Ceding the Narrative

As I noted in my previous post, I very much admire slashers’ refusal to accept absences–even those “canonized” by Paramount and Roddenberry. Their spirit–their desire to radically write AND, more importantly, their willingness to do so with utter gusto, lie in stark contrast, I think, to the attitude of the modern feminist movement.

In that vein, the essay below is a piece of writing of mine that led me in a zig-zag sort of way to read slash fiction. As part of a course in rhetoric, I became interested in what words do and and in the converse question: what does the absence of words do? Certainly, the stakes in K/S and in feminist principles are not equal; if Spock does not love Kirk, no woman will earn less than equal pay for equal work. However, it’s really the contrast in attitude that I’m interested in here–the gleeful, knowing transgressiveness of the slashers and the dour yet smug attitude of the “modern” feminist movement.

I wrote this essay to be read aloud, so I’ve edited out some of the more overtly “spoken” elements. I’ve linked to some of the works that I reference; Google can point you towards the others.

Ceding the Narrative

I find myself returning to questions about the responsibility of the rhetor. Deviating from my usual critical “style of engagement,” as John Muckelbauer calls it, I want to examine discourse through the role of the rhetor. That is, I want to explore the role of absence, of silence, in Richard Vatz’s assertion that, “if we view the communication of an event as a choice, interpretation, and translation,” then “the rhetor’s responsibility is of supreme concerns” (158). That is, I’m interested in examining how the responsibility of the rhetor is affected by her decision not to participate in a rhetorical situation, particularly one in which that other, competing rhetors and an audience are invested. In not speaking, is a rhetor still engaging in what Vatz calls “a creation of reality”? (158).  How might an active decision to create such an absence become consequential?

My goal here is to trouble these questions further by examining them through the lenses of two issues that are buffeted by strong binary positions: abortion and feminism. I recognize that my interest in moral and political perspectives here may relocate us to what Jenny Edbauer calls a “space of dis/comfort” (13). Indeed, in some cases, you may not occupy the same half of the binary as I; so be it.

The ongoing national debate about abortion presents a prime example of an evolving rhetorical ecology in which the urgency of discourse is perceived differently by two opposing rhetors. As Liz Kliff notes in a recent article for Newsweek, the  bodies that comprised the two sides of the Roe opinion in 1972 had very different perceptions as to the continued urgency of public speech and discussion about abortion. Those who agreed with the court’s opinion found that “the need to speak out seemed less pressing,” and their performances of pro-choice rhetoric become less frequent and less public. However, as Kliff observes,“by ignoring the conversation about abortion, even if it was a difficult one to approach, pro-choice organizations lost control of the narrative. Groups that opposed abortion rights started telling those painful stories exclusively.”

The differences in the groups’ responses lie, I think, in their perception of the necessity to re-engage in the post-Roe rhetorical ecology of abortion. Once the question of legalization had been answered in their favor, pro-choice rhetors did not perceive the same sense of urgency to continue their public rhetorical engagement. The Blackmun decision reversed their dialogic position from one of “critique”–focused on the repeal of the nation’s anti-abortion laws–to one of “advocacy” (Muckelbauer 4). As Muckelbauer argues, the advocate position is wholly dependent upon the a series of “ever-new, ever-different others in order to reproduce itself through the same acts of negation” and “is entirely active, engaged, and invested in encountering difference” (7). No longer in a position to argue against laws established by old white men, pro-choice groups found themselves in a dialogic position, which, to be sustained, demanded that they “reproduces long-established power differences” (6).

The point of interest here, I think, is that the “power difference” that the movement found itself advocating was newly created, leaving any advocate–especially one schooled in the rhetoric of critique–with questions to resolve about this new kind of dialogue. Unlike their dialogic partners on the right, pro-choice groups–and the feminists movement in which most were enmeshed–chose to withdraw from their place within the rhetorical ecology of abortion. As Kliff notes, the movement did not engage in the complicated, personal, and at times problematic conversations about abortion that were necessary after Roe.

