The Disruptive Rhetorics of Roadside Shrines: What These Works Can Teach Us about Decolonizing Composition
In this presentation, I want to share with you something of a project I’ve recently started, leaving things open for comments and suggestions about this work, as well as for questions and comments regarding larger socio-rhetorical connections that we may sense emerge. In this project I’m examining roadside shrines or memorials encountered through my movement through everyday geographies. By this I mean the spaces including localized ones that I pass through as I go about my day in Houston, particularly the Clear Lake area where I live and work, and spaces more broadly conceived as I traverse South Texas on my way to visit my family in the border town of Laredo, Texas. This research, which underscores theories of and in the flesh with decolonial frameworks, focuses on rhetorical reorientation that I think can have significant implications for the ways in which we teach and practice composition.
These particular shrines that I’m looking at are usually constructed to memorialize people who have died in automobile accidents or other unforeseen tragedies, events that take place outside spaces that for some reason or another we tend to imagine as somehow more suitable for mortality. Many of us are familiar with such roadside features and even come to think of them as (at least temporary) fixtures of the landscape, but because we tend to think of them as ubiquitous or commonplace things, we may overlook the radical rhetorical models that they offer. I am studying these memorials using a decolonial perspective for several reasons. 1) As common but noticed yet unnoticed artefacts, these memorials help us to understand how the construction of in/visibility occurs within the popular imaginary. 2) Thinking through this question of in/visibility might help us to undo the phenomenological backgrounding that threatens real people and practices. 3) Since rhetoric is how we create the worlds that we know, a study of these artefacts allows us to imagine a different rhetorical ecology of orientation, one that juxtaposes linear coordinates and ethical organization, logic and affect, individualism and relationality. It is my hope that by shifting from one set of principles to the other that we might at least begin to encourage some of the ideological conditions that not only foster but demand attention to decoloniality.
This matters because colonization is ongoing and real: US universities stand on Native lands; colonial frameworks shape practices and pedagogies, regulating how we (re-)produce and consume knowledge. The historical relationship between writing and colonization contributes directly to the displacement of Native cultures by centering Eurowestern ways of knowing to, as Angela Haas explains, preclude “a coexistence of languages, literacies, memories, and space with [I]ndigenous knowledges,” marking “what is different [as] wrong or deficient” (2010, p. 188-9). Thus, it is crucial that we work to decolonize composition praxes in concrete ways.
So here’s where I want to break in with a bit of personal narrative, because as the authors of “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” explain, “cultural rhetorics scholars investigate and understand meaning-making as it is situated in specific cultural communities” (2014) and this project is inseparable from my identity as a researcher, teacher, member of my particular community. These shrines are interesting to me because I grew up in South Texas, where people practice a very syncretic version of Catholicism, one that retains a lot of our Indigenous traditions in the guise of Christianity, and that informs all aspects of everyday life. This syncretism emerges directly from colonization which has never ended. Like the war dance of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, colonization and our responses to it are ongoing. Their struggle represents that between imposed order and flesh, between the intellect and the body, spirit and matter. The histories told to us in eurowestern chronicles that would say the past is over is not corroborated by our lives. It’s similar with these shrines, which draw attention away from authorized Church funeral practices and their spaces to center attention on the land where things happen, where our lives begin and end. Though I know that such memorials are constructed by many different groups, I have always associated these memorials with our Indigenous histories. Because these were vernacular rhetorics, things that give meaning to places due to personal connections that help make us a community.
Hence, I think that roadside shrines can really speak to some of these issues that Angela is talking about in “Toward a Decolonial Digital and Visual American Indian Rhetorics Pedagogy.” Because they illustrate the potential for Indigenous multimodalities to prove irruptive through and against eurowestern notions of geography. Their reliance on the visual proves a kind of trickster rhetoric: the shrine is there and also not there, strikingly graphic but at the same time embedded within the visual imaginary in such a way that it becomes accepted by the viewer as an integral part of the landscape. We find ourselves thinking, “Oh, there’s that marker again,” even surprised when they’re no longer there; they become a way for us to orient ourselves within space/time. I have to unpack this part but I think that also helps explain their longevity even in spaces where one would think these markers would not be accepted. For example, I live close to my campus, which was basically built for the engineers at NASA. Literally right across the street from school is Boeing. This area of town is Clear Lake, which is one of the most affluent, educated parts of town per capita. On one of the median islands is a shrine, which I’m unable to show you right now, but over time it has grown bigger and more elaborate. In this part of town, the shrine sticks out against the bougie environment, which is a very different case with a shrine located a little over a mile away headed into Webster, which is a much more working class area. (For the record, the rent drops by several hundred dollars within a matter of blocks.) I was worried that the effects would be removed from the island due to aesthetic codes or norms, but it has persisted. And it’s major divergence in terms of intimacy, which we can think about as arrangement and memory in rhetorical terms, to institutions like Boeing and the university as well as the affluent suburban quality of Clear Lake is something that I hope to closely critique in the article that I’m hoping comes out of this.
How much of our/my impression of the landscape is actually codified to create this contrast? How much of it is assumed? And so, in what ways are geographies set as opposed to extensions of other spaces that bleed into one another? It important to entertain these questions because this is whence the notion of the margins emerges, marking those who inhabit interstices and contact zones, but in speaking of these people and their rhetorics, too often we inure the legitimacy of authorized rather than cultural centers. And here, I’m thinking of Mignolo when he explains the ways in which Mercator projections render geographies as capable of being rendered in neutral and objective ways that obscure coloniality. That is, they run counter to the ways in which our ancestor marked the passage of time and space, based on a body’s movement within networks of associations among culturally significant locations. Time and space have affective and ethical dimensions; in terms of physics, these may prove constants, but as physically experienced phenomena, they are experienced already laden with these strata of significance that are invisible unless you’re part of the culture they are meant for. I think we can relate a lot of this to writing, if we consider how we create layers of meaning strategically in speaking to multiple audiences, realizing that these different publics do not inhabit the same cultural spaces. And I don’t mean writing with an understanding that different readers will get different things out of it, but crafting trickster rhetorics that deliberately cultivate in/visibility to protect cultural communication while still meeting the demands of dominant culture exigence.
And so, to return to the subversive multimodality of these shrines, I also suggest how that might be accomplished. Due to their tactical use of material modes in spaces dominated by the privileging of linguistic action, they both cohere with and counter the verbal rhetorics associated with particular events. For example, a news report will give us the who and the how, but they cannot express the connections that make a life meaningful, even when they exploit familial grief. These shrines inform us that someone lived and was loved, too, but they do so in ways that can be seen as unruly and irrational in a very De Certeau kind of way. And I’m thinking here of his work on mystical speech. In other words, the narrativity of these memorials isn’t linear and straightforward. Instead, they demand a reimagining of the vectors of rhetorical interpretation: these are not official or authorized stories that convey straightforward facts about a tragedy in one direction (from rhetor to audience) but instead call for ongoing communal engagement every time we encounter them. They become part of us, or we become part of the community united around this rhetoric. Mignolo states in “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom” that “[g]eo-politics of knowledge goes hand in hand with geo-politics of knowing. Who and when, why and where is knowledge generated (rather than produced, like cars or cell phones)? Asking these questions means to shift the attention from the enunciated to the enunciation” (2009, p. 2). What this means is that in participating in a rhetorical event each time we encounter one of these artefacts, we reveal the illusion of the past because we are constantly recreating its therefore-existing significance. This is not an evoking of the past; the event continues because it continues to have an effect on others and highlights not the shrine itself but the building of rhetorical bonds among people. After all, the shrine is meant to commemorate a person’s life, but it is not really meant for them but for us, so that we know what has happened and is still happening as a result of the loss. There is a constant performance of consubstantiality taking place and because of that, meaning goes beyond the artefact and the original event to encompass ever wider imbricated circles of time and space. In this way, I argue that they contest the ways in which we often think about the traditional eurowestern canon of memory, as an evoking of the past as a way to bolster an argument.
From an Indigenous perspective, one that for me bears striking resonances to my own experience of colonization, we can see that memory is constantly built or added to in the present and in community. It is ongoing and lived in the flesh. And knowing that is crucial, especially in these fraught political times as we fight over when America was ever great. Collective memory depends on questions of for whom and why. As we begin to unpack these questions, it’s important for me to note that my ancestors always understood this, knew that we inhabit different worlds. To think we are somehow rediscovering this knowledge—and I use this term deliberately—is simply to yet again lay claim to knowledge that has always been here, not-really-hiding in plain sight. When I teach my students to write, then, I ask them to consider how some of us are still forced to inhabit the past when we are right here and how some of our very living traditions are framed as things of an ancient, sadly lost history. And what moves can we make to show that these delineations of modernity are just plain wrong.
Hence, I’m really finding that these shrines have a lot to tell us. They point up the constant overlapping of spaces and networks of meaning. They show that space is not empty or neutral but is instead composed of many different rhetorical imaginaries taking up the same areas, so that (in a very sci-fi kind of way) places emerge not as merely a set of elements within a particular geographical location but as multiple manifestations within different ethical and affective dimensions. I believe that the material-spatial-temporal rhetorics of the South Texas roadside shrines I’ve been looking at highlight Indigenous ways of knowing that challenge dominant culture paradigms. They commemorate events of cultural and communal significance to Chicanxs/Latinxs/Native peoples, and preserve elements of Indigenous heritage that disrupt colonial geographies and orientations. Our material and bodily relationships with/to them permit what Kristin Arola calls as “a shifting continuum of embodied identities” that disprove the ostensibly static quality of the dimensions upon which we base our lives and rhetorics (2012, p. 219). And so, as I get further into this project, I hope to think about how we can use dimensional subversion to dislocate harmful stereotypes and create presence on paper and in the classroom.
In my role as respondent, I’d now like to offer a rant that asks you to consider the different terms this panel has discussed, but also consider them not one at a time but all together or in different constellations of terms. In other words, we have to think about how they inform one another. My chosen term is “intersectionality,” a term that reminds us that many people don’t have the privilege to think about only one dimension of their identities at a time, ever.
Yes, this rant will be snarky and will probably involve profanity.
So there’s a Tweet going around Facebook that reminds us how intersectionality works.
It reads, “Kimberlé Crenshaw, mother of the term Intersectionality, has said multiple times that it’s a systemic analysis tool. Not a method of stacking identities like Yu-Gi-Oh cards so can be an asshole and pull gotchas. Knock it off.” Okay, there’s the profanity. But it’s needed because this shit is enraging. What I’m interested in here is the way that those with privilege use this term as a virtue signal to pull those gotchas that allow them to ignore our experiences.
Since Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term back in the late 1980s, intersectionality has become the way to be rather than a tool. Using intersectionality as a touchstone, mainstream feminism now tries to take into account the experiences of many different women. Our rhetorical research and pedagogies now acknowledges that culture matters to how we tell stories and that there’s no one way to do it. And that’s good, at times admirable even, but simply using the term as a key is not enough. It is a multidimensional lens that demands we interrogate how unique intersections of identities create new forms of privilege and oppression, because everyone’s identity is intersectional. But until we contend with how construction takes place and how these differences manifest, some experiences will continue to be erased, discounted, ignored.
Saying you’re intersectional in your approach is not necessarily useful. Sometimes it’s silencing and oppressive. That’s because instead of using intersectionality as a critical lens, people use it as a means of lip service to diverse identities as they are conceived by those in power and with privilege: as monolithic, as if they exist in a vacuum and can be checked off like a list of people invited to a party. We’re going to attend to the needs of different marginalized groups, but we’re not going to learn from multiply-marginalized people how to best approach a social problem so we recognize it in all its insidious forms and its influence on other problems. No, that’s too hard, so instead we are going to go from one societal ill to another, one at a time, with the most pressing ones tackled first. And guess who always gets to decide which come first?
