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?”  (p. 1).
  • Bad listener. This concept is generated by asking, “Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist?” (p. 8), and by focusing on neurodiversity so as to “offer neuroqueers ways to stick around” (p. 16).
  • 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?” (p. 18), and by using coalitional queer politics to analyze power as it flows in, among, and beyond prison systems (p. 26). 
  • Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening. This concept is generated by asking, What happens to listening when we turn from the discursive “to the material and embodied” (28) and take seriously the idea that “rhetoric is often a nonrational, material, embodied, and sensorial practice” (p. 28), and then analyzing “voguing and an art exhibit composed of candy” to exemplify this concept’s functions (p. 30).
  • Métis. This concept is generated by asking, What happens if we attempt “to hear things, or rather, people we do see?” (p. 42), 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” (p. 62).
  • 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?” (p. 74), 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” (p. 80).

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.

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.

Bad Listeners

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

—Roxane Gay

The truth is that I’m a bad listener—at least, occasionally. Sometimes I’m a very good listener and will listen and listen longer and more attentively than anyone else. But other times, I won’t listen or can’t listen, and these other times make me feel guilty about being a bad listener. 

It’s not that I don’t want to listen or to keep listening. It’s not that I don’t want to engage, to learn, or to be challenged. It’s not that I am resistant to being a good listener. I simply cannot listen at some times, in some places, and for some reasons.

As a neurodivergent person, I have sensory limits that are different than those of my nondisabled peers. During those times and in those places and for those reasons that I cannot listen, it is often because I am too exhausted, overstimulated, or overwhelmed to think clearly. Other times, I will have the energy to listen, but the substance of that to which I am listening triggers memories of previous violence or trauma. If I try to push past my sensory limits—to listen despite my exhaustion, my overstimulation, or my feelings of being overwhelmed—or to sublimate my triggered memories, I could hurt myself. I don’t want to hurt myself, and that’s that.

Unfortunately, that’s not only that. Being a bad listener is not the same as being a bad knitter (something else at which I am not very good but about which few other people care). Listening comes with political, ethical, and rhetorical stakes that risk framing bad listeners as elitist, unsympathetic, and even anti-feminist. Since Krista Ratcliffe first coined “rhetorical listening” as a tool for facilitating “cross-cultural conduct” (1), the concept has been widely cited as a foundational element of feminist rhetorical praxis. Indeed, Wendy Wolters Hinshaw writes that “a pedagogy of listening” is but “feminist pedagogy…more specifically” (265). Ratcliffe’s emphases on “understanding,” “accountability, “commonalities and differences,” and “cultural logics” resonate with feminist politics more broadly, which seek to establish solidarity across lines of difference in pursuit of a more equitable world (26, emphases in original). Listening, in this feminist context, is a necessary tool. It not only “facilitate[s] cross-cultural communication,” as Ratcliffe suggests, but also demonstrates a person’s commitment to the forms of solidarity such communication is intended to bring (17). Listening is thus both part-means and part-end. Good feminists make good listeners make good feminists. 

As someone who holds themself accountable to feminist communities, I am committed to Ratcliffe’s vision for rhetorical listening. I understand it not only as a promising strategy for navigating personal and professional relationships but also as a tried-and-true strategy for coalition work in activist spaces. Nevertheless, I am wary about how rhetorical listening has been taken up in feminist rhetorical circles as a measure of a person’s feminism. Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist? What kind of feminist can I be if I am a bad listener?

This contribution is my way of working out (or into) these questions with neuroqueerness in/on the mind. My intention is to expand Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening to include neurodivergent forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, thereby opening up feminist praxis to a more diverse array of bodymind configurations. Following M. Remi Yergeau’s description of neuroqueers as those folks who “perform the perversity of their neurotypes,” I invoke the figure of the Bad Listener as an example of neuroqueer resistance, as a person who honors their neurodivergent demand for perverse forms of listening, which regularly fall outside nondisabled norms for what is good, productive, and appropriate communication (27). Similar to Roxane Gay’s “bad feminist,” who reveals “all the ways [feminists] have room to want more, to do better,” the Bad Listener sheds light on the ways feminist rhetoricians can also want more and do better (xiv). On the one hand, Bad Listeners reveal the exclusionary nature of listening in feminist rhetorical studies, of the ways that listening can be deployed as a gatekeeping device that makes feminism inaccessible to neurodivergent people. On the other hand, Bad Listeners follow our neuroqueer and crip foreparents to reveal the counterintuitive potentialities afforded by exclusion—by failing, by being left out, by being not very good. At the same time that Bad Listeners remind feminists to do better, they also invite feminists to do worse.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Access

According to Ratcliffe, rhetorical listening is a “conscious choice,” something a person chooses to do in order “to foster conscious identifications that may, in turn, facilitate communication” (26). Unlike hearing, which might be understood as a passive response to auditory stimuli, listening is an active, “open stance in relation to any person, text, or culture” (26). One must choose to listen and to keep listening. Like with all choices, though, the act of choosing whether to listen is unavoidable; one cannot simply refuse to choose. If a person chooses not to listen, they have made as much of a choice as if they had chosen to listen. For Ratcliffe, the role of conscious choice is important because it positions rhetorical listening as part of an ethical project, one that is “motivated by accountability” (73). This “accountability logic” imbues the choice of whether to listen with “an ethical imperative” that—as Ratcliffe explains—can be fulfilled “either by listening and/or by acting upon that listening” (31, 76) In this formulation, rhetorical listening is the ethical choice, the correct choice. Ethical people choose to listen. And as Ratcliffe goes on to suggest, the stakes of this ethical choice are high: “such choosing potentially provides a means of physical, psychical, cultural, and spiritual survival” (76). Choosing to listen is choosing to survive. 

But what happens when listening is not an option? What happens to the ethics of Bad Listeners who, in the (neuro)differential interests of our own survival, do not listen? If listening is always already a choice that leads to survival, what does the absence of that choice signify? Who doesn’t survive when no one listens? Who dies?

Since the answers to all of these questions promise to fare poorly for neurodivergent folks, and since I am not particularly interested in predicting my own death, the Bad Listener in me wants to ask a different set of questions. As Margaret Price points out, rhetorical listening is an effective means of communication only when the speaker is deemed rationale, logical, and coherent—read: nondisabled. For those disabled people who cannot hear, speak, or “‘make sense’ on a neurotypical scale,” listening remains an impossible barometer of humanness (Price 44). To Ratcliffe’s credit, Rhetorical Listening preempts critiques such as Price’s by acknowledging that rhetorical listening is only “one tactic”—among others—“for attempting to negotiate troubled identifications that haunt many rhetorical exchanges” (27). In the spirit of building on both Price’s critique and Ratcliffe’s own “open stance” to other forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, what if we were to push back on the ethics of listening? What if rather than denying the ethics of people who don’t listen, which reinforces dangerous assumptions about the (in)humanity of disabled people, we work to accommodate them? What if we reimagined listening as a matter of access?

Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because it’s not the right time or not the right place. This might seem obvious. Everyone has times and places that they would rather not listen, like while they’re trying to nap or read a book. But there are also times and places that nondisabled people assume are meant for listening, that seem to invite listening to happen. In these times and places, we imagine listening occurring spontaneously, suddenly, naturally. Seminars come to mind. My class is scheduled to meet from 3 PM to 6 PM in the room next to the elevator. Someone speaks, and someone responds. Someone else speaks. They are looking at me, the instructor. It’s my turn. I heard someone ask me a question, but I wasn’t listening, not really, not actively or openly or rhetorically. It’s been a bad day, and I’m not feeling up to any of it. I’m tired; my head hurts; my body hurts. The lights—fuck them. I want to cry, but that would hurt worse. (It’s called a meltdown.) I want to cancel class and send everyone home, but here everyone is: looking at me, listening to me, as if I were listening to them. I feel bad that I’m not listening. I’d feel worse if I did listen. I make a judgement call: we’ll continue with class, but I won’t be responding to questions. Write them down, and I’ll respond via email tomorrow. Talk amongst one another. I turn on my phone’s voice recorder. I’ll listen better later.

As a matter of access, listening might be delayed, split into multiple sessions, or moved. To make listening accessible is to adopt crip time, which—to borrow from Ellen Samuels—“requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world.” Operating on crip time, our listening will likewise need to be broken in to new rhythms and patterns, as well as perhaps new modes and modalities, that reflect each participant’s needs in the moment. Instead of relying on the time and place to tell us to listen, Bad Listeners turn inward, asking one another’s bodyminds when and where to listen. I might be in my office during the mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, but now is not the time, Karen. I might also be lying in bed at 2 AM on a Saturday, emailing answers to all of my students’ questions from the week before. As an access issue, listening is contingent on the listeners’ bodyminds. It happens when it happens, where it happens.

But sometimes the access issue isn’t about the when or where. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because we can’t handle the way someone is trying to tell us whatever it is they are trying to tell us. In this case, it’s the delivery that matters. The delivery is the matter. Just as some neurodivergent folks can be triggered by physical (over)stimulation, others of us, me included, are sensitive to the affective intensities bound up with language. These intensities, typically expressed by body language, tone of voice, volume, and cadence of speech, can trigger memories of violence or trauma, regardless of the content of the message. For example, I have a tremendously difficult time processing anger or fear in another’s voice. A raised voice paired with a raised hand, even gesturally, can be utterly devastating. A person could be complaining about something unimportant and entirely unrelated to me, but if they do it in just the right (or, rather, wrong) way, I’ll be sent spiraling. My ability to listen, in many ways, depends on how I am spoken to.

This is difficult territory. Ratcliffe insists that “[d]etermining who should be given priority [in a listening event] depends on each situation,” but some situations are messier than others (98). While the Bad Listener in me insists that delivery—how I am spoken to—falls under the rubric of access, I am aware of how policing delivery can be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy. “The imposition that I be ‘civil,’” Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore write, “is a strategy of white flight, a mode of deflection, mis-direction, a fleeing from responsibility or culpability” (333). Demanding that speakers, particularly those of color, filter their emotions to address my access needs risks reenacting “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race” that disproportionately fall on the shoulders of Black and non-Black people of color (331). Alison Kafer shares this concern, noting that “safety can too easily be deployed as a way of shutting down conversations or excluding particular populations” (12). Though it is simple to draw a categorical distinction between a call for civility rooted in white fragility and a call for access rooted in anti-ableism, both calls could result in the silence of people of color. And such silencing, regardless of the intentions behind it, enacts its own kind of violence and erasure. 

The complexity of this situation—where my very real access needs rub up against the tools of white supremacy—reminds me of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work on “cross-ability access” (65). In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, she thinks through the challenges that emerge from people’s conflicting access needs, which make it difficult or impossible to accommodate everyone at once:

I’ve often seen crip-only spaces fill with feelings of betrayal and hopelessness when we cannot fulfill some of our friends’ needs. Instead, I believe it’s possible to build a model of experimenting and seeing how it works out, then adjusting. We can try, knowing we may fail and things may turn out to be more complicated than we expected. (65-6)

I wonder what such a model of experimentation might look like for rhetorical listening, where people’s conflicting needs are not always related to disability. While the risk of failing to accommodate everyone is real and pressing (and something I’ll return to below), might there not be ways of understanding access as an inherently imperfect solution? Might Bad Listeners reject not only listening-as-usual but also access-as-usual, moving away from the assumption that access can ever be fully given but is, instead, an ongoing praxis, “a process,” a trying that is never settled but always under revision, always changing, always a question (Sheppard)? Much like Yergeau describes neuroqueerness as the endless “striving toward being neuroqueer,” perhaps the value of access lies in its endless pursuit of accessibility, in the potentiality generated by the friction between what we need and what we can offer (76).

Gavin P. Johnson offers a way into this (neuro)queer potentiality with “rhetorical foreplay” (122). Concerned that Ratcliffe’s original formulation denies the embodiedness of rhetorical listening, Johnson introduces rhetorical foreplay as a corrective that “trace[s] the material-discursive intra-actions of theories about and bodies in spacetime” (122). Like Bad Listening, rhetorical foreplay recognizes that rhetorical listening is a deeply em-bodyminded activity that produces queer intimacies among participants. These intimacies, Johnson argues, are essential to the work of rhetorical listening, but they also expose “the possibility of coercive, dangerous, and traumatic entanglements” (133). As such, he suggests that participants in a listening event should “contemplate the rhetoricity of consent” to assist us in “work[ing] through complex situations that are invigorating, frustrating, exhausting, and orgasmic” (133). In the context of access, rhetorical foreplay throws into stark relief the potential pleasures and problems that rhetorical listening can bring to marginalized populations, and the language of consent provides a lexicon with which we can identify and prioritize participants’ needs during a listening event. 

Openly negotiating who needs what and when builds trust, helps to avoid misunderstanding, and spurs creative solutions for addressing conflicting access needs. Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that among the most common “pitfalls” of crip activism is “[n]ot paying attention to the gendered/raced/classed dynamics of care” (65-6). White neuroqueers need to listen to folks of color, including other neuroqueers of color. This is not to say that race trumps disability but that (1) nondisabled people can have access needs and that (2) all access needs are informed by the interweaving of race and disability, as well as other axes of power and subjection. Insisting that listeners establish consent with one another reminds us that communication, like all forms of interaction, is laced with participants’ dis/abled, gendered, racialized, and classed expectations, preferences, and prejudices. While a neoliberal approach to communication would pit marginalized listeners against one another—race against disability, need against need—this strategy both denies the existence of multiply marginalized people and sustains the systems of inequality that produce many access needs in the first place. A consent-based model allows us to create context-specific plans for addressing multiple access needs, even if they are in conflict. These plans don’t always pan out perfectly, but they also don’t absent anyone entirely from the conversation.   

