Islands in the Mainstream

One of the paradoxes of rhetorical inquiry is that it tends to disqualify the very activity on which it is founded. Beginning with Plato’s skepticism of its merit, inquiry into the practice of rhetoric has long been mediated by the constant need among rhetoricians to provide a solid, indisputable account of its worth. An unfortunate consequence of this is a contemporary tradition that has treated emergent rhetorics with similar skepticism and frustration—indigenous, feminist, queer, digital, and cultural rhetorics have all run afoul of the tradition at some point and have been subject to unwarranted dismissal or casual disregard.

The Caribbean is no exception.

The region has been viewed as an archetypal site of modern fragmentation, coalescence, and consumption that all occur as a great confluence of languages, cultures, and worldviews in the region. In response, emerging scholarship in rhetorical studies has begun to put pressure on this myth and has called for a more robust understanding of the region, its people, and especially their means of negotiating the myriad complexities of vernacular life. Among vernacular practitioners, it is argued, rhetoric is more than the use of language to make meaning of observable phenomena, more than the critique of symbolic or material representations, or of how they and the things they say and do and make are viewed or named by others. More crucially, these practitioners are able to activate vernacular sensibilities for particular outcomes through conscious performativity, creative alterity, and other forms of deliberative display.

However, aside from its practitioners, and the few who specialize in its study, this fact is not self-evident. A significant reason for this is that although our activities are often implicitly persuasive (or possess suasive characteristics that are easily discernible), we do not often consider what we do to be within the realm of rhetorical studies. And for those of us inclined to view the argumentative, rational, and persuasive aspects of our creative and scholarly work as rhetorical, there is an additional tendency to avoid explicit attachment to the discipline, preferring to employ more palatable euphemisms (like versatility, discourse, strategies, or tactics) that appear to be less fraught.

From the view of rhetorical studies, such distinctions are a mistake.

As a matter of fact, distinctions of this sort are counterintuitive to the understanding of productive discursive activity as rhetoric, leaving many seminal works virtually dispersed, or beyond the perceived boundaries of the field. The development of Caribbean scholarship in rhetoric may thus be thought of as being doubly undermined—both separate and unequal—and subject to de facto invisibility and silencing. Ironically, this threat of erasure presents us with an invaluable opportunity to accomplish important definitional work. It therefore serves as the impetus for sustained engagement.

Rooted in the need to be seen and heard, as well as the imperative of giving a suitable account of the rhetorical tradition(s) from which it emerges, we are inclined to ask:

How do Caribbean people define themselves as deliberate practitioners of rhetoric, and how do their practices contribute to the knowledge-making processes that can potentially surpass the far too simplistic designations of “identity” or “cultural production” in contemporary society? What is the province of Caribbean rhetoric, its scope? What are its inimitable characteristics and its more generalizable ones, which would encourage meaningful interaction? What are the greatest impediments to rhetorical exploration, particularly with regard to the intersections of rhetoric with related arts (aesthetics, poetics, philosophy, and politics)? Who gets to theorize what it is and is not?

If rhetoric is indeed grounded in human activity, does it not fall to those engaged in that activity to name themselves and their representative rhetoric(s), theorizing in terms they devise?

The study of Caribbean rhetoric is itself an affirmation of that logic, a response to the implicit urgency triggered by the glaring absence of such work from the field. As a necessary measure, it resists tendencies toward reflexive parochialism, viewing interdisciplinarity as its best approach, an approach that promises to be more generative and, ultimately, more useful to theorists and practitioners alike; the breadth of scholarship to which it can be applied is intended to reflect not only the inherent complexity of the region, but also suggestive of the ways contemporary understandings of Caribbean rhetoric is/ought to be conceived, articulated, practiced, taught, and preserved.

This is adapted from a Call for Papers I shared last year for a collection of the same name. As I make my way through the many fine essays that were submitted, I’d be happy to discuss the project and will remain open to possibilities for additional essays that can satisfy a reasonable deadline. I realize this gives me a bit more work to do, but I think it’ll be worth doing if the result is more people engaging in conversation and inquiry into Caribbean Rhetoric.