Silently Speaking Bodies: Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Transnational Feminist Rhetoric

Silently Speaking Bodies: Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Transnational Feminist Rhetoric

Peitho Volume 24, Issue 24 Fall

Author(s): Ashley Canter

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

Abstract: In "Silently Speaking Bodies," I theorize affective rhetorical resistance: resistance that is performed both through words as well as physical bodies. I examine two instances of bodily protest: 1) a 2015 protest in the Apaa district of Uganda in which a group of elderly women stripped naked and chanted, “Lobowa, Lobowa”—"our land” in a local Luo dialect — to resist their loss of their land and other violence as a result of conflicts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and 2) a 2013 protest in which women in West Virginia shaved their heads to protest loss of land and economic security due to mountaintop removal for coal mining in the region. As just two examples in a broader trend of bodily protest, these cases call feminist rhetorical scholars and activists to question certain assumptions about rhetoric: namely, that if one makes use of traditional and appropriate means of persuasion, intended audiences will listen. For these protesters, this is not the case: both had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes, but were not listened to. Driven to use their bodies to form collectives and make the destructive forces of global economic and political transformation visible to broader audiences, these protests call us to consider the ways embodied rhetorical action responds to neoliberalism, which cultural theorists and rhetorical scholars have theorized as a configuration of the global economy that upwardly redistributes wealth, circulates the market-based logics of individualism and competition, and authorizes destructive forces of capitalist expansion. By employing an affective rhetorical analysis, rhetorical scholars can continue to see rhetoric where it perhaps is not heard, activists can adopt these successful protest strategies, and stakeholders can listen and look to protests to understand the deep stake that individuals have in global neoliberalism.

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In 2015, a group of women in the Amuru district of Uganda, engaged in a form of embodied protest to resist their loss of their land and other violence visited upon them in the conflicts of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA): they stripped naked and chanted, “Lobowa, Lobowa”—”our land” in the local Luo dialect. Two years earlier, in West Virginia, U.S.A., twenty-three women shaved their heads on the state capitol steps in order to draw attention to the ways that years of industrial coal mining and subsequent mountaintop removal have degraded their land, livelihood, and health. Noting that coal mining disproportionately affects low-income West Virginians and people of color, leader Marilyn Mullens explained that caring for the land is “part of our Appalachian culture;” destruction wrought by coal mining, then, is antithetical (“Marilyn Mullens”). In both examples, the breaking of social and gendered norms was seen as necessary in order to secure the attention to the cause.

While just two of many possible instances we might cite of women using their physical bodies to publicly protest injustice, violence, and oppression,[1]both cases raise provocative questions about rhetorical action in the current transnational context and neoliberal age (Bohrer). They call us to question certain assumptions about rhetoric: namely, that if one makes use of traditional and appropriate means of persuasion, intended audiences will listen. For protesters like Mullens and Alum, however, this is not the case: both had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes but found themselves unable to intervene through words alone. How might bodily forms of rhetoric bring about action when words alone are not listened to?

Driven to use their bodies to form collectives and make the destructive forces of global economic and political transformation visible to broader audiences, these protests call us to consider the ways embodied rhetorical action responds to neoliberalism, which cultural theorists and rhetorical scholars have theorized as a configuration of the global economy that upwardly redistributes wealth, circulates market-based logics of individualism and competition, and authorizes destructive forces of capitalist expansion (Asen, Chaput, Dingo, Duggan, LeCourt, among others). While neoliberalism can make people less aware of the structural causes of their circumstances due to rhetorics of personal responsibility (Duggan), there are also examples like the ones here where people are acutely aware of the impact on their lived experiences. The effect of neoliberal conditions is a “welling up in the body” (Micciche), and it is expressed through the physical body. It is through physical and emotional manifestations such as rolling on the ground, stripping naked, shaving heads, and shouting, that we truly see 1) the lived effects  neoliberalism and 2) that this impact is made visible by protesters to one another. This allows these protesters to work against the ways that individualism spreads by “articulat[ing] relationships” to enable the construction of a collective ‘we’  (Asen 300).“I” am not hurting because I am failing. We are hurting because of the ways that neoliberal institutions like government officials and transnational policy have disrupted our land and enacted violence on the bodies of those we love, the protests in the case studies I present can argue. They can argue this due to their collective, bodily protest; they can do this through affect.

