[Rough, unedited transcript of my CCCC 2023 Panel Presentation. The panel was titled “Making Global Rhetorics Central to the Classroom in Difficult Times,” and we presented during session I.06. Several folks have asked for a transcript. Please attribute and cite if you use this in any way. I’ll gladly send you the accompanying slides — just query at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you. -tsg]
“Teaching Global Rhetorics alongside Anti-Racist and Decolonizing Agendas”
Anti-racist – characterized by a process of identifying, reversing, and correcting—through investigation, consultation, processing and continuation—racist policies and behaviors, or those policies and behaviors that otherwise perpetuate racist ideals or actions (Bonilla-Silva, Racism; Gilyard, Race).
Comparative – characterized by the examination, re/historicization, recontextualization, and imagination of communicative practices across time, space, and disposition, usually with the goal of shifting ethical, epistemic or political orientations or discovering different terms of engagement for new rhetorical times (Mao, “Redefining”; Mao, et al “Symposium”; Lloyd, “Comparative”).
Decolonial – characterized by the questioning of the legacy of the “matrix of power” of coloniality and the options it articulates, often in the “intermediary state of a question,” and often in service of critically delinking institutional repositories from their geographical, geospatial, and cultural expectations (García and Baca 15; Mignolo, “Delinking” 309; Mignolo, Darker 9).
The June 2021 issue of College English featured a special cluster of essays working toward a theory of pluriversal rhetorics, co-edited by Ellen Cushman, Damian Baca, and Romeo Garcia. The editors’ introduction claimed some separation between their practice and cultural rhetorics, suggesting a scrutiny of cultural rhetorics, and arguing that the field’s uptake of “cultural rhetorics” has resulted in reinscribing or re-operationalizing the same master narrative it seeks to deconstruct. The editors encouraged readers and scholars of cultural rhetorics to transcend the authenticity argument, i.e., not to presume that some stories are more authentic than others because they are inherently more “original” or “underrepresented.” The special issue garnered fairly immediate attention on social media, and inspired a spectrum of reactions, many readers reacting to one of three things: the editors’ harboring of the notion of a “pluriversal world” to describe what some felt was a critique of the work of scholars of color; the implication that cultural rhetorics was a failed epistemology; and the possibility that contributors to the special issue may not have known their work would be framed or contextualized in that way.
This brief summary doesn’t do justice to the special issue introduction or to the conversations that ensued — the moment was far more critically rich — but I mention this event because in that same moment, officers of the Global and Non-Western Rhetorics Standing Group of the CCCC were discussing our own understanding of the issue and possible vehicles for response. That discussion heightened my sense of ideological separation between comparative work, decolonial work, anti-racist work, and DEI agendas as they are often articulated or enacted on our respective campuses, when those terms function as descriptors.
Also at the same time, Hui Wu and I and 26 other contributors were just finishing Global Rhetorical Traditions, and I was trying to articulate for the critical introduction how our volume reflected actual and potential alignments between comparative rhetorical studies and decolonizing and anti-racist agendas.
I was also preparing the second iteration of my own Global Rhetorics graduate seminar for a program that was committed to theories of difference inasmuch as those theories and that difference centered on Black rhetorical studies. More specifically, I was trying to determine how to situate this course more centrally within a statewide curriculum that had adopted an official stance towards diversity and inclusion, but adopted it in such a way that it could not accommodate critically comparative ways of thinking. I was also struggling to redefine the course so that it could appeal to graduate students with little to no background in comparative rhetorical work, and with limited linguistic exposure beyond English or beyond a home language that typically differed from the languages underlying the traditions were going to study.
I began querying colleagues at other programs to ask their perspective on one or more of these issues and I observed three things: (1) the relationship between racism and attention to linguistic systems is vexed, i.e., graduate students were uncertain about how much attention anti-racist theories should give to language, even to language difference, and thus shied away from comparative work, assuming that it went counter to their understanding of linguistic justice; (2) there is an assumption that comparative or global rhetorical work is either unresponsive to specific cultural moments, or still tied to colonial matrices of power; (3) and even in an era of intense globalization the commitment to exposing students to explicitly cross-cultural topics is too little understood.
