February 17: CCCC 2023 Panel Talk

[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 tgraban@fsu.edu. 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)


Ahluwalia, Pal. “The Struggle for African Identity: Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance. African and Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2002, pp. 265-277.

Blankenship, Lisa. Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy. Utah State UP, 2019.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th Edition. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.

Clackson, James. “Language Maintenance and Language Shift in the Mediterranean World during the Roman Empire.” In Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman Worlds, edited by Alex Mullen and Patrick James, 36–57. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Dadugblor, Stephen Kwame. “Usable Presents: Hybridity in/for Postcolonial African Rhetorics.” Comparative World Rhetorics, ed. Keith Lloyd, pp. 250-258. Routledge, 2021.

Fishman, Joshua A. “Domains and the relationship between micro- and macrosociolinguistics.” Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Speaking, edited by J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, 407–434. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.

Fishman, Joshua A. “Language Maintenance and Language Shift as a Field of Inquiry.” Linguistics: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences 2, no. 9 (1964): 32­–70. https://doi.org/10.1515/ling.1964.2.9.32

Garcia, Romeo, and Damian Baca, Eds. Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions. NCTE, 2020.

Gilyard, Keith. Race, Rhetoric, and Composition. Heinemann, 1999.

Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, Duke UP, 2005.

Ige, Segun. “Introduction,” In A Companion to African Rhetoric, edited by Segun Ige, Gilbert Mothsaathebe, Omedi Ochieng. Lexington Books, 2022.

Kennedy, George. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lee, Jerry Won. “Semioscapes, Urbanality, and the Global Reinvention of Nationness: Global Korea as Nation-Space.” Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2017, pp. 107-36.

Lloyd, Keith. “Comparative World Rhetorics: The What and How.” Comparative World Rhetorics, ed. Keith Lloyd, pp. 1-12. Routledge, 2021.

Mack, Katherine. From Apartheid to Democracy: Deliberating Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa. Penn State UP, 2014.

Mao, LuMing. “Redefining Comparative Rhetoric: Essence, Facts, Events.” Comparative World Rhetorics, ed. Keith Lloyd, pp. 15-33. Routledge, 2021.

Mao, LuMing, Bo Wang, Arabella Lyon, Susan C. Jarratt, C. Jan Swearingen, Susan Romano, Peter Simonson, Steven Mailloux, and Xing Lu. “Symposium: Manifesting a Future for Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review 34, no. 3 (2015): 239–74.

Marback Richard C. Managing Vulnerability: South Africa’s Struggle for a Democratic Rhetoric. U of South Carolina P, 2012.

Mignolo, Walter D. “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of De-Coloniality.” Globalization and the Decolonial Option, edited by Walter D. Mignolo and Arturo Escobar, Routledge, 2010, pp. 303–368.

——— . The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Duke Univ Press, 2011.

Ochieng, Omedi. “The Ideology of African Philosophy: The Silences and Possibilities of African Rhetorical Knowledge.” In Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts, edited by Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe, 147–162. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. 

——— . “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.

October 21: On Feminist Discourse

Feminism cannot be Zionist, just as it cannot be neo-Nazi—feminism that doesn’t have an understanding of how it intersects with racial and ethnic oppression is simply a diversification of white supremacy.
–Jaime Omar Yassin, “Intersectional Feminism” (June 2017)

I first encountered Yassin’s passage in Susan Abulhawa’s June 2017 Al Jazeera editorial, “The Wonder of Imperial Feminism” . It was significant enough at the time for illustrating Abulhawa’s (and Yassin’s) critique that the character designated by the United Nations in 2016 as its “Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls” would be portrayed by Gal Gadot, an actress with a militaristic past. It is significant again, now, for illustrating the fraught politics that cause feminist groups to divide along ideological lines, making it even more difficult to know what defines the feminist space.

Easy enough to agree that empowered woman and feminist are not necessarily synonymous concepts? Perhaps. More difficult to critique a privileged woman director for making empowerment choices? Undoubtedly. Even more difficult to speak against public displays of empowerment that actually undermine discursive transformation, in spite of their posing as transformative feminist behavior? Absolutely.

In the 16 months since Yassin’s and Abulhawa’s editorials, I have seen more concretely the importance of discovering alternatives to those empowerment mindsets that reify what Keya Maitra calls a “monolithic view of [rhetorical] agency” where oppressed “sisters” are given objectified status (2013, p. 366), and to overcome models of representation that are unidimensional, unidirectional discursive phenomena “located purely in the Western feminist experience, subjectivity, and consciousness” (p. 366). There has always been value in turning feminist attention from what we think we know about women’s political identifications toward how we make certain identifications possible (or impossible) for ourselves and for one other. Today, this isn’t just valuable: it’s imperative.

Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman‘s director, has gone on record stating auteurist motives that nobly and consistently align — ensuring that female filmmakers are able to direct projects at the same scale as their peers without drawing undue attention to the fact of their gender (“12 Questions” 2017, p. 56); recreating a character whose “genesis was based on Artemis,” and who stood “for truth and love”; aiming for greatness “day and night”; and ultimately promoting a “new kind[s] of heroics … like love, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, diplomacy” (“12 Questions” 2017, p. 56). On the one hand these are inarguable goals; on the other hand (once we get past the irony that the actress Jenkins cast precludes such a diplomatic characterization), their inarguability may cloak the need for feminists to spend more time interrogating our own epistemologies.

I think what we need even more than empowerment discourse in our current zeitgeist is an awareness of how we and others “formulate [discursive] choices” (Maitra, 2013, p. 361) whether or not we are empathetic to those choices. We also need a stronger desire to achieve a “feminist self-consciousness that provides the location of feminist consciousness” (p. 361). This double-consciousness is difficult for me to recognize in contemporary discursive spaces.

If only feminist critique could act more like feminist historiography: demanding that we consider who or what might be harmed through certain empowerment discourses, and at what point in whose histories the harming has occurred. For Abulhawa, a Palestinian journalist who came of age during Marvel’s empowered depictions of Wonder Woman, thoughtless critique of disempowerment is almost as as harmful as no critique at all. To notice the slayers of “others” requires more than an ideological statement of what is empowering in a certain moment; it requires a willingness to recognize that “othering” has its lineage as much in our inability to accommodate one another’s philosophical differences today as in the actions of gendered oppressors yesterday or tomorrow.

Insofar as feminist historiography is oriented toward making the “other” possible, it is incumbent upon feminist historiographers to develop ways of thinking — and not merely ways of knowing — about those subjects who remain beyond our representational grasp. If we do not interrogate our own notions of what feminism is and does in our professional discursive spaces, if we do not put globalized politics at the intersection of our conscious awareness and our subconscious circulation, then we might continue to promote notions of feminist activism, rhetorical agency, and disciplinary identity in these spaces that are incompatible with the systems in which women actually need to increase their discursive standing in the field and in the world.


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 the fifth generation’s moral attitude about 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 an attitude 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 is a fruitful and “unforced” world that always produces, so its inhabitants don’t have to take from it as exorbitantly or thoughtlessly as they do in the middle or fifth generations. Yet even Hesiod’s best world was characterized by a curious lack of agency—both the human’s and the animal’s—and perhaps a thoughtlessness about the precise nature of their relationship, leaving the dilemma unresolved.

To one husky-shepherd-collie 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.