These imperfect plans might seem like a disappointing payoff for the intellectual labor involved in reimagining listening as a matter of access and access as a matter of consent. But I like to think that imperfect access, including imperfect plans, cultivates a unique form of neuroqueer intimacy. This neuroqueer intimacy of access, contra Mia Mingus’s “access intimacy,” is less about the perfect pleasure from when someone “gets my access needs” than about the exhilarating rush of someone working toward my needs—the oh-so-good feeling that someone cares enough to try, that someone cares enough to ask, that someone cares enough.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Failing

…and having said all that, sometimes listening is not a matter of access. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen no matter when, where, or how someone says what they want to say because it’s what they’re saying that’s the issue. Of particular relevance to trauma survivors, some listening events will necessarily be inaccessible because they involve content that will be triggering—full stop. Period. In these cases, I move away from the lens of access because the problem is not with the context of the presentation or with the delivery but with the meat of the material, the stuff of the substance. Ratcliffe concedes that “[s]ometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). So in cases of Bad Listening that are not a matter of access, I adopt the lens of failing, of Bad Listening as a matter of failing. 

Most neurodivergent folks have a long history and complicated relationship with failure. Many of us come to recognize our neurodivergence through failing, through being told that we are bad at something over and over and over again until either someone else pathologizes us, or until we find like-minded kin online who help us to semi-ironically pathologize ourselves. It’s hard to understand neurodivergent failure outside the violence of pathologization. It’s hard for me, even now, to write about Bad Listening without feeling that tinge of shame, that oh look at them try to wriggle out of this one. How embarrassing. But wriggle I shall because, as Yergeau says, “there is potentiality in failing” (144). 

This potentiality builds on what Jack Halberstam has called “queer failure,” when “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, and not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2-3). For neuroqueers, embracing failure offers the opportunity to enjoy bowing out of able-normative logics, to resist what neurotypicals say is normal or right or good and relish our weirdness and wrongness and badness. There is a lot of joy wrapped up in not giving a shit. But neuroqueer failure is not identical to neurotypical queer failure. The costs are higher for us; the risks riskier. To embrace neuroqueer failure, such as Bad Listening, is to make oneself all the more vulnerable to the material costs of pathologization: forced medicalization, involuntary hospitalization, incarceration. To embrace neuroqueer failure is to risk losing the material affordances of playing nice with ableds, of abiding by their rules: employment, housing, healthcare, family, friends. For poor, sick, and undocumented neuroqueers and neuroqueers of color, these costs and risks are even more urgent. Bad Listening as a matter of failing is serious business that verges on the irresponsible; or, less moralistically, on the all-too-fuckin dangerous.

I turn to Sara Ahmed. In What’s The Use? she proposes “queer use as the work you have to do to be” (223). Neuroqueers work very hard to be. Being neuroqueer is hard work. “Perhaps the harder it is to be,” she says, “the more use you have for use” (223). What is the use of Bad Listening? What is the use of failing, of bowing out, of saying no more when the costs are so high? When the risks are so risky? Ahmed continues: “When we cannot make use of some things, we might find uses for other things. What is usually understood as a limit or a restriction can be an opening” (224). Neuroqueers cannot always make use of listening, and this makes us Bad Listeners. Bad Listeners might usually be understood as limited or as restricted. Our failure to listen might mark us as broken or as useless to feminists for whom successful listening is tantamount to successful feminism. And the weight of joy is so very heavy when the world sees us as broken and useless. How can we bear the weight of a future if we cannot withstand the heft of the present? “How to reorient—or disorient—our perceived and involuntary failures?” Yergeau asks, “How to invite failure when failure is read as invitation?” (144).

Maybe it’s not a matter of invitation. Maybe we don’t reorient ourselves to failure. But maybe we do trace the contours of our individual brokenness in pursuit of collective healing, a healing that does not attempt to replace what was (never) lost or to (re)build what was never built but a healing that soothes. A healing that tends to the wounds of guilt, shame, and misrecognition  that are borne by perceived brokenness and uselessness. By being told we are broken and useless. By being scolded for not listening, regardless of why we’re not listening. And maybe, just maybe, this collective healing will reveal new uses that don’t exist in spite of our failure but have, in fact, been produced by our failure. “To offer a queer way of working” writes Ahmed, “is not to start anew, with the light, the bright, the white, the upright; it is to start with the weighty, the heavy, the weary, and the worn” (227). Bad Listeners are weighty, heavy, weary, and worn. Bad Listening takes a toll on the bodymind, even if it is in our own best interest. As a queer way of working, then, Bad Listening might be understood not only as a failure to listen but as a pivoting away from failure as the end, toward failure as the beginning, as the what’s next, as the what else. We don’t have to invite failure to see failure itself as an invitation. 

In this world, neuroqueers fail. In this messy, muddy world, neuroqueers fail and fail and fail. Bad Listening looks to all that failure and says, okay. This is not acquiescence. This is not an embrace of pathologization. This is not a white flag, an admission of defeat. To say okay to failure is to write yourself one of Ahmed’s “permission notes,” to take a step back from the fight and breathe (Living a Feminist Life 244). Bad Listening is breathing, is setting boundaries, is taking a break. Bad Listening is taking a break from breaking and being broken and screaming that we’re not broken. Bad Listening is healing, is self-care, is survival. Bad Listening is going home early. It’s leaving before the movie is over. It’s being absent to your own panel at the conference. It’s missing faculty and committee meetings. It’s crying in your car in the parking lot instead of going to class. It’s having a meltdown in the middle of campus. It’s riding the wave of your panic attack in front of your crush on the second date. It’s telling your own mother that you can’t talk to her anymore if she keeps calling you those names. When she keeps using them, you block her number, and you feel like you’ve lost the only person who ever really loved you. Bad Listening is failing, and it feels like failing, and it keeps you alive.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Survival

Sometimes Bad Listening is a matter of access. Other times Bad Listening is a matter of failing. But at all times, Bad Listening is a matter of survival. In saying no—not now, not here, not that way, not at all—Bad Listeners recognize that listening in itself does not a feminist make. While still sharing in Ratcliffe’s hope for rhetorical listening as a tool to traverse difference—“to see we in they and they in we”—Bad Listeners also cling to Ratcliffe’s admission that “rhetorical listening cannot solve all the world’s problems” (26). Bad Listening sheds light on additional modes of rhetorical (non)engagement that are not given to us neuroqueers but are constructed by us. These modes are not contingent on nondisabled standards of productivity or appropriateness. They do not succumb to neoliberal hierarchies of need, nor do they blame people for needing things while we live in a world that peddles those needs for profit. The modes of Bad Listening are slow and messy and loud; they are made by bodyminds who are in pain and tired and anxious and out of breath and frozen and perseverating and crying and hitting and sleeping and altogether too much and too little. The modes of Bad Listening are all of the things feminists are told not to do, just as neuroqueers are all of the things feminists are assumed not to be. 