Bodies are at the center of the work that we do as rhetorical scholars. That is, we study rhetoric so that we can understand how oppressive systems, such as neoliberalism, use arguments to persist, circulate, and ultimately impact people physically, emotionally, and mentally and to examine effective rhetorical strategies for resisting those systems. Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have worked to understand the ways that neoliberal discourses function to marginalize individuals by circulating through policies, human rights stories, and more (Dingo, Reidner, Wingard). Transnational feminist scholars have provided a framework for understanding the lived impacts of neoliberalism. Affect scholars have worked to uncover how the impact of rhetoric is not just linguistic and not just heard but also seen, felt, and sensed (Ahmed). Finally, social movement scholars have questioned “what provokes bodies to shift from assigned places” (Jarret and Alexander). My analysis puts affect theory into conversation with transnational feminist rhetoric in order to consider the ways rhetors respond to neoliberal conditions in agentive ways.  I examine how these conversations can come together to call us to construct an understanding of rhetoric that allows us as scholars, activists, and community partners to see how rhetors use their physical bodies as well or instead of their words to be seen when they are not heard—to both make visible and call for changes in their daily, lived experiences of damaging global systems like neoliberalism.

I understand these protesters actions through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance, a phrase I use to note the bodily and linguistic strategies that protesters together use to make visible the lived realities of neoliberalism, realities too often forgotten, silenced, and not listened to. Marilyn Mullens, Magdalena Alum, and others initially used traditional, linguistic rhetorical channels to bring attention to their marginalization. However, their audiences did not listen. Because stakeholders did not listen, these protesters instead turned to bodily forms of rhetorical resistance. This calls feminist rhetorical scholars to continue to question the ways that rhetorical understanding rely on an audience to listen and the actions rhetors take when they do not. What happens when traditional, linguistic rhetorical techniques do not persuade powerful audiences, such as policy makers, to listen? Both of these cases represent a movement from linguistic rhetorical strategies to embodied ones. These women had previously spoken to stakeholders and government officials about their causes, but because they were not listened to, they instead used what I call an affective rhetorical resistance through nude protest, in one case, and shaving their heads at a government building, in another. I argue that, in moments of seeming rhetorical failure, feminist rhetorical scholars and activists might look closer to see how rhetors use their physical bodies to express resistance in ways their words alone cannot.

In what follows, I begin by overviewing existing work on the body in feminist rhetoric. Next, I will set up the exigence of studying rural areas for particular strategies of rhetorical activism. Then, I will provide more background on the case studies I look at in which West Virginian women shaved their heads in protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining and Ugandan women stripped naked in protest of government sanctioning of ancestral farming land. I look to these two instances to theorize an affective rhetorical resistance that makes visible the lived realities of neoliberalism. Both groups of protesters use their bodies to respond to transnational instances of neoliberally-motivated oppressions surrounding land. I end by calling for this theory of affective rhetorical resistance to be taken up in generative ways by transnational feminist rhetorical scholars, specifically, but also by feminist rhetoricians and feminist activists.

Embodiment and affect in protest, particularly in contexts of economic globalization and neoliberal capitalism, have concerned rhetorical scholars in a variety of conversations. In order to read these protests, it’s useful to think about how scholars in three sometimes distinct, sometimes interwoven, rhetorical conversations have advanced collective understandings of embodied protest. I will trace the projects of feminist rhetoric and transnational feminist rhetoric broadly. Then, I question what conceptions of social movements and work surrounding affect may offer transnational feminist scholars and activists. Specifically, I weave these conversations together in order to develop a theoretical framework of affective rhetorical protest.

Responding to the exclusionary nature of rhetorical study — wherein definitions of rhetoric were drawn from primarily economically privileged male rhetors —  feminist rhetoricians changed the field of rhetoric by asking: “Where are the women?” (Glenn, Rhetoric and Schell). Through studies on Aspasia (Glenn), and Ida B. Wells (Rosyter), for example, feminist rhetoricians contributed to an understanding of rhetoric as not just the available means of persuasion but also a practice wherein power defines rhetorical success. In other words, feminist rhetoric scholars began to address the ways that rhetors’ gendered lives impacts who we study and why (Glenn, Jarratt, Lunsford, Ratcliffe, Royster, Swearingen, among others). Early feminist rhetorical scholars essential contributions changed who we study as rhetors and, in so doing, changed our definitions of rhetoric and the methods by which we study it (Kirsch & Royster). The recovery of essential voices that were overlooked in classical rhetorical scholarship set the groundwork for a turn toward the ways that material realities of power impact rhetors and texts.

