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For previous posts on teaching The Argonauts, click below:

“I now understand her point better”: Reflections on Empty Narratives of Research 

What Does Interpretation Look Like? A Play in Three Acts 


As we’ve been making our way through The Argonauts, my students and I have encountered words drawn from writers of philosophy, psychoanalysis, queer theory, political history, poetry, manifestos and more. When the students look up the unfamiliar terms that populate Nelson’s text, the online dictionaries only offer them so much assistance in illuminating whatever passage they are struggling with.

How, I ask them, can a definition drawn from a normative text like a dictionary be expected to make sense when it is plopped down into Nelson’s queer text? (The same question can be asked of any definition dropped into any text where the writer’s work is interpretive; in this instance, the normative responsibilities of the dictionary simply get thrown into high relief when the destination text is Nelson’s genre-bending memoir.)

So, as a corrective, I sent the students off to explore the digital Oxford English Dictionary. I wanted them to watch the word they were researching enter the English language, to track its appearance backwards in time and then forward into the present. I wanted to highlight that the meaning of a word alters over time. And then, once the students had done that work, I wanted them to return to Nelson’s text and write up an account on how Nelson was using the word or phrase they chose to explore. To help the students along, I posted my own response to the assignment on our WordPress site.
What I received in response has amazed me. This assignment paid dividends beyond my wildest imagination. I really recommend it!

Here’s the example I posted:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained--inexpressibly!--in the expressed.

The OED defines the adjectival form of inexpressible to mean: "That cannot be expressed in words; unutterable, unspeakable, indescribable," which isn't terribly surprising. What's interesting is that they credit John Donne, metaphysical poet and Anglican priest, with first putting the word into print in a 1631 sermon delivered on Easter Sunday:


"Thou shalt feele the joy of his third birth in thy soul, most inexpressible this day."

How can Christ be born three times? First, in the miracle of Mary's virgin birth. Then, when he is resurrected after his crucifixion. And, a third time, when he is re-born in the soul of the Christian believer. When that happens, Donne preaches, the joy the believer feels will be "inexpressible."


So, the original context for the term is religious. When the term surfaces in Nelson's prose nearly 400 years later, it is not in relation to a devotion to Christ, but in an idea of Wittgenstein's that Nelson "had spent a lifetime devoted to." The term, in other words, has traveled from the realm of the divine to the secular realm of philosophy.


This observation remains true even after I discovered a yet earlier use of the term than the one recorded in the 2nd edition of the OED (published before the digitization of print made global searches of lexical history something anyone could do). It turns out that Donne used "inexpressible" in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, his extended meditation on the meaning of death and sinfulness, composed in 1623 and published in 1624, after he recovered from an unknown illness that almost cost him his life. The context this time is Donne's XIX Expostulation, where he maintains that God is a "direct God, may I not say a literal God, a God that wouldst be understood literally and according to the plain sense of all" and, at the same time, a "metaphorical God too," one whose use of metaphors, allegories, and hyperbole is without equal. Addressing his God, Donne rejoices:


"O, what words but thine express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word, in which, to one man, that argument that binds his faith to believe that to be the word of God, is the reverent simplicity of the word, and, to another, the majesty of the word."

Here, Donne, Wittgenstein, and Nelson converge: Donne's first use of the term "inexpressible" occurs in a discussion of how God's language, as recorded in the Bible, works its transformative magic; Nelson is not devoted to that God, but to Wittgenstein's idea about language's power to express the inexpressible. Donne and Wittgenstein are struck by the same thing. The difference is that Donne credits the Christian God with the power to make the Bible work as it does while Wittgenstein locates that power in the structure of language itself.


Right next door to "inexpressible," one finds the plural: "inexpressibles," a euphemism for "unmentionables" that arose in the late 1800s. Edward Gibbon, author of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, used the euphemism in a letter to Lord Sheffield on November 11, 1793, in relation to his visit to a surgeon. "Have you never observed," Gibbons writes, "through my inexpressibles, a large prominency which, as it was not at all painful and very little troublesome, I had strangely neglected for many years?"

Gibbons went on to report on the surgical efforts to drain the large prominency of the water that was collected in it. These drainings were carried out every fourteen days, because the prominency refilled with water. Gibbons never recovered and died on January 16, 1794.

Here, the inexpressibles cover over the unmentionables, placing the discussion of sexual health out of bounds. So, inexpressible goes from the divine to the venal, flipping its meaning during its voyage from the sermon to the mundane.



In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.

What is this space for God? I think it is the inexpressible. No matter how you choose to use language--to celebrate simplicity or complexity--there's no way to exercise complete control over how words say and mean. Put the profane ("fuck up") right next to the sacred ("God") and the inexpressible space remains.


I have been talking with my students about the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School last month, and we have discussed and debated the rhetoric around the murder of 17 students and educators – how the media represented what occurred, especially the language used to describe the shooter and the students who survived. We could not ignore the vexing question of race. Black student protesters are cast as violent criminals – whether during the Youth March in Birmingham or lifting their voices against police violence in Black Lives Matter – while the white students have been called “actors” (by the most cynical), “victims” and even “heroes.”


In both cases, we have witnessed youth practicing democracy. The composition classroom can and should be a space where we equip students to have a voice, identify the sources of social problems as critical readers and writers, and enter into conversations. Although I think this assumption has motivated many teachers of writing for decades, others lament a civic education gap. Dahlia Lithwick’s point in a recent Slate Magazine article is that schools no longer focus on the arts, civics, and enrichment that once ensured education was rooted in the day-to-day lives of students and their families. However, she also calls attention to the kind of privilege the students at Stoneman Douglas High have experienced. They have access to a system-wide debate program, a forensics program, and an exceptional drama program. Educators there are committed to supporting speech and journalism programs as the means through which to promote student activism. She observes, “These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.”


