Sparklegate and Silencing “Silliness”
Let me start by saying that I have not entirely been following the so-dubbed Spaklegate fiasco closely. Mostly what I’ve seen are hurt reactions by people who cared about what things like sparkleponies was doing for people, particularly for graduate students. It made us feel comfortable, and it let incoming academics know that 1) we a have a sense of humor 2) even topics everyone may not agree with can find a place of respect in our field and 3) we aren’t afraid of play. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, let me back up.
A few years ago, a couple rogue academics decided to do something outrageous: bring a little fun into an incredibly stodgy, often overwhelming, academic conference (CCCC’s). They began C’s the Day, a game that called for conference attendees to do things like go to sessions, ask questions, and meet others in the field. (UNFORGIVABLE, RIGHT?). As a prize, these academics hand-made things called sparkleponies, featured in the image above. This year after the conference was over (and during it, no doubt), there came an outcry against C’s the Day and sparkleponies, basically making fun of those involved. However, some of the insults cut very deep for those like me who do games and rhetoric work that could easily be maligned in the same way as sparkleponies.
Yep, sometimes in rhetoric we study sparkleponies. We also study games. We study car engines. We study workplace. We study writing. We study music videos. We study 2000-year-old documents. We study mommy blogs. Any place humans are making meaning, making sense of the world, or communicating, rhetoric is there. Sometimes it’s “silly,” like sparkleponies, sometimes it’s grave, like genocide. It’s varied.
Then, the asinine Gawker article. Yes, this happens every year. People pick through the conference presentation titles at CCCCs and take out a few that sound silly to make fun of how irrelevant our field is. We should be used to it by now, but we aren’t. The critiques here are especially painful because it’s what we all fear when we start researching things we care about: they aren’t relevant, they make us look like bad scholars, they will doom our graduate students to adjuncting positions.
Now, before I get to my point I have to make a confession: I don’t actually give a shit about sparkleponies as sparkleponies. What I do care about is what they mean for the field. What I do care about is that people who do care about things have the space and freedom to explore them. What I do care about is that we don’t back down when people challenge our work out of fear. What I care about, more than anything, is that we recognize the rhetorical tradition we come from is flawed, and that sparkleponies, as frivolous as they may seem, represent something absolutely critical for the future of rhetoric.
You won’t find Maria Edgeworth in The Rhetorical Tradition. Why? She wrote numerous treatises that changed the lives of thousands of people. As a woman in early 19th century Britain, where so few women had voices, how was she able to be so prolific? And most importantly, why isn’t she alongside Bacon being taught in Modern Rhetoric courses (Pat Sullivan’s Modern Rhetorics aside, of course)? She is not included because she wasn’t talking about something that is inside the already established parameters of what rhetoricians talk about. She talked about parenting and raising children. CRAZY! SILLY! That’s women’s work! Aristotle didn’t cover that! Well he didn’t cover a lot of things we accept as rhetoric today. Her ability to speak and publish prolifically in a system designed to keep her silent is nothing short of remarkable. And her writings are chalk-full of important things for our field. But she has been silenced and erased because her topic simply didn’t fit.
Mary Astell, arguably the greatest orator in the last 500 years, is not covered by most history of rhetoric courses. Why? She spoke about religion and women’s roles in religion. Of course, this falls outside the topic of rhetoric, right? (Well, it doesn’t really). Notwithstanding, for a woman to speak in public and publish treatises in the late 1600’s was all but impossible. Astell was able to do it because she did it under the guise of speaking about religion. If she is ordained by God to speak, who is a publisher to silence her? This is one of the most remarkable rhetorical moves I’ve ever seen. In fact, her life reads like a text on how to live rhetorically. But, in the end, she is erased and silenced. Only women would care about a woman talking about women’s rights, I guess. That’s not rhetoric.
Margery Kempe, Christine de Pisan, Ida Wells. Why are these not figures central to any study of rhetoric? They have talked about topics that we as a field have deemed not worthy of rhetorical study. They talk about women’s rights, freedom, slavery, etiquette, childrearing, education. And tea parties. And clothing. More rhetorical skill has been utilized by women like Astell in order to simply speak than by many orators, rhetoricians, and writers we study every day. Wells’s writing has done far more for people than the Burke’s pentad.
So, sparkleponies. They’re easy to pick on. It’s easy to laugh and exclude people who talk about them seriously because they’re so different than what our tradition allows for. It’s fun. It’s a game. It’s silly. And we are terrified of it. We are so scared at losing any modicum of credibility that we erase and silence ourselves at a mere knee jerk. Let’s look back to who should be the founding women of our discipline and stand up for what we know in our glitter-covered hearts is important: allowing everyone, no matter how “silly,” a voice. And maybe even some much-earned respect.