I have observed that discussions of “global” and “comparative” are not always aligned with “anti-racist” and “decolonial,” in part because all four terms are often used descriptively rather than generatively or heuristically.
So, in the minutes that I have left, and in response to recent calls for and critiques of “comparative rhetorics” by scholars in composition studies, rhetorical studies, transnational studies, and cultural studies, I will argue for recognizing in comparative rhetorical studies a fundamentally necessary site of epistemic inclusion: specifically by considering how a comparative approach can achieve the following: (1) reveal tensions between various notions of anti-racist agendas; (2) act as a prelude for developing rhetorical empathy; and (3) help students to recognize sites of global knowledge-making within and beyond the university, especially in the present moment when these agendas are under assault.
FIRST ALIGNMENT: A comparative approach to rhetorical study can reveal tensions between various notions of anti-racist agendas held by students in our programs, the greatest of which seems to revolve around the uncertain nature of linguistic centrality and, by extension, the uncertain role that linguistic imaginaries can and do play in rhetorical study.
I observed that graduate students were hesitant to take on that work, or uncertain how to feel about it because it disrupted their more commonly held notions of what anti-racist teaching is. And yet I maintain that comparative work does involve attending to linguistic, stylistic, and grammatical difference, often studying the evolution of these trajectories over time, and within and between geographical spaces.
Culturally comparative claims for most rhetorical traditions are, themselves, centered around attention to linguistic systems, but it is important to recognize that attending to linguistic systems isn’t only about reinforcing dominant language systems. In fact, all of the contributors in GRT worked quite hard to recuperate this emphasis on language in order to demonstrate how a critical rhetorical gloss could emerge from within cultural traditions, rather than be imposed from without, and to consider how that gloss brought other usages into question.
In GRT, as I stated in its introduction, contributors tried to discomfit the binary distinction between actions that serve language maintenance and actions that serve language change. Implicit in the global study of rhetorical treatises is a relationship between “stable” and “unstable” conceptualizations of language (Clackson; Fishman; Schmidt-Rohr). Whereas “stable” conceptualizations of language imply maintenance and preservation, “unstable” conceptualizations imply fluctuation and change based on the same circulatory factors that occur when dominant tongues become replaced by or subsumed within their modern variants.
However, the comparative recovery and study of rhetorical treatises in various languages does not necessarily mean tracing when and how a dominant language has given way to its variants, or establishing one language’s dominance over another. Rather, in theory and practice it means attending to the periods of textual mobility that allowed certain rhetorical practices to become vigorously and concurrently co-opted or shared among diverse cultures and geographical spaces.
SECOND ALIGNMENT A comparative approach to graduate rhetorical studies can act as a prelude for developing rhetorical empathy, what Lisa Blankenship defines as “both a topos and a trope, a choice and habit of mind that invents and invites discourse informed by deep listening and its resulting emotion, characterized by narratives based on personal experience. Both a hermeneutic and a heuristic, a way of thinking (and feeling) constituted by language and a way of using language” (Changing the Subject, 5).
The contributors in GRT were working toward this sentiment of equipping readers to deeply listen and to achieve a symbiosis between the two critical stances of interpretation and invention. Each responding to specific cultural moments, demonstrating that their work engages directly with critiques on comparative rhetoric and engages critically with disciplinary activism.
Much of the work in this particular volume was borne from actual need—from scholarly and lived situations marked by intolerances and fundamentalisms. This became evident during the earliest responses to our call for papers, when we saw in contributors’ responses that their colleagues in comparative literature, classics, and religion held a greater ideological tolerance for cultural and linguistic variation than did colleagues in their closer disciplines of rhetoric, literacy, composition, or communication studies.
