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Photography by Matt Banderas '04

All rhetoric is bodily. All bodies are rhetorical. So says Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Center for Writing and Speaking Lydia McDermott in her new book.

Lydia McDermott

In Liminal Bodies, Reproductive Health, and Feminist Rhetoric: Searching the Negative Spaces in Histories of Rhetoric, Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Center for Writing and Speaking Lydia McDermott posits rhetoric and gynecology as sister discourses. Liminal Bodies examines these sister discourses by tracing key narrative moments in the development of thought about sexed bodies and about rhetorical discourse, from classical myth and natural philosophy to the 18th and 19th century decline of midwifery and the rise of scientific writing on the reproductive body.

Whitman Magazine: Throughout your new book Liminal Bodies, you use the idea of the sonogram as a metaphor. How did you come to choose that as a central concept?

Lydia McDermott: One of the ways it relates to what I’m writing about is that we can interpret a sonogram as a surveillance technology to monitor a fetus’ growth. It also ends up monitoring how well the mother is growing that fetus. I wanted to turn that negative surveillance into something that could be productive.

I had been fascinated for a long time with the theory of the “wandering womb” in Ancient Greece and also in Egypt. Most of women’s ailments, whether they were mental or physical, were blamed on their womb wandering around in their bodies, physically, and bumping into things and driving them insane, making them want things they shouldn’t want. For me, that came to represent the female-coded body as opposed to the ideal male-coded body, and a way to metaphorically capture that female-coded body would be with a sonogram.

That was the initial metaphor. But I was also drawn to it because of the actual process of sonogram imaging. It involves both sound and the visual: it bounces sound waves off of something that you wouldn’t normally be able to see in order to create a picture. So metaphorically, that gives me some access to listening for texts that we wouldn’t normally consider rhetorical. And people who might not normally be included in the canon of rhetorical writing.

WM: You mentioned the idea of the “ideal male-coded body.” When rhetoric was born, it was talked about in a specifically male “bodily” way. So what are the historical roots of female or feminist rhetoric?

LM: I could look back at things as protofeminist. I wouldn’t want to call anything feminist, because it would be anachronistic. But there are hints of this kind of resistant rhetoric in figures such as Diotima and Aspasia, who are female characters in Plato who are performing rhetoric and who seem to have actually taught males. The character of Socrates in Plato is possibly making fun of [Diotima and Aspasia], but the fact that they are characters that people would understand as doing something like this suggests that that kind of rhetoric in the home was being practiced, in small salon settings.

Another thing I draw on are certain religious festivals, which gave women space to speak in ways that they wouldn’t normally. Often about sexual things, like dirty joking, [for example, which] performed a cultural function. So that’s another kind of resistant rhetoric.

WM: If they’re the start of resistant rhetoric, then what is considered canonical?

LM: The weird thing about rhetoric is that we’ve kind of canonized what was a reaction to rhetoric. Plato and Aristotle didn’t like the rhetoric that was happening, and so Aristotle—as Plato’s student—decided, well I’m going to define a rhetoric that could be a philosopher’s rhetoric. That was already a reaction to what was considered rhetoric at the time. So it’s weird that what we’ve come to consider the “best” rhetoric, the canonical rhetoric, is actually a kind of counter-rhetoric already.

WM: And is the kind of rhetoric taught academically still of the canonical kind?

LM: Not necessarily. I think that cultural studies has done a lot to try to break open rhetoric, but it’s still largely male-dominated and largely argumentative. Part of what I argue is that this kind of ideal rhetoric also idealizes a kind of writing that is organized like an ideal body, with a head and a foot and so on. Plato calls them pieces fitting together in relation to one another, and we tend to still privilege that kind of writing, especially in academic discourse.

WM: You also go back to classical mythology in the book, and use the Greek goddess Metis in a symbolic way. Who or what was Metis?

LM: Metis is both a goddess and a kind of wisdom in ancient Greek. As a goddess, she was either a lover or wife of Zeus—some stories say that Zeus raped her. She was a shapeshifter—she tried to get away from him and did not succeed. She was very wise, and when she became pregnant with Athena, Zeus was, in some sources, worried about whatever child would come next; a male child who might usurp his power. So he cunningly swallowed her, and gave birth to a female from his head or from his thigh. She was said to embody the quality of metis, which was a more bodily kind of wisdom, more practical, and tended to be cunning, so that those who were weaker in bodily form could potentially win an argument over someone who was stronger using something like metis.

WM: It’s interesting that I know the Athena story, but not the Metis story.

LM: Because Zeus swallowed her! He didn’t want you to know about it.

WM: One of the courses you teach is called Rhetorical Bodies. Where did the idea for that class come from? The research for the book?

LM: Especially at the beginning of that course, we look at quite a lot—sometimes to many students’ chagrin—of classical work. But part of the thesis of the course is that all rhetoric is in some way bodily and that all bodies are in some way rhetorical. That our bodies are constructed by rhetoric in how we understand them, what we feel they are capable of doing, and that our bodies do rhetorical things in the world.

WM: Have students enjoyed the class? It seems like it might touch on a lot of issues that they may not have thought about.

LM: Yeah. It’s also useful in thinking about things like: why people laying down can be a rhetorical action. But it definitely makes them think about things that they haven’t thought about before. And they like getting to argue with Plato. That makes them happy for a little while.

