A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Act I


US. In this performance, you'll notice we use the word "story" a lot. That's because the practice of story is integral to doing cultural rhetorics. The way we say it—if you're not practicing story, you're doing it wrong. Or, in traditional academic discourse: our primary methodology in this article is to tell stories. These may not be the kinds of stories you're used to hearing, or the kinds of things you're used to recognizing as story, but we hope you'll be patient with us—we think you'll know why in the end.

We also want to be upfront about this: the project of cultural rhetorics is, generally, to emphasize rhetorics as always-already cultural and cultures as persistently rhetorical. In practice, cultural rhetorics scholars investigate and understand meaning-making as it is situated in specific cultural communities. And when we say "cultural communities," we mean any place/space where groups organize under a set of shared beliefs and practices—American Indian communities, workplace communities, digital communities, crafting communities, etc.

JENN. Wait just a minute. I think we need to explain some of our assumptions. When I first started learning about cultural rhetorics, it took me a while to realize which definition of "culture" was being referenced.

DAISY. Thanks for that reminder, Jenn. Like a lot of folks in the discipline, sometimes we forget that the assumptions underneath our theory/practice aren't widely shared. It's important to get them out on the table. So, yeah, "culture" is a concept whose meaning is highly contested. But we have a story about how we use the idea of "culture" in cultural rhetorics work.

US. In our experience, culture is often conceptualized and written about as a static object. This object-oriented approach is especially prevalent in mainstream scholarship from anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and from the borrowings that folks in rhet/comp studies have initiated from these inter/disciplines. By "object-oriented,"8 we mean scholarship that identifies "culture" as an object of inquiry, one that can be isolated from other human, economic, political, geographical, historical frameworks that exist around and within it. In addition to the false stability this imposes on the dynamic rhetorical phenomenon within cultural communities, this object-oriented approach to understanding culture also erases the human bodies involved in their makings. This erasure has far-reaching roots and impacts that stem from and recapitulate a colonialist/capitalist paradigm. All too often, scholars in rhet/comp rely on this object-oriented approach to cultures because it allows us to select "exemplars" from specific oppressed cultural traditions as a way of feeling good about how inclusive our discipline has become. One of the affordances of cultural rhetorics, and our tellings in this article, then, is to surface, recognize, extend and intervene in how rhetoric scholars think about culture.

NIIJ. Okay. I get the point about the dangers of tokenizing exemplars from specific oppressed cultural traditions. Still, hasn't our discipline become more inclusive? Every year, the discipline expands and makes space for new and different types of scholarship. Are you arguing against this kind of inclusion?

US. Not exactly. We completely agree with you about the fact that our discipline, like all cultural communities, is continuing to change and adapt its stories about the possibilities of rhetoric. But we mark those new stories as the beginning of the work of making paradigmatic shifts, not as the end. One of the ways we see that disciplinary community resisting those kind of paradigm shifts is through the language used to mark those changes and adaptations—words like "other," "alternative," "marginal," "non-traditional," etc. These terms imply a norm, a stable center in which a "main" rhetorical tradition exists and is augmented by "additive" traditions. For us, all rhetorics are cultural. All rhetorics are global. All rhetorics have histories and traditions. So, instead of letting ourselves get caught up in "center/margins" binaries, we're more interested in offering a way of thinking about practices like "culture" and "rhetoric" that makes it clear that everyone has them. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau takes a more rhetorical approach to culture by looking at how people use everyday practices to build cultures and communities.

MARI. For De Certeau, and for us, cultures are made up of practices that accumulate over time and in relationship to specific places. Practices that accumulate in those specific places transform those physical geographies into spaces in which common belief systems can be made, re-made, negotiated, transmitted, learned and imagined. Under colonialism/capitalism, however, not all cultures are seen as equal—some are believed to be dominant/civilized while others are seen as marginal/savage.9

US. We find the theoretical frame that De Certeau builds in The Practice of Everyday Life especially amenable to understanding the power differentials that result from such beliefs. For De Certeau, many practices that compose cultures are hidden by dominant (aka, established) rules and authorized practices. He argues that we "must determine the procedures, bases, effects, and possibilities of this collective activity" if we are to understand how the making of culture occurs through everyday practice instead of through official, sanctioned dominant acts of cultural installation (xiv). For us, the product and process of this "collective activity" is rhetorical, and offers a way to begin to understand how such everyday practices betray the instability of colonial/capitalist claims to dominance. Our interest in this instability comes from our commitment to engaging in decolonial scholarship.10 It also provides us with a way of understanding cultural practices as always-already rhetorical, and as made by accumulated collective everyday human practices.

