A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

She Dreams in Burkean Color (Or, On Rhetoric and Writing Pedagogy)

Paul Walker, Murray State University

(December 11, 2017)

In the twilight, I spot a man standing on the sidewalk —for there could be no doubt of his sex, as the scrubby beard fashion of the time could not disguise it. Not looking my way, he stares with a disbelieving eagerness up the street and does not hear me approach.

“Pardon me,” I say. “I couldn’t help noticing . . . what are you looking at?”

Swinging around, without speaking, he gestures to several dark cars passing us, the noise of which is suddenly unmistakable to me.

“What the hell?” he whispers, and without hesitation moves in the direction of the passing cars, walking faster then speeding into a jog. I follow, curious, keeping a little distance until I see him stop, looking intently at a cul-de-sac where the cars are stopping and people emerging from the cars are walking up the steps into a grand house.

“How have I never seen this before?” he murmurs.

Bravely, timidly, I step closer to him. “I apologize for my forwardness,” I begin, “but I’m curious. What is happening?” 

He replies without looking away from the mansion, “I can’t make sense of this . . . I recognize so many of those people, but how . . . why . . . I don’t know how this is possible.” Turning toward me, he thinks for a few seconds, then asks if I might accompany him inside.

“Are we invited?”

“I have a feeling we will be welcomed,” he says.

We walk toward the steps, the eagerness returning and blending with, in him, a growing measure of confidence. Up the stone steps, through the open entrance doors, and crossing the threshold into an ornate hall, we are greeted with nods and bows from the immaculately dressed house staff who offer to take our coats. I remove mine, ready to give my coat to the extended gloved hand, but nearly drop it when I turn back to locate and rejoin my new friend.

He is a woman.

Standing in a fitted, fluid black dress, she looks to me and smiles, not in any way concerned with my bemused and frozen stance. Taking my arm, she introduces herself as Vita and I stay close to her side, barely taking my eyes off of her as we are led into the spacious parlor, where it appears the party has been going on for a considerable amount of time. People of indeterminate ages gather in small circles, speaking to each other with polite fervor, some speaking more, some just listening. We lift glasses of champagne from the waiter’s passing silver tray and meander around the crowded room, hearing snippets of conversation, sometimes pausing to glean the whole point, other times moving on to another circle. As we wander, Vita gestures discreetly at notable philosophers and certain academics and whispers their names to me. Her easy confidence here contrasts with the puzzled fellow I noticed on the sidewalk. She recognizes several of the most vivacious speakers, and I note the frequent shock of pleasure on her face when she matches a name she knows with a face she didn’t. She introduces me to several people that seem to know her, and though they initially look at her with a mix of pleasant familiarity and confusion, they embrace her, smile, and speak warmly with us.

Every few minutes, Vita’s friends, tizzied and bewildered, point out a newly recognized person in the room. Their commiseration carries on for some time, but we eventually disperse, and Vita and I mingle among the circles, joining ones dominated by old or new apparent academic darlings. It is engrossing, and after a while, Vita speaks up with a comment—an insightful comment—and becomes intimately involved in the discussion. I look on with admiration, unsure of how many glasses of champagne I have consumed.

As we move from circle to circle, time and space become meaningless in the parlor, the walls of which expand to allow more and more people inside the room. In one corner, hundreds of pale, sad-faced women keep appearing from a hidden staircase somewhere below, their frowns disappearing as they merge into the crowd. The conversation circles remain in full tilt. Glasses lift and empty constantly, no sign of fatigue anywhere. I’m a stranger in this crowd; the conversations all around fascinate me, despite my limited understanding, each in their own way beckoning me to listen.

Vita points out a handsome gentleman at the edge of the parlor, “It’s Burke!” He observes the room with pleasure, and Vita’s eyes shine at the impossibility of his Parlor, which she explains to me, coming to life. I notice his tortoiseshell glasses are both subtle and striking; as he moves his head from side to side, the lenses transform from crystal transparency to smoky opacity. When I catch his eyes in a moment of clearness, his smile increases, pleased to offer his welcome to this strange gathering. A few others stand near him, eager to speak, then relax as if understanding him without speaking at all, for they too wear eyewear built on his same terms.