Outlining the project of transnational feminist rhetorical studies, specifically, Rebecca Dingo explains, “transnational feminism illustrates a matrix of connections between people, nations, economies, and the textual practices present in, for example, public policies and popular culture” (12). Taking up early calls for transnational feminist interventions in feminist rhetoric, which call for us to be “attentive to the constraints of neoliberalism and to the power differentials and inequalities that shape geopolitical alignments,” transnational feminists argue for the recognition of “globalization’s unequal economic, political, and social relations and gendered, sexualized, and racialized imageries” (Hesford and Schell 467). The overall project of transnational feminist rhetoric thus far has been to construct a model of rhetorical situations that includes not just rhetor, audience, exigence, and purpose, and not just how utterances are contextualized within historical and contemporary power dynamics around gender, race, class, and other matrices of power, but to do this while also contextualizing utterances within nation-state and political economic structures.

If the key questions raised by the feminist rhetorical project were “Where are the women? How can we recover their voices to arrive at a new definition of rhetoric?” then the defining questions of emergent conversations in transnational feminism became: “Who do we hear most loudly, through circulation, and why? How can utterances be contextualized in their political economic moments and interrupted in light of nation-state relationships, global economic transformation, and social inequity and activism?” Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have made essential contributions to rhetorical understandings of  how objects, places, and work are manifestations of a location in an interconnected neoliberal political economic system.

In 2008, Wendy Hesford and Eileen Schell called for Rhetoric and Composition to shift from a U.S.-centric narrative “of nation, nationalism, and citizenship” (463).  Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard responded to this, for example, by conceptualizing a “network” in order to think about  how “transnational studies scholars engage concurrently with multiple scales as they consider how globalized power operates  through a variety   of linked scales—the economic, national, state, and political conditions of contemporary neoliberalism, neocolonialism and neo-imperialism” (518). In general, transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have been interested in how global structures like neoliberalism and biocapitalism are constructed and spread rhetorically to impact rhetors. I continue this project by looking at bodily protests as instances of people flipping the script on these narratives and using their physical bodies to make visible and protest the lived impacts of systems of violence like these (Dingo, Networking, Dingo and Reidner, Beyond, Riedner, Writing, Wingard, Branded).

Transnational feminist rhetorical scholars have begun to take up studies of the body in relation to the way rhetorics circulate, or how and why rhetorics move across sites. For example,  Dingo, Riedner, and Wingard examine how the rhetorics around Ahed Tamimi and Malala Yousafazi circulate differently based on how their bodies (their skin color, hair color, and physical gestures) are read in relation to nation-state narratives. They state, “…we suggest that the news archive about Tamimi is limited — where she is, what is happening to her, and what she says — is difficult to track because her story does not shore up the political and economic objectives of the nation-state and global capital; it cannot be used to stand for benevolent neoliberalism” (184). In other words, transnational feminists question why some get to speak louder than others based on nation-state interests and gendered performances.[2] In another example, Jessica Ouellette discusses how Amina Tyler’s nude body was talked about and how the rhetorics of her protest were taken up in circulation.[3] Whether through an examination of women’s health information (Dicaglio et. al), through a reading of physical bodies as furthering and complicating nation-state narratives (Dingo et. al), or through a look at how nude bodies undercut rhetorical significance in circulation (Ouellette), we often see the body talked about in relation to rhetoric, not as rhetoric. Both of these lenses are essential and can further the project of transnational feminist rhetoric.

While scholars like Dingo, Wingard, Reidner, and Oulette have contributed essential understandings of how bodies are talked about/read determines the success of the rhetor’s message — how widely and justly it spreads — they also open questions about how the bodies involved here — Tyler, Tamimi, Yousafzai, readers of Our Bodies, Ourselves — are sites of rhetorical intervention in and of themselves by virtue of the ways the way rhetors use their bodies to move through space. To be more precise, the cases of Tyler, Tamimi, and Yousafazi all involve women using their physical bodies to respond to governmental decisions that negatively impact them and that, I argue, signal neoliberal narratives of profit over life.

