CFP: On Race, Feminism, and Rhetoric

Overview

The fact of the matter is, we wouldn’t have any feminism worth thinking about or writing about without the work of feminists of color. They have pushed feminism to be better and do better since the beginning. However, these feminists often are not afforded the credit they deserve for creating feminist spaces and demanding change within them. During the Suffrage Movement it was Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” at the Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio, in 1851 that demanded we recognize the voices and perspectives of all women. The work that Black women, lesbians and working class women did to push the mainstream white middle class feminism of the 1970s to speak across race, class, and sexuality made feminism stronger. Feminists of color in the 1970s writing in anthologies like This Bridge Called My Back, Home Girls, and But Some of Us Are Brave started building a third wave of feminism before the 1990s gave us the Third Wave. And it was a young Black woman named Rebecca Walker who first proclaimed “we are the third wave.” In short, it has always been the voices of feminists of color that pushed feminist movements to realize the radical notion that all womxn are people. In this issue, we are looking for scholarly complications to the discourse around white feminism that historically approach the idea: Feminism has never really been white.

This contemporary moment, perhaps more than any other has shown us the relevance and importance of race, feminism and rhetoric. The current global pandemic has put a spotlight on institutionalized inequities around race, class and gender. The on-going protests and unrest around police brutality and murders have forced us to come to terms with the meaning of solidarity and coalition in the struggle. Extreme nationalism has ripped children from the arms of their parents and placed them in cages going against every fiber of the founding lies of the United States. The recent election and the fact that yet again over 50% of the white women who voted cast their vote for Donald Trump has made clear that assumed alliances around gender are not to be taken for granted when we add race to the mix. Now more than ever we need to be in nuanced and critical conversations on race, feminism, and rhetoric.

From Fair Fight Now to the Black Lives Matter Movement, Black women have been the driving force behind the change we need in America today. In the wake of the 2020 US elections, we need to have more conversations about how feminists of color combat the normalization of the refusal to transfer power, concede losses, and acknowledge the truth. Like we saw with the Women’s March controversy, we can not continue to tolerate feminists of color being pushed to the margins in the spaces we created. This bridge can no longer be our backs. As “The Squad” on Capitol Hill grows to include even more women of color voices, we need to make space for complex conversations around what diversity and equality really means while continuing to hold our leadership accountable to the progress we have made. Now is not the time for half-measures, talking points for views, and conservative approaches. We need to center the voices of feminists of color who are doing the work to ensure our feminist futures. We hope that the essays in this special issue will help shed light on all the important and nuanced ways that race, feminism and rhetoric intersect across time, in this moment, and around the world.

Invitation

The editors invite articles, manifestos, and alternative works that consider, but are not limited to, the following questions and topics:

  • Rethinking Intersectionality Rhetorically
  • Global Feminisms (Transnational Feminism, Afrodiasporic and African Feminisms, IndigenousFeminism, Latinx Feminisms, Arab Feminisms)
  • Histories of Women of Color Feminisms
  • Models of political activism, like “The Squad”
  • Allies, Coalitions, Solidarity in the Struggle
  • Interrogating whiteness through gender and class
  • Black Lives Matter/Say Her Name
  • Rhetorical histories and the legacies of raced and gendered rhetoric
  • Anti-Racist Feminisms
  • Complicating conversations around human rights (women’s rights, trans womxn’s rights, immigrant rights)
  • The Phyllis Schlafly Effect and Why We Never Expect that 50% of White Women Will Act Against Solidarity
  • Re-examinations of Civil Rights
  • Marches and Uprisings
  • Feminist Pasts/Feminist Futures
  • Racing Digital Feminisms
  • Race and Inequities in Medicine
  • Race, Ability, and Disability
  • Black women theorizing and giving us the language to name our oppression (from intersectionality to misogynoir and beyond)
  • Race and Transgender Rhetorics

Submission Details & Timeline

Please send completed articles, manifestos, and book reviews. We are also open to accepting alternative formats such as digital, audio, and visual compositions. All submissions should be emailed to both editors, Gwendolyn D. Pough <gdpough@syr.edu> and Stephanie Jones <svjones@syr.edu>, by January 30, 2021. Peer review will occur during the winter of 2021, Revisions will be due in the spring of 2021, and the anticipated publication date will be summer of 2021.

Review of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018. 296 pages.

I began work on this review of Cheryl Glenn’s Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope in the summer of 2020 feeling distinctly devoid of hope. Outside of the academy, people were dying—from illness, from state-sanctioned violence. They still are. I felt cynical: What was I doing studying rhetoric? Why did it matter at a time like this? I had a hard time answering these questions while isolated during quarantine. I was suffering from the misconception that the subjects we treat as academic inquiries are somehow separate from the activist commitments that drive us. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope points out that these divisions are artificial by providing necessary insight into how the field of feminist rhetoric emerged and, more importantly, how it can be used right now to advocate for social justice projects.

Cheryl Glenn leverages her experience with research, teaching, and administrative work to give her readers a look into what it means to live a feminist life as a rhetorical scholar. Her concept of rhetorical feminism serves as the connective tissue for this book. In her introduction, she identifies rhetorical feminism instead as “a theoretical stance—that is responsive to the ideology that is feminism and to the key strategy that is feminist rhetoric” and is “[a]nchored in hope,” a critical touchstone for the book—and for those of us living through crisis (4). She differentiates rhetorical feminism from feminist rhetoric, which she instead defines as “a set of long established practices that advocates a political position of rights and responsibilities that certainly includes the equality of women and Others” (3). While these two terms may initially seem interchangeable, they are symbiotic; rhetorical feminism is the principle that guides the use of feminist rhetoric that creates material change. Glenn reminds readers that rhetoric ought to “do something,” and she shows how feminist rhetoric can carry out rhetorical feminism’s vision of the hope for a more equitable future that recognizes the value of all voices, especially the ones that have been most marginalized in the past (4, emphasis in orig.). This reminder is what makes the text stand out amongst other works in the field. Glenn’s articulation of rhetorical feminism offers us a cogent way of making the discipline of rhetoric more inclusive and is a crucial read for anyone wondering what rhetoric should do in our everyday practices. In the spirit of rhetorical feminism, this book is not argumentative. Instead, Glenn asks us to listen as she presents her decades of experience and shows readers how rhetorical feminism should exist in all facets of academia. As such, Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope is an essential read for anyone new to the field and an important reminder to veteran scholars. Glenn’s book reviews the work we have done as feminist rhetorical scholars and points out the work we must continue to do to enact our commitments to inclusivity and justice.

Chapter one, “Activism,” reveals how rhetorical feminism has guided activists historically. Glenn begins her analysis with the U.S. suffrage movement and ends with Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Highlighting exemplars, or “Sister Rhetors,” who used feminist rhetoric in service of their activism, Glenn calls attention to rhetorical feminism’s long-standing advocacy in pursuit of the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia, “the greatest good for all human beings” (5). She analyzes the speeches of Black and white suffragists, such as Maria W. Stewart, Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth, to show how they disidentified with hegemonic prescriptions of womanhood to argue for their enfranchisement. While this chapter touches on the racial schisms in the suffrage movement, further exploration of the political fissures that historically dissolved the alliance between African American suffragists and white women may be useful for clarifying current challenges around how rhetorical feminists can make differences a point of understanding, not contention. Nevertheless, by looking to the present moment at the end of this chapter, Glenn reminds us that it is imperative to build on activist legacies to secure real democratic equality in the U.S. With the November election looming and with the ongoing uprisings in pursuit of racial justice, this reminder of how rhetoric can serve activist goals feels especially urgent.

The second chapter, “Identities,” focuses on rhetorical feminism’s grounding in experience and, consequently, the obstacles to and possibilities for coalition-building across difference. The underlying question of “Identities” is not just who speaks but who they speak for and who is listened to. Glenn highlights the role of agency and audience as they relate to identity in different rhetorical strategies for coalition-building, She demonstrates the important challenges in actualizing these theories with historical examples of how feminists disidentify with each other, most notably Audre Lorde’s public critique of Mary Daly. Glenn points out that white feminists must prioritize “the rhetorical feminist precepts of silence and listening to Others” and acknowledge the limits of their experience without erasing different identities (42). Only with this mutual communication can rhetorical feminists form coalition around what they have in common while accepting the gravity of their experiential differences and “come together in their advocacy of human rights and social justice” (46). This is an especially timely reminder to white feminist rhetoricians, myself included, who must prioritize being effective allies to our BIPOC peers. Glenn’s acknowledgment of the epistemic potential of identity grounds the rest of the book’s exploration of rhetorical feminism as she repeatedly returns to the role that identity plays in determining the efficacy of one’s rhetorical actions. This insight urges rhetorical scholars to remain attentive to how the experience that underlies all rhetorical action is always informed by an embodied sense of identity. This principle can act as guiding force for our field, both professionally and in our activism.

Chapters three and four, “Theories” and “Methods and Methodologies,” focus on the disciplinary development of rhetorical feminism. “Theories” begins with the suggestion that “mainstream rhetorical theories remain mostly untouched by feminism,” leading Glenn to point out the main “conceptual actions” of rhetorical feminism in a loose taxonomy (50; 51). These conceptual actions include disidentification with hegemony, transformation of traditionally masculinist rhetorical tactics like argument and objectivity, reimagined uses of rhetorical appeals, and new methods of delivery. Glenn captures the breadth of these feminist rhetorical theories by drawing from a wide range of feminist scholars (Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Krista Ratcliffe to name just a few), highlighting the enormity of the work already done in this area. These theories each emphasize speaking from experience, emotion, silence, listening, and dialogue as core components of feminist rhetorical styles. This chapter’s identification of these theoretical movements can help us create a more expansive understanding of what rhetoric is and what it can do. “Methods and Methodologies” explores how rhetorical feminists carry these theories out in their work. This chapter focuses mostly on historical inquiry, drawing on Glenn’s background in feminist rhetorical history. She highlights Jacqueline Jones Royster’s and Gesa Kirsch’s ideas of critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization as the key practices that guide historical recovery while also pointing to the need for feminist historiography that questions accepted histories and reimagines the rhetorical tradition. Glenn also emphasizes the ethical imperative to listen to others involved in qualitative research, namely ethnography and interviews. Taken together, these chapters instruct researchers on how feminist precepts already are, and should continue to be, present in all facets of rhetorical scholarship.

In the second half of the book, Glenn switches from her examination of rhetorical feminism’s foundations to explore its guiding presence in other academic actions. In her meditations on rhetorical feminism’s place in our teaching, mentoring, and administrative work, Glenn reveals how we can use our rhetorical orientations to change the institutions we are a part of, a critical lesson for our current moment. Chapter five, “Teaching,” begins with a bleak, but honest, review of the state of education in the U.S. Perhaps because of this grim account of dwindling funding, program cuts, and the erasure of tenure, Glenn insists, “teaching is hope embodied. It is a forward-looking endeavor, one that has the power to change lives—our own, our students’” (125). Glenn suggests that rhetorical feminist teachers should acknowledge their own positionality, respect students’ experiences, and help students investigate patriarchy and other compounding injustices in the world. Equipped with this background, students are prepared “to develop rhetorical agency” and change the status quo, prompting us to see how our work matters and how our political commitments can guide our professional actions (148). Similarly, Glenn’s sixth chapter, “Mentoring,” calls attention to this essential component of academia and asks readers to practice alternatives to traditional, master-apprentice models of mentoring. She highlights how rhetorical feminist mentoring is non-hierarchical, mutual, and networked. It relies on real, supportive relationships built on honesty and shared trust. Glenn also points out that such mentoring is the way rhetorical feminists give each other hope and make space for each other in what has traditionally been a privileged and exclusionary white, male space. Chapter seven, “(Writing Program) Administration,” offers Glenn’s own experience securing new hiring lines and guiding curricular changes while directing the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Pennsylvania State University as an example for how rhetorical feminism can make real, material changes in higher education. She balances the “feminization” of composition that leads female scholars to languish in an overworked, undervalued position and the “demands of a masculinist academy” with the possibility that WPAs can leverage their rhetorical savvy and expertise for more resources and inclusive education (176; 179). The basis of this work is collaboration, communication using silence and listening, and “mutual understanding” (186).

The final chapter, “This Thing Called Hope,” resists arriving at a neat conclusion, which is one of its greatest strengths. Glenn spends much of this conclusion ruminating on the consequences of the Trump presidency. She asks readers to wonder with her about what hope might look like in this political moment. She points to disciplinary successes of rhetorical feminism but suggests that this work is not done. There are more possibilities for inclusive scholarship, intersectional coalitions, and better teaching and mentorship. That potential, she implies, is “this thing called hope” that we must all work towards together (212). While this book is a valuable read for anyone already invested in the overlap between feminism and rhetorical studies—indeed, for any feminist pursuing rhetorical studies and hoping to work in academia, as “Mentoring” aptly shows—it is also the summation of decades of work in rhetorical feminism, making it a worthwhile read for the field at large that may be less aware of these histories and ongoing work. Additionally, any student who is new to rhetorical studies can benefit from this thorough synthesis of the pitfalls and successes of our rhetorical feminist forerunners. When the constant motions of research, teaching, and service wears us down, Glenn’s book reminds us why we do this work. As such, it is an incredible resource for those of us who seek to use our rhetorical repertoires to make changes in the world, whether this is in the classroom, in our day-to-day interactions, or in our marches. 

In the two years since the publication of Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope, the future has become increasingly uncertain. Now, more than ever, hope is necessary. Glenn’s book urges us all to practice our rhetorical feminism: to listen, for example, when we hear people urge that Black Lives Matter, to be allies and amplify those voices, and to use all of the means available to us to make change in our world. Why study rhetoric? What can rhetoric do? It can help us enact ethical change if we use it well. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope encourages to shed our naivety about the past and the present and to build on the work of other rhetorical feminists to create a more just future. It dares us to hope.

Review of Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education

VanHaitsma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019. 162 pages.

We read Pamela VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education as two feminists, a student and a teacher, both queer women embarking on queer archival research projects. We studied VanHaitsma’s book in order to develop our own methods for queer archival research. VanHaitsma addresses many of the questions that we grapple with in our own work: How can we engage in archival research of queer lives when queerness has been systematically silenced? How can we interpret queerness in the past without projecting our contemporary standards? What interpretive practices can researchers adopt to attune to queer rhetorics in the archives? To answer these inquiries, VanHaitsma draws upon previous feminist and queer methodologies and, through her own research, demonstrates how to apply them.

VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education demonstrates that queer romantic letter writing builds upon heteronormative standards in ways that resist binaries between public and private, erotic and civic, to queer traditional genre expectations. VanHaitsma invites readers to consider queer romantic letters as rich sites of rhetorical education and civic participation. Further, she offers readers a methodology for queer archival research: “Methodologically queering binary distinctions between public and private life, my archival research turns historiographic attention to romantic engagement while exploring its civic implications within instruction and practice” (21). Her work of “methodologically queering binary distinctions” has a long precedent in both queer rhetorics and feminist research methods, upon which VanHaitsma builds her methodology.

Queering Romantic Engagement expands upon previous work in queer rhetorics and contributes to an emerging conversation on queer archival methodologies. Serving as an important grounding for queer rhetorics, Jean Bessette’s queer rhetoric in situ pairs queer theory and rhetorical analysis to effectively analyze queer rhetorical practices across historical contexts. In her article, Bessette defines queer rhetorics in historical and cultural contexts that identify both the dominant norms and what it means to queer those norms. Bessette’s approach to queer rhetoric has been important for queer scholars who need to define queer within historical contexts. Further, Bessette’s book, Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives, is important for understanding the constructed, curated nature of archives and for theorizing lesbian identity through archival materials.

One of the most important contributions to queer archival research can be found in KJ Rawson’s archival theories and archival work on the Digital Transgender Archive. Rawson identifies the rhetorical and political significance of archival infrastructure, metadata, and access. This is important because Rawson identifies how heteronormative logic erases queer experiences and at the same time reimagines and rebuilds archives to make queer lives and experiences accessible to scholars. Of course, VanHaitsma’s own previous work has already outlined a queer methodology that includes gossip, genre analysis, and storytelling. From this work, she demonstrates her deep commitment to methodologies that resist stable definition and encourage imaginative interpretation. Released in the same year as Queering Romantic Engagement, Ames Hawking’s These Are Love(d) Letters similarly offers a queer archival methodology that breaks distinctions between personal and public, past and present, text and author. In addition, Hawkings performs the queer genre-bending that VanHaitsma identifies a feature of queer rhetorics.

In this review, we first offer these key terms that are central to VanHaitsma’s queer archival methodology:

  • Queer Failure: By failing at heteronormative instructions and genres, writers make visible how literacy practices discipline hetero norms and how writers can recreate and invent new queer rhetorics. (pg. 45-48)
  • Queer Practices: Actions, relations, and practices themselves are defined as queer, which allows an archival researcher to identify queer rhetorics without imposing an identity category that a person did not chose for themselves. (pg. 10-14)
  • Queer in Context: Each genre, situation, and archive is placed in historical context, first outlining the hetero standard in order to feature queer failures and queer inventions.
  • Queer Intersectionality: Queer rhetorics are defined in relation to intersections of oppression that include race, class, and gender. (pg. 61-63)

Introduction

How does [instruction in language arts] enable nonnormative, or queer, rhetorical practices and romantic relations? (9)

As detailed among the key terms listed above, VanHaitsma’s preface and introduction emphasize the book’s interest in queer practices rather than identities. By studying more than forty 19th-century letter writing manuals, VanHaitsma considers how such sites of romantic epistolary education established the norms from which some writers queerly departed. As she notes, the queer writers she studies employed “rhetorical practices that were unconventional in their transgressions of generic boundaries while pursuing nonnormative romantic relations” (13). Additionally, she identifies queer writers as learners whose “romantic communication [is] a form of rhetoric, one with intimate as well as social dimensions” (15). VanHaitsma describes her own methodological practices as queer, noting her work’s insistence that the personal and romantic cannot be considered totally separate from the field of rhetoric’s emphasis on civic engagement as the primary purpose of rhetorical education. By turning to romantic engagement as a locus of rhetorical education, she “[queers] binary distinctions between public and private life” (21).

VanHaitsma stresses that queer archival methods must always work against both archival and historical erasure—take, for example, the tendency for historians to assume that erotic and romantic letter writing among same-sex couples was primarily a form of affectionate friendship. VanHaitsma names this erasure and dedicates her archival research to recovering the erotic and romantic.

Chapter 1: Norming and Failing

How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures? (47)

VanHaitsma’s first methodological move is to identify a normative frame against which she later contrasts the queer rhetorical practices of her historical subjects. Chapter One, “‘The Language of the heart’: Genre Instruction in Heteronormative Relations,” defines the norms of heteronormative romantic epistolary engagement. By analyzing manuals that taught 19th-century readers how to write letters for social and romantic purposes, VanHaitsma determines that these norms include heartfelt yet crafted expression, gendered address, restraint, and an explicit purpose of letter-writing towards marriage. The chapter follows Jean Bessette in placing queer rhetoric in situ, crucially emphasizing context and convention. By defining heteronormative conventions, VanHaitsma is able to then identify queer rhetorics specifically within this context and thereby avoid any overreach that may frame queerness as a stable or objective term.

VanHaitsma then identifies moments of queer rhetorical practice even within the letter-writing handbooks. She asks, “How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures within complete letter writers and across nineteenth-century manual culture?” (47) and “when desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). These questions guide her queer archival methodology in this chapter. In order to identify queer rhetorics within otherwise heteronormative letter-writing handbooks, VanHaitsma models methods of queer archival research by pairing critical imagination (Royster) and queer failure (Halbastram; Wait). She takes note of “hints,” suggestions, slippages, ellipses, and openings within the archives that could have been adopted for queer romantic engagement. VanHaitsma asks readers to “imagine this learner as a woman in a same-sex, cross-class relationship,” to think outside the literal text and towards what could have been (40). Later, she reads between the lines of model “skeleton” letters and speculates how writers could have reinvented this writing instruction towards queer ends.

Chapter 2: Rhetorical and Romantic

[H]ow we might complicate interpretations of romantic letters through greater attention to the ways they are evidence of rhetorical instruction and practice as much as they are of romantic feelings and relations[?] (72)

Turning towards archival examples that defy and queer the hetero norms espoused by letter-writing manuals, VanHaitsma’s second chapter focuses on the romantic epistolary exchange between “two freeborn African American women, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus” (49). The romantic undercurrent of Brown and Primus’ correspondence was not their only departure from the norms established by the manuals. The women engaged in queer practices, addressing one another with terms that denoted friendship, familial relations, and romantic affection. They also broke from the “straight time” practice of caution and moderation advocated by letter writing handbooks. Instead, their correspondence was urgent and intense and not oriented toward marriage. Perhaps most importantly, the women’s romantic epistolary rhetoric strayed, topically, from that which was acceptable in heteronormative romantic letters of the time—Brown’s letters to Primus were at times erotic, even describing flirtations with and attractions to other women, as well as political, with “information and commentary about racial politics” existing within and alongside expressions of “more conventional romantic longing” (61-62).

Central to VanHaitsma’s approach is her deliberate attention to “‘everyday’ people” (49), and, specifically, Black women, whose rhetorical contributions have historically been under-researched and erased. VanHaitsma quotes scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin in order to emphasize that Brown and Primus’ correspondence addressed both the personal and the civic and, crucially, was concerned with racial uplift: “Brown and Primus were ‘women who loved each other romantically’ but ‘who were no less committed (in fact, were more committed than most) to the struggle for black freedom and progress’ (7)” (51). Moreover, she keeps the fact that Brown and Primus’ relationship was one that crossed class lines at the forefront, and she pays particular attention to Brown’s exclusion from formal education, highlighting the ways in which Brown was self-educated.

Chapter 3: Queering Genres

How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres? (98)

In the following chapter, VanHaitsma turns her attention to a college-educated white male writer, who would have been a normative audience of the letter-writing manuals, but who nevertheless also engaged in nonnormative, queer rhetorical practices. Chapter Three studies the commonplace book-turned-diary of Albert Dodd, a document VanHaitsma considers “both multigene and epistolary: as taking the form of multiple genres other than the letter, yet functioning according to an epistolary logic of address to and exchange with readers” (75). This use of the diary was genre-queer, she argues, not only because of its switch from an academic genre into a personal genre, but because it functioned as “a site of rhetorical invention” (90) where Dodd developed and practiced romantic epistolary address to both men and women. The diary also demonstrates that Dodd drew upon his classical rhetorical education to inform his civic and romantic writing. In the diary, he introduces homoerotic ideas and writing from the classical era, concepts that Dodd used to understand and explore his own sexuality through self-rhetorical writing practices.

VanHaitsma’s methodological attention to genre allows her to counter popular interpretations that deny any possibility of homosexual desire within Dodd’s only other extant writings, three familial letters from later in his life. VanHaitsma argues that previous scholars fail to take into account the clear differences in genre between the personal diary and the familial letter and their corresponding audiences. While she does not assign a sexual identity to Dodd, her interpretation of the genre differences opens possibilities of queer romantic and erotic practices in his post-college years—which is to say, the fact that Dodd does not mention any romantic attachments in his letters to family may indicate more about the letters’ audience than it does the realities of his romantic or sexual life. Accordingly, VanHaitsma calls for increased attention to genre on the part of scholars working with epistolary rhetoric, asking, “How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres?” (98).

Concluding Towards Failure

 When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail “exceptionally well” by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them? (102)

VanHaitsma concludes with the chapter that most explicitly addresses her methodological commitments to queer archival research. Again, she posits questions that can guide future researchers, including, “When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). With this question, VanHaitsma connects imagination and failure through the act of invention. She describes Brown, Primus, and Dodd as “learners who failed by the heteronormative standards within their given historical contexts and, in so doing, revealed the failures of heteronormative rhetorical education” (100). By extension, she suggests, queer failure also makes visible the failures of heteronormative archives and histories and creates space for novelty, surprise, and creativity. In this way, queer failure is also queer invention.

She ends by centering queer failure within queer methodologies. The goal is never to master queer theory, to apply it perfectly and perform it the same each time. Rather, she invites us to fail well and fail in interesting ways. And with each beautiful failure, she encourages us to be inventively queer.

To that end, this book could most immediately be included in graduate courses on queer theory and queer rhetorics. More broadly, any course that teaches or integrates archival research methods would benefit by including Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age in its curriculum. We believe that all scholars of rhetoric can benefit from VanHaitsma’s queer archival methods. She invites scholars to think capaciously and creatively about archival research and the interpretation of affect within archival materials. Importantly, her approach to queering archival methods can open up new lines of questioning, highlight new relationships, and enliven the research of any scholar whose research subject has been systematically erased from archival history.

Moving Forward | Queer Movement: The Next Steps

Our dear readers, we invite you to take up Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age as a model of queer archival research. Flirt with the texts. Look for the intimate and public touching and the erotic and political aligning. Remember that genres are ours for the taking, breaking, and remaking. We hope you fail queerly and with joy.  

Best, 

Amelia and Trish

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. “Queer rhetoric in situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives: Composing Pasts and Futures. SIU Press, 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hawkins, Ames. These are Love(d) Letters. Wayne State UP, 2019.
  • Morris, Charles E., and K. J. Rawson. “Queer archives/archival queers.” Theorizing histories of rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. pp. 74-89.
  • Rawson, K. J. “Rhetorical History 2.0: Toward a Digital Transgender Archive.” Enculturation, vol. 16., no. 9, 2013.
  • Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic letters, genre instruction, and rhetorical practice.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Gossip as rhetorical methodology for queer and feminist historiography.” Rhetoric Review, vol.  35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 135-147.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Stories of Straightening Up: Reading Femmes in the Archives of Romantic Friendship.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Digital LGBTQ Archives as Sites of Public Memory and Pedagogy.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 2, 2019 pp. 253-280.

Review of Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor

Gold, David and Jessica Enoch. Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor. U of Pittsburgh P, 2019. 293 pages.

In a 2015 issue of Peitho, Sarah Hallenbeck and Michelle Smith challenged feminist rhetoricians to take on studies that see the gendering of work—workplaces, tasks, arrangements—as productive areas of inquiry. Jessica Enoch and David Gold’s 2019 edited collection Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor looks at work as “a historically situated, rhetorically constructed, materially contingent concept” (Hallenbeck and Smith 201). Across fifteen chapters, a diverse cast of women living in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America create and react to challenges and opportunities within their working lives. Contributors describe the rhetorical strategies women used, faced or engaged, and build on previous chapters in a way that develops urgency across contexts. Unlike some edited collections, this work is perhaps most effective when read in order, as each setting and theory enriches the last, putting these women’s lives in conversation with one another across time, space, and intent.

Every chapter illustrates the powerful arena of “work” as a place for examining the rhetorical lives of women. Work-related rhetorics—from reframing business failure to challenging the leadership of educators—are the methodological self-corrective analyses feminist scholars seek (3-5). Female bodies engaged in labor introduce more spaces for women’s rights and rhetoric to be examined both historically and contemporarily. How were women challenging (or not) traditional gender roles or expectations? How are domestic spaces defined, and how are women complicating the relationship between “domestic space” and labor? What are entrepreneurs, labor activists, domestic laborers, inventors, seamstresses, factory workers, educators, and athletes doing rhetorically to challenge and complicate the “work” spaces they inhabit, despite expectations for female beauty and good-naturedness in spaces previously privileged to men? Stepping beyond political citizenship as the primary lens for female rhetorical voice, the contributors to this collection prove the fruitfulness of these questions. As the stories included illustrate, political and civic work hardly defines the whole of women’s participation in public spaces. Women at Work operates in tandem with Jessica Enoch’s other 2019 single-authored Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work in shared examination of the complex and changing relationship of women to domestic spaces in the last two centuries. While Work focuses on spaces beyond the domestic, we will see that they are unavoidably interconnected—especially for women of color. Both books are an impetus for more scholarship; we can see the myriad questions not yet asked of women’s presence in work. Women At Work contains valuable conversations for both seasoned feminist rhetors and those newer to the field or beginning their own research foci. Its editors and contributors challenge us to further the important scholarship they have advanced.

Complicating the Woman at Work

As my review of the collection’s chapters will show, a victory of Women at Work is that it further complicates the work and character of each woman featured in its pages, presenting the messy, imperfect, and sometimes far from progressive figure we imagine. Michelle Smith’s chapter examines the rhetoric of the Office of War Information’s actual recruitment posters, which did not include the “We Can Do It!” poster that made “Rosie the Riveter” famous (and which is properly contextualized in scholarship by Kimble and Olson). Smith examines nine posters produced between 1942 and 1945 promoting women in “war work” as temporary, heteronormative, and composed of predominantly white, middle-class women “whose conventional femininity remained intact” (187). Smith engages visual rhetoric to study the nine posters and recruitment messaging, contextualizing WWII labor beyond the skewed feminist empowerment interpretation frequently referenced in public memory. Her conclusions are a useful starting point for more work in visual rhetoric related to wartime work and depictions of women in recruitment advertising over time.

