Definitions of Material Rhetoric—Metaphorical and Literal Presence
The essays in Rhetorical Bodies provide a point of entry into the discourse about material rhetoric. The collection is particularly helpful for one who had no prior exposure to material rhetoric; that is why I am using this reflective reading paper to process my understanding of definitions of material rhetoric. Using the essays by Carole Blair and Barbara Dickson, both of whom explicitly posit definitions of material rhetoric, I will attempt to describe a segment of the conversation about material rhetoric and to solidify my own understanding of it.
In my previous sentence, I used two material metaphors: segment and solidify. Blair begins her argument by pointing out these material and spatial metaphors in rhetoric as well, but says that these material metaphors are not enough to justify a material theory of rhetoric. She insists that two important aspects of rhetoric make it material: “its capacity for consequence, and its partisanship” (20). However, the long-standing and dominant idea that rhetoric (and text, and language) is symbolic, and the continued influence of liberal humanism, which characterizes rhetoric as language used in a purposeful way by a rhetor who has a particular goal, have served as obstacles to a material theory of rhetoric. Understood as a symbolic exercise by a rhetor who has a goal in mind, rhetoric’s consequences and partisanship are only half-realized. This understanding focuses on the rhetor’s use of symbols, and the effect of the use of symbols is classified as successful or unsuccessful based on whether or not the rhetor met his or her goal. Blair argues that the study of effect is insufficient because rhetoric can have consequences other than what the rhetor intended. In other words, material rhetoric to Blair is the acknowledgement that rhetoric has a definite presence, that when a rhetor “puts it out there,” the rhetoric, in a sense, takes on a life of its own, and has real consequences which are and/or are not what the rhetor intended. This potential for a double outcome what Blair means by the partisanship of rhetoric. Once Blair lays out these conceptual steps from rhetoric viewed as symbol to rhetoric more fully understood as material, she then expands traditional definitions of text as words uttered orally or written down to text as object or event, in this case, memorial sites. She introduces a heuristic of five questions with which to analyze these memorial sites as texts, but what I took from this essay is that her questions can be applied to a speech or written text in the same way they are applied to the memorial sites. According to Blair’s logic, a written text or speech has the same potential for consequences as a statue or monument. Perhaps she chooses to apply her heuristic to memorial sites in order to communicate that rhetoric can be literally material as well as material in the prosthetic sense, to use yet another material metaphor. Blair’s definition of material rhetoric, as I see it, is that a rhetorical text, whether it is a memorial site, a speech, or words on paper, has a presence that, once released, is out of the rhetor’s control. To use an example that is not literally material, Trent Lott made comments at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party about his run in the segregationist party. He had a certain intent when he made the comments, but the consequences of his comments were dramatically different, and material: He lost his position as Senate Majority Leader . The presence of his rhetoric loomed large and, while it was not made of bronze or marble, it might as well have been.
I would like to continue looking at explicit definitions of material rhetoric by reviewing the essay by Dickson, who sets out to both define material rhetoric and demonstrate what it can do. She defines material rhetoric as “a mode of interpretation that takes as its objects of study the significations of material things and corporal entities—objects that signify not through language but through their spatial organization, mobility, mass, utility, orality, and tactility” (297). She makes clear her assumption that a central priority of material rhetoric is studying “material objects that represent the human body, because of the way these representations are then taken up by and inscribed upon corporal bodies” (297-98). Dickson’s definition is slightly more narrow and literal than Blair’s (my interpretation of Blair’s definition, anyway). According to Blair, rhetoric itself is material by virtue of the fact that it has consequences beyond the rhetor’s control, whether it is expressed through language proper or through an object functioning as language. Material rhetoric, when understood in this manner, is almost redundant. To Dickson, material rhetoric is a “mode of interpretation” that one can apply to “objects that signify not through language.” She alludes to Blair’s notion of consequences by explaining that material rhetoric, as a “way of reading,” “operates on the assumption that these significations are open to multiple interpretations, and so it examines how those significations are contained and constrained by language practices” (298). Dickson also identifies another assumption undergirding material rhetoric, which is that bodies are socially produced. To put it another way, Dickson seems to think of material rhetoric as not rhetoric itself, but a lens through which to look at texts, particularly texts that do not use language—visual or tactile texts. Dickson uses the photograph of Demi Moore nude and pregnant as her central object of inquiry, but ironically also uses magazine articles about pregnancy and letters responding to the photograph (objects that do signify through language) as focal points. With these artifacts, she makes a persuasive argument that pregnant women inscribe these texts onto their own bodies. As I pointed out earlier, Dickson sets out to define material rhetoric and show how it can be used. Material rhetoric to Dickson is a way of reading texts that assumes multiple interpretations and perspectives and a cultural materialist view of the body as socially produced. It does at least two things: First, it studies “how multiple discourses and material practices collude and collide with one another to produce an object that momentarily destabilizes common understandings and makes available multiple readings” (298). Second, it “reads for the ways persons inscribe on their corporal bodies the culture that produces them and that they mutually produce” (298). Dickson is most interested in material rhetoric’s capability to disrupt cultural assumptions. The main similarity I see between Blair’s definition and Dickson’s definition is the theme of consequences. Whatever Leibovitz’s and Moore’s intention behind the photograph was, it had a variety of receptions by the audience.
My personal goal in writing this paper was to be able to, if someone asked me, “What is material rhetoric?”, provide a clear answer. I am not sure I have one, but if asked, I would probably respond with my interpretation of Blair’s definition, using the Trent Lott example. What I have taken from these readings is that the criteria for material rhetoric are, primarily, rhetoric as having a presence, literally material or not, that leads to consequences, and secondarily, considering as text an object that is specifically not linguistic, but visual and tactile. It will take time for me to gather a rich understanding of material rhetoric, but the essays in Rhetorical Bodies have been a good start.