By Maria Novotny
During the spring 2020 semester, I taught a Cultural Rhetorics graduate seminar at UWM and I must admit that this course feels as if it took place a lifetime ago. So much in the world has since happened: the continued spread of COVID-19, the announcement made by many universities that students should expect to return to campus in the fall, as well as the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of protests supporting Black Lives Matter. With all that has since happened, I want to reflect on what my Cultural Rhetorics course may offer us now – in these increasingly precarious times.
In their Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversation, Phil Bratta and Malea Powell offer four defining pillars of cultural rhetorics: (1) the idea of story as theory, (2) engagement with decoloniality and decolonial practices, (3) constellative practices as a way to build community and understanding, and (4) the practice of relationality or honoring our relatives in practice. As a class, we discussed these pillars frequently and many students often questioned how these pillars help guide cultural rhetorics as a methodological practice. Here, I’d like to suggest how these pillars can support stakeholders in higher education so they may engage in accountable community allyship to dismantle the bricolage of injustices we face.
Story as Theory
Orients us to critically engage with whose stories are told, who is trusted to hear some stories, and why who listens matters.
Stories wield power and can influence how quickly we may adopt change. Yet, we know from the murders of Black and brown people in this country, that not all stories are told nor are they heard equally, even when they are shared. Take black maternal health for example. The Black Mammas Matter Alliance report that mistrust and racist bias in medical and hospital settings are leading factors contributing to the spiking black infant and black maternal mortality rate. Black women, their lived experiences, and the stories that they may or may not share (depending upon how safe they feel) are too often disregarded.
Cultural rhetorics reminds us that these stories matter. While Black women’s stories often do not align with dominant narratives of maternal health, cultural rhetorics offers theoretical tools to question why Black women’s stories are often muted or distrusted. The pillars of cultural rhetorics help retrain and reorient how we listen to stories, whose stories we are listening to, and how we may mistrust what we are trained to assume are “dominant” or “normative” narratives.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Lee Maracle’s book Oratory: Coming to Theory.
Engagement with Decoloniality
Helps us identify colonial systems of power that have become so ingrained into the “everyday” whereby inequity is easily disguised.
Recent calls to ‘defund the police’ have been met with polarizing viewpoints. While a recent poll finds that 61% of Wisconsinites support Black Lives Matter, a Marquette University Law poll finds that 70% oppose defunding the police. Such polls indicate clear misunderstandings about the rationale to defund the police as a supportive action of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cultural rhetorics serves as a theoretical lens to better understand how systematic structures, like the police, operate as a colonial construct reinforcing racism. For instance, by adopting a Cultural Rhetorics lens to arguments supportive of defunding the police, more clarity emerges as to why defunding is essential in order to “delink” (a term coined by Walter Mignolo) from what Toni Morrison has called ‘the white gaze’. This gaze is a practice adopted through many police practices whereby black and brown bodies must navigate how their bodies are read and thus become constructed as non-white targets which allows for public suspicion, police surveillance and/or unjustified acts of violence. Take the recent video of Amy Cooper as an example whereby a white woman uses her whiteness to reinforce her superiority over a Black man by calling the police with no warranted reason. Engaging with the pillars of cultural rhetorics – particularly decolonial theory – helps us dismantle misconstrued threats against our safety, such as the installation of fear in white bodies if we remove all policing.
Want to learn more? I suggest reading: Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing.
Constellate with Communities
Reminds us that community work happens through intersectional coalitions, bringing together a variety of perspectives.
The ripple effect of events occurring over these last four months – from March to June – have without doubt emerged at a time that has caused many to reflect on threats in their own lives. For instance, NPR ran a recent story noting because of asymptotic spread and political mishandling of the pandemic, many white people suddenly could relate to feeling as if their own bodies were at risk. This yielded increased support and allyship for Black Lives Matter. Yet, to truly constellate with communities we must think about all bodies in relationship with our own positionality.
Cultural rhetorics demands that our work be reflective as we work in constellation with others, not self-serving to reduce privileged feelings of guilt or shame. It must be in the trenches of injustice and as such it may be uncomfortable for more privileged bodies. As Natasha Jones and Miriam Williams in “A Just Use of Imagination: A Call to Action” write, “In this historic moment, when yet again the collective Black community is called forth to proclaim that our lives matter, that Black Lives Matter, we extend this idea of critical imagination to calls for justice and equality.” They conclude with this powerful statement: “Dismantling white supremacy requires your work. How might you make a difference? Just use your imagination.” Constellating with communities invites a critical reimagination of other stakeholders – beyond the Black community – that must engage in work supportive of equity and change.
Want to read more? I suggest reading Academic #BlackLivesMatter: Black Faculty and Graduate Students Tell Their Stories.
Acknowledge All of Our Relations
Demands our embodied experiences are reflected upon and accounted for in the community work we engage.
What does true allyship look like in practice? How do we make transparent the reasons for our actions, given the positionalities we embody? Ellen Cushman in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” articulates the difference between what she calls ‘missionary activism’ and ‘scholarly activism’. For Cushman, the latter option may engage in activism by either empowering communities through the achievement of goals by providing necessary resources, facilitating action through language or literacy, or situating our own ethos as a tactic to move forward a community’s need. We may do well to reflect on how our commitment to activism appears to those communities we seek to work alongside, as an accountability tool forcing us to be transparent about the objectives of our allyship.
