A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Considering Rhetoric as a Global Human Enterprise: A Review of Feminist Rhetorical Practices

Review of Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies
by Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch 2012; Southern Illinois University Press

Julie D. Nelson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Enculturation : http://enculturation.net/considering-rhetoric
(Published: November 5, 2013)

Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies is the most comprehensive look at feminist rhetoric to date. Emerging from each of their personal and professional trajectories, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch co-author a volume (as part of Southern Illinois UP’s Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series) that marks the culmination of at least three decades of rich and rigorous feminist rhetorical scholarship. As sweeping in scope as it is tight in execution, Feminist Rhetorical Practices puts forth an analytical model that both synthesizes and extends much of feminist rhetoricians’ work in recent decades. While much of the volume bolsters the claims of their 2010 CCC article “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence,” the book sets itself apart by making a sustained argument for studying rhetoric as a global human enterprise.

Figure 1

The major goals of feminist rhetoric thus far—what the authors call “the three Rs”: rescue, recovery, and (re)inscription—have often adhered to Westernized rhetorical traditions. While inspiring great shifts in rhetoric, composition, and literacy (RCL) studies, these goals have often neglected international, transnational, and global contexts. If we do not expand our scope beyond “the three Rs,” Royster and Kirsch assert, “we would be placing historical women’s lives mainly in service to our lives and work, our curiosities, imperatives, and agenda” (75). Thus, Royster and Kirsch set out to survey and schematize nearly the entire body of feminist rhetorical scholarship to draw out a more fruitful, sustainable analytical model: “we are compelled to recast our whole ways of thinking and doing and to situate ourselves more deliberately in the company of others as we reach for more-comprehensive and more-nimble views, attitudes, and expectations and as we actually enact the belief that rhetoric is a human enterprise variously practiced around the world” (39). Two intertwined goals emerge: 1) to illustrate that feminist rhetorical theory has incited fundamental shifts in RCL studies and 2) to show how its theories, methods, and strategies can aid us in what Royster and Kirsch think ought to be one of the next shifts, toward global and transnational feminist rhetorics.

As it juxtaposes canonical, feminist, personal, and professional perspectives, Feminist Rhetorical Practices invites the reader to forge connections with her own personal, scholarly, and professional experiences. Royster and Kirsch use geological metaphors as terministic screens, particularly the metaphor “rhetorical assaying” which “emphasizes the necessity of constructing an evidence-rich descriptive base and linking it by multiple mechanisms within the complex global matrix of normative, and perhaps nonnormative, rhetorical action” (16). The geological metaphors work to emphasize the changing and multidimensional mappings of RCL studies, as the many varying, and sometimes competing, forces that make up our field become apparent. In mapping out how drastically the field has shifted in recent decades (indebted in part to feminist rhetoric), the volume also portrays a field versatile and ready to take on the next shift.

The volume is broken into four sections; the first three sections of the volume build the scaffolding to unveil Royster and Kirsch’s analytical model in the final section. Beginning on a personal note, Part One shares the authors’ stories and goals for the text. Part Two contextualizes the rise of feminist rhetorical theory in response to Western paradigms and surveys major feminist works, concerns, and strategies. To give readers a more in-depth look at feminist rhetorical inquiry, Part Three hones in on four strategies that have been central to feminist research. Though arguments for globalization arise throughout the book, this section also devotes a chapter to it. Finally, Part Four distills many of the concerns and strategies studied in the volume into a model for feminist inquiry.

Part One: A Call for Action in Research, Teaching, and Learning

The volume begins with the assertion that “stories matter.” Here, both Royster and Kirsch describe the personal and professional influences that have led them to feminist rhetorical studies and to collaborate on Feminist Rhetorical Practices. Each scholar describes her own “call to action.” Kirsch explains a moment when “[she] realized that when we study women who are no longer alive, who can no longer speak back, explain, or set the record straight, questions of ethics and representation take on an increased urgency” (7). Royster encountered additional obstacles studying the rhetorical history of African American women: “Exacerbating my challenges was the fact that traditional scholarly frameworks, and certainly those in rhetorical studies, were not set in ways that would easily position the experiences and contributions of women of African descent as worthy of interrogation or the women as worthy rhetorical subjects” (9). Royster and Kirsch reinforce the feminist theme that the personal and professional are always intertwined, as they show how the impetus for this volume grows out of their stories. Both scholars’ background and expertise come to bear in the extensive goals for the volume and the nearly exhaustive survey that follows.

