Sensory Rhetorics, Radical Description, & First Year Composition
In the early stages of my dissertation prospectus, I told my advisor that in order to build a theory of sensory rhetorics, we FIRST need to understand rhetorical circulation. So, rhetorical circulation has become the topic of my dissertation, and what I’m about to tell you about sensory rhetorics is still a raw projection for future work. While it is raw, almost everything in this presentation is something I teach my FYW students on their way towards a praxis of radical description.
My theory of sensory rhetorics is situated in late capitalism, and it seeks to understand how late capitalism conditions the behavior of it subjects, capturing them.
I consider radical description to be a praxis of resisting late capitalism. By describing sensations of which late capitalists would prefer we remain semiconscious or unconscious, we ultimately end up breaking with endorsed Englishes, like academic English.
While work on visual and sonic rhetoric in our field is often apolitical, I want you to understand that, to me, understanding sensory rhetorics is deeply political. Both how we sense—and how we are perceived to sense—is based on a social order of sensation. Vision is associated with enlightenment, logic, distance, mobility, visibility—reading, writing, and literacy. And of course, in our field, visual rhetorics has by far the longest tradition of scholarship.
Hearing is associated with speech and communication, logic, distance, mobility, and having your voice heard. In our field, sonic rhetorics are taking off as we “speak.” Vision and sound are considered by Western cultural historian Constance Classen to be “SEEN” as the “higher senses”—markers of the able-bodied, independent, property-owning, Euro-white man.
And as she as shown, a way of denigrating both human and nonhuman bodies is to associate them with what was (and is) thought of as the so-called “lower senses”: smell, taste, and touch. For neurotypical humans, these are the close-range senses, the intimate senses. These “lower senses” are associated with kitchens, laundry rooms, fields, assembly lines—spaces of capture, occupation, and captivity.
Nineteenth century Europe saw the crystallization of this sensory hierarchy. It is perhaps best put in the (horrible) terms of a white-European historian (of the time) who created a “sensory scale of ‘races.’” The European man at the top: the “‘eye-man’”; the African man at the bottom: the “‘skin-man.’” Societies that operated through touch were thought to lack prowess in thought (Classen, Deepest Sense xii). Due to their relationship with touch, disabled people, women, and peasants were thought of as “base,” inferior, connected to the lower life form of the “brute.” (Deepest Sense 52, 71, 168, xii). The cultural understanding of the touch-centered, unthinking, unfeeling animal was so powerful that it was used to reinforce oppression based on race, class, gender, and disability. This social order of sensation, and the justifications of oppression based on it, are still intact today. Our fields rich history of visual rhetorics, and growing scholarship on sonic rhetorics, and only blips of conversations on any of the lower senses is a testament to our contemporary ocular- and audio-centrism.
To understand sensory stimuli as an available means of persuasion is to increase the population of rhetors and audiences that our field privileges. George Kennedy, Debra Hawhee, Alex Parrish, Diane Davis, and Natasha Seegart use sensation to bring animals into the that privileged population of rhetors and audiences. Cynthia Leweicki-Wilson and Shannon Walters argue for sensory rhetorics in order to include disabled rhetors and audiences. I am a quadruply disabled, neurodivergent scholar. One of my disabilities brings me the colloquial label “super sensor”—a disability that makes me a dynamically nonnormative audience member. I began my quest to understand sensory rhetorics as a way to grow the field wide enough so that I could fit in. And inclusion of neuro- and physical difference is, for me, a tenet of sensory rhetorics.