So now an illustration as a critique.
I teach at a Hispanic Serving Institution, or HSI, in Houston, Texas. I won’t say which one but I’m sure you can Google it right quick. The school was created to cater primarily to engineers and other folks working at NASA; a lot of the students turned out to be older white women, returning students who were training to be teachers or business majors. The university was a commuter campus for a very long time until a few years ago, when downward expansion means the school started accepting first-year and second-year students. What happened with downward expansion is that the major demographics shifted: instead of the largest group of enrolling students being middle-class white women returning to finish their degrees, it is now working-class Latinas. Hence, why I’m there, because representation matters. But you know what? Representation, when you’re one of only a few people who have it do it, is pretty fucking tiring.
My university has a longstanding interest in women’s and gender studies; one of the first classes they ever offered at the nearby prison where I myself taught was WGST, and the school even hosted Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. All great things. But, a lot of the work being done at school revolves around white feminism. Around cis womanhood. Around middle-class identity. Despite a change in demographics there is still little to no mention of disability or immigration status, language diversity, race, trans rights. Except in guess who’s classes. That’s right, those directly affected by these problems, the people who don’t have the privilege to NOT think about these things. Those who are already tired from having to deal with these things precisely because those with privilege exert said privilege and try to keep things simple for themselves in learning and life spaces. That’s not to say that programs should attend to diversity ONLY when the numbers reflect it, but at the very least, they should when numbers do. Many of our students work multiple jobs; balance school, work and family responsibilities; have disabilities they can’t afford to see doctors for; and speak English as a second or third language. But these things aren’t necessarily regarded or critiqued as connected in the classroom; they’re just an amalgam of oppressed identities they had the bad luck of getting all at once.
When I have asked colleagues how they discuss race, ethnicity, or immigration status in talking about gender, it becomes aggregative:
“Well, we discuss women’s studies and then there’s a unit on race where we focus exclusively on women of color.”
“But whiteness is a race, too.”
“Also, these experiences aren’t fungible. Misogyny targeting Latinas and Black women are very different things. Moya Bailey talks about misogynoir and the way Black women are constantly rendered hypervisible and subsequently exposed to specific kinds of violence. On the other hand, many Latinas of Indigenous ancestry are rendered invisible to cast us as foreigners. And disability and race as constructs are intertwined, which creates an ontological hierarchy that furthers the invisibility/hypervisibility distinction and makes solidarity efforts hard unless were using intersectional critique.”
*Another, longer blank stare as though this person has never had to think about this, though some of us think about it constantly*
The thing is, this person probably never has even though they’ve gone through and added all these identities in like so much garnish. In some cases, I’ve even been told explicitly that that’s what MY classes are for.
“I focus on gender, which is my specialty, so I wouldn’t even know how to teach about race or disability. I’ll just mess it up. They’re better off learning it from you. Anyway, when they attend all of our classes, they’ll get the whole experience.” Because yes, in this case our courses are those Yu-Gi-Oh cards and you gotta collect them all.
By making intersectional critique a matter of programmatic diversity, teachers eschew the responsibility of guiding students in becoming attuned to the uniqueness of diverse experiences. They force the blame onto students for not choosing the right set of courses. They continue to treat aspects of identity as isolated elements, inuring privileged thought. We don’t need more of that. In another popular Tweet Wikipedia Brown says, “Intersectionality is a fact of life. It exists whether or not you acknowledge it. So simply acknowledging it is no great shakes. The question is how you incorporate it into your understanding of the world, your praxis, and the way you regard and treat other people.”
We all have intersectional identities, but we don’t all have to think about all of them all the time. It must be really great to be able to do research that way, to live that way. Nah, not really, because that kind of research and living doesn’t account for the complexity of the world and it certainly doesn’t account for the way many of us know ourselves.
In a recent essay published on Medium, Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) and Long Island University professor Jamila Lyiscott asks us to consider how our classroom pedagogies align with the hegemonies of coloniality (2017). She writes, “What if I told you that prevailing attitudes toward the language practices that students bring into the classroom are rooted in colonial, often racist, logic? What if I told you that by not disrupting these kinds of attitudes in your classroom, your pedagogy might be more aligned with colonialism than you realize?” Lyiscott proceeds to discuss ways in which we can work against these attitudes, including checking our own attitudes about multiple language practices and those of our students. Coloniality inhabits and becomes manifest at the most intimate rhetorical and corporeal levels, after all.
Along the same lines and for similar reasons, here I want to draw attention to inured language practices that are also harmful, albeit so deeply embedded in our daily forms of discourse that we often literally fail to have words for them and therefore erase their significance and existence among those of us with privilege. In this case I refer to the issue of un/documentedness and the tendency to evoke the label as one that exists solely in reference to those whose existence is directly affected by the lack of papers. This is not to deny—ever—that people who are undocumented do not face special dangers and fears that the rest of us do not, but it is to say that with that identity human beings become burdened by political and material hardships that many of us do not have to assume in our daily lives. Because those of us with documented-status privilege do not have to take these hardships into account, knowledge of these issues becomes the responsibility of those most affected by them. This though those of us with privilege and power tend to have more time and energy at our disposal and though that privilege is bought at the expense of those without it. Frankly, this is to argue that, just as we have struggled to render masculinity, whiteness, straightness, cisgender identity visible rather than the “natural,” non-designated analogue to an “extra” inconsistency, we must work also to render documentedness a visible dimension of identity rather than a presumed but invisible status against which undocumented people are disparaged. To fail to acknowledge that aspect of one’s privileged identity is to contribute to the violence of ongoing colonization and coloniality that imposes whitestream nationalism on Indigenous lands and also to the ethnicist frameworks that cast non-whites as liminal outsiders who can be used to guard the borders of whiteness and conquered geographies. We see this in the Latinx community where documented Latinxs are encouraged to see themselves as distinct from undocumented Latinxs, to strive toward whiteness through a reliance on anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism, and to seek to prove their UnitedStatesian identity through a renunciation of language and often military activity.
Furthermore, ignoring this aspect of identity obscures how Latinx and other identities are framed as in/visible via a reliance on the “regime of deportability.” Adela C, Licona and Marta Maria Maldonado define “Latin@ visibilities and invisibilities” as “spatialized practices by individuals, families, communities, institutions, and the state that render Latin@s (or through which Latin@s render themselves) visible or invisible across contexts, with repercussions for survival, community integration, and political praxis” (2013, p. 1-2). These are intrinsically influenced by the regime of deportability, which produces “hyper/visibilities and hyper/invisibilities as it, at once, calls migrants out from the shadows (in a spectacle of detention practices and raids) and forces them back into the shadows by entrenching notions of illegality and practices of surveillance and policeability [even as] society continues to rely heavily on (unauthorized) immigrant labor” (p. 5). To this we must add the ways in which a reliance on the regime of deportability as a regulatory mechanism affects intersectional identities and their attendant needs so that they too are rendered simultaneously hyper/visible and hyper/invisible in rhetorical ways useful to nationalistic organization. For example, in the case of disabled undocumented immigrants, too many people are denied material access to treatment and access to empathy reserved for human beings. M. Carmela Pérez & Lisa Fortuna explain that the combined problems of poverty, exploitation, racism, discrimination, and substance abuse disorders (2005, p. 110-111), coupled with limited access to services and the increased impetus for secrecy, allowing us to understand how disability is more likely to be read as criminality. Doris Marie Provine & Roxanne Lynn Doty show how public policy reproduces prevalent racisms and, in turn, contributes to a “racial project” that establishes difference as fact so that “[e]ven in the absence of overt racism, the combination of increased surveillance and sanctions, agency hype, and everyday practice together produce an immigrant ‘other’ whose continued presence is increasingly perceived to be dangerous for the security and integrity of the nation” (2011, p. 264).
Together lack of access and lack of empathy reinforce the rhetorical impression of embodied threat, an impression difficult to contest when it seemingly corroborates discriminatory legal rhetorics. For example, the Immigration Act of 1990 lists nine grounds for exclusion including health concerns (such as having or having had “a physical or mental disorder and behavior associated with the disorder”), “moral turpitude” offenses, or the possibility that an individual “is likely at any time to become a public charge” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1990). The proximity of these designation within immigration acts classifies members of already vulnerable groups “as a form of pollution” (Park & Park 2005, p. 27), reflecting enduring impressions of immigrants as biologically inferior and a costly burden to taxpayers. These sentiments are exacerbated in the case of undocumented people, who are seen as dangerous and a burden the cost of which is unmerited rather than as human beings. Nationalistic rhetorics frame Othered flesh as social sickness, and so, the very real issues affecting very real people become obscured or come to be regarded as proof of their undesirability. Meanwhile, those with documented privilege may come to resent the basic needs of undocumented people, especially if their own lack of access is evident, and come to see things such as shelter, food, and medical care as issues of meritocracy rather than fundamentally connected to organizational schema designed to discourage and/or eradicate the Outsider.
Because language allows us to create the conditions of the world around us, here I wish to focus on a rhetorical approach to uncovering this one expression of coloniality. But as I do, I will say that of course talking about these issues is insufficient without actions and activism to support such dialogues. However, in raising the standing of un/documentedness to a more evenhanded recognized axis of identity, it is a sincere hope that within the classroom we can come to recognize it as one that implicates us all, and recognize how it affects the ways we read and write and also live our lives. Thus, we can we begin accommodate our identities and those of our students in an inclusive, decolonial praxis. Hence, drawing from compositionists working in feminist, critical race, and disability studies, today I call for an approach that foregrounds ethos, accessibility, and intersectionality as markers of “good rhetoric.” And, in doing do, I aim to highlight un/documented status as an aspect of identity that everyone maintains, not just the most vulnerable, and for that reason those with contextual privilege are responsible for acknowledging that identity and its privileges. It is important to do so in order to uncover the often-unchallenged assumptions that continue to inform whitestream rhetoric and composition pedagogy.
Traditionally, rhetoric has been loosely defined as the ability to communicate in a stylistic and persuasive manner. But the concept itself has proven problematic, at times associated with the many uses of elaborate and ornate language, at times with the conveyance of ethics and truth. For me, rhetoric is stylistic language that influences relationality and governs whose goals are centered and whose are overwritten. It is not just a vehicle for identification and persuasion but these processes in action. Positionality influences our goals and our social roles, creates impressions of insider and/or outsider status in rhetorical and material relationships, and affects others through our constructions of inclusive or hostile spaces. It is inescapable though some believe it’s not always about gender, race, disability, un/documented status. Life is about every single one of those things for all us, even if the default norms obscure one or more of those dimensions of privileged persons’ identities. As Tara J. Yosso argues in talking about racism, subjugation “is often well disguised in the rhetoric of shared ‘normative’ values and ‘neutral’ social scientific principles and practices” (p. 119). This is why it crucial that we reframe rhetoric to bypass notions of neutral audiences to imagine specific identities. Otherwise, the notion of a good person speaking well continues to harbor epistemic violence under the guise of objectivity and virtue.
