CCR 711: Narrative and Rhetoricity

What struck me most from the readings in Disability and the Teaching of Writing by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the role of narrative.

For some, like Mark Mossman and John Hockenberry, stories are sites of vocalization. Indeed, Mossman stresses the political impact of stories, arguing, “telling stories. . . is doing something, making something happen, for telling stories, in the social context of disability, articulates the rhetoric of social change” (165). The “rhetoric of social change” arises from vocalizing a subjective experience that  normally lies hidden or marginalized.

And while Hockenberry evokes a less deliberate position, the power of his narrative traversing the subway, especially the way the white passengers consistently ignore him, in itself is a rhetorical assertion of being. Coming back to past readings, like Pendergast or Yergeau, this rhetoricity allows an existence of sorts that may otherwise get unacknowledged or ignored by those in power, much like Hockenberry himself.

Michael Berubé points out a similar need for recognition in the context of the possibility afforded by disability legislation for his son Jamie with Down Syndrome. He critiques the idea of “intrinsic human rights and human dignity” by pointing to a blunt reality: “what would it mean for Jamie to ‘possess’ rights that no one on earth recognized” (241)? Framed more in the context of narrative, what would one do if no one listened to the stories of Hockenberry, Yergeau, or Mossmann?

A similar silencing takes place in Audre Lorde’s reflections on prosthetic breasts. Rather than reflect on (and help make sense of) “the feeling and fact” (254) of her lost breast, Lorde gets encouraged to simply get a prosthetic one. In this case, Lorde’s attempt is not only ignored but encouraged into silence,  “glossed over” as “not looking on ‘the bright side of things'” (252). Instead, other narratives of womanhood, focused on outward normality, get reinforced. As a woman, one should look good (and normal) regardless of inward understanding.

Dominant narratives also get examined by David Mitchell, who describes how many texts use “narrative prosthesis,” grounding narrative in “a desire to compensate for a limitation or to reign in excessiveness” (187). In this way, disability has a ubiquitous presence, yet remains invisible and filtered out, explained away or dealt with in the story.

Tobin Siebers futher highlights the political importance of these aesthetic dimensions. Though less grounded on narrative, Siebers focuses on the larger symbolic web that informs attitudes toward bodies. Here, description is central: “Human communities come into being and maintain their coherence by imagining their ideal forms on the basis of other bodies. It is no accident, then, that descriptions in disarray summon images of the disabled body” (264). Bodily associations and significations  infuse practices and spaces, like architecture, excluding abnormal or undesirable bodies in aesthetic–we don’t wanna see it–and pragmatic–we don’t serve it–ways.

Thus, as Ben Okri writes, “It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of your mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. . . . subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” Evoking change or promoting silence, stories, especially in a disability context, have power. Often, just being heard–or being heard in discord to demeaning ideologies–does feel like an important step. A method and methodology for change.

But at the same time, I’m curious about the broader politics of listening. Like Bakhtin–and many others–have pointed out, the listener is also part of the communicative act. They are also part of rhetoric and sense-making. So is the broader ambience, to use Rickert’s approach, of “matter and meaning” that inform a latent affectability in the rhetorical ecology.

I think my guiding question this semester has been: what if that “listener” or the ambience of a situation is not open to the voice of people with disabilities. Silence occurs, subjectivities erased behind a static of terministic screens and world-weaving narratives, but this is not simply vocal silence. It is ontological. It’s the erasure from public life, politics, educational paradigms, paradigms of mind, rhetoricity. But at the same time, embodied subjectivity–bodies in and for themselves–“are,” like a palimpsest trying to get read.  But the etchings and rubrics of another are already trying to speak for them, be they laws, procedure, or ideologies, burying the deeper rhetoric that is already there.

Thus, the question is not simply speaking or listening, but getting others to listen, and getting those who need to be heard into positions above the “chatter,” to use Heidegger’s term, where their own rhetoricity resonates. It’s about creating a system where kairos takes place and things change.

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