Stockdell-Giesler, Anne Meade — Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric

Stockdell-Giesler, Anne Meade, Ed.  Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric.  Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010.  Print.

This collection of essays concerns itself with the storytelling rhetoric of powerless groups — “the rhetoric of Otherness.” With this focus, the essays in this work hope to illuminate “how outsiders to mainstream sites for rhetorical participation find ways to make themselves heard while retaining marginal identities” (9). Thus, it is not the goal for these people to find their voices within the limiting spectrum of mainstream rhetoric but rather within their pre-existing framework of oppression and silence. Stockdell-Giesler goes on to assert that these “are examples of outsiders creating agency through constitutive rhetorics which attempt to create a narrative in which the outsider has a legitimate right to speak” (10). She also notes that the gates to a larger audience, “the academies, legislature, and religious leaderships have been peopled nearly exclusively by privileged (usually white) men” (13). By acknowledging the gatekeepers, Stockdell-Giesler alerts the audience that she is concerned not with individuals who themselves feel disenfranchised or silenced (for instance, someone whose friends are taking the side of an ex-fiance) but those who actually are (people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, etc.).

Donnelly, Michael D.  “Freedom of Speech and the Politics of Silence: The Case of Ward Churchill.” 

Donnelly’s essay delves into the layers of free speech and what constitutes truly free speech in America. Notably —

As it functions culturally, the notion of Free Speech has, in fact, served more often to protect and insulate the insider-center (i.e., those in positions of power and privilege) than the outsider, and, in fact, is frequently used to silence the “outsider.” Because of this, some “outsider rhetorics”— a certain subset, let’s say — must push at the extremes. By so doing, such rhetorics force open spaces for discussion — in other words, they dismantle silences — and for less “radical” but no less “outsider” rhetorics to be more effective” (24).

With this hypothesis, those most rebellious, most demanding, most outside the norm, are able to help those less “radical” speakers gain entry into the mainstream simply by being visible. However, he is careful to note that outsider groups are not a silent, helpless mass: “My argument is simply that, first, Freedom of Speech functions differently for different groups according to their positions in the social matrix (insider/outsider, top/bottom), and that therefore Outsider rhetorics must constantly test, challenge, and stretch the ‘acceptable speech’ boundaries defined by those in power” (27). His example, specifically, is an academic whose writing, always charged, was picked up by the popular media, causing an invented firestorm. In this way, one person’s charged rhetoric on the “fringe” is followed by much more hate-filled rhetoric from the “inner circle” of the established power group (29). One may think of the reaction to women claiming misogyny in everyday situations while online — they are often met with rhetorical violence, with threats made including rape and murder, for claiming that women face rape and murder in their lives simply because they are women.

Trodd, Zoe.  “A Hole Story: The Space of HIstorical Memory in the Abolitionist Imagination.”

In this gripping essay, Trodd describes the rhetorics of empty space, missing space, and confined space in slavery and abolition texts in the United States. This rhetoric serves as a handy metaphor that many individuals writing about the movement, or who had lived through the movement, employ or employed. According to Trodd, “As they focused on history’s erasures but also its potentialities as a living past, literary abolitionists like Douglass and Jacobs developed a politics of form — rooting the abolitionist culture of dissent in aesthetics as well as ideologies [. . . in] a hole story.” This “hole story” “imagined historical space as physical space, challenging the country’s ‘whole’ story of historical progress,” as well as “the gulf between what is and what might have been.” With their homeland stolen from them (as well as any free or calm future that might have been in front of them), these slaves were living a “hole” story. These authors were focusing both on what was missing and “on what ought to be” (69). This metaphor is especially apparent in the image of “Henry ‘Box’ Brown climbing out of a box […] [fashion] the infamous box as slavery’s psychological and spiritual suffocation” (71). Douglass repeatedly referred to slavery as a confining space: “Slavery is a ‘house of bondage,’ ‘a horrible pit, ‘a life of living death,’ a ‘dark corner’ of a ‘dark domain’” (76). By contextualizing lost time as both a lack (or a not-space) and a confined area (or very-much-a-space, a space asserting its lack a space), slavery is explained by those who lived through it in an oxymoronic metaphor that still works. Slavery can be seen as an empty expanse of time, the time stolen, the time not able to be retrieved, or as an event which an individual must fit herself into in order to survive.

Serra, Ilaria.  “Outsider Rhetoric in Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies.”

Serra’s interests lie in the stories Italian immigrants tell about themselves. She notes that “Autobiography has traditionally been a genre of great men and women” (144), and thus these autobiographies are on the margins because of the writers’ poverty and bilingual, immigrant status.

I am compelled to note several matters I find troubling in Serra’s essay. First, she says that immigrant autobiographies are concerned with the “self in history,” with the writer’s small space in the big world, with “the quiet individual who survived History,” with “quiet individualism, not shouted but softly whispered” (146). This author believes that the act of putting pen to paper and acknowledging one’s place near the bottom of the American landscape, while boldly telling one’s journey and experience in a new, completely foreign country, is a “soft whisper,” humble, meek, even.  Secondly, she repeatedly refers to Italian immigrants as “simple” and “decent” people (154-55). By fetishizing the poor, by thinking that their poor background and simplified, second-language style English makes them “simple” instead of complex individuals, Serra effectively takes away their rhetorical power by defining these individuals who are attempting to define themselves. Finally, she seems to misunderstanding what an autobiography is when she states that these autobiographers “[have] their first-hand experience as the main justification for their ethos as writers, [and] they make large use of anecdotes which they swear to be true” (157). And what, normally, is in an autobiography? Do most autobiographies claim that their anecdotes may or may not be true? What is the narrative of a life but a string of so-called “anecdotes?” What makes her so suspicious of the validity of these anecdotes?

I plan to use Serra’s essay as an example of “what not to do when talking about the rhetorics of the Other.”

Because this book was a collection of essays instead of one cohesive work, I cannot generalize on the work as a whole.

I believe that chapter is most applicable to my life, including my future career in teaching. Inflammatory rhetoric should not be shut down by even more inflammatory rhetoric about how inflammatory rhetoric is horrible and wrong, and it shouldn’t be allowed in order to protect some group, such as the troops, the children, the women, the white man, the government. I feel that often in classrooms, anyone with an unusual or dissenting opinion from that of the general consensus of the class (which, it must be acknowledged, is often gleaned from what students think the teacher “wants” to hear) is immediately told by a large number of other students that they are wrong, with plenty of evidence or opinion or both to back up that statement. It can often feel that no one is speaking originally or against the norm, as many individuals wish to gain participation credit simply by agreeing with what the person before them said and adding to the pre-existing argument. If a student is speaking violently in a classroom (racist/sexist/misogynistic/xenophobic/homophobic comments), the instructor or other students should step in to inform that student that his/her language is unwelcome, but simply disagreeing with a popular opinion or stating an alternative reality should not result in a violent reaction by those who are trying to spark “discussion” or “debate.” No true discussion can occur when one side is unwilling to listen to the other, overwhelming them with silencing rhetoric as soon as they present a dissenting opinion.

I find myself thinking that violence is not always bad and nonviolence is not always good. It is just as violent to shutdown someone’s discussion as it is for them to violently espouse dissenting views. Still, violence is sometimes needed to break things down that should have been broken down long ago, and nonviolence that sacrifices stories and voices should not be encouraged. Also, one must also ask who is calling whom violent? Is an uprising called “violent?” Is it a “mob” or a “crowd” or “protesters” or “rioters?” Who is in control of the naming process, and what is their relation to those deemed “violent?”

— Emily Blair

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