What’s needed, in other words, is a theory of resistant rhetorical responses that uses not just words said by or about bodies but a way to fully understand how rhetors use their physical bodies, even without, and sometimes in addition to speaking, to be louder, to be noticed, to be listened to. The cases that I represent below demonstrate our need to develop transnational feminist rhetorical theories that analyze not just the way that bodies are spoken and written about but also methods for how to rhetorically analyze the movement of bodies themselves as powerful, resistant acts. As the cases I examine in this article demonstrate, rhetors can use their physical bodies — the way they are positioned, what they do, where they are — as rhetorical interventions into neoliberal structures of the economy that marginalize them by taking away their land and exploiting their labor. Affect as a method can help us to see the full ways physical bodies work with words to make visible and resist harmful narratives and structures.

A rich source of understanding about emotional and corporeal power is the robust body of rhetorical and theoretical literature on affect. Rhetorical study is about the power of texts. However, as material rhetoric and feminist scholarship evolved, the lived and material realities outside of texts have also been brought to the fore. In what follows, I will draw together various definitions of affect, from across disciplinary perspectives to build a theory of affective rhetorical resistance.

Feminist rhetorical scholars are invested in examining how larger circulating structures of power impact individuals so that we can ultimately make that less damaging in interactional and structural ways. Affect theory offers a lens for this, as this theory has made advancements in thinking about how bodies take on their environments — what moves and flows and damages them. For example, in Catherine Chaput’s taxonomy of affect theory, she underscores how different conceptions of affect take up the body: some view affect as a description of how external material circulates through bodies, while others view affect as a physical response to those external factors. On one hand, Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant think of affect as “energetic matter” which “circulates through environments — molding, producing, and defining them in its wake,” while other theorists “foreground affect as the biochemical and neurological patterns of bodily attraction and repulsion” (Chaput 91-92). Chaput ultimately argues that “affect provides a lens for the rhetorical theorization of how experience moves through and lingers in bodies in a way that engages but is not reduced to scientism” (10).

Though they define affect somewhat differently, Chaput and Ahmed are particularly influential in my own thinking about affect because they reveal how affect describes the ways that bodies physically take on the structure of power around them. Ahmed, for instance, “tracks how the affective patterns of gendered, sexed, and raced bodies follow the ebb and flow of political economic exchanges” (Chaput 96). I argue that an affective lens can illuminate the ways that political economic structures physically fall on the body — such as how political economic realities physically fall on a laboring body and appear as stress, pain, or anger (Ahmed), or how the reality of political economic and legal policy physically falls on immigrant bodies through movement across borders, pain, or violence. However, I want to extend the work of scholars such as Chaput and Ahmed by thinking about how affect cannot just illuminate the ways that bodies take on their environments in the aforementioned ways but also the ways that rhetors use affect — through gesture and movement, for example — to respond to and highlight these impacts. This allows us to see the savvy work that rhetors can do through not just their words, but their physical bodies.

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in Apaa Region, Uganda and in West Virginia, U.S.A.

I present these examples in Uganda and West Virginia not to be read separately but to be seen as two instances in a larger trend of bodily protest that makes visible the too often invisible lived impacts of neoliberalism, particularly for those marginalized by race, class, gender, regionality, and nation-state relationships. In a future iteration of this project, with appropriate research funding, it would be beneficial to hear directly from the protesters about their experiences and intentions. However, since my primary method is to read visually, I instead take up the protesters’ words as mediated through images, videos, and news articles around the protest as my data.

The first protest I discuss occured in the Amuru district of Uganda, which is a site of exploitation over land. As rural areas, we can see parallels in the ways that both Uganda and West Virginia are impacted by neoliberalism. The Amuru district of Uganda has historically been a site of dispute over land. In sum, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has argued that the people of Apaa occupy a game reserve, while the community of Apaa argue that they occupy ancestral land. Violence by security forces has arisen from this conflict (Byaruhanga). The history of exploitation of land makes this location a site worthy of rhetorical analysis because it is a place from which to see how the community here responds in rhetorically agentive ways when traditional rhetorical means have not persuaded the government officials that make up their audience.

