Alexander and Rhodes, “Flattening Effects”

Alexander, Jonathan, and Jacquline Rhodes. “Flattening Effects: Composition’s Multicultural Imperative and the Problem of Narrative Coherence.” CCC 65.3 (2014): 430-54. (25 pages)

Alexander and Rhodes, like others, offer a critique of multicultural pedagogy; namely, “multicultural pedagogies frequently rely on narratives of inclusion, which often seek to contain difference in order to make legible, identifiable, and thus acceptable to a normative readership. In the process, the ‘other’ is tamed as a knowable entity” (431). Within the lens of queerness, these authors push back against “the multicultural imperative to ‘include’ queerness as another ‘difference’ in composition curriculum” and thus containing and defining queerness in relation to normative, knowable, attainable categories; rather, Alexander and Rhodes seek to develop a pedagogy that seeks to understand “the ways queerness can exceed normalizing categories of identify” (432). Such a pedagogy “acknowledges not just our commonality, but also our potential incommensurability and unknowability to one another” (432).

Their emphasis on the flattening effects of inclusion narratives is position, historically, against the turn toward multiculturalism in composition studies. The goal of multicultural pedagogy, as they write, “is to heighten students’ awareness of the diverse subject positions people inhabit as a way of cultivating tolerance for the many varieties of experience that people have in our world” (434). However, the writing that emerges from such a perspective is often materialized in inclusion narratives which discursively “reduces and flattens difference into easy, normative legibility” (438). This is what they call the flattening effect, where identities of difference are reduced in the process of seeing identities of difference as “identical to (or identifiable with) your own” (438). “Many of us have our differences erased by an overriding narrative of shared humanity” (438). As the authors describe, the good intentions of narratives of inclusion, then, are problematic in three ways:

  1. “first, …the specific experiences of personal discrimination or violence that emanate form systemic oppressions are left unexplored.”
  2. “Second, and along the same lines, the narratives elide potential understanding or exploration of the richness of difference its own right.”
  3. Third, “the narratives give us a strong sense of the human as knowable, as reducible to a set of desired traits. In the process, difference is disparaged—if not directly, then obliquely but nonetheless damagingly” (439).

The authors then turn specifically to queerness, and its unique position in relation to discourse. “How shame, how the body makes us feel, how the body makes us do—that cannot always be controlled by discourse, for there is always the simultaneous experience of ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’ and ‘I do feel this way’” (441). In this sense, Alexander and Rhodes depart from a universally social constructivist view of discourse, pointing to the affective, in many way non-discursive, frame of queerness: “Even our present interest in the idea of social constructionism serves as a way to talk about composing the self (selves); the mutuality of writing-into-being and being-written-into-being is seductive, a pas de duex that reassures us of our place in the culture whose language we share. And yet, this sense of composition leaves out the keen sense of what it means to be composed, that is, not the written-into-beingness but the marshaling of one’s inner resources in order to control the inappropriate response” (441).

They advocate, then, for a “pedagogy of the unknowable” (445): how do we teach in the gray areas between polarized and understand of difference? One way is to prompt students “not [to] write about what they believe they ‘know’ about one another, but what they suspect they do not know” (445). Such writing emphasizes the uncertainty of identities as well as discomfort in not knowing. They also point to texts, such as Anzaldúa, that are “designed to both include and alienate” (446). As they conclude, the focus of such topics within a composition course is important to emphasize that “unknowability is the proper subject of writing itself” (451).

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