Risa Applegarth’s chapter “Bodies of Praise,” uses epideictic theory to examine how women’s embodiment in professional spaces may affirm or confront the values held by the community—both the professional community and larger society. By studying Independent Woman, a periodical published by the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Club, Applegarth uncovers how women in the 1920s and ‘30s workforce approached beauty and appearance in the workplace. Written and read by women, the publication was a source for navigating the way their bodies ought to be presented in work settings, with specific directive to limit the “disruptive” potential of female bodies in traditionally male spaces (135). Her scholarship reinforces a key theme of this collection—subtle but conscious disruption, of work environments and who may gain entry.

In a similar exploration of work environments and who may gain entry, Lisa J. Shaver’s scholarship on athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharia’s public image and branding provides further evidence of female entry without disruption of the normative, gendered professional environment. Using sports as the professional space, Shaver’s example makes clear that when women enter a space they have not previously been permitted, it is not on equal footing. “Women must not only give evidence that they are supremely qualified, they must also affirm that they are still appropriately feminine” (181). It is not enough to be “qualified,” women must be better, far above the expectations set for male peers. In the gender-biased athletic world Zaharia inhabited, her appearance and persona had to be strategically presented so as not to appear too threatening to femininity norms.

Rhetorics of Success and Failure

Nineteenth century metallurgist and inventor Carrie Everson faced similar discrimination and biases, as Sarah Hallenbeck illustrates. Hallenbeck’s chapter is a reticent examination of the rhetoric of failure, and how we might complicate the concept by challenging the “exceptional woman” narrative (71). Everson faced several barriers that rendered her mining invention and business a “failure,” but uncovering the factors influencing that “failure” challenges the usefulness of such a label at all. It is valuable to engage what it means to succeed and fail, now and historically for women in work, and to expose the complexities therein. In Everson’s case, many contributing factors were larger than her individual efforts, and these are often not considered in a businessperson’s larger narrative. Studying women in athletics, metallurgy, and invention advances and complicates our understanding of where and how women engage in work-place rhetoric.

The chapters are arranged chronologically and echo the recurring themes across the time covered—roughly 1830 to 1950. The collection’s first and last chapters bookend in theme despite occurring furthest from one another in time: both examine rhetorical strategies used by women workers in mill and factory labor reform. Amy J. Wan’s chapter takes a critical look at the well-studied mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, specifically the unstudied rhetorical strategies used by the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Rather than further the popular depictions of the good mill girl, women workers co-opted language used publicly to praise them, and characteristics like piety and republican womanhood, to argue for labor reform (22-8). Wan argues that labor rhetoric utilized by LFLRA functioned with conscious and careful acknowledgement of expectations for white women workers and engaged with public fear of the effect industrialization might have on femininity. To bridge the contradictions facing women in an industrializing United States, they took advantage of the rhetoric of “women as the moral conscience of society” to demonstrate that factory owners were obligated to reform on behalf of their employees (29).

Carly S. Woods and Kristen Lucas’s chapter on labor activism in a 1949 strike at the H.W. Gossard factory, more than a century later, echoes those strategies. Gossard Girls, as they called themselves, fought for the labor reform men had earned in the region several years before. Their efforts, often critiqued in local newspapers, engaged playful representations of gender that maintained their image as “good girls,” nonthreatening to normative expectations (235). They did this by picketing in gender-challenging outfits, using effigies and signs intended as visual rhetorical representations that gave them permission for subtle subversive activism. These chapters couch the themes of this collection and show us that across history women have had to be cunning regarding how they represent their bodies and justify their presence in work environments.

Female worker as labor reformer is an unsurprising theme, advanced in Marybeth Poder’s chapter on the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). The WTUL created space for women to voice concerns over the struggles they faced at work regarding gender and class, a space where they could support one another before turning to men. Examining “mundane” texts like meeting minutes, annual bulletins, and officer’s reports, Poder shows the discursive strategies used to give working women a platform for their voice and leadership in labor reform (103). Similar to the Gossard Girls’ efforts, labor reform for women was not considered of equal importance to men’s. Poder’s work advances the rhetorical study of organizational archival materials we might have overlooked as inconsequential.

Recognizing Black Labor

Coretta M. Pittman’s chapter explores resistance rhetoric of a different fashion, that of musician and writer Alberta Hunter. Hunter’s columns for three Black-owned newspapers continued in the long presence of Black women writing about the role of work in their lives, and the intersection of race, work, and fair pay. Hunter relied on her status in the music industry to voice discriminations, engage racial politics, and advocate on behalf of Black workers (145). Using resistance rhetoric in her writing, she called out hypocrisy and racist violations by white venue owners discriminating against their Black employees while profiting on Black entertainment labor (147). Hunter’s work is reminiscent of modern social justice conversations working for recognition of Black labor and deepens how we engage labor activism in history.

Domestic spaces and frameworks form another key theme across this collection, working strongest in the chapters interrogating the lives of Black female laborers. Patty Wilde recognizes the affective, emotional labor Elizabeth Keckley carried out for years as an enslaved woman and later for Mary Todd Lincoln, both in the White House and after (32). Wilde does a critical reading of Keckley’s memoir with an eye on the unrecognized emotional labor documented therein, to highlight the lack of reciprocity or acknowledgement of domestic work as such.

Jennifer Keohane’s chapter on labor activist Claudia Jones and her published writing continues this important work in domestic rhetorics (209-23). Claudia Jones published to her audience, the U.S. Communist Party of the 1950s, to argue that though white women had argued for the critique of capitalism to include gender, the white perspective completely ignored the experience of black women and their invisible labor in white homes. Jones is a rhetorical powerhouse, navigating a complex political environment using militant tone and downplaying her positionality to great effect. Consciously using Cold War language, Jones shows how domestic spaces are different things to white women than they are to black women in the United States. Jones also calls up the affective labor black women perform off the clock, facing Jim Crow discrimination and state-sanctioned racial violence that made their homes far from domestic “haven.” Jones demonstrates through strong, intentional language that at least if oppressive to women, the white family home was understood as a sanctuary; the same could not be said of the black home (218). Scholars of feminist rhetoric should recognize Jones as a “proto-intersectional” theorist, for her framing of the “triple oppression” (race, class, gender) that combined to reinforce disestablishment of the black female domestic laborer. Keohane’s effective chapter on Jones’s rhetorical labor is a model for future work on other proto-intersectional women, especially those in minority and marginalized groups. Combined, the scholarship in this book on Keckley, Hunter, and Jones is foundational for our continued work in the archives, critically historicizing and recognizing women of color in spaces of work, and the frequently unrecognized labor in and beyond those spaces.

Work Place and Women in it

When entering work dominated by men, women engaged deliberately with the “domestic” as female domain for their rhetorical strategies to succeed. Jane Greer interrogates the management of Donnelly Garment Company, specifically owner Nell Donnelly Reed’s use of domestic discourses to construct and condone her presence in the garment industry, and for the homelike spaces she curated for employees. She used generous compensation packages, homey and clean factory spaces, and family-like messaging to ensure her employees remained loyal and delay efforts to unionize. Casting her relationship with her employees in this way “reinforced her own femininity as a caretaker and avoided association with the stereotypically masculine factory owners concerned only with the bottom line” (164). When outside efforts to unionize became overpowering, her rhetorical domesticity reached its limit, and in fact this is where Greer’s scholarship carves new spaces for inquiry. Reed is a complicated entrepreneur who used domestic rhetoric to her advantage only until it no longer worked. It is useful for feminist scholars to question the powers and limitations of domestic rhetorics. As Greer and other contributors show, it is not useful to approach historical analysis using momentary snapshots of women in only narrow or ideal light, in work or any other context.

Nancy Myer’s examination of rhetorical invention in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience introduces what Myers calls the “New True Woman,” someone seeking not only domestic satisfaction but financial and vocational self-fulfillment at the end of the nineteenth century (53). An analysis of this Alcott text looks at which virtues were downplayed, and which were redirected, to refashion the ideal of a woman in modern work. Myers argues this text illustrated to a large readership female agency while meeting the implicit social criteria of her era.

Pamela VanHaitsma, in a chapter that also examines female expression and gender roles within work, engages scholarship she started in Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education (2019), examines the professional relationship of educators Irene Kirke Leache and Anna Cogswell Wood. VanHaistsma considers how the erotic may function rhetorically and pedagogically towards power and information in Leache and Wood’s relationship as educators. Defining erotic as a “passionate emotional and intellectual sharing,” VanHaistma argues that Leache and Wood were aware of eroticized same-sex love within Western cultural history and used this knowledge for as model for their “opulent friendship” as they coined it, and their belletristic pedagogical work (57). Her examination advances important questions in the history of relationships that presented threats to heteronormativity, and the caution we must use in applying contemporary modes of expression to previous eras. Both Myer’s and VanHaitsma’s theories reiterate an embodiment of female expression and gender roles, alongside a conscious and subtle disruption of work and how society viewed women doing it.

Validating Vocations for Women

Finally, the collected scholarship in this book resituates work, and what it means to be a women at work. Kristie S. Fleckenstein and Heather Brook Adams and Jason Barrett-Fox, respectively, make significant contributions to the collection by defining photography and sex work as valid vocations for women. Fleckenstein’s chapter focuses on Frances Benjamin Johnston, whose rhetorical work demonstrated photography was a profession, more than mere hobby, and that women could go far beyond rote work in the field (85). Women could be professional artists. These remain significant questions: work versus art, when and where art is considered a vocation, and how women justify their place in those realms.

Progressive for her time (perhaps even for 2020), Kate Waller Barrett worked in the 1920s for the recognition of sex work and sex workers as part of the economy men built. This chapter is a refreshing revelation complicating who is included and how they are perceived in their space of work. Barrett advocated on behalf of prostitutes and faced a “formidable rhetorical challenge: to genuinely advocate on behalf of women working as prostitutes in an effort to raise a wider set of concerns about the gendered implications of growing urban centers” (118). Across nineteen articles published in the Washington Times, Barrett pushed past sensationalism, misconceptions, and an archetype of the fallen woman to humanize the contemporary female worker. What lawmakers writing the Kenyon Act failed to see, she argued, was that prostitution was a vocation and the women employed therein are products of economy and the changing structure of society based on urban living. Barrett sought to place vice as part of economy and network, rather than in moral or individual failings by women employed as prostitutes (124). One cannot help but consider this rhetorical work as it relates to this same economic and moral debate one hundred year after her public writings. There is important work begun here that can be extended, in both historical and contemporary study, on the vulnerability of women as wage earners and the moral versus economic factors influencing decisions about work.

Opportunities for Further Scholarship

How does work create rhetorical challenges and opportunities for women? This question is as important today as it is historically. Women at Work asks, answers, and advances that question. The critical usefulness of this collection lies in the theories the contributors adopt, that other scholars can rely on to ask and respond to their own questions related to the interactions among gender, rhetoric, and work. Each contributor employs helpful terms and methodologies, especially for those who have engaged with rhetoric or feminist theory but perhaps have not yet combined the two. The methodologies in this collection reveal the “contingency and artificiality” covering up some significant historical and rhetorical realities about how work “ought to be structured, valued, and compensated” and by whom it was performed (Hallenbeck and Smith 204). Women at Work will be useful to any scholar interested in the rhetoric of workspaces, feminist rhetorics, or any of the specific companies, fields, or time periods included.

As Enoch and Gold acknowledge, many voices are missing from this conversation. The editors recognize the absence of “experiences of Latina, Chicana, Asian, LGBTQ, rural, and religious workers; the lives of working mothers, workers with disabilities and other understudied workers” (15). This lacuna is posed as a call for more work of this nature, a call to which Peitho readers will respond. As noted, the rhetorical tools presented give us numerous productive starting points as we return to the historical records in our own research areas. The work reviewed here advances the call put forth to not only “uncove[r] the particularities in each case but also to identif[y] common threads and strategies in the ongoing rhetorical co-construction of gender and work (Hallenbeck and Smith 202). These questions and theories are equally significant for scholars of historical and contemporary rhetorics.

I read this book because of an interest in how we define work both in scholarship and in our everyday lives. As a former career and internship advisor to college students and someone who began her professional career during The Great Recession, this question has remained through much of the work that I do with students and in my developing scholarship in feminist rhetorics. This text demonstrated to me the ways in which I can engage with the women who came before me and the ways they engaged with work and how they articulated it in their own lives. The women featured in the chapters of this book rhetorically place their bodies and voices in their respective workspaces—whether through activism, labor rights, acknowledging Black women, or reimagining what success and failure look like in work. Coming from a disciplinary background in history, reading Women At Work validated my asking the kind of questions I hope to ask and answer in my own academic work. And as I have noted across this review, the contributors and editors have given scholars like me a toolset from which to productively ask and answer questions about work using feminist rhetorics.

Works Cited

  • Enoch, Jessica. Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Hallenbeck, Sarah and Michelle Smith. “Mapping Topoi in the Rhetorical Gendering of Work.” Peitho, vol. 17, no. 2, 2015.  
  • Olson, Lester C. and James J. Kimble. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006.
  • VanHaistma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019.

Review of Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture

Edgar, Nell Amanda. Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture. Ohio State UP, 2019. 220 pages.