As a sign of protest to impending governmental demarcation of land, the women of Apaa stripped naked. In the way that BBC News frames it, “In front of two government ministers, soldiers, policemen and hundreds of people from their community, they started removing their clothes. Off came their tops — then some of the women pulled down their wrappers and skirts so they were completely naked. ‘Lobowa, Lobowa!’ they chanted, which means ‘our land’” in the Luo dialect” (Byaruhanga 2015).

Before moving on, I want to address the way that the reasonably angry emotion of these women is filtered, and made light of, by a Western news agency, BBC News, in the way it is reported here. Rather than having a matter-of-fact tone, the article exclaims, “Off came their tops!” and says that they “shouted” (Byaruhanga 2015). This is one way in which a Western news agency makes light of, and thus, does not do justice to, the cause that these women are fighting for. Though I would like to rhetorically analyze the rhetorics of reporting about the protest, I aim to keep my rhetorical analysis here focused on the rhetorics of the protesters’ words and bodies themselves so as to respond to the exigence for my work that I introduced earlier.

Regarding the protest method itself, African Argument, a “pan-African platform for news, investigation and opinion,” explains that this is one instance in a long history of nude protest in Africa and around the world:

According to Florence Ebila Akona, a researcher at Makerere University, this Apaa protest was the ‘culmination of mistrust, frustrations, anger and anxiety over an uncertain future,’ but she also explains that naked protests – in this instance and all others – are much more than just outpourings of desperation. They also convey deep symbolic messages. The undressing was most importantly meant to curse the person who had brought all these suffering to them, says Akona. (Guyson 2018)

The cultural significance of cursing in this instance shows just how rhetorical this act is — these women cultivated cultural values and beliefs into a political stance against land in front of political economic stakeholders in that land.

I argue that these women used rhetorical tactics like ethos but did so in a way that is both connected to their cultural, localized intimacy and tied to a broader political economic system that asymmetrically abuses the land and labor of marginalized people for capital gain through a global trend in nude protest. I take up ethos here in the way that Kathleen J. Ryan, Nancy Myers, and Rebecca Jones define it as “feminist ecological ethē,” which “open[s] up new ways of envisioning ethos to acknowledge the multiple, nonlinear relations operating among rhetors, audiences, things, and contexts (i.e. ideological, metaphorical, geographical)” (2). They go on to say that examples of “feminist ecological ethē” include interruption-interrupting, advocacy-advocating, and relation-relating as patterns we have observed across the chapters that enact this way of thinking and constructing ethos” (3). To this list, this case study adds that ethē should also contain a practice of affect: a physical, corporeal way of responding that, in this case, is used strategically when traditional, linguistic ways of protest did not work or were not listened to. Thinking about ethos in relationship to affect is modeled richly by Lorin Shellenberger in a discussion of Serena Williams. She explains that “despite being one of the best tennis players in the history of the sport, Williams often receives just as much attention for the size, shape, and color of her body. As a Black woman originally from a working-class background in a typically white, country club sport, Williams frequently must speak to and perform for a community whose values do not always reflect her own” (Shellenberger). Shellenberger demonstrates how other’s raced and gendered readings of rhetor’s physical bodies affect rhetor’s claims to ethos. In the case studies I present, I join Shellenberger in considering the ways that physical bodies are not only a part of an establishment of ethos, but also an important part of rhetorical protest.

As Rebecca Dingo pointed out in a conversation about this project, these women force you to look, force you to listen, in a way that channels such as letter-writing and petition-signing, which they had previously done, do not force (Dingo 2019). As Sara Ahmed explains, sometimes “they do not hear you because they expect you to speak in a certain way” (99). These women are expected to perform, speak, and protest in sometimes parallel, sometimes varying ways along racial capitalist and neoliberal narratives of what it means to be a black woman in Apaa or a working class woman in the U.S. South. These women demand to be heard by speaking, moving, and being in places and ways they are not expected to. They craft this rhetorical resistance by using their bodies in ways they are not expected to — they strip though this is thought of as a curse, they strip though elderly women’s bodies are not expected to be seen publicly due to agist, sexist conceptions of beauty and sexuality, they position their bodies in unexpected ways by rolling, lying on the ground, and raising their legs: “As a policeman took pictures, one of the women approached him by rolling on the ground and then raised her leg. He ran away” (Byaruhanga 2015). They use their bodies to express the anger that was not listened to in their words.

