Fleckenstein, Kristie. Bodysigns (part one)

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “Bodysigns: A Biorhetoric for Change.” JAC, vol. 21, no. 4, 2001., pp. 761-790.

To remember:

  • “our language and our writing should be adequate enough to make our dreams, our visions, our stories, our thinking, and our actions not just revolutionary but transformative” (“Freedom” 46) (761).
  • Susan Jarratt notes that “both feminist inquiry and post-current-traditional composition studies … seek to transform styles of thinking, teaching, and leaming rather than to reproduce stultifying traditions” (3) (761).
  • Transformation presents us with three challenges: we must engage in a different way of seeing, one that allows us to recognize the constitution of the status quo through rules and through the enactment of those rules; we must evolve and deploy a different way of speaking, an alternative discourse that allows us to use language in ways that exceed its representation; and, finally, we must live in different ways so that change is neither co-opted nor short-circuited (761).

  • A response to these challenges, as well as a tool for and a medium of change, lies with what I will call a “biorhetoric,” or a discourse of bodysigns (761).

  • “Materiality” refers to the fluid potentiality of physical reality. It includes bodies, places, and performances-“enactments” of reality in particular places at specific times (762).

  • “Semiosis” refers to all that patterns or shapes the potential of physical reality. It includes any sign system, any rule-governed arrangement, including DNA, immune systems, art, ritual, and language itself (762).

  • “Bodysigns” emphasizes the inextricability of materiality and semiosis. Although language allows us to speak as if materiality and semiosis were separate, they are mutually entangled in a nonlinear weave of cause and effect. We can know them and live them only at the point where they blur. Positioned within the spin of body signs, a biorhetoric provides a double perspective from which to recognize the semiotic-material nature of the status quo and of change (762).

  • Rather than defining reality as either a textual construct or an experiential one, a biorhetoric represents reality through a double lens of body signs. To borrow from Adrienne Rich, I suggest that the realm of a biorhetoric is the point at which the edges blur (“No. 29” 111) (762).

  • I turn to Gregory Bateson’s theory of meaning to reweave semiosis and materiality into a vocabulary of metaphor by which we can speak double. Bateson offers us double logics that position us within a grammar, or a system of rules, while simultaneously offering us the means to disrupt that system. I illustrate the effects of double-speaking with an example of a paradigm shift in science, a discipline traditionally positioned outside the doubling of body signs (762).

  • I turn to the promise of a biorhetoric for a different way of living. A biorhetoric calls me to a double being, a melange of what Haraway calls topos and tropos (“Promises” 296). I offer an enactment of that double living through a metalogue, a way of living writing that blurs the who, the what,and the how (see Bateson, Steps 1) (762).

  • As participants in as well as creators of meaning, we automati- cally contribute to the constitution and the continuation of the contexts that give birth to us. Individual and institutional identity reveal as much. The very identity of women, Linda Alcoff reminds us, is constituted by women’s position: “[S]he herself is part of the historicized, fluid movement, and she therefore actively contributes to the context within which her position can be delineated” (286) (763).

  • To exist, composition studies and feminist inquiry organize themselves around two contradictory needs: the need to change institutional mandates and the need to honor those mandates in order to continue existing. To challenge the status quo, then, we have to see reality doubled, both our allegiance and our resistance to particular arrangements of culture (763).

  • we need double sight to perceive the ways in which our discourse and our performances intertwine in systems of oppression and systems of privilege (763).

  • Bartholomae argues that identity is a rhetorical construction that readers and writers configure within textual lacunae. Permeated by cultural and ideological discourses, identity does not exist prior to or outside of the discursive event. Thus, the writer outside the text is immaterial; it is the subject position, “the way the ‘writer’ is positioned within a discourse,” that is important (“Reply”123) (764).

  • First, a textual orientation is a problematic position for women and other marginalized minorities, who, as Celeste Schenck points out, have never achieved “the self-possession of post-Cartesian subjects” and thus do not have “the luxury of ‘flirting with the escape from identity,’ which the deconstructed subject may enjoy” (qtd. in Synder 25) … For women, their identities are already fractured; their “I” is already dismissed (765).

  • We live tenuously positioned in a posthuman world, as Katherine Hayles warns us, a world that increasingly strips us of a sense of our materiality and translates us into pure discursive patterns, into exclusively semiotic beings (765).

  • But, by conceiving meaning solely as a web of textual relationships, we bracket and ignore the material flow within the entire performance, especially the loop we call writing. Bodies in specific material sites write signs just as much as signs write bodies into specific material sites (766).

  • As Jack Selzer points out, “Language and rhetoric have a persistent material aspect that demands acknowledgment, and material realities often (if not always) contains a rhetorical dimension that deserves attention: for language is not the only medium or material that speaks” (8) (766).

  • We cannot escape place, although we can deny it and redefine it; nor can we escape the paradoxes engendered by bodysigns, although we can deny and redefine them. What happens to the myelin on a nerve sheath directly implicates a writer’s identity, essayist Nancy Mairs wryly reminds us. Who would she be if she did not have multiple sclerosis, Mairs muses. “Literally, no body” (766).