NIIJ. So, De Certeau helps you point out what you've already claimed—that rhetoric is always cultural and culture is persistently rhetorical. It's interesting how you chose De Certeau to talk about rhetoric—not a lot of people really think of him as a "rhetorician."

MARIA. Yes! We find De Certeau really helpful. Although he doesn't show up in some of the big traditional anthologies of canonical rhetoricians, we know plenty of folks in the discipline find his work to be persistently important. Drawing from a wider range of thinkers, especially those who get used a lot by practitioners, and naming them as intellectual relatives is a part of our commitment to decolonial scholarship and to the practice of constellation—which means, of course, more stories.

Lights dim. A projected image of Ursa Major appears in lights on the backdrop. Players arrange themselves onstage. Lights up, only enough to see the players while still displaying the projected image.


NIIJ. What did you mean just a minute ago when you said you're "committed to decolonial scholarship?" What does that mean? How do you even start to do that work?

ANDREA. That's a great question with a long complicated answer. Decolonization is a big project, and folks who engage in decolonial practices have connections to all kinds of communities all over the world. Our commitment to that larger project connects us to other scholars, activists, writers, community leaders, who are engaged in decolonial work in and (mostly) outside of the academy. For this article, though, what we want to emphasize and practice is our position inside a constellation of relationships with other decolonial scholars like Shawn Wilson, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Qwo-Li Driskill, and Malea Powell. In fact, it's through listening to decolonial scholars that we've come to understand the making of cultures and the practices that call them into being as relational and constellated.Allcultural practices are built, shaped, and dismantled based on the encounters people have with one another within and across particular systems of shared belief. In other words, people11 make things (texts, baskets, performances), people make relationships, people make culture. As Wilson puts it, "relationships do not merely shape reality, they are reality" (7, emphasis original). The practice of constellating gives us a visual metaphor for those relationships that honor all possible realities.

NIIJ. Hm. Why constellating, rather than something like intersecting?

US. Good question! Lots of folks wonder about this, we find. For us, the metaphor of intersection implies a linear arrangement in which a subject stands at the nexus of straight lines that only cross at one point. This linearity imposes ideas about causality or origins, both of which are generally also obscuring many of the other meaningful relationships between places, spaces, events, people, and communities. And it traps subjects who are literally held in place, skewered by multiple discourses.

MALEA. A constellation, however, allows for all the meaning-making practices and their relationships to matter. It allows for multiply-situated subjects to connect to multiple discourses at the same time, as well as for those relationships (among subjects, among discourses, among kinds of connections) to shift and change without holding a subject captive.

US. It also allows for different ways of seeing any single configuration within that constellation, based on positionality and culture. We are thinking, for example, of the way that different cultures have different ways to draw relations between stars in the sky, and how naming those relations, those constellations (Ursa Major, the Bear, the Big Dipper, the pathway to Sagitarrius) is an act of meaning-making.

All turn to look at the backdrop projection, tracing out the images in the air.

NIIJ. Ok, I'm starting to get some of your assumptions—culture as a practice, this thing about constellations as a metaphor—but where's rhetoric in all of this? Are culture and rhetoric the same thing?

JENN. Let's reorient and talk about rhetoric.

Players rearrange themselves onstage. Projection image fades

US. For us the general term "rhetorics" refers both to the study of meaning-making systems and to the practices that constitute those systems. The systems and the practices can't be separated from each other, much like the ways we say culture and people can't be separated. While De Certeau posits both "rhetoric and everyday practices can be defined as internal manipulations of a system—that of language or that of an established order," (24) we contend that rhetorics are made through everyday practices, and these systems of practice, conversely, constitute cultural rhetorics. We study rhetorics by looking at how practitioners negotiate, and even create, established orders, whether they are the workings of a local community of urban Native women, the creation and maintenance of a crafting circle, or the impact of Western notions of "the body" on actual bodies.