Cultural rhetorics draws on Indigenous theory to tend to the ever-evolving process of not just developing but learning from our relationships. Such a process asks us to engage in reciprocal practices with our communities and favors methods that allow our actions to be taken as what Andrea Riley Mukavatez calls “speak[ing] with and alongside” (122) our community partners. Relationality asks us to make our own body transparent alongside the other bodies that we work in coalition building with – often this is messy and takes time. We would do well to remind ourselves of this as the protests dwindle and calls for action become less vocal. We must remain accountable to the communities we work alongside.
Want to read more? I suggest reading “Decolonial Directions: Rivers, Relationships, and Realities of Engagement on Indigenous Lands” by Rachel Jackson and Phil Bratta.
I want to close by acknowledging that these reflections are a work in-progress and still very much in formation. I come to cultural rhetorics as a white cis woman and all the privileges such identities afford me. As such, I still have much to learn and many to listen to as I try to teach cultural rhetoric practices to support community engaged activism here in Milwaukee.
Maria Novotny is an Assistant Professor with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UW-Milwaukee. Her research uses cultural rhetorics as a lens to understand and support the community advocacy practices of those diagnosed with infertility.
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.
In this post, I will focus on the points of discussion from our class where we emphasized the complexities of accounting for colonialism in our research practices and methods, especially as it relates to ancient Indigenous communities of the Americas. I hope to complicate, without necessarily offering answers to, a variety of issues surrounding representation, experience, and expertise as they overlap in research methodologies. As such, I will focus on the collection Rhetorics of the Americas: 3114 BCE to 2012 CE edited by Damián Baca and Victor Villanueva, with a particular focus on the chapter “Practicing Methods in Ancient Cultural Rhetorics: Uncovering Rhetorical Action in Moche Burial Rituals” by Laurie Gries.
In her article Gries asks, “How then do we accurately recover nonverbal ancient rhetorical practices on their own terms if we do not have a society’s own “terms” to begin with?” (91). Different forms of this question became central to the conversation in our class as we discussed the collection Rhetorics of the Americas. While we did not necessarily focus on nonverbal rhetorical practices solely, we did spend a fair amount of time thinking about the effect of history on our ability to understand any form of rhetorical practice outside the Western world.
The reality of colonization, whether Spanish or British, complicated the process of thinking about non-Western rhetorical practices through the consistent devaluing of Indigenous ideologies and epistemologies—ways of knowing. The devaluation of Indigeneity that lies at the core of settler colonialism has continued into modern academe through what Damián Baca calls the “largely unquestioned dichotomy in higher education: that of ‘high’ and ‘low’ theory” (12). He notes that “high” theories, in Rhetoric and Composition specifically, are tied with the reading of rhetorical tradition mapped from the Classical Rhetoric of Athens to the Modern Rhetorical Theory of the United States. Such a reading embeds the West as “high” theory and everything beyond Western ways of knowing and thinking as “low” theory. It is this same dichotomy, born out of colonial enterprise, that complicates our ability to encounter ancient rhetorical practices, whether verbal or nonverbal, “on their own terms.”
Of course, access to ancient rhetorical practices of the Americas is complex in a variety of ways, not leastwise because of the plurality of different Indigenous groups and thus the plurality of rhetorical practices themselves. Furthermore, as we discussed in class, Indigenous communities have dealt with vast amounts of oppression at the hands of unethical anthropological and ethnographic research (this would certainly include Indigenous communities here in Milwaukee and around Wisconsin). This history requires an extremely cognizant approach, especially by researchers outside the communities in question. Finally, access becomes problematic when members of the tribal communities are no longer available to work alongside. Such is the problem faced by Gries in her exploration of ancient Moche burial procedures.
In order to work against this complication, Gries champions what we might call a materialist or new materialist approach to the nonverbal cultural artifacts of Moche burial chambers. She writes, “I argue that nonverbal artifacts have this same potential; if we listen close enough, these cultural artifacts speak to us and render the terms with which we can begin to uncover their rhetorical actions” (91). This approach, which focuses on the agency of nonhuman and nonanimal objects, has been critiqued in other iterations (i.e. the work of Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant) for overwriting the peoples who have consistently borne the brunt of the violent de-humanizing tactics of colonialism. This complication with new materialist thought came out in our class discussion as we tried to puzzle through whether or not Gries’s new materialist approach overwrites the Moche people who enacted rhetorical practices through nonverbal artifacts. While a new materialist approach seems intriguing and necessary in a lot of ways, I can’t help but struggle with the implications for consistently marginalized groups at the hands of Westernization. Does giving these cultural artifacts such agency, as Gries does, actually undercut the agency of the Moche people? That is, do the artifacts themselves carry the connotations that actually inform us about the social, political, economic, and/or rhetorical complexities of the Moche people, or are we actually projecting a Western research methodology onto them even in our attempts to keep from doing so? Furthermore, precisely because Moche culture is no longer extant as such, is it possible to allow the artifacts to “speak to us” divorced from our Western expectations and understandings of rhetoric and rhetorical practices? Is it possible that this is a continued form of colonization via research practices?