Amanda Nell Edgar’s Culturally Speaking: The Rhetoric of Voice and Identity in Mediated Culture responds to the inquiry of how gender and race merits an audience as well as the media’s role in resisting and oppressing marginalized voices. The book delves deeper into how mediated and cinematic vocal performances reinforce cultural assumptions, representations, and perceptions about diverse voices, bodies, and gendered identities (2-3). By focusing on voices that are heard (culturally privileged ) and ignored (culturally marginalized), Edgar demonstrates through numerous case studies and rhetorical analyses of prominent voices in mainstream American society (Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Morgan Freeman, Adele, etc.) that “racial and gendered disciplinary mechanisms shape voice and vocal identity…and represent the complex interaction of bodies, the social forces that mold those bodies, and the media formats that circulate them” (4). The book, written in four chapters with extensive introductions and conclusions, accomplishes Edgar’s objective to draw from cultural theories of music, discourse, race, gender, vocal sound, and other areas to “poise rhetoric and media scholarship in a better position to communicate the value of sonic literacy to students and those outside academic spaces” (157). Overall, Edgar’s project contributes to the question that has been pursued by scholars of rhetoric and feminism, who has the power to speak and who has the power to create a listening audience? For Cheryl Glenn “identity and power determine who may speak, who merits an audience” (25), and what the results of the speech will be. Yet, Glenn argues the politics of vocal identity and circulation can be problematic in enabling the oppression, marginalization, and misrepresentation of “Others.” Simultaneously, Jacqueline Jones Royster’s famous essay “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” addresses the problematic ways in which dominant culture and identity perpetuate the displacement and rejection of the voices of the “Othered” (35). Like these scholars, Edgar’s book also offers a valuable investigation into how race, gender, status, religious affiliations, and space complicates the composition of voice as a normalized human entity. However, Edgar’s work focuses more on reconstructing voice as a political and cultural inscribed artifact used by the culturally privileged to (un)consciously reinforce racialized and gendered oppression.

Edgar’s introduction grounds her inquiry by building on a new theoretical framework and methodology that she terms, “critical cultural vocalics,” an interdisciplinary approach to studying vocal production in media studies and resisting “the idea that voices are biologically sexed or naturally racialized and that instead embraces vocal sound as a socially shaped material text” (4). This frame challenges readers to investigate voice intimacy (the familiarity of a speaker’s voice to an audience) and voice identity (what vocal sounds reveal about a speaker) as inseparable ideological mechanisms that reinforce how minority voices are misrepresented, disciplined, and even restricted by the media  (4). Also, the exploration of vocal identity and vocal intimacy in the introduction depicts how voice becomes culturally privileged—“voices that are widely familiar in mainstream media circulation” (5) and “allows audiences to maintain unchecked assumptions about race, gender…which consequently shapes and reshapes systems of discipline and oppression” (5). In sum, the detailed anchor of her methodology sets up the rest of the book by helping readers understand the “interaction of identity and mediated voices” (20) while examining voice as a hegemonic tool profitable to the culturally privileged.

In Chapter One, “Singing in the Key of Identity: Adele and the Vocal Intimacy of the Blues,” Edgar sets out three key concepts: “vocal racial passing/appropriation,” “difference/Identity,” and “authenticity” to inform her rhetorical analysis of voice. Starting with a series of flashbacks to the controversial media comparison of Adele’s vocals to prominent Black singers after Adele’s 2012 Grammy performance, Edgar establishes what she calls “vocal racial passing-vocal appropriation” (31) a concept which explores how voice is socially structured by “media industry practices” (24) or “how a singer identified with one race performs a vocal sound that is identified with another race” (26). Developing this idea, Edgar delves into the brief history of Black and immigrant voices in the entertainment industry by highlighting how racialized vocal differences (Blackvoice vs. whitevoice) were structured through exaggerated dialects coached to sound more “ethnic” than their white actors to white audiences (28). To further explore “Blackvoice”—the colonization and appropriation of Black vocal sound (36), Edgar examines Adele’s performance under the complex scope of  “authenticity” and “difference” to raise consciousness about “vocal identity as socially constructed” (48), which ultimately creates a powerful and profitable situation for the culturally privileged (49). Overall, this chapter draws attention to at least two critical ideas. First, it highlights the colorblindness and racism in the music industry that caused “rock and roll bands to harness vocal emotion born from the cultural diasporic pain in Black blue culture” (33), “allowed white women singers to inject their physical bodies into Black voice” (33), and rejuvenated white masculine domination in the music industry (34). Second, Edgar demonstrates through Adele’s performance that vocal identity and vocal intimacy are cyclically connected and can conjure deep connection between singers and listeners even if the singer demonstrates problematic appropriations (48).

The second chapter takes a different route by focusing on how culturally privileged voices owned by minority bodies can still be subjected to systemic oppression. Beginning with an analysis of the “white traits”—dialect, soft spokenness, and tone—of Black actor Morgan Freeman, Edgar explores how Freeman’s culturally privileged vocal performances and cinematic roles are embedded with racialized and gendered stereotypes (52). First, Edgar examines multiple movie roles played by Freeman to establish his vocal identity and vocal intimacy with his audience as powerful. Despite this, Edgar argues Freeman’s Black masculinity is contained and recouped under themes and roles that reinforce racial servitude and marginalization of people of color (81). For instance, Freeman’s role in early movies like Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and many others were usually designed to make him dependent upon the primary white character which reiterates his servile persona created to “soothe, rather than disrupt, white-supremacist representational systems” (80). This chapter, like the first, reveals how the vocal intimacy within the speaker-listener relationship and vocal identity give voice the ability to “replicate and strengthen cultural racial hierarchies” (82). Furthermore, the chapter exemplifies the kind of rigorous scholarship that can emerge from uncommon objects of study like TV shows and movies, setting up a valuable inquiry into racial subordination that remains stable beneath vocal identities and culturally privileged voices.

The first two chapters show the varying ways vocal identity shapes vocal intimacy between a speaker and listeners. Chapter three furthers this analysis of voice by teasing out how “the act of imitation in political satire layers culturally privileged voices and encourages marginalization based on race and gender despite its ostensibly progressive politics” (85). Through a rhetorical analysis of the bodily and vocal performance of actors Fred Armisen, Tina Fey, Jay Pharaoh, and Dwayne Johnson on the popular television show Saturday Night Live (SNL), Edgar explores the ways pitch patterns in the satirical impersonation of political figures (Barack Obama and Sarah Palin) reveal how some bodies are exaggeratedly gendered to “solidify racialized gendered stereotypes” (114). For instance, Fey’s impersonation of Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s voice on SNL was explicitly high pitched, reinforcing the image of white women as “emotionally excessive and unstable” (93) and positioning Palin as a “less desirable political candidate” (113) in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s voice which was “pleasantly melodious” (103), and made him seem “stronger and as authoritative fit for Presidency, especially against his feminine competitors” (113). This chapter typifies mediated interactions between listeners and speakers by elaborating political impersonations as powerful production mechanisms and narratives that can “subtly shift identities based on ideological contexts” (114). It also delineates voice appropriation, especially based on race and gender, as harboring the potential to reinforce and naturalize the types of bodies and voices that are assumed suitable to be represented in powerful positions within society.

Chapter four, “Whitevoice 2.0: Online Speech and Comedians of Color,” provides perhaps the most intriguing case study, which explores how marginalized identities and voices come to matter through a contemporary form of storytelling and comedy (145). Edgar begins with a historical context and social media analysis of how Black and Latino comedians used comedy to draw attention to issues of race and discourse through the mimicry of whitevoice. This tactic according to Edgar, enabled comedians of color to expose the privileged identification of whiteness, to call into question the economic disparities between white and Black families (127), exploit differences in linguistic communication patterns (131), and to bring marginalized stories to the public eye (117). What makes this chapter especially interesting is that unlike the previous case studies, Edgar reconstructs vocal intimacy and vocal identity as listeners being aware of “the standard speech within a community and being able to differentiate their normal vocal rhetoric from whitevoice vocal rhetoric” (146). Thus, the vocal intimacy and identity circulating between a speaker and listeners in this context can only be established through a communal and political project aiming to challenge white normativity while creating shared and comfortable relationships with listeners through familiar comic experiences and stories.

In the concluding chapter, “A Call to Listen,” Edgar recapitulates the cultural and disciplinary mechanisms and codes that condition voice for speakers and listeners. She does so by readdressing the practical and reflexive procedures involved in studying voice as an artifact of oppression and privilege (153) while motivating rhetoric and cultural media scholars to “take up the study of voice from a variety of methods beyond traditional textual analysis” (156). However, Edgar concludes with a final reflection and twist on “hearing representation”—a concept that examines deeply entangled narratives and voices that promote inequality, marginalization, racism, and discrimination against Black folks and LGBTQ+ groups.” (158) This call for research is particularly valuable because it interrogates representation as “not only visual but…embedded in stereotypical and conventional depictions of marginalized groups” (158), which perpetuates the neglect of oppressed bodies and shapes the reception of media representation and discrimination.

As a graduate student, I find this book very useful because the methodology Edgar offers and case studies she provides can serve the current discourse on social media repetition and recirculation, media cancel culture and vocal appropriation, as well as the call for accountability for racialized actions by vocal media activists. While her work exposes the complex politics of voice in the United States, it is relevant to mention that the issues she examines in the book are rampant in many transnational locations, and her methodology which focuses on “understanding the role of voice as bodies travel or are restricted, heard or ignored” (160) can offer transnational feminist scholars an approach to reimagining the cultural, socio-political, and consumer discourses within these spaces. I hope that Edgar or rhetoric and media cultural scholars would follow up with research that considers her theoretical insights in light of digital and social media representational trends during current police brutality protests, celebrity vocal influence in the COVID-19 season, and the media’s role in the current political climate.

Works Cited

  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. Southern Illinois UP, 2018.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29-40.

Afterword to Queer Rhetorical Listening

For me, this special cluster conversation in Peitho invokes both gratitude and humility. I am grateful and humbled because the contributors have taken rhetorical listening so seriously and also because they have taken it far beyond its initial imaginings. For that I want to thank Timothy Oleksiak, the editor of this cluster, who set the tone of “generosity of spirit” as well as all the contributors—Michael J. Faris, Rachel Lewis, Violet Livingston, Storm Pilloff, and Jonathan Smilges—for attending to that spirit (p. 2). Indeed, these articles were a gift, at a time when I needed one.

As I write this “Afterword” in September of 2020, the world is suffering a Covid-19 pandemic, and the US is suffering a president who demonstrates no respect for the rule of law, the right to assemble for peaceful protests, or the protection of “minority” rights. Amidst this public health and social unrest, I am chairing a very large English Department, trying to juggle the needs of students, faculty, administrators, and education broadly construed. I am also teaching an undergraduate course called Introduction to Writing, Rhetorics, and Literacies, which has two students in the classroom and 20 on Zoom. And I’m serving on a search committee for RSA’s next Executive Director who will need to help the society’s elected officers meet impending challenges and changes in higher education and its professional organizations. I list these factors not to complain (believe me, I understand how privileged I am, especially at this particular moment) but, rather, to acknowledge that these factors comingle in ways that have me wondering about the future.  

On my mind are life and death (never before have I begun a semester by updating my will and worrying if assigning people without accommodations to teach in classrooms would be fatal), the future of US democracy (especially for people who don’t look like, earn like, or act like our current chief executive), the future of higher education (particularly whether financial fall-outs from Covid-19 will trigger a massive restructuring of higher education and our economy more  generally) and the study of rhetoric (in light of our current cultural divisiveness). 

Of all these concerns, I am most optimistic about the study of rhetoric, thanks in part to this volume. Its articles either ask or imply generative questions that produce dynamic concepts and tactics that supplement and/or challenge not just rhetorical listening, but the map of rhetorical studies itself, by inviting the idea of queering listening into our conversations.1 

The articles are rich in ideas that readers may utilize for their teaching and future research projects as well as engaging the world. In particular, I can imagine employing in my own teaching, writing, and living the following concepts.

  • Queer rhetorical listening. This concept is generated by asking: “What can queer work and rhetorical listening do for each other?”
  • Bad listener. This concept is generated by asking, “Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist?” and by focusing on neurodiversity so as to “offer neuroqueers ways to stick around.” 
  • Coalitional identification. This concept is generated by asking, “How is it possible to communicate, organize, and build relationships when our very lives are in competition?” and by using coalitional queer politics to analyze power as it flows in, among, and beyond prison systems. 
  • Queer kinesthetic interlistening. This concept is generated by asking, What happens to listening when we turn from the discursive “to the material and embodied” and take seriously the idea that “rhetoric is often a nonrational, material, embodied, and sensorial practice,” and then analyzing “voguing and an art exhibit composed of candy” to exemplify this concept’s functions.
  • Métis. This concept is generated by asking, What happens if we attempt “to hear things, or rather, people we do see?” and then invoking #BlackLivesMatter as its focus.2
  • Failure of consent. This concept is generated by asking, What does consent signify when listening to the work of Mia Mingus about the “forced intimacy” encountered by a body that is “disabled.”
  • Emotional receptivity. This concept is generated by asking, “What would it look like if we focused more purposefully not only on desire but the theorizing of feeling that structures rhetorical listening?” with attention to queer cultural logics and to non-identification as “a state of emotional crisis that is necessary as we move toward more capacious cultural logics, logics that allow us to experience a fully felt sense of self.”

While these concepts emerge from the editor’s invitation for authors to engage with my work, the real importance of this volume is not simply its extension of, or challenge to rhetorical listening. This cluster conversation is important, it seems to me, because it offers a number of voices in concert with the question of queering listening; these voices, then, expand the repertoire of responses to the question and problem—indeed the call to action—posed by Jacqueline Jones Royster when she asked, “How do we translate listening into language and action? (“When the First Voice” 38). 

Having answered Royster’s call, the contributors to this volume have participated in the time-honored tradition of questioning existing theories within scholarly conversations. More importantly, the contributors have taken ownership of methods for queering existing theories, in this case rhetorical listening. In the process, they have modelled for students and other researchers how to queer questions and how to produce queer concepts/theories that may, in turn, undergird future rhetorical teaching and research. This modelling is important because this volume demonstrates not just the how but also the why as it insistently resists the normative functions of tradition, scholarly or otherwise. 

With that thought in mind, I will close as I began, by thanking the editor and the contributors to this volume. Such voices and ears, I believe, offer (to echo my friend Cheryl Glenn) a thing called hope.

Endnotes

  1. This volume is not the first conversation about queering listening. For example, John Landreau proposed queering listening in his chapter in the 2012 collection he co-edited with Nelson Rodriquez, and Timothy organized a CCCC’s panel in 2015 consisting of Timothy, Kendall Gerdes, and Devon Kehler—all of whom very smartly engaged the question of queering the ear.
  2. Karen Kopelson’s 2003 “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning” still engenders important conversations about métis.

Works Cited

  • Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetorical Feminism and This Thing Called Hope. SIUP, 2018.
  • Kopelson, Karen. “Rhetoric on the Edge of Cunning; Or, the Performance of Neutrality (Re)Considered as a Composition Pedagogy for Student Resistance.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 55, no. 1 (Sep., 2003), pp. 115-146.
  • Landreau, John. “Queer Listening as a Framework for Teaching Men and Masculinities” Queer Masculinities: A Critical Reader in Education. Edited by John Landreau and Nelson Rodriguez, Springer, 2012, pp.155-167.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 29-40.