To my left, I am surprised when a woman nearby winks and appears to say to me “I love you”—“No,” Vita laughs. “She was saying prosopopoeia.”


“All of this, you and me. It appears Susan Jarratt is a fan.”

“Thinking wants to be learned like dancing, as a kind of dancing.”[2]

Suddenly the chandeliers dim to near darkness. “Is it over?” I ask, disappointed. But this question barely has time to form before colored lights swirl around the room. On the stage, a DJ station appears, replacing the chamber quartet, members of which gladly grab drinks and join the offstage fray. Around the room, ties are loosened and high-heeled shoes kicked off as the DJ throws down beats that seduce our hips and shoulders, all but forcing us to move to the music.

Vita’s young friends surround us once more; I sense a slight insecurity in their bodies, unsure how to take the room’s sudden frivolity, but they don’t leave. Instead, they even more excitedly recount to each other, and especially to me, what they are seeing.

“Look! Mina Shaughnessy just stage-dived into the crowd!”

“Is that David Bartholomae improvising?”

Vita laughs—it’s a beautiful sound, and I’m enthralled as she too tries to explain what is happening.

 “Mary Louise Pratt has started a full-contact mosh pit!” “And Peter Elbow is dancing with his eyes closed . . . ”

Some of our group runs toward the stage. I say to Vita, “I don’t understand,” to which she responds, “I know!”

As I lag behind her and the others, I hear a French accent, “Understanding is not what we really want.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, softly.

“We do not start off saying to ourselves: there is someone or something that speaks to us, I must understand them. To understand, to be intelligent, is not our overriding passion. We hope rather to be set in motion.[3]

At this, he introduces himself as Jean-François Lyotard, and we both move in the direction of Vita and the others.

When we find her, Vita says, “See?” Then she takes my hand toward a group dancing not far away and I am introduced to Nancy Sommers, who apparently likes to hone her dance steps and motion, and Sondra Perl, who pays closer attention to the unskilled dancers in our midst than her own moves. Patrick Hartwell is encouraging—telling those of us who are self-conscious dancers to let loose. “That’s right,” adds Lynn Bloom. “Much of this dancing is just ‘good enough’—too rational, conventional, decorous, and orderly.[4] C’mon, Adam, drop the bass!” Banks hears her, smiles, and holds us all in anticipation while he fends off a pair of guys who want him to play heavy metal.

We wait, wait, wait, wait, then it comes . . . our arms leap into the air, the walls seem to pulse in rhythm with the dancers, many eyes are closed, and everywhere faces glisten with sweat and unadulterated delight.

The evening continues without end, the music and DJs vary, organically and purposefully, pleasing anyone and everyone simultaneously. Seemingly, every secret musical wish of every attendee is granted. Doug Hesse sings a solo, followed by Beyoncé, Neko Case, Sonic Youth, Gary Clark Jr., Brian Eno, Carole King, the Rolling Stones, and what may or may not have been Nicki Minaj and Beck singing a duet. In the wings, I see David Bowie talking with Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse, and Janis Joplin cutting up with Jimi Hendrix while Freddie Mercury and Nina Simone look on. Meanwhile, Jack White plays on stage, and I overhear someone admiringly whisper, “I love how he dirties up the bass.”

“Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent . . . ”[5]

We rest on the perimeter of the dance floor, flushed and spent from what seems like hours of dancing. Nearby, Vita nods toward Thomas De Quincey, who is offering a glass to William Covino as Victor Vitanza approaches.

“As I was saying,” we hear De Quincey say, “where conviction begins, the field of Rhetoric ends.”[6]

“Is that still true?” Covino asks.