But Bad Listening and its composite modes offer neuroqueers ways to stick around. Bad Listening offers us strategies for being in it for the long haul—“it” being feminism, being a commitment to communicating across difference, being a movement to dismantle the very institutions designed to call us bad in the first place. Bad Listening offers me the tools to email my class from bed that today was hard. Let’s try again on Wednesday; to text my date from the bathroom that this restaurant is too loud and crowded. Let’s go somewhere else; and to tell my mom in a handwritten letter that I love you, but you’re hurting me. Let’s take some time apart.  

I am a Bad Listener. I would rather be a Bad Listener than no listener at all. 

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • —. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hinshaw, Wendy Wolters. “Making Ourselves Vulnerable: A Feminist Pedagogy of Listening.” Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe, editors. Southern Illinois UP, 2011, pp. 264-277.
  • Johnson, Gavin P. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay; Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • Kafer, Alison. “Un/Safe Disclosures: Scenes of Disability and Trauma.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-20.
  • Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” Leaving Evidence, 2011. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp, 2019.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. U of Michigan P. 2011.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017.
  • Sheppard, Alice. “I Dance Because I Can.” The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2019. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Yergeau, M. Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP, 2018.

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

  • Barker, Rachael Eliot. Discussion of Conceptual Art. Facebook. 30 Dec. 2019. Accessed 5 June 2020.
  • Boyle, Casey. Rhetoric as a Posthuman Practice. The Ohio State UP, 2018.
  • Chávez, Karma R. “Spatializing Gender Performativity: Ecstasy and Possibilities for Livable Life in the Tragic Case of Victoria Arellano.” Women’s Studies in Communication, vol. 33, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-15. doi: 10.1080/07491401003669729
  • Ceraso, Steph. “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” College English, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 102-123.
  • Droumeva, Milena, and David Murphy. “A Pedagogy of Listening: Composing with/in New Media Texts.” Soundwriting Pedagogies, edited by Courtney S. Danforth, Kyle D. Stedman, and Michael J. Faris, Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State UP, 2018,
  • Duffy, John. Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing. Utah State UP, 2019.
  • Engels, Jeremy. The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2015.
  • Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. U of Texas P, 2004.
  • —. “Rhetoric’s Sensorium.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 101, no. 1, 2015, pp. 2-17. doi: 10.1080/00335630.2015.995925
  • —. “Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 2, 2006, pp. 155-164. doi: 10.1080/02773940600605487
  • Johnson, Gavin P. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay: Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 24, nos. 1-4, 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • LeMesurier, Jennifer Lin. “Somatic Metaphors: Embodied Recognition of Rhetorical Opportunities.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 362-380. doi: 10.1080/07350198.2014.946868
  • —. “Winking at Excess: Racist Kinesiologies in Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America.’” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 2020, pp. 139-151. doi: 10.1080/02773945.2020.1725615
  • Lipari, Lisbeth. Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2014.
  • McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Utah State UP, 2017.
  • McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical Case-Based Approach. Peter Lang, 2009.
  • Morrison, Margaret. “Laughing with Queers in My Eyes: Proposing ‘Queer Rhetoric(s)’ and Introducing a Queer Issue.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 13, nos. 3-4, 1992, pp. 11-36.
  • Patton, Cindy. “In Vogue: The ‘Place’ of ‘Gay Theory.’” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 13, nos. 3-4, 1992, pp. 151-157.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. U of Michigan P, 2013.
  • Rapoport, Sarah. “‘He Kills Me’: AIDS, Activism and the Activation of the Spectatorial Body in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), 1991.” Bowdoin Journal of Art, vol. 3, 2017, pp. 1-29.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. The Experiment, 2017.
  • Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Unfitting Beauties of Transducing Bodies.” Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Writing and Communication, edited by Stuart A. Selber, South Carolina UP, 2010, pp. 94-112.

Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption

As accounts of unsafe responses to COVID-19 stream out of prisons, I feel troubled. 

In Massachusetts, where I’ve organized for prison abolition for several years, it becomes evident that prisoners do not have access to soap, masks, or social distancing measures. Departments of correction and state politicians appear prepared to let prisoners die rather than release them (see Becker, “Coalition Calls”). Maintaining a death grip on the lives of those most vulnerable to illness is posited as safety for others, notably by Boston Police Commissioner William Gross. Speaking alongside Mayor Marty Walsh at a press conference, Gross suggested that releasing prisoners threatened the safety of those of us outside prison, implying that releasing vulnerable prisoners would encourage harm in the community because “you can do whatever you want because there are no repercussions from the court” (“Let Them Stay”). 

Deliberate acts of disidentification are common in public rhetoric about incarcerated people, and it isn’t a surprise to have my safety pitted against theirs by cops. But Gross’s disidentification is troubling because it reveals even more starkly than usual the depth of the difference in our positions. In the name of my life, the deaths of others will be rationalized. For the many of us on the outside who share some common ground of family, friendship, or political solidarity with incarcerated people, the distortion of a complex network of community relationships to an us/them binary is disorienting. Such positioning throws into sharp relief the uneven power dynamics that characterize relationships across carceral boundaries. How is it possible to communicate, organize, and build relationships when our very lives are in competition? The efforts of free and incarcerated prison abolitionists who are committed to co-organizing practices motivate this question and, perhaps less obviously, so does a queer understanding of rhetorical listening. For queer abolitionists, like those of us in Black and Pink Boston, a prison abolition organization providing support to and community with LBGTQIA+ and/or HIV+ prisoners, relationships are powerful sites of potential social and institutional change because they offer opportunities to remake some of the stock identifications and disidentifications that structure broader impressions and general acceptances of state violence and those who are most vulnerable to it, as well as provide solidarity to incarcerated people who may, due to ever-increasing prison restrictions, have few relationships with those outside of their individual prison and small circle of supporters on the outside. 

Revisiting Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness draws out some of the potentials and limits of coalitional practice through the relational modes of individuals—Ratcliffe’s book raises multiple examples of particular relationships that deepen and exemplify rhetorical listening—beginning, of course, with her own relationship to Jacqueline Jones Royster, a prominent Black feminist scholar in the field and former chair of CCCC (in Ratcliffe’s account, Royster’s chair’s address generates the entry points into rhetorical listening). In the practice of rhetorical listening, reflection on the relationship between the individual and the institutional is a component of non-identification, a reflective “pause” where listeners might weigh divisive or oppressive cultural discourses and structures alongside the potential of individually-acted codes of cross-cultural communication that “may interrupt” them (75). What rhetorical listening offers to queer prison abolition, then, is a detailed mechanic for how and why we might simultaneously leverage these interruptions and explore their limitations in the face of a public discourse that bargains with the bodies of prisoners. In return, what queer abolition offers to rhetorical listening is an explicit rendering of how carceral logics—the frames that move us toward easy dis/identifications with others—map onto the cultural logics, the value systems that, in Ratcliffe’s view, can reveal the reasoning skills of those with whom we harbor fundamental disagreements. As I demonstrate here, the varied cultural logics that contextualize a spectrum of claims related to tropes of gender and race vary principally in terms of who and how they might exclude in order to make their claims.  As a result, I read the understanding of “simultaneous commonalities and differences,” an essential component of Ratcliffe’s conscious identification (itself a mark of successful rhetorical listening), as partially crafted by shared and unshared carceral investments in exclusion and disposability. Exclusion, as noted above, describes the terms of who, if not everyone, is included in practices of conscious identification, or in the “cultures” that create rhetorical listening’s interest in cross-cultural communication. Disposability, a correlative concept, sets the level of concern afforded to what happens to excluded subjects, or how their exclusion creates (additional) vulnerabilities. 