A Fullness of Feeling: Queer Rhetorical Listening and Emotional Receptivity

When I first read Rhetorical Listening, I felt it deeply.1 What excited me was the way Ratcliffe centers receptivity and openness. More specifically, Ratcliffe makes the clever inversion of “standing under” the discourses of others which calls on each of us to “transpose a desire for mastery into a self-conscious desire for receptivity” (29, emphasis added). Whether or not openness is a choice was less interesting than the call for an openness toward others, a taking into ourselves the ideas, thoughts, and ways of thinking that are not our own. With Rhetorical Listening, Ratcliffe offers ways in which we might enact this sense of openness and how that openness can transform us. However, throughout Rhetorical Listening the focus on the pragmatic enactments of rhetorical listening is animated by a rational approach to cross-cultural rhetorical negotiation. What would it look like if we focused more purposefully not only on desire but the theorizing of feeling that structures rhetorical listening?

I come at the question of receptivity and transformation with a call for greater attention to feelings that structure rhetorical listening. I follow Ann Cvetkovich’s understanding of feelings as a concept that is “intentionally imprecise, retaining the ambiguity between feelings as embodied sensations and feelings as psychic or cognitive experiences” (4). What follows is a thinking through of the depth and range of feelings that one may experience when they enter into the place and time of non-identification. Attending to the feelings experienced within this space of non-identification enlarges the concept and allows us to theorize the space in more complex ways. I hope that this contribution offers resources for thinking about non-identification in ways that allow us to receive the emotional states of others into our own ways of being. Rhetorical listening, with its focus on receptivity’s role in invention, offers us a solid framework for developing emotional receptivity

What follows is part of a larger project on the role of emotional receptivity as an element of queer rhetorical listening. The process of erotically composing one’s own past, including one’s engagements with cultural logics that were not explicitly recognized as such, enables one to listen rhetorically, in the present, to those cultural logics that threaten one’s own being. Listening is an ethical commitment to continued rhetorical negotiation as a person desiring radical openness. Queer rhetorical listening leans into those moments when being with another is not the drudgery of politics but the charge of togetherness as both painful and pleasurable.

Embracing the Erotic

In her often cited “The Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde’s direct appeal to Black women is to experience joy—a “self-affirming” fullness that comes from recognizing that a capacity for joy matches a capacity for exploitative dread. That we are more than the terror we feel brings us into a necessary fullness. Lorde’s conceptualization of the erotic is a reinvestment and reintegration of the emotional depth of ourselves which makes us whole. This wholeness of self, this depth of feeling, this striving toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be seen as an impossibility or a delayed longing. Lorde states, “[t]he internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others… The aims of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible” (55). 

Richer and more possible

In his reading of “The Uses of the Erotic,” Roderick A. Ferguson notes that Lorde’s work in the 1970s and 1980s is located within a “historical moment in which the elaboration of aesthetics of existence and the release of immense energies became part of the language used to mark new and insurgent social formations” (297). The erotic, when fully felt, allows us to recognize excellence within ourselves and to resist demands that we make ourselves less in the presence of others. In Ferguson’s reading, “excellence,” for Lorde, “is the outcome of passionate engagements designed to produce new visions of and efforts toward a just and compassionate world” (298). The erotic structures a political project of self-affirmation and a generosity toward others that is individual, communal, and horizonal.

In “The Uses of the Erotic” Lorde distances the erotic from the pornographic. This distancing can be considered a savvy rhetorical move to not resist patriarchal engagements that reduce the erotic to sex. However, as Ariane Cruz notes in The Color of Kink, Lorde’s essay “sets the stage for a black feminist critique of pornography, conceptualized as a monolithic cultural entity, that closes off critical consideration of pornography’s erotic potential” (35). While it is beyond the scope of this contribution to play out the stakes of pornography’s erotic potential, Lorde’s criticism of pornography as a pathway to that fullness of self can be an uncomfortable place for those whose BDSM practices are part of their pathways to a fullness of self. Additionally, as Juana María Rodríguez notes, “For so many [female and feminized sex workers], we are not only threatened physically, we are often punished personally and politically for even stating a desire to participate in these alternative sexual formations that exist outside monogamy and domesticity” (14). This is to say that while Lorde’s separation of the pornographic from the erotic is understandable within her historic context, this bracketing need not be part of the ways we understand the erotic today. More importantly, bringing up challenges to Lorde’s understanding of BDSM should not be seen as an attempt to discredit what the erotic can do for our understanding Lorde or rhetorical listening. Lorde’s sense of the erotic is crucial for understanding the ways we can listen to our past relationships with cultural logics that we no longer hold onto.

(Mis)recognition and Emotional Pain

I take seriously Jim Corder’s insight that “contending narratives” are threatening for ourselves and others (19). Those who study Foucault hear him maintain that it is not the sex we have that makes queers “disturbing” but the forms of life our sex enables (“Friendship”). Corder’s and Foucault’s works on threat highlight the emotional consequences of difference. To an extent, my lived and learned experiences as a queer person with low-femme gender expression confirm this. A distinct sense of the world that is contrary to queer logics disturbs because I understand it as life-negating and world-destroying. I understand it this way because I have learned to trust that when life-negating rhetoric comes my way, I should believe that the rhetor believes it. My belief is a learned practice of queer survival that includes both deep feelings of terror and joy. I deserve a life and the freedom to create the worlds I envision for myself and my people. 

But a question haunting rhetorical listening is this: How can I listen rhetorically to a person whose cultural logics imagine my death? But more importantly, I can imagine the same can be said to the person who believes in religious fundamentalism, logics that understand homosexuality as sinful and worthy of eradication through prayer or policy. We threaten each other. Contact risks eradication. Difference doesn’t automatically lead to transformation when feelings of repulsion or fear or distain co-exist with the cultural logics that order our worlds. Those operating under cultural logics more than two steps away understand that some cultural logics cannot co-exist. And one of the greatest requests of Rhetorical Listening is that we take such risk. But without a fuller sense of feeling, we cannot understand the terror and joy involved in such a risk. Simply, it is not enough to counter difference through counter-logics. Some cultural logics must be eradicated, even if (or maybe especially when) they are felt deeply by individuals willing to emotionally or physically imperil others. If we are going to take such risks, we cannot go into cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations unless we are equipped with a powerful sense of the erotic. Attending to one’s own experiences is important here because it eroticizes abstract logics and fleshes out these experiences, charging them with an emotional power they would otherwise lack.

Holding Two Cultural Logics at Once

Rhetorical Listening makes a series of powerful and bold requests. I lingered on the assertion that rhetors should analyze “claims as well as the cultural logics within which these claims function” (26, emphasis original).  Part of this work of attending to claims and cultural logics animating them is to recognize that all language is tropological. Tropes have contested meanings and such contestations have material consequences for individuals whose meanings significantly differ. Race and gender, the two tropes centered in Ratcliffe’s work, mean differently depending on the person’s or community’s cultural logics. Table 1 details the cultural logics Ratcliffe describes and offers four additional cultural logics relating to the trope of sexuality. I include the additional cultural logics because one of the ways Rhetorical Listening kept me at a distance was the fact that while Ratcliffe cites lesbian and queer women throughout her work, sexuality does not play a constitutive role in her framework. To heal from this absence and to create a space for myself and my queer communities it is important to structure a space for sexuality in rhetorical listening in ways that do not deny rhetorical listening’s interrogation of whiteness and its effects. Critical Race Theory (CRT), postmodern commonalities and differences, and queer logics offer greater power to struggle more concretely with conflicting cultural logics. This is why, in part, those cultural logics at the top are more desirable. Queer logics, postmodern commonalities and differences, and Critical Race Theory are better equipped to attend to the emotional resonances and consequences of differences that emerge during the process of cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations.

Column 1: Cultural Logics Relating to Gender includes Postmodern Commonalities and Differences, Equal Rights, Comparable Worth, and Patriarchy. Column 2: Cultural Logics Relating to Race includes Critical Race Theory, Multiculturalism, Color-Blind, and White Supremacy. Column 3: Cultural Logics Relating to Sexuality includes Queer logics, Human Rights, Biological Determinism, and Religious Fundamentalism.

                              Table 1. Cultural Logics relating to the tropes of gender, race, and sexuality.

Like those of gender and race, cultural logics relating to sexuality codify the ways sexuality is made meaningful for ourselves and others. And, on the basis of this meaning, all of us act and react in distinct ways. Importantly, sexuality, gender, and race inform each other such that a fuller sense of CRT can trouble the whiteness of queer and postmodern commonalities and differences logics to the same extent that queer logics can trouble CRT and postmodern commonalities and differences. What is meaningful, moreover, leads to particular forms of (mis)recognition. As a white, queer cisgender man with low-femme gender expression, for example, I often feel anxious in spaces where cisgender white men who have patriarchal, white supremacist values based in specific interpretations of religious texts are allowed free or unremarked reign to speak and move. Historically, but not consistently or even entirely, when my people are harmed it is by people who rely on these logics. My gender expression is (mis)recognized as a threat and as harmful. Their presence in my space is (mis)recognized as threatening, too. The very inconsistency of the threat (will they/won’t they, and if they do, will I?) evidences the emotional and physical tensions queer people face in patriarchal, white supremacist, and religious fundamentalist communities. These anxieties, if they are felt at all, are differently felt based on race, gender, and a host of other perceived and experienced identities and identifications. These feelings of danger, harm, or discomfort are part of my felt sense of safety in the world. I cling to my right as a queer, cisgender man with low-femme gender expression to live. 

And yet

Place this hypothetical (though as real as the cop who pulled my ex-boyfriend over and made him sit in the cruiser during our walk home from Minneapolis Pride many years ago) person in a drag bar and his threat dissipates. The location at which these tensions take place mediates but does not eradicate harm. Though his threat within a queer space diminishes, it is never entirely gone, as the Pulse night club massacre makes too clear. So, too, might the threat become inverted: a straight person in a queer space could feel threatened by the queer excess of the space. Thus, the material consequences of our felt senses of difference are known only in the moments of their interpretation by those with varying emotional proximities to the situation.2 These feelings do not come easily, neatly, nor fully-formed when we shift the cultural logics which order our worlds.

“Non-identification”—that space between identification and disidentification—felt like a very queer space for me. It felt like I did for most of my life. I came out at 15 and spent the next three years thinking about what it meant to be a gay man in a world that was not kind to gay men. This was 1995. I had no gay or lesbian people in my life, though gay cultural issues were part of positive conversations in my family. We talked about HIV/AIDS and the viscous negligence of the Reagan administration. I cried when Bill Clinton spoke positively of gays and lesbians in his State of the Union address because I felt seen. I sat angry at his terrible policies on policing, gays in the military, and the stupid Defense of Marriage Act. I knew then that to be recognized as a gay person was an unqualified good while the “tough on crime” polices of his 1994 crime bill were an unmitigated disaster for Black and brown people. I grew up in a household whose cultural logics were rooted in human rights, equal rights, and emergent Critical Race Theory. But for much of my formative years leading into my 20s, I was too scared of sex to do anything but pine for the straight boys. Though I didn’t know it at the time, they felt safe. I could take on the loathing and anxiety because anything was better than my fear of sex and its consequences. But these negative feelings, I came to understand, were based on internalized homophobia, conflicting messages about LGBTQIA+ people, and a fear that if I leaned too hard into my sexuality, I’d give up everything for it. These guilt, blame, and shame logics kept me prudent as they kept me suspended. They were not unproductive, in other words, they were a part of me. But I could not sit in the loathing and anxiety because these feelings alienated me from a fullness of self inherent in Lorde’s erotic. The erotic propelled me to seek out differences and to move toward a fuller sense of self that could experience more than negative feelings.

My coming into queer cultural logics is marked by a deep, felt sense that overwhelmed me. I felt my way through cultural logics. I didn’t think I was supposed to be alive. I felt like a biological abnormality until I realized that I was biologically gay. Then I felt like that cultural logic no longer mattered because “gay” did not seem like a reasonable rationale for exclusion from the rights and privileges afforded straight people. Obtaining a full (or full enough) hold on the erotic wasn’t only a result of contemplating my place in the world. It was living and experiencing and sharing desires and learning that those desires expanded to include always more people. The erotic charge of a protest, the collective of bodies that smell and radiate heat, the sounds and noises, and the link to those protesting online with us offered me a felt sense of belonging. The desires to have a cocktail out on my apartment’s front balcony with my husband and dance to gay pop music for all our neighbors to see linked me to a full sense of self. 

My balcony is Lorde’s laying on the grass with a lover. 

While my story seems like one of identifications and disidentificaitons, it is not. It is the story of sitting in a space of non-identification between cultural logics. Non-identification is a state of emotional crisis that is necessary as we move toward more capacious cultural logics, logics that allow us to experience a fully felt sense of self. What I am after here, is that non-identification is an experience of feeling that challenges our disconnect from the erotic itself. There are very real challenges we face when moving from one cultural logic to the next and these challenges are not without significant emotional consequences. Loss, grief, shame, and other negative feelings are built into the system of rhetorical listening, whether they are productive feelings or not. The experience of non-identification compounds the challenges of rhetorical listening but also makes rhetorical listening all the more important for oppressed peoples because it is through listening that we are able to emerge from the space of non-identification with a greater depth of feeling.

Temporary Stability and Emotional Crisis

What my moving toward queer logics taught me is that between each logic exists a space of crisis that often carries with it a deep sense of pain. Gloria Anzaldúa calls this space nepantla, a state of crisis between two worlds.3 To fully feel the joys of a cultural logics that is different than the ones below it is to feel that the erotic within us and within our communities is possible. When thinking through the project of queering rhetorical listening, nepantla offers the possibility to think about non-identification in ways that allow us to hold onto negative and positive feelings and to think-feel through the erotic in ways that acknowledge the reality of pain and discomfort that is part of rhetorical transformation. But before we can attend to them, it is important to flesh out, literally add flesh to, non-identification and the attendant feelings that surround an individual.

