Fleckenstein, Kristie A. “Bodysigns: A Biorhetoric for Change.” Relations, Locations, positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Eds. Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Urbana: NCTE, 2006. 328-51.


Fleckenstein situates this article within critical pedagogical goals aimed at transformation, goals that she notes are shared by feminist scholars. However, Fleckenstein notes that working towards transformation is always difficult because it always involves finding new ways of seeing the world, finding a new way of speaking about it, and finding a new way of living so that change is not absorbed back into the status quo. Fleckstein advances the concept of “biorhetoric,” which she also characterizes as the discourse of body signs, as a means of helping us overcome these challenges, particularly in regard to critical pedagogy. Fleckenstein uses the term “bodysigns” to denote the inextricable relationship between materiality and semiosis. She argues that biorhetoric helps us recognize the enmeshment of materiality and semiosis and helps us develop a kind of double-being “in which we live withint the blur of bodysigns” (329). The double vision attained through biorhetoric is important because it helps us recognize our own participation in the systems we are trying to change and to recognize the ways in which discourse and performance are wrapped up in systems of privilege and oppression. Fleckenstein also highlights what is lost in resisting the double vision of biorhetoric by privileging either materiality or semiosis. While the treatment of the body as sign or pure discursive construct (ignoring its materiality) is an appealing means of disrupting Western notions of fixed and stable identities, this approach both ignores that fact that marginalized groups have never achieved this Cartesian ideal of the self in the first place and leaves unresolved significant questions about how to proceed in judging between competing claims to reality. Likewise, focusing heavily on experience (and ignoring its discursive production) risks positioning experience as preceding (and thus superceding) discourse. An uncritical focus on materiality can also perpetuate essentializing ideas about raced and gendered bodies.

After outlining biorhetoric and the double vision it entails, Fleckenstein narrows her discussion to the ways in which biorhetoric might impact our understanding of critical pedagogy. She argues that one of the flaws in the way that critical pedagogy has been taken up in American contexts is that it casts the student as in need of transformation and the teacher as an external (perhaps already “properly” transformed?) transforming agent. As an example of this dynamic, Fleckenstein offers the example of one of her interactions with a student who took shots at feminist values in a paper about gendered family responsibilities. Fleckenstein argues that while the impulse is to respond as though the problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the student (she has not been properly transformed yet), it instead necessitates a response that recognizes that the work is the result of Fleckenstein and the student coming together in a particular moment as compliated, blurred bodysigns. To separate the student from the teacher (as though the problem is solely the student’s) would mean that the student, motivated by grades or educational requirements, would have to momentarily acquiesce to the teacher’s demands until the end of the class. In this dynamic, any change the teacher tries to initiate will ultimately be absorbed. Fleckenstein contends that the teacher/student interaction must instead be an alchemical one–that is, one in which the teacher is likewise transformed by the transformation she instigates. This biorhetoric would resist reinscribing the power relations of the status quo by instead emphasizing play in relationships.

Quotable Quotes:

“‘Bodysigns’ emphasizes the inextricability of materiality and semiosis. Although language allows us to speak as if materiality and semiosis were separate, they are mutual entangled in a nonlinear weave of cause and effect. We can know them and live them only at the point where they blur. Positioned within the spin of bodysigns, a biorhetoric provides a double perspective from which to recognize the semiotic-material nature of the status quo and of change.” (329)

“To ignore the power of the word to define what constitutes ‘reality’ in a system is to divest us of any meaningful strategies for changing that pattern. To ignore the power of material contexts to impinge on the power of the word is to divest ourselves of any meaningful way of recognizing the tyranny of institutions.” (331)

“Bodies in specific material sites write signs just as much as signs write bodies into specific material sites.” (334)

“From the perspective of a biorhetoric, I cannot separate myself as a writer or teacher from the meanings and the sites I create as they create me. I cannot separate myself from any radical change I hope to initiate. I, too, must be transformed. As a bodysign among bodysigns, I can no longer teach safe in the assumption that my identity stops at the end of a text or at the boundaries of my skin. A biorhetorical identity exceeds both bodies and sentences.” (340)