Kristie S. Fleckenstein – Vision, Rhetoric, and Social Action in the Composition Classroom

Introduction: Vision and Rhetoric in Social Action

  • Fleckenstein defines social action as “behavior designed to increase individual and collective human dignity, value, and quality of life” (1) or “a category of individual and communal symbolic acts motivated by the desire to improve aspects of reality that harm individuals and communities” (5) or “symbolic acts motivated by the goal of compassionate living where means and ends function reciprocally” (7).  F. claims that both rhetoric (defined as language use?) and vision (self-perception) are necessary to instantiate any form of social change (2).
  • F. argues in this book that social action on individual and collective levels is dependent on a storehouse of “ways of speaking and ways of seeing” that create the possibility of protest.  The visibility of a subject – both corporeally and in the collective social imaginary – is necessary for the recognition of subjectivity. . . a precursor to action that, when paired with language use, has the real potential to enact change (2-3).
  • Central questions to this study:  Is agency possible for all or only segments of the population?; how do we become disciplined noncomformists?; how can people enacting change avoid the pitfalls/mistakes of those who changed before to repeat the same problematic ways of being?  Answer:  Considering the rhetorical and visual in localized contexts will provide a meaningful heuristic for instantiating change; further, a pedagogy based on these facts can help student work toward a new vision of social reality.
  • Writing is social action in much the same way as Karen Lefebvre thought about invention as social action – a social behavior.  Social action could also be thought about generically – a la Carolyn Miller and Anis Bawarshi’s work – or as an interventionist practice like you might find in feminist research methodologies (Gisa Kirsch, Ellen Cushman).
  • Three levels of change through social action: 1) individual improvement; 2) structural changes in institutions; and 3) cultural change through rhetorical and visual habits (5).
  • Compassionate living – personal boundaries are pushed outward toward a painful awareness of anothers undeserved misfortune and a desire to remedy that inequity (5).
  • If enacting compassionate living through social change the ends must necessarily be effected by the means; or, put simply, “the how affects the what” (5).  It seems that F. is providing a very academic definition of a Gandhi quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  A wonderful quote if the change you want to see is ethical or, as F. notes, your vision of compassionate living is commiserate with another’s.
  • Why also take up “vision”?  1) the construction and privileging of specific images effects our perception; and 2) visual habits evolve from the construction and privileging of said images and hence effect our “visions” (9).  In this way, visual habits operate as perceptual god terms (Burke) or ways of seeing that organize communities into groups that identify with one another.
  • Central argument to this book concerning vision:  What we see is inextricable from how we see (10).  In other words, image linking or visual habits determine not only what we see but also how we see it; therefore, when combined with language, visual habits determine the sorts of social change we enact.  Visual habits are like “terministic screens” (Burke) that filter out particular ways of being and moving in the world.  Visual habits are also known as “scopic regimes” when they are writ large over an entire culture.
  • Goal for the book: explore the relationships between vision and rhetoric; and 2) understand and follow how those relationships effect one’s ability to change the world (14).
  • 3 visual habits of the composition classroom: 1) spectacle (invites indifference and non-action); 2) animation (“fuses the body with meaning”); and 3) antinomy (invites the invention of new realities) (14).

Chapter One:

