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Composition Forum 36, Summer 2017

Review of Shari J. Stenberg’s Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age

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Londie T. Martin

Stenberg, Shari J. Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age. Utah State UP, 2015. 176 pp.

While analyses and critiques of neoliberalism have emerged across the landscape of academic disciplines, scholars working in feminist and queer studies have been particularly concerned with the force and function of neoliberal values, assumptions, and practices in everyday life. In her work on feminist and queer politics in The Twilight of Equality?, Lisa Duggan argues that a neoliberal worldview deploys economics as its primary tool for masking and naturalizing the extent to which it “organizes material and political life in terms of race, gender, and sexuality as well as economic class and nationality, or ethnicity and religion” (3). Seeking alternatives to the normativities that emerge and proliferate through the organizing impulse of neoliberal policies and ways of thinking, scholars like José Esteban Muñoz embrace disidentification and queer world-making where creative expressions “have the ability to establish alternate views of the world” (195). As Muñoz understands it, world-making becomes a queer disidentificatory practice when performers use “the majoritarian culture as raw material to make a new world” (196).

In Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age, Shari J. Stenberg expands the search for feminist world-making practices and calls for a specifically feminist vision of repurposing that critiques neoliberal influence on US education and seeks different ways of circumventing or operating within those neoliberal logics by making use of discarded or excess materials and redeploying them toward critical, collaborative ends. This concept of feminist repurposing, she argues, “locates and enacts new possibilities for teaching and learning, for relating to one another, and for enacting cultural change” (11). Drawing on Judith Butler’s work with gender and performance, Stenberg argues that feminist scholarship, “due to its long history of highlighting and challenging notions held to be natural and neutral” (9), offers us a useful and flexible framework for unearthing—and then repurposing—practices and ways of thinking that have been normalized or naturalized through repetition. Stenberg acknowledges composing practices like revising and reclaiming while making the case for “repurposing” as a word that responds to our current neoliberal context with more critical dexterity (2-3). We repurpose objects when we let their materiality and our awareness of current context drive the invention of a new rhetorical situation. More specifically, repurposing is “a practice that further involves illuminating, and working within and against, the conditions that characterize a given situation” (3).

In the introduction and chapter one, Stenberg is most concerned with neoliberalism as a nexus of practices, values, and conditions that characterize the current situation of composition in US colleges, universities, and K-12 education. In a neoliberal educational context, privatization and profit-driven, free-market logics privilege and promote individual responsibility as both end and means: “There is no distinction between the economy and society; what’s best for one is considered best for the other” (5). The neoliberal academy, Stenberg points out, is a marketplace where private funding displaces public funding, and institutions of higher learning partner with corporate interests. Academia responds to political and market forces by approaching students as consumers and encouraging them to think of themselves as such. Faculty and students redefine their labor not in terms of academic rigor or scholarly and disciplinary best practices, but increasingly in terms of quantifiable competencies and positive impact on institutional profit margins.

As scholars of rhetoric and composition, we feel the commodifying force of neoliberalism wherever efficiency, competency, and competition emerge in contexts of profit and loss—leaving, as Stenberg notes, “little tolerance for learning processes that entail engagement of (an often recursive) process, collaboration and dialogue among learners, and reflection” (8). In the remainder of chapter one, she mines the history of rhetoric and composition for key moments when feminist scholarship unearthed and confronted the presumed inevitability of a neoliberal academy through what she identifies as repurposing: “(1) attending to and challenging the habitual or status quo, (2) drawing on and departing from these existing conditions, and (3) moving to articulate and enact new purposes” (17). For example, she acknowledges how feminist scholars like Cheryl Glenn have opened up a rigid historical canon by seeking out and including women rhetors, identifying normalized assumptions about rhetorical practices that conceal exclusions, and then imagining alternative recovery methods that interrupt and perform a new history. In the context of writing instruction, she notes how feminist teachers have contended with masculinist assumptions about women writers by making those assumptions visible and then harnessing feminist consciousness-raising tactics to not only make room for the personal in composition classrooms, but also to listen to and re-value the personal as a potentially effective and worthwhile rhetorical strategy.

In the remaining chapters, we take a closer look at feminist repurposing as a rhetorical strategy for redirecting neoliberalism’s appropriation of key feminist tactics and concerns: emotion, listening, agency, and responsibility. In chapter two, Stenberg cites the recent popularity of emotional intelligence as a strategic, marketable skill—one that corporate interests are quick to capitalize on. However, as Stenberg points out, in these neoliberal contexts “emotion is deemed a private response that is legitimate so long as it is disciplined and controlled by rationalism” (43). Through an analysis of Barack Obama’s emotional displays and Hillary Clinton’s hotly-debated emotional register, she illustrates how prevailing assessments of emotional intelligence privilege a view of emotion as something we manage and deploy strategically and rationally rather than as an embodied, relational experience. Sara Ahmed, who argues for a similarly social view of emotion in her work on affect and collectivity, suggests that emotions are “bound up with how we inhabit the world ‘with’ others. … [E]motions are precisely about the intimacy of the ‘with’; they are about the intimate relationship between selves, objects and others” (28). Following Stenberg, if we acknowledge the social contours of emotional experience and the extent to which those textures are the products of systemic neoliberal forces, we can then revalue emotion as a powerful site of knowledge and inquiry by repurposing—unearthing, confronting, reclaiming—the emotional excess that neoliberalism attempts to manage.

