In January 2018, Trump again made headlines for referring to the countries of El Salvador, Haiti, and several African nations as “shitholes.” According to reports, he “grew frustrated at the suggestion that immigrants with protected status would need that status restored” and reacted by asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” (Barron). Prior to these comments, in 2017, the Trump administration had ended the protected status designation for Haitians and Salvadorans, set for termination in 2019, affecting 10,000+ Haitian people and 200,000+ people from El Salvador (Watkins and Phillip). Bristling at pressure to restore the protected status of these groups, Trump argued that the United States should instead be more welcoming of immigrants from nations like Norway. In saying this, Trump distinguished nations of the global north from those of the global south, supposedly relying on economic impressions of either region to suggest that Norwegian immigrants are less likely to make use of social welfare programs than those from Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean. This interpretive account was promoted by spokespersons such as White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah, who declared, “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation” (Davis, Stolberg, and Kaplan). However, the racial—and racist—dimensions of Trump’s comments, uttered in a supposed closed-door setting, are especially clear against comments uttered the previous June in which he declared that people from Haiti “all have AIDS” and in which he lamented that Nigerian immigrants would never “go back to their huts.”
His verbally-articulated racism has consistently drawn the ire of activists and pundits the world over. But as the timeline of events shows, bureaucratic damage had by then been done. His words and the racist assumptions that they signified did not instigate the elimination of protected status for Salvadorans and Haitians so much as justified the removal of said status because they were in an “undesirable” class of immigrants. This categorization evokes Agamben’s figure of homo sacer and its relation to state sovereignty. Homo sacer embodies “bare life,” one cast out of society who may be killed but not sacrificed, that is, one who is unworthy of the designation of a human being but whose exclusion reifies and signifies the power of the state (9). Homo sacer is not a person but a condition, with the power of the state deriving from the vulnerability of its citizens under the threat of being declared homo sacer. Political theorist Andrew Robinson explains that due process and habeas corpus were ostensibly established to prevent this kind of domination, according to Agamben, it proves “a permanent aspect of sovereignty which keeps returning and which is becoming increasingly central today,” and it is especially evident in “populist discourse often found in the tabloid press and among the more bigoted politicians, in which various people deemed ‘monsters’, ‘animals’, ‘scum’ and so on are taken not to deserve human or civil rights.” Robinson’s 2011 essay certainly portends the current administration’s exploitation of intolerance as a means to mobilize regulation and control through dis/belonging.
Trump’s comments targeted groups who had already been rendered twice vulnerable, by the dangerous conditions that necessitated migration in the first place and then through his administration’s own actions. The dissemination of his comments was the third form of vulnerability imposed on these groups: their vulnerability encompassed physical and procedural violence, and now symbolic violence, which broadcast said vulnerability as a state of exclusion within the bounds of the state and rendered members of these groups further socially prone to bigoted violence even as they maintained a provisional quasi-protected legal status. Due to time constraints, this is an admittedly overly simplistic understanding of the “shitholes” controversy and its official policy antecedents vis-à-vis Agamben’s concept of homo sacer. But it is vital to recognize racism and other forms of structural oppression as more than words, that we recognize how embodied, verbal, and procedural colonial rhetorics coalesce in the creation of excludable classes of people who are under the law’s jurisdiction and yet outside of the law’s protection. And, I make this rushed point here because what I wish to focus on is not the more obvious rhetorical moves made by Trump to persecute these groups but the ideological foundations that empower his dehumanizing remarks and policies, which cause harm no matter who determines the terms of immigration. I mean the injurious influences that lay outside the dominant culture collective consciousness in the phenomenological background, providing the very means by which said consciousness is organized. I want to go beyond the level of cultural assumptions to consider the lines of orientation that enable such assumptions in the first place, to think through the phenomenology of racism to better understand how racialized and colonized bodies are allowed and denied mobility rhetorically to sustain global coloniality.
