Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where is the Rub with "Diversity," Right Now?

Introductory Bio

Susan C. Jarratt is professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she served as Campus Writing Coordinator from 2001-07. She studies ancient Greek rhetoric, political discourse, and student writing. Her books include Rereading the Sophists (Southern Illinois UP, 1991) and Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words (MLA, 1998) with Lynn Worsham. She co-edited Peitho, the newsletter of the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition, with Susan Romano and is currently writing a book about the rhetoric of Greek rhetors in the period of the Roman empire. Jarratt's interests are ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric, and contemporary rhetoric and writing in universities and public contexts. Her work in progress includes a collaboration with Andrea Lunsford, Robert Hariman, LuMing Mao, and Jacqueline Jones Royster in editing the Norton Anthology of Rhetoric and Writing, and an article in College English, “Classics and Counterpublics in Nineteenth-Century Historically Black Colleges (forthcoming, Nov 2009).

Blog Entry

Congratulations to Joyce for conducting a symposium on a term almost every one of the interlocutors has troubled. Would we expect anything less from this group? This is my first blog experience, and I come to it with curiosity and a desire for a new form of communication.

Reading these carefully wrought and impeccably researched mini-essays took me on a quick journey, reminding me of the movements of our profession. We have taken the charge of teaching writing in an institutional space burdened by low-status and instrumental circumstances and moved it elsewhere, finding within it amazing possibilities and weighty responsibilities: to discover the cognitive potential within students (Rose), to uncover histories of life, literacy, and language (Young); to persist in our investigations of pedagogical exchange (Alexander); to question relentlessly the terms of engagement with difference (Nunley; Ratcliffe); to force our histories into new worlds (Baca); to connect “college composition and communication” to gendered global power relations (Dingo).

Like some other bloggers here, the invitation gave me pause. It reminded me of an invitation by a young feminist scholar at Virginia Tech issued to twenty or so rhetoric and composition scholars in April 2008 to convene at her institution to talk about the state of feminism. We came (Black, white, women, men, American Indian, presumptively straight, queer/trans, no one visibly disabled, most of us a little older), but the talk in all the interstices was about our skepticism. All spoke about our work and the significance of feminist politics, thinking, and research to what we were doing then, but there were no clear lines--no manifesto was forthcoming. Feminism was all mixed up in everything else. What we spent most of the time talking about was the mass murder/suicide by a young Korean-American man that had taken place two weeks before. We came into a place of mourning. We walked around the central field, standing at the sites where the dead were memorialized--feeling the pain of these lost lives, of the troubled young man who took them, and most intensely, of the ways writing--his writing, his writing teachers--were implicated. Did his pain come from his experience of difference, from the failure of his writing? His acts gave fatal expression to a toxic mixture of ethnic alienation, the pressures of performing masculinity, and a trouble mind. To face this horror, we drew on the sustaining impulse of a community--another word most of us bracket but felt so strongly in those tender green April hills of Virginia.

Questions about feminist scholarly manifestos were not by any means unrelated to this situation, but our attention moved outward, our talk swirled around us in tentative modes--to soothe and comfort, to acknowledge the profundity of lives ended, lives taken in violence, the ultimate unknowability of the motives and consequences of acts, our an effort not to prematurely close off any interpretations, to allow for silence together in the face of a dreadful event. Up at Mountain Lake, we listened to Nikki Giovanni read from her poetry and from her memoir about her mother who had recently died. She gave us laughter, comfort, wisdom--not directly about the deaths but about the continuity of life and the power of language in the face of pain. Our closest approximation to group expression came late at night, watching “Dirty Dancing” with brandies in hand. “No one puts Baby in the corner,” we all chorused. Class politics, upper-class Jewish social life of the fifties, the hopeful moment of JFK’s years, young women trying to figure out how to be in their bodies-- all washed in the sensuous beauty of dance. These are a complicated tangle of threads to knit up into a “diversity” sampler. The metonymic links articulating positions of difference cradled us in a loose net that weekend.

How will we write diversity diversely? I read these blogs and saw over and again on display what we do well: reason, deliberate, respect each other, go back over themes, terms, ideas, writings--reminding ourselves of what we have learned and where we need more work. Victor V. stands out, as usual: keeping it open, bringing together the evidence of everyday life with the critical tools of our trade.

