Stasis and Circus — Rhetorical Theory in Action
“Let’s go around the circle, and I want you each to answer honestly.”
In April of 2022, the graduating class of the New England Center for Circus Arts sat on the floor of our long-inhabited training space. We had just finished the third day of creation for our graduation tour. Our director had seen the two acts each student built, and we were now selecting one from each student to go into the show. Our director was helping make this decision by asking us a series of questions about each piece.
“Question 1: Which act do you feel most strongly about performing?”
I knew my batons act was going in the show — no one else in our class studied object manipulation (which is just a fancy Circus School word for “juggling”). At the same time, my heart ached to perform trapeze. It had taken so much for me to create my piece, “When I Know What’s Out There.” It was years of combatting old injury, hundreds of conditioning classes where the length of your arms and the number of pull-ups you could do were inversely related, and more than a few hours sitting on the floor at the end of my trapeze lesson sweaty, out of breath, covered in rosin, and completely breaking down in front of my coach at the idea of telling this story to the world.
“Question 2: Why did you choose the music that you did?”
Folks don’t really talk about obsessive compulsive disorder unless it’s the butt of a joke in poor taste. Liking your sock drawer organized and fearing your family will die if your socks aren’t arranged by color and length are two very different things. It’s at the same time feeling out of control of your own circumstances and also wanting to break the cycle of self-impingement.
“It feels like it was written about me,” I said.
I knew a long time ago that I wanted to tell my story of growing up with undiagnosed OCD, and also that my calling and passion for performance art was the way I wanted to do it. Upon meeting my mentor, world-renowned trapeze performer and coach Aimée Hancock, I knew she was the right person with whom to build this piece. Autoheart’s “Agoraphobia,” about the back-and-forth self-talk that attempts to justify mental struggles, was the perfect soundtrack. I wanted to convey the spiraling uncertainty of a young child, alone in her room, knowing she felt deeply uncomfortable even though others assured her she was perfectly fine. Across the nine months I built this act, Aimée and I uncovered the essence and heart of my story, all of its intricacies, sharp pains, and dull murmurs, through a series of probing questions. These questions helped me to define my struggle and its characteristics, acknowledge the audience I felt needed to hear my message, and decide what outcome I wanted to achieve by creating this work. In hindsight, I recognize this process was its own form of my trying to reach the rhetorical concept of stasis. In this instance, the two parties trying to reach stasis were two sides of myself: the side that felt compelled to maintain compulsive habits as a sense of comfort, and the side that wished to be free from this unsustainable way of life. In this paper, I aim to describe how this creative process was an effort in stasis, and demonstrate how using stasis questions as a self-reflective tool can help us come closer to a sense of internal balance.
Defining the Parts of Stasis
Authors Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee express that stasis comes from the Latin word meaning “a stand,”essentially describing the position a rhetor may take in an argument or discussion (53). Crowley and Hawhee expand on this idea and how a set of questions can be used to achieve a sense of equilibrium in discussion. Those questions are as follows (as defined in this same chapter on page 67):
Conjecture — Does it exist? Did it happen?
Definition — What kind of thing or event is it?
Quality — Was it right or wrong?
Policy — What should we do?
Crowley and Hawhee elaborate on this process, claiming that it “provides rhetors with a set of question that, when asked systematically, can help them to determine just where it is that the disagreement between themselves and their audience begins,” and that “every question is based on assertion by one party and denial by another,” (53). For the purposes of my work, I needed to define the roles in this process, specifically that of the rhetor and the audience. The rhetor was of course myself as the person performing the work. The audience took several forms; it was my family, my peers at NECCA, my coaches, my friends, and in some ways, myself. Once again, Crowley and Hawhee helped me in my journey of understanding: “Seen from the point of view of two disputants, however, stasis marks the place where two opposing forces come together,” (53). When I think about who was “disputing” in this situation, it wasn’t myself and the people watching me performing a trapeze act — it was the two sides of myself I alluded to above. By actively choosing to confront the debilitating nature of my condition, I was bringing to light a conflict that had long since existed. The conflict was that one side had been winning for a long time, and it was the side that tried so desperately to avoid this conversation at all costs.
Once I had defined the roles at play in the experience of creating my act, I then dove into further questioning to help uncover the best path forward to reach the coveted home of “stasis.” In the following sections I take you through the act creation process with the retrospective lens of the stasis questions. We begin, of course, with the facts.
Conjecture considers the validity and truth of a topic. This is already a complicated part of my story — the OCD does exist, and the fact that I hadn’t addressed it yet was part of the problem. “Agoraphobia” is about a man expressing his pain, with lyrics like “I am dented by the sky,” yet at the same time being nervous and/or hesitant to commit to a definition, or in his case, a diagnosis. In the song, vocalist Jody Gadsden begins by speaking about how difficult it is to leave his home: “Tried on 13 different pairs of shoes, and not one made me want to leave this blessed house of mine,” only to later assure the listener that it’s really not a big deal, repeating the line “I don’t really want to go anywhere” several times across the duration of the piece. Gadsden here is portraying for us exactly what his state of mind is, thus giving us the framework we need to take his story seriously. In the circus arts world, it’s relatively uncommon for an artist to speak directly to the audience explaining what they’re trying to say. Rather, we have to engage in a bit of world building, in what I consider to be the Definition stage of my stasis journey.
