In Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale, Jimmy Guignard (2015) wrote about his experience living among an influx of fracking activities in Tioga County, Pennsylvania. At the heart of Guignard's book is an exploration of the relationship between rhetoric, technology, current affairs, and community activism. On its surface, this book is a memoir—Guignard's tone is conversational, and purposefully so, as he stated that he does not "much enjoy that impersonal academic voice" (p. xi). But weaved throughout the book's pages is a nod to rhetorical analysis and cultural critique, the former of which has potential to offer better understandings of how and to what effect people employ language, particularly when it comes to using scientific data as a tool for community activism.
Guignard's book is not a traditional rhetorical monograph in the academic sense; however, it has the potential to extend conversations in the field of rhetoric, or, perhaps more specifically, demonstrate the application of theories in rhetoric, particularly when it comes to community activism (Lyon, 2013), scientific discourse metaphors (Ceccarelli, 2013), and citizen advocacy as it unfolds within the public sphere (Flower, 2016; Long, 2008).
This book review focuses on the rhetorical aspects of Guignard's book and is separated into four sections: Fracking in the Field, which examines how fracking has been researched within the social sciences and humanities; Chapter Summaries and Evaluations; Rhetorical and Data Analysis; and Technological and Pedagogial Implications, which suggests how this book could be used in the classroom by fusing the physical space that Guignard advocated for with a digital space that would expose students to various forms of literacy.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a technique used to fracture layers of shale found "hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface" in order to extract natural gas (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). Like other fossil fuel extraction procedures, fracking is surrounded by controversy—advocates support fracking because it opens access to "clean-burning" energy and provides "economic benefits" while opponents voice concerns over environmental issues, such as water contamination ("Marcellus Shale Opportunities"). Many countries (e.g., France and Germany) and states (e.g., New York, Vermont, and Maryland) have banned the procedure altogether.
This area of research is important and particularly timely right now. Natural gas drilling (fracking) has taken hold in many parts of the United States and Europe, and natural gas wells and pipelines are the latest endeavor in the natural gas "frontier" (Ceccarelli, 2013). Natural gas projects, whether it be fracking or pipelines, cause both environmental and domestic disruptions that generate numerous situations that would benefit from a rhetorical analysis (i.e., public hearings, citizen protests, and community open houses) so that we might better understand how citizens deliberate among themselves, advocate for themselves, and engage with scientific texts and discourse. Research on fracking is conducted regularly by scientists and covered extensively by popular media, but little work to examine the rhetorical effects of fracking has been situated in the social sciences and humanities. Jessica Smartt Gullion (2015) studies fracking using a sociological lens in her ethnography, while Daniel Raimi (2017) investigates the topic from a policy analysis perspective. And while there have been a few articles written on fracking from a rhetorical stance (Buttny, 2016; Mando, 2016), Guignard's book is currently one of the few (if not the only) monographs that exists where fracking is examined, at least in part, using rhetorical concepts.
Guignard's entry point into his experience with the fracking industry started with information dissemination; that is, how Industry "fought to control the [fracking] message" and how Guignard saw that he, as a rhetorician, could play a role in calling attention to the inaccuracies in that message (p. 6). To be sure, Guignard was not targeting Industry because he necessarily disagrees with them—he openly stated that he is "not opposed to the development of natural resources" since natural gas "has the potential to help us with our current energy problems" (p. 211). What Guignard pushed back on in his book is the dominant party (Industry) having control of the narrative. To Guignard, this mainstream narrative shapes the way Tioga County citizens receive, and accept or reject, messages about fracking. Guignard's investigation into this narrative offered his readers an entry point for their own community outreach and activism.
In Chapter 1, Guignard established himself as a new professor of English and composition at Mansfield University, a husband, an avid cyclist, an activist, a hopeful homeowner, and a rhetorician who came to live on top of and among a heavily-fracked area of the Marcellus Shale. To set up the rest of the book, Guignard shared how his involvement in community activism started—by attending a town meeting about fracking at which he questions the fracking industry's talking points. After he discovers other data that complicates the industry's narrative, Guignard paired that data with his personal experiences to expose misinformation that is being circulated by natural gas companies and examine the rhetorical moves of the fracking industry as they communicate to citizens the procedures of fracking.