By mobility, I don’t mean straightforward movement across flat geographies, but movement influenced by ideology, encumbered and facilitated by a complex of orientations, the movement of bodies through time and space but also rhetorical movement as disposition towards particular groups of people. And so, in the remainder of this presentation, I want to draw on decolonial theories by Fanon and Aníbal Quijano, as well as the work of Sarah Sharma, Doreen Massey, and Helen Ngo, to examine how racialized and colonized people are positioned outside of Eurowestern chronotopes, relationships between time and space in the dominant imaginary, that establish modernity through colonial conceptions of space and time. Impressions of “previously” colonized nations become fixed points in the Eurowestern imaginary, markers of the past against which Eurowestern progress is measured. As a result, racialized/colonized peoples’ mobility must be constrained if dominant ideological space is to be preserved. In this case I am taking up here, Trump sought to set UnitedStatesian citizenship (and those who are presumably worthy of it) in contrast to “shithole” nationalities, embodied by peoples already incorporated into the state but framed as outsiders nonetheless, living reminders of the state’s benevolence, exceptionality, and power precisely because they are deprived of the rights that it alone bestows. However, he did not simply attempt to establish this contrast as much as assert its legitimacy, because as, many analysts and critics have noted, Trump’s bigoted rhetoric works by exploiting already present sentiments. Trump’s verbal rhetorics did not motivate the exclusion of asylum seekers from these nations, but rather, justified their already authorized exclusion. This exclusion was predicated on impressions of so-called third-world “shitholes” that sustain the ideological borders of modernity, a concept reliant on antithetical temporalities that situate the colonizer in one notion of space-time and the colonized in one of time-space.
I have previously spoken at another Cultural Rhetorics conference of Fanon’s connection of racism to colonial orientation. In his critique of Dominique-Octave Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, Fanon disputes what we might call the victim blaming of colonized peoples whose animosity towards the colonizer, Mannoni contends, finds expression as dependency. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that Mannoni ignores the “real coordinates” of the colonial project since Manonni relies on a primitive-oppressed/modern-master dyad even as he attempts to explain colonial domination (84). Notably, about the same time as he writes Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon also writes “The North African Syndrome,” wherein he critiques French medical practitioners’ reification of colonial attitudes in the bodies of their patients; this is done through social and material means since they refuse to acknowledge and relieve how their patients’ suffering is caused by the various deprivations imposed by colonialism. In this essay, Fanon makes critical connections between “governmentality, state racism, discourses of citizenship, psychic suffering, migration, xenophobia, and…sexuality” (Gibson 122) to show how the colonizer creates the primitive stereotype that justifies colonial “salvation.” While they tackle seemingly different social and medical contexts, in these two works Fanon critiques an assumption of complicity on the part of the “inherently-dependent colonized,” for it is this assumption that suggests the naturalness and inevitability of colonization. Sustaining these assumptions, however, is the colonizer’s “line of orientation” (Fanon 84-85). Fanon’s analysis in these works shows that the colonizer’s identity as a Subject relies directly on and against that of the colonized as object. In other words, the colonized as a construct embodies for the colonizer the main organizing principle of his very existence, providing an axis of orientation based in strategic disidentification. The dominant culture projects onto the colonized Other an “absence of order, of limits, of light, of spirit” (Spurr 96). Thusly pushed to the margins of humanity, into the phenomenological background, the colonized become organizational structures of the dominant culture’s world.
This arrangement can only be sustained by the “idea of social totality” which Quijano argues connects rationality to modernity by placing global entities into particular relationships with one another in time. Quijano explains that during the rise of the European nation-states, colonization’s notion of social totality demanded a closed system under one dominant logic that “led later to a systemic idea of totality in structural-functionalism” (175), meaning all entities serve a purpose but that purpose is, of course, determined by hierarchical, oppositional Eurowestern notions of knowledge, society, civilization, and progress. As Quijano states, this understanding of social totality relates to “the general paradigm of knowledge as a subject-object relation” (175). Excluding non-Western peoples from categories of “humanity” and “society,” Enlightenment thinkers composed a notion of social totality that excludes the colonized from society “presupposed a unique historical logic to the historical totality” that is predicated on an “evolutionary continuum from the primitive to the civilized; from the traditional to the modern; from the savage to the rational…” (176). And so, where you are located in that version of time has all to do with where you are located sociogeographically. Hence, Mignolo argues that the “colonization of space” including the spaces of language and memory “was signaled by the belief that differences could be measured in values and values measured in a chronological evolution” (256). Colonial time and space, typically understood as “scientific” constants, are created through denigration of the colonized, but for that reason, must be carefully maintained.