DAISY. For us, it is this persistent focus on the how—the practices of meaning-making that create, negotiate and maintain those structures – that equals a focus on rhetorics. In other words, rhetoric is not so much about "things" as it is about "actions." This orientation towards actions, then, teaches us how particular practices—ways of thinking, ways of problem solving, ways of being in the world—are valued (or not) within specific cultural systems and/or communities.12 We believe studying those power relationships is central to the project of studying rhetorics.

US. We see this orientation as distinctive in the discipline of rhetoric studies where human practices and makings are often reduced to texts, or to textual objects, in a way that elides both their makers and the systems of power in which they were produced.

NIIJ. What do you mean by "distinctive"? Didn't you say something earlier about how other disciplines have similarly objectified or textualized human practices?

MARIA. Yes, we did. You're right to make that connection back to our story about the concept of culture in other disciplines, and to our claims about disciplines as cultures. When we mark our orientation as "distinctive," we're really marking an orientation to rhetoric studies that's different from the current culture of the discipline.

MARI. Remember, one of the main functions of an academic discipline is to instruct its participants in the dominant practices of that cultural community and to reward them for following the rules of that community. One of the ways we see that happening in rhetoric studies is through a tendency to fetishize texts, to turn everything into a text that can be read, and to sometimes objectify those texts in a way that disconnects them from their relationship to humans and to place/space.

ANDREA. We want to be very clear about this notion of "discipline" and "being disciplined." We are talking about a discipline, built, as Foucault tells us:

by groups of objects, methods, their corpus of propositions considered to be true, the interplay of rules and definitions, of techniques and tools: all these constitut[ing] a sort of anonymous system, freely available to whoever wishes, or whoever is able to make use of them, without there being any question of their meaning or their validity being derived from whoever happened to invent them. (222)

We are also talking about a community of disciplinary practice—a culture—built on particular traditions and lineages that is, like all cultures, always changing.

Up to this point, the disciplinary culture of rhetoric has been built on the canonization of idealized Western (colonial) systems and worldviews (imperial). The story we're telling about cultural rhetorics invokes a different possibility for our disciplinary culture. Again, this is a decidedly decolonial possibility in that it theorizes a constellated web of systems, discourses, communities, and indeed, paradigms alongside those of Western imperialism.

JENN. This is the place where I always ask—why use the term "cultural rhetorics"? Why not just argue for a different understanding of "rhetoric"?

NIIJ. That's exactly what I was thinking!

US. We use the term "cultural rhetorics" deliberately, as a (hopefully) short-term intervention, to mark our orientation to a set of intersecting, shifting, and variable methodological and theoretical frames and relationships we bring to our scholarly and teaching practices. Although it seems obvious that where someone is located culturally, socially, historically, and physically is significant to the ways that s/he makes meaning, in our discipline there is a temptation to try to demarcate the cultural, social, and physical away from one another into camps—feminist rhetorics, African American rhetorics, disability rhetorics, etc. This set of demarcated inclusions creates the illusion that we are, in fact, attending to culture and filling "gaps" in "the" rhetorical tradition. But these additions—fetishized, objectified, recuperated—only shore up the fiction of a single narrative, a single tradition. As decolonial scholars, we believe there is no need to maintain this fiction—no need to create gaps in a single tradition that scholars must fill. Instead, we believe it's important to keep all traditions/stories/histories in play as equally legitimate origins and progenitors of many simultaneous rhetorical traditions.

Further, we argue there is rhetorical power in building relationships between multiple traditions, multiple histories, multiple practices. To do this, we have to understand histories traditionally silenced in "the" Western narrative as whole, and as systems of practice that require our attention. Thus our advocacy for "cultural rhetorics" as a marker, and for sustained scholarly attention to meaning-making as it is enacted in specific cultural communities. To be plain, we have to have a solid understanding of as many stories as possible if we're going to be able to say anything at all about the practice of rhetorics over the past 10,000 years. And, just as important, we have to have a solid understanding of the relationship between these stories—good, bad, ugly and beautiful.

Lights dim. Players turn to leave except NIIJ, who steps forward. Lights up, all the way.


NIIJ. Wait. What do you mean, UGLY? What's ugly about all of this?

Players turn back to face center stage and each other.