“If we insist on the intent to instill truth in an audience,” De Quincey replies, “we miss the play, the dance, so to speak.”

“The magic of coercive discourse,” Vitanza confides, “rests in its reactionary, visionary, and erotic power. It lends less to truth and more to reorder our imagination.”[7]

“Thus allowing us to wander around that imagination, contentedly, without need of closure,” Covino says.

I’m surprised by the association of eroticism and rhetoric, and move to say something to Vita, but she is already engaged in conversation with Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes. “What is more rhetorical,” they ask, “than sex?”[8]

“What is more sexual,” replies a newcomer to the group, “than rhetoric?”

“How do you mean?”

“Oh, just that to assert, to claim, to posit—all those elements of rhetoric are symbolic demonstrations of phallocratic strength and intention.”

I observe and listen; Vita whispers something to me about the newcomer—Avital Ronell, the philosopher. As the conversation continues, I sense that rhetoric is under interrogation by its closest friends, new interpretations quelling traditional perspectives. Diane Davis notes how students are still trained in that phallocentric assertive paradigm in college writing courses. While there are many, many people who prefer this type of writing for a variety of pedagogical and cultural reasons, she can’t help feeling disconcerted by it. Ronell jumps in, saying it’s similar to programs that help women avoid potential sexual assaults by encouraging them to behave in “safe” ways, or to avoid “unsafe” situations, and saying these things even while telling women it’s not their fault if they are or become victims.

“So women continue to learn self-defense and worry about the impression that their clothing will have on men,” Vita suggests, “while the more prescient and effective means of stopping sexual assault—reducing the cultural entitlement of power to have its way with whomever and whatever it wants—is deemed too tacit and ingrained to address with equal efficacy.”

“Are you saying rhetoric is, dare I say, akin to rape?” Ronell asks.

“Isn’t it, though? Kind of?” Vita answers. “I mean, we are a discipline of genuine, caring, and intelligent scholar/teachers, and yet the traditional core of rhetoric, despite various conceptions, persists in invoking, or analyzing, a speaker/writer intent on effectively delivering a message to an audience, whether that audience wants to hear the message or not. There’s a very real sense, still, of the speaker being rhetorically prepared and thus entitled and assured to be heard.”

“But rape-y may be a bit strong,” she continues. “Perhaps it’s more a complication of consent. When we consent to sex, we open ourselves up to the surprise of possibilities—we have an idea of what will happen, but those expectations for pleasure could be exceeded or turn into something uncomfortable, especially if we try new things; thus consent is given or not given at several possible points. We can even give consent to be taken. The audience of a rhetor, be it speaking or writing or something else, consents to hear, read, listen, or watch, but in that consent there is a nonconsensual possibility of something that disconcerts them, or angers them, or doesn’t provide the expected conviction.”

“And the choice to dis-consent is not always easy for an audience member,” Ronell says. “The rhetor, with no mal-intent, might be surprised by the audience itself—like planning to use adult content in a conference presentation and, upon speaking, discovering there are children listening with their ears being covered by their parents.”[9]

 “Despite our desire to help,” she suggests, “consent and desire cannot be reduced to a simple policy, so we limp toward contradiction—such as the sincere sexual assault prevention workshop leader who says, ‘Listen, girls, we wish the world was different and that men didn’t feel so entitled to your bodies, but in the meantime, carry mace.’”

 “Precisely,” Davis answers. “We teachers wish and hope for people to be more just and more civic-minded and accepting, but meanwhile, we continue to teach an assertive rhetorical academic writing style even though it formally and functionally pushes a particular worldview and ‘a way of ordering the world’ that includes ‘not simply a writing style but a value system that privileges hierarchy, mastery, and (Final) closure.’”[10] 

Quand même,” Vita says. “It’s easy to forget the degree of subjectivity in rhetoric. Those who have the tools (believe they) have control.”

