A Vexing Relationship; Gender and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Nathan Stormer. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

Given communication scholars’ attention to the history and criticism of women’s rhetorical discourse as well as to discourses of sexuality, one might expect ongoing debate about the theoretical significance of gender in rhetoric. Yet, despite substantial attention to gender in rhetorical studies, conversation about gender in contemporary rhetorical theory is thin. Begun in the 1970s (Campbell, 1973; Kramer, 1974), discussion of the intersections of gender and theory intensified in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Campbell, 1989, 1995; Foss, 1989; Foss & Griffin, 1992; Rakow, 1987; Spitzack & Carter, 1987), but by the turn of the century, the debate had almost ceased. Assuming that women’s rhetorical practices were different from those of men due to their distinctive rhetorical situations, discussions of gender and rhetoric most commonly appeared in analyses that recovered the forgotten discourse of historical and contemporary women, a stream of scholarship that Campbell and Keremidchieva describe in their essay on “Gender and Public Address” in this volume. Within this scholarship, an implicit theoretical paradigm operationalized “gender” as women’s “difference,” such that the liberal goal of incorporating women into rhetorical traditions, and forcing those traditions to account for women, took precedence.

The recovery of women’s voices was complicated by scholars who strove to account for differences among women as well as for women’s differences from men, a development detailed by Bacon in her chapter, “The Intersections of Race and Gender in Rhetorical Theory and Praxis,” in this volume. In addition to their attention to race, critics also have complicated the idea of gender through analyses of specific rhetors whose sexuality challenges the normative views of man and woman (Brookey, 1998; Deem, 1999; Morris, 2002; Shugart, 2003; Sloop 2004). Throughout the 1990s, liberal, cultural, and poststructural feminists interrogated the liberal assumptions of scholarship on gender and rhetoric. They instigated debate about the meaning of gender itself and on how it is enacted and produced through rhetorical action, as well as how it is to be defined in relation to race, class, nationality, sexuality and the unsatisfying horizon of “etc.” (Biesecker, 1992; Bruner, 1996; Buzzanell, 2000; Campbell, 1993; Condit, 1997; Dow 1995, 1997; Downey, 1997; Foss, Griffin, & Foss, 1997). In the wake of debates over difference, scholars have continued to make excellent reclamations of women’s contributions to the history of rhetoric (Bridwell-Bowles, 2005; Donawerth, 2002; Lunsford, 1995; Ritchie & Ronald, 2001; Wertheimer, 1997), as well as have examined the role of gender in classical rhetorical theory, as Glenn and Collings Eves describe in their chapter, “Rhetoric and Gender in Greco-Roman Theorizing,” in this volume. Thus, over time, gender has held different implicit and explicit meanings within the theory of rhetoric. It has meant, simply, biological women or has been treated as a variable in a rhetorical situation and in human identity or as a concept, lacking fixed meaning, that is rhetorically constituted. Yet, after 30-plus years of scholarship, direct conversation between communication researchers about gender and contemporary rhetorical theory has broken down.

One complication is that although gender originally was not a feminist concept (Moi, 1999), it has become so central to feminism that to discuss gender invites the assumption that one is discussing feminist theory, and vice versa. Gender has ceased to be a peculiarly feminist concept, as it has been taken up in queer studies, in masculinity studies, and absorbed, albeit unevenly, into scholarship across the academy. Nonetheless, it still retains its pedigree as a mark of feminist theorizing, even within contemporary rhetorical theory. Gender analysis in rhetorical studies could be taken as a rough index of the state of feminism in the field. As a result, a false sense of engagement and coherence clings to any attention to gender, as if its use in rhetorical history or criticism signals a sustained theoretical project.

An initial dialogue splintered into ad hoc innovations, yet the sense that gender refers to feminism bestows a misleading sense of unity. Consequently, taking stock of the relationships between these sprawling entities—gender and rhetorical theory—is a vexing prospect. Rather than extend older themes that have lost their centripetal force or pretend that current research coheres around any specific theme, I wish to introduce a new point of stasis. I shall reframe the initial debates in terms of a single predicate: gendered experience as the origin of rhetorical theory. This begs the question of how the substance of that experience is rhetorically constituted. Is gender an effect or cause? To untangle this knot, I propose that we think of gender as the repressed rhetoric of materiality within theory, or rather that we consider how the embodiment of gender has been repressed to allow theory to be written. Thinking of gender as a rhetoric of materiality allows theorists to study the ways that it generates and is generated by theory. Theorists must then view gender as a historical condition of possibility and impossibility for theory rather than its cause or effect. Many have moved in this direction but have not yet been appreciated.