The classroom should be a place where students can practice democracy. But it is not enough to argue that democratic values are as important as traditional academic priorities. We must also ask, what kind of democratic values? What political and ideological interests are embedded in or attached to varied conceptions of citizenship? Unfortunately, education reform and economic development have ignored these questions and the very skills and perspectives necessary for building a socially just world in which we want to live.


When my students and I talk about education in general and literacy specifically, it is with the understanding that learning and development cannot be considered apart from social environment. But how should we talk about literacy? Winn and Behizadeh, among others, are right to argue students need to have access to literacies – students’ own creative and cultural literate practices, academic literacy, and critical reading and writing skills. These are tools students need to navigate and transform the world around them, evidenced in the Stoneman Douglas students’ who are speaking out and helping to propel a movement. They have learned the language of power.


However, it is one thing for my students and me to discuss who has access to literacies that promote a questioning, critical frame of mind. It is another to step beyond classroom boundaries into the lives of others where my students can experience worlds quite different from their own – to see firsthand who has access to resources young people need to thrive and who does not.


Using Neuman and Celano’s study of four neighborhoods in Philadelphia as a model, we set out to map the key places and resources in the neighborhoods surrounding our campus. (April Lidinsky and I include an excerpt of their research article in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing.) Neuman and Celano are particularly interested in the resources and potential disparities in print environments – the likelihood children will find access to books and other resources.


As my students and I begin to map the neighborhood surrounding our campus (an example of which is pictured above), we start to make a list of places where literacy occurs. This list, as it turns out, is limited to the coffee shop where we observe people having conversations and reading material on their computer screens. When we go into a 24-hour convenience store, we spot just a few magazines and the local newspaper, but cannot locate any books for adults or children. Next, we pass a bank where we see several people making transactions, and four slow fast food restaurants where customers look at their phones. No bus stop that might take people to their jobs. No full service grocery store. What do these limited resources tell us about what matters and for whom? It matters a great deal if you are a child who attends a public school just a ¼ mile away that will close at the end of the current school year. The loss of a school exacerbates the persistent inequality that affects mostly children and families of color who look to that school as a source of stability and social capital.


Walking gives us an opportunity to look critically at our environment, to question the decisions that determine who lives in the neighborhoods we observed, and to write about what makes a flourishing community. I want my students to reflect on what makes a neighborhood thrive, develop a critical habit of mind, and use their skills as speakers and writers to move people to action. I want them to see that all children, that everyone, should have the gift of an education that values their voice and equips them to practice democracy. And it can begin in the writing and rhetoric classroom when we honor our own students’ voices and cultivate the kind of citizenship exemplified by the Stoneman Douglas High students.



Student Literacy Map Courtesy of Sheila Roohan

The classroom can and should be a place where students learn to engage critically, and develop the skills necessary to enter nationwide debates as active, democratic citizens. In order to do so, they must understand the rhetoric used by the media, by the government, and by proponents on either side of an argument. The warrants, assumptions, and terminology used in public debate – especially regarding hotly contested issues – often go under-examined.  


Case in point, the choice of terminology used in discussing the role of guns in American society reflects the most essential differences between those on different sides of the debate about Americans’ right to own guns. In the aftermath of the most recent school shooting, proponents of restrictions on gun ownership have increasingly used the term “gun safety” rather than the term “gun control” to draw attention to their primary concern. Weighing in on that side of the debate is the emotional appeal provided by Parkland students—and thousands of their counterparts elsewhere—giving a public face to the victims and potential victims of gun violence and voicing their plea for new legislation to prevent similar massacres in the future.


Even though it is difficult to argue against gun safety, so far legislators have not been swayed by the terminology or the tactics. Is it simply party loyalty that drives a legislator to vote against restrictions on assault rifles? Is it campaign contributions from the NRA that prevent legislators from voting to increase the age at which an individual can buy guns? Why have some businesses proved more willing to restrict gun sales than our government?


If the most basic fear of gun control advocates is that more children and young people will die without more restrictions on guns, the most basic fear of gun control opponents is giving any modicum of control up to the government. Their simplest defense is that the Second Amendment gives Americans the right to bear arms. There is no room in their philosophy for the historical context of that amendment or the consideration of changes in guns that have come about since it became law. Does the right to bear arms mean the same thing in an age of automatic guns and armor-piercing bullets? Does the Second Amendment mean that there can be no restrictions on the type of arms any citizen can bear? What can be more important than keeping schoolchildren safe? The answer has to be keeping American citizens safe from the government. Not just from government restrictions, but from total control by an armed government of an unarmed citizenry. It is the ultimate result of the slippery slope that begins with giving an inch. It is the ultimate extension of the argument by gun owners that they have the right to protect their families. After all, what was “a well regulated Militia” designed to protect our young nation from? What were the Founding Fathers afraid of when they devised this means of protecting “the security of a free State”? The citizenry must be able to protect themselves against enemies from without or enemies from within. Since we have our armed forces to do the first, the only justification for a well-regulated militia is to protect from the latter.


This sort of analysis of the warrants or assumptions underlying arguments for and against restrictions on gun ownership can help to clarify, if not resolve, the stalemate regarding any changes in existing laws. Encouraging students to participate in such an analysis not only hones their understanding of argument, but also invites active citizenship.


Image Source: "AK-47 Assault Rifle // Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947" by on Flickr 01/19/10 via Creative Commons 2.0 license