Abstract

Rhetoricians have come to understand that when we look through rhetorical history for what is most tense and polarizing, we most often come to stories about the body. Wherever we find the body rhetorically contested, and wherever we find rhetorical contestation about the body's role in meaning-making, we see intensely fraught negotiations. This should matter very much to those of us invested in disability studies work. In the last decade, some excellent rhetoricians have done this critical work. In this special issue, some excellent rhetoricians continue this critical work, bringing together rhetoric, writing studies, and disability studies – and the engine and the theme of this work is metis, cunning and adaptive intelligence. But what is metis, and why should it matter to disability studies?


I see rhetoric as the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication. Following this definition, I would also argue for the central role of the body in rhetoric—as the centrifuge for all communication. Rhetoricians have come to understand that when we look through rhetorical history for what is most tense and polarizing, we most often come to stories about the body. Wherever we find the body rhetorically contested, and wherever we find rhetorical contestation about the body's role in meaning-making, we see intensely fraught negotiations. I believe that parsing and engaging these arguments is the most important calling of the critical rhetorician. I also believe this critical engagement should matter very much to those of us invested in disability studies work.

In the last decade, some excellent rhetoricians, such as Shannon Walters, Melanie Yergeau, Cristina Cedillo, and Karma Chavez have done this critical work. In Disability Studies Quarterly, we have a venue in which rhetorical scholarship and disability studies scholarship have come together in powerful ways, for instance in the 2011 special issue (31.3) guest edited by Melanie Yergeau and John Duffy. In this special section on the work of metis in the writing classroom, some excellent rhetoricians continue this critical work, bringing together rhetoric, writing studies, and disability studies – and the engine and the theme of this work is metis, cunning and adaptive intelligence.

But what is metis, and why should it matter to disability studies?

First of all, metis demands a focus on embodied rhetoric and, specifically, demands a view of the body and its thinking as being double and divergent. Metis is the rhetorical art of cunning, the use of embodied strategies, what Certeau calls everyday arts, to transform rhetorical situations. In a world of chance and change, metis is what allows us to craft available means for persuasion. Building on the work of Detienne and Vernant, and Certeau, I argue that metis is a way to recognize that all rhetoric is embodied. I've argued that metis is a disability rhetoric. I show how it is not enough to re-body theory and teaching—doing so simply incorporates untroubled bodily norms in an unchallenged realm of abstraction. Our embodiment is a feeling for difference, and always references norms of gender, race, sexuality, class, citizenship. Developing the concept of metis has thus allowed teachers of rhetoric to show how embodiment forms and transforms in reference to norms of ability, the constraint and enablement of our bodied knowing. More simply, for all of those teachers and theorists who have argued, over the last several decades, that we need to pay more attention to the body, metis provides a theory of embodiment that centers disability rather than marginalizing it. More than this, metis is as old, or perhaps older, than the very roots of philosophy, or pedagogy. Even more than this, we could be living in a world in which metis had always been a valued rhetorical perspective.

I have argued that rhetoric won't admit it has a body. That is, our canonized histories, but also many of our current approaches to teaching rhetoric, either ignore the body or treat the body as something that can easily be mastered, minimized, controlled. I have then argued that rhetoric does indeed have a body, but that the shape and movement of this body has been normative, straightened out over 2500 years of history; I have suggested that this narrow image limits our ability to recognize our own real bodies and their inevitable connection to our being-in-the-world as thinking, persuading, collaborating subjects, as embodied selves. I have suggested that a tension thus always underlies the body. This is the tension of our anxiety about imperfection, our sublimated desires, our unsatisfied need, finally, to affirm our (incomplete) bodies and embodiments. Metis is the craft of forging something practical out of these possibilities, practicing an embodied rhetoric, changing the world as we move through it.

