September 14, 2012

Bearing Witness Again ... The Text Becomes an Agent

Dear Everyone:

First, I finally found the stable link to the New York Times article that I intended to share on “Going Dutch, and Saying It Right.”; It provides an interesting overview of Dutch pronounciations of English in New York prior to 1900, based on what we know about Dutch accenture today. Enjoy!

Second, each class arrived at very different conclusions based on their reading of Campbell’s analysis of Gage’s “fictive text,” and when I took a few moments to reflect this afternoon, I realized the need to bear witness one more time, to your collective contributions, which were grand! One thing I appreciate about Campbell’s article is its clarity of scope. Right away, Campbell states that she will argue for agency as having five particular traits, and she will demonstrate – through rhetorical analysis – how those traits are “illustrated and confounded” by Gage’s depiction of Truth. Today, one class focused their discussion more on the traits while the other focused their discussion more on the confounding, and below are some highlights of what I remember:

You explained the contradiction in its definition
AGENCY = “promiscuous” (undiscriminating) and “protean” (versatile/tending toward change); to be both at once means it is reciprocal and active (3). It is not something that is simply given or taken away, like an object or a reputation. Instead, it is compromised and negotiated over time. In fact, it is not simply acting on something, but rather reflecting on how something is acted on. Several of you remembered our discussion of Campbell’s “feminine style,” which was a kind of discourse that emerged out of constraints and limitations, and you said that Campbell understands Truth's agency to be constrained. “The agency of the subject appears to be the effect of its subordination” (3).

You unpacked the agents in Campbell's analysis
Campbell has identified multiple agents and agencies in her analysis of Gage’s depiction of Truth: Truth, Gage, Campbell, Us. Perhaps the most important is the historical agent – the person or persons doing the criticism, who become conscious of all of the ways that agency is perverse (14).

You answered a provocative question
In response to the question: “Why this fiction, and what could have made it last?”, especially if it was known as a fiction, you offered some good theories here:
  1. It lasted because through repeated performance(s), Truth’s message becomes more interpretable, i.e., a foundation gets created for the message that allows it to be interpreted by a different group in the present than in the past.
  2. It lasted because it didn’t “originate” and was never “solitary,” i.e., it was always negotiated.
  3. It lasted because when agency shows up in performances, it can potentially alter them.
  4. It lasted because it created a collective audience.
  5. It lasted because Truth’s “fictive” self (as represented by Gage) was able to respond to all the relevant arguments for Suffrage at the time – biological, social, intellectual, theological – and served a necessary form of audience construction.
  6. It lasted because Gage knew how to write Truth’s performance in such a way that it would capture an ethos that was important for her audience to think they shared, and it also established Truth as an exception to the African-American collective, which in turn makes her testimony more accessible and makes her more accessible.
  7. It lasted because it must have been, in some sense, “true” to the substance of Truth’s other discourse (12-13). (In other words, somehow the dialect that Gage got from her work with emancipation seemed “right” coming out of the mouth of Truth because it enacts the lowest illiterate persona and shows how people may have been hostile to her.)
  8. It lasted because the stereotypes “gave the text a special force” (14).
  9. It lasted because the text itself became an agent capable of representing other problems and subject positions.
Well done, everyone! I suppose in our final week of the unit we can consider: "So what? Where does this leave us? How does this help us to understand more (or less) of the agent/cy dilemma?" But also, I'm curious about one thing: Should agency be this perverse?

-Prof. Graban

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