  • This chapter provides the theoretical framing for F.’s project.  She argues that the “symbiotic  knot” or crossing of visual habits, rhetorical habits, and specific place constitute the context for social action.  This social action takes different forms depending on the constitution of the elements of the symbiotic knot.
  • F. poses three challenges to social action in this chapter: 1) how do individuals or groups perceive the need for change if they are entrenched in the total system of mythologies, or taken-for-granted realities?; 2) If the need for change is perceived, how do individuals come to agency that doesn’t reinforce the status quo?; and 3) if agency is possible, how do individuals actually find spaces wherein to enact that change rather than just reinforce the inequity already at play?  (17)  While it’s a bit of a stretch, this sounds a lot like Gorgias’ questions in On the Non-Existent: 1) Does a thing (change) exist?; 2) If it does exist, how can we know it? (agency); and 3) if we can know it how can we transmit it to another? (spaces for communal action)?
  • Overview of chapter: 1) trace visual habits as practices that leave few traces of their presence and existence (as opposed to rhetorical habits); 2) integrate rhetorical and visual habits; 3) contextualize that integration with specific, local place; and 4) considering the synergistic qualities of the knot as a new way to consider agency as the most important element in social change (18).
  • I appreciate F.’s linking the symbiotic knot to systems of complexity; however, there is little reason to expect that enacting social action will have a likewise positive effect on all the complex networks that constitute being.  To make this claim assumes that you can trace out that causality, mapping the complex dynamics of interdependent systems across space-time. . . which seems a bit specious.  This does not; however, detract from the usefulness of thinking about social change as interdependent on the three related elements of place, rhetoric, and vision.
  • F. relies on deCerteau’s concept of “tactical” action to explain how individuals in systems of domination still manage to come to agency.
  • Visual habit: a system of perception that, through an array of habituated conventions, organizes reality into particular patterns, leading us to discern some images and not others, and to link those images to language in a uniform dynamic (22).  These habits are part of the second naturing (Burke) humans occupy as creatures whose cultures are naturalized and appear to be the way things are.  And, for all intents and purposes, they are the way things are; however, they don’t have to be.  The recognition of the need for change comes from the complex interferences that occur as a result of an interplay between different visual habits (and rhetorical habits) in individuals.
  • To answer the question of how to develop change that is in line with compassionate living and will not reinforce a damaging status quo F., urges a means-ends understanding of the relationship between rhetorical and visual habits.  F. notes that, “The first way we can create new options for and visions of compassionate living consists of knotting rhetorical and visual habits in startling combinations” (33).  According to F., this is most easily achieved in metaphor (isn’t all language metaphorical?  I guess you have to break into a new metaphor regime).
  • On place: it is a slippery thing to call some location a place because it’s likely a complex interweaving of multiple material and ideological spaces.  F. traces out her concept of place, suggesting that the first place is the body.  The second places are the places themselves: room, home, neighborhood, community and so on (35).  Bodies in place link to digital/cyberspaces and the chain of visual culture.  So, the five elements of place are: body, natural or constructed environments, cyberspace, visual culture, and medium [what is medium?  What is allowed in a particular space?] (36).
  • Requirements of place for social action: 1) have a place; 2) construct that place (construction of place depends on the visual and rhetorical habits at play [think the Frank Lloyd Wright kitchen design example she provides on 38]) – this is something of the who that occupies the place; 3) when – place is kairotic; and 4) how – place can dictate the rhetorical choices of an interlocutor (think the MLK speech on the Lincoln Memorial).
  • Main claim:  “compassionate social action cannot be effected on a single level of place nor can it be effected by focusing on a single thread in the symbiotic knot of vision-rhetoric-place” (41).
  • Agency is granted and restricted through the symbiotic visual-rhetorical-place knot.  Agency is also dependent on the contextual nature of any symbiotic knot.  Agency is dependent on the ability to imagine onself  – to see oneself – as being heard and seen.

Chapter Two:

  • Symbiotic knot that undercuts an individual’s ability to believe in their own agency.
  • Agency is dependent on one’s ability to imagine oneself as acting; hence, the centrality of imagination in the process of coming to act is key (44-6).
  • Thesis of chapter:  “A symbiotic knot of silence – comprising spectacle, rhetorical compliance, and monologic places – blocks nascent social action by eroding an individual’s and a community’s belief in personal and collective agency” (46).
  • Spectacle removes agency by attending to the present, removing expertise , and creating a false sense of unity that ends up actually engendering complacency (Debord 19).  Compliance creates simulated agency so that the actor actually enacts the predetermined paths of agency enforced by the dominant culture.  Monologic spaces (in this chapter the classroom) reinforce passivity and simulated agency through “remediated presentational pedagogy, pseudo-assignments, and rigid style requirements” (47).
  • F. pushes against the idea that a medium (such as TV) could be solely responsible for the decrease in community engagement and individual/collective agency in this chapter; however, as she notes, it does have the ability to foster spectacle but it cannot imprint it (58).
  • Rhetorical compliance: “an uncritical reliance on a formulaic agency that while lacking reflective critique or inventive imagination still enables the individual to act in sharply prescribed ways” (59).
  • How the monologic classroom exists: 1) the remediated presentational format (focuses attention on the teacher as sole purveyor of knowledge); 2) arhetorical writing assignments (these diminish student expertise); and 3) prescriptive style (dismisses non academic discourse as inappropriate and intellectually deficient) (67).  These three elements correspond with the three elements of spectacle: attend to the present, remove expertise, and create a sense of false unity.  Taken together, these things directly contribute to a loss in student agency.

Chapter Three:

  • Symbiotic knot that considers how individuals who seek to actualize can develop compassionate means of social action.
  • The knot of this chapter is composed of visual animation, corporeal rhetoric, and lively places.  The pedagogy this knot fosters is an epistemic reorientation wherein learning and living is grounded in the body (81).  This sounds a lot like the corporeal theory that Hardt and Negri describe in Commonwealth when they use Foucault’s articulation of biopower as a means to resist.
  • Organization of chapter: 1) visual animation and it’s connection to performing literacies (shifting between representation of objects and presentation of objects toward the blurring of boundaries among actor, act, and audience); 2) insertion of the corporeal with the visual via an analysis of the Women in Black Art Project (the embodiment and boundary blurring encourages empathy – which is a means and end to this social action); 3) an integration of the previous two facets with “performance-based” writing pedagogy as a way to push students toward embodying social action (this occurs in live drama and multimodal assignments); 4) a linkage between the “knot of bodies” and sustainability (83-4).
  • F. argues that multimodal composing can encourage visual animation and corporeal rhetoric to come together providing the impetus for an “embodied agency and empathic social action” (101).  This is because the means-end composing process in multimodal genres requires an “answerability”; in other words, these forms of composition encourage artifactual creations that will take or advocate an action that the author is willing to live through themselves – the author must identify with the composition (109).