Without collapsing difference into an old style of celebratory humanism (the Family of Man), we might use this space to recall our everyday experience as writing teachers of the pleasure in the uncaptured, the uncontained, the yet-to-be-categorized. Sappho’s word for this is poikilos: the beauty of the varied, the pied, the ornately crafted, the unexpectedly shaped and colored. This noun gives aesthetic expression to a practice: polypragmasune--doing many things, the antithesis of Plato’s utopia where everyone had a single assigned place and task.

As a new blog-reader, I was looking for the sharp edge, and I admit, for stimulation: where is the rub on “diversity” right now? Professor Baca’s opposition between a “Western telos” and Meso-American writing spoke out loudly in a bold and agonistic rhetoric, straight with no chaser. Phenomenology to postmodernism -- precisely the theories opening for some experience, otherness, disjunction, queer writing, disturbed histories and memories -- these are right out. As Edward Said has taught so eloquently, all histories contain worlds of difference within, undiscoverable once they have been crammed into the box of “Western tradition.” But that is not Baca’s point. He rejects a form of training or a history of rhetoric based in a set of canonical texts and perhaps taught in a way that seemed closed and fixed. I’m not sure; these are blogs, after all, and not treatises.

What of the Greeks that Victor V. worked with in Bootstraps? the Greeks W.E.B. DuBois loved and used? None of this is to say: the Greeks and only the Greeks! We must keep opening up the world of writing in the directions Baca indicates, if not within the argumentative frame he sets up.

I’ve been trying to slog through the California Supreme Court legal decision upholding Proposition 8 denying marriage to same-sex couples: Strauss et al. v. Horton. The decision rests on a distinction between the revision and amendment of the constitution. I’m glad I have ancient rhetoric’s stasis theory to help me understand the legal moves. I need something else--stories, an openness to assent, love?--to grasp why it is so important for my friends, my daughter, my students to gain access to an institution I find pernicious.

How will we learn what we need to know about diversity? Through scrupulous methods that concentrate more on “how” than “what,” as LuMing Mao and Susan Romano are teaching us. Following Hannah Arendt, we take the risk of action, and urged on by Jennifer Edbauer, we take the risk of the amateur. The care at the core of our enterprise will flourish at these loose edges.


Yvonne said...

Great comments and important questions.

Thank you!

Yvonne Siu-Runyan

Damián Baca said...

Dear Susan Jarratt,

Thank you for your insightful commentary, and for placing some of the earlier CCCC blog posts directly into dialogue. It seems that many of us approach "diversity" with caution, even if from a multitude of disparate cultural locations and experiences. At the same time, we collectively persist in examining what possibilities--if any--are enabled by the modern variant of the Latin expression "diversus," with whatever cultural baggage may come with it.

I am inspired by your call to foreground living experiences free from strict (and hierarchical?) categories, what you link specifically to "poikilos: the beauty of the varied, the pied, the ornately crafted, the unexpectedly shaped and colored. This noun gives aesthetic expression to a practice: polypragmasune--doing many things, the antithesis of Plato’s utopia..."

As I understand it, evoking "poikilos" and "polypragmasune" works to form a more expansive account of what Greek rhetorical practice might include. Somewhat similarly, my advancement of the late Gloria Anzaldúa's "new mestiza consciousness" works to incorporate various traditions of rhetorical practice that would include pictographic and other non-alphabetic (and non-Western) forms of knowing and communicating. For example, the Nahua idiomatic expression "in xóchitl, in cuicatl" refers simultaneously to artistic expression (such as poetry & song), critical thought, and living experience. Among a number of possibilities, this expression confronts us with the often overlooked fact that the narrow Aristotelian Rhetoric/Poetics split is not universal, nor without its own cultural roots or limitations.

But the expressions "in xóchitl, in cuicatl" and "poikilos" return me to a question many of us continue asking--if the ancient Greek "rhētorik" is the unavoidable point of departure, to what degree can we make room for a more inclusive concept of rhetoric that incorporates both established and unconventional rationalities, both systematic and informal, and especially both the dominant and the subjugated, far beyond the colonial limits of Eurocentric horizons? Thank you again for your commentary. I hope we can continue the conversation.



CCCC Annual Convention

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March 11-14, 2009
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