This chapter offered a starting point for data investigation and research in terms of how a citizen might complicate a dominant narrative that is unfolding within a community event, which, in Guignard's case, is fracking. Organization plays a large role in this chapter, as Guignard argued that "a cohesive message shared through multiple media can be powerfully persuasive" (19). It is this cohesive message that we might pull into the classroom as a way to showcase the relationship between rhetoric, technology, current affairs, and community activism. We can glean strategies on how to engage with these relationships using Guignard's opening chapter since it taps into all of these aspects.
In Chapter 2, Guignard examined the ways that he connects with Tioga County—namely through biking and food—and how his attitudes support those connections. He called on Kenneth Burke's understanding of symbols to argue that rhetoric "functions through the crafting of symbolic statements that tap into attitudes the audience already holds" (p. 34). As such, Guignard dove into his past to explore the events in his life that have informed the attitudes he holds. While Guignard made it clear that this is not a traditional academic monograph, he used this chapter as a sort of literature review in which he is subject, and he examined how the literature from his past helped shaped his ideas and attitudes of the present, all of which inform his sense of activism and love of nature.
The way that Guignard handled his literature review in this chapter is clever in terms of carving out an exigence for himself as a citizen, activist, and environmentalist. This would be a great exercise for a composition (or any writing) classroom—a personalized literature review where the influential texts in your life are put into conversations with one another and in which you are the exigence that is being carved out and created. In other words: how did the literature in your life carve the path that got you to where you are now?
Chapter 3 introduced the term "Sacrifice Zone," implying its definition as the land that is used, or sacrificed, for natural gas development. This chapter used a blend of concepts—Burke's identification and human barnyard, as well as a frontier metaphor—to examine how agents shape messages "in ways that suit[ed] their goals, whether those goals [are] profit, jobs and economic growth, energy independence, protecting the environment, or something else" (p. 77). The bulk of this chapter focused on how the fracking industry identifies with their two audiences, local and national, and examined the overlap in language that is used, which Guignard argued is vague enough that it identifies with the majority of both audiences. He also posited that Industry's employment of a frontier metaphor is used as a way to identify with Tioga citizens' understanding of place (as security) and space (as freedom).
Guignard mentioned his title phrase—Sacrifice Zone—in this chapter, but did not investigate the history of the term, which is a move that would have added an element of depth to his narrative by placing his experience with fracking in Tioga county alongside conversations within the larger context of environmental sacrifice zones, such as mountaintop removal and coal mining. Guignard used Burke as his theoretical framework for this chapter. However, it would be interesting to examine this chapter from the lens of public sphere theory, particularly local and global publics, since Guignard put the two messages (local and national) in conversation with one another, and a brief history of environmental sacrifice zones would have set up the public sphere theory framework very effectively.
Chapter 4 analyzed how fracking is handled in academic institutions (namely Cornell University and Mansfield University) and examined the rhetorical moves that Industry uses to discredit the findings of a study conducted by scholars at Cornell University. Guignard examined the influences that the fracking industry wields on the surrounding universities and posits reasons for those influences. Comparing Cornell University to Mansfield University, Guignard argued that Cornell "ha[s] the luxury of creating a committee to study the natural gas issues," which recommends that drilling only be allowed in the area if it contributes to their environmental efforts (p. 114). Meanwhile, Mansfield University did not have the financial wherewithal to fight against the fracking industry the same way Cornell did, and the members of Mansfield University's board critiqued their scholar activists for potentially ruining any possibilities of forming a relationship with the fracking industry (p. 111).
Guignard tapped into an interesting thread here that examined the way that capitalism influences and, potentially, dictates institutional agency in terms of how the academy is able to research and address environmental events on a local level, such as fracking. This chapter could be a monograph of its own, as could be the case with several other chapters in this book. To take this to the classroom again, this chapter might offer a heuristic that students could use in a research and writing assignment in which they investigate a specific environmental event and examine how various universities engage with it.
