Christina R. Foust and Raisa Alvarado
What moves the social? And what is rhetoric’s relationship to social movement? Since 1950, scholars studying the art of public persuasion have offered different answers to these questions. Early approaches to social movements defined them as out-groups that made use of persuasion to achieve goals and meet persistent challenges. However, protest tactics that flaunted the body and spectacle (e.g., 1960s-era dissent) challenged early emphasis on social movements as nouns or “things” that used rhetoric. Influenced by intersectional feminist theories and movements that featured identity transformations (along with ending oppression) as political, rhetoric scholars began to view “a social movement” as an outcome or effect of rhetoric. Scholars treated movements as “fictions,” identifying the ways in which these collective subjects did not empirically exist—but were nonetheless significant, as people came to invest their identities and desires for a new order into social movements. Scholars argued that people manifested “a social movement’s” presence by identifying themselves as representatives of it. More recently, though, rhetoric scholars emphasize what is moving in the social, by following the circulation of rhetoric across nodes and pathways in networks, as well as bodies in protest. Inspired by social media activism, as well as theories of performance and the body, scholars concentrate on how symbolic action (or the affects it helps create) interrupts business as usual in everyday life. To study rhetoric and social movement is to study how dissent from poor and working-class people, women, people of color, LGBTQ activists, the disabled, immigrants, and other non-normative, incongruous voices and bodies coalesce in myriad ways, helping move humanity along the long arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice.
Gayatri Spivak is one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although a literary critic, her work can be seen as philosophical as it is concerned with how to develop a transnational ethical responsibility to the radical “other,” who cannot be accessed by our discursive (and thus institutionalized) regimes of knowledge. Regarded as a leading postcolonial theorist, Spivak is probably best seen as a postcolonial Marxist feminist theorist, although she herself does not feel comfortable with rigid academic labeling. Her work is significantly influenced by the deconstructionist impulses of Jacques Derrida. Additionally, the influence of Gramsci and Marx is prominent in her thinking.
Spivak’s work has consistently called attention to the logics of imperialism that inform texts in the West, including in Western feminist scholarship. Relatedly, she has also written significantly on how the nation, in attempting to represent the entirety of a population, cannot access otherness or radical alterity. This is best seen in her work on the subaltern and in her intervention into the famous Indian group of Subaltern Studies scholars. Other related foci of her work have been on comprehending translation as a transnational cultural politics, and what it means to develop a transnational ethics of literacy.