WM: You also teach a class called Monsters Across Cultures. Does that touch on some of the concepts you’ve mentioned, like the wandering womb?

LM: The actual course ended up not dealing with that all that much. But the idea for the course and my interest in monstrosity comes from that. The theory of the maternal imagination was pretty popular up to the 18th century, and into the 19th century in more folkloric contexts. Which was the idea that, if women craved the wrong thing or looked at the wrong thing or were frightened while they were pregnant, those things could actually make a little impression on their baby and the baby would be deformed.

WM: What kinds of texts do you look at in the monstrous class?

LM: Our central questions throughout the course were: what makes something monstrous, how do we define the monstrous, what function does it serve for us culturally? So we had a whole variety of literature from [different] times and cultures. We had Euripides’ Cyclops and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is a rewriting of the Geryon myth. He’s a red-winged monster creature that Achilles defeats at some point. [Autobiography] is from his point of view and it’s set in a modern setting. We read some manga and a novel set in Haiti, and reviewed some international films that deal with monstrosity. So the central question always was: what makes something monstrous and why do cultures create monsters?

Our bodies are constructed by rhetoric in how we understand them, what we feel they are capable of doing. Our bodies do rhetorical things in the world.

WM: So it sounds like it’s related to Liminal Bodies, but with an easier “in” into its more complex themes.

LM: I think the monstrosity course was pretty successful at that, because people who are interested in things that are scary, like monsters, could take the class and then think about the ways in which that has to do with other angles.

WM: We also talked this issue to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. Empathy seems like an interesting connection: can we empathize with that which we see as monstrous?

LM: Yeah, definitely. One of the things that we read in the class is an article by Patricia Williams that appeared in The Nation called “The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin,” where she does a great job of illustrating the ways in which the media showed Trayvon to be monstrous in order to justify the reaction to him, and that definitely has to do with empathy. Who can we empathize with? If someone’s a monster, we can’t empathize with them.

WM: You’re also the director of Whitman’s writing center, and have expanded its role dramatically. How does it help students on campus?

LM: It is now called the Center for Writing and Speaking, lovingly referred to as the COWS. The project has a broader ambition than just a writing center, because we’re hoping to offer speaking skills as well. When I got here, I think the writing center was a bit underused and populated only by English majors, so one of my goals was to make it more accessible to students in all different fields. I moved locations, and tried to make sure I was hiring tutors who are scientists as well as students who are social scientists and students who are humanists. We offer one-on-one tutoring for writing, as well as one-on-one tutoring for speaking. We now offer workshops and thesis boot camps as well, so sometimes we have topical workshops, like developing a thesis statement and being more concise in your prose and that kind of thing.

WM: And you also work with faculty colleagues?

LM: I do faculty and staff writing hours on Wednesdays and Fridays. The idea behind that is just a space where people can get together and write and know that that’s all that’s happening in that space: we’re not grading or prepping for class or checking Facebook. And there’s coffee available. I’ve led now for two years spring writing retreats out at the Johnston Wilderness Center for faculty to work on projects in a setting where there really are no distractions. There’s no internet access there, so we have to download everything ahead of time. It’s mainly just being in the woods with your project and not really having any other choice but to work on it.

WM: You’re also about to travel to China to meet incoming Chinese students. Have you done this kind of trip in the past?

LM: It is not something I’ve done before. It’s sponsored through [the Office of Off-Campus Studies], and we have a partnership with [the Council on International Educational Exchange]. It’s a seminar on helping students from China transition to the American higher education system. As the director of the COWS and a composition professor, I tend to meet a lot of these particular students and work with them, so it seems like a great opportunity to have some insight into the struggles that they’re facing when they come here.

WM: Have you had any particularly rewarding experiences working with students recently?

LM: Oh gosh. There are many instances of that. One of the most recent developments that has been rewarding is that I have a few current tutors who will be coming with me to a conference in Tacoma, Washington, next fall for the National Conference on Peer Tutoring and Writing. This grew out of a tutoring class—along with a couple of tutors who were not in the class but participated in putting together a proposal. The proposal is specifically about cross-cultural tutoring and writing. One student was abroad in Japan for a year, and was a tutor before then, so he has experience in both being the expert and being the learner. Two others are international students who are also tutors in the COWS and are multilingual, and so they reflect on their experiences navigating authority as international students, as well as navigating that in writing and tutoring. So I’m very excited to take them.

WM: What do you do outside of the classroom or the COWS? I’ve heard rumors of soccer and comic books.

LM: I am interested in comics. My interest in manga comes from my oldest son. I really recommend Full Metal Alchemist. It’s one that I teach the first three volumes of in the monstrosity course. It’s largely about brotherhood and about sacrificing themselves for others, and about who deserves compassion and who doesn’t and how the state controls that. And I am coaching my six-, soon-to-be-seven-year-old, soccer team in the fall. I coached it last fall too, and I adore that. That age of kids is just adorable, there’s no getting around it. It doesn’t matter even if they’re completely belligerent or can’t focus at all, they’re still cute. When things get boring, I just make them do silly exercises where they have to fall down and pretend they got killed by a soccer monster.

WM: A soccer monster? That would fit right into your class.

LM: This is how you teach them to stay on the field. If they go off, they have to fall down and die and be eaten by the soccer monster!