When considering how I interpreted this piece of music to help tell my own story, the next step was that of definitions. Again, circus artists’ form of communication is through their body and performance, and there is little to no direct or verbal explanation of what’s happening. This means we often work in a lot of metaphor. According to Kenneth Burke, metaphor is one of four major rhetorical tropes, and can be defined as “a device for seeing something in terms of something else. It brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this,” (421-422). Furthermore, I.A. Richards explains that metaphor is a two-part concept, wherein the thing trying to be expressed may be described as the “tenor,” and the method through which the meaning is conveyed is the “vehicle.” (Page number unavailable). There were a number of facets of my tenor for which I was needing to find creative vehicles. To set the scene of the spiraling thoughts of loneliness at night, I was dressed in a set of pajamas. On the ground I drew a big circle of chalk which I referenced throughout the piece, meant as a physical expression of the mental barrier between cyclical compulsive thoughts and the world beyond. The last tenor of OCD is often difficult to express. Compulsive habits can essentially become a bastardized coping mechanism. The more you repeat them, the more they feel like what’s normal, what’s safe, what’s home. The most difficult thing about this part of OCD is that in order to heal, you have to let them go; you have to make an active, painful choice to decide to stop doing them. It’s heartbreaking, in a way. In “When I Know What’s Out There,” my trapeze represented this comfort item.
The question of “right and wrong” is a somewhat precarious one to ask when it comes to healing from trauma. After all, there is no one way to do it, and everyone’s journey will look different. I’ll remind you that what we’re analyzing here is the process of confronting the cycle of compulsions. The person suffering from a mental health struggle is not “right” or “wrong” for existing in a circumstance the world gave them unprovoked. The rhetoric surrounding this and other mental illnesses is a constant conversation in medical circles. Anne Green and others conducted a study in 2020 that pointed out how “neuroatypical” behaviors can often be misinterpreted by the person experiencing them and also the people around them. They write “in academe, several of us have found that some of the symptoms of our mental ‘disabilities’ are viewed as favorable characteristics. Hypomania can be seen as being ‘high energy’ and a valuable skill because you are productive,” (12). When I was young, I had definitely convinced myself that if I washed my hands in just the right way, while reciting just the right phrase in my head, I would be safe. Safe from what, I don’t know — the fear changed every day. It was important for me when creating this act to demonstrate that I wanted to be with my trapeze, but that I needed to let it go in order to liberate myself from the constraints of my disorder.
The Policy portion of my act was actually one of the first things I had decided on. There needed to be a definitive stance taken at the end of the piece. This is probably the most important piece of stasis: “An agreement to disagree must occur in every rhetorical situation,” (Crowley and Hawhe 53). At the end of the act, I needed to leave the chalk circle I had stayed within for the full five-and-a-half minutes prior. I wanted to display the cognitive stress of feeling emotionally bound to compulsive habits. I would try to take the trapeze with me out of the circle, but it would only reach the edge. At the end, I would leap outside the confines of the chalk, and the bar would fly away, out of sight.
What I really didn’t want was for this to be a moment of total distress. It’s a moment of uncertainty, surely, but I wanted to convey the message that progress is terrifying, but rewarding. I don’t see this as the trapeze angrily banishing me. Instead, I see it as a comforting friend gently guiding me to the future I have to pursue, almost saying “you have to go, but I can’t come with you.”
What I knew all along was that a resolution needed to be made. That’s all fine and well, and we always have things we’re wanting to achieve or the end goal of which we want to reach. What’s most important, though, and what will influence the outcome significantly is what happens between the acknowledgement of conflict and the resolving of that friction. There comes a moment where a decision needs to be made, to exit purgatory and take a fearful step to leave. This is why stasis is so hard to reach, yet so important. In order to find middle ground, peace, and clarity, we have to be willing to consider all sides of the decision and issue at hand. This may be politics, a disagreement between roommates, or a heavy-hearted conversation with yourself. No matter the venue, the willingness to approach the unknown is the essential first step.
Autoheart. “Agoraphobia.” Punch, O/R Records, 2013, track 4. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/63zNpi8U1NSTCSgS5nsTJq?si=vLJDHGYOTGiGB5Ph d6Vow
Burke, Kenneth. “Four Master Tropes.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 1941, pp. 421–38. JSTOR,http://www.jstor.org/stable/4332286. Accessed 21 May 2023.
Crowley, Sharon, and Debra Hawhee. Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2004.
Green, Ann; _, Alyssa; Dura, Lucia; Harris, Patrick; Heilig, Leah; Kirby, Bailey; McClintick, Jay; Pfender, Emily; and Carrasco, Rebecca (2020) "Teaching and Researching with a Mental Health Diagnosis: Practices and Perspectives on Academic Ableism," Rhetoric of Health & Medicine: Vol. 3 : Iss. 2 , Article 1.
“Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric.”The Philosophical Review, vol. 46, 1937, p. 676–.