Editor’s Note: Spirals In Time and Place
Murray State University
This is not a small voice
-- Sonia Sanchez
This special issue marks 40 years since Sally Miller Gearhart’s “The Womanization of Rhetoric” was published. Although it was my idea to compile this special issue, I’m humbled by the willingness of the contributors to respond, and overwhelmed by how they build knowledge through their own compelling styles and forms of retrospection. In that regard, their words speak for themselves, and intersect in delightful ways without the need for me to point anything out. I only offer a few brief thoughts of my own.
Although the impetus of this Issue involves an anniversary, I’m ambivalent about noting anniversaries because they are often part of dominant historiographies we are trying to undermine. The advantage of a retrospective, however, is its act of bending Time to reconsider the narratives that have been told by those who have lived before us. Time moves forward, we say; yet we view Time backward. Kronos is an arbitrary measure of life’s totality, and likewise Kairos another measure of life’s “critical” moments that have been mostly dominated—taken advantage of—by conquering men.
Yet limiting ourselves to those Time-versions ignores the fluidity of memory, the unknowable but anticipated future, the corporeal viscerality of the present. “We are creatures of habit;” says Heather McHugh, “given a blank we can’t help trying to fill it in along lines of customary seeing or saying. But the best poetic lines undermine those habits, break the pre- off the -dictable, unsettle the suburbs of your routine sentiments, and rattle the tracks of your trains of thought.” (208)
The same may be said of molding Time without customary chronology. But such is a difficult project. The narrator in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children wryly notes of his fellow Indians: “. . . no people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on time” (133). Can we stop seeking that firm grip? Can we resist the distinctions of yesterday and tomorrow? Can we ignore the implicit straight line of days before nights and days after nights? Sheherezade, writes Andrei Codrescu, “is the first of her type, a producer of the infinite within human time” (98). Sheherezade’s story, by never concluding, saved lives.
Over the past few years I’ve spent some time in Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. The central portion of the park, Zion Canyon, was carved over millions and millions of years by the Virgin River (named for Thomas Virgin, a member of the first team of white men to view it in the early 1800s). The multi-colored monoliths and cliffs that rise above the river dwarf the hordes of humans in the shuttle-buses and paved trails near the road. As in any national park, only a small percentage of the canyon visitors venture more than a half-mile on any trail. But whether one looks up from the bottom, squeezes through the Narrows, or braves the trails bordered by thousand-foot drops, the Canyon is complex, stunning, and magnificent.
On my last visit, I considered more carefully the white men’s names for the area’s naturally carved structures within the canyon that the Southern Paiutes had already named Mukuntuweap. Zion was the Mormons’ name for the canyon, meaning heaven on earth—evolved from Enoch of the Old Testament; it is interpreted as an innumerable community of believers living in perfect beauty and harmony. Latter-day Saints are a patriarchal religion, and their names for the canyon’s surroundings reflect that metaphysical view: The Watchman. The Sentinel. The Great White Throne—seemingly the tallest monolith, colored a little lighter in color than the reds and grays surrounding it. Its name invokes a regal authority, a white male God sitting and ruling on a heavenly throne. In another part of the canyon, a viewpoint along the road frames three more large monoliths (photo above), which, from that angle, stand together in what the Mormons called The Court of the Patriarchs, after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of the Old Testament.
As I stood in that viewpoint, looking at those physically imposing, ancient natural structures, I wondered how I’m being persuaded with the name, the interpretive poster, and the paved trail. I’m in the Court of the Patriarchs; the intention is to be awed by their power, their height, their poise, their wisdom. They don’t sit on the Great White Throne, but they are intercessories to the throne and its occupant. By the name’s intent, my existence beneath the patriarchs pales not because of the ancient blend of hardened Mesozoic minerals that stand tall and huge and incomprehensible and unapproachable from any human angle, but because I’m informed that I stand in the presence of revered men of the past. My respect for nature’s cold, distant magnificence is persuaded to be narrowed to a courtly respect for conquerers of the Anthropocene.
Not long after my most recent visit to Mukuntuweap, I was examining the 7th edition of a textbook on the history of rhetoric, and it struck me, similarly to how I felt looking at the giant monoliths, how we continue to take for granted that to learn or teach rhetorical theory, we start from a fixed beginning of men—the Sophists, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintillian. These men are considered the trunk of the tree that eventually spreads into hundreds of branches, the firm foundation of the tall, growing building; any and all metaphors of history we tacitly accept and reiterate by teaching the history of rhetoric. Is there another option of seeing, of teaching?
Thumbing through the textbook, I’d say 90 percent of its contents are the historical contributions of men, with the classical period taking up four of the 11 chapters. The late chapters discussing contemporary rhetorical theory include a few short sections describing alternative theories of rhetoric arising from feminism, queer theory, intersectionality, and others. There, in a few paragraphs, is the mention of Sally Miller Gearhart’s indictment of rhetoric from 1979: “My indictment of our discipline of rhetoric springs from my belief that any intent to persuade is an act of violence.” The cause, worth reading once more, is that:
The patriarchs of rhetoric have never called into question their unspoken assumption that mankind (read ‘mankind’) is here on earth to alter his (read ‘his’) environment and to influence the social affairs of other men (read ‘men’). Without batting an eye the ancient rhetors, the men of the church, and scholars of argumentation from Bacon, Blair and Whately to Toulmin, Perelman and McLuhan, have taken as given that it is a proper and even necessary human function to attempt to change others. (195)
Some may view the inclusion of Gearhart and several others in this textbook as progress, but it should also be noted that mentioning her contribution to rhetoric in three paragraphs following whole chapters devoted to the men she questions seems to be an irony that the textbook author missed or ignored.
