August 8: RIP Nutmeg

In “Works and Days,” Hesiod spoke of a society—a “first generation” of mortal men sprung from gods—so secure that when its people died, “it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods” (lines 109-120; transl. Evelyn-White 1914).

Eventually, this generation passed and second, third, and fourth generations were regressively borne, although the fourth contained one group that recalled some of the “honour and glory” of the first, living in exile, ruled by Cronos, and more or less “happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year” (lines 159-169b). And then there was the fifth: Hesiod’s “current” generation—a “race of iron” susceptible to the virtues and vices, promises and deceptions, mingled goods and evils of a toiling generation—a generation that would strive (lines 170-201).

I oversimplify Hesiod’s etiology, but I used to take strange comfort in what I thought was a moralistic stance towards the non-human animal. Today, I see more clearly what Phelps (2007) and Sias (2015) see in this ancient text—or, rather, what they don’t see, and what Haraway (2007) has likely seen all along. Today, I see more clearly that such a stance isn’t there. As I grieve the loss of my non-human* writing partner and companion [cum panis] of 15 years, there is nothing to help resolve the profound loss that this is, let alone to explain it, or the choices that led to it.

Among the many stances we articulate as human beings—to share, to live, to serve, to harvest, to protect, to diplomate, to plan, to learn, to teach, to love, to create—how best do we articulate a stance for co-domesticating the animal? For our role as domesticating agents that are in service to each other? And on what extra-moral grounds? How do we know we have cared for them well, and whether our unique symbiogenesis gives us the right to determine their fate?

It’s tempting to read Hesiod’s passages any number of ways—they offer the possibility that humans can find abundance in their world without harming, killing, or deceiving. A world this abundant in the first and fourth generations (a fruitful earth so “unforced”) is a world that always produces, so its inhabitants don’t have to take as exorbitantly as they do in the middle or fifth generations. Yet even Hesiod’s best world was characterized by in-agency—both the human’s and the animal’s—leaving the dilemma unresolved.

To one shepherd-husky-hound no longer with me: I will try to resolve this dilemma, someday, in terms that interacting bodies might understand, when the pain is less raw. Not today.


(* Thanks to KJR and AFS for affirming that this bond was more-than-human.) 

April 25: Of Border Walls and Empathy

In “Reflective Encounters,” LuMing Mao first proposed what he called an “etic/emic” approach to studying non-euroamerican rhetorical practices (Style 37.4, 2003). This approach drew on structural linguistics and cultural anthropology to encourage a way of reading that was simultaneously sensitive to the perspectives derived from within a tradition and cognizant of the influence of the dominant perspectives from without of that tradition. The goal of this approach is not to empower a more authentic reading of another culture’s text, but to inhabit a “discursive third” space—an expanded understanding of the nature of rhetorical argumentation as it emerges from negotiated spaces between and within the terms it employs (Mao, “Writing the Other,” 2013). Ideally, it would raise our awareness of how we understand what we read (Mao, “Beyond Bias” 2013).

What makes this challenging in the context of U.S.-based undergraduate rhetorical education is a tension between (1) students’ desire to attain social justice through textual analysis and criticism using western or first-world terms; and (2) students’ own affinity for universalism, where they assume that the extant conditions informing a text must be flattened or elided in order for the text to have humanistic value. In short, the need for affective identification—some sense of commonness with the global population.

The desire for social justice and progressive transformation is something most millennials say they commonly share (along with a distaste for border walls and a desire to break them down). Affective response, empathic communication, and outrospection fortify the expectation that not only can they feel on another’s behalf, but that the best course to understanding is to feel on another’s behalf, no matter the distance separating their experiences or worldviews. However, even as I encourage global activism, I want millennial thinkers in my classroom to become sensitive to the critical problems created by these empathic expectations, to bring the intellectual landscape underlying these problems into deeper relief, and to do so without their feeling compelled to relinquish one set of cultural values for another.


Over the past few years, where I have needed students to be more willing to develop a terminology for critically engaging with conflict and for deconstructing alterity, I have observed that their grounding in a long tradition of Burkean “identification” (Rhetoric of Motives, 1969) reinforces their belief that empathy and social media circulation are sufficient strategies for bridging interpretive distance and attaining cross-cultural understanding. I found these to be unproductive assumptions when developing a senior level rhetoric course that investigates the nature of textuality and its relationship to various media and technologies through the examination of human rights texts.

