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  • Writer's pictureCeren Usta

Feminist Rhetorics: Lived Experience, Embodiment, Public Space

Lila and her son, Gennaro, from HBO's My Brilliant Friend

The most common definition of rhetoric is foregrounded on persuasion. The goal of the rhetor is to use certain devices and appeal to logos, ethos and pathos to persuade the audience of their point of view. Ideally, a change in the audience’s perspective is expected to take place by the end of the text (written or spoken), culminating in rhetor’s victory. This terminology of rhetoric is one rooted in the Aristotelian paradigm of the field. I discussed the relatively recent critical turn in the field through the application of critical and postcolonial theory. The role rhetoric, broadly framed as persuasion, played in the civilizing mission of colonialism, the hegemony of the global market economy, and the overall erasure of different cultures practices (rhetorical or otherwise) has been (and continues to be) excavated by a new generation of scholars in the field. What about the connection between the traditional definition of rhetoric and patriarchy? Here, I would like to focus on the feminist perspectives on this very connection. First, I will briefly discuss the theory of “invitational rhetoric” proposed by Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin to understand the ways in which rhetoric as persuasion is a patriarchal form of dominance. Then, I will try to flesh out another possible practice of feminist rhetoric, where the rhetor’s goal is not to persuade the audience, but to create a shared space for the expression of embodied and lived experience, and broadening more patriarchal formations of a public space. To provide an example of such rhetoric, I will analyze a segment from Elena Ferrante’s novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and the HBO adaptation of the same novel.

According to Foss and Griffin, the emphasis on persuasion in the conventional definitions of rhetoric is rooted in a desire to change––in a sense, convert––the audience. The desire to change is, in turn, rooted in the perception that others are amenable to change. Such a perception necessarily connotes a form of hierarchy and unequal power relations between the rhetor and audience, turning the rhetor to subject and the audience into object. This subject object relationality is supplemented by the rhetor’s goal of proving himself right at the expense of proving others wrong. Such a dialectic is one that is not new to Western-European epistemology. That such epistemology is connected to notions of domination, power and Self/Other bifurcations is also well-established in the intellectual tradition at this point. In the field of rhetoric, however, the deconstruction of this Self/Other dialectic seems to be an ongoing issue. The continued centrality of Greco-Roman paradigm of rhetorical theory is not only observed in scholarship in the field, but also in the teaching practices of “argumentative research essays”. Students are advised to include “counter-arguments” without really understanding the role of such arguments––at most not beyond a debate-like approach to the writing assignments where counter arguments are approached to be refuted so as to strengthen the writer’s own position. Once again, the Self attempts to “prove” themselves right by “taking on” the Other points of view and “overcoming” them. Notions of power, domination, and inequality inform such “rhetorical moves” without even acknowledging their presence.

As a possible solution to the hegemony of this patriarchal paradigm, Foss and Griffin propose “invitational rhetoric” based on three principles of feminism: “equality, immanent value, and self-determination” (4). Invitational rhetoric is based on the understanding that each human being has immanent value regardless of their status, position, achievements, and thus, there is no hierarchy between one person and another––only the acknowledgement of complete equality. Furthermore, the principle of self-determination ensures the rhetor that individuals have the right and skills to determine what is best for them, making them the expert of their own lives and choices. What is implied in such an understanding is the recognition that the rhetor is not the sole expert in that exchange; hence, the need to change others’ decisions and choices cease to be a goal. The overall aim of invitational rhetoric is to establish communicative modes and relations based on such values, where the audience is invited in to participate, and through that participation, arrive at a possible understanding that impacts all sides: rhetor and audiences alike. It’s important to note that Foss and Griffin do not propose this method to eliminate persuasive rhetoric; in fact, they acknowledge that persuasion has an important role to play in our communication practices (3). What they do propose, however, is the invitation to consider other perspectives, practices, and paradigms in addition to established conventions, fostering a more polycentric intellectual space in Rhetoric and Composition Studies.