Because of all the potentially relevant scholarship, I will not summarize theories per se. I focus as much on contemporary gender theory as on contemporary rhetorical theory. In so doing, I try to enable theorists to see commonalities and differences where they might not have seen them before and, I hope, to re-engage a dialogue about gender and rhetorical theory.

Gender as Experiential Origin of Rhetorical Theory

As part of the effort to redress the historical exclusion of women from rhetorical studies, feminist scholars made gender an issue in rhetorical theory, contending that different theories are required to recognize and value women’s rhetorical practices. As the first feminist statement in contemporary rhetorical theory, Campbell’s (1973) landmark essay, “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron,” is the perfect indicator. Campbell argued that women’s liberation discourse was

a genre without a rhetor, a rhetoric in search of an audience, that transforms traditional argumentation into confrontation, that “persuades” by “violating the reality structures” but that presumes a consubstantiality so radical that it permits the most intimate of identifications. (p. 86)

Women’s liberation was a radical discourse that contained “distinctive substantive-stylistic features” (p. 84) that the received wisdom of rhetoric was incapable of explaining. In addition, canonical views of a good rhetor as self-reliant, self-confident, and independent contradict traditional feminine norms of behavior (p. 75), indicating that rhetorical theory not just favors but imagines only idealized masculine rhetors. The challenge to rhetorical theorists was to explain the difference gender makes.

Gender as a Cause of Rhetorical Theory

In that vein, a guiding assumption in contemporary rhetorical theory has been that the gender of practitioners is a cause of their rhetorical theories, whether explicitly elaborated or as tacit, operative theories. Two of the most commonly debated ideas about gender and rhetorical theory, Campbell’s (1989a) feminine style and Foss and Griffin’s (1995) invitational rhetoric, presuppose that theory flows from gendered experience. Discussing the history of women’s public advocacy, Campbell (1989a) describes feminine style as an outgrowth of craft-learning experiences common to women in traditional, gender-complementary Western culture. The skills and relationships developed in such semi-segregated, interdependent, domestic contexts cultivate contingent reasoning, participatory modes of interaction, and trust in lived experience. This experiential basis promotes a rhetorical style marked by inductive structures, anecdotal evidence, personal experience, personal tone, calls for audience participation, and attempts to identify with the audience as peers (1989a, p. 13). Several scholars have applied and qualified feminine style in contemporary contexts (Blankenship & Robson, 1995; Dow & Tonn, 1993; Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 1996).

Feminine gender, defined tacitly as the experience of being a woman in modern Western cultures, has produced an operative theory of style according to Campbell. Condit (1997), however, questions how representative a singular feminine style is of people’s diverse gender experiences, and Bruner (1996) argues that the assumptions made about craft learning reify gender. Campbell (1989a) is careful to stipulate that feminine style is not located in biology and that men can and do adopt a feminine style. Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles (1996) caution that feminine style is not necessarily empowering because it can be used by political candidates to reinforce hegemonic masculinity. With feminine style, Campbell revises the common assumption that rhetorical theory develops from the experiential needs of the rhetor. She has insisted, however, that the gendered difference of that experience be attended to and that women, because of a history of regulated subservience to men, have a common existence on which to build. In that sense, “feminine style is as much a product of power as it is a product of gender” (Dow, 1995, p. 109) or of gender as experienced in unequal power relationships. Campbell (1989a) embraces rather than rejects traditional theories, seeing the rhetorical tradition as valuable to oppressed and oppressor alike yet seeking to explain how gendered experience should modify its masculinized assumptions.

Foss and Griffin (1995) offer a different theory with a similar premise. Invitational rhetoric is “an invitation to understanding as a means to create a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination. Invitational rhetoric constitutes an invitation to the audience to enter the rhetor’s world and to see it as the rhetor does” (p. 5). Relying on Gearheart’s (1979) indictment of the “intent to persuade [as] an act of violence” (p. 195), Foss and Griffin contrast invitational rhetoric with persuasion, which they treat as a single, conglomerate theory that embodies patriarchy. For them, persuasion is a coercive attempt to change others that inherently dominates and devalues by treating people as instruments of power (pp. 3-4). Invitational rhetoric shifts rhetorical theorizing from a study of change to a study of understanding (presuming that understanding is not a special case of change). Scholars have noted the ways in which Foss and Griffin’s critique of persuasion as domination implies that the substance of rhetorical theory is linked to sex, sometimes using essentialist language about woman’s nature similar to that for which Wood (1992) criticizes Gilligan (1982). Indeed, Foss and Griffin’s implied sexism has invited significant criticism.