My challenge in developing this course quickly became conducting it as a study in cross-cultural representation without treating representation as merely the toleration of difference, the importation of global ideals, or the exportation of local methods, leading me to consider some specifically critical methodologies for reading and understanding. In truth, I do not know how sustainable these methodologies are beyond certain learning spaces, but I do know that—while the teaching of writing has begun to more explicitly concern itself with multilingual and translingual pedagogies—the undergraduate writing major has not yet understood itself as a place to prepare students to do global rhetorical work, and I saw this course as one opportunity for that preparation.

When presented with texts out of situ—whether the text was student protests, or narrative testimonials of genocide survivors, or comics journalism, or landmark political addresses—my students’ first response was generally to try to elide the different contexts out of which these texts were made (and continue to be remade), to “liberate” the text and its interlocutors from hegemonic expectations of “difference,” to strive for a discourse “without borders,” so to speak. Their second response was to assume that recirculating text across accessible media gave them equitable power of understanding on another’s behalf, no matter the distance separating their experiences, philosophies, or visual lifeworlds at the moment they encountered the recirculated text.

I think these two responses were well-intended, stemming from a belief that genres are dynamic and vast, and that rhetorical interpretation is a transcendent practice not always bound by standpoint or difference. But as a move toward that discursive third positioning, I asked them to call into question the very implications of this belief. Rather than merely asking students to note textual strategies and evaluate them according to their own or another’s cultural logic, I wanted them to consider how various discourses that operate these cultural logics may or may not support appropriately cross-cultural notions of “circulation,” or “independence,” or “postcolonial,” for that matter.

My goal was not simply to reinforce standpoint, to fortify a native/foreigner distinction, or to insist that they could not authentically occupy the “other’s” place. My goal was to help them question the pervasiveness and dangers of empathy as the sole interpretive construct through which they worked and the sole outcome they hoped to attain through rhetoric. My goal was also to help them imagine a space for negotiating certain interpretive responsibilities that did not merely re-prioritize the dominant rhetorical tradition in which they had been trained. I wanted them to recognize their own tendency to say “because I relate to the other’s story, I am qualified to interpret it,” when the story to which they relate might still rely on fictive notions of “I” and “other.”


Achieving alternative methods for analysis in this course revealed our mutual struggle to reconstruct cross-cultural imaginaries for the sake of rhetorical interpretation, even as students’ own neoliberal positioning attuned them to the need to break all cultures down into imaginaries. I observed two reasons behind this struggle.

First, moving beyond “nation” as a locus of inquiry was a challenge all semester long because “nation” is a finite concept that students were willing to re-imagine but not to de-value, even when several of our readings directly challenged the notion that nations are the best construct through which to observe rhetorical dominance. Second, students resisted discussions of discourse that did not result in a concrete sense of belonging, or in an answer to the question of, “Well, then, where does this text—or this person—rightly belong?” by which they meant, “How can we possibly value this text if we don’t know who else will?”

Where we might feel compelled to restore to these textual performances a sense of nationalistic privilege, or where we might feel compelled to resolve a presumed tension between the native/foreigner distinction, instead I encouraged us to think about border, nation, and citizenship not as finite constructs or even human decisions, but as part of a text’s life cycle, and therefore as rhetorically distributed ideals.

For example, because we study rhetoric, we can analyze Thabo Mbeki’s 1996 address before the South African Parliament in certain ways and accept its significance. But if we want to ask ourselves why the remediated speech that circulated as a digital poem set to images from South Africa’s Kwazulu tourism bureau is also significant as a human rights text, we need to be able to ask a set of questions about collective place and transnational identification that don’t occur in our standard discussions about postcolonial positioning. In this view, decolonizing the recirculated text becomes a deliberate choice followed by a deliberate process (Nussbaum, Political Emotions), rather than the performance of empathy, or even the acknowledgment of circulation.