Part Two: Re-visioning History, Theory, and Practice

Covering the most ground, this section reviews the achievements of feminist rhetorical scholarship in the last three decades as it responded to the now well-documented shortfalls of the Western rhetorical canon—namely its focus on the public discourse of elite, white men. As Royster and Kirsch begin to schematize feminist rhetorical scholarship, they divide the literature into five areas of inquiry: 1) reframing Westernized traditions; 2) the nature and sponsorship of literacy, reading and writing practices, rhetorical education, and the nature of authorship; 3) rhetorical and literate practices in various contexts and communities; 4) individual women rhetors; and 5) practices in technological environments. After giving examples of each of these areas, Royster and Kirsch spend the rest of this section explaining seven points of analysis that have been key arenas for pushing beyond Westernized paradigms: gender, race and ethnicity, status, geographical sites, rhetorical domains, genres, and modes of expression. Royster and Kirsch emphasize the danger of binaries here; their goal is not to pit a Westernized paradigm against a feminist paradigm because, of course, neither paradigm is monolithic. Instead, this section gives examples of work in the field that pushes our understandings of all these analytics, a few of which include: K.J. Rawson’s work on queering the feminist rhetorical canon, asserting that “woman” often goes uninterrogated in our scholarship; Hui Wu’s work contextualizing Chinese rhetorical studies and urging us to study the rhetorical histories of Third World women; and Katrina Powell’s study of the letters of Virginia mountain women to government officials, examining marginalized rhetorical subjects and genres.

Though this section moves quickly and is heavy on references (in many cases, key works are included with only sentences or a paragraph of description), it surveys many important contributions of feminist rhetorical inquiry to RCL studies. This scholarship has created innovative methodologies (e.g., including the voices of those being studied or even inviting them to be co-authors), expanded our understandings of what is worthy of study (e.g., studying women’s domestic lives), emphasized the importance of researcher reflexivity and transparency (e.g., revealing biases, experiences, or beliefs that may affect research), and encouraged questioning/resisting US- and Western-centered modes of inquiry (e.g., studying the rhetoric of cultures other than our own and on their own terms).

Part Three: Recasting Paradigms for Inquiry, Analysis, and Interpretation

This section revolves around four central strategies for feminist inquiry: critical imagination, strategic contemplation, social circulation, and globalization. One chapter is devoted to each strategy or “critical term of engagement” and includes multiple definitions, examples of prominent and cutting-edge works in the field, and pedagogical connections that feature reflections from each author. These strategies could be divided into two central processes: the researcher looking inward to imagine and contemplate, and the researcher looking outward into social and global contexts, but this is exactly the kind of temptation Royster and Kirsch warn against. Feminist rhetorical inquiry is always a process in which minds, bodies, feelings, interactions, histories, and places are enmeshed. The strategies presented in Part Three are similarly always enmeshed; here, I will describe the first three strategies in brief before taking a closer look at “globalization.”

“Critical imagination,” first used in Royster’s Traces of a Stream (2000), asks the researcher to imagine all of the ways in which a question could (not should) be answered. Rather than searching for a single truth, a researcher uses “reflective, reflexive, dialectical, and dialogical strategies” to consider what and how we conduct research (137). Also, privileging a kind of thoughtfulness, “strategic contemplation” encourages meditation, introspection, and reflection. The researcher takes her time, strays from cleanly-executed research processes, and meditates on the expectations, goals, and responsibilities of research. “Social circulation” asks researchers to consider the larger contexts of their research and to see rhetoric and language as emerging from ever-changing social interactions and networks; ideas circulate across geographical space, in various genres and media, and throughout time and tradition.