Before I can fully process what was said, Vita pulls me to dance again. Vita leads us toward a group of textbook authors whose perplexed faces belie their enjoyment of the dancing. Declarations they had written in their books float in the air—words clearly helpful for students and modern pedagogy. Yet the words gyrate before my eyes in the dreamy context of the conversation from which we just left.

“Rhetoric is ‘the art of Speaking in such a manner as to obtain the end for [BH1] which we seek.’”[11]

“Effective writers achieve their objectives with their writing.”[12]

“When you have a clear point of view (a claim) … and then justify your claim with effective support … your audience will listen.”[13]

“The more aware you are of your target audience’s needs and existing biases, the greater the likelihood that you will address their particular concerns about the topic and, in turn, persuade them to accept your thesis.”[14]

“Argumentation as the basis of a composition course should need no defense.”[15]

Obtain the ends, achieve their objectives, target audience, no defense needed—I think I am getting it now; the audience will listen. I think of Cyrano de Bergerac, but then the floating phrases jumble together and dissipate in the musical movement that brushes aside, rather than fights against, the certainty of subjectivity, the presumed clarity of asserting one’s goal and winning the battle.

Vita and I begin to dance with Barbara Couture. As we lean in close, the words she murmurs surprise me. “Profession is the act of readying oneself completely [becoming fully erect] to make a public statement [have sex] with all the risk and challenge implied [sufficient lubrication, assumed reciprocal desire and consent] for one’s ability to connect with the audience [penetration] and for that statement to be delivered [ejaculation] by an empathetic speaker [receiving/giving pleasure] while asserting a particular point of view [the thrusting erect penis].”[16]

My eyes widen while she speaks, and I unsuccessfully suppress a slight giggle. Slightly embarrassed, I say, “When you said ‘readying oneself completely’ I couldn’t help laughing as my thoughts went straight to the aroused male with a clear intention and sense of entitlement. And it just kept going.”

I apologize for my impropriety, but she laughs along with me, and Vita’s eyes sparkle with delight as we all continue dancing together, talking and joking about this interpretation of rhetoric.

“Everyone spends his life honoring the god in whose chorus he danced . . . ”[17]

The music on stage changes from Tegan and Sara to Monique Wittig. She sings Les Guérillères as we move forward to dance near her on the stage. Her words sound a rhythm that lifts us, grooves us. “After the sun has risen they anoint their bodies with oil of sandalwood curcuma gardenia. They steady one foot on a tree-trunk. Their hands rub each leg in turn, the skin glistening. Some of them are lying down. Others massage them with their fingertips. The bare bodies gleam in the strong morning light. One of their flanks is iridescent with a golden lustre. The rising sun does likewise when it sends its rays slanting across the erect rounded tree-trunks. The arcs of the circles so touched reflect a little of the light, their outlines are blurred.”[18]

We laugh at the trunks losing their clarity in the slanted reflected rays, blurred by the sun mingled with the glistening lustre of the perfumed female bodies. We alter our dance to a new tone, and I’m amused by how flippantly I begin to participate in speculating how her utterance might help a student or publicist or engineer, how its rhetoric could be accounted for; we guffaw at the absurdity even as these ideas form, all of us set in motion by the unruly ambivalence and refusal to answer, aware completely of the erotic pleasure our bodies feel as we dance among our words. Not far away, I catch the eye of Audre Lorde; she nods, smiles, then turns, dancing her own power. She winks at someone looking on—Vita says it’s Wayne Booth. He erupts in happy laughter, and Maxine Hairston, by his side, rolls her eyes but fails to stifle her smile.

Among those dancing with Lorde, Vita tells me, is Geoffrey Sirc. I overhear him ask her, “When, exactly, do we want less eroticism?”[19] I cannot resist an urge to approach him, “May I have this dance, Monsieur Sirc?”I never imagined academia could be so . . . edgy? Universities are synonymous with stuffiness, no? The style of the academy is proudly unerotic in its certainty and straightforward clarity.

