Protecting the Imaginary Domain: The Importance of Imagery, Emotion, and Bodies in Writing Pedagogy

Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Florida State University

In the Tir Alainn fantasy trilogy, Anne Bishop creates a dystopian world where women, especially women with magical ability, become the target of violent repression.  A cadre of men seek to curtail women’s powers—and acquire their property—by bridling their speech, destroying their artwork, and violently “re-educating” their bodies. Motivated by fear and greed, these men enslave a segment of the population by attacking women physically, denying them access to symbolic expression, and undermining their emotional integrity.

I open with this brief description of Bishop’s fantasy world to emphasize the importance of imagery, emotions, and bodies in composition teaching.  I want to make a bold statement concerning the necessity of integrating this trinity into our writing classrooms: without attention to imagery, emotions, and bodies, we cannot ensure individual or social health.

Regardless of NCTE’s statement on the importance of multimodal literacy, typically and traditionally, imagery, emotions, and bodies—individually and collectively—have been of secondary importance in our writing classrooms. Language is essential for our students’ economic and political wellbeing, the conventional argument goes; imagery, bodies, and emotions are less so. However, as Bishop’s troubling narrative vision reveals, the strategies by which one segment of a population represses another involve more than silencing language, typically perceived as the gateway to freedom and empowerment.  Repression involves violating bodies, limiting access to multiple symbol systems, and stifling artistic expression. For Bishop, subjugating a single individual or a group depends on destroying the ability of people to imagine and then create a different world. It depends on destroying what legal ethicist Drucilla Cornell calls the minimum conditions of individuation.

In The Imaginary Domain Cornell argues that three criteria are necessary for the development of personhood: bodily integrity, access to multiple symbol systems, and protecting the imaginary domain.  Predicated on the belief that every human has the right to happiness, Cornell proposes these criteria as a framework for assessing the justness of a law. Any law that threatens one of these conditions, and thus undercuts a person’s ability to shape his or her identity out of private and social resources, is unjust. 

Particularly important to Cornell is the imaginary domain, which, I would argue, exists through the joint auspices of imagery, emotions, and bodies. Encompassing both bodily integrity and access to multiple symbol systems, the imaginary domain, as Cornell explains it, is the realm of the “as-if”: it is a safe place where people find the resources to re-imagine personal and communal existence.  Here in the imaginary domain people can narrate, picture, and embody identities that are no longer subject to abuse, thereby initiating the process of changing the situations of abuse.  Thus, for Cornell, the imaginary domain is vital to individual and social health.  Threaten it, and we jeopardize a person’s and a society’s potential to discover the “glories of life.” 

If a group of people can be denied their ability to become individuals and to act as individuals through a systematic erosion of their imagery, emotions, and bodies, then we as teachers need to secure the safety of those very factors in our writing classrooms by devising classroom activities that attend to all three. This teaching goal suggests myriad starting points for conversation among us. I offer three clusters of ideas to jumpstart our thinking about writing, imagery, bodies, and emotions.

First, we might ask, “what imagery?”  Imagery is multimodal: it comes in graphic, mental, and verbal forms.  Within the past two decades, particularly with the explosion of digital technologies, more and more scholars have called our attention to the proliferation of graphic imagery and the changes wrought in writing and reading by that proliferation (George; Kress; Wysocki; Yancey).  We see the impact of graphic imagery in textbooks, journal articles, and research projects. So we have pioneers who are pointing to ways that creating, assessing, and critiquing graphic imagery can be central to teaching writing.

But imagery is also internal as well as external; it is a phenomenon that teeters on the cusp between the inner and outer realities, a dynamic that Cornell’s imaginary domain emphasizes.  We know the world through and as images we evoke and retain internally. This is the raw material of our individuation and our social action. Thus, Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us that we can only change our worlds when we first change the images in our heads. So how do we begin to tap into that mental/imaginary aspect of imagery? How does social networking spaces such as MySpace and Facebook exist as a complex amalgamation of internal and external imagery, of social practices and inner realities? And how do we invite students to move critically between the two?

Second, we might also ask, “which emotions do we intend to bring into the classroom? And whose emotions?” If we want to focus on students, do we attend to their feelings connected to the act of writing itself (Brand), their need for pleasure in writing (Johnson), their Lacanian excess that, when unleashed, can inspire radical revision (Welch), or the traumas and hurts they carry with them into the classroom (Anderson and MacCurdy). How do we begin to acknowledge, tap into, or even, perhaps, re-educate students’ emotions (Bracher)?

Within that cluster of questions lurks another that is equally important cluster: How do we begin to acknowledge, tap into, or even, perhaps, re-educate teachers’ emotions?  Students are not the only ones in the classroom with emotions (McLeod).  Teachers bring with them into the classroom the same rich matrix of emotions as their students bring.  How can we be sensitive to their emotions without also being sensitive to our own (Jacobs)? 