US. As a collective of cultural rhetorics scholars, and as humans sharing space with each other, we feel compelled to acknowledge how we are all complicit in colonial rhetorical practices. Recognizing this complicity is one way to acknowledge how we are all related and how all of us have been affected by colonialism. Although we don't intend to erase this complicity or pretend that it's not there, we also know that behind colonialism hides a surprising reality—academia can be an indigenous, decolonial space as well. The duality of practicing cultural rhetorics plus studying cultural rhetorical practices that we're trying to maintain throughout this piece, for example, is one way of engaging in a decolonial practice which recognizes the liberatory possibility of even colonized spaces like academia.

NIIJ. So, can you tell us more about decolonial practice? It keeps coming up, and I'm still not sure what you mean.13

ANDREA. I'm sorry. We're really trying to work on visibilizing our assumptions. Let's go back to one of the things we said before—that decolonization is a much larger project than a single academic discipline; it's larger than the academy itself.

US. When we use the term "decolonial," we're referring specifically to stories from the perspective of colonized cultures and communities that are working to delink from the mechanisms of colonialism. This delinking encourages a shift to a set of knowledge-making practices that don't reinforce colonial logics, which also form the roots of systems like capitalism. We've rooted our own practices in those already going on in Native American and Indigenous studies. We're especially committed to the understanding of decolonial practice articulated by Qwo-Li Driskill: "an ongoing, radical resistance against colonialism" (70). For Driskill, decolonization "includes struggles for land redress, self-determination, healing historical trauma, cultural continuance, and reconciliation" (70). For other scholars, like Emma Perez, the decolonial imaginary becomes a tool for remaking and rewriting, a practice that not only deconstructs, but reconstructs.

MALEA. Let's look for a minute at what Walter Mignolo says in his most recent book, The Darker Side of Western Modernity.14 Mignolo argues that:

the defining features of decolonial options is the analytic of the construction, transformation, and sustenance of racism and patriarchy that created the conditions to build and control a structure of knowledge, either grounded on the word of God or the word of Reason and Truth. … The decolonial option starts from the analytic assumption that such hierarchies are constructed… and specifically that they have been constructed in the very process of building the idea of Western civilization and modernity. (xv-xvi, emphasis added)

For Mignolo, and for us, decolonial practice isn't a mission, it's an option, an orientation that includes "both the analytic task of unveiling the logic of coloniality and the prospective task of contributing to build a world in which many worlds will coexist" (54). The next step after analysis—a step we hope our work helps to build—is "to build decolonial options on the ruins of imperial knowledge" (11).

US. And while we acknowledge that not all cultural rhetorics scholarship is decolonial,15 what's crucial to our story now is how we understand decolonial practice as the guiding principle to our work in cultural rhetorics. Which is why we're going to spend some time offering stories that show how decolonial theory works as well as how to work from this orientation as scholars and teachers.

NIIJ. Wait. Could we go back, please? You've said very strongly that decolonial practice is the guiding principle for your cultural rhetorics work. But you also said that not all cultural rhetorics work is decolonial. Isn't that a contradiction? Shouldn't all scholars in cultural rhetorics have the same guiding principles? The same common practices?

DAISY. It does seem a little wonky, doesn't it? Okay, let's go back to our discussion of constellation as a metaphor. Part of using a metaphor that assumes and honors multiplicity is to assume and honor the multiplicities of orientations to scholarship that are possible. This acceptance of multiple possibilities, multiple approaches, is also a part of decolonial practice.

ANDREA. Remember, we're not on a mission to convert everyone to decolonial practice, or to our version of cultural rhetorics practices. We're visibilizing options and making those options available for others to use, and doing so as part of an attempt to intervene in and enlarge the acknowledged practices of our disciplinary community.

MARI. The way we're doing that here is by constellating stories in order to visibilize a web of relations. This web can help us intervene in the discipline by acknowledging our location within a set of dominant institutions within which we are complicit with colonialism. And all of these locations, institutions, and interventions exist as constellated practices. Remember when we talked about rhetoric and composition16 as a community of disciplinary practice? Communities are made up of people, with real lived experiences and lives at stake. As members of this rhet/comp community, we are invested in actively creating and sustaining a visible space considerate of relational and complex histories of rhetoric. We've learned this from decolonial scholars who enact practices within their communities to not only survive colonialism, but create a place for present and future generations to engage with their traditions.

