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?