Thus, I wish to engage in what Royster and Kirsch term the use of critical imagination to suggest how we might re-envision rhetoric’s capacity as an invitational rather than identity-imposing process. This involves what Royster and Kirsch explain as “tacking in” and “tacking out.” Tacking in is the “use of longstanding analytical tools…to focus closely on existing resources… and existing scholarship to assess what we now understand and to speculate about what seems to be missing,” while tacking out is the use of “what we have come to know by more-traditional means…to broaden our own viewpoints in anticipation of what might become more visible from a longer or broader view, where the scene may not be in fine detail but in broader strokes and deep impressions” (p. 72). These strategies are crucial in highlighting standpoints backgrounded by whitestream rhetoric but that are nonetheless pervasive.
Rhetoric as the establishing of positionality requires a comprehensive reorientation, from a focus on the rhetor’s use of style to coerce the audience into consenting to the rhetor’s code of ethics and acting from that stance, to an emphasis on the mutually constitutive quality of identity and ethics. To do this, we must shift from speaking well to what Krista Ratcliffe deems rhetorically listening well. We must practice communication within “logics of accountability” where accountability, as bell hooks explains, is an appreciation of our similarities and differences and a realization that “all people have a stake in each other’s quality of life” (Ratcliffe, 2006, p. 31). To quote Malea Powell’s 2012 C’s Chair’s Address, “Through relationality, [we] can build another path—one that resists a defensive posture and instead, honors the stories and bodies who came before and will come after [us]. It isn't a solution, but a worldview to tell stories, teach, and live in this weird space called academia” (p. 390). In suggesting this shift, I do so in full recognition that what I suggest is nothing new, that my Indigenous ancestors lived the tenet of “all our relations,” that my African ancestors knew the communal and creative power of nommo which, as Sheena C. Howard explains, “brings about harmony and balance” (Howard, 2011, p. 739). In recognition, too, that these principles are still practiced today in communities and public spheres habitually rendered the phenomenological background of “respectable” rhetorics and “correct” composition. What I call for, then, in asking that we all acknowledge our relationship to un/documentedness is a foregrounding of communal orientation as a corrective to the individualism of eurowestern rhetoric that fosters oppression by ignoring those dimensions of identity and ascribing them only to those without privilege.
A commitment to listening and learning must be accompanied by an acknowledgement that “additional” identities that seem to belong to those “others” pertain to us all, even and especially if we are privileged to never feel their effects. For example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson reminds us in conversation with Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Georgina Kleege that “disability is everywhere. Just like we know now that gender is everywhere, even when it doesn’t look like gender. Just as Toni Morrison says, Blackness is everywhere, even when we’re not talking about African Americans” (p. 28). Even and especially when one is non-disabled, not a woman, not raced, not undocumented, these are axes of identity that organize all of our lives. And so, even and especially if we are not affected by them directly, we should listen to those most affected by them to better comprehend our entanglement within these categories to ensure that we do not remain complicit in perpetuating oppressive norms. Rather than asking who we want to be in a given situation in order to be heeded, we might ask ourselves who we must be in order to heed.
This calls for sincere humility, a willingness to be uncomfortable. It demands that we be prepared to attend to signs of those things that we don’t know we don’t know and then seeking to educate ourselves accordingly. As Sharan B. Merriam et al. note in their work on insider/outsider status, this positionality is complicated. There are “silent understandings, culture-bound phrases…and non-verbalized answers” (p. 406) that we may not be privy to, and always some that we should perhaps not aim to know. Cultural meanings are “multiple and contradictory…[and some that] cannot be understood without reference to historical, political and economic discourses” (citing Kondo, 1990; p. 409), even among parties who seem themselves as members of the same community. Humility requires that we not enact erasure or impose on people the role of native informant. Instead, we can acknowledge our ignorance outright by declaring our positionality and its limits. Acknowledging our communication from a specific place within a nexus of identities frames a lack of knowledge as an opportunity to learn and grow and empathize without (hopefully) being paternalistic. And, this requires that we explicitly reimagine rhetorical potential from a social justice outlook, not in uncertain theoretical terms but as it affects human beings in concrete ways, especially those whose needs have not been habitually centered—those of us who have been rendered tropes through which “real” rhetoric takes place.
In closing, I wish to state that I personally despise the language of legality and illegality, that I hope for a day where terms do not have the ability to segregate human beings who share my flesh and blood and language and culture. But I recognize too that my privilege and security come at the expense of those whose every move is determined by a visa or permit. I state this here because I do not wish to legitimize oppressive uses of language but, as Richard Delgado notes in expounding on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s take on decolonial writing, I too acknowledge that there is immense difficulty, even an impossibility, in promoting self-liberation using colonial discourse. Too often we use “terms, topics, and metaphors” familiar to dominant culture audiences, unfortunately diminishing the intent and effects of resistance (Delgado 2013, p. 311). Writing that centers those forced to live at the periphery of concern must reflect this remaking process. We cannot always ourselves of what DeCerteau calls “imposed knowledge and symbolisms…manipulated by practitioners who have not produced them” (DeCerteau 1988, p. 32) because we are our stories and we must apply them—and ourselves—differently. Our survival compels it. Yet as Licona & Maldonado explain, the “racialization of Latin@s as foreigners and immigrants…renders [us] ‘reasonably suspicious’ and therefore potentially criminal” 2014, p. 522). It is not the case that colonization and coloniality affects only some of us; it implicates us of all by a matter of severity and degree, granting some privilege, imposing harsh injunctions on others, and exerting both in all contexts in the interest of state taxonomies. Until we find new language of subvert the logics of ableist ethnoracial nationalism, perhaps the very least we can do is acknowledge the erasure of identity that takes place at the expense of undocumented members of our communities and make use of that privilege in service to those rendered hypervisible and hyperinvisible by the colonial apparatus.
Decolonize all the (Digital) Things: Settler Colonial Semiotics of Resistance and the Appropriation of Decoloniality
In recent years, decolonial discourses seem to have gained a bit of traction within academic and popular activist circles. I say “seem” because while the language and ostensible drive behind decolonization and decoloniality are present, the decolonial is often still very much looked down on within the academy as suspect or illegitimate. Furthermore, the notion of “decolonization” as a figurative notion delinked from Native land rights and sovereignty has been increasingly appropriated to further whitestream (Grande, 2003) agendas. In this way, to quote Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, the “absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization [becomes] yet another form of settler appropriation” (2012, p. 3). Here I want to address the latter issue by examining the appropriation of decolonial rhetorics by non-Indigenous activists as a way to problematize tropic relationships between digital texts and their objects of representation. By comparing how Native and non-Native activists use decolonial rhetorics on social media, I mean to show how in Eurowestern digital texts “representation is used as a metaphor for social, cultural, and ethical issues” (Kress, 2005, p. 6), while Native digital texts deliberately de-metaphorize connections between Indigenous peoples, land and resources, and non-Indigenous audiences.
[Slide 2] In For Indigenous Minds Only: A Decolonization Handbook, Waziyatawin and Michael Yellow Bird explain the importance of decolonization in the lives of Native peoples. They write, “Colonization refers to both the formal and informal methods (behaviors, ideologies, institutions, policies, and economies) that maintain the subjugation or exploitation of Indigenous peoples, lands, and resources” (2012, p. 3). Colonization is structural and affects Indigenous people at the many different levels of life: the linguistic, the social, the educational, the biological, the geographic, the psychological. Because colonization works to make our minds “contaminated with self-hatred and the belief that we are inferior to the colonizers” (p.2), “[f]irst and foremost, decolonization must occur in our own minds” (p. 3). Native peoples must (re-)learn to “think consciously and critically about the meaning of [these] terms from within their own cultural framework” (p. 4). In their previous collection, For Indigenous Eyes Only, they stress that “Decolonization…is not about tweaking the existing structure to make it more Indigenous-friendly or a little less oppressive. The existing system is fundamentally and irreparably flawed” (p. 4). It is necessary to stress this point because there can be no mistaking what decolonization entails: recognizing the sovereignty and land rights of Indigenous peoples, and the rights to language and culture that have been forcibly, violently suppressed. Decolonization centers Native epistemologies and traditions, as well as the culturally specific rhetorics that transmit knowledges necessary to everyday life and liberation. Recognition and relationship are crucial among Native peoples, while transposition and appropriation are recognized by Native peoples as mechanisms of colonization, iterations of dominance under the guise of self-actualization.
Since colonization affects Indigenous peoples in every aspect of life, decolonization is both a goal and an ongoing process. Indigenous people’s activities on- and offline reflect an embracing of this endeavor. [Slide 3] While these images/memes are recent digital texts, they represent centuries of struggle against cultural reprogramming. Secular and religious agents actively altered Native diets to make conquered peoples dependent on their masters and even to “save their souls,” and they imposed hierarchical Eurowestern romantic and sexual ideals to alter gender roles and conjugal relationships. Hence, these digital texts speak to ways that Indigeneity recognizes conquest and colonization as things not of the past; these texts confound Eurowestern notions of linear space-time that suggest that Indigeneity is a monolithic historical thing nonetheless defined by current nationalistic borders and that lay claim to delineations of futurity. Recognizing the spatiotemporal dimensions of rhetorics of domination and liberation proves crucial to recognizing the colonial tendency to appropriate decoloniality for and by non-Natives for it is in subverting the vectors of space-time that decolonial projects are colonized. Due to time constraints, I will show just two examples of how members of the dominant culture do this by imposing on decolonial ideals the space-time of Eurowestern epistemologies.
[Slide 4] This first example is from the website Uncaged Human composed by a health trainer. According to the site, his “mission is to help you reconnect with the strong, adaptable, wild, you (even in the midst of domesticated living)” which goes against basic human nature because “wildness will always be our native home.” In this particular piece titled “How to Decolonize Your Mind: On Earning the Right to Live,” the author suggests that modern living is based on a disruption of humanity’s natural hunter-gatherer state. Here are some select quotes. [Slide 5] Equating agriculture with domination of the earth, he states, “Man belongs to the world in the hunter-gatherer way. The world belong to man in the agricultural way. Some even go so far as to say that it’s man’s duty to develop, conquer, and rule over the world. Manifest destiny, right?” Associating living in a society made possible by agriculture has led to trauma and pain, and so, he advises: “Being compassionate with yourself is immensely important. Realize that you didn’t choose this. Go easy on yourself as you make this journey to becoming as feral of a human as you can be. It’s definitely a process, and there are no easy answers.” The irony of this example is that the author stresses the importance of knowing human history. However, this blog entry overlooks the specific time-space of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and the way that settler colonialism was responsible for making displaced peoples who once relied on agriculture hunters and gatherers. Furthermore, it frames Indigenous peoples as wild and uncivilized even as the author discounts the myth of the Noble Savage.
This enacts precisely the kind of violence that Angela Haas notes when she describes stereotypes of Native peoples as the unquestioned foundation of myths of (white) progress: “These simulacra accumulate and contribute to the perpetuation of a colonial rhetorical assemblage, one that situates American Indian peoples and intellectual traditions outside (post)modern society and correspondingly resistant to the tools and technologies that have signified Western (post)modernity” (2015, p. 190). This dissociation of Indigenous people and technology by whitestream authors works to perpetuate the colonial mystification of space-time. While seemingly recognizing the dangers of coloniality, such discourses nonetheless center those who have benefitted from its implementation or at the very least, erases those who were and remain its actual targets. This, in turn, creates the impression that “the land remains in geographical and temporal limbo, simultaneously framed as capable of manifesting the telos of [Euro-]Western advancement and yet uncivilized whenever necessary” (Cedillo, 2013, p. 113). And, Indigenous people, being as “feral” as the land still require whitestream civilization to be liberated and to reclaim their original state, a suggestion that ultimately bolsters Manifest Destiny by another or no name. The white man’s burden becomes the millstone of technology, while, as Haas argues, “[I]ndigenous peoples are relegated to the darkness of technological illiteracy and the wilderness” (2015, p. 195).