Adding sexual imagery to a sincere effort to suggest a sensitive rhetoric is as easy, Jarratt suggests, as simulating pleasure through pornography, exploiting the actors through a stimulating, angled gaze. “Sensation without feeling,” adds Lorde. Sirc agrees that conventional rhetoric lacks eroticism because it is the grammar of those in charge, those in power; it is devoid of seduction because the intent and purpose and effect are so clearly presumed. “It is mad,” adds the looming Nietzsche, “that success is supposed to be worth more than the beautiful possibility which was still there immediately before.”[20] The erotic, Lorde knowingly agrees, resides in possibility, in style, in the unexpected flourish—the arousing gleams of academic writing (and learning) so thoroughly policed and regulated by the institutional injunction to “do no harm.” “Arousal becomes a dance with longing,” chimes in Terry Tempest Williams. “We form a secret partnership with possibility.”[21]

“In contrast,” I find myself saying, “pornography and conventionality bulldoze the possibilities, the range of emotion, the potential for brokenhearted ruin, the inevitable misunderstanding about intent when prose/pleasure arrives in stylistic disarray.”

Smiling at my confidence, Vita says, “The prism of multiple meanings, illustrated by our dance with different partners, affirms an active, fluid phenomenon where intent, context, and language interplay during writing and reading. Erotically.” I wonder (out loud!) if the reader/dancer is not obligated or particularly bound to any meaning because the writer’s meaning is not obvious or fixed at any point in the process, even when the style is stilted. Thomas Kent, who has been eavesdropping, says that we want to place high value on mutual understanding, and thus appreciate the charity of “passing theories,” [22] but those passing theories are still complex and unfettered by clarity—even when we attempt generosity. Sirc reiterates that eroticism always involves uncertainty, its power unpredictable and nonlinear, independent of success.

“ . . . It is in language that we are dispossessed.”[23]

On one wall of the encompassing room, a film is being shown. In one continuous shot, Judith Butler drives a van while the backseats are occupied by various people to whom she speaks: Julia Kristeva, Lyotard, Nietzsche, bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. I hear their words clearly despite the loud music in the room; or maybe I feel their words, French or German or English, like an out-of-nowhere ooh la la la, and I gather from the sensations that when we dance, our bodies recognize radical alterity as not only something or someone who looks differently or speaks differently than us, but who thinks differently, who becomes differently, who dances differently. I wonder if we are all actually radical alterities to one another; I wonder whether the communal construction of a discourse community represents—far more than we think—the ideal rather than reality. Rather than empathetically Otherizing someone or something having a “visible” difference, whose passing theories and prior theories seem so wildly and unexpectedly different than ours, I wonder if we can consider more closely the possibility that none of us are able to count on our words being received as intended at all, in any circumstance.

“How is this happening?” I ask, watching the screen. I suddenly want more Wittig; she’s there by my side, saying, “They say that they foster disorder in all its forms. Confusion troubles violent debates disarray upsets disturbances incoherencies irregularities divergences complications disagreements discords clashes polemics discussions contentions brawls disputes conflicts routs debacles cataclysms disturbances quarrels agitation turbulence conflagrations chaos anarchy.”[24] Bons mots; mots mal. The marvelous disorder of it all.

On the wall, hooks tells Butler a story she heard from Patricia Williams: a group of well-meaning, curious people on a walking tour of Harlem are told about the significant traditions of Easter Services happening that very day. The group asks politely if they can obtrude on the spectacle. “As well-intentioned as they were,” Williams says, “I was left with the impression that no one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions.[25] Butler responds, with help from Derrida, whose voice comes from the van’s radio, that subjective power “is not the function of an originating will, but is always derivative,” meaning that “intention will not disappear … but … it will no longer be able to govern the entire scene and system of utterance.”[26] But Foucault, sitting in the middle seat, offers that “power operates in the constitution of the very materiality of the subject, the power that simultaneously forms and regulates the “subject” of subjectivation.”[27] Butler responds by saying citation of power through “iterative” norms like gender, race, or rhetorical intention means “the paradox of subjectivation (assujetissement) is precisely that the subject who would resist such norms is itself enabled, if not produced, by such norms.”[28] Thus, she concludes, we are ultimately unable to oppose the intent to govern fully because phallogocentrism always already undermines what we think of as proper, polite, and orderly intentions.