Identifications with others, writes Ratcliffe, are often troubled by “uneven power dynamics, oppressive history, and ignorance,” but may be revised through “conscious identifications” to better “foster cross-cultural communication on any topic” (19). A queer abolitionist reconsideration of carceral logics tests some of the radical potential of rhetorical listening—and not only in prisons or other sites of detention. Queer abolitionist readings of power uplift coalitional politics by affirming relationship building and decoding the orientations toward exclusion and disposability that inform how difference functions across what are often deeply entrenched and violent power dynamics. The negotiation of oppressive power dynamics, history, and ignorance cannot be circumvented by the efforts of personal agency alone. As Ratcliffe notes, such attempts at rhetorical listening, in which the personal attempts to interrupt the institutional, will always be partial (75). However, a fuller articulation of the trouble that “haunts” potential identifications across institutional boundaries can enable more expansive listening practices by exposing the carceral logics that delineate who may be heard.

Relationships and Coalition: How Institutional Power Sets Terms of Engagement

In Ratcliffe’s theory, rhetorical listening is rooted in a response to Jacqueline Jones Royster’s call for cross-cultural communication that enacts the coalitional, with an emphasis on sharing location or place.  In “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own,” Royster refers to the knowledges of her home community: “People in the neighborhood where I grew up would say, ‘Where is their home training?’” she writes, “Imbedded in the question is the idea that when you visit other people’s ‘home places,’ especially when you have not been invited, you simply can not go tramping around the house like you own the place […]” (32). In Royster’s illustration, a rhetorical “tramping” across cultural boundaries is a form of trespass, necessitating a “negotiator” who can “cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (34). It is Royster’s ability to make those crossings—cultural, physical, and linguistic—that give her insights that her white colleagues don’t yet know they don’t know. The microaggressions and racism from colleagues detailed in “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own” highlight the violence of the predominately white institution. In response, Royster suggests relational transformation within the profession and the auspices of NCTE/CCCC. “Much, however, depends on the ways in which we talk and listen and talk again in crossing boundaries and creating, or not, the common ground of engagement,” she concludes (40). Ratcliffe highlights the role of negotiator in understanding identifications troubled by power divides in particular, but cross-cultural communication on an interpersonal scale is richest and most relevant when we can do the difficult work of exposing our investments in the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability and what those exposures tell us about who might be missing, cut off, or thrown out of contention. In this way, we might revise rhetorical listening itself to be more attentive to the relationships that don’t, as Royster and Ratcliffe’s do, occur within a shared institution. We might reconsider the very orientations that give access to relationships with others in the first place.

Tracing the trouble in our identifications by looking to the institutionalized sources of “uneven power dynamics” is a vital element of queering rhetorical listening because queerness itself is coalitional, and coalitions can only be built when diverse lived experiences of difference are centered. Policed, court-involved, and incarcerated people did not come by these positions by happenstance; proximity to and risk of incarceration, policing, and other forms of state violence is itself raced, gendered, and sexualized. As Cathy Cohen notes in her landmark essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”, activist communities defined by “some homogenized identity” cannot be the basis for queer coalitional politics. “If there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics,” she writes, “it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin” (438). Cohen advocates for a queerness that supports identifying comrades by their relationship to heteronormative power, demonstrating the ways that raced bodies are also always sexualized, and sexualized against a privileged heteronormativity. Conscious identifications across a range of relationships to institutional power are necessary in Cohen’s theory of queer coalition.

For many queer activists and thinkers, courts, prisons, and street policing are central sites for action in part because they form the axes of dominant norms (e.g., whiteness, heteronormativity, gender conformity, middle and upper class status, and ability) by which we might measure, in Cohen’s words, our “varying relationships to power” (448). In “Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence,” Che Gossett, Tourmaline, and AJ Lewis draw on histories of queer coalitions to demonstrate that “there is, in significant respects, nothing new about making police violence central to a queer agenda,” and to note “the role of intersectionality in determining who among those communities were historically the most vulnerable to police abuse” (“Reclaiming”). These vulnerabilities reveal that much of the troubling in our identifications stems from carceral logics and their engagement with the tropes of gender, sexuality, and race. 

To that end, I posit that a framework for rhetorical listening might shift to include a deeper consideration of the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability. I argue that these logics act as barriers to the “coalition building across cultural boundaries” (77) rhetorical listening promises, as well as the institutional boundaries created by exclusion (who is already excluded from our vision? With whom are we not allowed to contemplate shared places?) and disposal (when not included, where do we imagine or place excluded subjects? Where are they allowed to go?). In part, the boundaries we are most in need of bridging are created not merely through cultural logics, but the relationships to institutionalized power that underpin them. I argue that Ratcliffe’s generative framework might make more room for the queer coalitional possibilities outlined by radical queer prison abolition and activism. To build on the coaltitional vision Ratcliffe stakes on rhetorical listening, I suggest that “proceeding from within an accountability logic” (31) necessitates a critical stance toward exclusion and disposability, two threads of carcerality resisted in transformative justice, an abolitionist practice sprouted from Black and queer feminist organizing, and apply an analysis that rethinks the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability to Ratcliffe’s tactic of listening metonymically as a lens for understanding simultaneous commonalities and differences.

Carceral Logics: Exclusion and Disposability

I use the phrase carceral logics to underscore the relationship that carcerality has to a number of the cultural logics outlined in Rhetorical Listening. For example, the history of white feminist theory engages both disposability and punishment as scenes of liberation for (frequently white, cisgender, heteronormative, and class privileged) women. In The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration, Aya Grubar calls attention to the narrative of “failure of law and legal actors to appropriately penalize male offenders” that animates prevalent feminist support for “stricter policing, prosecution, and punishment of gender crimes” (19). Such support has, over the years, expanded incarcerating measures by taking the efforts of state protection at face value. As Jennifer Nash observes, Black feminists have challenged the commitments of “governance feminism and carceral feminism” by doing “world-making work apart from, and even against, law precisely because law is imagined to be the paradigmatic space of antiblack violence” (111). Similarly, Sarah Lamble notes that “queer investments in punishment” have shifted from “older movement goals of de-criminalizing same-gender sex acts” to newer “goals of expanding criminalization through hate crime legislation” (155). Historically, punishment has set boundaries for how movements can imagine justice and, consequently, coalitions with others. A carceral logic sees exclusion from community as inherent to punishment and necessary for the safety of constituents deemed worthy.   