[Slide 6] In the second example, an entry titled “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” after the essay by Tuck and Yang on The Feminist Rag site, the author draws on Indigenous critics to formulate her own “decolonial lens.” [Slide 7] Beginning with a quote by Winona LaDuke that stresses that all people were land-based somewhere, the author explains, “I have MUCH work to do because I have been colonized for much longer than the Native People of the Americas as my own Indigenous roots are in Siberia.” She discusses the theft of Native lands in the context of deeds and titles, framing them as illegitimate. Then, she quotes Tuck and Yang when they say, “Directly and indirectly benefiting from the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples is a difficult reality for settlers to accept. The weight of this reality is uncomfortable; the misery of guilt makes one hurry toward any reprieve […] excuses, distractions, and diversions from decolonization […are] strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler [or immigrant] of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all. Settler moves to innocence are hollow, they only serve the settler [or immigrant].” To this quote, she responds by stating, “I know all about the misery of guilt, I’m a Jew …it took me some time to wade through the thick, blinding, crippling fog of white guilt when I began to more fully understand racism, white privilege, able-ism, other ism’s, and their overarching Bid Daddy, colonization. …Decolonization is not an easy, pleasant or fast process. But it is a critical one. We’re ALL suffering under colonization. How do YOU perpetuate it? How can you stop your role in it?” [Slide 8 and 9] As in the previous example, the author attributes blame for society’s evils on domestication of humans and animals, and today’s industrialized lifestyle, tying these to colonization and kyriarchy, a system of intertwined oppressions.
The problematic quality of this blog is that even as it engages with the work of several decolonial Indigenous scholars, it replicates settler colonial moves that Tuck and Yang identify. The first is what they deem the move “to become without becoming [Indian].” They explain, “This adoption fantasy is the mythical trump card desired by critical settlers who feel remorse about settler colonialism, one that absolves them from the inheritance of settler crimes and that bequeaths a new inheritance of Native-ness and claims to the land (which is a reaffirmation of what the settler project has been all along” (p. 14). While the author makes clear her cultural affiliation, her positioning as someone who is “also Native” and who has been colonized much longer than Native peoples of the Americas overlooks how settler colonialism has and continues to work within the United States. While she does go on to acknowledge her settler and immigrant status later in the blog, the claim that “we’re all suffering under colonization” enacts erasure by ignoring the fact that some people suffer under settler colonization and colonialism and some derive privilege. Furthermore, these claims ascribe to the fallacy of what Tuck and Yang call the “Free your mind and the rest will follow” move (p. 19). They remind us that decolonization “is not a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes,” that “decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life,” that decolonization “is not a metonym for social justice,” and that “the pursuit of social justice…can also be settler moves to innocence—diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege ” (p. 21). The author says she doesn’t nor does she want to own land. However, in framing decolonization as a movement designed to liberate everyone, including those with privilege, Indigenous interests are tied to settler and whitestream interests and remain secondary.
[Slide 10] Recognition of other peoples and a lived relationship to land cannot be metaphorized or ignored without coloniality being re-inscribed temporally and geographically. For example, in an essay on the use of Internet memes in campaigns to free Anishnaabe-Lakota political prisoner Leonard Peltier, Corinna Lenhardt discusses the Free Peltier mural in Belfast, Ireland, which “connects Peltier’s status as a political prisoner and his still-pending liberation to contemporary Northern Irish people and agendas” (2016, p. 72). Flanked by other murals, including those representing the Ballymurphy Massacre of 1971, in which Irish civilians were killed by British forces, and denouncing economic oppression respectively, the Peltier mural emphasizes the centrality of colonization as an everyday, material state of being for Irish and Native American peoples. This rhetorical relationship is not metaphor or even metonymy but identification based in concrete conditions and specific relationships to colonized territories.
[Slide 11] Another example of the need to recognize relationality as a trope over the abstractness of those famously outlined by Burke is that of the EZLN, or Zapatistas, in Southern Mexico. Their strategic deployment of digital technology has not only allowed them to wage a mostly nonviolent revolution but draws the attention of liberals and progressives around the world, which at times shields them from state violence. Since their emergence in 1994, through diverse media and communiques that reinforce a global need to fight neoliberalism, “[t]he causes of an indigenous movement, women’s right’s, anti-NAFTA sentiment, and rhetoric against neoliberalism…provided a set of powerful rallying points” (Froehling, 1997, p. 298). However, it is necessary that we recognize that while these causes might prove discourses that allow non-Indigenous audiences to identify and serve witness to Zapatista causes, simplistic identification can prove means to “become without becoming Indian.” For the Tzetzal, Tojolobal, and other Maya groups who inhabit the Lacandon jungle, the fight against NAFTA and neoliberalism stems from the everyday threat to their lands by farmers, ranchers, soldiers, and corporations, and their recognition of women’s right’s acknowledge Indigenous women’s traditional place as the preservers and purveyors of culture.
[Slide 12] We may all be oppressed by coloniality in some way, but ultimately, Indigenous peoples are the ones who must be displaced and indoctrinated for settler colonialism to happen and who must struggle daily for land and culture. That is a far cry from acknowledging one’s complicity in colonization. We must recognize that or enact real violence. “Otherwise,” as Haas states, “we risk reinforcing a colonial fiction woven into the fabric of nation building…and proven to be a cash cow for media industries that not only allows for but is sponsored by the continued subjugation of peoples and intellectual traditions indigenous to this country” (2015, p. 190). Given that social media clicks and shares equal significant dollar signs, we must understand the proliferation of colonial “decolonial messages” as having ideological, economic, and thus material, repercussions for Indigenous peoples.
For the last 2,000 years, traditional Eurowestern rhetorics have taken their most basic triadic purpose to be to teach, to delight, and to move. We have read Augustine’s take on Cicero’s take on Aristotle to distill what we typically take to be true even now: while teaching is most important, we must rely on delight to secure our audiences’ attention to move them toward action (Kennedy, 1999). Here I want to dissect this foundational axiom, and by extension, how we approach rhetorical pedagogy, through a personal lens as someone whose roles as writer, researcher, and teacher are fundamentally informed by my identity as a woman of color living with several invisible, mental disabilities. These disabilities mean I have a very particular relationship with movement, one overlooked in traditional articulations of what it means to move, meaning persuasion, and therefore attain access and mobility.
My own embodiment is why I focus on relationships between rhetoric and bodies, on those ways that rhetorics of embodiment compel us into corporeal configurations deemed socially acceptable and how we either comply or contest these constraints. In my case, I cannot help but pose a challenge to order. ADHD means my thoughts jump to make connections that appear as inscrutable enthymemes to others; I move too much and often quite artlessly. Anxiety spirals often drive me into absolute stasis, besieging my mind with conflicting questions and concerns. And depression means that sometimes I cannot move at all mentally or physically because my bodymindspirit, as Irene Lara deems it (2005), just aches too much. These concerns are not just a long list of my medical conditions but rhetorical topics in the flesh.
For all our discipline’s attempts to erase the centrality of bodies to rhetoric except when discussed as perhaps another technology, we often learn to compose as though writing and reception do not occur through our bodies. As Jay Dolmage has argued, “we have accepted an historical narrative in which [like philosophy] rhetoric…denounces the body, overlooks its phenomenological and persuasive importance, and lifts discourse from its corporeal hinges” (2009, p.1). From writing rules that say we should stay away from the embodied I in favor of a disembodied objectivity, to the frequent denigration of pathos as illegitimate appeal, the teaching of rhetoric still tends to ignore the bodies that communicate and inscribe as though critical thinking and conveyance occur in a utopian, logocentric vacuum. We’re to spill our thoughts and feelings, find our voices, use imagery to help readers envision vivid scenes, and yet we are asked to basically ignore the color of our hands, the desires and fears they have known, and the emotions they render visible in favor of what passes for academic rigor. So I sit here before you now, contemplating what it means to be artful, what it means to use stasis as a heuristic for change, when your body and mind don’t fit the normate standards of what it means to move. Asking how we might go about developing pedagogies based in critical embodiment that recognize the diverse ways that non-normative bodies navigate spaces. I believe that critical embodiment pedagogies can help in the creation of access that reverberates beyond the page and into the real world because the two spaces are not discrete.
All too often, discussions about accessibility are reduced to issues of style and clarity without taking into account the importance of embodiment in deciding whether those standards have been met. For example, proponents of critical pedagogy urge us to recognize the difference between access to information—that is, access to texts and resources—and access to knowledge—meaning the ability to decode and utilize information (Sleeter, 2012). Both kinds of access occur corporeally, but our bodies and the lives they engender are what typically gets ignored in the process of determining accessibility. The most fundamental way to make texts accessible is by ensuring that they are readable in terms of style and clarity. Yet readability is treated as all about quantifiable data and lexical indexes, and hence deficiency, rather than equitable communication and invitational exchange. Whose experiences are the basis for deciding what is clear and stylistically adroit in any given context? Are they typically those of, say, someone with a learning disability or whose first language is not English, or do we still target those we perceive to be in the mainstream, the whitestream as Sandy Grande (2003) would say, the dominant group, and simply aim for a retrofit with a few strategic devices to ensure the Others feel included? What real people do we imagine as our “always a fiction”? If we consider readability based on normate assumptions rather than the embodied experiences of people most in need of access to voice and space, notions like style and clarity themselves can and do become part of an ableist apparatus that promotes other -isms as well. Margaret Price reminds us that discursive norms are often tools of social hygiene (2011), affirming dominant ideologies, enacting erasure, and backgrounding those of us who do not think and move according to the mean. They render people and their needs visible or invisible, privileging some people by pushing Others out of categories of the human.
Foregrounding the material and embodied needs of audiences requires that we be upfront about why we do the things we do, that we get away from ideal generalities in favor of stating bluntly, “Yes, I want to be more conscientious of my intended audience’s dis/ability, race, queerness” and so on in how I write and teach others to write. But in many circles that still gets you pegged as “that political teacher” rather than “that meticulous rhetor.” And, even when we do try to be critical pedagogues, that doesn’t mean we are actually listening to those we think we’re championing. In an essay I assign every semester, Ibby Grace (2013) points to an inconsistency that academia as a whole is responsible for but that every single person in our field (even/especially me) needs to be held accountable for since we rhetoric and composition folks are all about effective communication. Basically, we use overly technical and dense language to identify as members of particular discourse communities while excluding a large part of the world. Those of us who are neurodivergent need cognitively accessible language to avoid fatigue when reading or writing about ourselves, but that’s not what gets you published even when the journals we’re submitting to say they’re interested in our experiences. That’s not to say we shouldn’t appeal to disciplinary conventions, but when addressing the needs of particular demographics, we have to choose whether we’re speaking with them or whether we are speaking for them, over them, and therefore, against them. Competing for or denying space instead of using any privilege we may have to create and hold space so people can speak for themselves.
That’s what critical embodiment pedagogy calls for: it recognizes that writing is political. I know my existence is political—as a woman, as a person of color, as a disabled person living where I live. Some of us have no other choice than to be political because our lives have been politicized. My ability to find room to move and be moved reveals that words are never just words; they are spaces that are accessible or else they are hostile. As Stephanie Kerschbaum (2013) stresses, multimodal inhospitality affects how disabled people engage within different kairotic spaces, precluding our ability to establish presence because we cannot enter these spaces, whether face-to-face or online. Also, in print and in paper and ink because ultimately, communication is always multimodal since all modalities rely on embodiment for reception. There is no multimodality without corporeal grounding, and as a result, we must understand modalities as body-spatial. Sara Ahmed writes that as bodies traverse spaces, bodies and spaces are both transformed, taking on one another’s contours (2006). Because spaces shape bodies and bodies shape space, that body-space is intrinsically rhetorical though in ways that often go unnoticed because of our intimate living relationships to it—but only if you’ve got privilege.
