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The Disruptive Rhetorics of Roadside Shrines: What These Works Can Teach Us about Decolonizing Composition

This conference talk was presented at CCCC 2018.

In this presentation, I want to share with you something of a project I’ve recently started, leaving things open for comments and suggestions about this work, as well as for questions and comments regarding larger socio-rhetorical connections that we may sense emerge. In this project, I’m examining roadside shrines or memorials encountered through my movement through everyday geographies. By this I mean the spaces including localized ones that I pass through as I go about my day in Houston, particularly the Clear Lake area where I live and work, and spaces more broadly conceived as I traverse South Texas on my way to visit my family in the border town of Laredo, Texas. This research, which underscores theories of and in the flesh with decolonial frameworks, focuses on rhetorical reorientation that I think can have significant implications for the ways in which we teach and practice composition.

These particular shrines that I’m looking at are usually constructed to memorialize people who have died in automobile accidents or other unforeseen tragedies, events that take place outside spaces that for some reason or another we tend to imagine as somehow more suitable for mortality. Many of us are familiar with such roadside features and even come to think of them as (at least temporary) fixtures of the landscape, but because we tend to think of them as ubiquitous or commonplace things, we may overlook the radical rhetorical models that they offer. I am studying these memorials using a decolonial perspective for several reasons. 1) As common but noticed yet unnoticed artefacts, these memorials help us to understand how the construction of in/visibility occurs within the popular imaginary. 2) Thinking through this question of in/visibility might help us to undo the phenomenological backgrounding that threatens real people and practices. 3) Since rhetoric is how we create the worlds that we know, a study of these artefacts allows us to imagine a different rhetorical ecology of orientation, one that juxtaposes linear coordinates and ethical organization, logic and affect, individualism and relationality. It is my hope that by shifting from one set of principles to the other that we might at least begin to encourage some of the ideological conditions that not only foster but demand attention to decoloniality.

This matters because colonization is ongoing and real: US universities stand on Native lands; colonial frameworks shape practices and pedagogies, regulating how we (re-)produce and consume knowledge. The historical relationship between writing and colonization contributes directly to the displacement of Native cultures by centering Eurowestern ways of knowing to, as Angela Haas explains, preclude “a coexistence of languages, literacies, memories, and space with [I]ndigenous knowledges,” marking “what is different [as] wrong or deficient” (2010, p. 188-9). Thus, it is crucial that we work to decolonize composition praxes in concrete ways.

So here’s where I want to break in with a bit of personal narrative, because as the authors of “Our Story Begins Here: Constellating Cultural Rhetorics” explain, “cultural rhetorics scholars investigate and understand meaning-making as it is situated in specific cultural communities” (2014) and this project is inseparable from my identity as a researcher, teacher, member of my particular community. These shrines are interesting to me because I grew up in South Texas, where people practice a very syncretic version of Catholicism, one that retains a lot of our Indigenous traditions in the guise of Christianity, and that informs all aspects of everyday life. This syncretism emerges directly from colonization which has never ended. Like the war dance of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, colonization and our responses to it are ongoing. Their struggle represents that between imposed order and flesh, between the intellect and the body, spirit and matter. The histories told to us in eurowestern chronicles that would say the past is over is not corroborated by our lives. It’s similar with these shrines, which draw attention away from authorized Church funeral practices and their spaces to center attention on the land where things happen, where our lives begin and end. Though I know that such memorials are constructed by many different groups, I have always associated these memorials with our Indigenous histories. Because these were vernacular rhetorics, things that give meaning to places due to personal connections that help make us a community.

Hence, I think that roadside shrines can really speak to some of these issues that Angela is talking about in “Toward a Decolonial Digital and Visual American Indian Rhetorics Pedagogy.” Because they illustrate the potential for Indigenous multimodalities to prove irruptive through and against eurowestern notions of geography. Their reliance on the visual proves a kind of trickster rhetoric: the shrine is there and also not there, strikingly graphic but at the same time embedded within the visual imaginary in such a way that it becomes accepted by the viewer as an integral part of the landscape. We find ourselves thinking, “Oh, there’s that marker again,” even surprised when they’re no longer there; they become a way for us to orient ourselves within space/time. I have to unpack this part but I think that also helps explain their longevity even in spaces where one would think these markers would not be accepted. For example, I live close to my campus, which was basically built for the engineers at NASA. Literally right across the street from school is Boeing. This area of town is Clear Lake, which is one of the most affluent, educated parts of town per capita. On one of the median islands is a shrine, which I’m unable to show you right now, but over time it has grown bigger and more elaborate. In this part of town, the shrine sticks out against the bougie environment, which is a very different case with a shrine located a little over a mile away headed into Webster, which is a much more working class area. (For the record, the rent drops by several hundred dollars within a matter of blocks.) I was worried that the effects would be removed from the island due to aesthetic codes or norms, but it has persisted. And it’s major divergence in terms of intimacy, which we can think about as arrangement and memory in rhetorical terms, to institutions like Boeing and the university as well as the affluent suburban quality of Clear Lake is something that I hope to closely critique in the article that I’m hoping comes out of this.