Achieving such an analytic is my ongoing challenge. After my third semester with the course, I don’t think I have found a way to convey that “native” and “foreigner,” “inside” and “outside” are best understood not as binaries, but as polarities—as idealistic “tendencies that are always in a state of interdependence and a process of becoming” (Ashby, “Uchi/Soto in Japan,” RSQ 43.4). In reality, the concepts themselves have no inner or outer limits until and unless we impose them, inviting us to question the art of that imposition—to accept global rhetorical literacy as the most dynamic, most distributed construct.

In order to arrive at something like a rhetorical literacy of globalization for the undergraduate writing classroom, students need various ways of recognizing how they participate in circulation, regardless of whether they feel responsible for what and how they circulate. In turn, we need a praxis of cross-cultural critique that is based in a literacy of distributed reception. Moreover, this praxis would need to present reception as critique, and to not settle for empathic identification, even as it refuses the border walls.


January 27: Not Your Mother’s Cultural Studies

This semester’s Rhet/Comp graduate reading group at FSU has been raising and grappling with some challenging questions at the intersections of human rights, rhetoric, and composition pedagogy:

  • What trends or developments in Rhet/Comp theory over the past 67 years might be refreshed by what we’re understanding as “human rights” discourse, or by the questions raised by its study?
  • Is making civil rights into a humanizing discourse (for teaching writing) the answer to avoiding colonizing tendencies in the teaching of writing, or to fostering empathy to civil rights in our pedagogical work?
  • What is needed for a sense of civil history, and what do we do when these needs conflict with what we perceive is needed for writing? For that matter, who controls the definitions/parameters of “civil rights”?
  • How do we teach ocular epistemology (and make it rhetorical) without standardizing it? How can we teach it without reducing it to something tacit to “look for”?
  • For that matter, how do we avoid over-objectification, messianic syndrome, or hyper-representation in our teaching?
  • What kinds of processes should we be encouraging in our classrooms, what (set of) constructs should we define as “human rights” discourse, and how do those align with other methods, theories, processes, threshold concepts we teach?
  • How will we know when our students arrive?
  • Ultimately, (how) might we be at risk of epistemically excluding others in this quest?

The unanswered question remains: (Why) Should we all care?

For one of our meetings I asked us to put Royster and Cochrane’s “Civil Rights and Human Rights” (RSQ 41.3) into conversation with selections from Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics (Duke, 2011), and in some ways it was difficult. While Royster and Cochrane argued concretely for reinvigorating two discourses—civil rights and human rights—historically through a particular community’s practices, Hesford argued abstractly for developing a critical ocularcentrism about representations that are delivered through spectacle. Heavy on my mind was the ease with which our discussion might be polarized by aligning “human/civil rights discourse” with “cultural studies,” and placing it outside the reasonable purview of Rhetoric and Composition.

In some discussions and circles, this polarization occurs very often for any number of reasons: the belief that focusing on writing is inherently different from focusing on systems of power; the perceived staleness of Berlin’s (1992) imperative to see culture and rhetoric as synonymous; a renewal of Fulkerson’s (1990) delineation of theory, epistemology, and composition; a weariness of Fulkerson’s (1990) delineation of theory, epistemology, and composition; to name only a few.

At the same time, I thought Royster and Cochrane’s argument presented us with several possibilities for understanding how Hesford’s ocularcentrism (and similar concepts) can become central to college composition at all levels:

  • The possibility that … African-American contributions to composition are inextricable from the tradition of reinvigorating practices, and in turn, inextricable from discussions of writing efficacy (i.e., we don’t talk about writing efficacy without talking about reinvigorating practices);
  • The possibility that … the recognition politics that constitute civil/human rights actually are the current domain of composition, have historically been (keeping in mind that many histories are still unrealized), and will continue to be in certain communities—perhaps even in new political climates;
  • The possibility that … “illusion of difference” is actually central to composition pedagogy in and among communities or institutions where “difference” is more of a daily occurrence, and this may not always be visible in “white-dominated” contexts;
  • The possibility that … for many composition practitioners, teaching the tools of composing is inextricable from questions of exclusion and access;
  • The possibility that … movements toward everyday writing reflect some of the same desires that catalyzed Kinneavy’s “basic aims of discourse,” “students’ right to their own language,” and theories of voice—to some extent, these were public projects stemming from conversations about who values what kind of (human) activity;
  • The possibility that … the idea “that’s not the domain of composition” is actually a temporary luxury.