At the heart of metis is disability. In classical history, the key exemplar of metis was the disabled Greek god Hephaestus. Thus, metis first comes to us through myth, but has also always been an engine of disability rhetoric, capable of explaining and activating a wide range of available means. So, celebrating Hephaestus is also a way to give rhetoric a body. And metis, I have suggested, is an embodied knowledge: one that refuses the sexist, ableist body-image of canonical rhetoric, an image that we have chosen from our (Western, Greco-Roman) versions of history. We might have chosen and canonized a history with a disabled God at the center of it. We might still.

There is work to be done here to explain just why, and how, metis has been overlooked. To understand the concept, we might also look to Metis, the Greek goddess who is named after this form of intelligence. Indeed, her role in myth can be understood as an analogue for the role metis has been relegated to in the rhetorical tradition. Most notably, the popular story of Zeus actually eating Metis could be used as an analogue and a point-of-entry for exploring other denunciations of embodied rhetoric. The versions of rhetorical history that might have offered us more flexible, real, non-normative avenues for engaging the body, they have been eaten.

Hephaestus' and Metis' appearances in myth yield an often contradictory picture, a complexity that challenges simple constructions, reductions, or dismissals of the important role of metis in history. The confusion and the flexibility of norms, as applied to and embodied by Hephaestus, suggest to me that Greek society did not understand disability as simply as our history might suggest. The idea that Hephaestus' physical disability could have had positive connotations seems contradictory to the modern reader. Though, of course, to those of us engaged in disability studies work, this seems reasonable, maybe even likely. As Harlan Hahn argued several decades ago, "humans have always exercised the right to make choices about the anatomical features that they consider desirable or interesting, and, at times, these options have included rather than excluded women and men with disabilities" (30). So, I have argued that the overlooking and submersion of Hephaestus is the result of an import of bias into the past. Hephaestus was robustly worshipped and celebrated in the Greek context, his bodily difference not necessarily fetishized or diminished, not just to be overcome or compensated-for, but idealized. Disability, throughout history, has not always represented loss, punishment, perversion, and alienation, but has instead often been situated as an embodied reality, a physical eventuality, even a desirable human variation. The erasure of Hephaestus and metis from our view of history is simply in keeping with a larger pattern of disavowals of Other bodies. But we could move through history differently.

This collection of essays argues that metis is a way for us all to move. Metis is a way to think and also a way to think about thinking. When we re-read history for evidence of different abilities – as both good rhetoricians and as anti-ableist historians – we will be drawn to double and divergent ways of knowing. History might be thought of as a forward march. Famously, Hephaestus was shown to have moved laterally.

In our accepted Western tradition, Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire and metallurgy. In some images, Hephaestus appears able-bodied. In others, he rides a proto-wheelchair, a chariot with wings. But in vase paintings, sculpture, and in written texts, Hephaestus is most often depicted as having a physical disability, his feet twisted around backwards or sideways. In these images, his abilities as an artisan are also depicted, and these skills are valued. Homer repeatedly mentions that he is lame, god of the "dragging foot" (Murray Iliad 18.371). But, his disability also has positive connotations. Having feet which face away from one another doesn't necessarily entail impairment. Instead, it means he can move from side to side more quickly.

Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, in Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, write that Hephaestus was symbolized by the crab, and that his side-to-side movement had symbolic value. Metis, as with other forms of intelligence, was associated with particular animals: the crab, the octopus, the cuttlefish. In Greek thought, these animal-affiliations had vastly different meanings than those we might infer today. The animal world was not understood as separate from the human in the same distinct way. To think like a crab or an octopus was to incorporate modes of thinking/moving that were highly valued, far from abstract. In the Classical world, Hephaestus' extraordinary body was positively allied with his cunning mind, and both were then further allied with the symbolic movements and strategies of specific animals.

