Hahn: The Stactive Style

I enjoyed getting to know Dr. Ed Hahn during our time in Minnesota’s PhD program in Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication. He always struck me as a very smart and thoughtful guy. In the most recent issue of Rhetoric Society Quarterly, he demonstrated that amply with this essay:

Hahn, E. (2016). The Stactive Style: Whiteness and the Rhetoric of History. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 46(4), 331–350. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2016.1190461

In it, Hahn identifies a stylistic symptom of a challenge that justice-oriented scholars with commitments in postmodern philosophy must face. On the one hand, they need to document historical instances of injustice, for example by showing patterns of racism, in order to argue in a rhetorically effective way to remedy that injustice. On the other hand, they carry with them the postmodern skepticism toward historical narratives (grand or otherwise).

The symptom, according to Hahn, is the “stactive” sentence style. I’m normally not fond of portmanteau words, and stactive is one. Its parents are “stative,” referring to sentences (often constructed with the copula) that “express states of being rather than action” (e.g., “I am hungry.”); and “active,” referring to sentences where a change in state is described (e.g., “I ate lunch.”). Hahn argues stactive sentences have aspects of both parents, that they suggest a historicity and change while concealing any details (dates, agents, etc.) about the process. In short, they serve a stative function using active verbs.

Hahn gives numerous examples of writers who nod to the necessity of historical processes resulting in present-day statuses but obscure actors, objects, dates, and details of the process stylistically. In an essay in Rhetoric Review (2005), Kennedy, Middleton, and Ratcliffe write that “‘the logic of white supremacy,’ for instance, ‘emerged to justify the existence of slavery as well as the oppression of slaves, Chinese immigrants, American Indians, Jewish people, etc.'” (emphasis by Hahn; Hahn at p. 337, qtng. Kennedy, Middleton, and Ratcliffe).  Here, Hahn argues that “emerged” conceals the processes and any detailed account of how white supremacy emerged, despite the authors’ call for a ‘historicization’ of whiteness.

My gloss on this: Accepting postmodernism in this sense deprives us of confidence in tools (like critically rational discourse and empirical evidence) that rhetoric tells us we need to actually solve problems in the world. I agree.

Two additional thoughts:

  1. In my mind, this connects with work in cognitive linguistics showing that people who hear a story told with indirect verbs (passives, middle voice, nominalizations) tend to attribute less culpability to the human actors in the story. (See Fausey, C. M., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(5), 644–650.)
  2. This makes me think of the concept in linguistics of the ‘middle voice,’ which comes somewhere between the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ voices. For example, if y0u say, “The coffee brewed,” the coffee is the subject of the verb, but it is not really an agent or a patient in this construction. The agent is removed. (I’m veering into stuff I don’t remember that well from linguistics, so take it with a grain of salt.) Middle voice also appears in English with reflexive pronouns. E.g., “He laid himself down,” or “She got herself out of there.” In some languages it is (or was) very common. (I remember a lot of it in Old Norse class.)

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