Noting their use of Gearheart’s essentialist prose, Dow (1995) labels invitational rhetoric gynocentric because it promotes traditional femininity as a balm for masculinist domination (p.110), a reversal of value within traditional gender complementarity but a reinvestment in it as well. Condit (1997) contends that the great breadth of gendered experience makes Foss and Griffin’s position suspect. Bruner (1996) argues that they reify gender stereotypes. Although they disavow essentialism (Foss, 1989; Foss & Foss, 1991; Griffin, 1996), in their most recent work, Foss, Foss, and Griffin (1999, 2004) foreground as feminist certain rhetorical theorists such as Daly, Starhawk, Gunn Allen, S. Johnson, and Gearheart, all of whom naturalize inherent differences between men and women.

In response, Foss, Griffin, and Foss (1997) make explicit the place of gender in generating theory, arguing that women’s communication practices offer alternatives to exploitative, patriarchal theories (p. 131). Hence, dominating theories of persuasion are incumbent with patriarchal communication and alternative, egalitarian theories of rhetoric are incumbent with women’s communication. Patriarchy is defined as a “system of power relations that privileges and accords power to the white, heterosexual male” (121). Foss, Griffin, and Foss suggest a nonbiological frame for gender, particularly when they qualify theories derived from women with the caveat that such theories also come from “other marginalized groups” (p. 131). Accordingly, theory is a function of one’s position in a hierarchy in which power-up theories enable male domination and exploitation; power-down theories enable equity and harmony. Advocates of invitational rhetoric sometimes define gender as a power relationship and sometimes imply that it is inherent to man and woman, but what is socially derived and what is inherent remains unclear. Whatever the extent of their essentialism, by rejecting change-centered persuasion Foss and Griffin (1995) ask that rhetorical theory be devoted to explaining how to build relationships across differences through ways of communicating common to women and what they call others.

Whereas Campbell (1989a) seeks to explain the ways that rhetorical tools should be conceptualized through gendered experience, Foss and Griffin (1995) embrace a vision of women’s experience as a feminist corrective to rhetorical theory. Nonetheless, a crucial similarity between feminine style and invitational rhetoric is the emphasis on experience as the origin of theory. Neither Campbell nor Foss and Griffin refer to standpoint theory, yet both assume its basic tenet: one’s lived experience is a prime source of one’s thinking. Or, more specific to rhetoric, theory is an effect of social position. Women learn to produce rhetoric differently because of their experiences, and in those different practices lie operative theories of rhetoric.

Standpoint Theory and Rhetorical Theory

Standpoint theory comes in many guises, from reductive visions of men’s and women’s lives to highly variable, contextual explanations of epistemology. It seeks a localized epistemology grounded in point of view, a “fractured optics” as Haraway (1989) calls it, as opposed to the masculinized, omniscient position of objectivity that feminists have dissected (Bordo, 1986; Irigaray, 1985; Lloyd, 1994). Key works in standpoint theory emerged in the early 1980s (Hartsock, 1983; Jaggar, 1983; Rose, 1983), and other important works followed. Smith (1987) calls attention to class differences in women’s standpoints, and Collins (1990)insists that racial experience contributes uniquely to epistemology. Harding (1991), Longino (1990), and Haraway (1991) successfully move the concept of a standpoint away from being an encomium to women’s lives and toward an alternative, pluralistic concept of objectivity, or “situated knowledge.” Spivak (1993) offered the concept of “strategic essentialism” as a way to negotiate the tension between the exclusionary potential of woman and the political value of solidarity in identity. Although communication scholars have engaged with standpoint theory (see Bell, Orbe, Drummond, & Camara, 2000; Darlington & Mulvaney, 2002; Durham, 1998; Hallstein, 1999, 2000; Wood, 1998), there is no substantial citation of standpoint scholarship in contemporary rhetorical theory. Instead, a shared premise connects these literatures: lived experience produces knowledge (in this case, of rhetoric) that gains validity because of the partiality of its perspective.