My goal in asking us to treat these conversations as if they were necessarily aligned—indeed, as if it weren’t an option to think about teaching writing without thinking about human rights in some critical or methodological sense—was neither to justify nor to debase the cultural studies dilemma. Instead, I meant to argue that this is, in fact, the optimum time to question Rhet/Comp’s various alignments and disalignments with civil rights, and to rearticulate its “place” where culture and power are concerned.

On the eve of Executive Order 13769, I wonder by whose axioms or reasoning we ever had the luxury to separate epistemology (more specifically, to separate knowledge about writing) from humanistic concerns. When did the questions of how, when, and what students learn—or of how language and imagery function together or apart, or of how conventions grow from and beyond social expectations of genre—cease being tied to power? Why/how/where did we ever consider any aspect of writing—from efficacy to imagery to linguistics to access—politically irrelevant (within or without of the university)? When did composition get away from study of/by/with/through/for culture? I’m not so sure that it has.

Just because a course is situated in difference—or writing difference, or discourses that result from certain kinds of difference—doesn’t mean that it is not focused on writing, not turning our attention to writing, or not being delivered through an exclusive commitment to writing as knowledge making. Thus, my own contention with this perceived composition/cultural studies divide is that it is rooted in an outmoded tendency to introduce Eurocentric Critical Theory into the writing classroom as a subject (rather than a process), and perhaps buoyed by falsely dichotomous notions of “culture” and “composition” (or even “composition” and “power”) that puts them at odds.

While I would argue that we must continue to have healthy discussions about the parameters of our field, I would also argue that this dichotomy is not the most pressing. Whether or not we subscribe to “cultural studies” as a singular ideology or even a singular historical moment seems besides the point, when there is a more pressing conversation surrounding the function of writing in knowledge building and innovation. For such conversations to go forward, it isn’t sufficient to set up camps between “composition” and “culture” without universalizing the criteria that cause some approaches to get labeled as “compositional” and others as “cultural”—particularly if they both focus almost exclusively on writing activities and epistemology. For me, these concepts are not incompatible, and thus it is time to rearticulate.

I doubt this rearticulation will resemble composition’s post-Fordist debates, thought it may well recognize the temporary luxury of pursuing composition’s own epistemology apart from the very real situations in which (and through which) it is deployed.


November 8: Of Psychagogia and Involuntary Agents

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, tragic actions are described—at their core—as “involuntary” (unintentional), where intention is linked not to choice or to will but to an understanding or misunderstanding of the action’s fullest outcome:

But the term ‘involuntary’ does not really apply to an action when the agent is ignorant of his true interests. The ignorance that makes an act blameworthy is not ignorance displayed in moral choice (that sort of ignorance constitutes vice)—that is to say, it is not general ignorance of the circumstances of the act and of the things affected by it; for in this case the act is pitied and forgiven, because he who acts in ignorance of any of these circumstances is an involuntary agent.

–The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (London, 1926; rpt. 1975), 3.I.15

Time and again I have invited students to make sense of this—of this passage, this section in the Ethics, this entire text—in light of more contemporary tragic actions and moral systems. Time and again, we have concluded that Aristotle’s subtleties in definition must have been made in the service of theorizing Goodness as a more practice-able, service-able art. Is “goodness” inherent?, we would ask ourselves. Learned? Acquired through social or political activity? Does it represent a way of living or a way of being? Is “goodness” a stable enough dynamic against which all other moral actions can be measured? Does Aristotle’s notion of “involuntary agent” make it more or less possible for individuals to be responsible? To be good?

Today, I am keenly aware of the challenges posed by this passage and a new set of questions to pose to students. The concept (“involuntary”) itself remains difficult to contend with when accounting for individual responses to political events. But today, the concept seems nearly impossible to apply in the face of the political spectacle that has been determined by our electoral college system, or in response to political actions that are performed through catharsis.

Throughout the Ethics, Aristotle argues that it takes a special kind of political agent to be the knowledge maker. While my students have openly criticized the racialized, imperialized, engendered nature of the qualifications that governed Aristotle’s “special kind of agent,” they have rarely disagreed that there is a need for one. Today, for the third time in this millennium, I wonder whether this agent has been abandoned altogether, or is at best an archival fiction—never actually realized beyond Aristotle’s lecture notes, and not realizable among the voluntary.