Sara Ahmed is a feminist philosopher specializing in how the cultural politics of language use and discourse mediate social and embodied encounters with difference. She has published field-shaping contributions to queer and feminist theory, critical race and postcolonial theory, affect and emotion studies, and phenomenology. Since the publication of Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism in 1998, her work has epitomized the value of contemporary feminist cultural studies to speak to and against the masculinist traditions of continental philosophy. Unequivocally inserting feminist politics into the rarified air of academic theory, it crosses the sexist boundary which corrals feminist thought into the category of “studies” while opposing it to male-authored philosophy—the latter automatically authorized to speak on the social and material “Real.” In doing so, her work sits squarely within discourse-analytical traditions that seek to expose how various epistemic scenes – activism, the media, and academia, to name a few -- sediment false authority on such issues as happiness, utility, and the good. Moreover, in contesting New Materialism’s search for some monist “matter” beneath experience, she traces how those linguistic moves impose insidiously singular concepts of what social “reality” is, and how it unfolds, for real people. As a field, communication studies concerns itself centrally with matters of social influence, scale, and power, such as the electoral effects of political speech, or the ability of a message to morph as it reaches new audiences. Turning a critical eye upon the (re)production of cultural norms and social structure through interpersonal and institutional encounters, Ahmed’s oeuvre explores the discursive logics and speech acts that sediment or transform the social meanings of race, gender, and other differences.
Joan Faber McAlister
The phrase gender in rhetorical theory refers to how gendered identities and dynamics have shaped the conceptualizing of rhetorical performances and interactions. Scholars have attended to this dimension of rhetoric by examining problems relating to gendered norms and representations as contexts, conditions, and functions for rhetoric. Despite the different aims and times of these inquiries, they share central concerns about the gendered productions and exclusions of discourses and rhetorical practices. Scholars also contribute to work in both rhetorical scholarship and gender studies by bringing diverse projects into contact to create new insights. Scholarly attention to gender in rhetorical studies has often critiqued conventional theories of rhetoric for importing simplistic accounts of gender or for failing to address its importance at all. Many crucial contributions to rhetorical studies have worked to correct this problem by drawing on interdisciplinary literature—particularly from feminist theory, intersectional analysis, queer theory, trans theory, and masculinity studies—enriching understandings of how rhetoric functions. Such research has enabled rhetorical theory to begin to account for distinct embodied encounters, material conditions, and performative agencies. Scholars have drawn on interdisciplinary literature to advance a more nuanced account of gendered experiences and representations in rhetorical theory. This research has often related sexism and misogyny to a host of other forms of bias and bigotry that are evident in some of the scholarly assumptions and abstractions guiding the discipline of rhetorical studies. These include universal and neutral standards of rhetorical efficacy, individualistic accounts of the rhetorical agent, and definitions of rhetoric as a representation of (or response to) an external reality that appeals to a preexisting audience. Rhetorical theorists have also contributed to broader conversations engaging complexities of gender by highlighting the role of discourse in the production of biological essentialisms; gender binaries; interlocking oppressions; and multiple vectors of marginalization, discrimination, erasure, exclusion, and violence.
Claire Sisco King
Within the field of communication studies, critical cultural scholarship examines the interarticulation of power and culture. Drawing from critical theory and cultural studies, this research offers analysis of texts, artifacts, practices, and institutions in order to understand their potential to promote or preempt equality and social justice. Critical theory, which has Marxist origins, uses theory as a basis for critiquing and challenging systems of domination or oppression. The field of cultural studies focuses on social formations with a particular emphasis on media texts and the reception practices of audiences. Both critical theory and cultural studies emphasize the important interrelationship between ideology, or structures of belief, and the material conditions in which people live. Critical cultural research examines discourse and representation, including language and visual culture, as well as social relations, institutional structures, material practices, economic forces, and various forms of embodiment. Central to critical cultural scholarship is attention to the construction, regulation, and contestation of categories of identity, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, and class. A significant branch of critical cultural studies examines how ideas about gender and sex develop and circulate, asking how and why some constructions of gender and sex become normative and gain hegemony—or, cultural privilege—in a particular context. For example, such scholarship might critique the idealization of certain performances of masculinity and the attendant devaluation of femininity or other subordinated masculinities; or, this research might consider how particular iterations of masculinity or femininity may be counter-hegemonic, operating in opposition to prevailing ideologies of gender and sex. Critical cultural approaches also emphasize the intersectionality of gender and sex with other categories of identity. For instance, ideas about masculinity or femininity can rarely be separated from assumptions about race and/or sexuality; as such, prevailing ideologies of gender and sex often reflect the presumed normativity of whiteness and heterosexuality.