But to end there, we run the risk of including only the disabled people and animals with enough privilege, like me, to be noticed by scholars. Think Helen Keller and Sherlock Holmes. To study sensory rhetorics is to also privilege humans who are oppressed because of their association with the lower senses. It is a commitment to study humans who are othered for how they look, sound, and smell; to study human populations who have been so devalued by sovereignties that they have become fluent in smell, touch, and taste communication. Sovereignties of late capitalism employ terrifying opportunities of the “lower” senses. Postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe describes contemporary “repressed topographies of cruelty” (40). And he illustrates two examples of these topographies: the plantation and the colony. Critical theorist Alexander Weheliye would add “those spaces deemed devoid of human life” like “(Guantanamo Bay, internment camps, maximum security prisons)” (12). The “technologies of destruction” that bring about topographies of cruelty, Mbembe says, “have become more tactile, more anatomical and sensorial” (34, 33-6). Technologies of destruction, he mentions suicide bombing and genocide, work through close, intimate sensation.
The tactile qualities of the violence and torture that organize power in these “repressed topographies of cruelty” should be obvious. But sensory rhetorics here are more nuanced than that. Take Ear Hustle for example. Ear Hustle is the first podcast to bring stories about life inside prison, produced and shared by incarcerated people. In the very first episode, an episode on cellmates, they share a story about how powerfully persuasive smell can be. Someone chose to protest their cellmate by not showering, and because of confined quarters and lack of mobility, body odor takes on a much different power than in a classroom, say. Now consider isolation. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl describes the specific pain of isolation, in a lightless, basement room with documentary filmmaker Mark Boal. He didn’t speak the language of his captors, and making noise wasn’t worth the risk. Bergdahl says: “I would wake up not even remembering, like, what I was.” He continues: “I couldn’t see my hands, I couldn’t do anything. The only thing I could do is, like, touch my face.” Being held in isolated captivity (an oxymoron humming with the same intense pain, proximity, and distance), he has only one self-referential affordance, and it is his hands.
The first tenet of my theory of sensory rhetorics the inclusion of humans living in topographies of cruelty as rhetors and audiences worth studying. If we stop with just the inclusion of neurodiverse, physically diverse, and biodiverse populations, we run the risk of studying only what sensory stimuli are available rhetorically, and not also studying how sovereignties and late capitalists use sensation to control populations.
The second tenet of my theory of sensory rhetorics is: to study sensory rhetoric is to connect the discursive, ideological, political, and social understandings of rhetorical consequence to the material economy. When rhetorical theorists attempt this, they fall up short. Wendy Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics is a study in the “visual economy.” She connects reason (30-1), personhood (35), and “witnessing” (48) all to visuality. Instead of engaging what we literally see in the “visual economy,” “visibility” is tied to “recognition” and “witnessing” (Hesford 39, 30, 48). The visual economy remains a metaphor, instead of actually analyzing how the visible spectrum of light is rhetorically manipulated by capitalists to condition our behavior. Thankfully, Margaret Price’s depiction of pain stays physical, avoiding the trappings of metaphor. She theorizes relation through the spreading of sensation, how pain leaks and shapes relationality (278). Price directly accounts for the sensation of pain as a part of systemic oppression under late capitalism closer to the scale, and I hope to extend her work in this short piece into more specific sensory and material analysis.
Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric is one of few rhetoric scholars to come close to considering late capitalism and sensation. He urges rhetoric scholars to pay attention to the sensory rhetorics that make up the backdrop of our lives. Yet, he doesn’t intervene in late capitalism’s capture of our potential, instead depicting late capitalism as the “information economy.” In a close reading of the Microsoft Windows four-second start-up music, he offers a useful analytic for sounds, allowing us to understand how sounds work in different roles to modulate our potential (141-150). While he demonstrates how deeply a corporation has imbued itself into our sensory ambience, Rickert argues this teaches us the power of the non- or less-conscious rhetorical workings of ambience generally (154)—not how late capitalism modulates our potential through sensory rhetorics.
For me, for now, the connection between sensory stimuli, rhetoric, and the material economy is abundantly clear. Here’s an example. When I meet people, I learn a lot about them from the scents they give off. I’m about to share six categories of personal scent that I pick up on in order of how much I guess that people of conscious of their construction of their olfactory ethos. The scents don’t arrive in this order, and I don’t usually get all of them.
