English cohort presents ‘rhetoric of stuff’

On May 5, presentations lined the walls in the Maes building upstairs. For their final grade in Rhetoric, held in the spring semester by the Department of English and Modern Languages, the cohort in Dr. Adrienne Blackwell-Starnes’ class made posters of all that they’ve learned about the “rhetoric of stuff.”

Rhetoric refers to the study and uses of written, spoken and visual language. It investigates how language is used to organize and maintain social groups, construct meanings and identities, coordinate behavior, mediate power, produce change and create knowledge. 

Rhetoric SymposiumAccording to Rhetoric student Grace Harmon, the “rhetoric of stuff” showcases the motives behind an author’s purpose for writing or distributing something.

“We looked at different movements — minimalism, maximalism and consumerism,” Harmon said. “We looked at tiny living, van living, greenwashing. Just anything you could think of that was tied to stuff and a movement, we looked at that. We were kind of focused on consumerism mostly — how companies can profit from a movement and what rhetoric is tied to that movement.”

Rhetoric student Reilly Smith explained that everyone had an individual project and visitors were able to come view each project, discuss the topics and ask questions.

“We did our own research, we pick the topics ourselves and then we created posters that showcased our work,” Smith said.

The topics ranged from the decluttering phenomenon to children of parents with hoarding disorders, from minimalist aesthetics to maximalist self-expression, from farm feed packaging to small-scale sustainability and from vanity sizing to fast fashion ethics.

Harmon’s project focused on big businesses’ impact on small towns.

“We have this massive Walmart in my town. Going along with consumerism, I wanted to know the motives of why Walmart would establish a store with like 20,000 people in the town,” she said. “I created a survey to give to residents who are 18 years or older to judge why they shopped at Walmart and looked at the demographics of who took it and everything like that. It boiled down to being a giant convenience and affordability factor.”

Smith analyzed sustainability and a person’s carbon footprint, looking at the things that are least sustainable such as a person’s diet and how expensive it may be for someone to change their lifestyle or how removing vehicles would reduce the carbon footprint, although it’s not very feasible.

“I looked at consumerism and classism and the culture of consumerism,” she said. “There are $85 diapers versus a pack of $50 diapers, which may be more sustainable. If people could buy expensive things, it would be great for (sustainability). But we can’t control that.”

Smith added that in recognizing the “rhetoric of stuff,” it was important to get into the mindset of other people and understand where they’re coming from when it comes to choosing to do more sustainable things that are within their power.

Harmon added, “I like the idea of becoming more informed about how advertising had an effect on me. It’s important to recognize how businesses are drawing you to them. It’s about really considering the world around you and like, ‘What is marketing?’ ‘What is being marketed towards you?’ I feel like a more empowered consumer.”