How much of our/my impression of the landscape is actually codified to create this contrast? How much of it is assumed? And so, in what ways are geographies set as opposed to extensions of other spaces that bleed into one another? It important to entertain these questions because this is whence the notion of the margins emerges, marking those who inhabit interstices and contact zones, but in speaking of these people and their rhetorics, too often we inure the legitimacy of authorized rather than cultural centers. And here, I’m thinking of Mignolo when he explains the ways in which Mercator projections render geographies as capable of being rendered in neutral and objective ways that obscure coloniality. That is, they run counter to the ways in which our ancestor marked the passage of time and space, based on a body’s movement within networks of associations among culturally significant locations. Time and space have affective and ethical dimensions; in terms of physics, these may prove constants, but as physically experienced phenomena, they are experienced already laden with these strata of significance that are invisible unless you’re part of the culture they are meant for. I think we can relate a lot of this to writing, if we consider how we create layers of meaning strategically in speaking to multiple audiences, realizing that these different publics do not inhabit the same cultural spaces. And I don’t mean writing with an understanding that different readers will get different things out of it, but crafting trickster rhetorics that deliberately cultivate in/visibility to protect cultural communication while still meeting the demands of dominant culture exigence.

And so, to return to the subversive multimodality of these shrines, I also suggest how that might be accomplished. Due to their tactical use of material modes in spaces dominated by the privileging of linguistic action, they both cohere with and counter the verbal rhetorics associated with particular events. For example, a news report will give us the who and the how, but they cannot express the connections that make a life meaningful, even when they exploit familial grief. These shrines inform us that someone lived and was loved, too, but they do so in ways that can be seen as unruly and irrational in a very De Certeau kind of way. And I’m thinking here of his work on mystical speech. In other words, the narrativity of these memorials isn’t linear and straightforward. Instead, they demand a reimagining of the vectors of rhetorical interpretation: these are not official or authorized stories that convey straightforward facts about a tragedy in one direction (from rhetor to audience) but instead call for ongoing communal engagement every time we encounter them. They become part of us, or we become part of the community united around this rhetoric. Mignolo states in “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom” that “[g]eo-politics of knowledge goes hand in hand with geo-politics of knowing. Who and when, why and where is knowledge generated (rather than produced, like cars or cell phones)? Asking these questions means to shift the attention from the enunciated to the enunciation” (2009, p. 2). What this means is that in participating in a rhetorical event each time we encounter one of these artefacts, we reveal the illusion of the past because we are constantly recreating its therefore-existing significance. This is not an evoking of the past; the event continues because it continues to have an effect on others and highlights not the shrine itself but the building of rhetorical bonds among people. After all, the shrine is meant to commemorate a person’s life, but it is not really meant for them but for us, so that we know what has happened and is still happening as a result of the loss. There is a constant performance of consubstantiality taking place and because of that, meaning goes beyond the artefact and the original event to encompass ever wider imbricated circles of time and space. In this way, I argue that they contest the ways in which we often think about the traditional eurowestern canon of memory, as an evoking of the past as a way to bolster an argument.

From an Indigenous perspective, one that for me bears striking resonances to my own experience of colonization, we can see that memory is constantly built or added to in the present and in community. It is ongoing and lived in the flesh. And knowing that is crucial, especially in these fraught political times as we fight over when America was ever great. Collective memory depends on questions of for whom and why. As we begin to unpack these questions, it’s important for me to note that my ancestors always understood this, knew that we inhabit different worlds. To think we are somehow rediscovering this knowledge—and I use this term deliberately—is simply to yet again lay claim to knowledge that has always been here, not-really-hiding in plain sight. When I teach my students to write, then, I ask them to consider how some of us are still forced to inhabit the past when we are right here and how some of our very living traditions are framed as things of an ancient, sadly lost history. And what moves can we make to show that these delineations of modernity are just plain wrong.
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Hence, I’m really finding that these shrines have a lot to tell us. They point up the constant overlapping of spaces and networks of meaning. They show that space is not empty or neutral but is instead composed of many different rhetorical imaginaries taking up the same areas, so that (in a very sci-fi kind of way) places emerge not as merely a set of elements within a particular geographical location but as multiple manifestations within different ethical and affective dimensions. I believe that the material-spatial-temporal rhetorics of the South Texas roadside shrines I’ve been looking at highlight Indigenous ways of knowing that challenge dominant culture paradigms. They commemorate events of cultural and communal significance to Chicanxs/Latinxs/Native peoples, and preserve elements of Indigenous heritage that disrupt colonial geographies and orientations. Our material and bodily relationships with/to them permit what Kristin Arola calls as “a shifting continuum of embodied identities” that disprove the ostensibly static quality of the dimensions upon which we base our lives and rhetorics (2012, p. 219). And so, as I get further into this project, I hope to think about how we can use dimensional subversion to dislocate harmful stereotypes and create presence on paper and in the classroom.

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