A problem attends the so-called standpoint premise that gendered experience is an origin of rhetorical theory in both invitational rhetoric and feminine style. Citing Harding’s (1993, p. 155) warning that women’s experience is not synonymous with feminist knowledge, Dow (1997) cautions that reductive uses of personal experience risk making social position identical with the limit of one’s voice, and equating one’s race, class, and sexuality with what one can know and the meaning of what one says. However, the risk of overstating the limits of difference rests on the more significant problem of explaining materiality. What of biology and the sex/gender system? An antecedent to thinking about gender in rhetorical theory has been a fairly common endorsement of a sex/gender binary, first defined by Rubin (1975) in “The Traffic in Women.” She argued that a sex/gender system organizes social structure, so that sex contrasts with gender as nature contrasts with culture, and she offered second-wave feminists a new tool for severing the dictates of sexual biology from the acculturation of gender when analyzing the lines of power between men and women. Campbell (1973, 1989a, 1995, 1998) endorses this distinction, though not Rubin’s essay specifically. Foss, Griffin, and Foss (1997; Foss, Foss, & Griffin, 1999) also assume this distinction. In each case, adherents face questions about ironically reductive, exclusionary tendencies in their theories.

Nicholson (1994) argues that although the sex/gender distinction explicitly dismisses biological determinism, it endorses “biological foundationalism,” which can admit degrees of essentialism. “Many who would endorse the understanding of sex identity as socially constructed still think of it as a cross-cultural phenomenon,” she says, or that universally there is a “similar social response to some ‘deeper’ level of biological commonality” between women and between men. “Linking this position and thinking of sex as independent of gender is the idea that distinctions of nature, at some basic level, ground or manifest themselves in human identity” (p. 82). Embedded in the definition of gender as the experience of being a man or a woman, not the possession of sexual organs, is the assumption that being a man or a woman means living in that kind of body, not just engaging in gendered roles. What is gender if not the experience of living in a sexed body? Ask yourself whether feminine style or invitational rhetoric would be accepted as explanations of women’s ways of communicating if they were predicated solely on the experience of cross-dressers or transsexuals. If you answered no, you understand the biological foundationalism of rhetorical theory that treats gendered experience as originary. To what extent does a shared biology inflect the experience of gender and what does that mean for rhetorical theories that presume gendered experience as their foundation?

Gendered Experience as Rhetorical Effect

A sex/gender distinction creates circularity in rhetorical theory because gendered experience, the source of theory, is also an effect of rhetoric. The rhetorical dimension of gender’s materiality is repressed in two ways.

Questioning the Sex/Gender Distinction

First, extending Nicholson’s (1994) argument, the concept of gendered experience has depended on sex to unify but not determine gender. To fulfill its unifying function, however, the rhetorical constitution of sexual materiality and its necessary linkage to gender remains unacknowledged. As a natural, socially nonbinding fact of life, the truth about sex is that it does not control identity, a claim that requires sex to have an inarguably inessential nature. The biological foundation that supposedly explains the commonality of gender hierarchies across cultures implicitly depends on a rhetorical naturalization of sex difference, but it is a difference that should not matter. Ignorance about the truth of sex becomes the pretext for male dominance. In the face of historical arguments that sex rightly determines social position, sex/gender theorists argue that sex gives no rights. They endorse the naturalness of sex but reverse its impact—it is naturally irrelevant rather than naturally definitive. The sex/ gender distinction does not sever one from the other but links them in a necessarily nonde-termining way. For gender to be socially changeable, biological determinism must be contained, so sex must be specified as naturally, factually marginal to gender. Gender as experience is not independent of the materiality of sex; it depends on sex being a particular, inconsequential materiality. “[G]ender can become a metaphor for biology just as biology can become a metaphor for gender” (Flax, 1987, p. 637).

