Malea Powell: Rhetorical Powwows and the Rhetoricity of Things

Though we espouse our acceptance of Otherness in the classroom and beyond, there are boundaries and limits to this acceptance.  Why do I fear a lack of authority when I speak from my heart or with emotion during seminar discussions?  Why is the m.o. of the graduate seminar argumentation and criticism?  What other ways might we conceive of that space?

Today’s Hutton lecturer was Malea Powell, who I will admit is one of my academic heroes.  She is not afraid to confront challenging questions like the ones I presented above (though those were my own).  At today’s lecture, she asked:  Why do TEXTS lie at the center of our theories?  What might happen if we placed THINGS at the center?  How are cultures communicated via things?  How are things stories in and of themselves (not merely references for stories)?  More specifically, she asked:  “How would we do a rhetorical analysis of a non-alphabetic ‘text'”?

In her own words, Malea urges us to consider the “rhetoricity of things.”  To explore this concept, she presented a quick case study of Robin McBride Scott, an accomplished Cherokee multimedia artist who creates art with natural items like rivercane, gourds, and porcupine quills.  When Scott composes, she immerses.  Her research incorporates intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and historical approaches to learning, understanding and responding.  The products of her work–things like traditional, ancient Cherokee baskets–espouse meaning, not just as cultural artifacts, but as live, active sites for heritage- and memory-making, storytelling, and communicating.

I am inspired by Malea’s idea that our theories should encompass more than texts alone–that we are bodily, spatial, geographical, and physical as well as textual.  To privilege texts is to ignore those important elements.  I am very inspired by her work and see it as important to my research into Urban Affrilachian populations in Cincinnati.  One of the major struggles of this group of people is identification.  The Urban Appalachian Council of Cincinnati offers educational, professional, economical, and social support to “urban Appalachians,” or Cincinnati city-dwellers of Appalachian descent.  However, while the council considers self-identification in their support decisions, other census-driven analyses of Urban Appalachian populations in Cincinnati define the group through color-differentiation:  If you are African American, you are immediately differentiated from “Urban Appalachians.”  In essence, these census methods ignore African Americans of Appalachian descent in the Cincinnati area, excluding them from important resources and encouraging a homogeneous conception of identity in the area.

This is related to Dr. Powell’s idea of the “rhetoricity of things,” for space itself–how it is occupied, shared, identified, and negotiated–is absolutely a site of rhetoric.  It does not operate by text alone.  Our census methods impose “text” upon space in ways that limit more realistic representations.

What might happen if we approach Urban Affrilachian identity through its cultural things?  While I cannot claim membership in this group (and I know that limits the depth of my understanding and knowledge), I would love to see a space of sharing among urban Affrilachians.  Currently, such spaces focus on poetry and the creation of terms (like Frank X Walker’s creation of the term “Affrilachia” itself).  These rhetorical and textual moves are incredibly important in revealing the group’s existence… but I wonder what other items this group might circulate and share that are, in themselves, important items with cultural power for its people.

Next semester, in my class on archiving local histories, I would love to pursue this idea… perhaps even create an archival space for these kinds of items?

About taylo206

I am an Assistant Professor of Composition, Rhetoric and Professional Writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Theories of Composition and Rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Malea Powell: Rhetorical Powwows and the Rhetoricity of Things

  1. J.H. Adams says:

    It’s interesting that you should bring this up since the Shakespearean Fetishes class I’m currently in is completely wrapped up in the question of “things” and how they impact social interaction. Just last week, we had to read an article by Bill Brown called “Thing Theory” that essentially argued about the way things have the power to shape social interactions, something that he, taking a lead from the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, calls a methodological fetish. Just thought the convergence of ideas was interesting.

  2. allison says:

    I’m so excited you got to see Malea again! I like the connections you’re making to your work on Affrilachians–I remember your presentation on them way-back-when so clearly. This stuff would make an interesting CCCC presentation.

    PS: Archives are the future. Looking forward to reading/hearing more about your work with theories of archiving and the process of putting one together (if you do–which you should!).

  3. trauthke says:

    Yeah, I’m excited about the Archives course next semester. Wonder what options will be available for a final project. Either way, I’m trying to dream up ideas! So glad to get your feedback. I’ll definitely keep you updated on how archiving goes… should need more feedback then since I’ve never done it before!

    I miss you both very much. Hope your semesters are going great… I stalk you on FB all the time, lol. 🙂

  4. trauthke says:

    Danville native Frank X Walker to give gallery talk at Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft –,0,5418889.story

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