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Explaining How Symbols Work

Suchitra Mathur

Edited by Karen A. Foss, Sonja K. Foss, and Cindy L. Griffin
Sage Publications, London, 2004, pp. 319, $34.95


Readings in Feminist Rhetorical Theory—this straightforward title holds out the promise of an anthology that brings together the work of various feminist rhetoricians within its covers. However, the circle of nine names that follows this title on the cover page belies this promise. While names like Cheris Kramarae and Sally Miller Gearhart are associated with feminist interventions in theories of language and communication, others like those of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Paula Gunn Allen, and Trinh T. Minh-ha, though well-known voices of third-wave feminism, are not usually associated with the field of rhetorical theory. Neither, for that matter, are Mary Daly and Sonia Johnson whose brand of radical feminism not only appears to have no direct connection with rhetorical theory, but is also rather fundamentally at odds with the work of the aforementioned third-wave / Third World feminists whose focus on issues of race and colonialism has effectively challenged the earlier radical feminist notions of universal sisterhood. What framework of rhetorical theory, one wonders, allows the yoking together of such heterogeneous feminist writers?   While the select readers already acquainted with Foss, Foss and Griffin’s earlier work, Feminist Rhetorical Theories, may know the detailed answer to this question, the rest have to be content with the one-page of ‘Definitions of Rhetoric, Theory, and Feminism’ that the editors provide in their brief introduction to this collection. Rhetoric is here defined as ‘any kind of human symbol use that functions in any realm—public, private, and anything in between’, while a rhetorical theorist is ‘a person who is offering coherent and systematic explanations of the ways symbols work to create, exchange, and negotiate meanings’ (p. 2). Clearly, then, the editors are following neither the classical definition of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, nor the established disciplinary divisions that identify individual theorists with specific fields of study. Such departures from convention are, of course, an expected aspect of any self-identified ‘feminist’ enterprise, but they usually take the form of a sustained critique and reformulation that is impossible to encompass in five pages—the length of the editors’ introductory chapter in this collection. The editors do hint at this sustained work in feminist rhetorical theory in their opening paragraph which traces a linear history of the field in five distinct stages culminating in its current state of ‘maturity’ where it is possible to ‘spiral back, reflect, and critique where we have been and ...

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