Review of: Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction.
Editors: Mary M. Lay, Laura J. Gurak, Clare Gravon, and Cynthia Myntti
Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2000.

Danika Brown, University of Arizona

As the field of Rhetoric is influenced by and often converges with Cultural Studies, the definition of and approaches to ìrhetorical analysisî have undergone significant transformation. Scholars in Rhetoric have called into question the ìrhetorical traditionî of Aristotelian analysis, generally summed up as finding and using the available means of persuasion for the purpose of leading an audience to the best course of action. This framework for understanding the rhetorical uses of languages, it has been argued, ignores the ideological assumptions behind the desire to persuade others, ignores the ethical implications of persuading others through ìeffectiveî rhetoric divorced from values (or at least shuffles such questions into a separate category and field), and ignores or minimizes the context of power in and through discourse. That is to say, the Aristotelian definition of and approach to ìrhetoricî is itself a method which is deeply imbedded in and of service to an ideology of dominance, manipulation or control, patriarchy, and, many have pointed out, capitalism. (see, for starters...).Alternatives to Aristotelian rhetorical analysis have emphasized language as epistemological and ideological, suggesting that the function of rhetorical study is not simply to be more ìeffective,î but to analyze and expose the power structures created, reproduced, and perpetuated by discourse, and perhaps to use the tool of rhetorical analysis to challenge those power structures and suggest alternatives.

Body Talk: Rhetoric, Technology, Reproduction, edited by Mary M. Lay, Laura J. Gurak, Clare Gravon, and Cynthia Mynti, is a collection of rhetorical analyses around the site of womenís bodies and reproductive technologies. The stated purpose of the collection is to utilize analyses of how discourse functions at these related sites in order to reveal the power issues and ideologies constructed within those discourses. In the introduction, the editors argue that ìthe classical tradition, which has dominated rhetorical criticism, has recently been critiqued as overly masculinist. With its roots in Aristotleís culture, where women were not citizens, classical rhetoric has often ignored women and feminist concernsî (9). Therefore, the editors go on to say, ìContributors to this book use rhetorical analysis to reveal the gendered nature of our societal, personal, and medical attitudes about reproduction and reproductive technologies and suggest possibilities for new rhetorics of reproductionî (10). The collection then, seeks to offer rhetorical analysis as ideological critique of language and to suggest alternative rhetorics that are specifically more inclusive of womenís voices.

Cover of Body Talk

What the editors make explicit in the introduction is that language has significant import in constructing our understandings of and interactions in our world. The editors note that language facilitates and delimits human agency in social relationsóspecifically in this case, womenís agency in relation to their own bodies. The editors are most concerned with offering rhetorical analysis as a strategy for intervention in those social processes. By analyzing discourses, the ideological power of those discourses are revealed as are the exclusionary practices and implications of the discourses, thus enabling women to understand their exclusion and giving them the means for reappropriating the opportunity and legitimacy to be included in the discourses and the constructions of their relationships with their bodies on a material level.

The assumptions behind this particular approach to complicating and enacting rhetorical analysis as ideological analysis are rooted in a fairly liberal-democratic rhetorical ideal. The major assumption at work in the introduction, and throughout the majority of the essays themselves, is that women have been excluded from having a voice in shaping the relationships and technologies that construct their bodies and reproductive roles. If women had a voice in such discourses, the discourses and the resulting material practices would be more sensitive to womenís needs, and would not serve to construct women into subjugated or oppressed roles. If women had a voice in these discoursesóvoice defined as the ability to analyze as well as to ìspeakîóthe social relations produced in these sites would be inherently more democratic and less oppressive. The assumption, that is, is that the reason problematic material practices are produced by the language at these sites is that the language is primarily male-dominated and does not include the interests of women. This controlling assumption of the collection, then, serves as a lens for the specific analyses as having the goal of revealing both how language has functioned to oppress women and how women might reappropriate power through language.

