Dec 30, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric: a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements, and people that have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren.
Last time we did a podcast, I was at the Rhetorical Society of America's biannual meeting in San Antonio. Well now that the conference is over and everybody is home, I thought I might go through a few of the things that happened at this conference.
The conference lasted from Friday all the way to Monday afternoon, and included a lot of interesting presentations. If you've never been to a rhetoric conference before, it can be kind of daunting to see all of the different types of papers. For example, we had papers on things like "Bordering on Obsolescense: The Fate of Race-Based Affirmative Action After Fisher v. Texas", "Queer Technotopias: Technology, Cyberspace, and Queer Politics in the Digital Age", or how about "The Gendered Borders of Sports Rhetoric". What about something a little bit more traditional, like "Rhetoric, Poetic, Aesthetic: Studies in Ancient Theory", or "Approaches to the Rhetoric of War" or "Rhetorics of Birth." There's so many different topics. And it would be impossible for me to give you a full range of all of the many different presentations from great scholars from around the country and around the world. But I'm going to talk about a couple of the presentations that many people were able to see.
They first is the keynote address by Linda Martin Alcoff. Alcoff is actually a philosopher -- she teaches in a philosophy department. But much of her work fits in with rhetoric. She gave the keynote address titled Whiteness on the Border: What Happens When the Walls Come Down, on Friday. And this topic addressed the future of whiteness as whites cease to be the majority, but still enjoy white privilege. As racial demographics in the U.S. shift in the next 20 years, Linda Martin Alcoff suggested the future of what whiteness is will change. We can't just say that we'll be in a post-racial society where race doesn't matter and only class is the difference, Alcoff says, because
"We need race to explain how class functions."
While whites often describe themselves in complex percentages of European backgrounds -- 15% Swiss, 12% German -- they will have to give up on identifying as white and become what Alcoff calls "a particular among particulars," instead of the default race. In this situation, some white people are going to feel dissettled and feel like they're a minority surrounded by other minorities. She illustrates the displaced white figure through two films that talk about this anxiety: Dances with Wolves and Avatar. In both of these films, the white man becomes a fish out of water, recognizing the moral deficiencies of his previous experience, and clumsily trying to assimilate into an alien culture. In Avatar, the culture is literally alien, and the hero decides to stay in the culture. He integrates in a way to stay forever, instead of returning back to white culture as a figure of prophecy, like in Dances With Wolves. But somehow, he still maintains his super heroic white privilege; not just seamlessly integrating, but becoming the culture's preeminent warrior, and even savior. Although outnumbered and displaced in the alien culture, the hero retains privilege while still being a minority, like a white reconceptualization of a post-white majority America.
On Sunday, Krista Ratcliffe also talked a little bit about race and whiteness. Her address was called Aristotle, Enthymemes, and Rhetorical Listening. Rhetorical listening is Ratcliffe's idea that the audience kind of needs to be pulling its own weight in considerations of rhetoric. And it was first articulated in discussions of, again, whiteness. Ratcliffe's book, Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness, confronted the problem that many people -- especially white people -- have a difficult time resisting the pull of oppression. And so,
"Rhetorical listening compels us to contemplate arguments based on the relation to culture and to engage the possibilities of bringing those differences together,"
in the words of one review. That's the identification stuff again, which may be familiar to those who are fans of Burke, is a sense that you connect and disconnect with different groups. In this address though, Ratcliffe expanded on rhetorical listening to discuss the enthymeme the enthymeme, if you're not familiar, is sometimes called the rhetorical syllogism. And the syllogism is a series of proofs leading to a conclusion. For example, you might have a formal proof that says
"If it is raining, rain will get in, and it will be unpleasant."
And then have another sub-point that says
"If you close the window, rain won't get in."
And then have a conclusion that says
"Therefore, shut the window so that it doesn't get wet and unpleasant inside."
Now in an enthymeme, you cut out one or two of those. So you might just tell somebody "Oh it's raining, shut the window," without stopping to explain to them that you need to shut the window so the rain doesn't get in, and that if the rain gets in, it will be unpleasant. So the enthymeme is this way of assuming that your audience has some sort of knowledge that will fill in the gaps. Now this comes into play really differently in terms, for example, of race. Different views and philosophies of race will interpret the phrase "race matters" in different ways. So if you're a white supremacist intent on essentializing and separating groups, you're going to say "race matters". Whereas "race matters" is going to mean something different to somebody who is doing work like the stuff Linda Martin Alcoff is doing: how race impacts cultural and class relations. You have to consider how the audience or author has constructed that particular enthymeme.
Well the Rhetoric Conference of 2014 had a lot to offer. It happens every two years, and there are a lot of projects besides just panel presentations. There were groups who were working together to workshop their stuff, there was an undergraduate research section, there were sections for professionals to meet together and graduate students to meet together. There were even reconsiderations of previous debates that had happened, where writers who had written to each other in their scholarship were able to respond to each other. Lots of great stuff. And I hope that we'll be able to see you next time in 2016 when the conference reconvenes in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm especially excited about this one because Greg Clark is in charge of it, and he was my old mentor. So I hope that we'll be able to see you in Atlanta in 2016.