By contrast, the anti-choice groups whose rhetoric had been centered around the maintenance of the status-quo found themselves relocated to a position of critique, a position which, like their pro-choice opponents before them, they embraced with relish. While the public rhetoric of the pro-choice movement–which had lost its sense of direction– retreated, the anti-choice movement rushed into the rhetorical gap. As Kliff suggests, this decision has helped anti-choice groups to dominate the public discourse–“control the public narrative”–for three decades. Indeed, this narrative dominance is attributable in large part to the groups’ activities within what they have reshaped as the rhetorical ecology of abortion.

Like the English settlers at Jamestown, anti-choice groups recognized that the rhetorical ecology of abortion post-Roe could not support the tactics of advocacy that had marked the groups’ rhetoric before Roe. So, like the English settlers at Jamestown, these groups “began to mold the land to their needs…transform[ing] it into a place they could understand” (Mann 44). These transformations were grounded first in a series of strategically chosen “places” within which to stage their rhetorical performances–the steps of the Supreme Court , for example, or the entrance to a women’s health clinic.

Despite this apparent dependence upon individual places–and though many of these physical spaces have had to transform in response to their rhetorical performances–the transformative effects of anti-choice groups’ rhetoric are located in what Edbauer calls “an amalgamation of processes and encounters…[or] an ongoing social flux” (8). With their reliance on physical confrontation of those entering women’s health clinics, these groups use the spaces they appropriate as “a space of contacts, which are always changing and never discrete” (8). Though each of these contacts between bodies is different, these repetitions-with-difference are similar enough to have affected the rhetorical ecology of abortion. That is, the “intervention” that many anti-choice protesters perform in an attempt to intervene between a woman and a clinic has become such a rhetorical staple of the discourse around abortion that it has become a familiar landmark within the abortion ecology, a beat-up sign post on the way to the borderlands. Thus, the rhetorical encounter between protester and patient is not “contained by the elements that comprise its rhetorical situation”; instead, as Edbauer argues, this rhetoric “emerges already infected by the viral intensities that are circulating in the social field” (14). One imagines, for example, that the scripts for these encounters have evolved to reflect recent Congressional debate over the issue of abortion in the guise of the health care debate.

The anti-choice groups have recognized that “language is always value-laden,” and that there is rhetorical power in deciding whether a man should be called a“‘leader…or a boss,’” if the federal government is an “‘organization…’ or [political] ‘machine,’” and if the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement is performed as “‘education’ or propaganda’” (Vatz 157).  As Vatz observes, these determinations are made “not according to the situation’s reality [a troublesome phrase, to be sure], but according to the rhetor’s arbitrary choice of characterization” (157). Choosing to engage in a rhetorical discourse gives the rhetor the power to characterize a situation, or a person, or a law, while choosing to disengage from the same discourse cedes the power of the characterization to another competing rhetor.

The failure of the pro-choice movement to publicly perform its discourse has led to a precipitous drop in its ability to move actively within the rhetorical ecology of abortion. As Jared Diamond suggests, this failure to engage may have very real consequences. In response to those critics who accuse him of selling out to big business, Diamond argues that “if environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big businesses, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems.” (Collapse 17). In a recent interview about the state of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem argues that “it doesn’t matter what people like Limbaugh or Beck think” because “[t]his is a revolution… not a public relations movement” (Kelley).  However noble this ideal may be, the perception of the feminist movement is a problem. Despite the movement’s successful drives for the legalization of abortion and, more recently, for passage of the Lilly Leadbetter act, the perception of feminism within the dominant culture continues to be one of failure, of absence, of a lack. As Richard Marback argues: “The inability of Black Power and early women’s rights movements to both adequately articulate positions of difference and provide meaningful critical alternatives to capitalism has led recently to rejection of their liberatory potential” (77).

The mainstream feminist movement’s failure to clearly and loudly and productively articulate its “difference” in ways that have consequences within the dominant culture are due in large part, I would argue, to the movement’s shirking of the rhetorical discourse in which–like it or not–they are dialogically engaged by virtue of their binary position.

The movement’s reengagement is particularly important given the nation’s current political climate. As RNC member Donna Lou Gosney of West Virginia noted recently, public naming is driving much of the conversation/shouting in American politics. Ms. Gosney observes that “You have to identify something and label it so you can talk about it and ‘socialism’ is a good scare word. I’m so tired of this politically correct crap. If it’s socialism, let’s call it that. If not, let’s call it something else” (Halloran). Let the renaming and reframing commence.


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