When we are disabled or raced or queer, inhospitable conditions frequently render us hypervisible to those with privilege. That should not be confused with having presence within the whitestream. Melanie Yergeau, writing about autism and rhetoric with Paul Heilker (2011), provides a salient, all too familiar example of this difference when she explains how neurotypicals describe autistics as ineffective rhetors because they’re “empathetically challenged” even as they write about autistic writers as though their own empathy is consummate (491). This begs the question: why are these critics writing about autistics at all then? To diagnose their writing? To figure out how to rectify some hypothetical deficit rather than welcome how difference destabilizes inured norms? Our writing reflects our embodied movement through different geographies, and such imposed assumptions render the page or screen an already antagonistic space before we even sit down to compose. Little wonder, then, that students find writing painful. It is when your experience, your background, your life is constantly being overwritten.
Consequently, because I know all too well what it means, no, what that feels like, I can’t help but want to think about the embodied I/me as a strategic site of invention that moves in and about the world, sending multimodal messages that some people may not expect but also (re)creating space in my wake. Rhetoric is ever aimed at futurity and the movements people are to make in order to achieve some semblance of progress, and so, notions of kairotic space-time are typically ableist, racist, heteronormative. Since I’m rendered hyperaware of my body within my own entered-into spatial environments, I think of others’ body-spaces and deliberately aim to create and hold space for them, to let them know that they are recognized. This intention requires a whole new orientation, as Alison Kafer (2013) explains in her work on crip time. Reorientation that foregrounds rather than ignores the everyday realities and physical needs of the disabled body, the raced body, the queer body. How does that work? Othered people get tired. There’s pressure to write for ablebodied audiences, non-raced audiences, cis-hetero audiences, even when we’re talking about ourselves to people like us, but how often does the reverse hold true? Maybe this one time I don’t want to concentrate on moving you; maybe this one time you who don’t have the burden of hypervisible identities wearing you out all the time can move over and make some room for those of us who do. Earlier this semester, we analyzed Janine Butler’s recent article in Kairos (2016) about captions in ASL music videos, including some videos that featured only ASL song lyrics without alphabetic text. Discussing what those rhetorical choices revealed about the videos’ respective intended audiences, a student with a self-disclosed disability remarked, “You know, I think it’s okay if people who aren’t disabled feel left out just this one time. They already get addressed all the time. Every other time everything is for them.”
So yes, all rhetoric is political. And in terms of movement, I argue we need to move beyond being aware of bodily diversity to becoming active makers of spaces that accommodate diverse experiences whether in print, online, or in person. We need to develop greater critical attunement to space as more than a mere background for verbal rhetorics. As Londie Martin (2013) argues, space isn’t empty and representations and conceptions of space are never neutral. Spaces and bodies adopt and engender assumptions about belonging and exclusion reified by the writing, dispositions, and actions of others, by whose experiences are foregrounded or backgrounded. Ultimately, I cannot move you if I myself cannot move, circumscribed by the assumptions of normality and normativity. And so, in closing, I challenge you to consider moving yourself just a bit, to make room for me and Others like me, and I will attempt to do the same as I live and compose.
“[S]treite unto my myrrowr and my glas”: Disability and the Social Performance of Intersubjectivity in Hoccleve’s “My Compleinte”
Thomas Hoccleve’s “My Compleinte” relates the speaker’s anxiety about his past madness as he contemplates the accuracy of others’ suspicions that he may still not be well. The ostensible sincerity which imbues Hoccleve’s verses has prompted critics to question whether “My Compleinte” imparts a genuine representation of his mental illness or proves an overtly stylistic depiction typical of medieval self-representation. Looking into a mirror, the speaker strives to modify his appearance to indicate wellness, and meditates on his behavior while mad, a retrospective action only possible via other people’s overheard descriptions, given that he was insensible at the time. I suggest that “My Compleinte” presents a skillful rhetorical construal of madness that highlights its rhetoricity and that of identity more generally, to underscore their communal dimensions. Hoccleve accomplishes this by deploying a fundamental rhetorical process based in relationality, identification, at both the diegetic and mimetic levels of the poem. Through his use of this device, he underscores the intersubjective character of medieval identity, madness, and meaning—not only as individual notions but as entangled ones. Consequently, “My Compleinte” reveals connections between identification and madness that can still inform present understandings of disability. Such knowledge points up the enduring relevance of medieval studies to show, as Rachel Fulton and Bruce Holsinger argue, that “our lives are ultimately not ‘other,’ from the past,” that what we consider history “is still very much with us, even as it shocks or comforts us to see that so much has changed” (288). By looking to the past we might more fully understand and learn to engage with our own notions of dis/ability.
Currently, the three main models of disability are the medical, the social, and the cultural models. [Slide 2] The medical model describes disability in bodily terms, framing it as an issue based in physical norms and compulsory treatment. Emphasizing the importance of diagnosis, this model distinguishes individual pathological deviation from normal embodiment, unlinking disability from lived and social settings. [Slide 3] In contrast, the social model differentiates between physical impairment and disability, framing disability primarily as a consequence of ableist contexts while retaining an emphasis on bodily difference. This model makes disability less about an individual’s pathology and more about society’s failure to provide for difference, although a stringent separation of situational accessibility from embodiment can fix critical attention on social structures at the expense of a person’s corporeal experience. [Slide 4] Finally, the cultural model of disability avoids extricating impairment from the conditions that create disability and associated stigma. Instead, it understands disability as the result of many factors, including social classifications of the body and embodied experiences of the individual, that constellate in diverse ways. It is the cultural model that I bring to bear in my reading of Hoccleve’s poem as it allows for a vast range of constellations of constitutive elements, including the specific features that characterize Hoccleve’s historical and literary contexts.
The constellating disposition of the cultural model allows us to trace the complex networks that form(ed) identity without rendering the speaker’s ethos wholly fungible with the facts of Hoccleve’s life. They also allow us to appreciate the forces that influence(d) the identities of both poet and speaker. Unlike Chaucer, who has long been recognized as a highly rhetorical author, many critics continue to read Hoccleve for the accuracy of his self-depiction rather than said ethos. D. C. Greetham notes that despite “occasional mumblings that Hoccleve’s methods might be more parodic and ironic than autobiographically accurate,” critics prefer “to concern themselves with (and in general terms to accept) the historical rather than the literary validity of Hoccleve’s self-characterization” (243). Perhaps this is because in terms of establishing ethos, Hoccleve seems his own worst enemy. Given how eagerly he bemoans his poverty and melancholy, it is little wonder that he has been described as “the little man who tries unsuccessfully to maneuver in a bureaucracy designed to crush him” ([Malcolm] Richardson 313). Yet critics like G. Gregory Smith and Jerome Mitchell argue for Hoccleve’s persona as “more conventional and rhetorical, and of a pattern, than individual” (Smith qtd. in Mitchell 3), although Mitchell nevertheless views much of Hoccleve’s work as one whole “complex self-portrait” (19). I believe these two interpretations need not be read as altogether divergent if we pay attention to the rhetoricity of the poem’s speaker’s identity and his madness.
Certainly, my attention to rhetoric is a nod to Hoccleve’s particular context as a clerk and person of his station, as someone whose career and art revolved around rhetorical forms. However, rhetoric’s focus on the intersubjective aspects of communication and social interaction, primarily facilitated by identification, sheds light on the complexity of Hoccleve’s poem. [Slide 5] Identification—and its analogue, dissociation—is one of the most important rhetorical devices, certainly one of the most powerful. It operates at the semantic and rhetorical levels, movements reflected by their uses in the poem. Here, I briefly define identification and dissociation as the bringing together and severing of ideas, respectively. However, these devices work at the audience level as well, for audiences must identify with a speaker for persuasion to occur and with one another if persuasion is to translate into collective action. Likewise, individuals can be persuaded to dissociate from a group or they might be excluded by the group as a collective. Identification and dissociation have corporeal consequences: social action as reification of their functions. Thus, we can classify them not only as rhetorical devices but forces with the power to connect or divide ideas and people, forces that inform every aspect of social existence and even personal definitions of identity. These principals can highlight the place of the body in the construction of disability, recognizing the lived impact of bodily difference without regarding it as a wholly corporeal condition free of social context and interpretation. Identification and dissociation as both devices and forces pervade “My Compleinte,” allowing us to appreciate the impression of communal quality of medieval existence as well as that of medieval madness both within and outside of the text.
“My Compleinte” begins with a prologue wherein the speaker suffers a bout of melancholy, leading him to contemplate a previous crisis in the part of the poem that forms the complaint. Thinking on his past experience, the speaker—whom I’ll deem “present Hoccleve” since he exists in the present within the poem—relates that five years earlier, he lost his mind. He thanks God for curing him, noting that he’s been fine since the time of his recovery though he has since suffered because others don’t believe he is well. [Slide 6] These lines establish a series of seeming dichotomies between several sets of elements: between “present Hoccleve” and his past self; between sanity and madness; between himself and others. Yet it is the dialogic relationship between past and present Hoccleves that composes the comprehensive identity of the speaker; sanity and madness are matters of corporeal and mental arrangement; and, despite the disrupted associations that now mark his presence in the community, the speaker and the community nonetheless remain joined through the social arrangements enabled by identification. These pairs are not really marked by polarity but by an underlying metonymy that sets each along a spectrum of possible location.
The relationship between “past Hoccleve” and “present Hoccleve” is fomented by the actions of his neighbors: their collective behavior changes when he approaches and they say hurtful things that cause him sorrow. [Slide 7] Overhearing them say many more things regarding his actions while mad, he hies to his mirror to self-scrutinize. He inspects his expression, ready to change it to the best of his ability if it seems suspect. Here Hoccleve explicitly references the object’s double nature, calling it his “mirrour” and his “glas.” It does not just have a function; it has meaning. It is both thing and text, reflecting one’s image and soul as a speculum inviting introspection. Cary J. Nederman defines a speculum as “most essentially, a book of advice addressed to an individual or (more commonly) a group, detailing a code of conduct or set of values appropriate to its addressee's social position or standing” (18). Not always thematically religious, they also could be political, connecting issues of morality to the social performance of correct behavior. This harmonizes with Jennifer Bryan’s claim that as both mirror-books and mirrors themselves became more commonplace in late medieval England, specula proved popular with laypeople who were “more interested in creating new identities for themselves then in melting into God” (78). This is what we see in “My Compleinte.”
Deep in melancholic contemplation, the speaker recalls how others’ suspicions drive him to study his mirror image to determine whether they are correct that his madness lingers. The speaker can see himself, according to Stephen Harper, “as both subject and object, [who] wonders whether his perception of the external world is distorted by madness” (393). He examines his inner self but just as diligently contemplates his mannerisms and appearance to compose a new visage and new identity as necessary. Via the speculum trope, Hoccleve refracts the individual to reflect the polyvalent construction of the speaker’s ethos. In depicting the speaker gazing into the glass, Hoccleve signifies multiple iterations of an image, representing a complex figure composed of various interactive personae that incorporate even the reactions of multiple audiences. The speaker is able to contend with his past self in a manner that substantiates Merleau-Ponty’s notion that the horizon “is what guarantees the identity of the object throughout the exploration” (78). That is to say, the poem’s diegetic Hoccleve emerges in relation to and against those around him but also against the mimetic self that gazes. Conversely, the present’s “recovered Hoccleve” coheres through dissociation with the former self as well as the people he overhears. In this triangulation, there is no clear delineation between the identities of these parties, including facets of the self, only horizons that shift depending on who is doing the looking and the judging. “Mad Hoccleve” and “recovered Hoccleve” cannot be so easily distinguished. Rather, the speaker’s disability renders the assumed division between past and present a matter of perspective.
