and Joyce Irene Middleton). However, in Rhetorical Listening, Silence and Listening, and Rhetorics of Whiteness, little space is given to the way sex and sexuality shape or are shaped by rhetorical listening or how rhetorical listening shifts the way we think about sex, sexuality, and transgender issues.1 This is not to suggest that queer or trans* scholars are absent from these works. Nevertheless, in these works the categories of sexuality and gender are stabilized into normative notions of cisheterosexuality. In “Queering Feminist Rhetorical Canonization,” K.J. Rawson sounded a powerful call for greater attention to the cisgender assumptions embedded within Rhetorical Listening. This cluster conversation similarly invites deeper consideration of the heteronormative assumptions undergirding the project of rhetorical listening. Contributors to this cluster conversation provide provisional answers to the following related questions: 1) What can queer work and rhetorical listening do for each other? 2) What is queer rhetorical listening and what it can do?

Generally, queer rhetorical listening grounds the lived, learned, and studied experiences of queer people in order to demonstrate the reciprocal transformation that comes from placing queer theories alongside rhetorical listening. Such an approach can be understood in two ways. One project for queer rhetorical listening attends to the specific embodied experiences of queer people and the unique forms of listening that they engage. For example, the practices of “reading” and “throwing shade,” I (“When Queers Listen”) suggest, are unique forms of queer listening where rhetors attempt to “crack open” another to hear tough love. To get a good read or throw some good shade, you have to attend to the other’s insecurities and desires for belonging.2 

A second way to apprehend queer rhetorical listening is to think through the theoretical concerns that rhetorical listening advances but without its heteronormative (Oleksiak, “Composing in a Sling”), normate (Price), and/or cisnormative (Rawson) assumptions. More specifically, queer rhetorical listening embraces what Karen Barad calls “a desiring radical openness” (29). A desiring radical is a person who longs toward, moves forward and backward for change. A radical openness is a receptivity, a drawing into because we are open to it. Queer listeners use the texts we receive as transformation points that allow us to demonstrate how others influence and change us. Queer rhetorical listening is a worldmaking practice based on the longing for kinship and community. Queer listening is a demonstration of what my consent does to me, to you, to our relationship, and the ecologies in which I, you, and our relationship exist.3 It is a taking in of what we have and sending it back out toward you. As such, it is not what I say that matters to me or to you but how you react to the saying. It does not matter if I speak or write first or you do. It only matters that we catch ourselves in an unending stream of response and transformation. Response and transformation. An unending commitment to be transforming. Queer listeners embrace the tension between this longing for kinship and the continuous transformations necessary for inventing meaningful responses.


How can we honor Krista Ratcliffe’s contributions to rhetorical theory and practice with a critical generosity that comes from a deep respect for what thoughts and practices she allows us to think while honoring our own scholarly commitments as queer feminist teachers, scholars, and activists?

Feminist scholars like Becky Thompson, Lisa Blankenship, and Jessica Restaino sound the ever clearer call for more kindness and generosity of spirit as we reach toward each other. I encouraged each contributor to write with a generosity of spirit that acknowledges the good work in Rhetorical Listening. Generosity, however, can sometimes look like the kind of tough love that cracks open others to better, more resilient ways of being.

What would scholarship look like when it ethically and responsibly engages marginalized voices and communities in ways that illuminate possibilities for transformation and change?

I invited contributors to explore what it means to center silenced and marginalized voices, their own or others. One way to do such work is to more carefully and purposefully attend to our citational practices. That is, we need to cite more Black feminists, disability scholars, and queer people of color.4 However, I encouraged contributors to go beyond politics of citationality. While it is important to acknowledge the contributions of these voices, it is equally important to demonstrate the way these scholars influence how we might do queer feminist work.

How can we write passionately and with emotional abandon? Where would our urges and longings take us? How might we respond to such passion?

I invited contributors to write with academic lyricism. I understand academic lyricism to be writing that moves the mind, body, and heart. Here, think with Toni Morrison’s distinction between being touched and being moved by prose. To be touched is to feel the joys and horrors of the world deeply. To be moved is to allow what touches us to transform the ways we act in the world (“Foreword”). Genre alone cannot dictate academic lyricism. A lyrical, thesis-driven essay can move us deeply. The rules of academic lyricism cannot be dictated, only encouraged and given space. The power to move others to believe and act in different ways is not solely the responsibility of the contributors. These contributors offer a way to move us. Will we be moved?


As I reflect on the work of queering rhetorical listening presented here, I keep returning to a single word: survival. Queers are not supposed to survive. And yet we do. Survival, though, is complicated work, as the contributors throughout attest, and can take many forms: neurodivergent, institutional, embodied, digital, social, and emotional. The blurriness of these forms and their boundaries complicates survival even more. J. Logan Smilges’ “Bad Listeners” offers the figure of the Bad Listener that not only challenges feminist gatekeeping but illustrates how “Bad Listening is healing, is self-care, is survival.” In “Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption,” Rachel Lewis challenges notions of personal agency in Rhetorical Listening to “make more room for the queer coalitional possibilities outlined by radical queer prison abolition and activism.” Michael J. Faris’s “Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening” argues that “through 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.”  In “Métis and Rhetorically Listening to #BlackLivesMatter” Storm Christine Pilloff illustrates how métis rhetoric helps us understand not only the rhetorical sophistication of Black queer women’s digital activism but also how to “fully humanize the embodied, lived experiences that led to such rhetorical skill.” Violet Livingston’s prose poem—“Excerpts from Terms of Play: Poetics on Consent as Method”—poses some house rules for engaging consent. As Livingston notes, within this queer house “tenderness has transformative potential.” Finally, in “A Fullness of Feeling: Queer Rhetorical Listening and Emotional Receptivity,” I suggest that we cannot engage the risks demanded by Rhetorical Listening unless and until we are “equipped with a powerful sense of the erotic.” 

