Tag Archives: material rhetorics

Willard-Traub, Margaret. “Rhetorics of Gender and Ethnicity in Scholarly Memoir: Notes on a Material Genre”


In this essay, Willard-Traub theorizes the role of reflexivity in the academic writing of three scholars who draw on autiobiography  to negotiate identity and create material consequences.  Willard-Traub identifies this genre of reflective academic writing that is situated in the subjectivity of the writer-researcher and thus disrupts traditional expectations of “objectivity” a material genre.  According to Willard-Traub, this material genre creates unique relationships between writers and readers by forging material connections (social, individual) between writers and readers that entail material consequences (512).  Willard-Traub relies on Bahktin and others to demonstrate that language is always embedded in social experience and adapts itself to unique social situations in the present.  Language is also a “living thing that relies on relationships among speakers, listeners, and contexts” (516). Often, as Wendy Hesford helps make clear, this genre can be thought of as a materialist “’countergenre that negotiates asymmetrical power relations and participates in the transformation of the cultural production of identify, social relations, and historical memory’” (qtd. on 515).  In addition, this genre can be viewed as “’contact zones—as practices through which individuals negotiate conflicting identities and contradictory discourses’” (qtd. On 515). As such this material genre is one in which performs a reconciliation of scholarly theorizing about the world with the practice of living in the world (517).  It acknowledges and makes explicit that which is always not true— “that uncomplicated subjectivities…do not transcend the walls of the institution” (520).  Overall, what a material genre both reflects and embodies is the notion that language has material consequences, especially for the writer’s themselves.  As Willard-Traub demonstrates through analysis of one scholars’s work, reflective academic writing is often a liminal space in which both material and discursive identities are negotiated (522).  This space is exists between objective and expressive forms of writing, for it is a performative space in which identity is negotiated as writers encounter the changing world around them (523-4).   



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“An Essamplaire Essai on the Rhetoricity of Needlework Sampler-Making: A Contribution to Theorizing and Historicizing Rhetorical Praxis”

Goggin begins this article by pointing out that much scholarship in our field, particularly work in feminist and visual rhetorics, that has focused on textual artifacts emphasizes their semiotic and performative aspects. Goggin praises this work yet emphasizes the need to theorize and historicize rhetorical praxis to uncover the material practices that construct these artifacts. In this article, then, Goggin sets out to historicize and theorize needlework sampler-making in order to explore the “rhetorical force of diverse practices that create texts” and to extend “boundaries of what counts as rhetorical practice and who counts in its production” (310).

Such work is important, Goggin notes, because “Theorizing and historicizing multiple material practices is critical for contributing to our understanding how rhetorical practices are learned and conducted, where and when these practices take place, who has been admitted into the practice and who has been barred, and how both access and barriers to such practices are constructed and sustained” (311). This lack of knowledge, in turn, leads to the reification of autonomous models of literacy, the perpetuation of the literate/illiterate binary, and the limitation of what cultural artifacts the field of rhetoric deems worthy of scholarly attention.

Goggin begins historicizing needlework sampler-making by identifying ideological constructs that have prevented rhetorical scholars from investigating needleworking as a rhetorical praxis: insistence the needleworking is not the same as penmanship, demonization of needle and “distaff” as material practices, the delegation of needleworking to the private realm, and the lack of understanding needleworking as a significant cultural practice in meaning-making. More so, needleworking has been socially constructed as “woman’s work,” which prevents it from being seen as a rhetorical tool.

Goggin then turn her attention to the discursive, rhetorical nature of needleworking samplers. She begins by distinguishing between different textile practices and emphasizes that the practice of embroidery is a “form of meaning mark-making–a polysemous system of writing. Goggin then emphasizes that different types of stitching make the reading and writing of textiles a complex practice, yet at the same time, because each stitch has specific functions, the great variety of stitches increases the potential of needlework as a rhetorical tool.

After focusing on stitching, Goggin turns her attention to the genre of the sampler and identifies the transformations that occur within this genre between the 16th and 19th centuries. Goggin demonstrates that while early samplers contained animal motifs and thus served a decorative function, samplers soon became heuristics where women practiced writing the alphabet and numbers. As samplers became sites where women wrote verses, it became clear that during the 17th century, samplers served as places to learn and demonstrate stitching skills. This transformation occurred alongside a transformation in subject positions occupied by needleworkers. No longer a practice reserved for the domestic sphere, needleworking moved into schools and the public realm.

Gradually, Goggin demonstrates, sampler-making became a valued art and thus needleworking became a tool for instilling “basic secular and moral education” (323). Goggin claims sampler-making actually also served as a site to learn other subjects such as geography, math, and astronomy and thus served as a pedagogical tool.

Sampler-making did not maintain its status as an educational tool, however. By the end of the 19th century, sampler-makings as an art form practically died and instead became a site of credentialing for those professionally trained in sampler-making. Sampler-making became displaced, transformed, and erased and today, despite efforts to revive this practice, sampler-making has not yet fully recovered its once popular status.

Goggin’s study demonstrates that “praxis, the artifacts created, the discourse participants, and the avenues of circulation are interdynamic and historically specific” (326). She claims we have obligations to explore these shifting interdynamics within broader contexts. Sampler-making declined, for instance, as printing patterns flourished in pattern books and magazines made possible by the printing press. More so, the turn to texts for instruction in sampler-making reflected a transformation in epistemology, more specifically to the Cartesian notion that “separated knowing from doing” and the modern ideology that language is container of knowledge (326-7). Also, some displacement of sampler-making can be attributed to rise of technology, ie. the sewing machine.