These women demonstrate an affect of anger, as the image, their bodily positioning and gestures, and volume show. They show the power and productivity of anger in the way that Audre Lorde thinks about its usefulness when she explains that anger is often systematically discussed in ways that undercut its productive uses, but urges that “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies” (280). Sara Ahmed also takes up this line of thinking by naming “feminist killjoys:” feminists who refuse to succumb to what is ‘supposed to’ make them happy, but instead, chose to rest in that misfit in order to point out the ways that their unhappiness is linked to structural causes (57). These protesters act as “feminist killjoys” by expressing their anger and their “hurting” through both their words and their physical gestures.

The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked "police." The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies

Figure 1: Unnamed protesters in Apaa village lie on the ground partially naked in front of government official’s vehicles. The image depicts women lying down on a dirt road in front of a line of vehicles. The truck on the left of the image is clearly marked “police.” The two bodies are blurred to obscure their partially nude bodies.

The wider history of governmental tension and violence that precedes this protest privileges profit over life or converts life into profit, as Alum shows above when she cited the violence that her son endured by government officials, an affective, raced, and economic reality that she uses her body and her emotions to draw attention to. “I have nothing,” she says, citing the loss of her land, livelihood, and son. This loss is attributed to a system of neoliberalism that “values strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade as a means through which to assure individual and social freedom (Dingo et. al. 523). At the heart of the land dispute and resulting violence is the privileging of property and profit over the wellbeing of the Apaa community. Alum and other protesters use their words and body work together to produce a rhetorical response to violence that demands to be listened to and that links her suffering to neoliberally-motivated governmental changes. When words alone were not striking enough, these protesters used their physical bodies in “unruly” ways in order to jar their audience and also to physically restrict governmental officials from access to the land that they were there to demarcate. I suggest that this protest strategy offers transnational feminist scholars one way to see how rhetors respond to the lived impacts of neoliberalism.

The affective rhetorical resistance by residents of Apaa proved to be listened to more than their words, as the ministers and government authorities that were there to demarcate land did, indeed, turn around. They did achieve their intended impact through their rhetorical activism, a strategy that responds to years of colonial and neoliberal power colliding into processes of racialization and class stratification that create the governmental violence and land disputes which these protesters respond to. This is another example of the rhetorical ingenuity that these Apaa women exhibit when their causes are not being listened to. As Plange argues in Peitho’s recent Special Issue on Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric, “African women have historically organized and acted to make societal changes” (n.p.). Extending Plange’s work, I argue that this protest is an instance in which Apaa women are drawing attention to the unique impact of the processes of postcolonialism and neoliberalism that prompt this protest. These protesters’ affective rhetorical resistance signals a powerful expression of the collective, accrued, “welling up” of the impacts of postcolonialism and neoliberalism which have resulted in governmental violence and land exploitation (Micciche). In pointing to this particular kind of rhetorical ingenuity, I hope to assert that affective rhetorical resistance is a response to the accumulated impact of networks of material power in a way that words alone are not. Illuminating the rhetorical ingenuity of this group of protesters through a lens of affective rhetorical resistance contributes to the long-standing work that Plange and transnational feminist scholars have done to de-center the rhetorical practices of white women in Western contexts. More specifically, by framing this protest strategy as a response to accrued experiences of postcolonialism, neoliberalism, and racism colliding for these Apaa women, I hope to contribute to the need for “more nuanced approaches to dealing with the intersections of race and rhetoric” that Gwendolyn Pough and Stephanie Jones call for (n.p.).

