Biesecker, “Coming to Terms with Recent Attempts to Write Women into the History of Rhetoric”

Response: Biesecker, Barbara. “Coming to Terms with Recent Attempts to Write Women into the History of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 25.2 (1992): 140-161. (22 pages)

Biesecker reflects upon (as her title suggests) recent attempts to write women in the history of rhetoric. She begins by pointing out a few means in which rhetorical scholars have approach such attempts. Specifically, she points to Karlyn Kohrs Campbell who writes that the history of rhetoric, up to this point, occludes women, “Women have no parallel rhetorical history. Indeed for much of their history women have been prohibited from speaking” (Biesecker 140-1). In response, scholars like Campell look to women who have offered insight into rhetoric; however, Biesecker claims that such inclusion of women rhetoricians and their texts (unwittingly) “perpetuate the damaging fiction that most women simply do not have what it takes to play the public, rhetorical game” (142). It seems akin to female tokenism: “the power withheld from the vast majority of women is offered to few, so that it may appear that any truly qualified woman can gain access to leadership, recognition, and reward” (141). She labels such inclusion in terms of affirmative action: “the power of the center affirms certain voices and to discount others” (143). Those at the center authorize, grant license to, certain voices “to continue to produce official explanations by the designation of what is and what is not worthy of inclusion” (143). Biesecker’s central critique, then, is that the inclusion of women writers and their texts does not disrupt the criteria and underlying logic of canon formation that have excluded women in the first place.

What criterion should take its place? As she writes, “we want to produce something more than the story of a battle over the right to individualism between men and women, we might begin by taking seriously post-structuralist objections to the model of human subjectivity that has the cognitive starting point of our practices and our histories” (147). In other words, she’s going to interrogate the idea of subjectivity and look toward means of change and resistance to subjectivity. She looks to post-structuralist theories such as Derrida.

Per Derrida, identity “like the value of any element in a given system, is structured by and is the effect of its place in an economy of differences…Derrida advances a subjectivity which, structured by différence and thus always differing from itself, is forever in process, indefinite, controvertible” (148). Under this formation, “I” is a provisional stabilization of a temporality and a spacing that always and already exceeds it” (149). In this way, Derrida offers two accounts of the subject:

  1. The subject is never coincident with or identical to itself and, thus, is open to change
  2. The subject is always centered, but that centering can only be understood as an effect of its place in larger economy of discourses.

She moves onto Foucault who, likewise, sees identity defined “by way of one’s relation to or place in a network of social, political, cultural, and economic practices that are provisional, discontinuous, and normative” (149). But Foucault also allows us to consider the ways that individuals not only consent to discursive formations, but “are always also the elements of their articulation” (151). Where, then, does agency live? Resistance?

For Foucault, “resistance is always and already a structure of possibility within power and, it should be added, power is always and already a structure of possibility within resistance. Power and resistance are two sides of the same coin and, thus, emerge in tandem” (152). In other words, power breeds resistance; resistance relies upon power. For Beisecker, resistance can derive from everyday life: when faced with exigence that the original discursive formation does not account for, the subject is “moved by an always and already unfilled drive to ‘get it together’” (153). Or, in other words, they seek to find unity in identity. From here, she offers the idea of techne: “a word signifying a way or means by which something gets done” (155). Techne allows us a method of “getting through” or “ad hoc ‘making do’ by a subject whose resources are necessarily located in and circumscribed by” the wider discourse.


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