  • What gets lost in a “semiotic universe,” Spellmeyer explains, “is the crucial distinction between ‘codes’ or ‘signs,’ which simply ‘signify,’ and the living words that foster a ‘felt’ resonance between ourselves and the world” (906). Spellmeyer insists on “attunement” with the world as a balance to the focus on textuality (767).

  • Choosing attunement over rhetoric offers us an alluring perspective, but it is still a single vision, one that, like the linguistic turn, elides the inextricability of bodysigns and the ways they mesh to craft and to contest reality (767).

  • Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner warn of the danger of amputating bodies from signs and erasing signs from bodies. They argue that an exclusive focus on embodiment, such as Spellmeyer’s emphasis on attunement, posits a “polarized, hierarchical relation between experience and discourse (‘text’), valorizing experience as both prior to and greater than discursive understanding” (767).

  • Experience, however, can never be conceptualized outside of language. We have nothing so unproblematic as direct, unmediated access to the world. What is necessary, Lu and Homer urge, is to find a relationship “between experience and discourse [that] is not polar and hierarchical but dialectical,” and that dialectical relationship is not easy to enact (259) (768).

  • The need to attend to both semiosis and materiality vibrates through- out feminist approaches to writing and teaching writing (768).

  • Jarratt points to the limitations of a strictly rhetorical agenda. “The maxim that everything is rhetoric,” she explains, “a triumphant discovery for some, leaves unspecified what must be addressed by both composition and feminism: the specificity and materiality of difference” (9) (768).

  • Mary Salibrici concurs:”We do not encourage our students to take their places within the broader academic community by asking them to erase themselves from their own singular material presence” (394). Instead, “we insist on experience, especially the representation of daily activity, as a source of feminist theory in composition and rhetoric” (Phelps and Emig 410) (768).

  • Feminists and composition pedagogy need to honor “individuals’ eloquent stories as fundamental supplements to more abstract structural information and analysis as well as sources of theoretical concepts and insights in their own right” (410) (768).

  • Bridwell-Bowles explicitly centers her writing pedagogy on this experiential agenda, encouraging her students to compose, as she has gradually done, in “a more personal voice, an expanded use of metaphor, a less rigid methodological framework,” in an effort to privilege more personal, nonlinear, and emotional forms and processes (“Discourse” 350) (768).

  • Our subjectivities, Salibrici ironically points out, “our ways of reading, may of course be fictions; but, fact or fiction, we have to start with them, if we are to learn how they mayor may not relate to the world at large” (394) (768).

  • Feminists in composition studies fear that an unalloyed emphasis on materiality will lead to an essentialized or polarized gender identity, erasing the differences that the emphasis was designed to illuminate (768).

  • To avoid both the essentialism implicit within personal experience and the colonization implicit when the voice of a woman becomes the voice of women, Kirsch and Ritchie attempt to strike a balance between materiality and rhetoric, returning both to the web of “social relationships” and advocating an ethics of care in research practices (768).

  • Acknowledging the necessity and the limi ts of personal voice, Jarratt borrows from Spivak the concept of double rhetoric: “rhetoric understood as a dual process of representation-as both a figurative and political act-gives names to language that articulates difference while exposing the power relations at work in acts of naming” (9). Thus, voice is not only positioned materially, it is also positioned within the social and historical discourses that infuse it (769).

  • What continues to struggle for survival in this experiential/rhetorical doubling, however, is the nature of the experiential/rhetorical cusp. When grappling with life along the diagonal slash between experience and rhetoric, a line that is neither rhetorical nor material but both, the temptation is to hail the material into the realm of the rhetorical (769).

  • As she explains in the introduction to Feminism and Composition Studies, the goal of the collection of essays, as the subtitle indicates, is to “examine new strategies, ‘other words,’ for writing, teaching and learning at the productive spaces where the two fields meet and diverge,” a process that may double rhetoric but still relegate materiality to the formative realm of the sign without choreographing what Michel de Certeau calls the dance of “the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization” (Jarratt 4; de Certeau 117) (769).

  • Without a doubt, we need Foucault’s biopolitics, the insight that the material details of life-such as what we wear, how we sit, and where we eat-all conspire to maintain the dominance of a particular discursive arrangement of culture. As de Certeau observes, “There is no law that is not inscribed on bodies. Every law has a hold on the body …. It engraves itself on parchments made from the skin of its subjects. It articulates them in a juridical corpus. It makes its book out of them” (139-40) (770).

  • we also need Antonio Gramsci’s contradictory insight that material experiences-experience in and of the world-will always contend with the ideological apparatus implicit within a culture’s dominant discourses (324-27) (770).

  • Meaning exists because of and through the multileveled interweaving of materiality (an ontic reality that seemingly exists “out there”) and of “language” (any systematic way of parsing material potential into organized pattern). Bateson stresses that neither materiality nor semiosis exists apart from the other. What is “out there” is simply not knowable to us except through our attempts to organize it meaningfully … These material-semiotic systems comprise a complex network of feedback and feedforward loops, all of which create, disrupt, and re-create the other.(771).