THIRD ALIGNMENT: A comparative approach can help students to recognize sites of global knowledge-making within and beyond the university, especially in the present moment when these agendas are under assault.
I am reminded of the importance of learning to talk about – and not only learning to contend with – the increasingly corporatized efficiency measures that work against our pedagogies and programs in today’s university. Within my own university, I witnessed a surprising evolution in our liberal studies “diversity” requirement.
As a result of our strategic plan, we had re-articulated and required students to fulfill two different initiatives: “cross-cultural” and “diversity in the Western experience.” While the methodologies were never well articulated, each had a distinctive aim. To fulfill the cross-cultural requirement, students had to demonstrate evidence of cultural consciousness. To fulfill the diversity in Western experience requirement, students had to demonstrate evidence of cultural literacy.
Recently, the global or cross-cultural became subsumed under the diversity initiative in such a way that there is no longer a differentiation between cross-cultural outcomes and outcomes of diversity in the western experience. In response to increasing pressures from the state to move students through their education more quickly and thus admit and enroll students with up to 2.5 years of college courses already complete, the Faculty Senate voted to merge both initiatives into one, giving students maximum flexibility and admitting that they did not see the distinctions between them very helpful. As a result of this merged requirement, students can now complete an entire college education without having been asked to study a cultural group in explicitly global contexts.
While this is an issue for the undergraduate curriculum rather than the graduate curriculum, I see this as a missed opportunity to fundamentally recenter contemporary conceptions of “Liberal Studies” in critically comparative work. It is also a missed opportunity to recognize the bubble up effect that this merging will have on our graduate programs, as yesterday’s undergraduates are today’s graduate students.
I’d like to offer an example of how these three alignments might look in an activity in a graduate seminar centered in comparative rhetorical methods. This activity is constructed around the remediation or recirculation of two concrete examples that focus on the pan-African diaspora. And it consists of discovering cultural and linguistic imaginaries in intercultural remediations of these events.
We begin with the May 8, 1996 address of then Deputy President (or vice-president) Thabo Mbeki to the South African parliament on the occasion of the ratification of the country’s new constitution when, contrary to tradition, Mbeki delivered something like a griot performance. This has since become known as simply “I am an African,” has been taken up in both official and unofficial contexts as a centerpoint for explaining the waning enthusiasm toward the African National Congress party in South Africa, formerly the party of Nelson Mandela, and was recently invoked in the current South African president, Ramaphosa’s, state of disaster address.
We watch and listen to the full transcript.
We then watch and listen to one of the more well circulated remediations of that speech, reclassified as a video “poem” for transposing several of Mbeki’s stanzas onto a visual and audio backdrop of images reflecting the so-called “Rainbow nation,” and promoted by South Africa department of tourism.
We finish by reading more of Mbeki’s writings in the context of his current foundation, working toward a South African renaissance and a recuperation of democratic deliberation among fragmented parties.
We pose the following questions to the remediation: (1) What are the different conceptions of “Africa” and “African” and “renaissance” we are being asked to contend with in this remediation? (2) What do its creators hope we will notice, embrace, resist, or reject? And (3) How have we come about this knowledge and/or why do we answer these questions in the way that we do?
Finally I ask students what conclusions we could draw, or what possibilities could be raised, if we were to consider the remediation as a simultaneous reflection of and challenge to Pal Ahluwalia’s “Negritude.”
For Ahluwalia, Negritude has always presented a paradox. It has emerged primarily from European conceptualizations of “Africa” while also providing an “authentic subject position” for comparatists to study (271 Ahluwalia). To deconstruct this symbolic subjectivity, Ahluwalia argues for the recognition of “pan-African” as the connection between Africans in Africa and those in diaspora (272), departing from questions about what makes an authentically African self.
More specifically, he argues to avoid reducing “Africa” to a metaphor of progress and therefore to avoid its becoming an empty signifier: a nullity into which we insert our own beliefs about democracy and diaspora (Ahluwalia, “The Struggle for African Identity” 272). He instead suggests a set of active and ongoing geopolitical tensions (Ahluwalia 275).
