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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Aug 20, 2020

What do a mid-century photographer, a fresh new work, politics and poop jokes, solitary confinement and a music video all have in common? Why it must be time for a rhetoric journal roundup! This week we are going to take a little journey through the quarter’s last issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly, otherwise known as the RSQ. The RSQ is the official publication of the Rhetorical Society of America, otherwise know as the RSA. So the RSA published the RSQ and now it’s time for the intro for you-know-who!




Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who shaped rhetorical history and I’m Mary Hedengren and I’ve finally finished the spring issue of the RSQ.


Before I give you a summary of this quarter’s issue, let me just give you a little context on the RSQ. The RSQ has been rolling out for decades and is probably one of the most prestigious and longest-running journals for rhetorical studies. If you become a dues-paying member of the RSA--and it’s pretty cheap for students--, you can receive your own subscription to the RSQ, and you’ll find that it has some of the same focus as the RSA conferences held every other year--it’s focused on the rhetoric side of comp/rhet, usually with a big dose of theory. You won’t find a lot of articles in the RSQ about first-year composition, but you will find archival research, cultural artifacts, history and more. 


So let’s take a walk through the Spring 2020 issue of RSQ.


First off, we have an article from PhD candidate Emliy N. Smith because, yes, grad students can get published in RSQ. Smith has looked into the photograph of Charles “Teenie” Harris, an African American photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier. Smith argues that Harris’ photography counters other mid-century depictions of Black people in two important ways: first, the iconic form of photography--iconic photography, as Smith points out, are high performance. Think, as Smith says, of the photograph of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. It’s dramatic, semi-staged and capital M Meaningful. Harris had some pictures like that, but Smith is more interested in the other type of photography he did, the so called idiomatic image, colloquial and conversational. She describes photographs of Harris’ that show Black people creating their own lives as they are “simply moving about in a world suffused with structural racism” (85) like one picture showing kids at a Halloween party, part of their own community, and that community building its own future through its children. The “idiomatic, everyday work of building and sustaining ...Black community,” Smith argues, is itself a powerful mode of visual rhetoric, not less than the iconic mode.


Romeo Garcia and Jose M. Cortez wrote  the next article “The Trace of a Mark That Scatters: The Anthropoi and the Rhetoric of Decoloniality.” If you wondered what a third of those words mean, you are not alone. I had to read the abstract three times before I understood what the article was about, but then I began to see that those words I didn’t understand were exactly what the article was about. In rhetoric we talk a lot about postcolonialism, but these authors are seeking new theories andnew terms--one term is decoloniality. Instead of positioning, for example, the Latin American experience in terms of its difference from Europe, how about just “actually theorizing  rhetoric from the locus of non-Western … space” (94)? The authors give an example of the kind of contrastive rhetoric that really gets their goat. Don P Abbott wrote an article about rhetoric in Aztec culture where he  says, “It is possible that Aztec discourse, both practical and conceptually, would have continued to evolve as the culture itself developed” (qtd 99) and Garcia and Crotez are like…”wait what…? So you think Aztec culture was ‘undeveloped’? Do you think that logocentrism is the only way to figure rhetoric? Uh, no..!” This brings us to the other term in the title that might not be familiar--anthropoi. As you might guess, this word has a connection to anthropology, with the idea that the anthropoi are people you study, “that which cannot escape the status of being external to the subject and being gramed as object/nature” (97).  But wait! de-Colonialism has its own flaws. How can modern rhetoricians ever hope to reconstruct the rhetorics of people in radically different cultures living thousands of years ago? “Decoloniality,” the authors say, “cannot carry out its promis of decolonization while adopting the language and conceptual apparatus of propriety” (103)  If post-colonial thinks about the other and decoloniality gets caught in a loop of using western logocentrism to approach non-Western rhetorics, what’s the solution? Well….they propose an alterity symbolized in the letter X, both as the end of Latinx, and also as in the symbol you use to signify your name if you aren’t literate. They “move past decoloniality without completely giving up on its ground of intervention” seeking “ (104). Whew. That is some heavy stuff!