Issues, sites, and categories of analysis

The essays themselves represent diverse sites of analysis in relation to technology and womenís bodies and they represent diverse ìdataî and texts for those analyses. Many of the early chapters deal with historical texts, revealing a rich source of primary documents concerning the social constructions of womenís bodies. Jeanette Hearle-Fanning explores several texts on midwifery in the eighteenth century; Kathleen Marie Dixon brings to our attention the texts generated by an early twentieth-century doctor who devoted his life to finding the psychosomatic causes of ìhabitual abortions,î offering psychological explanations for women who had trouble carrying and had no recourse to their ìproblemî through traditional medicine; Martha H. Verbrugge analyzes university gym instructorsí approaches to instruction regarding menstruation, examining official documents, textbooks, and curricula in order to reveal how physical education played out as a site of contention over control of knowledge and womenís bodies; and Chloé Diepenbrock offers an analysis of the popular cultural texts of womenís magazines on the subject of assistive reproductive technologies.

The essays also deal with a variety of issues concerning womenís bodies and reproduction. Several essays, such as Hearle-Fanningís and Mary M. Layís analyze issues relating to midwifery; Diepenbrockís essay on infertility in the popular press is complemented by other essays focusing on infertility such as Laura Shannerís analysis of the insensitive discourse of failure and the objectification of women perpetuated in infertility clinics, and Elizabeth C. Brittís analysis of the relationship of law and insurance to womenís choices in infertility; Mary Thompson and Lyn Turney  examine the problematic constructions of surgical choices for women that are based on the creation of myths and limiting of information for women to make choices for voluntary surgeries; and Eugenia Georges and Lisa M. Mitchell compare constructions of how a woman should ìdoî pregnancy in texts from Greece and Canada.

The essays also employ a range of analytical categories, such as ìbiopower,î Foucaultian analyses of normalizing discourse, and Kenneth Burkeís dramatic pentad in order to engage the various texts and materials. Several of the essays, such as Brittís and Turneyís employ ethnographic approaches to analysis. The results of these various approaches serve to offer the reader multiple points of entry into the discourses of womenís bodies and to offer significant tools for understanding how language and other discursive structures function on an ideological level.

Several of the essays incorporate a limited analysis of class issues, although all of the essays contain the potential for analyses that might extend to race and class issues. For example, Conditís essay compares the experiences of middle-class private hospital patients exploring options in relation to genetic testing and their pregnancies to the experience of women at a public clinic, there less by choice than having been mandated by correctional or drug rehabilitation policies. Turney acknowledges some distinctions between upscale clinics and clinics that serve those with less available means. The Georges and Mitchell essay deals with non-American culture and emphasizes the cultural situatedness of constructions through that analysis. Only Britt's essay deals explicitly with lesbian, gay, or bisexual issues.

However, despite the limited appearance of class and race issues, all of the essays tend to turn an unexamined classed and primarily heteronormative lens on these issues, and tend not to acknowledge how class and race are effaced in the various authorís own analyses of these dominant discourses. Part of that limitation is due to the fact that although there are a variety of analytical categories employed throughout the essays, none employ an analysis that is explicitly focused on political-economic, class-based, or queered theoretical frameworks. Consequently, the essays do not necessarily accomplish the rigorous ideological/rhetorical analysis that might disrupt the dominant structures that perpetuate material practices that are problematic, if not wholly damaging to women and which the collection would like to address. (This observation is supported by other work in feminist theory.)