We might generate something like the following list:
- It is difficult to delineate between African traditions that are wholly “indigenous” or wholly “colonial”
- Working through both ancient and contemporary philosophical positions that are attributed to “Africa” — and different conceptions of Africa — may help us to articulate an indigenous theory of “Orientalizing” where Africa is concerned, and to become more sensitive to it.
- From a cross-cultural rhetorical perspective, “African” is still in the making (i.e., nations within nations, languages within languages, etc.).
Ultimately, we conclude that Mbeki both enacts and contradicts Negritude—that a “renaissance” can be an attempt toward restoration, or it can be an act of political and cultural resistance to injustice, oblivion and misrepresentation. We consider that renaissance is neither embodiment nor rejection of but rather an opportunity to deconstruct and re-operationalize “Negritude” for continued rhetorical study. And we consider how many of our own assumptions about “renaissance” must be overcome in order to recognize this performance.
Ahluwalia advocates for Africanists to adopt a non-symbolic conceptualization of “Africa” (275) and I think this is the most significant contribution comparatists can make, and the most important thing for us to convey in our graduate seminars, i.e., an anti-racist agenda is in fact not a symbolic representation but rather a series of actions in response to active and ongoing tensions between language, culture, and geospace.
“One person’s sovereignty may be another person’s vulnerability. … In our efforts to promote democratization through an understanding of rhetoric we should not let opportunities for participation lead us to ignore what rhetoric has not done and perhaps cannot do to transform the material conditions of people’s lives” (Marback, Managing 22)
Having completed this activity, during the next class session, we examine Richard Marback’s rhetorical repositioning of Robben Island, in which he takes up Philippe Salazar’s “African Athens” metaphor.
In his book-length study of South Africa’s Robben Island and the ways in which certain memorial spaces cause harmful ideologies to prevail past apartheid-era politics, Richard Marback constructs his argument in terms of vulnerability and sovereignty in part to complicate the notion that South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy has been “mostly peaceful” and “deliberative.” He explores the resonance of Robben Island (a single rhetorical artifact through South African life).
In class, we read his “Preface” aloud together before creating a map of his concerns. More importantly, we map his concerns on the board or in a digital workspace as inventive questions. That is, which of his concerns lead him/us to identify questions that need to be asked:
- Why Robben Island?
- How does this pile of stones represent rhetorics of conciliation?
- Isolation: is it silence or authority?
- How do South Africans occupy rhetorical space?
- How can they and we re-occupy it?
We then put our findings into conversation with Philippe Salazar’s “African Athens” in order to recognize the various ways that Robben Island has become or could become both a resource for constructing conciliatory arguments to support anti-racist work and a way to trouble those conciliatory arguments.
Salazar had, upon immigrating to South Africa in the 1970s, envisioned the nation as a “postmodern analogy of ancient Athens, acting in postmodern Africa in the same manner as Athens did in ancient Greece. Like its model, South Africa is surrounded by tyrannies with which it entertains a love-hate relationship (xviii-xix). And so, in his book, which was and remains a landmark text, Salazar represents South Africa as a space that is a powerful rhetorical agent for integration in a democracy. Ultimately, he considered South Africa to be a blueprint for the construction of a great European nation, and in his concluding chapter, he argues for Robben Island as a kind of foundation rhetoric, helping to “mark places with names and words” and helping to “give democratic space a vocabulary” (164).
Following this exercise, I ask each student to trace one of the six chapters in Marback’s book for the following topics (which we compile together as a class, resulting in a synthesis of perspectives on Marback’s projects):
- Conceptions of “Africa” and their probable causes
- Traces/resonances of “African philosophy” and their probable origins
- Topoi, tropes, or doxa that constitute an African “rhetoric” from the inside (South Africa). From the outside (Europe).