Listening has also been repackaged and managed toward neoliberal ends; and, though scholars such as Krista Ratcliffe have recently moved to revalue listening as a rhetorical skill, in chapter three Stenberg notes that this scholarship takes difference and cross-cultural communication as its ends. In the context of neoliberal business practices, “listening” seems to be just one more tool for advancing moneyed interests. Informed by Ratcliffe’s work with rhetorical listening, Stenberg suggests that a feminist repurposing of listening asks us to create a more capacious space where we “hear beyond our entrenched positions and assumptions” (76) and “move beyond a habitual listening-for-gain approach” (77). Dialogic argument can address these needs, and Stenberg shares student experiences with a research-based project that emphasizes deep listening through the exploration of multiple perspectives on contentious issues. Here, we repurpose listening when we step outside of neoliberal gain-driven logics and instead pursue listening as a rhetorical tactic that attunes us to “new knowledge possibilities and practices that emerge from genuinely listening to voices too often muted, a listening that disrupts the power dynamics that contributed to their silencing in the first place” (96).

Yet, within these power dynamics, how do marginalized voices find or perform a meaningful authority? How do we repurpose agency within a field of neoliberal forces where “[a]cquiring agency . . . requires that one occupy the dominant authoritative subjectivity and succeed within established relations of power”? (97). Here, Stenberg argues that, “[f]or marginalized subjects, employing neoliberal agency often requires the denial of one’s embodied location, knowledge, and history” (99). She works toward a feminist repurposing of agency by drawing on feminist scholars like bell hooks, who argues that, though the margins are a both/and space of “repression” and “resistance,” it is resistance—agency—that is most often both “silent” and “silenced” (151). Thus, in an educational system inflected with a neoliberal privileging of individualism and competition, a bootstrap sense of agency, Stenberg asserts, does not respond to the lived realities of marginalized subjects who know that “titles and degrees do not negate markers of gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability, nor do they nullify contexts of discrimination or oppression” (102). To emphasize the value of repurposing agency, Stenberg highlights Aimee Carrillo Rowe’s work with “belonging” to untether agency from a neoliberal centering of competition and individual achievement within normative constraints. Instead, a localized and embodied understanding of agency acknowledges the margins as sites of belonging and seeks to understand agency as “ambiguity” (116) and “alliance” (119).

Neoliberalism’s desire for competition within consumer logics should not surprise teachers across educational contexts who increasingly find themselves in conversations about success and impact that locate the goals of education squarely in post-graduation employment. Yes, jobs are important, and teachers do care. In the closing chapter, what Stenberg takes issue with is “the firmly entrenched notion that accountability is, seemingly must be, linked strictly to economic ends” (126). Moreover, there is the problem of policies and practices that demand accountability from teachers and educational institutions by appealing to a seemingly unassailable and objective “economic gaze” (133). Alternatively, Stenberg advocates a repurposing of assessment that shifts away from accountability and instead moves toward a localized and situated understanding of responsibility—a move that Stenberg argues is well-suited to writing assessment. For example, Stenberg asserts that assessment tools like the WPA Outcomes Statement offer a view of responsibility that is responsive to specific rhetorical situations; this assessment model stands in stark contrast to accountability tools that understand writing “as skill based, a-contextual, and measurable according to (seemingly universal) norms” (137). Central to this repurposing of responsibility is Stenberg’s suggestion that we must make room for the inevitability—and the possibility—of failure. Drawing on J. Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, Stenberg asks us to consider the flipside of success. Are our assessment models spacious enough to make meaning out of generative failures? Are we close enough and responsive enough to local educational contexts to recognize, appreciate, and learn from the outcomes of risk-taking, even when those outcomes do not quite hit the mark? In neoliberal contexts that privilege economic logics, naturalize competition, and erase difference by upholding the individual and disavowing systemic oppressions, Stenberg’s call to repurpose emotion, listening, agency, and responsibility is necessary and timely. In the coming years, teachers will be increasingly hailed to account for themselves through decontextualized accountability frameworks, and Stenberg’s work toward a feminist ethic of repurposing illustrates how scholars of rhetoric and composition have engaged in pedagogical practices that, if we remain attentive to them, can help us recognize, intervene in, and repurpose the excesses and erasures of education in a neoliberal age.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Collective Feelings or, the Impressions Left By Others. Theory, Culture, and Society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2004, pp. 25-42.

Butler, Judith. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology in Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, pp. 519-531.

Carrillo Rowe, Aimee. Be Longing: Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation. NWSA Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 15-46.

Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Beacon Press, 2003.

Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Halberstam, J. Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.

hooks, bell. Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, South End Press, 1990, pp. 145-154.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

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