Likewise, impressions of wellness and madness reside along a continuum of communal perception concerning corporeal and mental rectitude. The speaker tells us that he was insensible and cannot remember what happened while he was mad, but that he hears from others that he “looked like a wild ox, looking every which way, moving my head side to side” (l. 120-122). His movements were frenetic, marked my constant movement even when he stood still (l. 127-133). Writing on medieval communal identity, Wout J.Van Bekkum and Paul M. Cobb assert that it was “at least partly a product of social contact, of communication, and thus, ultimately, of texts” (5). We may see all three of these features at work in and through “My Compleinte” and doubtless with good reason since, whether Hoccleve’s depiction of madness proves genuine or fabricated, the lesson imparted regarding one’s status in the community remains a vital one. Reputation was akin to capital (Palliser 141), especially for those like Hoccleve who lived in urban areas, and its loss resulted in detrimental social, economic, even physical, effects (Shaw 130). A pronouncement of madness “required the consensus of the community, rather than an expert voice, to establish that a person was indeed mad” (Pfau 94). Hence, madness could render individuals ostracized or subject to abuse. The arrangement of things like one’s body and one’s thinking served as signs of social dis/order that determined one’s insider or outsider status. Philosopher Gail Weiss argues that “human bodies themselves contribute, in an ongoing way, to the construction of narrative intelligibility” (68-9). In the case of the speaker’s affliction, select expressions, gestures, movements, and affect are unified within the topos of madness so that a communal pronouncement ostensibly proves reified in the flesh.
In “My Compleinte,” madness depends on interpretation based on identification both visual and rhetorical—in the detecting and classifying of particular gestures through communal rubrics, and in the coming together of those whose shared views and values sustain those criteria. Identification has a foundation both corporeal and intellectual. However, the poem suggests that the vectors of interpretative authority need not be unidirectional. The speaker’s actions set him apart from the crowd but the crowd’s collective body language also allows the speaker to better understand his situation when he sees that their demeanor changes, that their faces grow pale, and that they draw away from him. Those with whom he had previously identified pretend not to know him, as if they don't see him (l. 70-77). Roger Ellis states that “Hoccleve’s self-presentation witnesses to a growing interest in the discovery and representation of the individual in the later Middle Ages” (5). I suggest that the interaction of the two diegetic Hoccleves demands an examination of the individual’s relationships to and within society for if Hoccleve as individual is constrained by the words of his peers, the outside world nevertheless is apprehended and probed by the individual. Identification proves central to deliberations of madness and wellness, indeed, to the construction of identity in “My Compleinte.” Even if the result is alienation, shared experience is crucial to an appreciation of self, establishing others not as figures of extreme alterity but as essentials for knowing one’s place in the world. This idea is supported by the fact that during his madness, when the speaker is unable to perceive himself as sharing in a common experience, his notion of self dissipates, for there is no cohesive whole in the absence of the communal horizon. His body disappears within his own consciousness but also when the amalgamation of social conventions deemed a body unravels. We might compare this to Metzler’s discussion of the ungestalt, the later medieval German term for a “no-body,” the mutilated remains of the dead that are so “hideous” that they are also “formless” (52). Mad Hoccleve’s bodily presentation is literally repulsive to his neighbors but also signifies that his lack of a properly organized body makes him a nobody (Metzler 52). In this way, “My Compleinte” illustrates David Howes’ assertion that “[p]erception does not just go on in the head” but that “[r]ather, perception is a social phenomenon” as well (451). (There’s also something to be said about how ineffability is powerful and underscores the constructed character of “natural” things like the body and madness.) Consequently, Harper detects in “an awareness of a gap or mismatch between outer, physical appearances and inner, mental or spiritual realities” which should “make us question both the principle that medieval madness was essentially spectacular and the one-sided view of medieval consciousness which underpins it” (394). In presenting an impression of an exposed inner self where power to define that inner self is determined by the individual and others, Hoccleve problematizes a common view of the Middle Ages that situates identity in the social sphere and discounts any notion of a personal life, a view leading critics like Caroline Walker Bynum and David Shaw to assert the difference between everyday life in the Middle Ages and the chosen focus of literary representation.
However, the function of literary representation, too, can be problematized as the poem’s theme that relationships are intersubjective carries over to the rhetorical level of meaning as well. Distinguishing between the mad speaker as object and a subject speaker typified by reflection, Hoccleve presents an overtly crafted image. The subject self sees the object self engaging in social mimicry to appease others not unlike the construction of authorial ethos. [Slide 8] Whether contemplating Hoccleve as an everyday person or an author, the individual’s affinity to others is underscored. In addition, this network of subjectivities sets the speaker himself as among those who must be appeased as an observer and reader. This interplay reveals the perceptual horizons available to each persona as well as how these horizons overlap, creating a form of intersubjectivity within the polyvalent speaker himself. The locus of identity shifts but never fully escapes either personal or public orientation, but perhaps that is the crucial lesson. According to M. C. Seymour, “Where Chaucer composed for his own dramatic recitation before the court of Richard II, Hoccleve intended (and indeed had no other choice) a private reading by his patron” (xxv). Within such a rhetorical context, the didactic function of the poem depends upon personal reflection being inspired within the reader, and Hoccleve certainly draws from choice instructional genres. [Slide 9] Given that allegory, confessional literature, and specula are all intended to foster individual belief while stressing the reader’s membership within a (religious) community, so, too, does Hoccleve exploit this fundamental connection. He reminds his audience that the limits of the private and social selves are not so easily ascertained but that they must be contemplated if one is to not lose reputation. Others, too, are as mirrors to one’s body and soul, leading to introspection even if, as he claims to do, one merely ignores them in the end. Ultimately, madness with its challenge to communal organization becomes the glass through which we might extricate and scrutinize all aspects of our identities.
In closing, I would like to suggest a few ways that Hoccleve’s poem informs contemporary perspectives of disability. 1) Its depiction of madness as a complex and interactive phenomenon contests the medical model’s view of disability as mere pathology with nothing to teach us, and the social model’s impression of disability as a public reading of static impairment. Instead, “My Compleinte” offers nuance to the cultural model of disability by stressing corporeality as a crucial, contextually-determined element of inter/subjectivity. Hoccleve’s poem illustrates the rhizomatic composition of embodied identity, exemplifying Weiss’s claim that “images of the body are not discrete but form a series of overlapping identities whereby one or more aspects of that body appear to be especially salient at any given point in time” (1).
2) Understanding one’s identity as the result of negotiation allows us to better appreciate how the speaker uses identification to engage in rhetorical maneuvers. Kendall R. Phillips defines these as violations of “the proscriptive limits of our subject position” to draw on “another subject position we have occupied” (312). According to Phillips, “a given subject position creates the expectation that one will perform in a way that subsequently satisfies this position” (Phillips 314); rhetorical maneuvers exploit subverted expectations to change the contours of the subject position and possibly create new ones. In “My Compleinte” the speaker highlights his previous position as madperson as a source of firsthand authority even as he denies that the madness endures and that he is someone else. His doing so becomes a potent occasion of resistance to dominant narratives about disability. His social shame singularly bolsters his rhetorical ethos when he invites us to gaze into our own specula and reflect on our own attitudes concerning disability.
And finally, 3) a focus on identification and dissociation, and the corporeal intersubjectivity that they enable, help is bridge the emic-etic divide that Metzler points up. The emic perspective relies on “the specific world-view of a culture as it is usual within that culture” and the use of “cultural criteria as related to internal characteristics,” while the etic perspective is “generalizing and comparative” and regards “cultural criteria as absolutes or universals” (Metzler 10). She defines disability as emic, ever contingent on cultural context, and impairment as an etic notion, transcultural and transhistorical. According to Eyler, this absolute distinction must be amended by regarding disability as the confluence of “bodily difference and social perception” (Eyler 8). Understanding identity and disability as processes of negotiation stresses procedural similarities and differences across contexts over comparative views of ontology and pathology. It permits us to approach Hoccleve’s poem as a historically-situated text that nonetheless speaks to the concerns of critics and disabled individuals over time. And ultimately, perhaps by heeding voices like Hoccleve’s, we can, as Fulton and Holsinger state, “allow ourselves to … recognize our entanglement with the past, its passion, mistakes, and ideals, as a part of what we already are” (Fulton and Holsinger 288) as we wonder where we might go from here.
On Friday I presented on another panel, talking about the little known history of the lynching of Mexicans in the United States. Between the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, countless Mexicans were lynched by Anglo mobs and officials, in some areas at rates comparable to or surpassing those of African American victims. Yet the victimization of Mexicans living in the U.S. during this period usually goes unnoted, even though such acts of terrorism proved a crucial component of Manifest Destiny and imperial expansion. In addition, I suggest that the erasure of these tragedies implicitly reinforces the naturalized impression of the Black/white binary under which United-Statesian logics operate, obfuscating the processes by which racialization occurs, oversimplifying historical race relations, and thereby making the work of social redress about resolving polarities rather than dismantling a complex, hierarchical juridico-ontological system of organization. In that presentation, I argued that the lynching of Mexicans and their subsequent dismemberment for souvenir purposes provided physical and ideological means to deal with Mexicans’ racial ambiguity. At a time when scientific and colonial discourses not only supported one another but maintained a shared teleology—the assertion of white supremacy—Mexicans did not fit into racial categories established to organize peoples into a global system of classification. Viewed by turns as neighbors and allies or mixed-blood “mongrels” needing to be civilized by whites (Alonso 462), Mexicans experienced a distinctive vulnerability marked by ambivalence. Anglo settlers used the threat of vigilante violence to evict them so that their lands could be seized, or they might be incorporated into the community through marriage and political alliance but always under rubrics of white order.
This presentation focuses on the latter circumstance to focus on the unique kind of symbolic and physical colonization that Mexican women faced as a result of their racial ambiguity: because they were perceived as white/non-white, Anglo settlers could marry them and gain access to their lands and resources. It’s important to understand how these two practices worked together, lynching and sanctioned intermarriage, as they were both prompted by colonial discourses that could not quite categorize Mexican-ness, and because together they formed a dyadic gendered scheme of racial organization that helped to reify for white settlers all-too-unstable boundaries between races and nations. While lynching reinforced impressions of “mongrel” Mexicans as less than fully human and in need of domestication by settler colonization, its victims were predominantly male. As was the case with African American women and some poor whites, a Mexican woman’s class status could render her especially vulnerable to mob violence, but by and large, lynching was seen as a punishment reserved for suspected thieves and murders (who were typically male) and women whose lack of status framed them as “un-womanly.” In contrast, the rhetoric of “mongrelization” served to sanction intermarriage between Anglo men and elite Mexican women while reinforcing the superiority of whites over Mexicans. Mexican women’s bodies were rendered fungible with the land symbolically because they allowed their spouses access to titles and deeds, but also physically because they, too, were framed as requiring association with white civilization in order to achieve their ultimate racial(ized) entelechy.