The idea of heterosexual difference and of what is natural to sexuality, however indifferent we should be to whatever that difference is, has been rhetorically constituted over millennia. Foucault (1990) spurred a scholarly revolution by treating sex as historical, arguing that homosexuals and heterosexuals emerged as biological beings in the 19th century, and that a modern science of sex became a vector of power. Owing to her reconsideration of binary thinking and the influence of Foucault, Rubin (1984; see also Rubin & Butler, 1994, pp. 70-72) abandoned a sex/gender distinction and called for a history of sexuality. Butler’s (1990, 1993, 2004) theory that gender performativity constitutes sexual identity has been highly influential across the humanities; she has called for a history of bodies “doing” gender to document the embodiment of sexuality. Historians such as Gilman (1985), Laqueur (1990), and Schiebinger (1993) demonstrate that what is apparently natural to sex is culturally contingent. Gilman’s (1985) account of the intersections of sexuality, race, and medical pathology remains a pivotal piece of scholarship. Laqueur’s (1990) similarly influential work details the shift in Western anatomy and biomedicine over less than five centuries from the one-sex model of ancient Greece to the current two-sex model. Equally significant, Schiebinger (1993) demonstrates that early modern taxonomic principles constituted natural order in terms of gender complementarity. Historical work continues apace whether scholars analyze the rhetorical history of the gay gene (Brookey, 2002), the technological and economic context of modern theories of reproductive heterosexuality (McGrath, 2002), or the role of modern anthropology in racializing sexuality (Lyons, 2004).

Although arguing that sex does not determine gender is effective in refuting biologically determinist traditions of excluding women from rhetorical studies, it makes reflexive critique of ideological assumptions difficult, such as heteronormative assumptions about human sexuality. Scott (1991) contends that experience cannot be understood outside of historical narrative. Otherwise, ideologies that organize experience into what seems to be common sense are reproduced rather than critiqued in those narratives, particularly ideologies defining the limits of sexual and racial variability. How flexibly someone understands sex and sexuality is crucial for how they chronicle the experience of gender. This holds true for biomedical stories about the facts of life or personal stories about one’s own sexuality. The sexed body at the center of gendered experience has never stood still, and what we know sex to be, and how we know it, changes more rapidly today than ever. The claim that sexual nature is inessential to gender identity does not stand outside this history or escape from it. It is another important move in a long series of efforts to rhetorically constitute the materiality of gender. In Fausto-Sterling’s (2000) apt phrasing, “sexuality is a somatic fact created by a cultural effect” (p. 21).

Questioning the Materiality of Experience, Theory, and Practice

The concept of gendered experience depends on a second level of repressed rhetoric about materiality. In contemporary theory about gender, the events, practices, and norms that make up experience have often been treated as embodied theories, yet as somehow extrarhetorical. If asked, I doubt any rhetorician would claim that writing theory is not a rhetorical effort, but when one turns to experience as operative theory, whether that experience is a kind of rhetoric is less clear. For instance, Campbell (1989a, 1992), Foss and Foss (1991), Biesecker (1992), and Condit (1997) all define rhetoric as some kind of communication practice, but their notions of practice vary. Rejecting traditional public persuasion, Foss and Foss look at communication practices in women’s daily lives rather than in the public arena. From a different theoretical posture, Biesecker critiques a female canon as replicating the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic exclusions of a male canon, asking instead that we study the “plurality of practices that constitute the everyday” (p. 157). Foss and Foss and Biesecker agree that nontraditional theory enables us to recognize as rhetoric what the tradition has marked as unworthy or illegitimate; however, Foss, Foss and Griffin (1999) pursue that through a strong version of cultural feminism and Biesecker through poststructuralism.

In response to Biesecker (1992), Campbell (1993) vigorously defends the study of excellence in public persuasion, arguing that such work is not inherently exclusionary and that there is little rhetorical value in analyzing everyday practices rather than individuals’ texts. Indeed, it would erase women once more (p. 158), echoing feminist criticism that poststructuralism wrongly de-emphasizes women as individuals (Alcoff, 1988; Benhabib, 1992; Hartsock, 1983; Webster, 2000). Regarding cultural feminism, Condit (1997) defends the study of public persuasion against the charge that it is inherently dominating (Foss & Griffin, 1995). Although she does not rule out study of nontraditional practices, Condit (1997) reasserts the value of public eloquence and calls for its redefinition to accommodate a multiplicity of genders and to abandon the “tedious predictability” of explaining that men and women talk differently (p. 112).

These exchanges illustrate confusion between theory and practice as well as rhetoric and nonrhetoric. If rhetorical practice refers generally to public speaking and writing, as Campbell (1989a, 1995) and Condit (1997) imply, then experience exists apart from rhetoric and only informs it. Yet if giving speeches is part of one’s gendered experience, then some experience is unequivocally rhetorical, as Campbell (1998) argues. If gender is socially constructed through discourse, as all these scholars agree, then practices beyond public speaking and writing also must be rhetorical. To claim that experience is shaped by gendered discourse but is not rhetorical is like saying the audience is in a less rhetorical situation than the rhetor. If you do away with traditional notions of theory and practice, there is no good way to separate experience from rhetorical practice from rhetorical theory because, materially, they are all coincident with each other. Where does rhetoric based in experience end and experience begin? Should there be a distinction?

