Review of “Constitutive Visions”

Cover of Constitutive Visions courtesy of Penn State Press

Constitutive Visions: Indigeneity and Commonplaces of National Identity in Republican Ecuador (Review), Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 103, no. 1-2, 2017, pp. 186-190.

Christa J. Olson’s first book provides a model for rhetoricians who, like her, wish to transcend disciplinary divisions and the geographic scope of their homelands to study the rhetorics of other lands through an array of artifacts. In Constitutive Visions, Olson ambitiously intervenes in two significant projects: first, to “demonstrate the powerful roles played by resilient commonplaces in the constitution of national identity,” and second, to “emphasize the particular force that elements of visual culture lend to the constitutions of strong identifications” (24). That is, she exposes the processes through which rhetors compose a national identity for their country.

Forming a national identity is an intergenerational, polyvalent process constantly subject to re-visioning; to overview such a development requires a researcher to assemble and analyze a vast scope of texts. Olson meets this challenge by examining nearly a century of constitutive symbols, uncovering the concrete, material constituents of national identity—the visual rhetoric that argues in non-linguistic terms for how people, both citizens and foreigners, should envision the nation, in her case, Ecuador. While she supplements visual rhetoric with examinations of written texts, Olson’s analysis is remarkable in our field for relying almost entirely upon carefully contextualized explications of art objects including paintings, prints, and photographs.

Constitutive Visions is exemplary not only for the thoroughness of its research but also for its sensitivity to the power dynamics of transnational research. Just as Olson’s study exposes the problematic ways in which the white-mestizo elite in Ecuador have rhetorically exploited indigenous peoples, so too in her prefatory remarks she reveals her own reflexive method for negotiating her position as a privileged US researcher studying a South American country. In that preface, “The Precarious Politics of Going There,” Olson offers three “recognitions” about her project, revolving around the power dynamics at play in her representation of Ecuadorian rhetoric. First, dominant narratives are always interpretations, and therefore should be read cautiously. Olson points out that, while she critiques the rhetorics created by Ecuador’s dominant white-mestizo minority by interrupting them with “histories of resistance” (xvii), her own interpretations must inevitably, and similarly, suffer from gaps and elisions; we, the readers, should read her historiography cautiously. Second, though she writes from the US, her interpretations owe as much to Ecuadorian scholars as to Greco-Roman rhetorical theorists. Indeed, her extensive bibliography corroborates this claim with its balance between Spanish- and English-language sources (although Kenneth Burke certainly gets more play than any Ecuadorian theorist). Finally, Olson recognizes that “[p]rocesses of representation and identification take place over the long term; resistance and social change invisible at any given moment may become clear under a wider lens” (xx). The wider lens Olson brings to her study is the method of “pan-historiography” (a term she coined with Debra Hawhee), which takes a long-term view—a 90-year view, from 1857 to 1947, to be precise—while still attending to details…

To read more of this book review, please visit the Quarterly Journal of Speech website if you have institutional access; if not, please contact me.