Here, work on time and space by Sarah Sharma and Doreen Massey, respectively, helps to clarify how this works. Sharma writes in In the Meantime, “Temporalities are not times; like continually broken clocks, they must be reset again and again…. Temporalities do not experience a uniform time but rather a time particular to the labor that produces them. People’s experience of time depends on where they are positioned within a larger economy of temporal worth” (Sharma 8). This means that people’s temporalities, their understandings of time, depend on the institutions they inhabit, relationships to others’ temporalities, and necessarily on the power dynamics that privilege some temporalities over those of others. Going off of Agamben, she provides a term she calls “temporal labor” to denote “the experience of laboring within a temporal infrastructure while being cast outside of it” (Sharma 57). That experiences of time are only possible in relation and that they are informed by our production and that one may exist outside of dominant temporal structures tells us that experiences of time are necessarily tied to spaces, or rather, how one experiences the spaces that one inhabits as one who dis/belongs, who encumbers or is encumbered by the (in this case) ideological labor of sustaining circumscription, and who exists “in time” or out of it. The two are mutually constitutive and cannot be separated experientially as independent constants, and moreover, they constitute subjects even as they are constituted by the subjects who reify and affirm the temporalities-in-space that they inhabit (Massey 264-5). Along those lines, Doreen Massey argues that “any conceptualization of space has a (logically) necessary corollary in a particular ‘matching’ conception of time” (Massey 264-5), suggesting that “it is easier and more helpful to understand entities and space-times as being constituted in the same moment and as that in itself happening through the relational constitution of them both” (Massey 263). In other words, the world cannot cohere outside of the constellation of bodies, categories, spaces, and times, and these are always relational. Of course, colonial architectonics pose these relationships as always binary and oppositional: inside and outside, primitive and modern, space and time. Massey goes on to argue that space-time relies on a spatiality that is “constantly in the process of being made (the relations yet to be established, or not) and  have elements of both order and accident (the latter deriving from the happenstance juxtapositions and separations…” (Ibid).
Here I disagree with Massey because I contend that the juxtapositions and separations are not happenstance; whether at the macro or micro level of organization, an underlying line of orientation (to quote Fanon) coordinates which juxtapositions and separations are permitted or even possible, given the regulation of space and time. As Agamben states, “Law is made of nothing but what it manages to capture inside itself through the inclusive exclusion of the exceptio… The sovereign decision traces and from time to time renews this threshold of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusions and inclusion, nomos and physis, in which life is originarily excepted in law” (Agamben 27). Juxtaposition and separation are not determined by chance; they are fundamental to the world as it exists within the colonial imaginary and is imposed even outside of itself.
To this also very rushed line of reasoning, I lastly want to connect bodies to space and time as the reification of space and time. Helen Ngo’s work on phenomenology and/or racism helps to explain how these issues come to be in the world. Ngo explains that racism obtains through bodily habit, “habit as habituation and bodily orientation [that] qualitatively mediates and modulates our relation to the spatial, placial and social world” (850). Reminding us that it “trades also on the twin notions of power and possibility,” she discusses how racism creates spaces through “a habitual bodily orientation which often lies undetected and consequently underexamined” (Ngo 848). Here, then, is where I situate the construction of colonial space-time, where its orientations towards and against the colonized become manifest and material but where (as Ngo notes) racism is unlikely to be examined. Coloniality demands racism as its foundation of rightness as a means to regulate its social totality’s ideological borders, and those borders exist within and without its geographical spaces. Hence, the bodies that represent the outside of its phenomenological world must be regulated both from revealing the porous and actually illusory geographical borders and its constructed world within geographical bounds. Consequently, colonized people must be marked as primitive—or as existing at the tail end of the dominant temporality so that they can signify the space outside dominant space-time, meaning an ideological space sustained by this colonial sense of time. Meaning that colonized peoples are set within a particular time-space, within a time where they disbelong and therefore can never inhabit the same space as the colonizer. There is no reason to assume that people from Scandinavian countries are any more familiar than people from other places in the Western hemisphere, except in a world where strangers can somehow occupy the same space in time and neighbors can inhabit adjoining geographies while being posed as centuries apart.
I’m grateful to be here at Watson, the University of Louisville, the lands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Osage. I’m here from Houston, Karankawa territory, originally from Coahuiltecan land—Laredo, Texas, a border city that straddles the Rio Grande, that feature that most informs my rhetorical praxes. These praxes are not limited to writing, but multiple, alterior forms of composition: embodiment, establishing presence, and editorial work and publishing. I deem these two rubrics of composition—corporeal communication and knowledge (re-)distribution—related in their alterity since both are meant to be “behind-the-scenes” labor, backgrounds for the “real” business of academic knowledge production. Yet these are fundamentally connected when I consider the rhetorical stimuli in which I am immersed I do my work as co-founder and editor of the recently established online, open-access journal, the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics.
