The Struggle Over 'Woke'

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When I read Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, I found myself underlining so much that I started double underlining or even triple underlining passages that I wanted to remember. One triple underlining went to this statement:

The word in language is half someone else’s… it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own.

Bakhtin was arguing that meaning in language arises through dialogue, through interaction and conversation, and in this sense meaning-making is always a give and take, or a struggle, for whose meaning will gain adherence, whose “mouth” the word will end up in.

Similar insights regarding words and meaning can be found in the work of I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, and Joseph Bentley—and I have been thinking about these concepts a lot during the last few years as I’ve watched the struggle over whose mouth the word “woke” is going to be in.

In The Philosophy of Rhetoric and other works, I. A. Richards explains that in any group of words, what is missing is the meaning—because meaning arises through the interaction of the words: meaning is thus contextual and metaphorical, as well as a function of interpretation. Thus, for Richards, rhetoric becomes “the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.” 

Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action introduces the concept of “terministic screens” as a metaphor for how we are able to make meaning: language for humans is like a screen that allows us to apprehend the world, yet these screens can differ widely based on each person’s experience and context. Meanings, then, are not inherent or set, but always potentially contested.

Joseph Bentley was a scholar of 18th century literature, not a rhetorician, but he developed a theory that fits well into this discussion and is very useful to rhetorical analysis. In “Semantic Gravitation: An Essay on Satiric Reduction” (Modern Language Quarterly, 1969), Bentley develops this theory as part of his analysis of how satire works, but we can see such “gravitation” at work all around us in the ways words attract and repel one another. Bentley was fond of taking a satirical love poem and showing how the startling and unexpected words associated with the woman of the poem work to pull her down, semantically, into the gutter. Other love poems, of course, do just the opposite, raising the subject of the poem to near perfection through the associated words. Jonathan Swift was a master of building such gravitational forces in both poetry and prose.

All of which brings me to recent uses of the word “woke.” In “A History of “Wokeness,” Aja Romano writes:

Before 2014, the call to “stay woke” was, for many people, unheard of. The idea behind it was common within Black communities at that point — the notion that staying “woke” and alert to the deceptions of other people was a basic survival tactic. But in 2014, following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, “stay woke” suddenly became the cautionary watchword of Black Lives Matter activists on the streets, used in a chilling and specific context: keeping watch for police brutality and unjust police tactics.

In the years since Brown’s death, “woke” has evolved into a single-word summation of leftist political ideology, centered on social justice politics and critical race theory. This framing of “woke” is bipartisan: It’s used as shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right. (Vox, October 9, 2020)

Romano was writing three years ago, and by now through the linguistic moves I have described above, the struggle over how “woke" will be used, interpreted, and remembered is raging. The survival tactic of acute awareness that accompanied the early history of the word has given way to a “new left” view that associates “woke” with recognition of systemic and oppressive hierarchies that characterize American history and American institutions and a focus on reparations and on watchwords of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice that have led, on some college campuses, to ironically discriminatory policies and practices. Meanwhile, on the (far) right, woke signals those who are overly politically correct; it’s used as a slur or insult and marks an attitude that is so anti-American that it must be avoided--or outlawed, as Governor DeSantis has done in signing the Stop Woke Act that is affecting public schools across Florida and in declaring his state a place “where woke goes to die.” 


Marcia Fudge with "Stay Woke Vote" t-shirt in 2018Marcia Fudge with "Stay Woke Vote" t-shirt in 2018


I could go on and on giving examples of how Burke’s terministic screens, Richards’s theory of contextual meaning making, and Bentley’s semantic gravitation are at work in the struggle over “woke” – and I could speculate about Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic communication and whose “mouth” this contested term will end up in (or what else might happen to it!). 

But it seems more productive to bring our students into this discussion, to ask them to discover examples of semantic gravitation at work around “woke,” to gather a body of data to examine and analyze together, and then try making up a “fact sheet” that would trace changes to the meaning of the word across time, to try their hands at writing a definition of the term that they can all accept, or even to do some field research on campus to gather fellow student responses to the word. Most important would be to give students the opportunity to put the theoretical concepts I’ve introduced above into practice and to understand how language—and meaning—shift and change under such forces. In this way, they may succeed in getting the word “woke” into their own mouths and making it their own, if only for a brief time. 


Image by Rep. Marcia Fudge.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.