A few weeks after I arrived in Oxford, I had a conversation with a colleague from the literature department about differences between our respective fields of study. Although it’s difficult for me to recalls specifics about the conversation, one thing sticks out: I was told Gloria Anzaldúa doesn’t belong in rhetoric, that we have no business studying her work. Having not read her, I didn’t have much to say. I remembered seeing her name in the Rhetorical Tradition and I had read the Andrea Lunsford interview from a composition studies anthology, but I hadn’t read her work on its own. So, I just kind of said “alright” and moved on…
I think I would have some things to say now, especially given Damian Baca’s treatment of her rhetorical theory.
Most importantly, I think I would challenge my friend to think differently about rhetoric. As Baca notes in his chapter, Anzaldúa can’t be seen as working solely within the tradition of Western (Greco-Roman) rhetoric. She’s also working against it, which may help writing teachers/scholars to think differently about rhetoric. Rhetoric—that seemingly mystical thing we study—is so steeped in traditional European views of rhetoric that, like my colleague expressed, it’s difficult to see a figure like Anzaldúa working within the purview of rhetoric. Baca argues, “Writing departments, from their colonial origin, have long promoted an education embedded in European traditions. Consequently, the accumulation of knowledge about rhetoric is aligned with the linear narrative of Western history” (128). (This is such a brilliant insight. It seems so obvious, but it’s something that I don’t think is discussed much – especially in casual conversations about rhetoric.)
So, yes, under the traditional heading of “rhetoric” it may be difficult to locate Anzaldúa as a theorist of that tradition. However, as Baca notes, this difficulty stems from a longstanding definition and tradition of rhetoric—one that has a Greek and Roman ancestry. Conceiving of Anzaldúa as someone worthy of rhetorical study, though, works to dismantle this near-monolithic conceptualization of rhetoric. It shows how dominant (i.e. the tradition) pedagogical views of rhetoric might fall short in explaining the complex discursive practices of American rhetoric.
I see Anzaldua herself as both a rhetor and writing theorist. Her powerful account makes use of the theory she posits. Using Anzaldua’s words, it meshes cultures, it kneads language varieties, and it mixes identities. Fluid.
Anzaldúa herself has something to say about a poetics and rhetoric divide. “In the ethno-poetics and performance of the shaman, my people, the Indians, did not split the artistic from the functional, the sacred from the secular, art from everyday life” (1592). Although she’s referring to her ancestry here, it seems like she’s suggesting the classic split between rhetoric and poetics is not a Mesoamerican phenomenon, that there’s a powerful—almost mystical—link between the two.
Also, as evidenced by her interview with Andrea Lunsford, she thought herself as a theorist of writing and composition.
In the end, I almost feel like trying parse Anzaldúa into one field or another does her work a disservice. Like the complex borders along which she lived and worked, Anzaldúa works both within and outside “traditions.” Isolating her work—trying to make it one thing over another—misses the point altogether.