If rhetorical practice is limited to practices other than persuasive speaking and writing, as Foss and Griffin (1995) ask, one gains no advantage. Communication practices remain informed by a socially constructed gender, which is a kind of communication that embodies theory. If it is difficult to explain material differences between theory as practice, practice as experience, and experience as theory in public discourse, then marking which everyday communication practices create understanding but are not persuasive is even more daunting.

If, as Biesecker (1992, 1993) advises, rhetoric includes the everyday practices by which people acquire subjectivity and position, in or out of public spaces, then the outcome of gendered experience is limited to the formation of identity. Hers is a more assertive version of Condit’s (1997) call to view gender as an outcome of rhetoric, using a combination of Derrida’s supplementarity and Foucault’s archaeology as tools to explain how subjectivity is produced. That is, Biesecker reverses gender from an origin to gender as an outcome too neatly. We move from studying how difference in daily life organizes knowledge and power to studying how power-knowledge organizes différance in daily life. Biesecker (1993) argues that we can do both, but how is not clear because the basic understanding of everyday life and its place in rhetorical studies are not the same.

Part of the project of turning to experience as a source of theory is to enable marginalized populations to have a place in the history of rhetoric. The challenge was to disrupt the traditions that preordained whose experiences mattered, what was and was not real theory, and whose practices were worthy of study. Neither of these repressed rhetorics about materiality constitute a reason to abandon thinking about the experience of gender, although they do justify thinking about it differently.

Gender as a Condition of Possibility and Impossibility

The logic of cause and effect will not resolve the problems of analyzing gender as experience or the impact of that experience on rhetorical theory. Taking a particular, historical model of sexuality as the biological foundation of gender represses theorists’ rhetoric that naturalizes that specific model. It also precludes the scholar from understanding that other, radically different models of sexuality are part of people’s experience as gendered beings and, hence, part of their rhetorical theories. Further, making gendered experience either an extradiscursive resource for theory or a consequence of discourse represses theorists’ rhetoric about the material differences that presumably distinguish experience, rhetorical practice, and rhetorical theory from one another. The nettle of cause/effect thinking is that gendered experience must be reified, understood as a thing that has its most profound impact either before one engages in rhetoric or after. Rather than treat gender as a thing that anchors rhetorical theory, either as what embodies theory or what theory seeks to explain, I suggest that gender be understood as a condition of possibility and impossibility.

Separating Gender Theory and Identity Politics

One rightly asks, a condition of what (im)possibilities? The topic here is gender and contemporary rhetorical theory, not gender and feminism, and the difference is crucial. Identity politics has made the discussion of gender a referendum on how to understand difference and subjectivity in feminism. The late 1990s witnessed substantial scholarship about the state of gender difference as a concept in feminism (Cheah & Grosz, 1998a; Cheah & Grosz, 1998b; Braidotti, 1997; Felski, 1997; Frye, 1996; Hawkesworth, 1997; Heinämaa, 1997; Moi, 1999; Scott, 1999; Webster, 2000). The following interrelated series of disagreements brought the discussion of difference to a crisis: (a) the white racism of second-wave feminists (Collins, 1990; Davis, 1989; hooks, 1981); (b) the heterosexism of feminist theory (Butler, 1990; Rich, 1980; Rubin, 1984); (c) the neocolonial relationship of first world feminism to third world women (Minh-ha, 1986; Mohanty, 1991; Sandoval, 1991; Spivak, 1988); (d) replacing woman with gender as a category of historical analysis (Downs, 1993; Gordon, 1991; Scott, 1988, 1993); and (e) the political merits of modernist versus poststructuralist theories of agency (Alcoff, 1988; Benhabib, 1992; Butler, 1995; Fraser, 1995). The challenge to the coherence of woman, then gender, then feminism “can be seen as a logical outcome of the concept of ‘difference’ itself, which endlessly proliferates into a multiplicity of sometimes conflictual forms” (Cheah & Grosz, 1998a, p. 3). In feminist studies, the consequence of this challenge was that theories of gender became focused on explaining the formation of the self as a sexed, raced, classed, culturally hybridized being.

