A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Introduction to the Special Issue: Entering the Cultural Rhetorics Conversations

Phil Bratta, Michigan State University
Malea Powell, Michigan State University

(Published April 20, 2016)


Because the best way to orient ourselves to our cultural rhetorics relations is through story, this is a story.

This issue began where many interesting projects begin—in a conversation over cocktails. Specifically, Malea and Casey Boyle were in a bar1 having a conversation about a number of related things—the challenge and promise of online journals, limited publishing opportunities in rhetoric studies (especially for theoretical and/or culturally-focused work), scholarly growth areas, conferences as a space for intellectual engagement, etc. Out of this conversation, Casey offered the idea of this special issue as a way to create a deliberate space for cultural rhetorics scholarship that was developed from, or inspired by, the first ever Cultural Rhetorics conference in 2014 (CR-CON14).2 This special issue of enculturation, then, is a result of that conversation—a moment that instantiated a set of relations between the editors of this journal, the co-organizers of CR-CON14, and all the artists, teachers, scholars, performers, and practitioners who attended.3

The title for CR-CON14 was “Entering the Conversation,” and a large part of the impetus for creating the conference in the first place was to make space for cultural rhetorics scholars, teachers, and makers to gather, discuss, and engage with certain ways of doing and thinking that had not been readily available or welcomed at other academic conferences. With this goal of a space for conversation, we4 worked to create something more than just another academic conference; rather, we wanted a gathering, a conversation, a forming and recognition of relations, and a space of possibility for building a future for the field. And we needed space that welcomed a diverse group of people across a number of important registers—race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, culture, language, orientation, ablednesses, etc. We tried hard to flatten hierarchies and create a sense of common purpose. For example, even though the scholars assembled for the opening session were fairly prominent in the larger discipline of rhetoric & writing, the common experience of marginalization and denigration at more traditional academic conferences created ways for us to talk together about how we might be able to make collective change.

During and after the conference, we received overwhelmingly positive feedback as participants frequently told us they felt a level of comfort and welcome—of their selves and of their work—they’d never previously experienced. The tenor of the conference itself was full of energy, enthusiasm, and hope. It felt as if we (all of the participants) were engaged in building a thing, a moment, together—a moment that might change the history of the discipline. This level of excitement and hope carried into our final conversation of the conference where we hatched plans for our collective future, but we’ll say more about that later. For now, a map. In the next few pages of this introduction, we’ll share a brief (and somewhat incomplete) history of what might now be considered the field of cultural rhetorics. Then, we’ll offer some equally brief suggestions in response to the provocative question “What is cultural rhetorics?” as we segue into the pieces/stories of this special issue.

A Brief History

For quite some time now, academics and nonacademics have been theorizing and practicing cultural rhetorics even though many rhetoric and composition scholars might see the “official” history of cultural rhetorics as a field is a shorter story. In “Our Story Begins Here,” the scholars who write as the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab (CRTL) suggest that “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” (1.1). The formation of such cultural communities, according to the CRTL, connects tightly to place and space, which allow “groups [to] organize under a set of shared beliefs and practices—American Indian communities, workplace communities, digital communities, crafting communities, etc.” (1.1). The CRTL shows, however, the impossibility of simply laying out a “universal” (or, an “essential”) frame for cultural rhetorics work. Instead, they work to delink from the colonial imposition of a need for using Western canonical frameworks, methodologies, and theories to understand cultures and practices. In doing so, they argue for a more situated scholarly practice in which the particularity of rhetorical practices within specific cultural communities sheds light on the myriad ways that culture and rhetoric emerge.

To make this story more specific, then, we’ll start with the idea of rhetoric studies as “a community of disciplinary practice—a culture—built on particular traditions and lineages that is, like all cultures, always changing” and map some relations who helped accumulate the current field (CRTL, 1.2). Our first “relation” would be the intersection of rhetoric and composition with cultural studies (R/C+CS). According to Krista Ratcliffe, the intersection of rhetoric and cultural studies stems from the 1990s and is usually “associated with the scholarship of James Berlin, Patty Harkin, John Schilb, John Trimbur, and Christine Farris” (193). What characterizes this work is that it “engages cultural theories, analyzes cultural practices, and designs cultural studies pedagogies” (193). Another R/C+CS intersection appears in Steven Mailloux's 2006 call for “rhetorical hermeneutics” as a way to “use rhetoric to practice theory by doing history” (42). For Mailloux, cultural rhetoric studies is “the critical, pedagogical, historical, and theoretical consideration of the effects of trope, argument, and narrative in different cultures” (129). Such a definition leads him toward what he sees as a “comparative cultural rhetoric” approach, which would “encompass the productive and interpretive aspects of the rhetorical tradition, embracing classical and modern invention in spoken and written rhetorics and including modern and postmodern hermeneutics applied to oral, print, and digital media as well as various cultural technologies, whether aural, visual or kinetic” (129).