 “Rhetoric,” a voice booms from my side, “has so emphasized cognitive content in intention and reception that even in the more robust theories of context, salient variables always take priority, and ambience is relegated to the margins, if dealt with at all.”[29] I look left to see that it is Thomas Rickert speaking, with others joining our group. I ask about this intention and reception, this intentionality and receptivity, “Can we ever remove our desire to govern both?”

We pause, thinking. Rickert begins to answer but Vita says, “That’s the intriguing question. Rhetoric has an overwhelming ‘desired-effect’ element that often acts as an entitled male who is rejected despite his seeming good looks and practiced overtures. Rhetoric presumes its situational efficacy based on predictable factors that can be taught, learned, and implemented, without enough attention to the ambience surrounding the situation, which, indifferent to anyone and everything, fucks it all up.”

“But can the sensations affiliated with rhetoric’s governance be erotic?” I quietly ask.

Vita answers, “Yes, I believe so. Like the erotic power we feel with mutual desire. But rhetorical eroticism requires uncertainty, which some rhetorical theories and practices, traditional and contemporary, presume to be able to overcome.”

Erin Rand moves toward us, with De Quincey following curiously. “I couldn’t help but overhear,” Rand says. “I think rhetorical agency persists only insofar as the meaning and effects of one’s rhetorical acts are not settled in advance.”[30]

“Like being unsure if one will orgasm during sex?” Vita playfully asks.

“Yes,” I say. “It has generally been the man’s presumption that orgasm will occur for him, and thus the eroticism of sex, in the masculine sense, resides at least partly in the conquest, including his role in his partner’s orgasm.”

“But that is far different that the presumption of one’s own pleasure, or intent,” De Quincey rejoins.

“True,” says Vita. “If we might call it such, erotic rhetoric (rheterotic? ero-rhetoric?) withholds that presumption; it resists the ‘advanced settlement’ of achievement of objectives. Its power exists in not knowing, but that power drives some people, especially the masculine side of people, crazy.”

Rickert agrees. “Common ideas of rhetoric emphasize almost wholly rhetoric’s knowing intentionality, and thus its ability to seriously rule and govern the situation’s result because of prior preparation or presumed skill, ignoring the ambience. And when things don’t go as planned . . . ”

Vita smiles. “Then it’s time to use Viagra.”

Laughter all around. Absorbing the mirth, I sense that the pleasures of rhetoric for my fellow dancers are deeply stimulating, even titillating, yet for various reasons much of that pleasure—not only the pleasure of the dance but the pleasure of the parlor as well—has been systematically removed from curricula, docility being the aim. The ambience of learning, the ambience of the erotic encounter of bodies, the ambience that one cannot account for—these elements of uncertainty and intangibility necessary for open attitudes, receptivity, and nonassertion in the face of alterity—these are the elements that seduce them, and me. And yet surely one is not allowed to feel this erotic power—not the cliché teacher crushes—in the classroom?

“We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”[31]

A group of us gather in the ornate bathroom off one side of the ballroom. The mirror-lined walls cause our group to appear infinite; eternal Nedra Reynoldses, boundless Cynthia Hayneses, endless Elizabeth Flynns, perpetual Gesa Kirsches, ceaseless Jacqueline Jones Roysters, and others, including immutable Wittigs, whose endless bodies whisper in unison, “The women say that they perceive their bodies in their entirety. They say that they do not favour any of its parts on the grounds that it was formerly a forbidden Object. They say that they do not want to become prisoners of their own ideology. They say that they did not garner and develop the symbols that were necessary to them at an earlier period to demonstrate their strength. For example they do not compare the vulvas to the sun moon stars. They do not say that the vulvas are like black suns in the shining night.”[32]