Since the call for globalizing perspectives is recurring and central to the volume, the chapter on “globalization” has a lot to accomplish. Whereas the previous three chapters focus on how to enact each strategy, this chapter makes a case for why we should enact “globalization.” This move reflects the current landscape of feminist rhetorical scholarship, which has only recently begun to take up global and transnational perspectives. The result is a chapter whose tenor is more theoretical than practical; it is the only strategy in this section for which Royster and Kirsch do not share personal reflections that give examples of how they imagine and use the strategy in teaching and scholarship. Thus, those more familiar with global/transnational perspectives—those who do not need to be convinced of their importance—may find this chapter lacking, as it offers few practical examples of what it means to globalize our classrooms and scholarship. Yet for readers unfamiliar with global/transnational scholarship, this chapter tenaciously convinces us that “[i]n our postimperial world, we are pressed to acknowledge the presence of others globally and to find ways to treat globality as a core analytic by which we interrogate rhetorical performance and accomplishment” (110). At the core of the chapter, Royster and Kirsch search recent publications, databases, and conference programs for the intersections of global/transnational, feminist, and rhetorical scholarship to show both the dearth of attention it is presently getting and the great potential for this scholarship’s influence in the field. Despite the lack of suggestions for practical application, the chapter succeeds in raising difficult questions that disrupt our Western training and biases. Royster and Kirsch argue that we need to globalize not only our knowledge base but also the way we measure and value knowledge in our field.

Part Four: Conclusion

The volume culminates in the final section which presents an analytical model for feminist inquiry. Royster and Kirsch pull the various strands of the volume together in a model that is straightforward but not monolithic. The model is organized around four interlocking themes that “combine dynamically to enhance sight, insight, and interpretive power”: 1) symphonic and polylogical patterns of inquiry, 2) textually and contextually grounded analysis, 3) local analyses connected to global enterprises, and 4) an ethics of hope and care linked to responsible rhetorical action (148). Within these themes, Royster and Kirsch include the seven analytics from Part Two and the four strategies from Part Three. Studying and practicing these themes, analytics, and strategies, Royster and Kirsch argue, can help us better pursue feminist rhetorical inquiry and rhetorical inquiry in general. Their model encompasses many of the ways in which feminist scholarship has shifted RCL studies: “The import of such shifting is that at this point in rhetorical history, we are not just celebrating the recognition of women’s rhetorical lives and contributions but understanding rhetorical agency itself in new, more-dynamic terms with regard to the scope and nature of rhetoric as an embodied social praxis that enacts itself variously across cultures and around the globe” (132). Royster and Kirsch pause just long enough in the conclusion to synthesize the work of the volume before looking ahead to four horizons: 1) studying new rhetorical sites and dimensions posed by recent scholarship; 2) examining our listening and reading practices as rhetorical actions; 3) investigating the effects of new media and technology on rhetorical study; and 4) understanding “how knowledge travels, translates, mitigates, and shapes rhetorical actions and how resistance, challenge to authority, and social changes move along axes of sociopolitical contents and contexts” (151).

The call for global and transnational feminist scholarship is the most pressing and resonant of the volume; it echoes similar calls from, for example, Rebecca Richards in her talk, “The Transnational Turn of Feminist Rhetorics and Composition,” at the Coalition of Women Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition at the 2012 CCCC. Royster and Kirsch’s model for feminist inquiry provides a foundational resource for this “transnational turn,” yet it resists reduction into a hierarchy or series of steps. The layering of themes, analytics, strategies, and schemas adds great complexity to the model and to our understanding of feminist inquiry, making this volume as much for seasoned feminist rhetoricians as for those just entering the field. In addition to offering an overview of the key issues in feminist rhetoric and an index of the must-reads, major scholars, and conferences to attend, the volume persuades us to question and challenge the continued influence of Western, imperialist rhetorical traditions in our scholarship and pedagogy. Feminist Rhetorical Practices pauses to contemplate and celebrate the substantial influence of feminist rhetorical studies, but it ultimately propels us toward new horizons.