In last week’s class, I questioned whether it is possible for Western rhetoricians to fully understand and interpret the rhetorics of a culture from another tradition, especially one no longer existing, as in the case of the Moche peoples discussed by Laurie Gries, (and to her credit she made several careful allusions to this problem in her chapter). My question comes from the intimacy of language, and thus rhetoric, with worldview, the latter being formed by the creation of the language and the teaching/learning process of passing it to new generations, who in turn continue to invent it in kind (or is this just how we see things in western tradition?). This week’s readings have added fuel to my contention that such an accurate interpretation of a non-western rhetoric, absent of the discourses to which it was attached, may be unlikely, and if possible, such success cannot be certain. In short, we may know what such artifacts as Gries describes tell us, but we cannot know that we know.
Sanchez tells us nothing new when he says “…writing actively participates in the world, and the details of that participation are not easy to decipher” (78), even more so when the writing is non-alphabetic or even wholly metaphorical, as in the placement of objects. So as Lao observes, we have to start with what we know, for what else have we to start with (49)? But as Lao observes, in so doing we risk imposing that on others, a risk that JC acknowledges in the previous post with the concern about whether or not such interpretive acts serve to re-colonize those we seek to decolonize and reaffirm their subaltern status in our journals, centuries after the fact.
If we accept that, as Cortez says, that subalternity cannot be separated from the notion of publics, and that “subaltern speech is assumed to be public and registerable” (56), then therein lies our problem, for that particular public cannot be joined posthumously. Colonization, as we have discussed it, replaces language, destroys art, and inhibits expression, replacing such rhetorical forms with its own. The demise of a society, such as with the Moche, erases their discourse altogether. Gries was clear about the care needed in interpreting the funereal artifacts, as those artifacts were separated from the languages and discourses that surrounded them. This is exactly why the example, cited in class, of a gay academic studying the rhetoric of a heterosexual, or a rhetorician of one race studying the rhetorics of racial others, fails in my view. In those cases, the discourse is still there, the language heard and (Derrida notwithstanding) understandable. These rhetorics, while unfamiliar, still stem largely from the same western traditions, and these rhetoricians and their subjects - or other rhetoricians – can talk their way around to an understanding. Of course, this is not without its difficulties; disagreements abound in the most equal of situations, within discourses among people in the same disciplines, using the same language and with the same rhetorical knowledge. Interpretations differ within our own western modes of thought. But that reaffirms the problem of the Moche; if we can have such differences of interpretation within our own rhetorics and our own disciplines, how can we be certain of something from beyond that, something that speaks to us in its own unfamiliar language with a voice unheard for centuries? If literacy is, as Gee says, a way of being, an “identity kit,” how can we ever truly understand an identity absent of any idea about that literacy, when our interpretation itself stems from a literacy that forms our way of being?
Of course, this does not mean we never try. There is great value, much to be learned, in the very act of trying; it seems to me that if nothing else, we may learn something about ourselves and our own ways of thinking in such attempts, and of course it’s not impossible to learn about the subjects, as well. It does mean, however, that we often have to settle for possibilities. To remain honest to both ourselves and that which/those whom we study, we must remain distant from overly strong claims of knowing. In cases such as the Moche, and even those peoples yet extant who were colonized, their language killed, their art destroyed, and their religion replaced, we can only go so far in decolonizing, regardless of the method used.