Nodding, the Davis legion comments that to perceive our “bodies in their entirety” does not mean flipping the hegemonic symbol from phallus to vulva, and practice from assertion to nonassertion. Rather, says Vitanza, our approach involves “a negating of the negative (a denegation) in dis/order to get to some nonsynthetic ‘some more.’”[33]

“So,” Vita asks, “my entire teaching body resists becoming a prisoner of ideological tendencies to be either/both a hole to be filled by disciplined best practices and/or a filler for the hole in students’ knowledge?”

My thoughts turn to Lorde. The erotic excess does not have to involve penetration; we should be realistic about attempting to subvert a system by utilizing its preferred norm.

As if my silence has power, suddenly I’m slow dancing with Joe Marshall Hardin; we’re two-stepping at a snail’s pace to Leonard Cohen. I ask him where the excess exists. He’s not sure. “Can rhetoric be subversive, then?” He answers thoughtfully. “The introduction of social aspects at [the classroom] level of writing instruction does not prevent production processes, no matter how particularized, from pointing to a center that must exist for traditional pedagogies to have their desired effect, whether that desire be for ideological liberation or academic and social enculturation.”[34]

“Desired effect?”


“That is certainly non-excessive. Is desire possible without anticipated effect? Is that where eroticism lies?”

Gary Olson, dancing next to us with Vita, says he has long hoped for rhetorical theory “to move away from a discourse of mastery and assertion toward a more dialogic, dynamic, open-ended, receptive, nonassertive stance.”[35]

“Open-ended seems a double entendre here,” Vita winks. “But it’s true, leaving things open affords eroticism, like Rand sort of said. We retain agency and erotic possibility the longer things are left undecided, uncertain—allowing our desire to become, rather than be.”

In the brief conversational pause, Butler, still in the film, asks us, “Through what regulatory norms is sex [and rhetoric] itself materialized?”[36] I think about my days as a student—how I was fraught with regulatory materiality—historical, contextual, and disciplinary constraints and normative anti-body, anti-erotic narratives. Foucault’s sensibility rings inexplicably in my understanding ears: education reiterates a phallogocentric, intentional, linear rhetoric, which stubbornly remains (inside) the holy foundation of academic writing, reifying and sustaining the masculinity and heterosexism of communication and a “desired-effect” professional culture.

Intention, pedagogy, theory, writing, rhetoric, and sex—all become ambient in our moments of dance. None of these entirely govern, none of them materially help us, particularly in instances of unruly human (im)possibility, leaving us with nothing to count on besides shared experience, which may, in fact, be everything. 

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us . . . ”[37]

I look around the room and notice people beginning to leave; inevitable after an interminable amount of time, but I feel that it is too soon. So many people I did not meet, so many dances undanced, so many whiskeys untasted. Ne me quitte pas, mes chers! I hope, selfishly, for a next time with this intriguing assemblage.

Still close to Vita’s side, I meander toward the entrance/exit hall, talking, as we do so, to Michelle Ballif and Jen Gilbert. We are interrupted by a small commotion ahead at the large double doors—we crane to see with everyone else Bowie bow slightly to the crowd before stepping into the night. “A true and generous visionary,” says a man behind us. “[He] invited to the dance people who never felt welcomed there before, and he left [the dance] as elegantly as he had filled it.”[38]

“You know,” says Ballif, “that’s likely true of Bowie, but the concept of welcome, of hospitality, makes things much more impossible than most people think.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, receiving the arrivant, a radically other, [represents] a future that cannot be foreseen.”[39]

“That’s right,” Gilbert says. “The Law of hospitality demands that we accept what is not yet intelligible; knowledge or understanding cannot be a precondition of welcome.[40]

“Of course we’re channeling Derrida,” Ballif adds, “and so for history, and rhetoric, and teaching—and life—the condition of absolute hospitality is not just about receiving the guest we are prepared to greet, but precisely the arrivant that is beyond the capacity of what we are able to receive.”[41]

“So, we welcome people who we find standing on our porches, ill-mannered or awkward strangers who might ruin our day—and we theirs,” I say.

