Recently at CCCC, a friend and I were talking about what we see as our central academic interests and commitments. These are what I see as mine: queer and feminist studies, arts activism, and circulation. My current dissertation work combines slices of these things and I see myself exploring some configuration of these interests for a very long time. However, I also see these not only as research interests but as life interests, so I want to tell a story.
As I was growing up, whenever I felt that I could not express what I wanted to, or could not be heard, I created something. My adolescence and early adulthood could be catalogued by many made things: websites, short movies, chapbooks, letters, collages from found materials, photographs, poems, essays, stories, cut-up and sewn-together clothing… and more. I was privileged enough to grow up in a home that was a safe place, but I still often felt constrained by the other environments around me, such as school and other public spaces. I was very anxious and deeply uncomfortable in my body. My attempts at art were cobbled together from stray scraps of paper, glimpses of the street below my window through telephone wires and tree branches, and they helped me imagine another world.
When I came out, I saw a world that I recognized but did not previously have language for, other than the language of haphazardly made things. I started to understand how women are often uncomfortable because of discourses that police our bodies and what we can say, and I started to see how in many public conversations, there is no space made for LGBTQ experiences—especially those that may be different from mainstream narratives about what it’s like to be LGBTQ. And, most importantly, I saw how my own privilege as white, middle class, and able bodied had mediated my experiences of outsiderness, and how many people are actually oppressed. Outside of all these ongoing experiences and realizations comes my interest in the rhetoric of arts activism by marginalized groups.
I’m interested in how people—especially LGBTQ people—use the arts as a form of activism, composing works that run counter to many mainstream narratives. My particular investment is in forms of grassroots, digital artistic production, which could mean everything from a photography series launched online to a digital project combining visual art with personal narrative. I’m also interested in circulation: how artifacts have a life long after their production, and how they interact with digital and physical spaces and countless people as this life unfolds. I’m interested in finding out what gets the most traction and why, what gets highlighted in the circulation of particular things, and what gets left behind.
My persistent questions have to do with rhetoric as it shapes and is shaped by marginalized groups: how mainstream conversations get challenged, and how marginalized people such as LGBTQ individuals participate in our own insider conversations that imagine the world in ways other than the often oppressive way it is now. I’m especially interested in rhetorics of gender. For example, mainstream conversations often circulate a limiting view of gender: one can be a woman or a man, and that’s how it is. Alternatively, queer conversations insist that gender is more multiple and complex than we usually understand. As one more vital step, though, these “mainstream” and “alternative” conversations are not static things that happen in particular spaces, but both are constantly circulating, changing, and interacting. Conversations can also be reshaped and moved in new directions through activist interventions using the arts or other means.
In my dissertation project, I begin by looking at a few examples of arts activism by queer-identified women or gender nonconforming individuals. My study focuses on how these examples have circulated, primarily through digital space, so my data mostly consists of a collection of public digital commentary on each of the three examples—such as articles in various forms of online media outlets. I want to find out what conversations these examples of arts activism have incited, and how different people have taken up these conversations—and that is the primary work of the dissertation that I see as part of a much larger project.
What I’m currently working on, in the sense of day to day work that often gets rendered invisible in a large project, are these things: A section of a chapter draft that looks at queer language play in a digital photography project; another round of data coding in the form of tagging and organizing my large collection of articles on one of my examples; constant, reflexive attention to what I am noticing and what I may be missing; reading work about digital feminist research in rhetoric and composition, and work from other fields on things like queer subcultural style; investigating methods of distant reading to test my intuitions and supplement my close reading. And, always and most importantly, learning what questions to ask.
Laura Tetreault is a third year PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of Louisville, where she has taught composition and professional writing and served as Assistant Director of the University Writing Center.