While it’s nice to have rhetoric scholars of Mailloux’s (and others’) stature move to embrace rhetorical production and practices beyond alphabetic print, this model remains centered firmly in Western canonical texts and practices. Even when so-called “identity-based” scholarship (Villanueva, Royster, Gilyard, etc.) is occasionally marshaled to support arguments being made at this R/C+CS intersection, work that substantially engages intellectual frames taken from outside dominant Western culture have traditionally not been seen as central to R/C+CS work. The current field of cultural rhetorics emerges, then, from a growing unease with the facility of canonical Western rhetorical theories and practices to account for the experiences of non-Western peoples and from the sense that the exigencies of Western culture itself have gone unexamined in that traditional canon. This lack of explicit examination has led the discipline to categorize scholarship as either “mainstream” or “marginal” in relation to Western traditions. One of the core assumptions of cultural rhetorics practitioners is that “all work in the discipline is already focused on or arises from specific cultural practices—mostly dominant Euro-American practices, which go as the unmarked ‘mainstream’ in our discourse about what counts in the discipline” (CRTL, 2.2; original emphasis).    

It’s especially important to understand that those in the field of cultural rhetorics do not see “cultural rhetorics” as some hidden code for non-Western rhetorical practices; instead, it is an approach that recognizes and honors the cultural specificity of all rhetorical practices/productions. Like some practitioners of R/C+CS, scholars in the field of cultural rhetorics are generally concerned with re-orienting rhetoric studies to be more attuned to the cultural circumstances of rhetorical production/practice. This includes an understanding of the material bodies engaged in rhetorical practices, and an attunement to what Raymie McKerrow calls “corporeal rhetorics” as “not a method of doing or seeing rhetoric, but rather an attitude that one takes toward the rhetorical act” (320)5. If we proceed from the already-voiced assumption that all rhetoric is a product of cultural systems and that all cultures are rhetorical (i.e., they have meaning-making systems that are meaningful and that can be traced synchronically, diachronically, and a-chronically), understanding the specificity of the bodies and subjectivities engaged in those practices must be central. It is here, at the space of embodied practices of the scholar—and not simply the scholar’s attitude—that cultural rhetorics connects those who study it and those who live it.

So, what is cultural rhetorics?

More than anything, cultural rhetorics is a practice, and more specifically an embodied practice, that demands much from the scholars who engage in it. First, scholars must be willing to build meaningful theoretical frames from inside the particular culture in which they are situating their work. To do so means understanding a specific culture’s systems, beliefs, relationships to the past, practices of meaning-making, and practices of carrying culture forward to future generations. In this way, it requires that scholars move beyond simply applying frames derived from one culture/tradition to another culture's rhetorical practices. For example, using Burkes’ pentad to understand North American indigenous practices of powwow dancing would not fall within current cultural rhetorics practice. Building a theoretical and rhetorical frame from the specific tribal and intertribal practices of powwow dancing, looking at how different indigenous cultures’ stories, beliefs, and traditions inform that shared rhetorical practice could fall within current cultural rhetorics practice.

This doesn’t, of course, preclude comparative work. Cultural rhetorics scholars deeply believe “there is rhetorical power in building relationships between multiple traditions, multiple histories, multiple practices” (CRTL, 1.2). However, a cultural rhetorics approach to comparative study always requires an examination of issues of power, both those that arise within each cultural site of practice, and the power relations between the cultures involved in the comparative analysis. Of course, much work in cultural rhetorics doesn’t have comparison as its goal and is, instead, rooted in a desire to change the traditional narratives, canons, and ways of operating in the discipline in order to explicitly open academia to ideas and intellectual affordances from a much broader range of continental and global cultures. There are four points of practice that are generally worked together in order for cultural rhetorics scholars to begin building that frame: decolonization, relations, constellation, and story.

Engagement with decolonization and decolonial practices is central to the work of most cultural rhetorics scholars. By “decolonial,” we mean “stories from the perspective of colonized cultures and communities that are working to delink from the mechanisms of colonialism” (CRTL, 1.3). It’s true, the project of global decolonization is a big one, connected to living communities of practice all over the world. Scholars who study cultural rhetorics make up a tiny community of practice, but “what we want to emphasize and practice is our position inside a constellation of relationships with other decolonial scholars” and to stand as allies with cultural communities who are working to delink from the destructive behaviors brought on by colonization (CRTL, 1.2).

