Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

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Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

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A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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CCR 633: Anderson, Publics, and Simultaneity

One of the main things that struck me about this reading was the importance of simultaneity. Anderson discusses this through literature, then newspapers, and even connects it to the practice of naming places like “New Orleans” after places from the old world. Essentially this connects to the “empty time” of a situation and the sense of community, that other people–people in a community or country, in Anderson’s example–are going about their daily lives as I do.

Coupled with this, one has the printing press and newspapers. For newspapers, Anderson notes how it represents “the secular, historically clocked community” (35), and creates a daily or half-daily ritual, which again is connected to simultaneity, the paper acting as a technology of synchronizing.

For printing, Anderson stresses a few elements. “First,” he writes, “they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernacular” (44).  Similar to what Thorton says about print v. handwriting, printing creates a public connotation, and though it’s been a while since I’ve read Habermas, I imagine a link with his public sphere as well. Along with these “unified fields of exchange,” print technology, argues Anderson, creates fixity, much as Eisenstein notes. And third, it created “languages of power” (45), privileging some forms of language over the other.

I was thinking about how digital technologies connect to these similar qualities, i.e. how internet publics connect to their own technology.

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CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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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.

CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

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