Don’t worry, the next article includes potty humor! Richard Benjamin Crosby at Brigham Young University (Go Cougs!), digs into the Rhetorical Grotesque, especially in the 21st century policial arena. He argues that leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro and Hugo Chavez and Silvio Berlusconi all “enact in rhetoric the kinds of incongruous combinations, comis distortions and corporeal excesses that scholars in art and literature have long associated with grotesquerie” (109, original emphasis). The grotesque, if you remember your Baktin, focuses a lot on the body, and bodily excess--eating, pooping, reproducing. As Crosby says. “The groteque’s only true allegiance is to transgression of the presumed order of things” (112) and it is in this way that politicians like Trump exemplify the grotesque-- positioning themselves as transgressive, shaking up the old foundation, and being grotesque is part of that. “A political cutlass” (112) as “a mode of communication, the essence of which is transgression of or deviation from and degradation of that which is presumed to be normal” through being 1- incongruous, 2- mocking, and 3- corporal. Crosby gives examples of political discourse of the grotesque from several different countries and political positions, but Trump is the clearest example for us, especially during the Primary campaign. Trump’s grotesque rhetoric argued that “Trump is real, because he is uncontained” (115) as Trump mocks  accusations that he calls women he doesn’t like “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” and says “the big problem this country has is being politically correct” (116). Distrust in political institutions have led, says Crosby, to a “grotesque kairos” (119) of wanting to mock and dismantle social norms. And although we rebel-rousing rhetoricians often get excited about breaking social norms, Crosby points out that demagogues like Trump demonstrate that the grotesque is “a neutral tool that can be wielded by anyone skilled enough to use it” (120) and sometimes it can be disasterous.


From Trump’s consolidation of power we then move to the powerless--prisoners on hunger strikes in California’s Pelican Bay Prison. Chris S Earle writes an article called “‘More Resilient than Concrete and Steel”: Consciousness-Raising, Self-Discipline and Bodily Resistance in Solitary Confinement” where he argues that the “widespread, multiracial coalition emerged through years of organizing between prison cells, a process rendered nearly impossible by solitary confinement” (124). “Against the odds,” he relates, these prisoners “created a discursive space” in prison across racial boundaries in three collective hunger strikes opposition prisoner conditions (125). These hunger strikes took place in a Supermax prison and solitary confinement, among the prisoners termed “worst of the worst,” yet they exemplified “strict regimes of self-discipline” (132) as the prisoners “turned their bodies into weapons of resistance” and made “a moral critiques of solitary confinement” (133). Earle concludes his article by saying that making distinctions between nonviolent and violent offenders undermines prison reform efforts and justifies “even more inhumane conditions for many people in prison” (134).


In the next article, Jennifer Lin Lemesurier (li-mis-i-ur) walks us through the “racist kinesiologies” in Childish Gambino’s “this is America.” If you haven’t seen the music video of “This is America,” pause this podcast, fire up the YouTube and watch it now. You’ll thank me. [....] Aaaaaand we’re back. Lemesurier describes what Childish Gambino’s body is doing in this video as embodying two racist assumptions about black male bodies--that they are hyper talented and hyper violent. She takes us deep into the history of Black dance as seen through the filter of white eyes, as slavers demanded slaves dance on demand across the middle passage (141) and slave owners exhibit the “savage wildness” of Black dance (142), but it’s one figure of the Black male body that Childish Gambino especially channels--the 1889 figure of The Original Jim Crow, a minstrel figure who danced with a knee bend, elbow bend and naive amusement. Lemesurier, a dancer herself, describes how uneven the position is in body weight and posture, how it “does not valorize linear pattern or gentle arcs” (144)--it is a stark and mocking other. As all of my listeners have now seen the video--RIGHT?!-- you know that in the video Childish Gambino transitions seamlessly between depictions of performance and violent. “The emphasis on dance,” Lemesuir writes, “is key to the critique of how Black embodiment serves white audiences” (145). “Gambino’s chorerographed performance of violence is a metaperformative moment that asks viewers to question the naturaizationof Black bodies as always dancing or shooting and the impact of such portrayals on  broader relations that are possible between racialized bodies” (146). Lemesuir ends by recommending that we in rhetoric continue studying moving bodies, “Rhetoric needs more clarity on how bodily hierarchies are always present, not only in visuals or discourses, but in the very steps we take through the world, toward or away from one another,” (149).


And there you have it! Those are the main articles from RSQ this quarter. I’m skipping over the book reviews, even though it includes a review by my Casey Boyle, one of my faves from the University of Texas at Austin (go Longhorns!), Dana Cloud and Steve Mailloux’s new book. But you, as they say, don’t have to take my word for it!