In listening to decolonial scholars, we come “to understand the making of cultures and the practices that call them into being as relational and constellated”—important keys to building our methodological frames (CRTL, 1.2; original emphasis). What does that mean? It proceeds from a belief that “all cultural 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, people make things (texts, baskets, performances), people make relationships, people make culture” (CRTL, 1.2). The practice of constellating not only provides a material metaphor for honoring all of those relationships, but also helps create sustainable frames for specific rhetorical practices. Constellative practice emphasizes the degree to which knowledge is never built by individuals but is, instead, accumulated through collective practices within specific communities. These collective practices, then, are what create the community; they hold the community together over time even when many of them are no longer practiced day-to-day but are, instead, remembered as day-to-day events. As Malea has said elsewhere, the idea of constellation “allows for all of 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” (CRTL, 1.2).

So, let’s go back to the beginning of this story, and to the eight pieces/stories—presentations, essay, and short multimedia pieces—we’ve selected to include in this special issue. Although we weren’t able to include all of the excellent submissions we received, we believe what we’ve collected here adequately represents how the conference felt and reflects the breadths of current cultural rhetorics practices—at least for now. As we’ve said, for us, the core of cultural rhetorics practices is an orientation and embodied storying of the maker in relation to what is being made. The makers of the pieces gathered here engage in that storying in different ways, through different means, hearing the voices of different ancestors and elders, honoring different kinds of stories. Their stories build and are theories, forming a web of relations—making, re-making, and extending the brief outline of cultural rhetorics practices we’ve talked about in this introduction. First up is “We are Here: Negotiating Difference and Alliance in Spaces of Cultural Rhetorics,” a collaborative essay in which Margaret Price, Daisy Levy, and Victor Del Hierro offer their stories as a crucial call to allyship. For these three co-makers, allyship “is not a state to be achieved, but a community-based process of making,” a practice that is always intersectional, negotiated, nuanced, and changing; a practice that can’t be taken for granted, even inside a gathering of cultural rhetorics scholars. Their reminder that we must collectively “hold space” for the process of creating allyship is a particularly generative one for our scholarly community

Collective practice in the form of solidarity and accountability are central to the stories Timothy Dougherty tells in “Knowing (Y)Our Story: Practicing Decolonial Rhetorical History.” In bringing indigenous rhetorics and decolonial practices into conversation with White ethnic identities and White supremacy, Dougherty provides a much needed shared space for understanding how “even the ugliest of stories are instructive.” Dougherty’s investment in unearthing decolonial options allows him to position Fenian transnational rhetorical practices alongside indigenous practices and critiques of colonialism, deepening and enriching the intricacies of the “ugly stories” while creating a space for “the open-ended work of a decolonial future.” A lived commitment to practices of solidarity and allyship are the backbone of Santos F. Ramos’s contemplative piece “Building a Culture of Solidarity: Racial Discourse, Black Lives Matter & Indigenous Social Justice.” As a non-Black Xicano, Ramos intriguingly writes about his own embodied experience with a “dying-in” during a Black Lives Matter protest as a way to discuss “points of tension that need to be addressed in order for cross-cultural solidarity to be fostered among communities of color amidst our struggle for both respective and collective liberation” (emphasis original). Ramos focuses on solidarity among people of color—both within their own communities and in relation to other communities of color—as a way to show the importance of disrupting racial frameworks based on simplified binaries: Black/White. Such disruptions in social justice work, he argues, create the possibility for both addressing racial injustice and building connections between peoples of color: not just intervention with racist police violence, but ways of creating “new radical decolonial possibilities for cross-cultural solidarity.” For Ramos, that solidarity is formed through relationality—an important concept and practice in cultural rhetorics work. 

In Vani Kannan’s “The Mahamantra, Kirtan Performance & the Embodied Circulation of Cultural Rhetoric,” Kannan first reflects on her time as a musician in a kirtan band, identifying the co-construction of embodied meaning and experience between the band and the audience in yoga studios. Drawing on choric rhetoric, she offers a theory of embodied circulation by pointing out kirtan “as a site of embodied, relational, collective making.” According to Kannan, the songs circulate through the bodies of performer and audience, generating kirtan as an “opportunity to de-link from the hegemonic performer/audience binary” often seen “in spaces of classical and popular music performance.” Yet, Kannan also complicates this notion by recognizing the complex tension between “between collective making as liberatory musical practice and commodification; between authenticity and appropriation; between sacred and secular; between normalization and resistance.” Terese Monberg listens to an equally complicated set of tensions in “Like the Molave: (Re)Membering and Sustaining Community through ‘Growing Up Brown’ Stories.” Monberg asks us to revise our understandings of community to include the sedimented, storied, constellated practices that are both anchored in, and move across, specific spaces and time periods. In looking at one set of story practices—“growing up brown” stories—engaged in by members of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), Monberg helps us see how the practice of story operates in multi-dimensional ways. For her, stories don’t just connect the past to the present, or preserve a sense of common experiences across generations; rather, stories are “theories and practices of communities.”