Looking at the paradigm of invitational rhetoric and the examples of its implementations provided by the authors, I find myself thinking about other possibilities of communicating based on feminist principles––other ways not at the expense of the proposed methods, but in addition to. And here I find myself pondering on embodiment and lived experience as components of feminism, and how they may carve out new venues for communication. Second Wave Feminism argued that the personal is political, and lived experience as a category of social and cultural analysis emerged as that which “captured” (for lack of a better word), however ephemerally, the intricate ways in which the personal and the political converge. To understand socially under-represented and marginalized groups such as women, minorities, LGBTQ+ communities, immigrants, working class, and disabled people, one would need to engage with the lived experiences and the sorts of medium they would find (limited) expression in––such as memoirs, testimonios, autobiographies, oral history accounts, novels, films and TV productions. Where the Archive as a dominant institution would fail to take into account the social and cultural histories of the subaltern, lived experience would emerge as a category to “re-write” such histories. However, even with the emergence of this category, the tensions between experience itself and its representation, its expression would continue to be a question. How does one talk about the subjective experience? How does one convey what is mostly embodied but fails to be expressed through normative communicative methods? These are not novel questions of course; literature, philosophy and gender studies, to name a few fields, have been grappling with such questions for a while. I believe that such a question also requires an perspective from Rhetorical Studies. How do we communicate what may be difficult to communicate? Such a question has important implications for the field when it comes to the personal being political, since ultimately, rhetoric plays a critical role in the creation of the public space through the exchange and dissemination of ideas. What I propose as a liminal and initial answer to such questions is that traditional definitions of rhetoric as persuasion through “changing” the audience is detrimental for conveying the lived experiences of the subaltern, and all that may be possible to be politically gained from such experiences. In this sense, the insistence on rhetoric as persuasion would only cause damage to the creation of a truly democratic public space, where underrepresented groups of the said public are not only excluded, but are alienated from public and political discourse. An example of such an exclusion due to agonistic rhetoric comes from the HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. A closer look at a particular scene where one of the main characters makes a speech at a Marxist meeting about her own experiences working at a factory can also give us a glimpse of ways to communicate the personal that is political.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy is a coming of age story about two women coming from working-class families in Naples, southern Italy. That it explores the complexities of female friendship, the strive for education and scholarship, patriarchal violence encumbering female subjectivity and creativity, and class with much subtlety and rigor is well-established at this point. For Ferrante, the neighborhood where the two friends, Lila and Elena, grow up amidst everyday experiences of class and gender violence is connected to the whole of Naples, Naples to the whole of Italy, Italy to the whole of Europe, and Europe to the world. Lila and Elena are presented as two close friends whose lives embody these connections in myriad ways. In the third novel of the series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, we find the main characters as adults whose lives are taking a new shape in the turbulent political environment of the early 70s. Lila is now working as a laborer in a small food factory whereas Elena is starting to experience the repression of a conventional marriage and its routines, obligations and expectations. Working conditions are less than ideal for Lila: long hours, little pay, various health hazards, sexual and verbal harassment from fellow laborers and the boss alike. When she is invited to participate in a communist gathering where students and workers discuss the inequalities of the capitalist economy in Italy and how to fix it, she joins rather reluctantly. Both in the novel and in the screen adaptation, Lila finds herself speaking in front of the crowd of student and workers––whose faces are too easy to distinguish due to the traces the body carries as a result of physical labor––after listening to “pedantic” speeches where the refrain was the same: “We are here to learn from you, meaning from the workers, but in reality they were showing off ideas that were almost too obvious about capital, about exploitation, about the betrayal of social democracy, about the modalities of the class struggle” (Ferrante 120). Lila begins her speech, her son fussing in her arms, with the statement that “she knew nothing about the working class; she only knew the workers, men and women, in the factory where she worked, people from whom there was absolutely nothing to learn except wretchedness” (121). Lila goes on to describe the minutiae that makes up her everyday life for at least eight hours a day: having your fingers covered with cuts from slicing the meat off animal bones, to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero for ten lire more an hour, the women having to silently allow acts of sexual harassment from supervisors and colleagues, being covered in mortadella water up to your waist for eight hours. Throughout the speech, Lila begins her sentences with the phrase “Can you imagine” again and again. She concludes that there is nothing to “learn” from such misery, that the union and the abstract ideas informing the current discussions do nothing to alleviate the burden of everyday lived experience in such a context because the simple reality is that one is dependent on the “law of the owner, that is: I pay you and so I possess you and I possess your life, your family, and everything that surrounds you, and if you don’t do as I say I’ll ruin you” (122). Lila is not trying to persuade, educate, or prove herself right with her speech. In the screen adaptation, where the actress playing Lila makes the same speech word by word, Lila raises her hands to show the cuts the character endures, giving a physical shape to what is left to the imagination in writing. If Lila had a cause to enlighten or persuade her audience, she would have presented her hands as a proof of those experiences. But Lila knows that there are limits to understanding, and that what is known in the abstract cannot be embodied and internalized knowledge; that even imagination has its limits. But Lila still shares her experiences without an agenda, and she still affects the ones listening to her deeply. Change is not the goal, but a shift in perception and understanding seems to have taken place nonetheless. What are discussed in abstract terms now gain physical contours and details pertaining to the senses, broadening the notion of what political means to begin with. And most importantly, Lila has created the space she needs to find words for what only she herself knew: there is no boundary between the personal and the political for someone like her, and that it is time to include that idea in all political discussions.

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