These exclusions, if not carefully located and articulated, prefigure the horizon of possible identifications with others. Rhetorical listening, possible in a space of “pause,” is one site where carceral logics might be probed and more radical coalitional prospects built. However, exclusion as punishment and punished/excluded subjects as disposable remain unexamined in some of the framing for rhetorical listening. Ratcliffe herself evokes incarceration (of “serial killers”) as an example of a positive social product of disidentification, a rare case wherein we are not asked to pause before engaging disidentification. Further, the example of rhetorical listening that closes her definitional chapter suggests that rhetorical listening is more suited to listening to and making discernments about discourses on incarcerated subjects, rather than engaging them in conversation. In an extended example from Ratcliffe’s text, Rachel, a student grappling with the resonances between a literature class, in which she has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and a criminology class, in which she has listened to a lecture presenting a rationale for granting parole, is able to constellate two different discourses that “likened people to animals” (43). Rachel’s listening is important, as it enables her to draw out and recognize dehumanizing rhetorics at work in both instances. However, the work of accountability logic offered in this example is directed only toward the guest lecturer (in operating from this accountability logic, Rachel says she is “sure” the guest lecturer is a “very nice guy,” presumably despite his use of dehumanizing rhetorics to describe potential parolees). While I don’t doubt that the suspension of blame is useful in this analysis, the incarcerated people at the heart of the conversation are not offered the same consideration, demonstrating that rhetorical listening, when happening among certain subjects, can reinforce the imposed silences of incarcerated or otherwise “disappeared” people in conversations about their lives and freedoms. On one hand, Rachel maintains a stance of openness to the lecturer that, ultimately, guides her to an insight into his dehumanizing language about parolees. On the other, her act of rhetorical listening is limited by the absences of the subjects of incarceration. It is not uncommon, even today, for universities to discuss prison and policing without the input and presence of the very prisoners they reference; Rachel’s listening, as well as its conclusions, are shaped by an institutional norming (not including incarcerated people in conversations about their rights and well-being) that pre-figures who can be heard. Since Rachel has ambitions of working “within the prison system,” (43) this situation reinforces exclusions of incarcerated people along their institutional relationships to power that may actually have come to harm them—how can rhetorical listening attend to these silences and the carceral stratifications they represent? Ratcliffe suggests that the commonalities and differences Rachel surfaces between the lecturer and Morrison’s novel reflect both claims and cultural logics. The difference Ratcliffe presents centers the cultural logics recognized by her student; in Ratcliffe’s words, the difference between a logic of “an inhumane slave economy” and “reform for the prison economy in Wisconsin” (44). And yet, in recognizing these different cultural logics, the shared carceral logic (and practice) of exclusion of incarcerated voices is not presented as a commonality. If rhetorical listening is to enact radical change though the transformation of institutional power dynamics, the trouble we trace must extend beyond the institutional boundaries we share, and across those we do not. Otherwise, those transformations will always be controlled by institutional protocols, even in ways that, as queer prison abolition activism has shown us, need not be as inevitable as they are for Rachel.

As illustrated here, carceral logics imbue even the terms by which we contemplate rhetorical listening happening. In this way, carceral logics might shield us from confronting some of our most entrenched boundaries. In short, the power dynamics of incarceration call attention to some of the limits of our negotiations. If we reach for narratives of hyper-criminality as justification for incarceration (and attendant disidentification), the need for prison is further established. If we invest in rhetorical listening that engages dehumanizing language about incarcerated people without including them in the listening itself, we normalize a conversation in which their agency is suspended through representation and circulation of their politicized selves by outsiders. In these examples, incarcerated people are excluded from participating in conversation about themselves, and are, instead, excised from both free society and the communications that define and negotiate that exclusion.

Accountability Logics in Rhetorical Listening and Transformative Justice

In Ratcliffe’s analysis of bell hooks, accountability logic resists some stock unproductive moves in cross-cultural communication, often related to defusing white women’s defensiveness to Black feminist principles. In order to counter typical arguments made for disengaging racial justice, hooks notes that “more obstacles are created if we simply engage in endless debate about who put [racism]” into feminist spaces. Instead, she holds that “women, all women, are accountable for racism continuing to divide us” (157). Ratcliffe’s iteration of accountability in rhetorical listening translates to a similarly powerful simplicity: “all people necessarily have a stake in each other’s quality of life” (31). 

Since the publication of hooks’ Aint I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, in which these passages appear, Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and queer feminists have engaged varied accountability practices within transformative justice frameworks as an alternative to the carceral logic of disposability. A disposability logic holds that when people cause harm, they cause it as individuals, rather than as actors within larger cultural landscapes of injustice and vulnerability. Within disposability logic, destroying or locking up ostensibly dangerous bodies eliminates the prospect of harm in society, while accountability logics, in Ratcliffe and hooks’s accounts, hold to a much more interconnected and interdependent view of harm and healing. In Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Carruthers argues that “disposal” is not merely a state-organized process of punishment (locking someone up for a lifetime, moving an incarcerated person to solitary confinement, or otherwise dispensing with community members who have caused harm), but includes ways that “the carceral state has colonized our own ways of dealing with conflict” (82). In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba asserts that part of what makes accountability—the acknowledgement and redress of harm caused—difficult is the fact that carceral logics directly discourage people from taking responsibility for hurtful actions. Taking responsibility for harm caused, a fundamental understanding for activist work according to hooks, is figured as admission of guilt and acceptance of state punishment rather than a collective or community task.

Since accountability cannot function as merely an absence of punishment but is a consequential process by which a committed group determines willingness and responsibility to address harm, the identifications and disidentifications we make in the service of accountability are imperative considerations for movement-building. As an alternative to disposal, accountability asks that we contend with the carceral logics that shape politicized, conscious identifications and disidentifications. In her discussion of Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification, Ratcliffe claims that conscious identifications allow for commonality and difference, and that by identifying consciously with others as we are able, we avoid the “coercive force of common ground” (47), reconsidering identifications that center only the ways we are alike, subsuming critical and instructive differences. Accountability logics must include the ways in which our institutional relationships to power (for example, being incarcerated or free) implicate us in each others’ lives, offering stakes more complex and entangled than exclusion and disposal logics allow.

Exclusion and Disposal Shaping Commonalities and Differences

Exclusion and disposability logics shape our listening landscape outside prisons, as well as our relationships to the people living inside them. Indeed, asking ourselves, consistently, who is excluded or disposable in any rhetorical situation offers some insight into how carceral logics, enacted in individual behaviors and by other institutions, might be troubling the very terms under which we engage cross-cultural conversations, encouraging us to listen and speak only within the spheres that appear visible to us.  The potential of individual acts of rhetorical listening to interrupt these logics depend on accountability practices that allow for a clear articulation of the trouble that haunts identification across institutional power dynamics. In addition to speaking across these divides, we also inhabit them, and experience the material and rhetorical consequences as a result. Commonalities and differences, both essential to coalitional practice, are heavily characterized by relationships to power. 