Third, and maybe trickiest of all, what are we going to do about and with bodies? Ignore them as we will, bodies are already intimately tied up to literacy. They are the elephants in our classrooms. James Paul Gee has been telling us for almost two decades that we cannot separate bodies from literacy. Jabari Mahiri and Amanda J. Godley in their case study of Viviana highlight the degree to which a change in a student’s body—in this case, the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome—can damage the student’s sense of herself as a literate individual and adversely affect her academic and private life.  Debra Hawhee’s exploration of bodies and classical rhetoric as well as Christopher Worthman’s insights about enactive imagery each emphasizes that writers rely on bodies to evolve and articulate meaning. So how might we take this elephant in the classroom that we have so long ignored and make it work for the benefit of our students’ learning?

Body questions that invite our exploration include the following:  If students’ literacies are inextricable from their bodies, then how might our bodies be inextricable to our teaching?  As Tina S. Kazan points out, “Our bodies are rhetorical—they enact and carry meaning” (393).  What markers of identity do we carry that can be both interpreted and misinterpreted?  Such markers include our own bodies-in-action-in-the-classroom (Gorzelsky). What evokes defensive or relaxed postures?  Where do we position ourselves in the classroom in reference to our students?  How do we move in the classroom? 

If we are corporeal beings, so too are our students. What happens when we think of our students as bodies both in and out of the classroom? For instance, what ways might new modes of writing challenge students’ taken-for-granted sense of bodily integrity in the classroom?  How might shifting between well known, but formulaic, five-paragraph-themes and the less prescriptively structured personal essays rely in part on changes in bodies? How might resistance to writing, especially the writing solicited in our classrooms, be tied to issues of the body? 

Finally, we have an array of questions linking bodies and writing technologies.  How are technologies and bodies joined in the act of writing?  Also, how do the products of digital technologies relate to bodies?  For example, does the proliferation of social networking sites foster a rift between online and real world bodies?  Does participation in such sites erode students’ sense of the importance of their physical bodies as they experience the malleability of their online bodies?  All of these questions help us recognize and understand the elephant in the classroom.

In Bishop’s trilogy, the powerful preyed on the vulnerable through systematic attacks on imagery, emotions, and bodies. In Cornell’s work, individual and communal wellbeing are ensured when imagery, emotions, and bodies are protected. Both the dystopian vision and the legal theory highlight the importance of imagery, emotions, and bodies for our writing classrooms. This trinity joins with language to become the building blocks of the imaginary domain, so necessary for being and acting in the world. By crafting writing pedagogy sensitive to this trinity, teachers can help their students create robust identities and just communities.

Here, then, is my starting point for discussion, and I look forward to a lively exchange. 


Works Cited

Anderson, Charles M., and Marian M. MacCurdy, eds.  Writing and Healing: Toward an Informed Practice.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/LaFrontera: The New Mestiza.  San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bracher, Mark. “Teaching for Social Justice: Reeducating the Emotions Through Literacy Study.”  JAC 26 (2006): 463-12.

Bishop, Anne.  The Tir Ailainn Trilogy (Pillars of the World, Shadows and Light, The House of Gaian). New York: ROC, 2001-2003.

Brand, Alice Glarden. The Psychology of Writing: The Affective Experience. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1989.

Cornell, Drucilla. The Imaginary Domain: Abortion, Pornography, and Sexual Harassment.  New York: Routledge, 1995.

Gee, James Paul. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge, 2004.

George, Diana. “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in Teaching of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 54 (2002): 11-39.

Gorzelsky, Gwen. “Writing Awareness.”  JAEPL: Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (2000-2001): 29-39.

Hawhee, Debra. “Bodily Pedagogoies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs.”  College English 65 (2002): 142-162.

Jacobs, Dale.  “Being There: Revising the Discourse of Emotion and Teaching.”  JAEPL: Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning 7 (2001-2002): 42-52.

Johnson, T. R. “School Sucks.” College Composition and Communication 52 (2001): 620-50.

Kazan, Tina S. Dancing Bodies in the Classroom: Moving toward an Embodied Pedagogy.” Pedagogy 5 (2005): 379-408.

Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge, 2003.

Mahiri, Jabari. “Rewriting Identity: Social Meanings of Literacy and ‘Re-visions’ of Self.” Reading Research Quarterly 33 (1998): 416-33).

McLeod, Susan H. Notes on the Heart: Affective Issues in the Writing Classroom. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1996.

Welch, Nancy.  Getting Restless: Rethinking Revision in Writing Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.

Worthman, Christopher. ‘Just Playing the Part’: Engaging Adolescents in Drama and Literacy.  New York: Teachers College P, 2002.

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Impossibly Distinct: On Form/Content and Word/Image in Two Pieces of Computer-Based Interactive Multimedia.”  Computers and Composition 18 (2001): 137-62.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56 (2004): 297-328.

Protecting the Imaginary Domain

By Kristie Fleckenstein
Florida State University