Review of Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness

Review of Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Ashley Canter

Ashley Canter is a PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition and Teaching Associate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work focuses on transnational feminist rhetoric, affect studies, and transnational literacy. 

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Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019. 204 pages.

Feminist rhetorical scholars have long been concerned with critically examining how care and love can be used as guiding forces in rhetorical methodologies (see Royster & Kirsch, Schell, Lunsford & Ede, among others). In Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness, Jessica Restaino revives and extends these concerns. Restaino grapples with questions such as, “What might research and writing look like, and how might knowledge take shape, in a practice (method) of intimacy as epistemology, as a way of writing through otherwise unspoken, even frightening, questions?” (9). She complicates notions of care and reflexivity in feminist rhetorical methods by considering how we might occupy a “space of misfit”—the space in between established ways of doing research and that which is unutterable and inexplicable, such as love and loss (85). She asks us, as practitioners of language, what do we do when our breath, and our words, are taken away? 

Surrender is an ethnography from Restaino’s two-year collaboration and friendship with Susan Lundy Maute who died of stage IV breast cancer. Restaino asks audiences interested in doing their own feminist scholarship around “unspoken, even frightening questions” to consider what new research questions and methods spaces of illness, love, and loss might present if we take those spaces as ones fit for academic, as well as personal, analysis. She writes, “What is lost when we ‘discipline’ the personal?” (3). She dwells in the multitude of written artifacts that remain after Sue’s death and grapples with the ethical questions of how and why to represent the language work that remains after the final years of Sue’s life. She considers what rhetorical work happened in the collaborative space of love and terminal illness that existed between her and Sue. Restaino calls for us to push beyond known methods, set research questions, articulable research-participants dynamics, and spaces of comfort in order to embrace “dark, uncertain spaces” such as the one she occupied with Sue as she loved and wrote with her through her illness (99). In this space with Sue, Restaino finds shifting notions of herself and her healthy body in relation to Sue’s ill body, altered and sometimes reversed researcher-participant dynamics, and a tension between known research tools and expectations and the lived experiences that cannot be fully articulated. She writes, “this book marks my own effort to stay in the work that overwhelms me, that pushes me to confront my own humanity and my capacity for pain and for love as rhetorical work. . . . I am most interested in exploring the ways in which personal and professional transformation is foundational to such projects and thus argue for working ‘imperfectly,’ honoring the limits as new forms of knowing” (7). In so doing, Restaino offers us a model for staying in the work that overwhelms us. 

Restaino’s vulnerable, beautiful work offers feminist researchers both an inspiration and model for going into the territories of our lives that might traditionally be considered seperate from or not fitting for research—the spaces that scare us, the moments that baffle us, the human interactions that might take our breath away—to look for how and why language works there and to consider new methods for working with language that such spaces call for. Restaino extends notions of care in feminist rhetoric by providing a model of intimacy as methodology. The concept of intimacy “invite[s] us to think of blurred boundaries, of being even dangerously close to each other: collapsed walls between the personal, the academic, and the analytic” (9). By taking care and loss as generative spaces fit for academic analysis, Surrender shows us the value of studying how language works in spaces where language may fail—spaces of death, love, and friendship. 

Restaino titles that chapters of the book in this order: “Stage IV,” “Stage III,” “Stage II,” “Stage I,” and “In Situ.” The chapter names represent the different diagnoses of breast cancer, but, because she “seeks to invert or disrupt our expectations,” the stages regress rather than progress as the book develops (6). Between each chapter, Restaino includes primary materials from her writing and collaboration with Sue, such as screenshots of text message conversations and Sue’s own writing. These inter-chapters, titled “Bloodwork” to signify a common process for cancer patients, allow readers to see firsthand the ways that language failed to relate Sue’s experience and body to Restaino while also showing us how Sue used language to document her wishes and to articulate her sense of loss. 

In “Stage IV,” Restaino calls for feminist rhetoricians to work with qualitative data in ways that “use our own porousness as an agent of knowledge making,” ways that acknolwedge the academic work we do as “part of our human growth” (41). Through collaboration and friendship, Sue used the rhetorical space between her and Restaino to come to terms with the end of her life. In this chapter, Restaino hopes that her own involvement in Sue’s language work might “serve as a testament to initmate human struggle as methodological and to the capacity of feminist rhetorical practices in allowing and generating spaces in which transformation can occur. Such transformation, when we use the frame of terminal illness, . . . marks a way to render ourselves as writing and thinking subjects and to subsequently destabilize the texts we produce” (41-2). Restaino’s alternative way of thinking of ourselves as writer-researchers, a way of thinking that embraces the deepest human vulnerability as a guiding methodology for the language work that we observe, allows those experiences like love and loss not traditionally thought of as academic work to be processes that use language in transformative ways.

 In “Stage III,” Restaino draws on the concept of “surrender,” which she defines as “a way of continually insisting on a kind of letting go . . . not only of what we already know how to do (practice) and what we think we know (epistemology) but also of our subjectivit(ies) as writers and researchers” (13). A practice of surrender called for Restaino to be continually remade by her dynamic with Sue. She explains, “As I served as her witness, her recorder, her scribe,…I was both rendered anew within our dynamic while also reoriented to my own body and mind” (48). Restaino offer feminist researchers an example of letting go completely to the work that we do—a testament to the usefulness of letting our ideas of ourselves continually change in relationship to our research collabroaters. Restaino and her work in Surrender are changed by loss, as she explains that “the impossibility of saving took on both practical and conceptual meanings, as I could not save [Sue] from dying—no one could—nor can I presently save or even replicate her through textual representation in our work following her death” (49). As Restaino illustrates when she describes a moment in which she dictated Sue’s wishes three weeks before her death, the ability to put words and material to the impending loss that they both felt was something that changed both of them—a moment which could not be fully realized without the practice of surrendering to what we think of as the limits of feminist research. Restaino shows us how instances of loss, friendship, and emotion that may not traditionally seem relevant to research may actually show us what language can do in moments that do not seem articulable. 