Body smells. The biological smell canvas that all the scents we put on play with. You don’t REALLY have a choice as to your personal body smells, but you do have a choice about how you package them. An added complication here is I can smell pheromones (some other people can too), and when I’m on a dance floor or in a movie theater, I can tell that some bodies really want other bodies to have sex with them.
Laundry Products. I’m not sure how much people think about laundry products and ethos, I think some of those scents are more about persuading yourself that your close are “clean,” or “fresh,” or connected to waterfalls or sunshine or whatever else you might see on detergent bottles. But folks might be thinking about how they want others to think of them as fresh and clean.
Skin Products. Introduction of gender performance smells. My moisturizer smells like roses, and yeah, I’d love if you thought of me as fresh from the garden. I find men’s shaving cream and aftershave to be particularly potent.
Hair Products. Remember the herbal essences commercials? I assumed the hight of femininity was smelling like the essence of herbs, but back in middle school, it was also a way for girls to convince me they were better than I was.
Deodorant. This is the point at which I think people are starting to make more conscious decisions. I feel like deodorants are designed like locks. You want a lock to make a loud latching sound so that you know it works. The purpose of an antiperspirant is to literally change your body chemistry so that you don’t sweat—so why are the scents SO LOUD? I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the OldSpice ads. But do you know how many options they have for the type of masculinity you can project?
Perfume/Cologne/Body Spray. And here is where the rhetoric is PUNGENT. So if all the other scents may not be overtly persuasive—I know people dress themselves in these scents because they want me to think of them in a certain light. As a FYW student, I bathed in this. While I wanted people to think I was very sexy, in a very pastel way, I think my major audience for this perfume was myself. Someone told me that they could tell I’d used a vocal performance room because it reeked of the stuff, and in those tiny spaces, I was certainly the only audience member.
As a FYW student, I bathed in this. While I wanted people to think I was very sexy, in a very pastel way, I think my major audience for this perfume was myself. Someone told me that they could tell I’d used a vocal performance room because it reeked of the stuff, and in those tiny spaces, I was certainly the only audience member.
A major scent that each of these products share is one of the chemical variations on musk—the scent that brings “warmth” and “freshness” to the products we buy. It’s even in toothpaste which I forgot to add here. “Freshness” is a neoliberal construction, and it conditions how we value ourselves and others. Finding examples of late capitalism marshaling public-scale sensation is not difficult. Cultural historians and anthropologists, led by Constance Classen and David Howes, began this work not long after our field picked up visual rhetoric. In his materialist history of sensation, Howes traces sensation from the industrial economy into late capitalism. Sensation industries themselves benefit from globalization. As movies that promote Western values enter international markets, they carry with them Western hygiene standards and open up markets for our products (293). Not only do scents relay cultural norms and values, they are also used to manage populations. Environmental fragrancing is the timed and controlled deployment of a scent. Food scents are piped into malls to make us hungry (and buy food). Office managers mist scents into the workspace to simulate productivity, and a proposal was made to do so to reduce aggression in the NYC subway system (Daimon and Daimon).
Not only are sensations are both forced upon us—they are also restricted. Colors (the pink of Owens-Corning Fiberglass, the combination Kodak’s red, black, and yellow) and sounds (the Harley Davidson rumble) are trade-marked.
As corporations purchase the exclusive right to use specific colors, sounds, scents, tastes, and tacticities, fewer sensations will be allowed in public spaces, bringing sensory scarcity. Research has shown that corporation-generated scents (Crayola crayons, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder) are now more recognizable to us than natural scents (coffee, lemon) (Howes 287-9).
The market also generates multisensory appeals, like Planet Hollywood, luxury cars, and scented slot machines (Howes 290-1). Take the mall—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—all designed to invite your money and also your behavior. Late capitalists certainly understand the power of sensory rhetorics, and they use them to modulate human potential in their interests—therefore we must study sensation in relation to late capitalism.
An exercise I use to get at multi sensory appeals looks like this—they go to one place, like the mall, and list what they sense at different distance.