The abilities of rhetorical listening to reveal the exclusion and disposability logics that underpin various cultural logic might transform how we consider the scope of similarities and differences within those same logics. In this spirit, I revisit an integral exchange in Ratcliffe’s analysis of commonality and difference—her analysis of exchanges between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly. By highlighting the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability within commonality and difference in these passages, I consider what rhetorical listening stands to gain from the queer abolitionist theorizing I’ve presented thus far. 

Ratcliffe explains that Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” might be read as an insistence on the racial differences between feminists, whereas Daly’s strategy, in Gyn/Ecology, is to “foreground commonalities” (87), primarily, it would seem, on gender identity and the shared category of “woman.” Rather than privilege one mode over the other, Ratcliffe challenges herself to listen to each of these renderings, distilling the cultural logics and patterns that she believes attends each one (98). By noting the similarity, but not sameness, between these distinct cultural logics of race and gender, she describes the potential for conscious identification as metonymic rather than metaphoric, that is, mutually reflective of both gendered commonalities and racialized differences. In so doing, she hopes that “a focus on simultaneous commonalities and differences may sidestep the binary opposition of who’s right and who’s wrong” (95) but instead allow “each woman’s focus […] to inform and challenge one another” (96).  

I suggest that the conflict between Lorde and Daly is not based merely on the inability to “escape history” when it comes to the racialized and racist construction of the category of “woman” (87), or to how that history shapes both Lorde and Daly’s preference for foregrounding commonalities and differences. Rather, carceral logics underpin how and why commonalities and differences function in these texts, particularly in how they are constructed by Daly. Rather than objecting to the uses of commonalities, Lorde observes how these commonalities are deployed through logics of exclusion and disposability.

To be sure, Lorde objects to Daly’s invocation of “noneuropean women” in Gyn/Ecology, and explains the need for an understanding of differences among women. Importantly, though, Lorde does not object to commonalities foregrounded between women as a necessity for understanding racial difference. Rather, she objects to the particular layout and timing of the commonalities Daly invokes between women. Initially, Lorde was enthusiastic upon reading the First Passage of Gyn/Ecology, even remarking that the focus on “white, western european” women’s histories on the “nature and function of the Godess” engaged her because it “agreed with what I myself have discovered in my searches through African myth/legend/religion […].” Upon seeing whiteness represented uniformly, Lorde first concluded that “Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope and to deal only with the ecology of western european women” (Lorde 67). However, once Lorde reads the Second Passage, she realizes that noneuropean women’s experiences are engaged alongside those of european women’s, but only in the depiction of ritual victimization and exploitation. As Ratcliffe observes, Lorde then concludes that “Black women are portrayed only as perpetrators and victims of patriarchal rituals” in Gyn/Ecology (Lorde qtd. in Ratcliffe 82). And yet, Lorde’s objection to the commonalities between women does not seem to depend only on a desire for foregrounding difference, but on the disparities between when noneuropean women are present and absent in Daly’s text. In Daly’s argument, they have been excluded from the analysis of the Goddess and included “only as victims and preyers—upon each other” (Lorde 67). This conflict itself foregrounds Lorde’s conclusion that Daly is “imply[ing] that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women” (67). In short, Lorde insists on a foregrounding of difference because Daly has proved untrustworthy in drawing commonalities and differences between western and non-western histories, excluding Black women from histories of feminine empowerment, and drawing their purported commonalities in only as negative examples. 

I do not believe that Lorde’s insistence on foregrounding difference here is dependent only on the implicit exceptionalism Daly offers white women. But an attention to disposal asks that we explore not only what commonalities and differences are invoked, but where they position the varied subjects of queer coalition. When and how to demarcate commonalities and differences is as politically important as making these identifications (consciously, to the extent that we are able) in the first place. Indeed, Lorde names the potential possibilities for coalition between herself and Daly as a primary site of her pain in reading Gyn/Ecology: “To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love,” she writes, highlighting possible commonalities Daly might have engaged, “As an African-american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own” (67-8). The precise, limited contours of the rhetorical scope Daly offers Black women is the foundation of Lorde’s objection to Daly’s analysis. Queering rhetorical listening allows for an attention to the exclusions at work in Daly’s argument; she keeps Black history out of the sacred and gestures toward it only in the delineation of the predatory. It is, perhaps, not the act of finding common ground itself that tends toward the coercive, but the uneven power dynamics engaged when Daly describes what is and isn’t in common. 

Daly’s very insistence on the shared commonality of gender, too, gestures to what Julie Kubala has described as “her commitment to a kind of feminist purity that is explicitly transphobic and implicitly racist” (119). The stability of gender and exclusion of trans women, both hallmarks of Daly’s work and general philosophy, make the gendered commonalities between herself and Lorde particularly suspect. As Kubala notes, “transexclusionary claims are fundamentally intertwined with racism, often through a protectionist narrative that universalizes ‘woman’ through shared possibilities of victimization” (130). These same protectionist narratives are at work in the hyper-criminalization of trans people, who are figured in trans-exclusive feminism as deceptive in their gender presentation and, in multiple pop culture representations, as unfeeling killers (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 30). Kubala suggests that trans women in particular are endangered by serial killer archetypes (131). In Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex, Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization, suggests that criminality constructs and enacts the disposability with which state power orients toward Black bodies (59).

A queer abolitionist reading of the Lorde-Daly debate, and Ratcliffe’s figuring of it in Rhetorical Listening, does not reject the merit of resisting a “who’s right and who’s wrong” perspective on debates, despite my interrogation of Daly here, nor does it reject the thoughtful uses of commonalities and differences engaged by metonymic and conscious identifications. However, in this essay I have sketched some of the ways that the commonalities and differences illuminated by rhetorical listening practices might retain and reify entrenched carceral boundaries. We all live in a world where people are, in the name of general survival and safety, excluded, disposed of, disappeared, forgotten, and murdered. As important, we have, as Krista Ratcliffe wrote fifteen years ago, “a stake in each other’s lives.” If rhetorical listening seeks to transform relationships and communication, it can, I believe, extend that ambition to listening along and against the very terms by which we imagine engagement with others is possible or desirable.

Works Cited

  • Becker, Deborah. “Coalition Calls on Governor Baker to Release Prisoners.” WBUR News, Web, May 12, 2020.
  • Carruthers, Charlene A. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Our Movement. Beacon Press, 2018.
  • Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 1997, pp. 437–465.
  • Gossett, Che et al. “Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence.” The Scholar and Feminist Online, vol. 10, nos. 1-2, 2011.
  • Grubar, Aya. The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration. U of California P, 2020.
  • hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Routledge, 2015.
  • Kaba, Mariame, and Kelly Hayes. “A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation.” Prison Legal News, vol. 30, no. 1, 2019, p. 12.
  • Kubala, Julia. “Teaching ‘Bad Feminism’: Mary Daly and the Legacy of ’70s Lesbian-Feminism” in Feminist Formations, vol. 32, no. 1, Spring 2020, pp. 117-136.
  • Lamble, Sarah. “Queer Investments in Punitiveness: Sexual Citizenship, Social Movements, and the Expanding Carceral State” in Queer Necropolitics. Edited by Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, and Silvia Posocco. Routledge, 2014, pp.151-172.
  • Lee, Alexander et al. “Building a Trans and Queer Abolitionist Movement with Everything We’ve Got” in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanleyand and Nat Smith, AK Press, 2011, pp. 15-40.
  • Let Them Stay in Your House: Boston Police Commissioner Criticizes Release of Criminals.” CBS Boston, Web, May 28, 2020.
  • Lorde, Audre. “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing, 1984, pp. 66-71.
  • Nash, Jennifer C. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • 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.

