Rhetorics of the Body (Major Exam Area)
While academic interest in the body is often attributed to the uptake of theorists like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Luce Irigaray, it has even firmer roots in the second-wave feminist assertion that “the personal is political.” Challenging a long-standing philosophical tradition of Cartesianism that privileges the liberatory power of the mind over the prison of the physical body, feminists like Gloria Anzaldúa, Elaine Scarry, and Emily Martin have worked to explore the meaning and value of women’s embodied experience. The turn towards post-modernism has increased this interest in the body, resulting in a number of theorists who have explored the gray space between the view of the body as natural and biologically determined and the view of the body as entirely constructed and inscribed with cultural meaning.
Scholars in rhetoric and composition have been similarly interested in the rhetorical power of the material—particularly bodies. Many of these scholars are heavily influenced by corporeal feminist theories, and have complicated and extended these theories to explore the persuasive nature of the material, the materiality of language, the place of the body in the history of rhetoric, and the embodied experience of the writing classroom. The vast majority of these discussions of the rhetorical body have, at heart, a concern for social justice. As Barbara Dickson explains, “Material rhetoric shares the assumption of cultural materialism that corporal [sic] bodies are socially produced—and therefore shares as well its interest in identifying how rhetorical and literary productions are potentially disruptive of the dominant structures which produce them” (298). The shared project of corporeal feminism and material rhetoric is not only to disrupt Cartesian assumptions by insisting that the body does indeed matter, but also to highlight the ways in which the body is shaped according to dominant norms. These projects are liberatory in nature, arguing that identifying the constraints placed upon the body by a variety of intersecting oppressions will allow us to imagine other ways of being in the world.
In this exam, I attempt to read together feminist theories of embodiment with work in the field on rhetorics of the body and of the material. I will be reading all of these texts through a feminist rhetorical lens in order to highlight areas where rhetorical work on the body can be extended through feminist theory, as well as the ways in which current feminist theory might be extended through a deeper understanding of the body as rhetorical. In bringing these two areas of reading together, some of the questions this exam will explore include the following:
- What role has the body and the material played in histories of rhetoric?
- In what ways is language embodied?
- How does the presence and shape of the body impact rhetorical productions?
- What rhetorical strategies do rhetors use to challenge conventional notions of the body?
- How is the body positioned within institutional discourses like those of medicine and science?
- How do intersections of race, gender, class, and ability affect experiences of embodiment and how do we account for these differences when talking about the body?
- How does the body and our experiences of embodiment affect our pedagogies?
This interdisciplinary list will allow me to prepare for research on women’s health and current cultural anxieties about health that deal extensively with discourses surrounding the body—specifically discourses about the body that circulate through medicine, science, policy and media. This exam gives me the opportunity to contextualize these discourses and helps me situate myself as a researcher within an ongoing feminist discourse on the political import of the body. These readings will also provide me with a foundation upon which to further theorize the connections between the way we talk about the body and the materiality of daily life.
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