As part of the Writing and Rhetoric Across Borders speaker series, the WRD Department hosted Dr. Candice Rai on Friday, October 27. Rai is an associate professor and the director of the Expository Writing Program at the University of Washington. As well as the author of the book Democracy’s Lot: Rhetoric, Publics, and the Places of Invention. Rai’s talk, titled “On Hope, Invention, and Politics in the Ruins of Democracy,” drew on the research she did for Democracy’s Lot—an ethnographic study exploring the complex negotiations of everyday democracies here in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
Field Work in Uptown
During the first half of the talk, Rai discussed her field work in Uptown—a neighborhood that she explains is ripe for rhetorical study due to its ethnic, economic and linguistic diversity, as well as a long-standing history of civic action across the political spectrum. For this reason, Rai said, Uptown “cannot explain away its democratic shortcomings as a lack of diversity or participation.” In focusing on Uptown, she sees her work as a “microlevel investigation into the chaos and promise of democracy.”
During the talk, Rai specifically focused on debates about affordable housing as a place of rhetorical invention. It is in such places—where social justice is tied to spatial justice—that democratic rhetoric becomes invested with meaning, not in the “grander idea of democracy that floats above them.” However, what Rai encountered when examining these spaces of rhetorical invention was antagonism and a “squatting deeper into one’s position, as opposed to cooperation.”
Affect & Public Formation on Uptown Update
In order to illustrate her claims, Rai turned to a case study of the neighborhood blog Uptown Update. Rai examined the comments on a video posted to the blog, which depicted a group of young men getting in a loud fight in the street at the intersection of Sheridan & Leland. In these comments, Rai found that Uptown citizens were sharing similar stories of fearful bodily experience to the ones she received in response to question of affordable housing. She referred to the Burkean notion of “identification” to explain how the fight video became a magnet for people to locate and identify their fears in the discursive spaces around it.
In this way, the blog comment section aggregated citizens’ fears and legitimized them, pulling personal affects into pre-constructed social narratives—enmeshing personal, bodily experiences with collective, socially situated responses that make it seem “natural” to relate violent behavior to its proximal residence. By getting involved in this discursive space, Uptown citizens’ negative perceptions on affordable housing were deepened through the linkage of personal experience and identification in a collective public of shared experience. Wrapping up her discussion of this case study, Rai said that going into her ethnographic project she started with the question “How can democracy be done better?” but by the time she was finished it was something more like “What do we do given the complexity of a diverse social situation?”
In Uptown’s democracy I found ambivalence, complicity and reasonableness around every corner; everyone was “doing” democracy in a sense.
Rhetorical Listening and Hopeful Rhetorical Pedagogy
For the second half of her talk, Rai turned the conversation toward pedagogy, drawing on her insights from her field work in Uptown to figure out what the implications might be for teachers and students of rhetoric. She believes that the doubling down of positions illustrated in the Uptown Update case study does not bode well for democracy, nor for rhetoric in general.
Rai, pointing to previous rhetorical scholarship, posited that collective will can only be realized through the accretion of small measures—in other words, societal change starts at the individual level. She suggested then that we might want to reconsider the idea of rhetorical invention as discovering the available means of persuasion and reframe it as discovering the available means of cooperation. Instead of teaching argument as the process of receiving others’ ideas and either replacing or discarding them, we need something more inclusive and understanding.
One such framework for imagining a more cooperative rhetoric is Krista Ratcliffe’s idea of rhetorical listening. Explaining the issue of forceful rhetoric, Rai said, “Sometimes we respond to arguments with our ‘lizard brains,’ and it causes us to block out affect.” Instead, she suggested we might teach rhetorical listening, which requires us to nurture and engage the ideas we encounter, rather than capture or destroy them. With a cooperative rhetoric, we are provided with the hope that we can resolve, or at the very least, understand the complexities of difference.
As the first of three annual lectures in WRD’s Writing and Rhetoric Across Borders speaker series, Candice Rai’s talk was grounded in a local events relevant to its audience. It was also timely, given that our political climate seems to be eroding the capabilities to dialogue across our differences. Rai’s research and talk was a reminder of how complex it is to talk across borders, even within local communities.