Chapter Four:

  • Symbiotic knot that considers how individuals who can develop compassion deploy it toward new visions of the world and specific protocols for making that new world a reality.  This symbiotic knot is composed of contradictions: antinomy, digressive rhetoric (fragmentation and misdirection in discourse), and radical places from which social action emerges (113).  These contradiction allow for alternative views of reality because they point in that direction.
  • Antinomic agency – agency that arises from contradiction in the visual realm.  For F. there are three key processes of antinomy: bricolage, paradox, and agenic invention.  Antinomy is particularly important to meaning.  As Burke notes, we can only define through negation and it is in this paradox that meaning arises.
  • Antinomy through bricolage: the idea that we stitch together a reality from a barrage of different image events (117-8).  Antimony in paradox: the disjunct between word and image.  Antimony in agenic invention (invention that allows actors to “break free from dominant subjectivities”) (120): this sort of invention allows actors to develop rhetorical strategies to imagine new realities (120).
  • According to F., antinomy allows individuals to engage in what she calls “popular literacy” or “self-sponsored, nonacademic acts of meaning making that can be used to resist dominant constructions of reality” (120).
  • How do we get to the space of recovery?  We need bricolage because it offers a rich collection of materials for constructing the space of recovery where a subject imagines themselves in a different reality.  We need paradox because it provides the visual crisis that “invites transformation, the alchemical moment that transfigures old pain into a new reality” (127). To get into that new space you need agency – which comes from agenic invention or the desire to put active, critical perception to work toward the creation of a new reality (127).
  • F. claims that hacktivism is a good example of what digression or digressive rhetoric looks like.  It is a bricolage of real world protest strategies crossed with intended interruptive rhetorical strategies that aim to disrupt the dominant narrative/function of a virtual space (132-3).
  • For F. the strategies of this chapter can be embodied in a composition pedagogy by bring bricolage, paradox, and agenic invention to the composition classroom.  The most visible/accessible way to do this is through the process of revision .  Agenic invention “encourages the deliberative act of endowing significance to one’s meaning and identity within the world” (143).
  • The danger in this pedagogy is that the strive toward antinomianism moves one beyond the point of reconstructing reality toward infinite play in partialities, degressions, and paradoxes (or, what some folks have belabored as the downfall/fundamental problem with the postmodern condition) (146).


  • The composition class where vision and rhetoric interact to create a “symbiotic knot of contradictions” that suggest new sites/directions for research toward the development of even better social action (14).
  • F. argues that we need to pay more attention to habits of seeing (visual habits) in our pedagogy.  This means building a more comprehensive understanding of “visual epistemologies, a theory of vision as a way of knowing” (149).


  1. By concentrating on vision and language use F.’s theory of social change is certainly more adequate than a singularly linguistic approach; however, what about sensory experience beyond vision?  Touch? How many different ways can we divide up the experience of being?
  2. F. notes that the visual-rhetorical symbiotic knot is always costructuring itself (each other) in multiple places in the text; however, when noting the possiblities for ethical change she states that “privileging one habit over the other” is a bad thing. . . but is it even possible?  It seems that because they are mutually constitutive they will never be in equilibrium and at the same time must always be.  So, “limiting the scope of effectiveness” of a social action by altering merely rhetorical or merely visual habits doesn’t really seem possible does it?  The example she provides from DeStigter is putatively a visual event; however, I’m sure it was carried out with an intense array of rhetorical, language-based supports.  Help on this section!  J
  • Is rhetorical compliance really enabled through an erasure of memory or a lack of confidence? (62)  Is rhetorical compliance – in the “mimicry” of established authority – a necessary step to moving toward critique?  I think this question gets at the issue we all confront as compositionists:  Do we teach the dominant discourse so the students can claim it before critiquing it?  Is it possible to jump straight to critique without teaching the discourse of authority first?
  1. While she may do it later, Chapter 2 doesn’t directly confront another pressure on the monologic classroom: institutional expectations about what an academic writing class achieves.  So, while I agree that a remediated presentational pedagogy isn’t the best way to do things, I’m still charged with teaching academic discourse in a pretty small period of time.  What to do?  J
  2. It would seem that the notion of “popular literacy” (120, and in Trimbur’s “Popular Literacy: Caught Between Art and Crime”) would be particularly useful for your discussion of piracy communities.
  3. How can F. do the work of this book without taking up theories about perception and psychology that are outside the discipline?

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