Let this cluster conversation be a kind of beginning. Welcome to this space. May we hear from you soon.

I am grateful to Jen Wingard for saying “yes” to this cluster conversation and for her patient, thoughtful, and enlivening mentorship during this process. Special thanks go to Rachelle Joplin for her excellent attention to detail during final copy edits. I am grateful for Lisa Blankenship and the other anonymous reviewer for their important responses. Their labor improved the richness of this cluster. I am grateful to Cheryl Glenn for writing the foreword and for being kind to me and gracious enough to say “yes.” I thank A. Abby Knoblauch, Jonathan Alexander, Brigitte Mussack, Matt Davis, Jackie Rhodes, Lauren Bowen, Edward Hahn, Hadi Banat, and Andrea Putala for their attention during this process. Kyéra Sterling has made me a better and more careful thinker and I value her ways of thinking. Thank you to the contributors—Michael J. Faris, Johnathan Smilges, Rachel Lewis, Storm Pilloff, and Violet Livingston—for trusting me and for working so thoughtfully on your ideas. 

I asked the contributors to offer names of those that have been supportive to them during the development of their ideas. 

Rachel Lewis: I thank Charlie Lesh, and the reviewers for Peitho for their feedback. Gratitude also to Beth Britt, for her gender and rhetoric class, and to Chris Gallagher for pointing me to the affordances of identification in my work.

Storm Christine Pilloff: I’m grateful for the productive feedback and conversations Shevaun Watson and Rachel Bloom-Pojar provided and know that this project would’ve been significantly harder, or impossible, without the love and support I received from Jenni Moody and Lindsay Daigle during this pandemic and (hopeful) revolution.

Violet Livingston: I dedicate my lyric essay on consent to my writing teachers, who patiently waited for these stories—Margaret Willard-Traub, whose undergraduate feminist writing class, Women Writing Autobiography, brought many of these fragments to the surface. Laura Julier, who took me to the AWP conference as an editorial assistant for Fourth Genre, encouraging me in every way to write creative nonfiction. She also dedicate this work to the young survivors served by Tashmica Firecracker Torok’s nationally known organization, The Firecracker Foundation. May our changing knowledge on consent create a world in which you are safe, supported, and whole.

If you are reading this and intend to continue, thank you. There are a million things vying for your attention right now. I understand you’re reading these words as a choice to be present with us. Thank you for taking and giving time.

Thank you, Kris. For your words, your kindness, and your work.


  1. Only DeRouen and Grant’s contribution in Rhetorics of Whiteness explores the complex relationship between sexuality, race, and gender in the fictional characters of Jessica Pearson and Oliva Pope.
  2. Though not conceptualized as queer listening practices, Seth E. Davis’ development of reading and throwing shade contributes powerfully to our collective understanding of what he calls “fierce literacy” practices of Black queer people.
  3. For more on this, see Gavin Johnson’s “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay.”
  4. There are queer people of color who are both disabled and Black feminists. But also queers of color who do not take a feminist stance toward their objects of study. This is not simply a matter of intersectionality (an approach to critical analysis) but also one of identity, of living and being in the world. The point is to resist seeing any three, four, five…sets of identity as exclusive or exhaustive.

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” In Kvinder, Køn og forskning / Women, Gender and Research, nos. 1-2, 2012, pp. 25-53.
  • Blankenship, Lisa. Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy. Utah State UP, 2019.
  • Davis, Seth E. “Sade: Literacy Narrative at Black Gay Pride.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2019, pp. 56-89.
  • DeRouen, Anita M., and M. Shane Grant. “Must(n’t) See TV: Hidden Whiteness in Representations of Women of Color.” Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education, edited by Tammie M. Kennedy, Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe, Southern Illinois UP, 2017, pp. 54-70.
  • Glenn, Cheryl, and Krista Ratcliffe, eds. Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.
  • Johnson, Gavin. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay: Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • Kennedy, Tammie M., Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe, eds. Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education, Southern Illinois UP, 2017.
  • Morrison, Toni. “Foreword” The Bluest Eye. First Vintage International Edition, Vintage Books: 2007, pp. vii-xiii.
  • Oleksiak, Timothy. “Composing in a Sling: BDSM, Power, and Non-identification.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 9-24.
  • —. “When Queers Listen.” Reinventing (with) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies: Essays in Honor of Sharon Crowley, edited by Andrea Alden, Kendall Gerdes, Judy Holiday, and Ryan Skinnell, Utah State UP, 2019, pp. 256-268.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. The U of Michigan P, 2014.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Rawson, K.J. “Queering Feminist Rhetorical Canonization.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, pp. 39-52.
  • Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Thompson, Becky. Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice, U of Illinois P, 2017.