Monday, September 10, 2007

Reflections Around an Embroidered Psalm

First, an acknowledgment of Bob’s, David’s, Iyov’s, John’s, Stephan’s, Suzanne’s blogs, posts, and comments on Psalm 68.

Second, a question inspired by Suzanne’s post, “Ps. 68: Part 7: Reflections,” and some of her wonderful comments around her rhetorical questions:

“Was Psalm 68 written by a woman? Does it matter?

Are men less musical, are men less interested in expressing themselves through music and language than women? In some way, yes, but in others, not at all.

Is my interpretation of the psalm actually feminine, or is something else going on?”

My question is this:

Does a woman writing make a difference?

No and Yes.

No: Women and men write equally.

We all can observe that women and men may write equally. That is, women and men are inherently equal in their capacity, in their ability, to write. We can see the equality immediately without having to turn to the academy or to anyone’s interpretations of any religious scripture. A man can write like a woman (if there’s a woman’s way of writing). And a woman can write like a man (if there’s a man’s way of writing). In this sense, therefore, it makes no difference in writing whether the writer is a man or a woman.

Despite the equality between men and women, some men such as Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, and perhaps Lawrence Summers have declared inequality between men and women (and, presumably, their writing). These men have written that women are different and presumably are therefore lesser than men physically and psychologically and perhaps in the society of the academy. The inference from Aristotle, Freud, and maybe Summers is that a woman’s writing is somehow fundamentally different-and-deficient when compared with men’s. These three men employ (an attempt at) logic, science, and cold unbiased observation to make such a conclusion.

Why can’t French postmodern feminists reason, then, that “phallologocentric” writers (such as Aristotle) will only pretend that there is no gendered writing when, really, “misogynistic” writers seem just to mark “womanly” writing as altogether different and leave all other [manly] writing as unmarked? In her Voice Lessons: On Becoming a [Woman] Writer (on page 4), we really can listen to Nancy Mairs saying in protest to her critic: “I am not a ‘real writer.’ I am a writer. Without modification.” So why can’t we also hear that writers are equal, male and female? Why can’t we see that male and female difference does not make for inequality? How can we not perceive this: that what de-scribes another’s writing as lesser are the imposed marks, the adjectives, the labels, and the modifications that a writer refuses to apply down on himself?

If we’re still having trouble seeing the sexism here, then analogies from racism may help. Let’s ask this: “Is African American literature lesser than other (American) literature?” Of course not! But the modification can “other,” can “marginalize,” and can “essentialize.” And a writer such as Jacqueline Jones Royster may respond, writing about what happens when others apply labels to her but not themselves; her responsive article is entitled,“When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.”

If we’re still having trouble seeing the sexism, then analogies from ethnocentrism may also help. Let’s ask this: “Is ancient Chinese written instruction in communication a real ‘rhetoric’ on par with our (western european) rhetoric”? Of course we’d better at least imagine that Chinese rhetoric might be equal to ours. But look how we readers of rhetorical history tend to pass over the labels, unnoticed, when reading a book like Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction by a reputable scholar such as George A. Kennedy. I pass over the ethnocentric modifications until coming upon something penciled in the margins of page 143 of my university’s library copy of the book. There, next to the author’s English (and the publisher’s transcribed pinyin) labels for Chinese terms, someone has unmarked the Chinese by marking the western writing with the following:

So by page 162, I really start wondering at Kennedy’s non-equal comparisons. There he writes: “The author of a Chinese work that most approximates a rhetorical handbook was Han Fei-tzu, probably born about 280BCE, ‘the Machiavelli of ancient China’.” And I ask now: “Might not a Chinese comparative rhetorician venture that Niccolo Machiavelli, perhaps born around the late to mid 1400sCE, is the Han Fei-tzu of sixteenth-century Europe”?

(It is absolutely no surprise to me that some readers reading my blog have not immediately been able to mark whether I’m a man or a woman. See the comments on Lingamish’s blog. Our gender and our race for that matter do not have to identify or to determine our writing. But won’t we do well first to acknowledge the differences our writing, our gender, and our race make before we start marking others as different and as different-and-therefore-lesser?)

Yes. A woman writing does make a difference.

Going beyond Aristotle’s mistaken observation that women are lesser than men, we can read writers who make a difference. They make a difference (though marked in the world of men as “women”). They make a difference by showing that men in history (especially men writing history) have not marked men and women equally. They show that, in the history of men written by men, usually the ones that count are men.

But women writing history have another history. And some write that history differently, more inclusively, with women equal to men. These writers include Laura Certa (writing to “Bibolo Semproni”); Cristine de Pizan (writing “The Book of the City of Ladies”); Elizabeth Cady Stanton (writing and reading “The Declaration of Sentiments” and The Women’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective); Cheryl Glenn (writing Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance); Susan Jarratt (writing “Sappho's Memory” and, with Rory Ong, “Apsasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology”); and C. Jan Swearingen (writing “Plato’s Feminine: Appropriation, Impersonation, and Metaphorical Polemic”).

Such women’s writing is inclusive, not just of women with men, but is inclusive of methods and rhetorics that are not male only. Patricia Bizzell, for example, has written a wonderful article, which embraces traditional research methods (i.e., unmarked methods of men) but which also valorizes what get marked in our societies as less common methods (i.e., often suspect and marked-as-womanly methods). The article is "Feminist Methods of Research in the History of Rhetoric: What Difference Do They Make?"

For men reading women writers, there is an encouragement is not to settle for man writing that excludes women. There is the encouragement to men and women equally to use more inclusive methods (i.e., feminist methods) in writing. Let’s recall just a few. In contrast with Francis Bacon’s modernistic Essays, there’s Michel de Montaigne’s Essais with the self as the subject and method instead of mere logic. In contrast with Noam Chomsky’s and Morris Halle’s T-G linguistic theory of binary features, there’s Kenneth Pike’s, Evelyn Pike’s, and Eunice Pike’s Tagmemics, which places person above logic and which insists on acknowledging a language unit in a hierarchical perspective within its chosen context. In contrast with Aristotle’s logic, there are many other rhetorics and namely Jim W. Corder’s (which Keith D. Miller calls “Jim Corder’s Radical, Feminist Rhetoric”) which, perhaps, could be summed up fairly by one of Corder’s sentences (i.e., “On some days I’m pretty sure that there are five rhetorics, as intellect teaches me to speak in one way, while emotions tell another, and will insists on a third, and what’s left of soul whispers a fourth, and body comes with a fifth to dominate the others”) except just one sentence doesn’t quite include all the intellect, emotion, will, soul, or body of Corder or his works.

But I’ve gotten all academic in this blog again. I think a lot about the world in which my son and daughters live, the kind of writing they must write and read. As adults, they should be equal (as men and women) in their education, in their ability to write. And wonderfully different. I look forward to reading how they read, equally but differently, Psalm 68.

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