Humanities on the Edge Preview: Kent A. Ono


This year’s Humanities on the Edge series addresses the question of “Post-Truth Futures.” The first lecture, “The Rhetoric of Sanctuary in the Post Truth Era,” will come from Kent A. Ono, Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, on Thursday, October 11, at 5:30pm in the Sheldon Museum of Art.

In his 2012 essay “Borders that Travel: Matters of the Figural Border,” Ono discusses the definition of borders not at the material level but the figural. He argues that “while discussion of the literal meaning of the border has been extensive, discussion of its figural counterpart has not.” This distinction is essential, because while the crossing of the literal border is “necessarily fleeting and objectively unisolatable,” the figural border is anything but (21). The figural border follows migrants, no matter how far they may be from the geographical or physical border. The anxieties involved in the initial border crossing aren’t left behind at the crossing. Migrants continue to fear border enforcement even when those checkpoints are long behind them.

By extending the discussion of borders beyond their materiality, Ono looks at the effects of the borders that migrants carry with them, the borders that move. Once primarily a concern of the states in the south-west portion of the United States, border enforcement has extended across the U. S., meaning that migrants in the Midwest have as much fear of surveillance and discipline as in other places. Moreover, even if migrants don’t fear legal repercussions, there are still borders that can keep them separated from the communities in which they live. As Ono states,

"The body and mind, like the land, therefore are sites of control, and simply migrating past the physical border does not mean or by any means guarantee one’s body and mind are free from border control. Indeed, while one can cross a physical and geographical boundary, it is possible that the body and mind as boundaries ultimately prevent successful border crossing . . . If the border signifies a site of contestation over inclusion, access, rights, employment, and a future for one’s self and often one’s family, the body may serve as a border that prevents these aspirations from being attained." (29-30)

Even becoming a permanent resident or a citizen of the United States may not remove the effects of the figural border for a migrant, because that border encompasses so much more than a simple line between two nation-states. Examining the definition and effects of borders in the figural sense forces one to reconsider the entire notion of borders. Rather than simply being a question of “who’s in” and “who’s out” of a physical space, the figural definition of border confronts the issues of individual migrants, focusing in from the big picture to reveal individual stories, struggles, and definitions of self-hood.

More recently, in an essay published in January 2015, Ono and Antonio Tomas De Le Garza reinforce the importance of considering individual migrants as they propose a new theory of immigrant adaptation. In “Retheorizing Adaptation: Differential Adaptation and Critical Intercultural Communication,” De La Garza and Ono suggest that past theories of immigrant adaptation are too universal in approach to immigrant experiences. While past theories have suggested that successful adaptation requires the immigrants to change in order to fit into their new societies, De La Garza and Ono argue that this is not only restrictive, but in some cases impossible. Their proposed theory of “differential adaptation” is a “nonuniversalist framework that acknowledges the radical diversity of immigrants’ experiences, immigrant’s agentic efforts to navigate pressures to assimilate, and the potential they have to reshape subjectivities, culture, and society” (270). This theory is beneficial because it accounts for individual experiences of migrants and the different attitudes of the new societies they reside in.

While De La Garza and Ono understand the desire to have a universal theory of adaptation, they reject the notion of migration being “universally consistent across time, culture, and geography” (275) and argue instead that “a theory of the ‘atypical’ (the nonrepresentative) and the particular is more promising” (278). Not only is a non-universal theory more specific, it provides language to describe the process of adaptation more accurately. By providing a framework for thinking about and discussing immigrant adaptation, differential adaptation suggests “a new approach to intercultural communication, one that does not assume the superiority of one cultural and national way of thinking and behaving over another” (284).

Past theories suggest that immigrants must assimilate to their new societies in order to be happy, but they don’t examine the societies that immigrants find themselves in. While some societies will reject immigrants no matter what they do to assimilate, others embrace immigrants and are willing to adapt and be inclusive. This range of possibilities is overlooked by past theories of immigrant adaptation that focus solely on the immigrants and their need to change to assimilate into a new society. By recognizing the wide array of attitudes that societies can have toward migrants, differential adaptation provides a framework for discussing the range of possibilities and suggests that it is not only the migrant who adapts.

By drawing attention to these two essays, I want to introduce a few key ideas and theories that may factor in to this week’s lecture. I also want to call attention to the dates of these two essays (2012 and 2015). Even in the short time since these two articles have been published, the political climate in the United States has drastically changed, especially when it comes to immigration. It will be interesting to see how Ono applies these ideas and theories to his discussion of “The Rhetoric of Sanctuary in the Post Truth Era” later this week.

Ono, Kent A., “Borders that Travel: Matters of the Figural Border,” In D. Robert DeChaine (Ed.) Border Rhetorics: Citizenship and Identity on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier. (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press: 2012): 19-32.

De La Garza, Antonio Tomas, and Kent A. Ono, “Retheorizing Adaptation: Differential Adaptation and Critical Intercultural Communication,” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 8:4 (2015): 269-289.

#posttruth #caitlinhenry #humanitiesontheedge

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