As Debra Hawhee points out, metis is always affiliated with crafty figures that "display a somatic cunning" or "bodily intelligence" (46). The crab and octopus move cunningly, for example. But because it is first and foremost a bodily intelligence, metis has been subject to derogation. In Greek, metis means wisdom, wise counsel. But it also means cunning and connotes trickery. As Randy Lee Eickhoff points out, the form of the word itself is a kind of trick: the Greek words me and tis mean "no man" or "no one" (n4; 404). But the two words put together label a particular someone: the sort of person whose identity can be elusive, who is unpredictable but resourceful and clever (Eickhoff, n4; 404). John Peradotto devotes an entire monograph to this "no-man-clature of the self," suggesting that it calls up also a new form of indeterminate selfhood, predicated on the flux and play of metis (143). I would add that thinking through metis as no one could bring attention to the argument that we have no one body, never one body or subjectivity. As such, me + tis makes a radical phenomenological statement and poses a challenge to traditional identity politics, centering the rhetorical nature of identity and embodiment. It also centers interdependence. Rhetoric is what facilitates the communication and movement between bodies: our own bodies and those around us; our own bodies and the bodies we will become.

Metis provides a model for the ways we might repurpose tensions around bodily values, recognizing the stigmatization and effacement of bodily difference, yet also mobilizing new stories and new expressive possibilities. Of course, metis has always been associated with trickery – those with metis can process and interpret the world slightly differently, can find opportunity to turn the tables on those with greater bie, or brute strength, than they have access to. Defeating the Titans, a race of giants, was only possible due to superior cunning. Zeus himself, before joining with and then eating the Goddess Metis, was pure bie. Because of her pivotal role in defeating the Titans, the goddess Metis was respected and feared by Zeus. He also foresaw the threat her children would be to him, having inherited her metis. When he eats her, Metis is pregnant with Athena, who Zeus knows could one day have the power to usurp him. Zeus saw that Metis' wisdom and ingenuity were a threat to his sovereign power, a power that he attained only with her aid. Not content just to marry her, to learn from her, or to share power with her, Zeus swallows the pregnant Metis and becomes, himself, mêtieta, the "wise counselor" (Hesiod 886; Apollodorus 1.20). Metis then lives on in Zeus as a voice in his head. After he consumes Metis, thus evading the inevitable loss of his power, Zeus gets a huge headache. In one version of the story, he asks Hephaestus to knock a hole in his temple: Metis' daughter Athena springs out. Yet despite this surprise, Zeus has successfully co-opted the power of metis, channeling the cunning of Metis from within.

Some versions of the myth insist that Metis continued to speak to Zeus from inside his head, an advisor only he could hear. In this way, though in Greek mythology there may have been a push for the substantiation of metis as a rhetoric, metis was also quickly appropriated in this story. Metis was wrested from the feminine, its lineage became unofficial, and its uses were co-opted and controlled by Zeus.

The overwhelming message we get from our reading of history is that the great philosophers also ate metis. As Lisa Raphals suggests, "the abilities of metis are not so much ignored as appropriated by the dominant philosophical viewpoints of […] Greek philosophy" (228). For instance, Plato "redefines certain qualities associated with mêtis to suit his own epistemological priorities" (Raphals 228). The metis that embraces change and chance, that resists schematization, it is foreign to Plato's view of wisdom, to the realm of Truth he idealizes. Metis must be made to fit into an ordered world, or rejected. Because it calls on changing opinions and positions, Plato allied metis with charlatanism, and this with the pleasures of the body. For metis to be acceptable, it had to be digested. Thus, in the words of Detienne and Vernant, we have followed Plato's lead and "pick[ed] out from the [cunning] skills of the artisan anything that […] produces in the world of Becoming creations that are as real, stable and organized as possible" (4). More simply, as Fabienne Knudsen argues, "the Platonic truth that has kept haunting Western thought has discarded the kind of intelligence implied in metis" (63). If metis exists at all in the canonical history of Western thought, it is metis with the cunning wrung out, placed into an ordered, proportional, hierarchized and cerebral epistemology.