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.
-- Margaret Walker
Ursula K. LeGuin, delivering a short speech before a poetry reading in 1986, asked her audience to imagine a Venn diagram (based on an idea from anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardener): one circle for men, and one circle for women. (This is a reductive binary, of course, but her discussion also works if we imagine a diagram with several circles.) The overlapping area of the circles, according to LeGuin, represents what might be our shared civilization—the familiar things we know about and the common things we understand. The areas of the circles that don’t overlap are the respective wildernesses of women and men. Men, or the Dominant ones, LeGuin says, leave the “shared” area to go to their wilderness and its opportunities for violence and conquest, and then return with their stories that become history—the very structure and standard of our language. The problem with our civilization, LeGuin notes, is that the women’s wilderness and stories held therein are unknown because the language of it has been muted. The stories from all other wildernesses have been ignored, suppressed, or prevented altogether by the restriction on telling the stories from those wildernesses. Thus, while we know the men’s wilderness is filled with dragons, wild animals, weapons, enemies, death, heroics, and legends that last for centuries, we—all of us, women and men and every identity in between or outside that binary—have only hazy ideas of what is or has been in the other wildernesses, because they have been muted and flouted by the exploits of men and patriarchal tradition.
As feminist writers have often noted, there is something phallic about the linearity of history: to be able to explain so certainly how things slide together in a pattern that justifies the “way things are.” Gearhart’s and other feminist critiques of the history of rhetoric, as well as numerous additional theories of critique that have emerged since 1979, are always nonetheless considered “alternative.” To appropriate linearity into a feminist or anti-racist or queer or matriarchal her-story would be near impossible. A new “story” requires a re-visioning of Time, Space, and Place, being able to view or experience the subverted, marginal wilderness without it being labeled as Other, or for that matter, Women’s. An “alternative” is always relative to something else, in this case relative (still) to dominant patriarchy and its way of seeing things. And so a textbook would need somehow to reject history as its organizing frame, and avoid most traditional categorization as well. The organization of such an imagined text would emerge from those unknown wildernesses, which we can imagine despite our entrenchment in a history and ways of doing things in our academies and organizations that still rely on the dominant wilderness to define the way we look at, exploit, and violate both the large and small worlds that we navigate daily.
Throughout southern Utah, including and beyond where Mukuntuweap unfolds its rocky elegance, one is constantly surrounded by redrock canyons and blue mountains. Nestled in these areas, both found and unfound, are artifacts and dwellings of the ancient ones, called Anasazi, or more recently known as ancient puebloans. We’ve heard it said that history doesn’t repeat but it echoes, and the echoes on those canyon walls bend our voices as they diminish away. On some of those canyon walls are spiral petroglyphs, including one (photo above) near my hometown of Monticello. When I look at that spiral—differently now than when I was younger—I think about Terry Tempest Williams’ book of essays titled Red, and her thoughts on what the spirals on those rocks might represent to us. Perhaps, she suggests, the spiral can represent the femininity that has been overwhelmed by masculine straight lines. “We can begin to live differently,” she says (159). To know Time as spiral, rather than linear, is one way to bend our view of the stories of the past. Speira, the Greek source of the word, means whorl or coil. For the men of Greece, time was either kronos or kairos; now, perhaps, we might add speira. My imagination of speira time enables us to spiral out from the present to the future or spiral in from the present to the past. Unlike the ever-increasing distance from point to point on history’s straight line, any point of a spiral is just a short distance from other points of the spiral. Viewing Time as speira, we overlap and swirl around our ancestors and intellectual forebears again and again in different times of our lives with different perspectives and different meanings. And in each of those recursive orbits around the lifetimes of our predecessors, speira offers the gift of seeing them again and again from different angles and different lights, while barely increasing our distance from them, if at all.
Thank you, readers; thank you, Shirley, Andrea, Cindy, Jessica, Lisa, Cheryl, Victoria, and Sonja, for unmuting parts of lovely wildernesses; thank you, scholars who wanted to contribute but couldn’t conjure extra time; and thank you, Sally, for helping form a spiral where and when we can wander, and wonder.
Codrescu, Andrei. Whatever Gets You Through the Night. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Gearhart, Sally Miller. “The Womanization of Rhetoric.” Women Studies International Quarterly, vol. 2 no. 2, 1979, pp. 195-201.
LeGuin, Ursula K. “Woman/Wilderness.” Dancing at the End of the World. Grove, 1989.
McHugh, Heather. “Moving Means, Meaning Moves: Notes on Lyric Destination.” Poets Teaching Poets. Eds. Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryan Voigt. University of Michigan Press, 1996, pp. 207-220.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Alfred A. Knopf, 1995 (1980), p. 133.
Sanchez, Sonia. “This Is Not A Small Voice.” Wounded in the House of a Friend. Beacon, 1995.
Walker, Margaret. “For My People.” This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems.University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Williams, Terry Tempest. Red. Vintage, 2002.