Complicating the analyses: an extended example

This collection of essays quite rightly emphasizes the necessity of rhetorical analysis as the most effective means of discovering the ideological implications of discourses. The essays themselves, as do all texts, reveal much when rhetorical analysis is applied to them. For example, Dixon (ìMinding the Uterus: C. T. Javert and Psychosomatic Abortionî) reproduces a early twentieth-century doctorís arguments about the stresses that may cause women to ìhabitually abort.î She tells us that he makes an argument about the uniqueness of this ìproblemî for middle-class women:

He argues that unwed mothers, whom he claims seldom miscarry, experience no psychologic stress because they are fulfilling their basic biological and emotional needs. As the men who impregnated them abscond, Javert argues, these women donít experience marital tensions (310-11). Their predominantly social stress begins when their pregnancies ëshow.í Javert believes pregnancies are hardier at this point and claims that marriages without miscarriages are free of marital tension. (63)
At this point, we might expect a rhetorical analysis concerned with ideology to examine the construction of ìunwedî (read lower class) women as stress-free as performing some significant cultural work. However, Dixonís approach to analysis here is to invoke a fairly Aristotelian framework by explaining how ìThese arguments are subject to ready counterexampleÖ.î (63). Dixonís critique of Javertís rhetorical strategies are entirely in terms of what the weaknesses or limitations of those arguments are, rather than what the ideological import and implications are. The result of that type of analysis is that questions are not posed regarding why Javert might be most concerned with middle-class wivesí ability to reproduce and what the cultural imperative for normalizing married womenís reproductive capabilities might be.

These limitations run throughout the essays in this collection. Each of these essays deserves an in-depth analysis, something I would encourage readers invested in the work of feminist theory and rhetorical criticism to do as they read this collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on one essay in particular, not by any means to single this essay out in any way, but simply to demonstrate what rhetorical analysis of these essays in general reveal in terms of the value of the materials the essays present, and the value of complicating the frameworks the essays employ. In the essay, ìGym Periods and Monthly Periods: Concepts of Menstruation in American Physical Education, 1900-1940,î Martha H. Verbrugge analyzes issues of knowledge and power as they play out in the construction of womenís bodies through practices around menstruation. Verbrugge takes us through a description of various approaches to menstruation in (primarily) university gym programs which are, according to the author, both ìconservativeî and  ìdemythologizingî at  the same time. Which, ìon the one handî (a phrase repeated throughout the article) seek to control young womenís physical bodies and physical behavior, but ìat  the same timeÖchallenged popular mythology about womanhoodî (84).  Owing largely to the fact (according to the author) that female university gym instructors sought to adopt a position on menstruation ìthat  enhanced their authority over the female body,î menstruation and gym class became the site where norms were both, and at the same time, reinforced and challenged, resulting in women being allowed to be more physically active all month long, but not freed from procreative priorities of protecting their reproductive systems (83). Verbrugge argues that the women teachers chose a ìmechanicalî view of the menstrual cycle which enabled them to naturalize menstruation, as opposed to pathologizing it, but which ultimately made a womanís ability to procreate the most significant factor in determining activity or response to menstruation.

However, because Verbrugge wants her analysis to move beyond identifying the tradition of oppression in such discourses, but wants to expose the alternative possibilities in that discourse, she ultimately has to name the gym teacherís approach to menstruation as both ìthisî and ìthat.î She ends the essay with a series of ìon the one handî but ìat  the same timeî statements that tend not to amount to a real claim at all, aside from the concluding claim that, ì Simply put: procreation still outranks recreationî (86). This imperative, Verbrugge suggests, was the case early in the twentieth century and it is still the case early in the twenty-first century.  But, in analyzing the way gym teachers constructed that imperative, the author spends most of the analysis discussing the various and contradictory approaches to physical activity the mechanical understanding of menstruation allowed for. Verbrugge seems to argue that the mechanical approach to menstruation worked under vastly different assumptions about women than the biomedical approach might have. And while it is to be granted that framing an approach to menstruation which allows women the ability to exercise and be active, albeit in a somewhat qualified way, and which accepts menstruation as a healthy indicator of reproduction rather than an out of control situation is preferable, the underlying assumptions of the need to have any policy about womenís menstruation, be they mechanical or biomedical, must be understood as rooted in a larger cultural (and economic) system that depends on normalizing womenís behavior as well as their reproductive capabilities. While Verbrugge concludes with a statement that can be read in that way, the point is undercut by the rest of the essay which seems to assume a more fundamental difference between scientific authority and pedagogic authority. This same posing of a distinction between approaches to the body occurs in Conditís essay, ìWomenís Reproductive Choices and the Genetic Model of Medicine,î where she seems to claim that there is a  fundamental difference between the ìgenetic modelî and ìgerm modelî of understanding reproductive choices, when in fact both models share the same assumption that there is a reproductive imperative and both models create choices that are applied to or offered to women of different socio-economic classes differently for the same reasons.