MALEA. Decolonial theories and practices help us pay attention to how knowledge is made, used, and disseminated in these dominant spaces (like academia). Decolonial projects like Driskill's and Perez's offer the discipline a number of ways to do rhetorical work. Let's take a look.

Lights down, curtain down.

8 We want to note here that our use of the term "object-oriented" isn't a direct reference to current theoretical trends in object-oriented ontology (OOO) or object-oriented rhetoric (OOR). While we do see some OOO/OOR scholarship making the same mistakes about humans that we point out here, a full conversation between what we're identifying as cultural rhetorics practice and OOO/OOR scholarship is well beyond the scope of this essay.

9 Our understanding of the link between colonialism and capitalism comes from a collection of indigenous scholars and from Roy Harvey Pearce and Walter Mignolo—more on that later.

10 Decolonial and post-colonial scholars investigate the historical and contemporary impacts of colonialism across disciplines and often times in relation to communities outside the academy. Distinctions between the various prefixes – de-, post-, neo-, anti-, para-, etc.—are often a matter of perspective or orientation. For example, the term "post-colonial" is primarily concerned with stories told from the perspective of the colonized about the process of colonization (literature, travel writing, etc.) while the terms "neo-colonial" and "para-colonial" are used to draw attention to the continuing status of colonial occupation in settler colonial places like the Americas.

10 Decolonial and post-colonial scholars investigate the historical and contemporary impacts of colonialism across disciplines and often times in relation to communities outside the academy. Distinctions between the various prefixes – de-, post-, neo-, anti-, para-, etc.—are often a matter of perspective or orientation. For example, the term "post-colonial" is primarily concerned with stories told from the perspective of the colonized about the process of colonization (literature, travel writing, etc.) while the terms "neo-colonial" and "para-colonial" are used to draw attention to the continuing status of colonial occupation in settler colonial places like the Americas.

11 Our use of identifiers like "humans" and "people" is entirely purposeful, here. As we pointed out above, and in earlier notes, many disciplines' understandings of "culture" as an object removes all bodily, human, peopled agency involved in the production of all aspects of any culture. This removal objectifies culture, of course, as we've pointed out, but in turn, then, it also objectifies the people, their bodies, actions, and relationships, thereby re-inscribing a code that depends on seeing some people as things. Namely, it's a colonialist, racist code, and one we are actively interrupting by centering our theories on these very people and bodies as critical to the making of all cultures.

12 Yes, this means that cultural rhetorics approaches can be used to study dominant cultural practices. For us, remember, "culture" isn't a word we use to mark "difference" or "otherness." Instead, a cultural rhetorics approach is meant to focus on how specific cultures are built around particular beliefs and practices, which lead that culture to value some things and not others.

13 In terms of very basic definitions, decolonial and post-colonial scholars investigate the historical and contemporary impacts of colonialism across disciplines and often times in relation to communities outside the academy. Distinctions between the various prefixes—de-, post-, neo-, anti-, para-, etc.—are often a matter of perspective or orientation. For example, the term "post-colonial" is primarily concerned with stories told from the perspective of the colonized about the process of colonization (literature, travel writing, etc) while the terms "neo-colonial" and "para-colonial" are used to draw attention to the continuing status of colonial occupation in settler colonial places like the Americas.

14 It's important to note that Mignolo's argument is "built on "options" and not on "alternatives." Mignolo states, "If you look for alternatives you accept a point of reference instead of a set of existing options among which the decolonial enters claiming its legitimacy to sit at the table… the first decolonial step is delinking from coloniality and not looking for alternative modernities but for alternatives to modernity" (xviii).

15 Again, Mignolo insists that of the four major options currently at work today in shaping world futures—rewesternization, rewesternization, dewesternization, decoloniality—only the decolonial option works towards building a world in which many worlds coexist.

16 By now, you'll have noticed that we use different names to designate "the discipline" —rhetoric and composition, rhetoric and writing, rhet/comp, rhetoric studies, comp studies, etc. This is on purpose and reflects the shifting ways in which we imagine and re-imagine our disciplinary community at different times, from different perspectives, with different purposes.