In “Stage II,” Restaino critiques Peter Smagorisnky’s notion that “studies work best when an author poses a limited set of answerable questions and then designs the paper around them” (14). Instead, she suggests that we embrace a tension between expectations for research findings and a “gut sense or force that exceeds capture. . . . In the context of my role as researcher-writer, these tensions represent a coming-into-agency, into an identity and methodology defined by movement and uncertainty and by my own material experience as witness [to Sue’s illness]” (84). The tension between a “hope for cohesiveness” and the “illegible status of lived experience” is a tension that Restaino calls us to embrace in our research methodologies. We must surrender to the questions that the work asks in order to fully embrace lived experience. For their collaboration, this meant that “unknowing [Sue]…meant treading out into the dark imagination where she resided with that which was not cured but also not immediately measurable: her cancer and its status as terminal . . . the utterly ungraspable sense of time and rationality, of how or when or why” (88). One method that Restaino used in their collaboration that is a written reflection in which the researcher and participant review the interviewer/researcher’s reactions to the audio recordings together and discuss any further questions (99). This practice, in particular, is one that feminist researchers might use to open a space of collaboration and reflexivity with participants while also creating a space for the shared project of articulating that which is not completely knowable, such as loss. 

In “Stage I,” Restaino thinks about rhetorical touch by considering the “rhetorical transaction uniquely possible between bodies, healthy and ill, in the dying process” (15). Restaino describes the eventual acceptance in decline that Sue’s condition that her physically deteriorating body forced them both into as an example of a “gathering around” that “exceeds earlier feminist notions of care and that demands instead radical sharing, at once threatening and comforting, housed in materiality” (106). Restaino’s caring for Sue’s body made the distance between their healthy and ill bodies visible while also drawing Restaino, as a person with a body also capable of illness, closer to Sue. Restaino provides a model of a researcher-participant dynamis from this experience of shared and divergent materiality with Sue. This dynamis includes: “1. I (participant) need you (researcher) to feel this in your body so you can understand. 2. I (researcher) need to feel that I can’t understand your (participant) experience. 3. I (participant) need you (researcher) to take care of my body  so I (as represented by the body) am safe and valued” (108). The dynamis that Restaino creates here provides a new way of thinking about care as both collaborative and material in feminist research. Though Restaino discovers this bodily codependence and collaboration as a part of meaning-making through the context of terminal illness, this model is particularly useful for feminist researchers in many other vulnerable research contexts. 

In the final chapter, Restaino draws on Jim Corder to consider the role of love in rhetorical work, as love reveals the lover “broken and incomplete but also, as such, evolving, and thus the researcher-who-loves-as-human, confused, fraught and generative.” Restaino advocates for the importance of work “that fails to protect us from pain or loss” (15). Restaino reminds us that our research might “unhinge us from our traditional expectations about time…and what it might yield,” as time, particularly in the context of terminal illness, is often out of the researcher’s control. Restaino also invites us to “integrate into our efforts at knowledge making the kinds of data that confound, frighten, or even repulse us.” In her case, this meant accepting her body as capable of the illness she observed in Sue’s, which is “not the same as living another’s experience. Rather, this is a methodological move that welcomes uncertainty, weakness, or even awfulness as valued, usable data” (148). Lastly, Restaino reminds us that if we are working in the “dark, uncertain spaces,” our traditional research tools will not work. In her own example, her audio recorder functioned as both a symbol of importance in traditional thoughts about research, but it simultaneously, contradictorily, functioned as agentive for Sue, as she describes how Sue often asked if she had “gotten that down” and, on one occasion, offered her bloodwork results to write on the back of when Restaino had forgotten her notebook and recorder. We must embrace that traditional research tools, like Restaino’s recorder,  might not work or we must let them work differently as we are moved by “dark, uncertain spaces” (152). Throughout the book, and in this chapter in particular, Restaino provides a vulnerable, visceral model of how we might do the work that frightens and pains us, and how the questions and tools that we use may shift as we venture into the most human of research spaces— the spaces with sometimes unanswerable questions and bodies that we both know and cannot know. 

Restaino leaves us with a sense that we must work within the spaces where language cannot fully succeed, such as in articulating the lived experience of terminal illness, to continue feminist work on care and embodiment. Scholars of feminist rhetoric can take up Restaino’s concept of intimacy as methodology as they move into their own spaces of discomfit, exploring the ways that language works in times of extreme human emotion, of loss and love. We must do the work that blurs the boundaries between personal, academic, and analytic—the work that scares us. 

Works Cited

  • Kirsch, Gesa and Jacqueline Jones Royster. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
  • Lunsford, Andrea and Lisa Ede. Writing Together: Collaboration in Theory and Practice. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
  • Schell, Eileen and K.J. Rawson, editors. Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, U of Pittsburgh P, 2010