In rhetorical studies, the crisis of ever-proliferating notions of difference had a similar profile in the dialogue about gender and rhetorical theory. Biesecker’s (1992) and Bruner’s (1996) critiques of the use of gender in feminist scholarship are symptomatic. Biesecker champions a need to understand the multiple ways that women come to be speaking subjects. Similarly, Bruner promotes Butler’s (1990) performativity theory as a way to explain gender identity without stereotyping women. Although I am sympathetic to critiques of modernist assumptions, Biesecker and Bruner mistake the political problem of difference in feminism for the conceptual problem of gender in rhetorical theory. As they attempt to redress elitism in the history of women rhetors and replace the reductive, predictable claim that women and men talk differently, they fail to displace the idea that gender is principally about identity politics. The value of gender as a concept to rhetorical theory is not strictly as an explanation of subjectivity, nor should rhetorical critique be limited to studies of normative or subversive gender enactments. Rhetorical studies absorbed the boundaries of dispute from feminism too well.

The insights from rethinking rhetorical theory in terms of gender are not synonymous with feminism’s ability to maintain political salience, even as we benefit from the rich discussion of gender difference in feminism. We should think of gender as a condition of possibility and impossibility for rhetorical theory, not for feminism. An underappreciated consequence of the collapse of gendered experience, rhetorical theory, and practice is that theorizing becomes an embodied process, not an abstract mental art. Rhetorical theory is always a rhetorical practice embedded in our lived experience. Rhetorical theory is immanent to what it explains, as a product and productive of experience (Scott, 1991). This pushes the poststructuralist criticism of feminine style and invitational rhetoric to a more useful conclusion. Leaving behind a dialectical either/or problem of cause and effect, of making gendered experience a thing that generates or results from rhetoric, a poststructuralist logic of both/ and allows us to appreciate that gender is always antecedent to, always a consequence of theorizing rhetoric, and more. Being gendered is part of the process of being rhetorical and vice versa. One does not beget the other.

Considering the Body as Situation

A historically grounded view of gender performativity, a material philosophy of process, and a multicultural perspective on the relationship of culture, experience, and power are important to understand gender as a condition immanent in all rhetorical theory without preordaining what gender or rhetorical theory must be. Butler (1990, 1993) famously argued that gender is performative, that corporeal styles of masculinity and femininity, when normalized, ground our sense that sexuality is deeply rooted in our nature. Sexual nature, an effect of gender, becomes the cause of gender. The persistent complaint about performative views of gender is that they make the body too elastic. Zita (1998) addresses what may be the best a fortiori argument for the pliable body, the male lesbian. For a male who identifies lesbian, adopts the pronominal she, and participates in lesbian communities, there is always a “stubborn return of the body’s sex” (p. 107), not because of a failure of imagination in the “charmed circle” of friends, but because

privileges and points of access granted to male bodies and not to female bodies may be rejected or “disowned” later in life or variously distributed among males early in life, but they cannot be denied or discounted in the life experiences that generally mark male somatic existence. Flesh so named makes a difference. (p. 106)

The “historical gravity of the sexed body” (p. 106) is contingent, but it is not “lightweight and detachable” (p. 107). In that sense, one’s somatic experience cannot be detached; thus, all knowledge of rhetoric emerges from experience that is overdetermined by its sexual gravity. This does not mean that sex is essential, that gender is biologically determined in the end. It means that sex has an unavoidable historical weight and that sex and gender are interrelated culturally.

An alternative understanding of materiality as lived process, not as object, is also necessary. The emphasis on embodied experience as knowledge is an effort to dislodge “thought from its Cartesian homeliness” (Colebrook, 2000, p. 89; Cheah, 1996). The mind/body dichotomy is attended by an understanding of materiality as dumb object and abstract thought as immaterial ether. Countless scholars have taken Descartes to task for this binary. A persistent problem is how to understand thought as part of the body when the materiality of mind and body is historically dynamic. In the language of Grosz (1994, 1999), materiality involves diverse events of becoming. Along with Gatens (1996) and Lloyd (1994), she has been exploring an alternate view of embodiment in which the body is neither pregiven substance nor discursively constructed but a situation in which thought and substance develop together in relation to other bodies and forces. Together they build from a number of sources, but Spinoza’s Ethics (James, Lloyd, & Gatens, 2000) is primary, and as Gatens (2000) observed, “A Spinozist will insist that to think differently is, by definition, to exist differently: one’s power of thinking is inseparable from one’s power of being and vice versa” (p. 63). The body is not synonymous with current wisdom about biology, nor is it defined generally by the surface of one’s skin. Defining the body as situation allows the meaning of human embodiment to alter greatly over time (Colebrook, 1999; Dale, 1999; Gatens, 2000).