  • According to Bateson, we constantly shift back and forth between a logic that makes distinctions (semiosis) and a logic that unmakes distinctions (materiality) (771).

  • Within the material/semiotic nexus, we shuttle constantly between the markings and the potential itself, refining our sense of the markings, guided by our perceptions of differences to determine what should be named (772).


  • this articulates so much of what my felt sense dictates in my classroom and my research. so happy for this find!
  • biggest curiosity: it feels as if fleckenstein is trying to generate a mind-body connection that has already been established in eastern philosophies and even in the western sophist tradition. i love this ‘bodysigns of biorhetorics,’ but i wonder why no hearken to these other traditions … Unless it can be explained by this:

    “a new vocabulary of metaphors that Richard Rorty claims is necessary for any change: ‘a tool for doing something which could not have been envisaged prior to the development of a particular set of descriptions, those which it itself helps to provide” (74) (772).

To consume:

  • Jarratt, Susan C. “Introduction: As We Were Saying … ” Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words. Ed. Susan C. Jarratt and Lynn Worsham. New York: MLA, 1998. 1-18.

  • Haraway, Donna 1. How Like a Leaf· An Interview with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve. New York: Routledge, 2000.

    Modest_ Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan ©_Meets_ Onco.Mouset'”: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997.


    “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992.295-337.

    Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

  • Spellmeyer, Kurt. “After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the

    World.” College English 58 (1996): 893-913.

    “Out of the Fashion Industry: From Cultural Studies to the Anthropology of Knowledge.” College Composition and Communication 47 (1996): 424-36.

    “‘Too Little Care’: Language, Politics, and Embodiment in the Life- World.” Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy. Ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998.254-91.

  • Rich, Adrienne. “No. 29” of “Contradictions: Tracking Poems.” Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems. New York: Norton, 1986. 111.

  • Schenck, Celeste. “All of a Piece: Women’s Poetry and Autobiography.” Life/ Lines: Theorizing Women’s Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.281-305.

  • Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Toronto: Bantam,1980.

    A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. Ed. Rodney E. Donaldson. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

    Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychia- try, Evolution, and Epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1972/1987.

  • Selzer, Jack. “Habeas Corpus: An Introduction.” Rhetorical Bodies. Ed. Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999.3-15.

  • Alcoff, Linda. “Cultural Feminism versus Post-Structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory.” Reconstructing the Academy: Women’s Educa- tion and Women’s Studies. Ed. Elizabeth Minnich, Jean o’Barr, and Rachel Rosenfeld. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.257-88.

  • Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and Trans. QuintinHoareandGeoffreyNowellSmith.NewYork:International,1971.

  • Bartholomae, David. “A Reply to Stephen North.” Pre/Text 11 (1990): 121-30.

    “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Journal of Basic Writing 12 (1993): 4-21.

    “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 62-71; 84-87.

  • Soliday, Mary. “Class Dismissed.” College English 61 (1999): 731-41.

  • Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

  • De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: U of Califomia P, 1984.

  • Fleckenstein, Kristie S. “Resistance, Women, and Dismissing the ‘I. ‘” Rhetoric Review 17 (1998):107-25.
    “Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies.” College English 61 (1999): 281-306.

  • Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

  • Griffin, Susan. “Red Shoes.” The Eros of Everyday Life: Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society. New York: Doubleday, 1995. 161-76.

  • West, Cornel. “Interview with Anders Stephanson.” Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Ed. Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.269-86.

  • Dixon, Kathleen. “Gendering the ‘Personal. ,,, College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 255-75.

  • Salibrici, Mary. “Reality Check at the Crossroads.” Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric. Ed. Louise Wetherbee Phelps and Janet Emig. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995. 393-406.

  • Phelps, Louise Wetherbee, and Janet Emig. “Editors’ Reflections: Vision and Interpretation.” Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in Ameri- can Composition and Rhetoric. Ed. Louise Wetherbee Phelps and Janet Emig. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995.407-26.

  • Lu, Min-Zhan, and Bruce Horner. “The Problematic of Experience: Redefining Critical Work in Ethnography and Pedagogy.” College English 60 (1998): 257-77.

  • Spivak
  • De Vinne, Christine. “Conspicuous Consumption: Cannibal Bodies and the Rhetoric of the American West.” Rhetorical Bodies. Ed. Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1999.75-97.

  • Kirsch, Gesa E., and Joy S. Ritchie. “Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research.” College Composition and Commu- nication 46 (1995): 7-29.

  • Rorty, Richard. “The Contingency of Language.” Rhetoric in an Antifoundational World: Language, Culture, and Pedagogy. Ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Richard R. Glejzer. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. 65-85.

  • Balsamo, Anne. Technologies of the Gendered Body: Reading Cyborg Women. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997.

  • Bridwell-Bowles, Lillian. “Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing within the Academy.” College Composition and Communication 43 (1992): 349-68.

    “Freedom, Form, Function: Varieties of Academic Discourse.” College Composition and Communication 46 (1995): 46-61.


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