If you want to understand disability as a social construction, imagine a teacher approaching me with a book. I’m reading her smells on multiple levels, I’m reading the smells of the students around me on multiple levels. I’m also reading how their bodies manipulate light and sound waves. I’m also reading sight, sound, scent, and touch off the book she just handed me. And now I’m expected to read sentences?
It has taken me DECADES to figure out how to describe this to you—and I’m still falling up drastically short. This is not something I can do in writing in endorsed Englishs: not Edited American English, not white English text, and certainly not academic English text. I got my MFA in poetry before doing this PhD, and it was there that I started to develop what I now call Radical Description. Radical Description is the attempt to break with endorsed Englishes in order to describe sensations that don’t have a vocabulary in endorsed Englishes. It is a praxis of constant observation, reflection, and resistance.
Teaching radical description takes time. I open my FYW course with a unit on sensory observation and description. We do that sensory scales exercise and some others as if they are flies on the wall. And we take a very close look at the building blocks of sentences—grammar, punctuation, and the parts of words. I encourage them to use parts to create words better-suited to depict specific sensations, and to use grammar and punctation to create the experience of the sensation—it’s confusion or clarity, it’s speed, it’s intensity. We vote on one location to observe and describe over a series of days. Their final draft is one paragraph that depicts that location at a specific time.
Unit 2, when we learn to read and analyze academic texts (and write for academic audiences). Their power to observe gets refocused on a text. I open with an exercise that asks them to hold eye contact with a partner for a minute. They have lots to say about how it feels. This exercise proves to them that their eyes—their sensing body—affects the situation. This teaches them that they have a presence in the texts they read—and an obligation to respect the author. Those authors teach us about structures of power and provide questions we engage for the rest of the semester.
Their final then is a reading of their collected descriptions. What structures of power are operating in the images they and their peers depicted? And more importantly—what structures of power are operating in HOW these images are depicted? These final reflections often lead to conversations about how UMass FYW depict labor, race, class, and the capture of first-year students in the neoliberal behavior expectations of late capitalism.
Works Cited & Referenced
Bergdahl, Bowe. “DUSTWUN.” Serial Podcast. Narrated by Sarah Koenig. Serial Podcast and WBEZ Chicago. Accessed February 1, 2017. https://serialpodcast.org/season-two/1/dustwun/transcript/.
Ear Hustle. “Episode One: Cellies.” Radiotopia. Accessed March 14, 2018. https://www.earhustlesq.com/
Classen, Constance. The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch. University of Illinois Press, 2012.
———. “The Witch's Senses: Sensory Ideologies and Transgressive Femininities from the Renaissance to Modernity.” Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, edited by David Howes, Berg, 2005, pp. 70-84.
Damian, Kate and Peter Damian. “Environmental Fragrancing.” The Smell Culture Reader, Edited by Jim Drobnick, Berg, 2006, pp. 148-157.
Davis, Diane. “Autozoography: Notes Toward a Rhetoricity of the Living.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 47, no. .2, 2014, pp. 533-553.
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Kennedy, George A. “A Hoot In The Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 25, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1-21.
Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. "Rethinking Rhetoric Through Mental Disabilities." Rhetoric Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2003, pp. 156-67.
———. “Ableist Rhetorics, Nevertheless: Disability and Animal Rights in the work of Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum.” Journal of Advanced Composition, vol. 31, no. 1, 2011, 71-101.
Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, translated by Libby Meinjes, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 11-40.
Parrish, Alex. Adaptive Rhetoric: Evolution, Culture, and the Art of Persuasion. Routledge, 2015.
Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, 2015, pp. 268-281.
Rickert, Thomas. “Music@MicrosoftWindows: Composing Ambience.” Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being, U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.
Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. University of Michigan Press, 2010.
Seegert, Natasha. “Play of Sniffication: Coyotes Sing in the Margins,” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 47, no. 2, 2014, pp. 158-178.
Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014.