Queering Rhetorical Listening: An Introduction to a Cluster Conversation

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes

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

Works Cited

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

Foreword to Cluster on Queer Rhetorical Listening

September 18, 2020

I’ve just finished watching a terrific documentary-music-video of 2Fik, a French-Moroccan multimedia artist who lives in Quebec. 2Fik’s provocative art includes embodying various contemporary identities, from that of a devout Muslim man and an haute couture feminine runway model to all the characters (men and women) in iconic paintings by Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, and Benjamin West. In the manner of U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman, 2Fik explores the concept of identity by representing each character as having a full back story. In the video, 2Fik sometimes presents as a long-haired woman, other times as a clean-shaven man, and still other times, 2Fik complicates these presentations as trans, sporting a full beard, stiletto booties, a poofy skirt, and what looks to be a waterproof fisherman’s hijab—all the while opera, classical music, electronica, and rap play in the background. 

Self-identified as an agnostic, former Muslim, homosexual fashionista, 2Fik represents an artistic movement known as S.A.P.E. (The Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes or The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). As part of this movement, 2Fik disturbs traditional notions of identity, whether ascribed by others or by the self, asking, “When you see a bearded Muslim, why do you immediately think ‘danger’?” “When you see a woman in a short skirt, why do you think ‘easy’?” 2Fik wonders why we  judge so quickly, especially when, if we take the time, we realize we are often wrong (rather than right, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Blink).

Thus, 2Fik’s artistic goal is to complicate our notions of identity, our own as well as that of others. 2Fik induces us to realize that our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs, and pushes the envelope of identity until we must admit that we are all humans whose identities are open to many interpretations. It is our humanness that 2Fik leverages, admonishing us to embrace and respect other humans, reminding us that identities scare people, even (maybe even especially) those people who strongly embrace an allegedly stable identity for themselves. These same people seem to be afraid of those identities heralded by notions of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, phenotype, clothing, and religion. 2Fik is not afraid. 

Like the authors of the following essays, 2Fik launches an intellectual project at the intersection of race, gender, and public power, that same intersection that legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw mapped out for us in 1989. Her map guides 2Fik into deeper territory—just short of the point where identity meets disability, the specific disability called aging, and rhetorical power (though, to be sure, 2Fik demonstrates incalculable rhetorical power). When I watched 2Fik in action, I thought of Timothy Oleksiak and his intellectual project, which lies at the nexus of identities and rhetorical power, and the ways Timothy has found purchase in his own identities to that end. 

I first met Timothy at the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), when I served as a panelist on how best to become active in the organization. Although the room was filled with interested, questioning people, Timothy is the only one I remember, for he easily distinguished himself with his insightful questions, obvious brilliance, good humor, and already-in-place sense of activism. I feel sure that he didn’t need our advice so much as he needed reassurance that he was headed in the right direction—which he so obviously is, as he serves or has served on the CCCC Executive Committee, the Lavender Rhetoric Award Committee, the Newcomers Welcoming Committee, the Stonewall Service Award Committee, and the Queer Caucus Standing Group. 

So it comes as no surprise to me that Timothy would recruit some of the best minds in his academic cohort to interrogate the ways multiple, sometimes overlapping identities, intersect with rhetorical power and weakness, with the grammar of who speaks, who remains silent, who listens, who refuses to listen, who is discounted or ignored, what can/must/cannot be said, and what those listeners can/not do. Timothy (University of Massachusetts Boston) and Violet Livingston (Michigan State University) have been working at this intersection since at least 2014, when they presented a forward-looking CCCC panel on listening and love in Indianapolis. Together, these two scholars, along with Johnathan Smilges (Texas Woman’s University), Rachel Lewis (Northeastern University), Michael Faris (Texas Tech University), and Storm Christine Pilloff (University of Wisconsin-Madison)—feminist killjoys all—profess their opposition to systems and regulations that marginalize groups of people due to their identities, in the manner of all good feminist killjoys (Ahmed).

Back last century when Kris Ratcliffe (who has written the Afterword) and I were graduate students, sitting together in the rhetoric seminars of Edward P.J. Corbett, we shared the challenge of writing women into the history of rhetoric. After all, we had been told point blank that “there weren’t any.” We might have been proto-killjoy-feminists (uncomfortable with the status quo), but we hadn’t been forged in the crucible of intersectionality like the scholars in this collection who are blasting off from Cape Crenshaw to take up and queer up Kris’s theory of rhetorical listening. In a cascade of cogent essays, they help us appreciate “bad” listeners (à la Roxane Gay’s “bad” feminists), the terms of engagement for listening, the kinesthetics and attunement of listening, the failure of rhetorical listening, the grammar of consent (of being listened to), and the emotional receptivity of queer rhetorical listening. 

Each of these essays complicates, builds on, and extends Kris’s ground-breaking theory to the point that they break the barrier of the speaker-listener dyad itself. When rhetorical listening is in play, who is actually the rhetor, and who is the audience? Is it the rhetor or the listener who is controlling the artistic appeals? Whose ethos is more important here? Which participant is establishing good will, good sense, good moral character? Who is actually devising the stasis, the foundation of common ground?  Who is making sense of the cultural logics that divide them? Who holds the power? How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us? All these essays overlap at the convergence of these questions. And it is that final question (“How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us?”) that will challenge our discipline for at least a generation. 

When rhetorical listening is placed in the foreground (Daly), I wonder what is happening in the background—which brings me back to 2Fik. Underscoring 2Fik’s social media platforms, transmedia performances, and interviews is a backbeat of humanness that propels 2Fik’s thesis: we are human. Our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs. Our identities are not our humanity. Our humanity is not our identities. 

2Fik is not afraid—not of identities, homophobes, or fundamentalists. 2Fik respects the humanness of all human beings. Although he describes himself as homosexual and agnostic, he speaks of loving respect for his human parents, his heterosexual, fundamentalist, devout Muslim parents. How hard would it be for us to think along the same terms, to listen rhetorically to those whose identities are unlike ours in order to establish, remember, and honor what he have in common: our humanness, theirs as well as our own?

Works Cited

  • 2Fik.  “L’identité: sélon 2Fik.” Second regard. TV Hebdo. ICI Radio-Canada.ca.Télé. 2 December 2018.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique. of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, article 1989, pp. 139-67.
  • Daly, Mary, in cahoots with Jane Caputi. Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Beacon, 1987.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Back Bay, 2007.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.