A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics

Malea Powell, Michigan State University
Daisy Levy, Southern Vermont College
Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Bowling Green State University
Marilee Brooks-Gillies, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs
Maria Novotny, Michigan State University
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, Michigan State University
The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab1

(Published: October 25, 2014)


ALL: This is a cultural rhetorics2 performance. It's also a story.

MALEA: Let me set the scene. It's early April and we're gathered in a genuine vintage 1970's vacation home in a birch forest just north of Harbor Springs, Michigan. It's still snowing this far north. Driving in, it feels a little like that scene from The Ice Storm, the one right before they find the dead boy. Still dark trees, snowy ground, winding roads greet me as I've come ahead of everyone else to make sure the house is ready for our weekend's work—a writing retreat to finish this article. It started to snow in earnest near Houghton Lake, and the roads here are covered with a film of snow. One of the main turnoffs for the house is drifted nearly shut. I text directions for navigating the roads to those following a couple of hours behind me. It's not like we're in the wilderness, but the directions will help folks unfamiliar with this part of the state. The house we've rented is in a subdivision situated on a golf course full of vacation homes belonging to the wealthy white tourists who'll stream up here in the summer, just like they did to the Wequesintong down by the shore of Little Traverse Bay in the late nineteenth century. Later this weekend I'll take my fellow writers farther north to lesser settled places—Good Hart, Middle Village, Cross Village, Sturgeon Bay Beach—but for tonight I just want them to arrive safely to a warm and welcoming place.

This is Odawa territory.

So I put down a tobacco offering, shovel the drive, turn up the heat, call for a firewood delivery, and sage the entire house before I head into town to bring back local supplies—smoked whitefish and pasties. Soon, my companions arrive, unload, explore the house, eat warm pasties, and settle in with glasses of wine and bottles of beer. We make a schedule for the next two days, knowing no work will be done this evening. We talk late into the night, catching up with one another, laughing a lot. The next morning we wake, eat breakfast together, and slowly gather our things at the big oak table in the dining room—surrounded by windows open to the forest outside—and write collectively until we grow hungry for lunch. We eat, write some more, then gradually gather snacks and water bottles and head into the woods, out to the lake, and into town, visiting places that mark important Odawa-white histories. Standing on the frozen shores of Lake Michigan, we take pictures and laugh and talk some more, working through ideas for the article, yes, but also working through our relationships with one another; renewing familiar patterns, starting new ones. Working out a relationship to the land, to the lake, to the histories of this place. Building a space in which our work exists alongside those histories. Building a practice we can remember when we're not all together, not in this place/space.

This is a cultural rhetorics practice.

The article you're about to read was written collectively—six of us sitting around a table generating each move together. We've styled the article like a play—a classic three-act with Prologue and Epilogue—the kind Aristotle liked best.3 It has a number of characters:

US. Our collective voice.

NIIJ. A collective interlocutor who brings the real questions we've experienced from disciplinary community4 into the performance into this story in a respectful way. In Anishinaabemowin—one of the indigenous languages of what is now the state of Michigan—"niij" is an informal term used to designate a friend.5 It was important to us to name using one of the original languages of the place6 where much of this article was written, and to use a term that implies a long, friendly relationship. We don't see Niij as an adversary; on the contrary, the questions that s/he asks have helped us think more deeply, more persistently, and more broadly about our collective work and its relationship to the discipline of rhetoric and composition.

MALEA. The Stage Manager in this article's Our Town, this character begins and ends the piece plus provides some directions (and critical contributions) along the way.

ANDREA, DAISY, MARI, JENN, MARIA. These characters appear as themselves, representing their own experiences with cultural rhetorics practice/methodology apart from the collective.

You'll also see stage directions throughout. We hope they help you imagine this article literally spinning out in front of you in a small black-box theatre space, the kind of place where the audience is asked to participate in the performance.

We've taken this approach for several reasons. First, because of its imaginative power in our own writing and thinking processes. Second, as a dual nod to the Greco-Roman-centricity of our discipline and to the performance-focused nature of much cultural rhetorics practice. Third, as a way to emphasize the fluid and shifting nature of this thing we're calling cultural rhetorics, and the necessity of deliberately reflexive practice that such a methodology requires. Fourth, as a way to clear a path through the complex tangle of theory and practice we want to embody in this writing—as a way to show how we're navigating the intellectual trade routes that cultural rhetorics gathers together.7

And, so, our story begins.

Lights dim. Players arrange themselves onstage. Lights up, slowly.

1 The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab is a research collective with participants from four academic institutions. Members of the Lab who participated in the final production of this article are Malea Powell, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny and Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson. Other colleagues whose support and thinking contributed to this writing are Doug Schraufnagle, Donnie Sackey, Jennifer Sano-Franchini, Madhu Narayan, and Gabrielle Rios.

2 As will become clear, we're not talking about the popular notion of "cultural rhetorics" as cultural studies + rhetoric studies here. While that model, initiated during the formation of the Composition and Cultural Rhetorics (CCR) program at Syracuse University in the late 1990s, is an important one for the discipline of rhet/comp, it is not the model that guides us. Instead, we offer the following performance as a partial construction of our definition of the practice of cultural rhetorics.

3 Classic three-act structure features a first act that is usually used for exposition, a second act that contains rising action, and a third act of resolution. Aristotelian tragedy requires five parts – introduction, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and resolution—which we interpret as three parts plus Prologue and Epilogue.

4 One of our core beliefs is that the discipline is a community of practices – not always shared and valued equally, but a community nonetheless.

5 In consulting several Anishinaabemowin speakers, there was general agreement that using "niij" to designate this collective voice was acceptable. This term is often orthographically represented as "neeg" or "neech" in print, and for other regional dialects of the language.

6 Acknowledging the space/place where we do work is part of our decolonial method here.

7 For scholarly work that articulates the idea of "intellectual trade routes," see Warrior and Haas.