Posted by edsouza at 11 November 2019

On staying home, traveling, and writing with/in places

Lately, I’ve been revisiting some essays I’ve read in the past and loved: Doreen Massey’s “A Global Sense of Place” (a chapter in Space, Place, and Gender) and “The Elusiveness of Place” (a chapter in For Space). With my colleague Niki, I’ve put these in conversation with Rebecca Solnit’s “The Most Radical Thing You Can Do,” an essay featured in Orion. Niki and I have been stoking the early fires of a collaboration, and I’m thankful for the prompt to revisit some themes of space and place theory–especially as I prepare to write the dissertation!

There’s a certain contrast or tension between Massey and Solnit. While they both acknowledge the environmental consequences of personal mobility, and both acknowledge the involuntary displacement of people from their homes, Solnit’s argument, extending Gary Snyder’s adage, is to “stay home,”  “reclaiming home as a rhythmic, coherent kind of time.” Massey problematizes that very notion, however; she questions outright the longing for coherence in a place, but of course, especially where such longing enables “reactionary politics,” “sentimentalized recovering of heritage,” or nationalism. In particular, Massey recognizes the mobility of women as a threat to patriarchal order, and to her, the “gender-disturbing message” would be to “keep moving!” (p. 11); to simultaneously recognize “one’s locatedness and embeddedness/embodiedness, and [take] responsibility for it” (p. 11).

How do I reconcile these two messages? Although they seem different on the surface, I think they both have a common orientation toward understanding place in an unstable, “precarious” (Pezzullo & de Onis, 2018) world. With Massey’s recognition that places are “open and porous” and Solnit’s desire to “see a richness that lies not in goods and powers but in the depth of connections,” we can celebrate “place” in welcoming ways, acknowledging multiple scales and layers of experience and meaning.

Such layers of meaning can be made more salient using such methodology as rhetorical field methods, as Pezzullo & de Onis (2018) argue. They are describing a way to do rhetorical ethnographic study that is rooted in care but made urgent by climate justice exigencies. Though we have a rich history of theorizing rhetoric as empirical, embodied, and situated, Pezzullo & de Onis broaden our attention to not only the ecological, but to environmental and climate justice as an imperative for the undertaking. Field research, understood from this perspective, underscores our interconnectedness to each other, and our relationship to people and sites, spurring us to move “from listening to amplification,” work that is “necessarily participatory, ethically committed, and without guarantees” (p. 116). 

Together, can they support a framework for the study of place-based writing and composition? Here are my thoughts and questions for now…

  • Studies of “local” can be reframed; we’re not trying to create an “internalized history,” but rather, trace the “constellation of connections”; understanding places as events; places as access to both deep time, and, all the rest of the world, in one way or another. (Reminds me of Latour’s theory of “connected localities,” his alternative to the notion of “global.”)
  • I’m intrigued by Ilene Whitney Crawford’s “growing routes,” to describe “a mode of feminist rhetorical practice that constructs and accounts for our roots in the world and our routes through the world over time.” Is this autoethnographic?
  • I wonder how we can differently understand the genre of travel writing, in all of this? Solnit is herself a travel writer. What about if our loved ones are halfway across the world? Would we never travel to see them? Like Greta Thunberg, would we sail rather than fly? Here I am writing this in an airport! As I look around me at the streams of people, all on their zig-zagged ways across the globe, how do we tell everyone to “stay home”? 
  • What changes in the way we teach, wherever we teach?

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