This may have seemed necessary, perhaps, because metis is specifically not identified with the strongest and the best, with the ideal, with the unchanging, but rather with an artisan like the "lame" Hephaestus. It is worth noting that these ableist accents on the denunciation of metis are also accompanied by a distinct ethnocentrism and even xenophobia. The associated word Metic meant immigrant in ancient Athens. The word is a compound of the words "change" (meta) and "house" (oikos), and literally meant someone who changed houses. Nicole Loraux suggests that the assumed Greek disposition towards Metics has been taken out of context and used as an "original model of discrimination" by Nazi Germany and other regimes in need of anti-immigration precedents, for instance (128). The French term meteque has become a pejorative for Mediterranean foreigners in contemporary France, for instance. In Periclean Athens, Metics were subject to a special tax, and the killing of a Metic was recognized only as involuntary homicide or manslaughter (Loraux 129). Yet at the same time, this society "had need of Metics for the many services they rendered the citizen-body" (Loraux 129). The Sophists were Metics, and they were successful educators. Some historical interpretations of the Athenian stance towards Metics, however, have been opportunistic to the extreme – have been used to justify xenophobia (and even genocide) by rooting it in a Classical ideal.

We must always remember the strategies of the Metis myths, which forcibly masculinize this intelligence; we must always remember the rhetorical moves of Plato and Aristotle, legitimating only that which is Greek, denouncing metis as foreign and alien; we should never forget their attempts to make metis logical and proportional. Michelle Ballif suggests that rhetorical history poses metis "as the illegitimate offspring of language" (Seduction 58). She suggests that an alternative tradition of metis, like the one I have briefly spun here, elaborated in excellent detail by the other essayists in this issue, shows us that language is not for technicians but for artisans like Hephaestus (189). Utilizing metis, we might begin to write a new mythology that values partial and contextual knowledge and that makes space for all of our bodies.

I suggest that we recognize metis as a rhetoric, and that we connect it to embodiment and to the bodies I have illustrated: Metis and Hephaestus. In the essays in this special issue, these connections to the body will be made even more evident and urgent. For instance, In Drew Holladay's "Performing Metis Rhetorics in Rhetoric and Composition Scholarship," Holladay traces the ways that disability has been given no place within academia, and yet disabled scholars work to refigure scholarly and academic spheres in ways that "invert higher education and transform its practices toward inclusivity—even if the university might not recognize itself afterward" (italics in original). Hilary Selznick writes that "anyone who stands in front of a room facing a group of students knows that teaching is a performance. We just don't talk about it. Disabled faculty members are especially not encouraged to do so," even when, as Selznick shows, these embodiments are powerfully rhetorical and valuable. Similarly, Sean Kamperman shows that "the metis-performances" of students "reveal double and divergent approaches to literacy, technology, and collaboration. By reimagining our students, colleagues, and ourselves as metis-performers, we gain the gift of double vision: the ability to see the classroom as a space where multiple, equally valid approaches to access are playing out simultaneously." For Tara Wood, metis then becomes a way to talk about the difficult parts of the composition process, like writing anxiety, "without talking about diagnosis, treatment, cure, or overcoming" and instead focusing on the "design of classrooms, curricula and spaces that provide hospitable conditions for performances of metis."

Through these stories we find further support for a metis historiography and for metis in contemporary rhetorical production – perhaps also for a metis politics to address inequities and suppressions within contemporary cultural logics. Metis asks us to both make and undo language, myth, and rhetoric through the body. These stories strongly advocate for the centrality of metis across traditions, and argue for a recognition of the power and importance of this way of thinking, recovering metis not just as an idea from another era, but as a way to make and remake embodied meaning.

In this collection of essays, we see this metis at work, particularly in the college classroom, a place where disembodiment, traditional logic, straight, binarized, and transactional pedagogies have held sway for far too long. The college classroom is a place that has been traditionally unsafe for those forced to change places, those who have been displaced. In disability studies, we understand the cost of upholding these traditions and these practices. In this collection of essays, we see the potential of a new mythos.

Works Cited

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