The body as situation is no panacea. The risk of singular purpose common to theories of identity persists. One studies how a person becomes a subject in order to explain how like people become subjects, but if that is the only value to studying the relation of gendered experience and rhetorical theory, it can seem tautological. To avoid the tunnel vision of identity politics (Shome & Hegde, 2002), one needs a perspective on the interaction of power, culture, and experience. Certain themes of postcolonial studies are helpful. The emphasis on global multicultural history and on power relationships that organize the constitution of culture and experience are welcome correctives (Shome, 1996; Shome & Hegde, 2002). Historically, colonialism and its aftermath offer many challenges to the self-evidence of Western gendered experience (Mohanram, 1999; Stoler, 2002). Significantly, there is a robust analysis of how the diverse materiality of experience is reduced and universalized in the production of cultural identity (Appadurai, 1996; Spivak, 1999). Adopting a global critique of modernity increases sensitivity to the ways that everyday life is universalized and globalized and is important so theorists can place their own thinking in a larger context.

With a healthy appreciation of the historical gravity of the experience of embodiment, understanding the body as a situation has two benefits for rhetoric scholars concerned with gender. First, the broad objective of introducing gender difference into rhetorical theory is realized, but not as a preset category with a preset purpose. Experience and embodiment and theorizing are mutually defining aspects of “becoming”; ontology is simultaneously a way of thinking and being. Becoming a speaking subject involves the experience of becoming gendered (as man, woman, trans-, or as yet unimagined genderings), such that essential to living in a body are ways of being rhetorical and thinking about rhetoric. Further, becoming gendered will be fused with race, age, class, and so forth as specific experiences constitute their interrelation. Because experience and the materiality of one’s body are changeable, a scholar cannot assume that gender explains theory or that theory explains gender. To change one is to change the other. Theory is not indigenous to experience; no experience has theory that is native to it, only what develops in situation. Second, experience is not exclusive; it is relational. This is not a call for hyperindividualism in which all experiences are atomized islands of unique, irreplaceable knowledge. There is no inherent difference that cannot be mimed and undone by someone else’s “becoming.” Halberstam (1998) explores the historic and contemporary constitution of masculine identity by females. Sloop (2004) studies the way that recent controversies over transgenderism have been contained by mainstream discourses (see also his chapter, “Critical Studies in Gender/Sexuality and Media,” in this volume). The experience of masculinity is lived by males and females, as is the experience of femininity, and neither exists exclusively in the situation of a female or male body (Condit, 1997). In rhetorical theory, no ways of thinking that emerge from becoming gendered belong only to that style of becoming. This means that masculinity is embedded in invitational rhetoric and that feminine style is not reducible to the sex of the rhetors.


The conversation about gender and contemporary rhetorical theory has atrophied. The limits of cause/effect logic and efforts to account for the diffusion of subjectivities have constricted dialogue. If a resumption is desired, I suggest we attempt to think of the body as a situation in which gender and theory are materially codependent in lived experience. This offers a steep challenge to theoretical traditions that repress their own embodiment. In effect, theory would become an aesthetic history of performance (Pollack, 1998). It would spur scholars to ask what difference gender makes to rhetoric beyond establishing the subject position of the rhetor. There are no specific models to point to, only suggestive possibilities.

Johnson (2002) studies the gendered space of rhetorical practice and training in U.S. postbellum culture, in which part of gendered embodiment was rhetorical training and its appropriate spatial location. Further, an idealized domestic sphere was produced in conjunction with women’s proper oratorical practices. Gender is not strictly about identity but about cultural geography. Further, theories develop to support rhetorical effects other than persuasion. Peterson (1995) analyzes the way that 19th-century black women developed operative theories of representation in relation to their racialized embodiment of gender. Although Peterson (1995) and Johnson (2002) do not translate these performance histories into modifications of existing theoretical traditions, they provide the groundwork. Further, some have begun to study how classical rhetorical theories were produced through masculinized embodiment (Gunderson, 2000, 2003), but what of more recent history? What of practices not associated with traditional notions of rhetoric, as Biesecker (1992) asked? What if we take the body as a rhetorical situation? What happens to gender and rhetorical theory then?