In Chapter 5, Guignard used the concept of visual rhetoric to examine how three types of images—the roughneck, the pastoral, and the American flag—are used by the fracking industry to simultaneously convey two conflicting messages: "nature as a resource and nature as something to preserve" (p. 133). The roughneck image, as used on fracking websites, taps into cultural beliefs about the "importance of hard physical labor"; the pastoral image is used as a way to represent and promote the unity of land and machine; and the American flag is used to align the gas company (Shell) with American beliefs while glossing over "complex social, economic, and environmental issues" that occur during natural gas development (pp. 137, 146). In this chapter, Guignard called on rhetoric as a way to examine the intended and unintended messages as conveyed through these three images.
Guignard's employment of visual rhetoric in this chapter was very effective, and his astute examination of the images used by the fracking industry showcased the rhetorical moves that are at play in Tioga County. This is, arguably, the strongest chapter in the book in terms of rhetorical analysis and critique, because Guignard successfully showed how the strategic use of images can create messages that necessarily play to all sides of an issue, making it hard to make a case for or against any given event.
Chapter 6 opened with a close encounter Guignard experienced with one of the fracking trucks as he bikes within Tioga County at the height of natural gas development. In this close encounter, Guignard came to the realization that he has become used to the increased traffic that accompanies the fracking process. Taking a step back from this realization, he then discovered that the fracking industry has moved beyond becoming part of the landscape and is now replacing, and displacing, Tioga County citizens as Shell buys out a citizen's house due to "pond and well water" pollution caused by fracking activities (p. 181).
While time is at play in all of Guignard's chapters, it is in this chapter that the effects of time were the most evident. Here, Guignard shifted the focus from the pervasion and chaos of fracking to the normalization of fracking. Guignard's return to his personal life in this chapter took his readers from his classroom to his own birthday party to a bike accident, where, at every stage, fracking become more integrated in everyday life. While there are a few threads in this chapter that could be carried through a bit more, Guignard tapped into something here that is very important in a story and research project like his: time. The use of time here not only highlighted the normalization of fracking, but it also put Guignard in a place of authority in that he has been around long enough to see the whole process of fracking, which is effective in terms of research like his.
Chapter 7, the final chapter in the book, examined the protests surrounding fracking within Tioga County. Guignard called on Michael Warner's (2002) concept of publics in this chapter to argue that the local citizens form a counterpublic as they gather to share their narratives that conflict with "stories told by the industry" (p. 190). The chapter then shifted its focus to the counterpublic and uses a disagreement between two protesters to examine what happens when two people on the same side of a debate disagree with the message being conveyed, which shows that disputes do not always exist on one side or the other, but rather on a sliding scale depending on how symbols are taken up and used as a form of communication.
Guignard explored an important conversation in this chapter that often arises in technical communication—the slow pace of academic research that necessarily puts academics at a disadvantage when trying to make an impact on contemporary issues (or, in technical writing, trying to keep pace with the trends of the workforce). Scientific research, or any research, really, in academia struggles to keep pace with Industry, because Industry's research does not have to follow the same rules. Guignard examined this issue as it relates to fracking, but he tempers his narrative in a way that shows how far-reaching this issue can be within many other parts of academia.
One of Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone's strengths was Guignard's analysis of his primary data. He picked apart Industry's messages and unearthed other research that offered a different perspective than the one Industry is communicating. He conducted a close analysis of industry/community meetings, current media, contemporary academic research, and public discourse and synthesized the data to reveal to the reader how complicated the issue of fracking actually is. In doing so, Guignard empowered his readers to do the same by setting an example for them to follow regarding critical examination of the dominant message and engagement with scientific discourse. Guignard used his love of biking and his quest for home ownership as extended metaphors to convey roots and evolution of change, respectively, but I'm not convinced he needed them. His focus on and close readings of data in various forms was thorough enough to carry his argument throughout the book. His insightful examinations of the messages as communicated by Industry and his discernment of the themes that they use to persuade Tioga County citizens was compelling and was threaded consistently throughout the book as to make the extended metaphors a bit of a distraction.