Additionally, to continue utilizing Verbrugge's essay as an extended example of common issues in the collection, Verbrugge is dealing explicitly with issues of authority and power, but because she has focused nearly exclusively on the university gym instructorís policies and asserts in several places that the gym instructors asserted control over the young women through these policies, Verbruggeís analysis of power is artificially simplistic. At no point does Verbrugge explore, for example, the agency of the young women who, as students, exploited the desire of everyone in ìpowerî to preserve their reproductive capabilities and use menstruation to get out of gym class. From Verbruggeís analysis, we know this was an issue because she asserts: ìDevelopments at Smith College illustrate the toughening of disciplinary systems during the interwar years. . .. For example, the departmentís administrative schemeówhereby menstrual (and other) excuses were requested, approved, verified, and recordedóbecame increasingly elaborate. Given such arrangements, only the most pain-ridden (or determined) girls probably sought a menstrual excuseî (81). This repeated framing suggests that even when young women attempted to assert some agency, or at least to gain some advantage from the situation, the university administrative policies were effectively completely in control over those young womenís individual assertions.

Verbrugge exacerbates this characterization of the extent to which gym instructors controlled how young women understood their bodies by suggesting that any other influence was an external annoyance, giving those external influences only a paragraph of discussion near the end of the essay:

Women teachers were not the only figures in menstrual education in the United States during the early twentieth century. Many groups, including doctors and the hygiene industry, tried to influence how females thought about and ëmanagedí their periods. To some extent, the initiatives of such ëoutsidersí intruded upon the gym: family doctors and school medical staffs determined which girls could or could not participate in class because of menstrual problems; hygiene companies supplied physical education departments with pamphlets and films about menstruation for in-class instruction. Few clues remain about how teachers regarded such efforts. There is no doubt, however, that women physical educators positioned their field to be an important force in menstrual education. (85)
Lest we forget, Verbrugge is primarily analyzing university gym programs. However valuable it is to look at the rich historical primary materials here as well as throughout the first chapters of the collection, they require some contextualization. We might mitigate the significant controlling influence these gym instructors had over young womenís menstruation by remembering that these young women are over the age of 18, and that we are only talking about a small fraction of women in the United States able to and attending institutions of higher education at that time as well.

This limitation of focus on middle-class, predominantly white women specifically in terms of ìchoiceî is prevalent throughout the collection. Diepenbrock explicitly limits her analysis to popular magazines that are targeted to women of a specific income bracket and cultural identity. Lyn Turney exposes the myths about voluntary infertility surgery but she does not, nor does anyone else in this collection, examine or even acknowledge infertility (or rather, sterilization) practices that are imposed involuntarily on a very specific class of women in our country (cf., Paltrow, Lynn. "Our Common Struggle," an article from the Harm Reduction Coalition's Harm Reduction Communication that discusses responses to reproductive rights and the "war on drugs" making connections between acts of oppression that are not only gendered, but economically driven and applied in class specific terms).