White United-Statesians settlers exercised consubstantiality in contrast to Mexicans, framing themselves as a separate, superior race known as Anglo-Saxons (Rodriguez 96). This process occurred post-Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War with annexation of half of Mexico’s territory by the U.S. and the U.S.’s incorporation of an estimated 50,000 Mexicans and other Native peoples whom Mexico had considered citizens (Jiménez 6). General resentment stemming from conquest and colonization meant that the racial classification of Mexicans took on a special importance: as the ideological basis of empire. Within the newly ceded lands, Anglo settlers found themselves vastly outnumbered and in competition for resources with people who had been there for generations; meanwhile, in Washington, Congress debated whether Mexicans should be disqualified from citizenship on racial grounds. However, in a most problematic manner, Mexicans did not fit neatly into any of the four racial categories originally set forth by Linnaeus [Systema Naturae (1735), Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, and American] (McGregor 7), or Blumenbach’s revised taxonomy that upped the number to five [On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1775), the European, or white race; the Asiatic, or yellow; the African, or black; the American, or red; and the Malay] (Blumenbach 56). To further complicate matters, “whether an individual of Mexican descent was considered white or nonwhite could also vary by an individual’s generational status, skin color, or class” (Fox and Guglielmo 335).
Speaking to this, Cybelle Fox and Thomas A. Guglielmo write, “Mexicans might be considered white in one town and not in another, white in Santa Barbara in 1880 but not in the same city in 1920, white for the purposes of naturalization law but not for the school board, or white for the 1920 census but not for the 1930 one” (ibid.). Certainly this vacillation still holds today; however, during the period between 1850 and 1930, as the process of incorporation of lands seized during the war took place, racial classification took on a unique significance and Mexicans’ racial ambiguity was legally and scientifically deliberated in order to determine their political and biological status, indeed, their very ontology. For Mexican women, this uncertainty took on a specialized violence marked by ambivalence. Deborah R. Vargas writes that “representations of Latina/o masculinities and femininities in popular culture genres and venues are constituted by racialized discourses of conquest, imperialism, and colonization, consistently represented as either deviantly hypersexual or inhumanly desexual” (119).
The late 19th- and early 20th centuries were marked by extreme political, geographical, and ideological upheaval, and during such times these two stereotypes have been deployed to “reif[y] dominant notions of ostensibly American subjectivity, citizenship, and family” because, as Vargas argues, “notions of country, homeland, region, locality, and ethnicity are constructed through the racialization, sexualization, and genderization of female corporeality” (121). We can perceive how historically, this dichotomy breaks down along class and colorism lines. Like Mexican men, poor Mexican women were frequently targets of violence, at times even lynched for defending themselves against the advances of Anglo men. For example, in 1851, Josefa Segovia of Downieville, California, was hanged for the murder of Frederick Canon, who broke into her home and tried to assault her. William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb contend that “[h]ad Josefa been an Anglo woman, she would have been praised for defending her honor. However, her degraded racial status ensured that she was seen as the criminal aggressor” (421). Through a reading of cultural differences regarding gender vis-à-vis Anglo notions of domestic virtue, Latinas were depicted as “hotblooded and excessive,” signifying their peoples’ innate depravity in contrast to the “good morals” of whites and United-Statesians in general (Vargas 121).
Because Mexican women were regarded as licentious and lewd, women like Josefa could be blamed for inflaming male desire rather than viewed as victims of assault. This stereotype, like that of the desexualized good mother, was built along divisions of class and color. Carrigan and Webb note that the stereotype of the Mexican prostitute took hold in California during the Gold Rush when Mexican women were accused of turning to prostitution not because of economic hardship but because they were moral degenerates; furthermore, these denigrated women tended to be described as “tawny visaged creatures,” little better than animals, as when one prospector wrote home to say that the local Mexican women were “just about half as good-looking as cows and just about as neat…” (Carrigan and Webb 421). These women were dark, dirty, and corrupt, the antithesis of the angel of the house who was supposed to serve as the moral center of the white home.
In contrast, when Anglo men sought to marry landed Mexican women in order to gain political power and/or control of the land and its resources, they deemed their spouses the descendants of Spanish conquistadores who shared their cultural and biological status and were therefore owed the attendant privileges of whiteness. Laura Gómez notes, “[S]ome evidence suggests that persons living in Mexico’s northern territories…were much more indigenous and African than Spanish in their origins—precisely because such mestizo settlers had more to gain from the comparably looser racial order on Mexico’s frontier” (Gómez 90). However, European colonization had already introduced colorism into Mexican society as an organizational framework of racial hierarchy, one that continues to tie skin color to women’s perceived desirability to this day, corroborating Fanon’s claim that the final stage of colonization projects includes the establishment of race-based caste systems that guarantee the advancement of white interests as an ongoing, self-sustaining operation (Stephans and Fernández 79). Hence, due to colorism and gentrified notions of marriage, many of those elite Mexican women who were deemed politically white by Anglo potential suitors were likely phenotypically white, or at the very least fairer-skinned than many of their less economically advantaged sisters, although the Anglo system preferred quantum to color as a framework of organization.
Popular accounts of the period speak of elite Mexican women in similar terms as Anglo women. These elite women were described as “uncommonly beautiful, graceful, and sophisticated,” and men who married into these families, like a certain Alfred Robinson, who married into a Californio family, claimed that “perhaps there are few places in the world where, in proportion to the number of inhabitants, can be found more chastity, industrious habits, and correct deportment, than among the women of this place” (Carrigan and Webb 421). Hence, the “racialized discourses of conquest, imperialism, and colonization” of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries functioned to authorize settler colonialism precisely by claiming for Mexican women a European lineage that effectively erased the Indigenous ancestry that connected them ethically to the land; erasing the African ancestry that might put Mexicans’ political at odds with white supremacy; and implicitly establishing a new system of racial hierarchization that elevated the status of Anglos.
These discourses implicitly bolstered the “scientific” rhetorics of racial supremacy that equated whiteness with increased natural refinement and even wealth, since popular philosophies such as those sustaining Manifest Destiny posited that whites were entitled to the land because they best knew how to develop its economic potential. They also simultaneously framed Nature as an alterior contruct, classifying the Other races under the rubric of alterity since they were part of nature, and meaning that the land resources, and others were available for exploitation. David Spurr explains, “The concept of ‘nature’ has been for colonial discourse the occasion for a fundamental equivocation. On one hand, nature is opposed to culture and civilization: primitive peoples live in a state of nature. On the other, nature, or ‘natural law,’ is also that which grants dominion over the earth to more advanced peoples…Colonial discourse thus naturalizes the process of domination…” (156). The concept of Nature cannot exist as an peripheral object rather than as an embodied ecology that includes human beings unless subjectivity is ideologically extricated from its ethical, material, and rhetorical accountability to the world that it inhabits. Such an ideation is fundamentally racist and sexist, predicated on the deliberate dislocation of whiteness and maleness from their material and contexts, since white (men) were classified as outside of Nature rather than ruled by its influences like other races, especially the Native. According to Spurr, “Colonial discourse may be said to naturalize in both of these senses: while it identifies a colonized or primitive people as part of the natural world, it also presents this identification as entirely “natural,” as a simple state of what is, rather than a theory based in interest” (Spurr 157). Not coincidentally, Nature was depicted as female and feminine, and as an accommodating figure who was not only receptive to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny but who also desired it.
In directly tying access to the land and resources to Mexican women’s bodies, colonial discourses naturalized settler colonialism because it was framed as a natural process, meaning not only that it was the inevitable result of destiny but that it happened through the most “natural” of functions. That is, dominion over the land was not necessarily a strategic endeavor but was simply the to-be-expected result of social and physical intercourse among the races—though strangely enough, the gender dynamics of such sanctioned intermarriages tended to stress the feminine position of the Mexican partner. Substantiating this arrangement were those 19th century discourses that framed Mexican men as effeminate compared to “traditionally masculine” Anglo men. By denying Mexican men’s realization of traditional masculinity, Anglo stereotypes also denied them virtues typically associated with masculinity. Mexican men were seem as “unprincipled, conniving, and treacherous” whereas Anglo men were honorable, honest, and loyal (Carrigan and Webb 420). The source of such ignoble traits was, of course, their Native ancestry. Since the inception of European colonization of the Americas, colonial discourses framed Native peoples as inherently godless and prone to idleness, since they failed to exploit all of Nature’s wealth, and these attributes justified their dispossession of the land (Takaki 38). In contrast, Anglo masculinity was fundamentally predicated on God-given rights to the land and on the willingness and ability to tame the frontier.
Mexican men were also accused of such things as tending to cheat at cards and commit “cowardly” acts of murder, which “diminished their sexual menace to whites” (Carrigan and Webb 420). Effeminization ties directly to threats of lynching I mentioned before because murder and stealing were the two crimes for which people were often lynched. Thus, in addition to eliminating the Mexican problem through killing—via lynching, or what the Texas Rangers deemed “evaporation”—and through forced or self- expulsion, Anglos could also get rid of their rival settlers by literally breeding (with) them out of existence since only they were “men enough” to deserve both land and lady. Sociopolitical vulnerability corresponds culturally to a female or feminized corporeality, in which defenselessness is supposedly reified in a body burdened by apertures under constant threat of invasion. For this reason, “allegorization of colonized nations in terms of the female figure (bodily, rhetorical) has [long] been a cliché of colonial history” (Spurr 171); and, not surprisingly, in the nineteenth century during the peak of global colonial activity, sexuality became a potent metaphorical wellspring (Law 975). A poem dating from the Mexican-American War equates Anglo-American masculinity with testosterone and triumph, asserting that the “Spanish maid…awaits our Yankee chivalry/ Whose purer blood and valiant arms,/ Are fit to clasp her budding charms” because the Mexican men are “sunk in sloth,” nap “some dozen times by day,” and are “somber and sad, and never gay” (Takaki 177). Here Mexican men’s feminized corporeality signifies points of weaknesses in other cultures that may be exploited for Anglo gain. Framed as both effeminate and lazy, or should I say, perhaps because these two traits were seen as the same thing, the Mexican male’s aberrance substantiated Manifest Destiny by suggesting that whiteness would conquer the continent through all available means because it was only a natural outcome.
Additional themes to be considered:
VISIBILITY/BODIES AND PROOF (see S. Chinn)
TRI-RACIAL SYSTEM (see E. Bonilla-Silva)
In conclusion, I contend that it is crucial to understand settler colonialism’s intersectional but highly gendered tactics with regard to Mexicans living in the U.S. Southwest during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Sometimes they faced overt and extreme violence; sometimes a slow hegemonic transformation took place, facilitated through social interaction and presented as a natural phenomenon through various modes of colonial discourse. These diverse experiences form an interrelated system of rhetorics of embodiment that sought to establish the right kinds of bodies that could inhabit certain places—whether towns or histories, since these matters are still ignored by the dominant culture narratives—or inhabit certain spaces—as in having the agency to speak or react to the violence against their communities. This knowledge is needed because, as Spurr writes, “The elements of naturalization as a rhetorical mode applied to the representation of non-Western peoples are to be found not only in overtly imperialist ideology, but even in the writing of those, like Rousseau and John Stuart Mill, who have contributed to modern Western ideals of liberty and justice” (Spurr 157). Only by deconstructing how notions of justice that we still live with today are sustained by intolerant ideologies can we begin to strive toward composing new ones.
