Bodies Performing Rhetorically in Physical Spaces

What comes to mind when you think of the term, rhetoric? You probably associate it with politicians, a communicative strategy that they use to persuade the public of their perspectives and policies. Maybe you think of stringing words together and printing them on a page or arranging them in a digital space for a specific purpose and audience. Images, too, may come to mind, sometimes used to complement text, attract the viewer, and visually convey a particular message. The list can go on and on depending on the extent of your rhetorical knowledge.

It seems that most people associate rhetoric with speaking and writing, which makes sense when considering ancient rhetorical history. It also seems rare that body language comes to mind first, although the fifth canon of rhetoric, Delivery, focuses on “how something is said” (see http://rhetoric.byu.edu/canons/Delivery.htm). Oral delivery involves voice intonations, hand gestures, bodily movements, and facial expressions. Punctuation serves a similar purpose as, for instance, the exclamation point replaces an excited facial expression: “I can’t wait to go camping this weekend!”

Aside from changing the pitch of one’s voice, pacing on stage, smiling at the audience, or pointing a figure, bodies perform in other rhetorical ways. Similar to the rhetorical situation — where interaction occurs between a communicator and his audience and is determined by the subject/topic/issue, context, purpose, and audience — rhetorical bodies are influenced by physical space. Physical spaces give bodies a purpose in a specific context and for a specific audience.

For example, RSA CrossFit in Kennewick forces bodies to act and change in ways that some of their members may have thought impossible. Athletes’ bodies engage in group stretching, strength training, running, rowing, box jumping, and other activities. While members’ intentions may vary — for instance, some want to lose weight, build muscles, and/or improve endurance — their overall purpose is to get and stay healthy for themselves and/or their families. More specifically, bodies become rhetorical in this space by showing rather than just telling their spectators (whether it be themselves, families, or friends) that frequent and vigorous exercise can promote a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, the CrossFit coaches advocate a healthy lifestyle (their purpose) to not only their current members, but also to the general public (their audience) by offering free workouts on Saturday mornings. Saturday morning sessions provide newcomers the opportunity not only to see rhetorical bodies in action, but also to participate.

Participation allows for co-working spaces, such as Room to Think in Richland, to gather rhetorical bodies. While, fortunately, bodies at Room to Think do not sweat and shut down from the pain of an intense workout, they perform in a different manner given its context. The setting of the physical space allows for bodies to perform rhetorically. A group of rectangular desks occupy the left wall of the main entrance. There are four grouped workspaces: two desks face each other, while one faces the other two desks’ ends. These workspaces force bodies to face each other, sometimes allowing direct eye contact, encouraging conversation, and/or facilitating collaboration. Although each member’s intent and clientele varies — for instance, some design graphics and websites, while others program software — they share a common purpose and audience. Their main purpose is to finish a specific task or project for themselves (to stay sane), for their families (to spend more time with them), and for their clients (to get paid). Their physical presence (their bodies) ignites the same purpose in others (other bodies), motivating them toward accomplishment.

RSA CrossFit and Room to Think are just two examples of how rhetorical bodies participate in their environments, and how physical spaces help dictate their function. Awareness of how rhetorical bodies function may lead us to examine how certain spaces that we create might permit or prevent bodily performance, and in turn, affect the outcome of individual goals.

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Vanessa Cozza

Vanessa Cozza

Originally from the Philadelphia area, I studied at Bowling Green State University in Ohio where I earned my PhD in Rhetoric & Writing. An assistant professor position at Washington State University Tri-Cities (WSUTC) led me to move farther west. At WSUTC, I teach first-year writing and advanced rhetoric and writing courses. Although I have a variety of research interests, currently I’m examining the literacy practices of public street artists and murals, including graffiti and photography. Specifically, I’m looking at how this type of visual rhetoric tells a history, addresses political controversies, and makes art more accessible to a broader audience. Aside from academia, I also spend a lot of my free time crossfitting, sous cheffing, and couch potatoing.

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  • Becca Lingley

    I really liked this piece. I think that it is right on point – the best output for a person whether physically or mentally, comes from surrounding oneself with others who are driven to achieve either high physical or mental output. Therefore, shared space/shared community matters. You summed this up very well:

    “Awareness of how rhetorical bodies function may lead us to examine how
    certain spaces that we create might permit or prevent bodily
    performance, and in turn, affect the outcome of individual goals.”