In order to fully understand the displacement and near erasure of sampler-making, however, Goggin insists we understand the episteme (Foucault) during which sampler-making so radically changed. Although a plethora of descriptions of this episteme are, perhaps, responsible for the radical change, Goggin explores the effect the rise of individualism in late 17th and early 18th centuries had on sampler-making. Goggin also poses a number of compelling questions, which model ways in which we can theorize and historicize the historical praxis of sampler-making in other ways. Such questions include: “In what ways did the changing ideological definitions of femininity and masculinity create the conditions that led to radical changes of who participated in sampler-making and the purposes for which they did so?…What correlations may be drawn between the discontinuities in sampler-making and those that co-occurred in rhetorical theory?…What impact did the early modernist hierarchical division and subsequent gendering of arts and crafts as well as that of creative territories have on sampler-making as a practice?” (328).

Goggin ends her article with a discussion of the methodological limits of conducting such scholarship due to political, cultural, social, ideological, and theoretical forces that impact our scholarship. Such limitations also arise from: contestations over origins of cultural, rhetorical artifacts; decay and discarding of material artifacts, which reflects what prior groups deem valuable and worthy of preservation. In relation to this last limitation, Goggin claims scholars must identify the social, cultural, class, race, gender, ethinicity, political, and economic forces that privilege some rhetorical material artifacts and marginalize others. We should also attend to how these artifacts have been “discursively circumscribed and imbued with meaning before we even set our critical gaze on them” (330).

In her “finishing touches,” Goggin underscores the importance of investigating rhetorical praxes that are not typically theorized, historicized in our field. She ends by reiterating the need to investigate how and why unique discursive practices that were once popular have been displaced, transformed, and erased. This work has the potential to “better understand other discursive formations and practices, including our own as rhetoric scholars and historians”


Last week I posed a question that Eileen asks on our course syllabus: What are the standards for good historical scholarship? I think Goggin’s work on needleworking samplers demonstrates many high standards for writing social history. One, she historicizes needleworking while at the same time points out the limitations in attempting to define the origins of this genre. Two, she attempts to uncover some of the political, social, cultural, and economic forces that create and transform needleworking as a rhetorical praxis. Three, she articulates the methodolgical limitations of conducting such scholarship. Four, she defines her methodological goals and political motivations for enaging in this work. Five, she explores a rhetorical site that has previously been untouched by rhetorical scholars and thus pushes the boundaries of texts worthy of being studied in our field. Six, she recovers a rhetorical praxis important for everyday women throughout three centuries.

For someone interested in studying Peruvian tapestries as rhetorical, material artifacts, Goggin does an excellent job modeling both rhetorical and methodological strategies for conducting such work. Some may argue that in this particular article, Goggin does not actually demonstrate how needlework samplers were in fact “rhetorical” in nature, which is true. But I have read two other articles by Goggin about this same genre in which she more clearly identifies its rhetorical nature. Her purpose in this article is to theorize and historicize rather than rhetorically analyze. In doing so, she offers methodological alternatives to a traditional rhetorical analysis and models how to write a good social history. We must remember that writing social history demands investigations of the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions which influence the rhetorical practices of everyday people. Goggin does a fine job of exploring some of those conditions by situating needleworking samplers in the specific episteme in which they were produced. In doing so, we not only discover a previously unexplored, unique rhetorical praxis, we also, begin to better understand the poltical, social, and cultural attitudes about epistemology, language, and gender–all of which influenced the way this particular praxis was enacted and transformed.


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“Seeing Ancient Rhetoric, Easily at a Glance” James Fredal

In this article, Fredal, utimately concerned with limiting definitions of rhetoric for our postmodern world, defines rhetoric as “the exchange of meaning within  a social system through which meaning, culture, identity, knowledge and practice are produced and circulated” (183).  In defining rhetoric in this way, Fredal hopes to create a definition broad enough to encompass non-linguistic and non-verbal symbolic acts and artifacts, yet narrow enough to isolate” culturally significant processes and products of persuasion and identification” (183).  By equating rhetoric with enculturation, Fredal hopes to maintain traditional conceptions of rhetoric yet create space for all of the ways in which cultures exchange meaning and produce and reproduce themselves. 

Fredal claims that when investigating rhetoric, we should begin by asking “What symbolic systems and what media were culturally significant in the formation of what Castioriadis calls the “civic and social imaginary”…, how were these symbolic systems used, and what values, beliefs, and practices were encouraged or discouraged by their use?” (184).

Expanding the scope of rhetoric in ways mentioned above will change historiography in the following ways:

–pluralization of rhetoric

–postponement of theory until after ethnographic, anthropological, and historical studies are conducted

–consideration of non-linguistic rhetorical artificats

–consideration of non-individual, anonymous and/or collective meaning making acts

–inclusion of the visual, and political friendships, clubs, and norms popular in Ancient Greece.  After all, Greece was rich in rhetorical monuments and theatrics and physical spaces where symbolic and rhetorical exhange occurred in various forms in public.  Fredal cites the Pnyx as an exemplar of one of the many where “rhetorical artistry” was encoded in a space, structure, or site. 

Fredal concludes by saying we would be limiting our knowledge of how meaning is made by limiting our rhetorical investigations to langauge and texts (188). 

My response:  !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Filed under cultural rhetorics exam, historiography exam