- When/where arguments for cultural and political sovereignty can give way to arguments for rhetorical vulnerability
- What conceptualizations of cultural and political sovereignty we must embrace (or overcome) in order to recognize this giving way
Marback’s consideration of how South Africans occupy rhetorical space and how they (and we) can re-occupy it reflects social movement work as the unfolding of political imagination. It’s this unfolding of political imagination and the move from sovereignty to vulnerability that comparative approaches make possible. Showcasing the diversity, disparity, complications, recirculations, and failures of various textual events can encourage students to think more generatively about border, nation, space, and language not as static entities, but as part of a text’s life cycle, and therefore as rhetorically distributed constructs.
Pan-African rhetoric is best understood as an assembly of speech acts that transcend the need to essentialize or homogenize African social systems, beliefs or doctrines but rather attend to their practices in and between colonized and decolonized contexts (Ochieng, “Ideology”).
“In traditional African culture, rhetoric is social action.” (Ige, Companion xvii).
Several years ago, and again more recently, Omedi Ochieng has argued for a decisive shift from the essentialist view of pan-African rhetoric as indigenous expression toward a notion of “infra-constitutive forms of rhetoric” that help to reveal practices within social formations in African cultural political and social systems (“Ideology”; “What is?”). This involves recognizing an assembly of speech acts that transcend the need to essentialize or homogenize African social systems, beliefs or doctrines but rather attend to their practices in and between colonized and decolonized contexts (“Ideology”; “What is?”).
More recently, Segun Ige argued in the introduction to A Companion to African Rhetoric: “In traditional African culture, rhetoric is social action” (xvii). To represent African rhetorical practices is to present an ontological progression through nomenclature and language.
And this is precisely where I understand our comparative scholarship has led us.
When they are only understood and presented as stances—as descriptive descriptively as statements of positioning—the terms comparative, global, decolonial, and anti-racist might show only minimal alignment, and volatile at that. However, when understood as approaches, processes, or methodologies working towards the same or similar outcomes, they might retain their disciplinary nuance and be better understood as mutually constitutive questions and practices that enhance one another, especially in a climate of ideological unrest.
I have not yet encountered a graduate program in our field that is non U.S-centric by default, although there are a growing number of courses, tracks, and possibly even certificate programs that hinge on comparative or global topics. But the absence of comparative lenses and methods from the U.S.-centric rhetoric and writing graduate curriculum signals missed opportunities to recognize the Orientalizing, colonizing, and neoliberal logics that are perpetually at work in how our graduate students are taught to read and research, even when they are exposed to liberal studies agendas that claim to diversify and include.
In sum, I argue for the importance of recentering the rhetoric and writing graduate curriculum in comparative rhetorical studies, especially in a political climate that is hostile toward anti-racist agendas, specifically by studying what occurs when certain traditions recirculate across global contexts and interface with other cultural traditions.
The time for such re-alignments is now. Now, with the threat of DEI initiatives being defunded and – in some Kafkaesque reality – declared to be violations of state law, Global Rhetorics may be one of the few places in the curriculum still viable for teaching theories of difference, and may serve as a conveniently overlooked site for taking a historically responsive and socially responsible approach to rhetorical studies. At least, that is my hope.
“Since not every single discursive practice by or about the other can be studied, we must be deliberate in what we include or exclude and explicit about whether the work at hand is more important to the players then and there or to us as scholars here and now. … [W]e must foreground how our representation reveals our own experiences and affiliation and speaks to our own authority and legitimacy. … [I]s there some standard or heuristic out there that can somehow stand outside, or stand up to, this perennial urge to appeal to one’s own value or worldview?” (LuMing Mao, “Writing the Other,” 2013, p. 44-45)
WORKS CITED & REFERENCED
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——— . The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke Univ Press, 2011.
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——— . “What is African Rhetoric? The Constitutive Imagination in Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings,” In A Companion to African Rhetoric, edited by Segun Ige, Gilbert Mothsaathebe, Omedi Ochieng. Lexington Books, 2022.