Today, I’m speaking on how I try to use this venue to make everyday life matter to us as a discipline while seeking to underscore the relevance of scholarly activity to everyday life. That means delving into an ecology of motives that provides a background for publishing but based on issues foregrounded in the lives of people like me. Please allow me to explain.
When I say publishing is backgrounded, I mean that a lot of our general conversations about publishing hinge on whether we’ve a very good or bad experience, unless you have the privilege of (or get stuck) doing this work. But we should care about publishing practices. Editorial labor is intensive and characterized by a range of rhetorical choices that determine if and how research projects develop and are published. These choices affect our professional advancement and the direction of a field, as noted by Blair, Hawisher and Selfe. In addition, the job easily translates into another instance when we must explain its import in yearly reviews or tenure dossiers to administrators who don’t get it. And there are other, additional choices one must make as an academic who is a member of one or more marginalized groups trying to make room for O/others. These choices result from simultaneous inhabitance of professional and personal spaces that cannot be paused so we can concentrate on one or the other.
Those trying to make room for O/others weave our professional goals and practices with who we are at home and with love for our cultural, ethno-racial, and linguistic communities. That is a must because we know what’s at stake. Don’t we all have to do that? I’ve been asked in a way that resonates too closely with that assertion that we all have intersectional identities. My answer to both is yes, but we don’t all have to bear the same weight of what said intersections mean. People from marginalized communities usually have to make do, bridging the academic and the everyday and figuring out the terms of this amorphous relationship as they arise in context. These embodied rhetorical choices cannot but directly inform my editorial practices.
I. Impetus as Context
Context as Impetus
People from marginalized communities often feel unwelcome in the academy. This discomfort isn’t an a priori condition but one created for us rhetorically—verbally, spatially, procedurally. The senior white faculty who typically evaluate us may be unfamiliar with the major topics of our fields, sometimes leading to a devaluation of our research (Thompson). To administrators and editors, our research may not be as valid or rigorous as non-marked research, or if we use culturally-specific methods. Too niche, nothing to say to the field at large. It’s not objective, though outsiders whose analyses are ostensibly less biased may do it. Sometimes we must publish more and more often than our colleagues, and in top journals whose standing may not even be recognized. All big ifs, as authors in the Presumed Incompetent collection explain.
This arrangement translates, too, as a matter of in/visibility, of making sure there’s representation in an institution’s demographic statistics, of being scholars who talk about Othered concerns. Of offering free labor to ensure our ever-more-diverse students’ needs are met though our numbers in the academy don’t improve. Women of color faculty especially must act as “counselor, mentor, and guardian for minority students, often giv[ing] white faculty an edge in writing, conducting research, and working for tenured positions,” this in addition to serving on committees focused on minority issues while receiving little support (Chandler 88). After all, who knows better the needs of our communities? Plus, too often we feel we can’t say no, lest “expert” colleagues in our departments or disciplines who don’t know inflict harm. Cases like those involving Third World Quarterly, wherein colonization was proclaimed a force of good, and Hypatia, wherein an author used a transphobic apparatus to justify Dolezalian transracialism, speak to the rhetorical violence that we try to impede with our presence.
II. Orientation as Practice
Practice as Orientation
There’s a reason why I began by sharing something of my background on that river; besides establishing presence for me and mine, it proves the material pivot for the fluid thinking, flux, and change that characterize living on perhaps the defining geographic, political, cultural, and linguistic border of life in the U.S. A very different stream than the whitestream. The realities of my life do not fit dominant culture models so my praxes necessarily diverge. But there are meaningful rhetorical, ethical, political reasons behind any of these moves, as keynotes by Melanie Yergeau, Jacqueline Rhodes, Octavio Pimentel, and Steve Parks illustrate.
Yergeau asks whose lenses are used to in- and exclude ways of knowing that deviate from standard, ablebodied notions of rhetoric. She contests the erasure of disability from rhizome-centering architechtonics that yet consign us to linear mis/diagnoses. Rhodes’ taking up of “cutting together-apart” and queer futurity as a mix of “what is” and “what could be” evokes how we engage dis/identification, a refusal to position oneself wholly within or outside (Muñoz). Queering time and spaces calls for a “speculative revolution” that re-imagines these as “always-emergent becoming…” avenues for hope. As Pimentel notes, despite some good intentions, racism and other -isms are still enacted through “policies, practices, rules…that function throughout institutions…” He asks those with most privilege to do something about it, and personally, I love that he asks directly, because this is not the time for conciliatory appeals. Parks questions why attention to “identities, heritages, knowledges, and world views” disregarded by the whitestream is discounted as activism rather than “real” scholarship. Speaking to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Parks advocates for an activist composition. But these speakers model that, too, even as they remind us that we should be teaching students to write to real exigencies as when we are talking about matters of life and death.