“Or make our day, and theirs,” Vita replies. “But likely somewhere in between.”


I do not remember stepping over the threshold of those double doors into the open, moonlit air, nor expressing to Vita a sincere thank you or even goodbye. As I stood on the sidewalk, giddily bewildered, I asked a person near me whose countenance showed the same exhilarated glow, “Wasn’t that wonderful?”

“What do you mean?”

“The parlor, the conversations, the dancing—god, the dancing!”

“I’m not sure what you are talking about, I’m sorry.”

“Did you not just come from the mansion back there?” But as I pointed, there was no mansion. And I noticed the glow fade a little. Suddenly awkward, we parted ways.

My mood, however, had a pleasant buoyancy despite my puzzlement. “The absence of a transcendental signified extends the field and play of signification ad infinitum,” Derrida says.[42] As I walked into the night, the (in)significance of what perhaps occurred resisted understanding—yet all of it seemed perfectly timed to cure me of an earnestness binding me to the negativity of exigent betterness—a constant kairotic nostalgia for something better, past or future. How can rhetoric be attuned . . . to now?

A nightingale calls, and I remember something else Nietzsche said: “For one cannot subtract dancing from a noble education—to be able to dance with one’s feet, with concepts, with words.”[43] I imagine that we all want our bodies, of which our brains are part, to be seduced, asked to dance; we want to engage—now—in flirtation and foreplay that excites, stimulates, and titillates us even if we forget to wonder where it will lead. As memories of my impossible night with Vita waltz and spin around in my thoughts, it occurs to me that in the before, during, and after-experience of such a culmination, or even a disappointment, pleasure is at the core. We welcome that pleasure now by suppressing hope that the same or different bodily—emotional and intellectual—pleasure might be experienced again, later, and thus we dismiss rhetorical purpose altogether. Can pleasure and purpose coexist? The fireflies come to mind—their purpose is by accident our pleasure, but do they find pleasure in their purpose? Might any and all purpose infringe on the playful possibility of pleasure? Sighing, I feel the fatigue setting in. A familiar voice whispers, “Let’s dance with those questions in our dreams.”


[1] Any resemblance herein to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely deliberate, but unfortunately not exhaustive nor representative nor adequate. The author sincerely apologizes, if necessary, for evocations of impropriety, liberties taken, and failing to include everyone.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, qtd. in Kaufmann 512.

[3] Lyotard 50, emphasis added

[4] Bloom 73

[5] Wittig 55

[6] Covino 166

[7] Vitanza 178-179

[8] Alexander and Rhodes 179

[9] Walker and Adair 49

[10] Davis 12

[11] John Getty, qtd. in Roen et al. 4

[12] Roen et al. 4

[13] Phillips and Bostian 4

[14] White and Billings 10

[15] Rottenberg v

[16] 29, brackets added, of course

[17] Plato 252D

[18] 9

[19] 201

[20] qtd. in Kaufmann 39

[21] 106

[22] 4

[23] Cadava 5

[24] 57

[25] 153, emphasis added

[26] Butler, Bodies That Matter, xxi, emphasis added

[27] Butler, Bodies that Matter, 34

[28] Bodies That Matter, xxiii

[29] Rickert 9

[30] 23

[31] Butler, Undoing Gender 19

[32] 35

[33] 185

[34] 71-72, emphasis added

[35] 14

[36] Bodies That Matter xix

[37] Woolf 149

[38] Penn

[39] Ballif 246

[40] 84, emphasis added

[41] 254

[42] 280

[43] Twilight of the Idols, qtd. in Kaufmann 512-13

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