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Between the years 1848 and 1930, thousands of Mexican and Mexican American men and women were lynched by Anglo mobs in displays of vigilante justice and by Anglo law enforcement officials seeking to appease agitated settlers (Carrigan and Webb, 2003; Delgado, 2009). In addition to being beaten and hanged in brutal public spectacles, many of the victims were dismembered so that their body parts could be distributed among the crowd as souvenirs. White popular media and perpetrators themselves justified this kind of violence by arguing that it was necessary in order to control the threat posed to Anglo settlers by Mexicans, who were framed as predisposed to criminality and savagery. Racialized as “mongrels” (Villanueva 2011; McPherson, 2006), Mexicans epitomized the geographical and ontological borders of a humanity defined through the lens of white nationalism, a mix of various inferior races with cultural and political ties to more than one nation. In contrast to the purity of whiteness, Mexican-ness epitomized for United-Statesians the dangers of biological and ideological instability.
I argue that lynching as a violent symbolic and physical act connects directly to the racial categorization of Mexicans as “mongrels” by enacting at the physical level the fragmentation and dissociation processes that colonial discourse sought to perform at the rhetorical level. Lynching and subsequent dismemberment dis-integrated the person materially and metaphorically. It rendered a person corporeal fragments that together did not make a whole person while dissociating the victim (or their memory) from white notions of civility, as lynching was viewed as a punishment reserved for the uncivilized savage. The dismemberment that attended lynching permitted spectators to deconstruct the individual at the physical, local level and at the symbolic, nationalistic level, reinforcing Anglo settlers’ identification as the legitimate and authoritative community against all abject Others. In the case of Mexicans, the Other sometimes proved not Other enough. Even as period writers deployed the term “mongrel” to signify the ontological inferiority of Mexicans, its use revealed an anxiety over racial ambiguity that proved useful to Anglo settlers who nonetheless needed to distinguish themselves from the ostensibly inferior but all-too-proximate racial Other. Thus, I suggest that lynching served another rhetorical purpose, not only denoting white supremacist claims to land and law but becoming a means to contend with the instability of racial categories upon which white supremacy based its claims.
In The Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr delineates 12 features of 19th- and early 20th-century colonial discourse that provide the dehumanizing frameworks used to justify colonization and naturalize said framing as objective proof of colonized people’s inferiority. While they all work together in different capacities in different contexts, in the interest of time I focus here on just one, which he terms “classification.” Spurr explains classification as a process that entails setting up “a single standard of economic and political organization to which all nations must aspire” and then assessing the success or failure of all nations based on their adherence to that standard as though cultural distinctions do not or should not affect social organization (62). Such ostensible success or failure is then used to determine an arrangement of civilizations, with those at the top framed as more evolved or “modern,” and those at the bottom framed as being in need of saving through physical and ideological colonization. Nineteenth-century colonial discourse relied heavily on Eurowestern scientific rhetorics, especially eugenicist-based views of a global racial hierarchy. Frederick Lugard, a British colonial administrator in Africa, classified native Africans based on whether they were “primitive,” “advanced,” or “Europeanized” (Spurr 68). Although this presentation deals with settler colonialism happening at that time in territories along the U.S-Mexico border, it is important to note how racial hierarchization based on Eurowestern systems of classification typically bore out, centering European schemes of knowledge and organization and demanding that the colonized Other correspond to meticulously delineated categories, with “each category of native requir[ing] its own administrative tactic” (69). Lynching was one such un/official tactic for dealing with Mexicans as a population that could not be clearly sorted.
Coloniality’s delineation of humanness vis-à-vis a gradated, hierarchical scheme reveals the phenomenon of race as an unfixed, always already unstable foundation of ontological taxonomy. Apparent are the performative aspects of race despite and in addition to scientific arguments that posited race as established by empirically determined phenotypes, of which those pertaining to the white peoples objectively ascertained their superiority. Furthermore, we can see that the classification feature of colonial discourse served a dual, paradoxical purpose: it presented a seemingly static, implicitly biological racial organization that legitimized white supremacy while simultaneously indicating a racial fluidity that induced members of Othered races to strive for whiteness and its privileges. Especially underscored is the porous quality of racial categories. Presumably, members of so-called inferior races could evolve to a certain level of whiteness; yet contemporaneous anxieties over “tainted whiteness” and racial degeneration imply that whites could easily devolve to the level of inferiors unless the boundaries of whiteness were carefully and constantly regulated (Stubblefield 2007; Jacobson 2000) to prevent contamination from Other races.
The racial liminality of Mexicans exacerbated these fears, since biologically and culturally their Otherness defied distinct classification. In certain economic contexts, as when Anglos sought to marry landed Mexican women, they were framed as the white descendants of Europeans, but in other political contexts, as when Anglos sought to drive them out of certain areas, they were characterized as bestial progeny of Europeans and Indians. Such ambiguity was concretized by legal rhetoric, putting Mexicans in a uniquely precarious position. Rubén G. Rumbaut explains that “in 1849, the California State Constitutional Convention deemed Mexicans to be ‘white’ for legal purposes…[and they] were exempted from miscegenation laws that applied to other minorities. But that did not prevent California from passing an anti-loitering law in 1855, known as the ‘Greaser Act,’ which applied to ‘all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood…who go armed and are not peaceable or quiet persons” (22). In other words, Mexicans were biologically and politically white enough to expedite the aims of white nationalism and settler colonialism; they were also Native enough that they could be subjugated and killed, if not enough so that they could be exterminated outright. Lynching reinforced impressions of Mexicans, like other Native peoples, as less than human and wild like the wilderness that could only, and would only, be domesticated by settler colonization. Their bodies equated with the land, Mexicans both represented those undesirable aspects of nature that needed to be excised so that proper order could be imposed and they embodied those undesirable elements, as Mexican settlers had to be expelled so that the rightful (Anglo) colonists could lay claim to the land.
Consequently, the lynching of Latinxs provided means to regulate the boundaries of whiteness by establishing Latinxs as squarely within an Other category, dissociating them from whiteness, and symbolically fragmenting the mongrel so that whiteness was separated from the other races at the most essential corporeal level. In a letter dating from 1853, California gold miner John Eagle writes to his wife, Margaret, revealing a typical perspective on the need for vigilante justice in the so-called frontier. He writes, “I am opposed to Capital Punishment in communities when they have prisons to keep murderers secure for life, but in new settlements, and new countries, like California where there is little or no protection from the hands of such monsters in human shape, it becomes necessary to dispose of them by the shortest mode, for the safety of the community” (Forgotten Dead 24). Two years later, as a result of the 1855 Rancheria tragedy—in which four white men, one white woman, and one Native person were killed by bandits that included Latinos—eight to 16 Mexicans were killed without trial. Even after the guilty parties were found and hanged, every “Spanish” home in the area was burned down and a resolution was passed that no Mexican could ever after live in the area. Any Mexican found in violation of this order was to receive 150 lashes. Every Latinx family left, including those who were not Mexican as the law and the mob made no distinction (Gonzales-Day 36).
Eagle’s letter and the events following the Rancheria tragedy illustrate the all too superficial distinction between symbolic and physical violence that prove(d) a constant threat for Latinxs. Carrigan and Webb note that mob violence often resulted from the alienation and sense of precarity experienced by Anglos who settled Mexican lands, as they were outnumbered and did not speak the established language. Rather than cite such positions of vulnerability, vigilantes instead blamed local law enforcement as weak on crime, taking matters into their own violent hands and rationalizing lynching and other forms of mob violence as unavoidable. Hence, Eagle’s seemingly pleonastic description of California as a “new settlement” and a “new country” can be read not as rhetorical redundancy but as a classification of the recently incorporated state as a liminal space which simultaneously demanded white United-Statesian law and more violent regulation. Deeming California a “new country,” Eagle exhibits a typical view of the “frontier” as unoccupied, rhetorically erasing several centuries of Spanish, then Mexican settlement and countless centuries of Native inhabitation altogether. Such reasoning justified brutality and reinforced the settler colonial view of the borderlands and areas newly open to Anglo settlement as wild and needing to be tamed even though various peoples already inhabited these areas. The aftermath of events at Rancheria show that the land was not only already inhabited but that Mexicans had lived there in apparent peace with Anglo settlers. Therefore, lynching provided an occasion for white settlers to retroactively demonize all Mexicans and enact their rhetorical and physical dissociation from their white neighbors.
Furthermore, Eagle’s justification of vigilante violence against those “monsters in human shape” reveals an anxiety at the crux of biology and ideology. Monsters are “category errors [that] contradict standing cultural concepts,” “interstitial figures…that blend, blur, or conjoin disparate categories,” or “incomplete realizations of standing cultural categories…[that] constitute our stereotypes” (Carroll 91). Mexicans proved monstrous because they defied biological classification, undermining the seeming fixity of racial categories. In a case surrounding ownership of a mule, related by Major Horace Bell in 1881’s Reminiscences of a Ranger, two Latinos were not permitted to testify against a white man unless physiologists could ascertain whether Latinos were indeed white. The court sought to determine differences between “a person of pure white blood and a mongrel” (qtd. in Gonzales-Day 199) based on the evidence provided by examination of their salivary glands, their punctalachrimalia (or openings of the tear ducts), and the growth of their wisdom teeth. The witnesses fled but this case tells us that the racial classification of Mexicans remained unsettled. Such ambiguity proved a major concern. Authors claimed that white America was becoming “racially degraded by historic and often familial ties to Indians and Africans” and as a warning, they pointed to the problematic nature of Mexicans, who were “a constant reminder of the frontier’s potential for ‘unfit amalgamation’ of Europeans and Indians” (Warren 1154). So-called monstrous “deviation from our norms of the human” (Carroll 91) reveals the manufactured quality of categories that organize the world and privilege those claiming the authority to do so. The mongrel status of Mexicans required regulation precisely because a defiance of classification revealed the illusions of racial hierarchy.
Thus, lynching served as an explicit warning to Mexicans that they must adhere to white settler notions of justice and authority while emphasizing the alleged superiority of Anglo Americans that allowed them to impose order in colonized areas where they often proved the minority. Lynching also implicitly bolstered white coloniality’s license to establish the ontological terms of the human, signifying and enabling white coloniality’s right to distinguish white racial integrity from the teratological inferiority of Mexicans. The structural results of such classification, set out rhetorically and reified in the flesh of living beings, remain with us today just as, and because, coloniality remains.
Carrigan, William D., and Clive Webb. Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928. Oxford UP, 2013
---. “The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 to 1928.” Journal of Social History 37.2 (2003): 411-438.
Carroll, Noël. Engaging the Moving Image. Yale UP, 2003.
Delgado, Richard. “The Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching.” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL) 44 (2009): 297-312.
Gonzales-Day, Ken. Lynching in the West, 1850-1935. Duke UP, 2006.
Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917. Hill and Wang, 2000.
McPherson, Alan L. Intimate Ties, Bitter Struggles: The United States and Latin America since 1945. Potomac Books, 2006.
Rumbaut, Rubén G. “Pigments of Our Imagination: On the Racialization and Racial Identities of ‘Hispanics’ and ‘Latinos’.” How the US Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences (2011): 15-36.
Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Duke UP, 1993.
Stubblefield, Anna. “‘Beyond the Pale”: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization.” Hypatia 22.2 (2007): 162-181.
Villanueva, Victor. “Of Ideologies, Economies, and Cultures: Three Meditations on the Arizona Border.” Present Tense 1.2 (2011): n.p.
Warren, Louis S. “Buffalo Bill Meets Dracula: William F. Cody, Bram Stoker, and the Frontiers of Racial Decay.” The American Historical Review 107.4 (2002): 1124-1157.