It’s a rare and wonderful thing to have such a group of scholars speaking directly to my own experiences. Wonderful but rare. Taken together, their words tell us there can be no more “business as usual” in our lives, our scholarship, teaching, and publishing practices. Across these scholars’ words a braided thread emerges: a need to dismantle erasing, effacing norms coupled with diverse schemes for doing so. I like that word, scheme, for its rhetorical and conspiratorial connotations. As critics from Fanon and Bhabha to Victor Villanueva and Juan Guerra reveal, we learn to be protean in our approaches, strategic in our presentation. But we also have to conspire, sharing our tactics to raise each other up and out of the norm’s phenomenological background.
III. Technology as Tactics
Tactics as Technology
By tactics I mean technologies we’ve developed to live. Marginalized people maintain complex, complicated relationships with technology as scholarship by Angela Haas and Adam Banks illustrates. Haas argues that technologies are “saturated in white male culture—which has real effects related to privilege and oppression” ("Race, Rhetoric, and Technology" 284), a point that resonates with her work on the erasure of Indigenous antecedents to hypertext ("Wampum as Hypertext"). Addressing debates about the Digital Divide, Banks argued over a decade ago that beyond giving marginalized people access to computers, we must “challenge the nation to accept responsibility for the exclusions programmed into its technologies” (39-40). In response to these exclusions, different marginalized groups remix, re-envision, and repurpose technologies developed without us in mind. As Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander show in Techne, we employ technology to engage in queer “acts of de- and un- and re-composition” to contend with and contest those dominant narratives attempting to make us strangers to our own lives, but we also de-, un-, and re-fashion our tools in the process.
One crucial technology that helps me to do so is the concept of survivance, which scholars like Malea Powell and Gerald Vizenor explain as “survival + resistance” (Powell 400). This crucial technology is enacted via tactics that allow colonized people to survive and resist, survive to resist—a technology far more vital to me as a member of a colonized people than any computer or even the Internet. Sometimes we forget that “technology” comes from techne, meaning “art” or “skill,” or maybe we just have to refocus. What is important to remember is that technologies are saturated with intent and ideology, the teleology of any technology inextricable from its axiology, its standards of value circulated as technologies reify, originate, or communicate them. In the resourceful hands of marginalized folks (see Dolmage on mêtis), technologies are also suffused with tactical value. Tactical technologies that bespeak our takes on transformative access, or access to “spaces where technologies are created, designed, planned and where policies and regulations are written” (Banks 42). Transformative access lets technologies work for and matter to us. But it also includes how they make us matter.
Technology means differently for marginalized people; what counts as technology obtains differently based on how we make ourselves matter as subjects of and objects to the texts and tools we compose. We have to be cognizant of how technologies big and small de-matter or re-matter people. Established discourse about the Digital Divide was marked by a focus on of material access, though rhetorical discussions showed there was more to it. Over the last 15 years, authors like Banks, Vie, Selber, Grabill and Hicks have shown us that we need to pay attention to students’ functional, rhetorical, and critical literacies, the ability to use, and question how we use, technologies. Despite all this, technological inequality remains. Experiential access is still a problem, Jennifer Dolan writes. Annette Vee notes that crucial literacies still accumulate among “affluent or already advantaged groups” (207). I present this perfunctorily traced thread because it exemplifies the relational circuit linking the corporomaterial and the technological. Our embodied knowledges and experiences must make their way into our tools and affect their distribution; however, they must in turn be amenable to our uses, our needs. Otherwise, we are erased. The home security system, invented by a Black woman named Marie Van Brittan Brown, is often sold using stereotypes that target African Americans. Alan Turing’s cryptography helped defeat the Nazis and yet his life was ruined by heteronormativity’s brutal code. See, minoritized people find themselves in the tech all the time, just uncredited and de-mattered. It’s crucial that we highlight ways to use technologies to re-matter ourselves and others.
