New Website

Prof. Lydia has developed a new website, with a blog, called “Wondering Wombs.”

Please visit and comment!


Trans* Rhetoric

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.06.22 AMIn rhetoric following the Western tradition, discourse has been intimately related to “the body,” but not to all bodies. I would argue that in understanding classical conceptions of rhetoric and discourse, we have mapped the Cartesian split of the mind and body onto Classical texts. And in rhetorical treatises, such as Quinitilian’s Institutes, the body of the rhetor is paramount in his delivery. These connections to the body as integral to persuasion and the practice of rhetoric are striking in Debra Hawhee’s works on bodily pedagogies. Given this background, calling for a new “corporeal rhetoric” is anachronistic, since it is not new (see McKerrow).

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.25.26 AM

In Classical Rhetoric, the body must be mastered and stylized to be as persuasive and manly as possible. And manliness, purity, gravity, sanctity follow from one another. You cannot have any without the others.

Raymie McKerrow calls for a reconceptualization of the body as prior to gender and sex:

What I am advancing is a notion of corporeality that merges binary oppositions into an organic whole PRIOR to a lived manifestation as gender or sex. (“Corporeal” 319).

He considers this conception of the prior body as both “metaphorical” and “real,” but NOT “universal” (319).

Similarly, Michelle Baliff argues for a practice of transgender listening, reframing the relationship between rhetor and audience so that both play active roles. In her argument, she references eunuchs, hermaphrodites, and uses the verb “transgender.” She defends her use of the hermaphrodite as a figure (as metaphorical) through a series of caveats, ending with the admonition to forget about the phallus:

My use of the figure is not about having the phallus or lacking it, but forgetting about it (but, of course, not repressing it)–so that it doesn’t continue to be the “sign” that transcends, that authorizes the speech act, and that, by extension, renders the audience lacking, mutilated, and envious. (“What Is it” 61)

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.43.19 AMBaliff also includes the caveat: “In fact, so-called ‘gender-outlaws’ (Bornstein), the transexual (and the transvestite) run the risk of reifying, once again, gender prescriptions” (61). And there, I react: Hold my soul’s horses!

So-called ‘gender-outlaws'”? [To the right is a picture of the gender outlaw to whom Baliff refers, Kate Bornstein, whom I adore, and below is a video from hir to the gender outlaws in the world who may be considering suicide]

I think we’ve gotten a little too metaphorical. As much as I love the possibility of “a body that houses the fullest range of potentialities available” (McKerrow 319), we cannot lose sight of the material circumstances of these bodies that are constrained, and so I am uncomfortable with Baliff’s justification of the hermaphrodite as a figure (Also see Vitanza Negation on Favorinus).

Leslie Feinburg captures my problem with Baliff’s dismissal of the term “gender outlaw” well:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.50.30 AMOutlaw is not metaphorical. There are material consequences, legal consequences, to presenting an ambiguous gender. What right have I or anyone else got to turn a person’s material body into a handy metaphor? That being said, I am personally drawn to *trans as a freeing concept:

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 9.57.53 AMTranscending constraints sounds great–moving beyond gender boundaries. But beware of other connotations that lead too much into the metaphorical. Transcend is often used as in escaping the body, overcoming it, mastering it just as the charioteer masters desire in Phaedrus. Crossing back and forth is perhaps more appealing, blending the material and the spiritual and intellectual.

Let me turn back to Quintilian again. Scroll back up there to look at that audience overcome with pleasure. Now that is interesting. Quintilian is saying that even though the audience may want such pleasure, may be overcome by it, that the manly rhetor must reign it in–don’t do drag, no matter how much they want it. This, I think speaks to Baliff’s question of what the audience wants in a way that I find more fun: pleasure, an exchange of desire.

So, I’ll turn to another figure of the Second Sophistic era in Rome: Favorinus. Here is a portrait of Favorinus per Philostratus’s Lives of the Sophists:

[Favorinus] was born double-sexed, a hermaphrodite, and this was plainly shown in his appearance; for even when he grew old he had no beard; it was evident too from his voice which sounded thin, shrill, and high-pitched, with the modulations that nature bestows on eunuchs also. Yet he was so ardent in love that he was actually charged with adultery by a man of consular rank. Though he quarreled with the Emperor Hadrian, he suffered no ill consequences. Hence he used to say in the ambiguous style of an oracle, that here were in the story of his life these three paradoxes: Though he was a Gaul he led the life of a Hellene; a eunuch, he had been tried for adultery; he had quarreled with an Emperor and was still alive (1968, 23). (qtd. in Vitanza Negation 53 my emphasis)

Notice that Philostratus slips from “hermaphrodite” to “eunuch” in his description of Favorinus in the same way that Baliff seems to conflate hermaphrodite with transgender and with eunuch. For Philostratus, this seems to be a slip in degree of sex. Hermaphrodite represents double-sexed, an excess. Eunuch represents a lack of sex, since the assumption here is that a eunuch could not commit adultery even if he wanted to. This slip in concepual identity may have suited Favorinus, since as hermaphrodite in excess he commited adultery, but as eunuch lacking, he was not convicted.

Vitanza and Baliff have both gestured to Favorinus as a figure representing an alternative, third sophistic rhetoric, based in ambiguity. I don’t necessarily object to this figuration, as long as we can also dwell in the material. Favorinus’s body was central to the rhetoric of his* life; it accentuated and amplified his ambiguous speaking style.  In fact, he often gave speeches in Greek to audiences who spoke Latin; yet, he was still applauded. What do we make of that? [*I use the masculine pronoun because all historical documents referring to Favorinus refer to him in the masculine and because Favorinus lived with the associated privileges of maleness in classical society, including the privilege of performing in public].

I’ve rambled long enough for now, and in my upcoming book, Sonogram: Listening to the Birth Stories of Rhetoric and Obstetrics, I deal at length with Favorinus as figure and as material body. So, I leave you to think, perchance to dream, maybe even to comment.

Does your scholarship make you cry?

I’m in beautiful, sunny Madison, WI for the RSA Summer Institute participating in the seminar on transnational rhetoric. I just re-read June Jordan’s 1982 piece, “Report from the Bahamas,” which also made me think of the 1988 documentary film Cannibal Tours, and also reminded me of when as a Master’s student I first read Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color. And I started to cry, as I did when I encountered them before.  Reading Villanueva is what made me want to study and teach rhetoric and composition (I was doing a Master’s in Creative Writing at the time). I thought, damn, this matters.

I don’t cry regularly while reading and writing, but sporadically enough to make it worth the doing. Last year I was privileged to be part of a group of interdisciplinary faculty investigating the relationship between personal narrative writing and our academic pursuits and teaching. And the thing I learned is that it’s always personal. We write what we write because it matters to us. If we dig, we find the personal reasons behind our academic curiosities.

Currently, I write mainly about the technocratic understanding of the pregnant body post 19th century rise of obstetrics. That is a dry sentence. I write about this topic because my first child was born via c-section after a grueling labor, and because, when he was finally handed to me, drugged as I was, I let his head flop back. Well, not specifically because of that moment, but because in that moment I felt detached. Detached from him, from motherhood, from my own body, from the process of giving birth, which only a few hours before I had felt so viscerally involved in. And I felt shame when I felt detached even though I could rationalize the feeling through painkillers. My body had gone from subject acting to object being acted upon in such a short time. That understanding of my body has dictated my academic curiosity.

I hope to keep crying sporadically in my scholarly career, enough to keep me from feeling detached.