Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reading :: Breaking Up (at) Totality

Originally posted: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 21:22:42

Breaking Up (At) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter

by D. Diane Davis

I haven't read much thoroughgoing feminist theory since grad school, but what really struck me about authors such as Cixous and Kristeva was that they sounded like Terry Gross trying to tell a penis joke.

You know what I mean if you've listened to much NPR. Gross starts by introducing the interviewee, using her trademarked Very Thoughtful tone of voice. At some point she decided to inject her own (inevitably orthodox) views, which she always telegraphs with a nervous chuckle and a series of hesitations, then delivers with a leading question. That question is stated, withdrawn, and restated in rapid fire, as if posing a leading question in three different ways will somehow camoflage it as a leading question or make it any less of a statement. "So (heh hah), don't you think that ? have you ever ? do you wonder if ?" And when Gross is unsure or insecure, her voice grows even more thoughtful and her vocabulary even more academic. If she were to tell a penis joke, it would take ten minutes and she would radiate nervous discomfort all the way through.

Diane Davis, on the other hand, knows how to tell a really ribald penis joke. And, yes, that is a compliment.

Diane happens to be in the office next to mine. She's smart, animated, extroverted, and in constant motion. If you want to get a sense of her, you really should read this book. It's less colloquial than Diane is in real life, but it retains her gusto and iconoclast outlook. But perhaps "iconoclast" is not quite right. The book is about disrupting established, patriarchal modes of discourse ? hence the feminist theory ? but its goal is to encourage new sorts of conversations through affirmative laughter. Diane goes after this goal by drawing on Deleuze, Haraway, and similar scholars to explore themes of heterogeneity and multiplicity. She encourages us not to "fear fluidity" but rather to examine rhetoric ontologically, relying less on unified subjects and more on metaphors of fluids and clusters. The book "after an instantaneous gestalt switch rather than a long-term political program; we are after tactics rather than strategies" (p.56). The inventive use of typography throughout allows her to underline her points playfully. It's a bit like watching Rip Taylor.

Actually, the typography is symptomatic of Diane's extroversion. And like many extroverts, I think she has a hard time understanding that her vision of writing as uninhibited, orgiastic, excessive, festive, etc. is not especially appealing to introverts like myself. To an extrovert, introverts seem to be filled with fear and that's what makes them reserved, uninterested in engaging in the Burkean parlor, more inclined to strategy than tactics. No, introverts often find public engagement draining; festivals and parlors are tests of psychic endurance. Metaphors based on those sorts of events are therefore extremely unappealing to introverts ? accomplishing precisely the opposite of what they intend, binding rather than liberating, exhausting rather than rejuvenating. Characterizing this reaction as fffffffear is a bit unfair.

Despite the metaphor, though, the book really is valuable. Diane thinks about issues of power and privilege ontologically, and in doing so, levels a sharp critique of composition pedagogies (including feminist pedagogies) that often hits its mark. Don't be put off by the gnome on the front cover (not Diane's choice, by the way). Take a look.

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