Three of the makings gathered here are non-alphabetic. In “Exhuming Transgenre Ties,” Ames Hawkins provides a compelling letter and video to illuminate the importance of how story and form may, and at times should, inform each other as a way to create new cultural rhetorics practices. Hawkins not only argues for more “conversations about critical-creative form in academic, transgenre writing, transgender/genderqueer bodies of/and work,” but shows readers/viewers through her own story and practice what ideas and deliverables might emerge in those conversations. Likewise, Alexandra Hidalgo offers fruitful directions in cultural rhetorics practice in terms of medium and genre. In “Vanishing Fronteras: A Call for Documentary Filmmaking in Cultural Rhetorics,” Hidalgo tells her story and engagement with Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza in order to show the richness of documentary practices within cultural rhetorics. Documentary filmmaking, she argues, contributes three important features: visibly cultural bodies, aural practices (such as cultural accents), and empowered voices that speak back to power as well as connect with others in similar cultural positions. Drawing from scenes in Vanishing Borders—her feature documentary about immigrant women—Hidalgo asserts that filmmaking can generate conversation and cultural space that allows different cultures to relate to each other.

Andrea Riley-Mukavetz provides a thoughtful audio piece—“On Working from or With Anger: or How I Learned to Listen to My Relatives and Practice All Our Relations”—that focuses on how “anger impacts embodiment and relationality.” She lays out a methodological framework that identifies the difference between the “from” and “with” of anger, and then tells her story about how carrying elders’ stories contributes to addressing anger in productive ways. By listening to the stories and teachings of her elders, she delinks from the colonial matrix of power by particularly “carry[ing] the lived experiences of indigenous American women with [her] as [she] move[s] through multiple spaces.” Riley-Mukavetz’s story encourages us to form relations between our research and everyday moments and spaces in order tell stories that matter.

We’re excited to share this collection of makings with you, and to give you a glimpse of CR-CON14. But every past has a future, and we want to invite you to join us in the future of cultural rhetorics, both literally and figuratively. Join us at the 2016 Cultural Rhetorics conference (http://culturalrhetorics.org/crconf/) to be held September 30-October 2 (in East Lansing, MI). Join us as a member of the newly-founded Cultural Rhetorics Consortium (www.cultrhetconsortium.org). And keep your eyes open for one of the other things Casey and Malea talked about at that bar in San Antonio—the call for submissions to Constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space, which will appear sometime in 2016. All of us who work in this field look forward to widening the current conversations, learning about other conversations, accumulating relations, and generating new ideas and new ways of “doing” cultural rhetorics together in the years to come. Thank you.

We would like to thank all the cultural rhetorics special issue reviewers and the enculturation editors for their thoughtful feedback, time, and patience.

  • 1. The lobby bar at the Marriott Rivercenter during the 2014 Rhetoric Society of America conference in San Antonio.
  • 2. Held October 31-November 1, 2014 at Michigan State University.
  • 3. And to thank those relations—we’re grateful to the editors of enculturation (especially to Casey Boyle) for the opportunity to create this special issue, and to be able to reflect and deliberately mark one of this field’s many beginnings. We also want to especially thank our co-editors, Daisy Levy and Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, for the gift of their time and patient attention to reading, selecting, and responding to the pieces in the special issue.
  • 4. Here our “we” refers to Phil and Malea as co-chairs as well as the members of the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab who helped bring the conference to fruition: Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Ezekiel Choffel, Victor Del Hierro, Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, John Gagnon, Matt Gomes, Laura Gonzales, Daisy Levy, Esther Milu, Andrea Riley Mukavetz, Maria Novotny Jordan, Sarah Prielipp, and Allegra Smith.
  • 5. We find McKerrow to be an interesting interdisciplinary ally in this regard, especially his call for a shift away from what he labels an “administrative rhetoric,” which is “the distribution of resources necessary for the maintenance or alteration of power,” to corporeal rhetoric, though we are disappointed by his lack of attention to methods of rhetorical doing and making (320).
Works Cited

The Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab (Malea Powell, Daisy Levy, Andrea Riley-Mukavetz, Marilee Brooks-Gillies, Maria Novotny, Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson). “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics Practices.” enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 18 (2014): n.p. Web http://enculturation.net/our-story-begins-here

Mailloux, Steven. Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition. New York: MLA, 2006. Print.

McKerrow, Raymie E. “Corporeality and Cultural Rhetoric: A Site for Rhetoric’s Future.” Southern Communication Journal 63.4 (1998): 315-328. Print.

Ratcliffe, Krista. “The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries.” The Present State of Scholarship in the History of Rhetoric: A Twenty-first Century Guide. Eds. Lynee Lewis Gaillet with Winifred Bryant Horner. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2010. 185-212. Print.