This isn’t to discount the importance of redistribution of resources or programming education. But I would like us to shift our perspective just a bit. Knowing that typically capital-T technologies come to us already built without us in mind, can we (re-)focus on and celebrate those smaller-t technologies that allow us to use what we’ve got? On finding models of culturally-based hacking-invention until we actually see ourselves in the tools. This already happens in digital rhetoric classes though mainly in courses composed by scholars from marginalized communities and their allies; it’s not a given. Yet this focus can help students (and us) develop approaches rife with what Paul Prior calls “a panoply of possible trajectories,” albeit while addressing matters of privilege frankly. Privilege (and its lack) can’t be dismissed as yet another factor in rhetorical contexts, not when it constrains aspirations and limits assessment of what counts as composition, as Jabari Mahiri and Soraya Sablo have shown. Not if we are to develop and deploy praxes designed to re-matter the de-mattered and purposely raise them/us up.
So, to the editor hoping to re-matter certain voices, to make matter everyday rhetoricity, “what is” and “what could be” means everything as you work to compose an issue, a journal, a field that allows us to matter too. It means paying attention to people’s lives, knowing some of us face harsher constraints due to social, and therefore professional, precarity. It means working to learn what kind of assistance authors may need because we aren’t all privileged with the same technical and practical training. It means remembering at all times that publishing standards reinforce institutional ones that force us to conform to the norm or GTFO, yet knowing that sometimes deviance is key. It means accounting for the different reasons why people publish because it’s not always about novelty: when people speak for you or over you, sometimes you just have to talk back; sometimes you just want to let those who come after know you see them. It means pre-thinking through a text or tool’s ability to work in service for others in real life and real time (as we see in Laurie Gries’ project).
Given these extra pressures and responsibilities, you have to want to dedicate your little spare time to editorial work. You have to ask if the risks are worth it in your efforts to decenter the discipline’s whitestream norms. But I know contributors from marginalized communities ask themselves similar questions. Our journal does not yet have the reputation of a long-standing journal, and exists without the finding and other resources of an R1. Authors may still have to explain to their directors why they chose to publish in an online venue. Still, a dedication to making the discipline more inclusive means our editorial board is purposely composed of thoughtful reviewers who know gatekeeping does not equal rigor and who are willing to work with authors. No one has time or energy to spare, but we can reconfigure our discipline by eschewing one-size-fits-all models of research, reviews, circulation. A small hope that others might be spared a bad experience based in classism, homophobia, sexism, racism, transphobia or ableism can be a powerful apparatus for turning even a simple website into a disciplinary mod where we can strive to make life in the margins matter. Hopefully, this “little [digital text] that thinks it can” can contribute to re-mattering those made to feel immaterial.
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.
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.
Alonso, Ana María. “Conforming Disconformity: ‘Mestizaje,’ Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism.” Cultural Anthropology 19.4 (2004): 459-490.
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich, and Thomas Bendyshe. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. The Anthropological Society, 1865
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2004). “From Bi-racial to Tri-racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA.” Ethnic & Racial Studies 27.6: 931-950.
Carrigan, William D., and Clive Webb. “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.
Chinn, Sarah E. Technology and the Logic of American Racism: A Cultural History of the Body as Evidence. Continuum, 2000.
Fox, Cybelle, and Thomas A. Guglielmo. “Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants, 1890–1945.” American Journal of Sociology 118.2 (2012): 327-379.
Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius. Macmillan and Company, 1869.
Gómez, Laura E. “Opposite One-Drop Rules: Mexican Americans, African Americans and the Need to Reconceive Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Race Relations.” How the United States Racializes Latinos: White Hegemony and Its Consequences. Ed. José Cobas, Jorge Duany, and Joe R. Feagin. Routledge, 2016. 87-100.
Jiménez, Tomás Roberto. Replenished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration, and Identity. Univ of California Press, 2010.
Law, Jules. “Being There: Gothic Violence and Virtuality in Frankenstein, Dracula, and Strange Days.” ELH 73 (2006): 975-996.
McGregor, Russell. Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory, 1880-1939. Melbourne UP, 1997.
Rodriguez, Gregory. Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. Vintage, 2008.
Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Duke UP, 1993.
Stephens, Dionne P., and Paula Fernández. “The Role of Skin Color on Hispanic Women’s Perceptions of Attractiveness.” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 34.1 (2012): 77-94.
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Revised Edition). Bay Back Books, 2008.
Vargas, Deborah R. “Representations of Latina/o Sexuality in Popular Culture.” Latina/o Sexualities: Probing Powers, Passions, Practices, and Policies. Ed . Marysol Asencio. Rutgers UP, 2010. 117-136.
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.