Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Tightropes and Hard Times: Do You Have to Have it Hard to Be a Good Rhetorician?

This post is like Christmas and your birthday and New Years all rolled together because you get three books in one post. I know, I know. You can hardly contain your excitement.

I've still been working my way through Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. I noticed a theme starting to peek through in these profiles of strong female rhetoricians. Here, see if you can pick up on it:
Christine's marriage turned out to be affectionate and secure. With both her husband and her father well employed in the King's service, her family faced a prosperous future. Soon after the de Pisan-du Castel alliance, however, Charles V died and with the change in monarchy de Pisan's and du Castel's positions and salaries were reduced. Within a few years, both men died, leaving Christine as a grieving twenty-five-year-old woman, with three children, a niece, and her mother to support. She had no means of income and faced complicated lawsuits to recover salary due her husband.-From Jenny R. Redfern's "Christine de Pisan and The Treasure of the City of Ladies"
Mary Astell's early years were probably happy. Her parents, though not particularly rich, were reasonably well-to-do, and she grew up with the advantage of a comfortable home. All this changed within a relatively short time. First, her father died. It then became apparent that his financial position was insecure. . . There was nothing left over to provide an adequate dowry for her. Soon after the death of her father, her formal education came to an end with the death of her uncle. She continued to live with her mother and aunt--two other Mary Astells--until their deaths. . . A young girl of her class was, of course, expected to marry--provided she had a dowry. Mary Astell had none.-From Christine Mason Sutherland's "Reclaiming Rhetorica in the Seventeenth Century"
But with the unexpected death of her father in the autumn of 1835, the twenty-five-year-old Fuller found herself suddenly responsible for her own support as well as that of her widowed mother and her six younger siblings.
-From Annette Kolodny's "Margaret Fuller: Inventing a Feminist Discourse"
At sixteen, responsibility was thrust upon her when her parents died suddenly of yellow fever and she had to take care of herself and five younger siblings.
-From Jacqueline Jones Royster's "The Rhetoric of Ida B. Wells" 
089/365 Money...What Money

If you answered that between them they were penniless and that parents were killed off with a frequency that the Disney franchise has to admire, you're right. 

All of these powerful rhetoricians faced extremely difficult situations. They were thrust into a position that left them vulnerable and ill-equipped, particularly in the face of sexist and racist societies that made it even more difficult for them to use the skills they had.

And it's not that these women just reached their full rhetorical potential despite such troubling challenges; they reached them because of those challenges.

This is where the second book from the list comes in. In Thomas P. Miller's The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Province (which has a very boring title but is a very interesting read), this topic is explored through a different lens.

First, Miller has some words about rhetoric itself, as a field of study:
When the humanities evolved into what C.P. Snow has termed "two cultures" of the arts and sciences, rhetoric was left betwixt and between--too situated and self-interested to be scientific and too calculated, political, and utilitarian to be literary
Stuck in the middle with you. That's rhetoric.

This is particularly important when juxtaposed with some of Miller's other observations:
those who study in the "contact zones" influence the history and future of the discipline far more than has been recognized
And elsewhere:
Those at the boundaries of the dominant culture tend to be intensely aware of the differences marked by those boundaries. 
In other words, it's the placement in a difficult position that makes the need for rhetorical skills apparent. Take a look at all of those women's biographies again. For almost all of them, there was not only a set of very dire circumstances, but a drastic change in circumstances. There's no need for rhetorical development when everything is going fine, and even if everything is not fine, if it's always been that way, the need for rhetorical mastery is less apparent.

Rhetoric is about change, about transformation, about evolution. The most effective rhetoric does not merely push us to think, it pushes us to act. Rhetoric is how we mold our own perceptions of the world around us, which means that rhetoric has the potential to change everything.

This brings me to the third book, Gloria Anzaldua's La Frontera/Borderlands. Anzaldua lived a fascinating life. She self-identified as a queer mestiza. Her ancestry was a mix of European and indigenous Native American populations. She suffered from an endocrine disorder that had her menstruating as an infant and stunted her growth. She eventually had a hysterectomy to deal with the disorder. She often found herself between the boundaries of white and Latina, feminine and masculine, English and Spanish. She coined a term la facultad (Spanish for "faculty") to explain the way that people within these borders operate:
It's a kind of survival tactic that people, caught between the worlds, unknowingly cultivate
I am especially interested in her use of the word "unknowingly" here. This almost suggests that la facultad is an evolutionary, maybe even biological, reaction to conflict.

She also says:
Fear develops the proximity sense aspect of la facultad. But there is a deeper sensing that is another aspect of the faculty. It is anything that breaks into one's everyday mode of perception, that causes a break in one's defenses and resistance, anything that takes one from one's habitual grounding, causes the depths to open up, causes a shift in perception. This shift in perception deepens the way we see concrete objects and people; the senses become so acute and piercing that we can see through things, view events in depth, a piercing that reaches the underworld (the realm of the soul). 
How is Anzaldua's notion of la facultad, a sense that she sees as something that deepens one's connection to Self and soul, connected to those other rhetoricians' struggles?

In the article about Ida B. Wells, Royster says that Wells:
looked closely at her life, named herself, claimed her own vision of reality, claimed her own authority to speak the truth that she saw, entitled herself to this authority, and made the decision to use the tools of rhetoric and composition to bring about what she perceived to be much-needed social change.  
Royster compares Wells' rhetorical navigation of her complex position to a "'dance' without a net along a rhetorical tightrope between these two spaces."

Tightrope Walking 

Taking all of these pieces together, we could use this metaphor to have a greater understanding of rhetoric and rhetorical skill. No one learns to walk a tightrope from the safety of stable land. Sure, they might do things to develop the necessary skills. They might find balance, stamina, and focus. But the only thing that prepares you for walking a tight rope is walking on a tight rope, and if that tight rope is one without a net, then it's not particularly inviting to someone who doesn't have to be there.

Being on a tight rope is also necessarily an action. Even when appearing to stand still, the body is acting. Standing upon that rope requires the use of constant muscles to stay balanced; the body is constantly in motion. The tightrope is, like rhetoric, a space where action is necessary.

Does that mean that the evolution of rhetorical skill is particularly targeted to those who are in moments of crisis and conflict? If so, mights its sometimes denigrated position in both scholarly circles and public opinion be explained by the gap between people who are advantaged (by stable ground) and those who are disadvantaged (by being on the rope)? And what does that mean for those of us who teach rhetoric? Do we need to place our students in a moment of crisis to develop them? Do those moments need to be authentic or can they be artificially constructed in the classroom? What are the ethical concerns surrounding such a pedagogical question?

These are issues that are central to every piece of my own identity: personal, professional, and scholarly (this blog is, after all, called Balancing Jane). I would love to hear your thoughts. 

No comments:

Post a Comment