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Contrastive and Intercultural Rhetoric: A Reflective Encounter

“This model is a valuable tool for intercultural rhetoric. It posits that there are various overlapping social institutions and practices in a classroom, such as national culture, professional-academic culture, student culture, etc. that need to be considered when we study and teach writing in a second language…The national culture plays a role, but the small cultures also contribute to understanding and communication” (Connor 308-9).

“Cultures do not stay in separated domains, and they change, although…the change happens from our active understanding and thoughtful adoption of the alternative, rather than an inevitable tipping to the opposite that results from excesses, regardless of human intention” (Li 17).

“Reflective encounters can help these rhetoricians cultivate a much-needed awareness that the process of studying (one’s own) rhetorical and cultural experiences is always a process of recontextualization, no matter how intimate they are with these experiences” (Mao 418).

In these three articles by Connor, Li. And Mao, the history of contrastive rhetoric and its transitional movements toward intercultural rhetoric are mapped, discussed, and critiqued.  Though all three articles note the importance of the work begun by Kaplan in the 1960s, they likewise note the limitations in his approach and call for expanded scholarship that moves away from a Western-centric perspective. Earlier approaches tended toward essentialization, generalization, and unsupported stereotyping. However important foundational work may have been, these authors call for expanded perceptions in examining the complex interplay of cultures within the field of rhetorical studies.

Connor, after giving some details about Kaplan’s approach, offers a method of postmodern mapping (inspired by Bourdieu, Soja, Fairclough, and others) that takes connection, interaction, and overlapping cultural influences into account, offering a more dynamic and nuanced approach than contrastive rhetorical models. Preferring the term “intercultural rhetoric,” Connor offers a method of taking macro and micro cultures into account when exploring the complexities of cultural interactions noting that “all cultures and social practices are deeply infused and penetrated by other cultural practices. In this sense, the ‘inter’ of intercultural stresses the connections rather than the differences” (312).

Though of course the maps presented by Connors are static as they appear on the page, they offer a potentially dynamic means of examining rhetorical diversity, as maps overlay one within the other where practices “bleed through” from one cultural experience into another. It is not a flat map of explanatory closure, but rather an attempt to graphically depict the multiple influences and cultures simultaneously at work within these connective and overlapping moments. This way of mapping the inter-penetration of cultures works rhetorically, taking situations (micro and macro) into account in analysis and could be, I think, a useful method to employ. However, this still is limited as there would be no way to account for ALL of the myriad cultures and contexts at play in any situation, yet like all methods, it offers a potentially productive place to begin an analysis that allows for more complexity than those that examine only extant discourse.

Li takes up the discussion where Connor leaves off, citing her work as moving away from older notions of contrastive rhetoric toward intercultural rhetoric. By explaining her positionality as a Chinese American with a background in linguistics and rhetoric, Li then explores three fields – culture, linguistics, and difference – to show where/how intercultural rhetoric can best positions itself in relation to composition studies (13). Critiquing both a more individuated approach (e.g. Zamel) as well as one that posits an undifferentiated “world culture” (e.g. Kubota), Li states that while “it is true that the received notion of culture is too simplistic and static to reflect the emerging reality of an interconnected, globalizing, postmodern world…the interconnected world does not necessarily create a homogeneous world culture” (16). Instead, Li puts forth a model based upon the yin/yang scheme where difference is not necessarily wholly distinct or oppositional, but rather “intertwined, curling into each other’s sphere…[in a]… model of fluidity based on the acknowledgment of difference” (17).

While models founded in binaries are often critiqued for that reason, alternatives to this paradigm tend to be lacking within that critique, thus Li’s offer of the yin/yang model to visually and conceptually analyze the interplay between cultures serves as a method of understanding both difference and connection, in a similar yet different way from Connor’s postmodern mapping. Li notes that constrastive rhetoric, while it has always been social, has not made the “political turn” seen in areas such as cultural studies, and that this may be the best site for positioning these studies within/alongside composition scholarship.

Mao opens with a thoughtful history and critique of the forays into comparative and contrastive rhetoric, demonstrating the ways in which Western-centric thinking often produced scholarship, however well intended, grounded in hierarchical binaries, teleological/evolutionary models, or the discourse of deficiency. Moving toward “reflective encounters” cross/interculturally, Mao encourages an etic/emic approach that entails an ongoing process of moving back and forth between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the new. As noted, “we may not have any choice than to articulate other rhetorical traditions first by seeking out frames and terms found in our own tradition…but if our larger goal is to study these traditions on their own terms, we must move from the etic approach to the emic approach” (417).

Much like Li’s yin/yang model, this way of understanding across cultures is fluid and dynamic, as “every etic/emic process begets a new one, and each process raises the level of understanding and enriches the modes of reflection” leading to an analysis which does not necessitate closure or “finally knowing,” but rather an ongoing process of movement based upon reflection. As Mao notes, this can lead to reflection not just upon the “other” culture, but upon one’s home culture as well, perhaps facilitating an interrogation of power and privilege, difference and connection.

In each of these three essays, the problems, issues, challenges, and complexities of cross-cultural rhetorical study is detailed and alternate models offered as methods of analysis. While the models offered may differ one from another, all ask to look beyond simple binaries, assumptions, and stereotypes to seek a deeper understanding of both relationality and difference, or perhaps relationality across, within, and in celebration of those differences. I find myself wanting to explore these methods further, to actually “draw out” these relationships either through overlaying maps or dynamically cycling spirals of reflexivity. Most of what I can imagine in these terms is more visual than verbal – how do these models “look” when translated into linear discourse? How can they inform, perhaps, other sites of analysis? And is there a way to translate these analyses into words without falling back into binary distinctions that are beside/outside of the point?

These are my questions, though I don’t seek closure on their potential answers.

Connor, Ulla. “Mapping Multidimensional Aspects of Research: Reaching to Intercultural Rhetoric.” Contrastive Rhetoric: Reaching to Intercultural Rhetoric. Ed. Ulla Connor, Ed. Nagelhout, and William V. Rozycki. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008. 300-315.

Li, Xiaoming. “From Contrastive Rhetoric to Intercultural Rhetoric.” Contrastive Rhetoric: Reaching to Intercultural Rhetoric. Ed. Ulla Connor, Ed Nagelhout, and William V. Rozycki. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008. 11-24.

Mao, LuMing. “Reflective Encounters: Illustrating Comparative Rhetoric.” Style 37.4 (2003): 401-425.


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