Ownership, Bodies, Legality: Culture in Tech Comm

This post is a critical response to readings in English 451: Cultural Studies in Technical Communication

It is unsurprising that the part of Williams’ text that interested me most came in “Owning the Self in a Disowned World.” Williams, in her curious style of narrative anecdote and theoretical reflection, discusses the case of a woman charged with homicide after a miscarriage, and juxtaposes it against the case of a woman suing for the right of her fetus not to be in the prison she herself has been sentenced to; meanwhile, she remembers the case of a woman jailed to protect her fetus from drugs (183-184). “My head is throbbing because these cases don’t make sense to me … I’m not sure I believe that a child who has left the womb is really a separate person until sometime after the age of two. The entire life force is a social one …” (184). While this passage is of interest to me because of my research in technical communication and gender studies, especially as it relates to reproduction and women’s bodies, I also think it gets to the heart of Williams’ book. Time and again, she argues (with herself, with the world) over the disjointedness of trying to impose neat legal limitations on human beings who are so complexly, messily, socially un-limitable and whose “legal rights” often overlap or are taken up in frightening and unjust ways.

The whole book is a passionate, angry, sad response to the fragmentation imposed on people, people like Williams. More than once, she notes her own isolation as a single black professional woman. In many contexts, she wrestles with the notion that “allowing the separation in order to benefit the real mutuality, they enslave themselves to the state” (185). Reading this on the heels of This Bridge Called My Back, I often found myself conflicted about the promise of unity for women, for people of color, for gays and lesbians, for the poor. I struggled to read this text. It was emotionally difficult, both in terms of sheer exposure (an eleven-year-old slave girl impregnated by her white master! the acceptance of that girls’ descendants that the master is also part of their inheritance! A fifteen-year-old black girl raped physically, then again in the media/social aftermath!) and in terms of my own implication (as a white woman, my thoughts about affirmative action programs are a hopeless mess of conflicts). There were many subjects on which I agreed with Williams; there also were areas where I disagreed but recognized my own privilege and historical context as influencers in my disagreement.

(The one disagreement I just have to mention is Williams’ idea to stage “guerrilla warfare” by secretly impregnating white women with black sperm (188). Although she then does “disclaim this as a serious exhortation,” she does so defensively. I found her entire treatment of the issue to be highly problematic; to me, any case of a woman impregnated with sperm—black or white—that she did not want—regardless of why she didn’t want it—is a form of rape, and Williams does not deal with this violent trespass into female bodies as a feminist issue at all.)

I was so involved with Williams’ book that I now find myself worrying about involving the field of technical communication in this response. Much like Williams’ students who claim she doesn’t teach law, I find myself struggling to connect the content of the book to the subject of our class. But at the same time, these subjects—race, gender, sex, disempowerment, oppression, subjugation, discrimination, hate, privilege, the veil of transparency—are endemic to technical communication. Mark Hannah exhorts technical communicators to re-envision their own production of legal rhetoric and technical communication teachers to take up legal issues in the classroom. At stake is that technical communicators “not see themselves or their companies simply as subject to or victim to the limits and restrictions of the law” (14). Hannah’s work could perhaps be seen as a response to Williams’ book; here is a way to do something about all the injustices she makes visible.

(Hannah’s suggestions, of course, represent just one angle of a whole spectrum of responses. As Christian argues, there is no need to produce a particular theoretical response representative of my own situatedness and stick to it “as if I were a mechanical man” (53).)

I have brought legal rhetoric into my own classroom when I teach technical communication. My students study a body of lawsuits surrounding nail gun accidents. However, the combination of Williams and Hannah’s pieces have prompted me to reconsider the way in which I present this information. I have asked students to think in complex ways (including thinking about social class and gender) about how instruction manuals for nail guns function rhetorically. Now, I’ll add some new subjects of focus. I’ll ask students to look at the lawsuits themselves and examine the ways in which we value law as neutral or transparent, and I’ll ask students to review each others’ work (as Hannah demonstrates on page 19) with an eye to legal potentiality.

This seems a small step in the face of a text like Williams’. For now, it’s all I know to do.


Works Cited

Williams, Patricia J. The Alchemy of Race and Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Hannah, Mark. “Legal Literacy: Coproducing the Law in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 20.1 (2011): 5-24. Print.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique: The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse 6 (1987): 51-63. Print.


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