"Inclusivity" as a limited response

And, again, this is a significant shortcoming of the whole collection: the essays are written from and about a fairly classed position and a classed experience of these technologies. While the introduction acknowledges this limitation, it does so to suggest that there is the opportunity for further discourse that is inclusive of both minorities and different class experiences. What the introduction and the essays themselves fail to recognize is that the dominant lens of white, middle-class experience here is not simply an issue of inclusiveness, but greatly impairs the direction of the analyses themselves. The underlying theme and/or assumption of this collection and of most of the essays is that the problematizing (a term used in several of the essays which means in this context something like ìpathologizing,î rather than critically disrupting) of womenís bodies and applying technologies to normalize or control them in certain male-dominated ways is the product of women being silenced. The essays, and the introduction, argue that once these technologies are analyzed and understood as being controlled by a male-dominated perspective, there is a space for women themselves to intervene in the processes that determine how their bodies are constructed, and that that inclusivity will result in experiences more beneficial to women, or more determined by women. The editorsí introduction indicates that inclusivity will also apply to all women, not just white, middle-class women once the analyses are broadened in that direction.

The logic here is that it is a male system that seeks to silence women and that women are not necessarily complicit in that system except that they have been forced to be so. Rhetorical analysis will enable women to interrupt and intervene in the silencing patterns of a patriarchal system that dominates them. But, that logic does not get to the etiology of why women are constructed into specific roles, and why those roles are mitigated by factors such as race, class, and sexual orientation. The logic of these essays never seems to ask the question of why it has been and remains a cultural imperative to protect, normalize, and perpetuate the reproductive capabilities of a certain class and race of women in our socio-economic system. When Turney reveals the false construction and out and out lies behind voluntary infertility surgery procedures, she does this so that women in a position to make those choices might make more informed choices. However, she does not indicate the reasons for the lies and misinformation. Are the motivations of an industry for such surgeries really just to hide some information, or are there larger cultural and economic factors at work here? When Verbrugge acknowledges the fact that she did not find any significant information about minorities and education about menstruation, she does not acknowledge that that information may be less available because the socio-economic system was far less interested in protecting the reproductive capabilities of women who were not privileged members of the middle-class. In not examining these issues, all of these essays fail to recognize how these discourses are connected to the perpetuation of a hegemony that has serious material implications for marginalized and exploited women of different race and class positions.

Rather, the dominant argument of Body Talk depends on the notion that once women have voice, they will fundamentally alter the social relations that are expressed through the discursive constructions of womenís bodies by making more informed choices, for example. However, many, if not most, of the essays in the book demonstrate that even when women themselves are the source of the discourse constructing womenís bodies and the technologies that determine them, those voices are overwhelmingly situated within the dominant ideology that make reproduction a primary defining role for women of a specific class. When Davis-Floyd asks in her afterword to the collection: ìI wonderÖDoes our careful analytic work make a difference? . . . I would really like to know. . . . How can we overcome our own body talk and baby talk taboos and work to make our research more relevant to the needs, desires, concerns of the women we study?î (292), she asks this question in terms of how does this research impact the informed choices that women make about their bodies and give them voice. It is important that we recognize that the women being studied and served here are a specific group and that they are in a position to make choices. It is not, I would argue, only that womenís voices are silenced in the discourses that shape social relations, it is that those social relations are produced by, as well as reproduce larger socio-economic systems that objectify and exploit, not just women, but all human subjects. To not actively engage these implications tends to enable the oppressive structures that these authors would like to challenge, and, importantly, alienates the many women not represented here from the important project of utilizing the substantial power of rhetorical analysis to disrupt hegemonic systems.

This text makes a valuable contribution to the study of language and specifically in setting up possible terms for employing rhetorical analysis in order to reveal and demystify ideologies at work. Scholars invested in exploring rhetorical analysis in service to deconstructing and challenging dominant ideologies will want to read these essays in order to critically expand the lines of inquiry initiated here. Scholars concerned with class, race, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues in feminist praxis will especially want to engage this collection through rhetorical analyses applied to the texts themselves to reveal how the discourse of race and class is embedded and at times effaced in order to complexify our understanding of what is at stake in these analyses. The conversation promises to be productive and complicated.