Contested spaces: Composition theory and the rhetorics of postmodern masculinity

Brian C. Nudelman


Contested Spaces examines the interstices of rhetoric, gender, and critical theory as they meet within the college composition classroom, but with a specific focus on representations and ideologies of contemporary masculinity, a heretofore under-theorized area of Composition Studies. In following the important cultural studies-based work of James Berlin, bell hooks, and Henry Giroux, my dissertation argues that to recognize the realm of popular culture within our society as merely the ephemeral detritus of market-shares and commodities dangerously ignores how ideologies and subjectivities are articulated within postmodern notions of culture and gender. In turn, to rhetorically analyze the cultural production of the popular is to critique not only how the media puts into play the dominant values and ethics of society, but also how those same notions of doxa , indeed the ruling bodies of commonsense, are taken up by our students. Contested Spaces focuses on how popular culture creates and sustains ontological articulations of masculinity that our students subsequently perform within their writing. As scholars and theorists in the burgeoning area of critical study known as Masculinity Studies have argued, in today's current cultural spaces, constructions of masculinity are often resistant to stable definable performative characteristics, yet at the same time are guided by a doxa of masculinity which both permits and restricts issues of agency and subjectivity, two vital areas of study for the academic field of Composition. In looking to popular culture, I question how masculinity is articulated, performed, and supported within two primary spheres of performance and discourse: print media and visual media. In looking to contemporary composition theory and pedagogy, I interrogate both how the academic field has already established notions of masculinity, and present alternative pedagogical frameworks that acknowledge and work with the manipulable constructions of masculinity celebrated in popular culture. Two crucial questions guide this work--what are the parameters and limits of agency provided through the rhetorics of a postmodern notion of gendered performance, and how do these limits effect the work of the composition classroom, a liminal space where students are often asked to critique strongly held ideologically-based notions of values and ethics? The cultural production and representation of masculinity defined through film, television, and the popular press present myriad ways of being in the world that must be studied and critiqued, all with the eventual hope of better understanding and representing the cultural production that our students are continually called to perform within our classrooms. Indeed, the contested spaces of popular culture too often create environments in which our democratically-based notions of freedom and civic engagement, notions which encourage the search for more egalitarian modes of being and that attempt to reduce the spread of systems of oppression, are ever-threatened. The cultural work of interrogating the creation, circulation, and reception of these rhetorical articulations of masculinity within the public sphere must become a segment of the work of composition theory and the postmodern composition classroom, for it is our business as compassionate compositionists to recognize and critique the available subjectivities of gender that our students are called upon to perform. Contested Spaces hopes to fulfill a portion of this responsibility.