Graduate school made me queer… 

More precisely, reading queer theory in graduate school made me queer. Until then, I had kept friends who used gay dating apps and had sex often and with multiple partners at a distance. I was absolutely moralizing against these types of behaviors. Reading Tim Dean, Michael Warner, Judith Butler’s work on gender, and History of Sexuality, vol. 1 turned me queer. And in the turning toward, I turned back to how I felt about sexuality and those who embraced it prior to my learning. I was a judgmental shit. That illumination did not sit right with me, but that discomfort did not dissipate the moment I realized that I was moralizing against an embrace of the erotic that others engaged. It was a slow and painful shift in the ways I experienced self-loathing. Holding onto logics of human rights was a victory to my previous experiences with biological determinism; the presences of queer logics brought into stark relief the limitations of human rights logics. And I felt guilt, shame, and blame in complex ways. The guilt I felt came from the realization that my judgmental attitudes toward those queers who had embraced the erotic was an attempt to deny them the full sense of self that the erotic brings. The experience of non-identification allows me to witness the ways I withheld the potential of fullness of others. I felt shame that I could not bring myself to embrace that fullness myself. These feelings overwhelmed and structured my experiences because the tension between human rights and queer logics did not easily resolve itself.

In Borderlands, Anzaldúa defines nepantilism as “torn between ways” (100). In The Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro Anzaldúa develops nepantla as a “psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future. Nepantla is the space in-between, the locus and sign of transition” (17). What makes nepantla distinct is that for Anzaldúa, nepantla is “an emotionally significant event or a radical change in status” (17, emphasis added). Isolation, “unruly emotions,” “anguish” are wrapped up in the experience which ultimately leads to a “different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world” (17).4 Additionally, Sarah De Los Santos Upton describes nepantla as a “liminal, in-between stage characterized by chaos and disorientation, where individuals experience disassociations, breakdowns, and buildups of their identities” (124). In this space individuals may become nepantlera. In her editor’s introduction to Light in the Dark, Analouise Keating states, “nepantleras do not fully belong to any single location. Yet this willingness to remain with/in the threshold enables nepantleras to break partially away from the cultural trance and binary thinking that locks us into the status quo” (xxxv-xxxvi, emphasis original).

The spaces between cultural logics are the spaces where we are torn between ways. This blurring is important not only because sometimes it is very difficult to identify a particular cultural logic but because it also functions as a powerful image of haziness and unknowing. The blur denotes a state of instability. The blurring of the boundaries between cultural logics and the tearing of the self between psychic states carries real pain. Even as Sharon Crowley’s (Toward a Civil Discourse) notion of ideologic helps us see the densely woven articulations that keep individuals within particular ideological perspectives, thinking through cultural logics from Anzaldúa’s concept of nepantla helps us to understand more fully the emotional stakes that come from transforming our perspective and the difficulties surrounding spiritual healing or a willingness to reach into our selves for that full depth of feeling that the erotic offers. 

Nepantla is non-identification in the flesh. As Anzaldúa says, “in nepantla we undergo the anguish of changing our perspectives and crossing a series of cruz calles, junctures, and thresholds, some leading to a different way of relating to people and surroundings and others to the creation of a new world” (17). The point is to function as a nepantalera, a person who is comfortable with ambiguity and change. They “function disruptively” (84) in order to challenge traditional identity politics. Nepantleras feel a connection to others as global citizens. Anzaldúa states, “as world citizens, las nepantleras learn to move at ease among cultures, countries, and customs” (85). And so, for Anzaldúa, nepantla is a space where nepantlera identity, an identity always in becoming and in flux, emerges.

Let each of us stand in awe of nepantla as a theoretical concept. It is a standing under threatening cultural logics. It is a way of the world. It is that toward which we should strive. When nepantla touches listening, listening can enfold greater emotional complexities and equip us with greater resources for cross-cultural rhetorical negotiations.

Composing is an unveiling of the self and the anticipation and development of the text is part of the eroticism of cross-cultural rhetorical exchanges that we undertake every time we experience difference. In “Queered and Stripped: Erotic Desire/s in Burlesque Performance, Casely Coan argues, “queering of erotic desire reconfigures what and whom can be desired in that space, making a powerful argument for the sexiness of fat women, trans women, women of color, women with disabilities, queer women, etc.” (53). Composing with the erotic in mind, like burlesque, is an unfolding and offering of our fuller selves to others who may experience the eroticism of our texts as invitations to engage their fuller self. Queer rhetorical listening as a practice of desire invents new ways to engage in a desiring radical openness.

This openness can bring us more fully into contact with others. By standing under those cultural logics which bring us to a fuller self of the erotic within us we might stand over those discourses which seek our eradication. In the standing over, we might remember the crisis of emotion that those below experience and offer them a hand up or an invitation to get in touch with the erotic within themselves. After all, the aim of the erotic is to bring ourselves and others into lives that are richer and more possible. But we cannot know this as a possibility unless and until we feel that it is so.

Alongside specific tactics is a theory of queer rhetorical listening based in non-identification’s holding onto pain, pleasure, and the consequences of these desires. These desires that Coan links to are embodied feelings of pleasure and an illustration of the way eroticism on display and in action can link to remind us of the depth of feelings that bring about transformation and change. However, the anguish and experience of an emotionally significant encounter with difference can just as easily call on us to retreat into a cultural logic that prevents us from experiencing the fullness of the erotic. A greater attention to the erotic can thicken our experiences of and strategies for queer feminist persuasion if and when we can bring the erotic into our ways of standing under the discourses of others. We can see the struggle with the erotic as a moment to call each other into fuller sense of self that allow for lives that are richer and more possible.

Endnotes

  1. This project initially began as a co-authored piece with Kyéra Sterling. After dialoging during its development and because the COVID-19 pandemic impacted us in different ways, Kyéra and I agreed to acknowledge her as a “contributor” and request that further references to this contribution acknowledge this relationship.
  2. See Jean Bessett’s “Queer Rhetoric in Situ” for more on differing interpretations of rhetorical situations.
  3. Of the many concepts feminist have considered in Anzaldúa’s work, nepantla is rarely referenced. An important exception to this is the work of Sarah De Los Santos Upton. Two of her works—“Communicating Nepantla: An Anzaldúan Theory of Identity” and “Nepantla Activism and Coalition Building: Locating Identity and Resistance in the Cracks Between Worlds” deftly articulate the multiple strands of Anzaldúa’s complex theories.
  4. In All about Love, bell hooks teaches us that “there is no change that does not bring with it a feeling of challenge and loss” (181). And while this is surely the case, Anzaldúa’s nepantla frames the issue with greater emotional stakes via a more concrete imagining than does hooks.

Works Cited

  • Anzaldúa, Gloria E. Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Analouise Keating, editor. Duke UP, 2015.
  • —. Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd edition, Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
  • Bessette, Jean. “Queer Rhetoric in Situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
  • Cruz, Ariane. The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography. New York UP, 2016.
  • Coan, Casely E. “Queered and Stripped: Erotic Desire/s in Burlesque Performance.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 41-58.
  • Corder, Jim W. “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Rhetoric Review, vol, 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 16-32.
  • Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. U of Pittsburg P, 2006.
  • Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke UP, 2012.
  • Ferguson, Roderick A. “Of Sensual Matters: On Audre Lorde’s ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ and ‘Uses of the Erotic.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol, 40, no. 3&4, 2012, pp. 295- 300.
  • Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” Interview with R. de Ceccaty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux. Translated by John Johnston. Gai Pied, 1981. Accessed 10 Sep. 2020.
  • hooks, bell. All about Love: New Visions. Perennial, 2000.
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing P, 1984/2007, pp. 53-59.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Rodríguez, Juana María. Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings. New York UP, 2014.
  • Upton, Sarah De Los Santos. “Communicating Nepantla: An Anzaldúan Theory of Identity.” This Bridge We Call Communication: Anzaldúan Approaches to Theory, Method and Practice, edited by Leandra Hinojosa Hernánez and Robert Gutierrez-Perez. Lexington Books, 2019, pp. 123-142.
  • —. “Nepantla Activism and Coalition Building: Locating Identity and Resistance in the Cracks Between Worlds.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 42, no. 2, 2019, pp. 135-139.

Excerpts from Terms of Play: Poetics on Consent as Method

A: Age of Consent

A: Ask

D: Discourse

D: Dress Code

F: Fantasy

F: Feedback

F: Feel

I: Initial Negotiation

L: Listening

N: Negotiation of Power and Identities

P: Personal Professional Ad

P: Play is Negotiated, never Assumed

P: Power (some tenets)

Q: Queer Sexual Ethics

S: Shame

V: Vulnerability

Y: Yes, an Expression of Desire

A: Age of Consent

The necklace came wrapped in a cloud of cotton, tucked inside an emerald green department store box. Sterling silver, circular as the unanswerable, the necklace coiled, like the segments of a wooden snake toy, through the center of a small heart. We weren’t jewelry people. I’d rarely seen gifts that fancy given as a gift in my immediate family. So, the necklace was imbued with an out-of-proportion, almost magical significance. The gift was both the talisman against evil, and the evil itself.

 

Snakes attack the unsuspecting from their slithering places on the ground.

They wait.

They watch.

They strike.

 

He came right through the front door to a holiday dinner the year I turned thirteen, bearing gifts, and looking for tacit permission. Through the tall grass, he slid onto the scene in a low-set, silver muscle car, which, in retrospect, wasn’t even that cool. He was a snake, too, hair slicked back, dressed in the false innocence of whiteness. He had a way of smooth moving, then, striking without cause.

 

He spit metallic venom, hissed when infuriated, which he often was, especially when I acted childish. He was much older. Said, shhhhhhhh, don’t tell your father. He’ll kill us, like we were in this together. He was quietly violent, omnipresent. Then left the sting of distance.

 

I was not ready. I was thirteen. I crept upstairs to my room, which had a canopy bed, dotted in simple, embroidered flowers. I crossed my eyes at them, like a kid would do to make the image of a snake appear. 

 

I un-clipped the necklace from my throat, scrunched up my nose to stop the tears, and thought, grow up! He’s not going to like you, if you act like a baby.

 

The monster in my closet, the part I’m afraid to admit–I unwrapped the necklace myself, heart thrumming with the new sensation of being wanted. I let him. I felt proud, that he chose me a silvery snakeskin collar, fitted close to the throat. I let him fasten it on. I did. But I was too young to know what the ritual meant.

***

A: Ask

My sister-in-law has already taught her four-year-old consent.

 

“Do you want to hug?” my niece asks me, holding her summer brown arms out wide.

 

“I would love a hug! Thanks for asking.”

 

“Okay! Are you ready?”

***

D: Discourse

To practice consent, you need to enter our worlds, queer places, where queer people aspire to explicitly negotiate our relationships, making sure everyone is mutually satisfied. You need to enter our discourse to understand consent.

The action of entry requires knowing particular discourses, bound by particular rules. These discourses should be, but are not always, flexible to allow for nuance and shifts in accepted knowledge (Hawkins, Borich, and Capello). Entering an academic discipline is no different, though many queer people find it challenging to get in. Honestly, I don’t want to get in, unless you want me here. Do you want me here? Does this text feel okay to you?

There is also the ongoing question of who can enter into the discourse of queer rhetorics (Oleksiak). I mean, the question of: if one enters into queer discourse, does that make them queer? Am I queer if I like queer discourse? Do queers want to be taken in completely, or is being known too well by straight people dangerous? 

Here is an entry point. Here is a whole, queer world, opening up to you. 

 

Come in. 

 

Let me tell you a bit about our House Rules.

***

D: Dress Code

In sixth grade, my guidance counselor shuffled me into her office just before third hour during registration week. “I see you signed up for Drafting Class. That class will be filled with boys. Wouldn’t you be happier in Art Class?” This, and furrowed brows, and empathetic head nodding, made me suspect I was in trouble. But I was twelve, with the kind of untarnished optimism that sticks around until folks start saying, “can’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “wouldn’t.” 

 

I had been drawing floor plans since I was a kid, rearranging my parents’ furniture while they worked. There was no reason in my mind why girls wouldn’t want to build. I registered for Drafting Class, rushing home from school to tell my Dad. He gave me one of his mechanical pencils, the kind with soft lead that doesn’t make scratch marks on the paper. Someday, you can build me and your Mom a house” he said.

 

On the first day of class, I had eyes like possibility. I’d swing my feet off the edge of the metal stool because they didn’t quite touch the ground. My head on the slant-topped, wooden desk, fists clenched around my new pencil, I’d concentrate hard.

 

Drafting Class was hard. I loved to watch my ideas translate from mind to paper to reality. When I get older, I want to work with my hands. I want to make what I see real. I want to create.

 

The end of the semester came quick. I knew I’d get an ‘A.’ I turned my work in early, helping other students who didn’t get the calculations right. There were few eraser marks on my assignments.

 

I was last in line for grades, trying to get my final project exactly right. When it was my turn, the line of boy bodies, shoulder-to-shoulder, still milling around my teacher’s desk, parted to let me pass. The teacher cleared his throat, motioned me closer, and put one heavy hand on my right shoulder. “You’re good at drawing, but you’re a distraction to the boys,” he said. “Take this note to your parents. Maybe next semester you’ll listen when I tell you not to wear those tight black pants to class.”

 

His hand was fire, burning, burning. My face turned red and I was running out of that classroom, down the hall, down the stairs, burst out the hard metal school doors, and didn’t stop till I was on my front porch, hot tears, finally falling from my eyes.

 

I crumpled his note in a small, angry fist. I made it so small it barely existed. I didn’t tell my parents why I got a B+ until years later. 

 

I do create now, with words. I stack them like bricks, like defenses against the series of lessons we teach girls about their bodies, where they belong, and how to survive. If I was twelve still, I’d tell myself to let those boys see me cry. They might remember the moment and act differently in the future. I’d tell myself to keep dreaming new ideas into reality. To use my voice. To turn around, lift my chin, and tell that teacher he’s being a sexist dick.

***

F: Fantasy

Consent is a fantasy. When we live there together, tenderness has transformative potential.

 

These stories are true. I’ve taken artistic license to protect the identities of those who certainly did these queer things, and many more.

 

These fragments are stories. What the pieces offer queer rhetorical theory, what they mean, is for you to discern. 

 

You don’t need to have the same fantasy as me, to want what I want, think how I think, write how I write.

 

Just listen to my rhythm, be in the same room, mulling over this queer lyric.

 

Queerness is reaching for you. Reach back.

***

F: Feedback

Feel free to make noise, exclaim, groan, express your perspective. Feel free to move your body close, or far away. Your feedback is a gift to me. Your most tender response, in its first form, is my guidance.

***

F: Feel

the body of this essay,
unusually slim and swinging,
a poem where there ought
to be a thesis.