Affective Rhetorical Resistance in West Virginia

Another rural geopolitical context that is rich to look toward is the U.S. Appalachian region, as it is a place with a long history of labor and land exploitation, from taking indigenous land and lives to coal mining. It is similarly a place with a history of protest and resistance to that labor exploitation. I aim to draw on the work of Appalachian studies scholars who have studied protest and resistance in order to think about this West Virginia protest as a form of affective rhetorical resistance — a concept that I hope can help Appalachian studies and transnational feminist scholars continue to consider rhetorical meaning-making in rural sites within their political economic context. Appalachian studies helps us to see the ways that activism takes place in rural spaces (Eller, Lewis, NeCamp). In fact, Appalachian studies provides a nuanced framework for thinking about rural sites as places with rich histories of activism and highly contextualized relationships to landscapes and for thinking about histories of women protesting mountaintop removal in Appalachia, specifically (Bell). I suggest that these analyses can be further enriched by an examination of Appalachian protest in connection with transnational political economic rhetorics of neoliberalism. I provide a beginning toward this questioning. As a working-class woman who grew up in Appalachia, among generations of working-class family members, I have seen just how deeply rooted and internalized neoliberal rhetorics become and how often they are forgotten about in wider public discourse. As a white, U.S. born woman, I do also benefit from the racial privilege unjustly afforded to me by historical and contemporary collides between global political economics and racism. In the work that follows, I look at one example of resistance in West Virginia, one part of the Appalachian region through a transnational feminist rhetorical lens in order to begin to address these gaps.

The same neoliberal economic system that women in Uganda responded to operates as an exigency for protests in West Virginia. Both groups use their physical bodies in ways that play on and subvert local, cultural codes to make their position in the political economy visible and to turn the gaze of the public eye to these intentionally forgotten places. They counter rhetorics of profit by showing how they are actually rhetorics of violence in disguise. Both groups speak not individually but show a collaborative model of rhetorical agency, though more so in the Uganda example, as Marilyn Mullens is the most prominent voice in and organizer of the West Virginia protest.

There are perhaps no better words with which to introduce the 2013 protest where dozens of West Virginian women shaved their heads while standing on the steps of the state capitol building in protest of mountaintop removal for mining than those of Marilyn Mullens, one of the protest leaders. In an interview before the protest, she contextualizes the group’s efforts:

Tomorrow we’re planning an event in Charleston at the West Virginia State Capitol steps, a silent protest, where women from Appalachia will come together to shave our heads. We want to show a solidarity with our mountains that are being stripped, our people that are getting sick. Just to show that we’re willing to give up something to get people to pay attention. I grew up in the coalfields in Boone County, in Sand Creek Hollow mostly. Living there, it’s coal mining. That’s the big industry. (Mullens, emphasis added).

Mullens’ own words show us the power of affective rhetorical resistance: to make audiences look.  These rhetors use their bodies to draw attention to the material impacts of neoliberalism, as she notes when citing the “big industry” responsible for their cause. Like the protest in Uganda, these women also challenge stereotypes of what gendered bodies are supposed to do and look like in public space. One image that depicts this well is their fallen, cut hair lying on the steps of West Virginia state capitol.

The image shows piles the protester's hair. The long hair is laying on white concrete steps. The chunks of hair apparently come from multi people, as they range in color from white, black, and brown.

Figure 2: Protester’s fallen hair on the West Virginia state capitol building steps. The image shows piles of protesters fallen hair laying haphazardly on white concrete steps of state capitol steps. The chunks of straight and wavy hair range in color from white, black, and brown.

A striking image of the protesters’ fallen hair on the state capitol building’s steps is worth discussing. This image and the protest itself is a symbolic, rhetorical act — one that intervenes in public space in ways that both bring attention to the silenced issue of mountaintop removal for mining and that challenges traditional, stereotypical notions of femininity through the act of shaving their hair on the state capitol building’s steps. Strategically playing on an audience that might believe in these stereotypes of how women’s bodies should exist in public — stereotypically beautiful and silent — these women rhetorically position shaving their heads as a loss, stating that they are “willing to give up something” (Sierra Club).

I chose to include the image of the women’s hair fallen on the capitol steps, in particular, because the haphazard nature in which the hair is fallen visually represents the destruction that these protesters intended to draw onlookers attention to. This image shows the way that the highly affective nature of this protest strategy culminates in rhetorical power and moves the audience to awareness surrounding mountaintop removal and the resulting destruction to the lives and livelihoods of the Appalachians in this community. When I look at the images, I am moved and reminded of the destruction that I have also witnessed growing up working class in a different area of the Appalachian region that has only weathered the consequences of environmental destruction for profit. However, for readers who may not be as familiar with this kind of destruction, these protesters use their silence and their body movements to move their audience to awareness. When I look at this image, I see how these protesters used affective rhetorical resistance to move audiences to action.