Guignard's primary research came from current media, such as newspaper articles, community meeting minutes, and personal communication. It could be because of this necessary focus on current media or the fact that this book is marketed as a memoir, but whatever the reason, the rhetorical analysis throughout the book is a bit thin. While Guignard made his readers aware of his intentional voice—namely that he would not be using "that impersonal academic voice"—rhetoric does plays a key role in how he frames and defines his exigence (p. xi):
Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone drills into my struggle to understand how industry and rhetoric shape the way I experience the rural place my wife and I chose to settle in as it transforms into an industrial sacrifice zone. (p. xi)
This book is rhetorical analysis made personal. (p. 7)
The book you hold in your hands focuses on how rhetoric used by extractive industries influences the way we see and use places. (p. 77)
What this book missed in terms of a rhetorical analysis, though, is infusion. Guignard made it clear that this is not an academic study, which implied a non-academic audience; however, his use of various rhetorical terms and scholars (i.e. Burke's identification, Warner's publics, visual and material rhetoric) required contextualization, particularly if the audience is comprised by readers not familiar with rhetorical terms and concepts. In some cases, he introduced terms in the beginning of the chapter, but never circled back to show the reader how those terms are deployed through his analysis. This is important to note given that rhetoric acts as the bookends to his research; to Guignard, it is rhetoric that "will help us make the changes we need to make" (p. 217). To rely on rhetoric as both a vehicle and a solution, as shown through the quotes above, requires a more robust and integrated use of rhetorical terms and concepts, which I believe would have added another dimension to Guignard's narrative.
Admittedly, the classroom was not Guignard's focus, but there are, nonetheless, pedagogical implications that we can draw from his book. The technology he examined comes through the way of public discourse and contemporary media (i.e. newspaper articles and community literature), which has a temporality that is apt to change over a short period of time. Pedagogically, you could tap into this technology as a heuristic for students to examine current affairs or community activism from a rhetorical lens.
Guignard laid bare the physicality and materiality of activism as it realistically occurs in rural areas where environmental events, such as fracking, often unfold—inside high school auditoriums, outside of open garage doors at a neighbor's house, and along the local highway where a new billboard just went up. Yes, digital access and literacy might be of assistance if you want to investigate other aspects and characters of fracking; however, digital access and literacy were not the go-to research techniques in Guignard's book. The main event was grassroots activism that plays out within the physical community, which necessarily requires forms of literacy outside of a digital space. Using community activism as a classroom project, then, we might consider the ways in which we could link these literacies together through a community-centered project that culminates in our students learning how to translate their experiences into a digital space, such as a project website, a digital archive of their research, or, ideally, a website in service to the community.
Another pedagogical aspect that could be gleaned from Guignard's book is what it affords in terms of classroom discussions about ethics—creative endeavors in writing and research compared to academic endeavors in writing and research. Since his book was marketed as a piece of creative writing, the student-data-collection procedure differed from what a more academic, research-heavy rhetorical analysis might require, such as obtaining institutional review board (IRB) approval from your respective university and procuring informed consent from all students. This line of questioning has potential to offer fruitful conversations about ethics across genres as well as scholarly responsibility.
Ultimately, I consider Guignard's book the starting point for many future conversations surrounding the rhetoric of fracking, specifically, and the rhetoric of science, generally, that could branch out in several directions. Guignard focused on community activism, risk communication, and persuasion as they all relate to a public understanding of science. All of these areas have benefited from examination under a rhetorical lens; that is, an investigation into how scientific language is collected, communicated, circulated, and, often times, challenged. Guignard took the conversations in these areas into the natural gas arena, particularly fracking, which is an area that, I argue, could be richly complicated by a rhetorical lens.
Buttny, Richard. (2015). Contesting hydrofracking during an inter-governmental hearing: Accounting by reworking or challenging the question. Discourse & Communication 9(4), 423-440.
Ceccarelli, Leah. (2013). On the frontier of science: An American rhetoric of exploration and exploitation. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Flower, Linda. (2016). Difference-driven inquiry: A working theory of local public deliberation. Rhetoric Society Quarterly 46(4), 308-330.
Guignard, James S. (2015). Pedaling the sacrifice zone: Teaching, writing, and living above the Marcellus Shale. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.
Gullion, Jessica Smartt. (2015). Fracking the neighborhood: Reluctant activists and natural gas drilling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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