***

I: Initial Negotiation

In the initial negotiation of consent, which must take place again with each new encounter, two or more people collaborate on the scene. You could think of this initial negotiation like choosing possibilities from a menu, based on likes and dislikes. You could think of this as what we call in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, “invention,” the beautifully recursive process of coming up with ideas, which happens in community with other people, through comingling your ideas with new ideas.

Tina Horn writes about these initial negotiations as part of the pleasure of the process of negotiating consent, a listening moment. Narrating the story of The Gates, a community where consent is central, Horn writes, “When looking for a flexible gig to support my rock-and-roll lifestyle, I [Tina Horn] typed the word ‘dominatrix’ into the Adult Gigs section of San Francisco Craigslist” (Love Not Given Lightly 13-14). 

When you book a session at The Gates, you arrive right on
time. You ring the bell, and step through the front door to a glass-walled porch filled with
potted houseplants. The door to the house swings open, and you enter…

 

Your mistress sits opposite you on another, smaller couch. She may be in a dress, or a
robe, but she is not naked or in fetish gear. One of the rules of the house is:
negotiation is
conducted between two consenting adults with as little distraction as possible…

 

What are you in the mood for today?
What’s your fantasy? What are your turn-ons?
What are you curious about,
and what is an absolute boundary? (Horn 58-59)?

Only once the players have engaged in these initial negotiations will the person or people intended to direct the action of the scene begin.

***

L: Listening

“Rhetorical listening,” Krista Ratcliffe suggests, depends on metonymy, the places where connections do not seem to exist. Rhetorical listening means caring more about what people are saying than you do about making an argument. It means holding complexities in order to listen across cultures, knowing you don’t always get the last word.

Listening to Mia Mingus, whose work focuses on disability justice and transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, consent fails sometimes in practice. In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love,” Mingus explains:

The weight of inaccessibility is not logistical. It is not just about ramps, ASL interpreters, straws and elevators. It is a shifting, changing wall—an ocean—between you and I.  It is just as much feeling and trauma as it is material and concrete.  It is something felt, not just talked about … It is an echoing loneliness; part shame, part guilt, part constant apology and thank you.  It is knowing that no matter how the conditions around me change, my body will still not be able to do certain things—it will still need other people, it will still signal dependence, it will still be disabled.

In a later essay, Mia Mingus goes on to write that consent can’t always work for disabled people, who so often need to participate in “forced intimacy,” meaning “a term that I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experiences of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world” (Everyday Feminism).

***

N: Negotiation of Power and Identities

Falcon and I sit on the edge of the mattress on the floor, lacing our boots. She wears her hair in a bisexual bob, and her boots so they fit snug under leather pants that outline her broad hips in rivets. I bet she set those rivets herself, sprawled on the floor of our shared room. 

 

We found the original, 8-hole boots I wore in the free pile, a size-and-a-half too big. When I put them on, it’s the only time I feel connected to the earth. Strays, throwaway kids, that’s what we are. We pick stuff out of the trash just like we found each other. 

 

Falcon drives us to City Club, a Detroit goth club at Cass and Bagley, in the basement of the Ramada Inn. She doesn’t drink and drive, and she doesn’t let me pre-drink because I’m kind of a lightweight. 

 

We adorn ourselves at the mirror, narrating our plans in detail—I will get a single shot from the blue-white neon-lit bar right when we get in. Then we’ll throb dance to industrial music until our bodies ache, perch on the velvet couch so she can smoke a cigarette, and I can sit enveloped in her cloud.

 

Falcon turns her back to me, fishing around in her jewelry drawer. She only speaks in commands. “Here. Put this on.” She turns, thrusting a leather collar into my palms with skillful confidence. 

 

I try to hide a smile.

 

“No one will bother you if you wear this—that’s all it means,” she says, without ceremony. Our leather means we were a pack.

 

She drives. I sit beside her.

 

We kick dance to our heart’s content. I don’t even listen to this moody ass music outside City Club. It’s the clamor and din I come for, the erratic bodies bobbing together in an underground room. I just like the way noise makes me feel bliss inside.

 

The club closes at 4am. We arrive after midnight, stay the whole night, and early into the morning. I fall asleep in the car on the drive home, wrapped in Falcon’s ratty, oversized hoodie. “Baby,” she strokes my hair to bring me gently awake at Coney Island, “do you want some French Fries?”

 

Who am I? is too concrete a question to concern me in that moment. Here is what I know: I get an electric surge of shared power from walking side-by-side with Falcon, two femmes minding our own business, but not taking any shit. The feeling is not a sexual one, but I am too new to relationships to know the difference.

 

She is magnificent, a bird of prey with talons sharp enough to protect us both. I like imagining I am safe because I am beside her.

 

Home to our shared room past 5am. Snug in separate beds, I wait until she flips the lights off to call into the dark,

 

“Falcon? I think I might be gay.”

“You’re not gay. Go to sleep!”

***

P: Personal Professional Ad

Poet and consent scholar, seeking word circus 


You: flexible about prose style, up for verbal acrobatics. Me: consent educator with a PhD in the desired disciplines, talents include foot juggling (balls, careers) and swinging (trapeze). For thirteen years, I maintained a long-term partnership with a woman so butch her gender frequently set off the “Groin Alarm” while going through airport security. I am entranced by pansexuality, chefs of all genders. That is to say, I’m drawn to gender queerness and sexual queerness. I desire to be fed and given long-term commitment. Skills include: storytelling, lyricism, power dynamics, rope work, meaning I like to tie myself in knots, intellectual contortion. I teach what I practice. Write to me at: violet@defiantcircusarts.com. Let’s get to a mutual YES.

***

P: Play is Negotiated, never Assumed

Too seldom in academia do our professional rituals and games involve a consent process. The race to seek out a tenure track position (akin, I’ve been told, to seeking out a spouse to marry), the “publish or perish” mindset (a contest about whose voices will be invited in and listened to), and even the ways crucial budgetary decisions get made at the institutional level (a hierarchical arrangement) are all deeply non-consensual in ways they don’t have to be. Power play is assumed, not negotiated.

The job market acts based on whether candidates have successfully connected with the right people, those who can help them enter the discipline. Are you the right kind of queer to have friends? It is a game of shifting boundaries, hardcore power dynamics based on being extroverted and well-liked, and unclear rules.

This is for all the quiet queers. This is for all the queers juggling multiple marginalized identities. So much of academia feels decidedly not queer, not inclusive. It’s not your fault if you don’t get let in, if you don’t feel your work is respected as central to your discipline. Participation in power games should be negotiated, never assumed.

***

P: Power (some tenets)

There is no play without power.

 

Language is powerful.

 

Practicing consent means knowing your own power, and using it well.

 

Power is always in flux, which means we need to check our own power constantly.

 

For an action to be consensual, any mental, emotional, physical, spiritual power play needs to happen within a consent framework.

 

These are adult games, with a specific context and pre-negotiated rules.

***

Q: Queer Sexual Ethics

Consent is a measure of ethics in relationships. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, authors of The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book (2001) describe consent ethics:

The games we play are marked by their ethics, by the players’ insistence on high consciousness, by the respect in which we hold consent. Power games exist in many forms in our culture, often unconscious and often unsafe … (6).

 

Consent is an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being, and pleasure of all persons concerned (9).

There are scenes of Dominance and submission all around us and within us. Queer consent discourse asks us to notice and question whether or not they are consensual. “Sexual rhetoric,” queer rhetorics scholars Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes write in their introduction to Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics, “is the self-conscious and critical engagement with discourses of sexuality that exposes both their naturalization and their queering, their torqueing to create different or counterdiscourses…” (1).

Consent is a queer discourse. You don’t have to be queer to use it. Which of the stories I’ve told so far are consensual?

***

S: Shame

One way to shame someone, to put them in their place, and arrange the power dynamics so that you have more power, is to require them to perform a repetitive, but ultimately fruitless task.

 

Please let me into the discipline.

 

Please.

 

Please let me have tenure.

 

Please!

 

Desire becomes shame because we risked wanting.

 

My Kindergarten teacher behaved this way. I really liked my teacher, who had a hollowed out television with a curtain replacing the back, so we could climb inside and imagine we were on screen. She invited us to be creative, to experiment and play.

 

That is why I’ll never forget the day I was caught as an accessory to my peers throwing Lincoln Logs in the sink. My teacher brought me aside in the hallway and asked, “Did you throw toys in the sink? Yes, or No?”

 

“NO!” I said. I had only watched the twins in my class through them in.

 

“Are you telling me you watched the twins throw the Lincoln Logs in the sink, and didn’t come tell me?” the teacher said.

 

It is hard now, not to laugh at the specificity of the offense. But my teacher had me blocked into a classic, though un-negotiated Dominant/submissive corner. We are taught teachers have authority and power.

 

I had no chance of performing a power reversal. (I was a child). I had no choice but to admit I was complicit. (I had known, and did nothing).

 

My punishment was writing “I will NOT throw Lincoln Logs into the sink” one hundred times. 

 

I was a very obedient child, so it was a rush to know I had committed a small mistake: I had indeed watched the twins throw the toys in the sink. I still remember how the shame of punishment burned in my cheeks when we got caught standing around the sink, the way it made me feel both embarrassed to be alive, and alive.

***

V: Vulnerability

So, what do you say? Queer and trans* folks are knocking on the margins of your discourse. Here are our stories, theories, poetics. Are you interested?

 

Circle: yes, or no.

***

Y: Yes, an Expression of Desire

Let queerness sing. Let queerness come through you like your spirit does. Take up the expanses of your sentences any way that serves your message. Throw away archaic rules about grammar and syntax. Throw away archaic rules about blazers and keeping your legs crossed. Your style is exquisite. Promise you won’t straighten it. If mainstream journals won’t publish your work, publish it yourself, Riot Grrrl style in zine form. Don’t beg unless you’ve negotiated it.

***

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics. Routledge, 2016.
  • Bizzell, Patricia, Chris Schroeder, and Helen Fox, editors. Alt/Dis: Alternative Discourses and the Academy. Heinemann, 2002. Easton, Dossie and Janet W. Hardy. The New Topping Book. Greenery Press, 2001.
  • Hawkins, Ames, Barrie Jean Borich, K. Bradford, and Mary Cappello. “Courting the Peculiar: The Ever-Changing Queerness of Creative Nonfiction.” Slag Glass City 1 (November 2014).
  • Horn, Tina. Love Not Given Lightly: Profiles from the Edge of Sex. Three L Media, 2015.
  • Mingus, Mia. “This is Why Consent Doesn’t Exist for Disabled People.” Everyday Feminism. 20 August 2017.
  • —. “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love” Makeshift Magazine, 10. 8 May 2012.
  • Oleksiak, Timothy. “Composing in a Sling: BDSM, Power, and Non-Identification.” Pre/Text vol. 24, nos. 1-4, 2018, pp. 9-24.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Gender, Identification, and Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP: 2005.

Métis and Rhetorically Listening to #BlackLivesMatter

Six years ago, three queer Black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement in response to young Trayvon Martin’s murderer being acquitted. Co-Founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, narrates her outrage saying, “That’s why when I saw the phrase Black Lives Matter spelled out by Alicia Garza in a love letter towards Black people—I decided to put a hashtag on it” (Richardson and Ragland, 45). These two ingredients—love and a hashtag—are rhetorics of the body and, in this specific case, Black queer women’s bodies. 

Rhetorical Listening has been and continues to be a necessary text in our field. Ratcliffe’s theories and arguments have facilitated important progress in the way we attend to normate structures of oppression as feminist scholars. But she says it herself, “Sometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). One area in which rhetorical listening can be more developed is in its attention to embodied knowledges and, specifically, the compounded intersections of multiply oppressed peoples’ embodiment (Carlson, 2019; LeMesurier, 2016). Ratcliffe’s work continues to lend itself to this development nicely because of her sustained attention to intersectionality. One way we can integrate more holistic attention to how embodiment informs rhetorical listening is to incorporate métis

Recently there has been a “recovery” of métis, primarily in work done by disability scholars. Métis is cunning, embodied rhetorics developed from adaptive intelligences. It is a rhetorical tradition buried under “The body of history [that] has been shaped to look like an idealized human body: proportional, inviolable, autonomous, upright, forward facing (white, and masculine)” (Dolmage, 17, Disability Rhetoric). Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza—Black Lives Matters co-founders—do not embody that white masculinist rhetorical tradition. Their blackness, their femaleness, and their queerness are all embodied experiences that inform their rhetoric and movement. M. Remi Yergeau articulates “métis, then, holds multiple locational resonances, signifying the unruly unfixity of those who are racialized, disabled, and queered” showing how inseparable embodied identifications are and how they all contribute to a rhetor’s signification (41, Authoring). 

As it currently is, Rhetorical Listening advocates for a separation of identifications, encouraging a version of objectification, whereas tis deliberately resists abstraction and helps us more fully attend to the embodied humanity of rhetors. Ratcliffe writes “that identifications with gender and whiteness are inextricably intertwined—not only with each other but with a host of other cultural categories, such as class, age, religion, ethnicity, nationality, beauty, and political affiliation” (8). Notably missing from that list is sexuality, gender identity, and dis/ability. Ratcliffe does say identifications are “inextricably intertwined” and I argue that they remain inextricable because they are embodied. Adding métis to rhetorical listening facilitates a more holistic, more humane, method of listening across cultures by bringing rhetors’ full humanity into the practice. I argue that “put[ting] a hashtag on” Black Lives Matter was a deliberately cunning rhetorical move designed by queer Black women to facilitate rhetorical listening.

Black lives and their rhetoric are not ours, as white academics, to intellectualize and profit off of. Instead, what I hope to make clear here is that the rhetorical choices the Black Lives Matter movement has made, using a hashtag to mobilize a global movement—and a particular phrase—further emphasize the need for higher education and rhetorical scholars to stop objectifying Black rhetoric and histories and, instead, fully humanize the embodied, lived experiences that led to such rhetorical skills. While “standing under discourses” has been a useful analogy to imagine inseparable (intersectional) identities, a more explicit attention to the body—the Black, queer, feminized body—adds a corporeal element that urges us to more fully humanize people. I am hoping that by adding métis to rhetorical listening we will be able to do more than “hear things we cannot see”—we will also be able to hear things, or rather, people we do see (Ratcliffe, 25).