As Mullens explains, they wanted people to “pay attention,” a statement that shows how they turned to this affective rhetorical act when traditional linguistic acts did not work. They turn notions of silence in public on its head by using an affective rhetoric to stay linguistically silent but speak volumes with their bodies on the steps of the state capitol. As Cheryl Glenn explains in her theory of rhetorical silence,

…we all inhabit silence: in a kaleidoscopic variety of rhetorical situations, taking up “the politics of space, place, and time” (Schell 923). Ever sensitive to kairos, to the appropriateness of the occasion, we attempt to fashion our communication successfully, through words or silence. After all, the stupendous reality is that language itself cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists most of all in silences. (263)

They are silent, but they speak volumes.

Taking the two case studies together,  we notice strategic uses of both sound and silence alongside the visual and affective rhetorical strategies these women use their bodies to deploy. Whereas the women in Uganda use their bodies and their words, shouting “Lobowa, Lobowa!” which means “our land” in the Luo variety, as they stripped naked, lifted their legs, and rolled, the women in West Virginia chose to use silence while similarly positioning their bodies in unexpected ways that draw on and subvert cultural codes of femininity to draw attention to issues of labor and land exploitation that have not been listened to in traditional rhetorical channels.

Both of these instances show that rural places may call for embodied forms of rhetorical resistance that force audiences to listen and to look, calling attention to this site ignored by governmental officials and news outlets.  Protesters demonstrate a keen understanding of the ways that rhetorical readings of their bodies through raced and gendered lenses constrain and frame their meaning-making. They use their bodies in unexpected ways (stripping naked, shaving their heads) to draw attention to their otherwise overlooked causes.The case studies of affective rhetorical resistance that I provided here, I hope, start a conversation about the most meaningful ways that affect and transnational feminist rhetorical analysis can intersect. Affect can show us how economic realities physically fall on bodies through labor exploitation and how women use their physical bodies to protest these conditions.

These two case studies show us that sometimes we must look at not only strictly linguistic situations, but rhetorical situations using the body to see rhetorical success. Both of these groups of protesters used their bodies in unexpected ways in order to achieve governmental changes and attention from a broader audience as they intended. In particular, rural sites that may not receive as much attention from wider audiences may use affective rhetorical resistance in order to draw attention to the lived impacts of neoliberalism that go unnoticed, as protesters in Uganda and West Virginia have done. We can see how bodies are used when words fail to be listened to. We can see how, particularly in rural contexts that are forgotten, and even more so among people marked by race, class, gender, and problematic conceptions of the Global North and South, these rhetors use their bodies to force us to listen. Where else might we look? How might there be rhetorical success under the surface? In what other instances are rhetors using their bodies to draw attention to the lived reality of neoliberalism?

I urge transnational feminist scholars and feminist rhetoricians to look to spaces that seem like rhetorical failure and see how rhetors might be using their bodies rhetorically in those spaces, to see where rhetorical success might be under the surface. I urge feminist activists to look to protests like those in Uganda and West Virginia to see how they might use an affective rhetorical resistance to make them look, to make them listen. These protests are only a couple of examples in a wider pattern of bodily protest. More than showing two responses to violence in Uganda and West Virginia, my intention is to provide these as examples in effective, affective rhetorical strategies to use when words alone are not listened to and acted upon by audiences who have power to change material circumstances. This allows feminist rhetorical scholars a new way of reading seeming silence, of reading bodily movement along with words, in order to see rhetorical activism. By employing an affective rhetorical analysis, rhetorical scholars  can continue to see rhetoric where it perhaps is not heard, activists can adopt these successful bodily strategies, and stakeholders and policy makers can listen and look to protests in these moments of activism.

End Notes:

[1] Bodily protest has a long history, but bodily and nude protests have become a more prominent trend in protest strategies in recent years (Sassion-Levy and Rapoport).

[2] For more information on this, see the book by Dingo and Reidner Beyond Recovery which is under consideration with University of Pittsburgh Press. In my reading and conversations with them as a Research Assistant, I have seen how their work shows that rhetorics that circulate to shore up nation-state and global projects of neoliberalism and biocapitalism also depend on gendered performances of the physical bodies — in this case, the bodies of Malala Yousafazi and Ahed Tamimi.

[3] These are only some of the many impressive works on the body and circulation within feminist rhetoric.

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