• Christina Ivey

Debra Hawhee’s Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life


Over the summer, students at a New Jersey high school received the lecture of a lifetime. No, it wasn’t a groundbreaking scholar, established dignitary, or forward thinking entrepreneur; but rather, it was a lecture given by rapper Kendrick Lamar. After listening to Lamar’s summer release To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), teacher Brian Mooney couldn’t help but notice the connection between the lyrics’ discussion of racial identity, exploitation of black culture, and oppression with Toni Morrison’s well known and powerful narrative The Bluest Eye. Mooney decided to teach TPAB alongside The Bluest Eye to help his students see how the concepts explored in Morrison’s novel are still being negotiated and investigated in their everyday lives.

This type of application based, transformative work with students relates to Debra Hawhee’s work as a teacher/scholar interested in how rhetorical studies function outside of a conventional lens. The book Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece is where Hawhee began her foray into viewing rhetorical practices as something other than the traditional verbal utterances. According to her, rhetoric is a “bodily art;” a phrase that describes the “something else” occurring in rhetoric which is “non-rational, messy, affective.” Though this initial book is not quite speaking to the posthuman rhetorics that bring her to UNL’s campus for this year’s Humanities on the Edge series, her approach to bridging rhetoric with athletics is a great start at interrupting our trained incapacities for viewing rhetoric as solely verbal/nonverbal discourse (a method which she calls “syncretism”). She believes that “it’s only through our trained incapacity, our inherited emphasis on rhetoric as a ration, cerebral, and yes, verbal endeavor that we have for the most part tuned out such features” as viewing rhetoric as bodily, spatial, and visual. Such a challenge to ourselves is necessary to begin a consideration of posthuman futures.

After attending several speaking sessions and conference panels centered around the book’s messages, she found herself receiving the same question: “How does your work change what you do in the classroom?” Initially thrown by the question, she realized that the question actually guided how she wrote the book, but she never felt as though she got the chance to reveal the answer. But, through her article, "Rhetorics, Bodies, and Everyday Life" (written five years after Bodily Acts), she picks up where the book leaves off. Not only does she connect her work to the classroom, but she takes the opportunity to expand her work by speaking to rhetorics’ province. In doing so, she once again invokes what some may perceive as a syncretistic method: thinking about bodies and experiences as opposed to just minds in the classroom.

To answer the question, Hawhee turns to two rhetorical concepts that she believes increase the scope of rhetoric enough to answer key critical and pedagogical questions surrounding her work. The first formulation stems from a definition of rhetoric by Wayne Booth: “range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another: effects ethical (including everything about character), practical (including political), emotional (including aesthetic) and intellectual (including every academic field).” Such a broadening definition, in Hawhee’s opinion, speaks to the “available means” discussed by Aristotle by validating newer rhetorical scholarship (i.e., visual, new media, etc.). Such studies are already applicable to the three emotional appeals discussed in rhetoric class (ethos, pathos, logos). While the definition highlights rhetoric as available means, it leaves out persuasion as a main goal of rhetoric. In doing so, it neglects discussions that have “frequently served to narrow the province of rhetorical studies.”

Hawhee’s second formulation comes form a definition of rhetoric given by Martin Nystrand and John Duffy: “the ways that individuals and groups use language to constitute their social realities, and as a medium for creating, managing, or resisting ideological meanings.” Approaching rhetoric in this way gives us a sense of how it “situates us in our worlds” through shaping how we think. As Hawhee points out, this places an emphasis on the rhetoric of everyday life and how we interact rhetorically everyday.

These two formulations that push the boundaries of how rhetoric is conventionally taught lead Hawhee to ask the question: “Can we teach the non-rational, bodily, nonverbal features of rhetoric to our students?” Her answer: absolutely. She offers up a description of one of her own classes (appropriately named Rhetoric, Bodies, and Everyday Life) as an example. In the class, she assigns readings from classical rhetoric as well as articles from The New York Times to connect classical ways of thinking about rhetoric with the students’ lives. She also features assignments that take the students out of the classrooms to local coffee shops to directly encounter rhetorical places for an “in-the-city analysis.” She even takes students to art exhibits, which she argues “illustrate[s] for the students how space and the visual can function rhetorically, by beckoning them, convincing them to come, sit, illustrating rhetoric’s capacity to transport bodies – a capacity the sophist Gorgias named long ago when he discussed how discourse itself may have transported Helen to Troy.”

The challenge in taking up Hawhee’s ideas comes in finding areas that we can stretch our trained incapacities within the classroom. Upon reading the article, I went through a series of thoughts about my own classroom practices: “Yes! I already kind of do this…doing a little more will be easy!” (Looks at syllabus) “Oh, wait. I already have this syllabus created. It’s really too much work to change it now.” “But isn’t that her point? Shouldn’t I push myself to think outside of these ‘already-built-in lessons’?” After arguing with myself for quite a while, I returned to Hawhee to read about how she made the adjustments. She claims it is all about changing your teaching habits, primarily, developing a different bodily kairos to teaching (or, “the importance of looking outside predictable intellectual sphere for models of thought”). What is happening in the world outside of the classroom? How does this relate? It’s what we ask our students to do all of the time. Why shouldn’t we also aid in “rhetoric’s capacity to transport bodies”?

After reading about Mooney’s approach to teaching, I was inspired, fascinated, and overall jealous that I couldn’t find a way to get Kendrick Lamar to come to my classroom. He got his students to think differently about the novel simply by juxtaposing them with the albums themes. Though I will never get Kendrick Lamar to come to my class, I can stretch my trained incapacities in such a way that my students, too, can learn to apply rhetoric to the spaces outside of the classroom that seem messy, non-rational, and non-academic. At the end of the day, that’s still pretty cool.

To read the cited Hawhee references, see:

Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

“Rhetoric, Bodies, and Everyday Life.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 36:2 (Spring 2006), 155-164. Print.

To read the rhetorical formulations Hawee draws on, see:

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Maiden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Nystrand, Martin and John Duffy. Towards a Rhetoric of Everyday Life: New Directions in Research on Writing, Text, and Discourse. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2003.

-Christina Ivey is a PhD student in Communication Studies with an emphasis in Rhetoric and Public Culture.

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