Black Lives and Métis

I am currently sitting in my Milwaukee apartment hearing a military helicopter circle my neighborhood, sometimes coming so close that it rattles my body as I write this, because thousands of protesters have been advocating in our streets that Black lives, Black bodies, mean something, that they matter. All of the trauma, pain, history, femininity, and queerness our #BLM co-founders embody informed their decision to use a hashtag on a phrase that advocates for how much their lives mean, for how much their lives matter. As I work on this contribution in the midst of ongoing national protests in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders (among too many more) during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the Black population, it is clear that hashtag has undoubtedly, inarguably facilitated “interpretive invention” (Ratcliffe, 25). These protests themselves are a representation of a “pragmatic effect” as they “invent” new alliances, proliferate demands for abolition, amplify the voices of Black activists, and effectively crowdsource for bail funds and so much more (27, Ratcliffe). In Disability Studies Quarterly’s winter special issue Jay Dolmage so clearly states, “Wherever we find the body rhetorically contested, and wherever we find rhetorical contestation about the body’s role in meaning-making, we see intensely fraught negotiations” (“What is Metis?”). This so aptly represents the rhetorical moves of the Black Lives Matter movement from both its name to the facilitation of the hashtag. Centuries before its founding, the United States has rhetorically contested the Black body, the Black female body, the Black queer and gender non-conforming body, the Black disabled body. The simple phrase affirming that their lives matter has created enormously intense fraught negotiations. 

I want to clearly distinguish how #BlackLivesMatter’s cunning ingenuity in using the hashtag is different than, say, a brand, influencer, or something of that ilk. In that same special issue, Dolmage reminds us, “Of course, métis has always been associated with trickery—those with métis can process and interpret the world slightly differently, can find opportunity to turn the tables on those with greater bie, or brute strength, than they have access to” (“What is Metis?”). In this case we can say that white supremacy, or the police state, have greater bie so in order to resist and progress, Black activists have had to be cunning, be tricky. We also know that even when Black people attempt to use bie in resistance they are even more susceptible to police violence and mortal consequences. The current protests, for example, are found and trackable by hashtags. And while that means they are trackable by the police, activists use the hashtag to amplify messages encouraging protestors to turn off their cellphone location data and to blur photos so allies and activists remain unidentifiable by the state. This facilitates a turning of the tables on those who have more access to bie. This manifests in a cunning ability to continue to make meaning—be rhetorical—in resistance to white masculinist supremacy, therefore, an ability to be rhetorically listened to in the midst of an oppressive system designed to silence Black people. 

Elaine Richardson and Alice Ragland argue that the way #BlackLivesMatter uses the hashtag is a new literacy. By mobilizing multiple arguments with hashtags, BLM “illuminate[s] intersectionality within the Black Lives Matter movement” (46). Richardson and Ragland point out that “The hashtag #AllBlackLivesMatter has also been important in acknowledging intersectionality of the movement” arguing that “It behooves queered groups to work across diverse intersectional identities to build coalition for collective empowerment. This is the goal of Black Lives Matter activism” (49, 50). They also cite Sherri Williams saying, “Black feminists’ use of hashtag activism is a unique fusion of social justice, technology, and citizen journalism. It should serve as a fertile ground for emerging news for journalists, a point of connection for white feminists, and a ripe area of study for academics” (48). Intersectionality, specifically the co-founders’ attention to Black women and queerness, is inherent in the design and amplification of #BlackLivesMatter. This specific relationship to a hashtag is “unique” because it is informed by embodied experiences and identities. Using the internet to amplify and mobilize activists in resistance to a dominating brute force is a métis rhetoric

More deeply considered, métis “unfold[s] constellated embodiments that traverse race, ethnicity, trauma, survivance, disability, and sexuality” (Yergeau, 41). Métis is not simply “embodied rhetoric” but, more specifically, embodied rhetorics informed by identities in Yergeau’s list here. It has originated in disability studies and rhetoric but remains woefully under-utilized for understanding Black rhetoric and supporting Black lives. Yergeau explains, “disability activism more broadly is not a new or emergent movement, but rather a long-standing civil rights movement whose tactics, strategies, and rhetorics are frequently modeled after black civil rights activism and social justice movements in the United States” (179). Métis rhetoric is shared among and with Black people and their continued resistance to white supremacy. However, it continues to be developed in disability rhetoric with a sustained focus on white disabled people. Engaging with rhetorical listening insists on “laying” métis next to whiteness and white supremacy (23, Ratcliffe). Karma Chávez points out, “It is only through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken, yet specified, white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual male standard that particular bodies come to matter” (242). These bodily differences “in contrast” to that “unspoken” hegemony are highlighted by developing métis more. Métis helps us notice and attend to the bodily differences that prevent cross-cultural communication. In other words, it is now (past) time to develop métis in support of Black lives, and listening to the Black queer women who built a global movement by putting a hashtag on a life-affirming phrase. Métis has always been available “through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken…standard,” and it is time to utilize it for anti-Black racism (Chávez, 242).

Furthermore, Yergeau “link[s] the conditions that attend sexuality and gender identity to the conditions that attend rhetoric, suggesting that when we speak of rhetors, we are often speaking of (normatively configured) rhetorsexuals” (178). This is an important distinction to make. The question of what has counted as rhetoric, or who has been counted as a rhetor, has been at the core of studies in rhetoric for its entirety. Heterosexual white men are these “normatively configured rhetorsexuals” which means anyone other than a heterosexual white male rhetor is a non-normative rhetorsexual. Queerness informs rhetorical practices not just because queer rhetorics are “discursive practices that emerge at different times for different groups in order to articulate resistance to regimes of sexualized normalization,” but importantly, are also embodied (Rhodes and Alexander, “Pleasures”). As Jean Bessette points out, feminist rhetoric’s “primary focus [has been] on heterosexual women… the universal category of ‘woman’ [is] almost always implicitly heterosexual” (18, Retroactivism). In Ratcliffe’s words, the field of rhetoric (Aristotelian in her example) “can be gender blind, that is, naively blind to concerns of gender. What I was realizing in my own life was that it can also be race blind” (5). And what Yergeau, Bessette, Rhodes and Alexander show here is that it can also be sexuality and ability blind, so much so that we use ableist “ocularcentric” metaphors to show what we historically overlook. To understand a rhetor as a rhetorsexual is to understand how inextricable one’s sexuality is from their rhetoric, especially when the rhetors are queer. 

Engaging métis with rhetorical listening helps identify rhetors as rhetorsexuals; it makes explicit the implicit assumptions of heteronormativity. Drew Halladay explains, “While other ancient Greek terms prominent in the rhetorical tradition are often portrayed as immaterial qualities of discourse (e.g., logos as a synonym of ‘rationality’), métis resists abstraction from rhetoric’s material context by returning attention to the body and its role in the production of identity, knowledge, and power” (“Performing Métis Rhetorics”). These traditional practices conceive of rhetoric as disembodied. Deliberately attending to the body in #BLM’s rhetorical practices forces us to resist the objectifying abstraction our rhetorical traditions generally prioritize in “analyses,” like focusing on one aspect of a rhetor’s identity or argument. In short, the simple use of the hashtag by #BLM was and remains a rhetorical choice the co-founders’ Blackness, queerness, and femininity decided in order to proliferate and amplify their message in a predominantly white, heterosexual rhetorical space. It is not a coincidence or an accident that three queer Black women were able to mobilize a hashtag so globally. It was a decision their queerness, their femaleness, and their Blackness led them to. Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza deliberately “affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum” and set #BlackLivesMatter apart from other civil rights movements by “put[ting] those with the most marginalized identities in leadership positions” (BlackLivesMatter.com, m4bl.org).

Dolmage reminds us, “And métis, I have suggested, is an embodied knowledge: one that refuses the sexist, ableist body-image of canonical rhetoric, an image that we have chosen from our (Western, Greco-Roman) versions of history. We might have chosen and canonized a history with a disabled God at the center of it. We might still” (“What is Metis?”). Choosing a rhetorical history that centers a disabled God means we can rhetorically listen to #BLM’s choices as inherently informed by the Black, queer, female bodies who founded the movement. Rather than abstracting their rhetorical moves from their lived, embodied experiences, we can rhetorically listen to their queerness, their Blackness, their femaleness—all at once—fully humanizing these skilled rhetor(sexual)s.

Love is Rhetorical

In closing, all of this has turned my attention to the rhetorical possibilities of love. Both the Black community and queer people have historically used love as both a rhetorical argument and a survival strategy. In his study focusing on the lives of Black LGBTQ people, Eric Darnell Pritchard defines love as “a radical praxis of freedom and self-care in the face of a social, political, and cultural circumstance in which you and your people are targeted for debasement, degradation, and in many cases, death” (38, Fashioning Lives). Some of the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement are to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting” (BlackLivesMatter.com, my emphasis). It is because of the way we love, as queers, that we have been discriminated against. Yet while white queer people continue to advance into the mainstream, Black transgender people and queers of color—especially Black transgender women—are targeted by state-sanctioned violence. Pritchard discovers in his research that “love, as a centerpiece of restorative literacies, is witnessed whenever research participants ‘break through’ negative effects of literacy normativity…and pronounce their humanity, their liberation, and their right to live a life on their own terms” (38). Social media sites, and the internet more generally, are mediated by what Safiya Noble calls algorithms of oppression. White supremacy, and all the ableist, heteronormative weight it carries, informs how information is distributed in digital spaces. Khan-Cullors putting a hashtag on a phrase Garza wrote in a “love letter towards Black people” absolutely facilitated a breakthrough—that hashtag snuck, and proliferated, Black love and liberation onto newsfeeds and walls originally designed to maintain white supremacy. 

Rhetorically listening to these Black queer writers and activists, it is clear that love, itself, is rhetorical in part because it is necessary in order to listen rhetorically. Love is an area still currently overlooked in the scholarship on rhetorical listening (and rhetoric studies, more generally). We have only a few scholars over the course of 50 years who have written on it (Corder 1985; Gunn, 2008; Restaino, 2019). To deliberately queer rhetorical listening, love must also be accounted for. We are queer because of how we love and, what’s more, we are queer because of specific embodied experiences related to our genders and sexualities. And perhaps most important to my argument about love is that people do not have to be excellent or joyful to be worthy of love, therefore worthy of a movement to affirm their lives. Black Lives Matter is not only a movement named after a loving affirmation of Black life, the movement itself is guided by principles of love. So not only is the hashtag guided by rhetorsexuals, it continues to be mobilized by community and self-love. Pritchard so importantly argues that for Black LGBTQ people “…love [is] a radical praxis of freedom and care for self and community” (39). That praxis of freedom, the love Garza and Khan-Cullors were expressing in their private conversation, has turned into a phrase lining residents’ and businesses’ windows down the street, being painted in huge letters in major city intersections, and amplifying the young Black abolitionists who are in the slow—but now steady—process of defunding America’s carceral state. 

Centering queer people of color—in this case, Black Lives Matter—develops Ratcliffe’s arguments in ways that promise new ideas about activism, political rhetoric, digital rhetoric (arguing that a hashtag is embodied), feminism, Black queer feminism and métis. The extant scholarship on métis woefully underserves Black women and especially Black queer women. The field of rhetoric has much to learn from queerly rhetorically listening to the embodied rhetorics of Black Lives Matter. I believe that integrating métis with rhetorical listening is one important way of queering rhetorical listening. The more we move away from embodied experiences, the more we’re able to abstract rhetorics from the people developing and engaging in rhetoric. Adding métis to rhetorical listening brings the body back to rhetoric in ways Dolmage argues: “[I]t is not enough to re-body theory and teaching—doing so simply incorporates untroubled bodily norms in an unchallenged realm of abstraction. Our embodiment is a feeling for difference, and always references norms of gender, race, sexuality, class, citizenship” (“What is Metis?”). Adding métis to rhetorical listening both queers it and more wholly attends to the full range of identities and personhood embodied in rhetors. 

There are rhetorical moves, strategies that only people who have been forced to survive in hostile climates have moved into and embodied. We learn these moves because our bodies—therefore our rhetorics—are excluded in mainstream rhetorical conventions. And there’s also something about loving ourselves in a world that treats us as unlovable that facilitates métis—skilled, adaptable, cunning rhetorical moves in resistance to hatred and oppression. Black women are skilled métis rhetors. The cunning, adaptive, sneaky rhetorical strategies employed by #BLM take cunning and sneaky rhetorical listeners. As feminists, as queers, and as embodied rhetors, we have a responsibility to queer rhetorical listening toward the body. To métis it. We can, as white listeners, add métis to rhetorical listening strategies in order to do more justice to Black rhetor(sexual)s.

I’m finishing this draft as we’ve entered Pride month during a pandemic and increasingly widespread protests and riots fighting for Black Lives Matter. During a pandemic when most of our in-person pride parades have been cancelled we cannot forget, the first pride parade was a riot led by Black and brown trans women—queers using their bodies in resistance. And it worked. #BlackLivesMatter.

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in American Lesbian Collectives: Composing Pasts and Futures. Southern Illinois UP. 2017.
  • What We Believe.” BlackLivesMatter.com. Accessed 10 Sept. 2020.
  • Carlson, Erin Brock, “Metis as Embodied, Technofeminist Intervention: Rhetorically Listening to Periods for Pence.” Computers and Composition, vol. 51, March 2019, pp. 14-30.
  • Chávez, Karma, “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Construct.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 2018, pp. 242-250.
  • Corder, Jim, “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 16-32.
  • Dolmage, Jay, Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse UP, 2013.
  • —. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies Across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009. pp. 1-28.
  • —. “What is Métis?” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020.
  • Gunn, Joshua, “For the Love of Rhetoric, with Continual Reference to Kenny and Dolly.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 94, no. 2, 2008, pp. 135-155.  
  • Halladay, Drew, “Performing Métis Rhetorics in Rhetoric and Composition Scholarship.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020.
  • LeMesurier, Jennifer Lin, “Somatic Metaphors: Embodied Recognition of Rhetorical Opportunities.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 362-380.
  • Noble, Safiya Umoja, Algorithms of Oppression. How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York UP, 2018.
  • Pritchard, Eric Darnell. Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. Southern Illinois UP, 2017.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Rhodes, Jacqueline and Jonathan Alexander. “Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive.” Enculturation, 2012.
  • Richardson, Elaine and Alice Ragland. “#StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Community Literacy Journal, vol 12, no. 2, Spring 2018, pp 27-56.
  • Williams, Sherri. “Digital Defense: Black Feminists Resist Violence with Hashtag Activism.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2015, pp. 341-344.
  • Yergeau, M. Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP. 2017.

Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening

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.

Works Cited

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