A fascinating addition to rhetoric scholarship, Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things expands the scope of rhetorical situations beyond the familiar humanist triad of speaker-audience-purpose to an inclusive study of inanimate objects. The fifteen essays in Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things persuasively overturn the stubborn assumption that objects are passive tools in the hands of objective human agents. Rhetoric has proved that forms of communication such as digital images, advertising, and political satires do much more than simply lie dormant, and Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things shows that objects themselves also move, circulate, and produce opportunities for new rhetorical publics and new rhetorical actions. Objects are not simply inert tools but are themselves vibrant agents of measurable power. Organizing the work of leading and emerging rhetoric scholars into four broad categories, the collection explores the role of objects in rhetorical theory, histories of rhetoric, visual rhetoric, literacy studies, rhetoric of science and technology, computers and writing, and composition theory and pedagogy. A rich variety of case studies about objects such as women’s bicycles in the nineteenth century, the QWERTY keyboard, and little free libraries ground this study in fascinating, real-life examples and build on human-centered approaches to rhetoric to consider how material elementshuman and nonhuman alikeinteract persuasively in rhetorical situations. Taken together, Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things argues that the field of rhetoric’s recent attention to material objects should go further than simply open a new line of inquiry. To maximize the interdisciplinary turn to things, rhetoricians must seize the opportunity to reimagine and perhaps resolve rhetoric’s historically problematic relationship to physical reality and ontology. By tapping the rich resource of inanimate agents such as "fish, political posters, plants, and dragonflies,” rhetoricians can more fully grasp the rhetorical implications at stake in such issues.
About the Author
Scot Barnett is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University.
Casey Boyle is an assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin.
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Rhetoric, Through Everyday Things
By Scot Barnett, Casey Boyle
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2016 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Listening to Strange Strangers, Modifying Dreams
Marilyn M. Cooper
Matter sings. In its spinning and tumbling, its locked vibrations, its transitory leaps, it sings, but we cannot hear. Behind the most placid surface ... there is a ceaseless, sibilant whispering, a kind of delicate rustling and turning, unattended sounds so profligate and spendthrift, so seductive, that if they did not lie forever beyond us, we would be held totally in their thrall.
Timothy Morton argues that "ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness," the imagining of "a multitude of entangled strange strangers," and he asks, "What would a truly democratic encounter between truly equal beings look like, what would it be — could we even imagine it?" (7, 15; emphasis in the original). As I begin imagining the possibilities inherent in encounters among a multitude of entangled strange strangers, I put aside the questions of "truly equal beings" and "a truly democratic encounter" as well as Morton's recommendation of thinking big. I turn instead to Bryan Garsten's vision of persuasion as a "practice of controversy in smaller disputes, piecemeal, as they arise in particular situations and in smaller settings" (211). Garsten argues that the project of persuasion requires that we "once again look directly at one another and speak directly to one another," that "we pay attention to our fellow citizens and to their opinions" (210). Persuasion happens when we pay attention — really listen — and not just to other humans but to all the others we share the world with. The questions I take up here are how do we listen to and be persuaded by — or, as Garsten has it, persuade ourselves in response to — encounters with these others? And what changes in our understanding of persuasion does listening to strange strangers entail? Answers to these questions involve rethinking the concepts of listening and of persuasion, and, as my answer to the first question relies on answering the second one, I will start by exploring how persuasion can be conceived of more inclusively to apply to strange strangers such as dragonflies. Then I will explore what habits of listening might enable us to hear and respond to such things as cochlear implants, hummingbirds, and the element cobalt.
My first example is of a particular encounter in a small setting between what I would call incommensurable beings. I was driving down a gravel road when something buzzed in through the open passenger side window and landed on my thigh. Glancing down, I saw a bright blue spangled dragonfly about three inches long with crawly looking legs. Fortunately, before I panicked about what to do, it buzzed out the open window on my side of the car. I was startled, and the encounter left a lasting impression. It drew me out of myself, just as Garsten says is required by the effort of persuasion (210). I was still thinking about it hours later.
Dragonflies are not entirely strange to me: I believe they won't harm me, and many are beautiful, including this one. This slight bit of familiarity accounts in part for the particular impression the dragonfly made, but the effort of paying attention has less to do with familiarity than with divergence. Isabelle Stengers, thinking with Alfred North Whitehead, observes that divergence is a more productive focus for thinking about encounters with all kinds of others. She contrasts "argumentation, interaction, and rational conversation [which] bet everything on homogeneity, that is, the possibility of putting oneself in the other's place" (514) with Whitehead's brand of speculative thought, which involves "presence rather than argument, a presence whose efficacy is to infect every justificatory argument with the adventurous questions of what is demanded by the position whose legitimacy it expresses, of what it recruits to endure or propagate, and of the ways it is liable to be affected by the encounter with another position" (512–13). Speculative thought is a polite form of persuasion: it respects the dreams of others rather than aiming at conversion or correction, but it is not a matter of toleration that simply avoids conflict. Instead, it aims to shake our certainties, thereby allowing what Whitehead calls new propositions to come into the world, new "tales that might perhaps be told" (Process 256). Propositions are adventures that do "not aim at awakening, leaving the cave" to dispel false illusions, to deconstruct, to engage in polemic or argument (Stengers 516). Awakening is the work of exclusion, or systematization, which Whitehead says is but one of the tasks of philosophy, one which is subordinate to the prior task of assemblage: "Philosophy can exclude nothing" (Modes 2). Assemblage seeks to turn what seem to be contradictions among propositions into productive adventures. It is an approach that reconceives positions as "habits of experience" (Stengers 89).
Habits of experience do not simply arise from the accumulation of experience but rather are wagers concerning the world. They are behaviors that work and thus testify to the existence of something in the world: "the existence of a mountain climber testifies to the fact that in general, the side of a mountain offers reliable footholds" (88). Habits of experience guarantee the legitimacy or endurance of certain positions. The habit of mountain climbing depends on mountains being the kind of thing that offers footholds to humans. But like adventures, habits are risky — they only hold in general. This does not mean that some habits are false, for all provide footholds whether they are judged to be good habits or bad habits. Stengers explains: "The point is not to declare war on the conventions that bind us, the habits that enable us to be characterized. Instead, it is merely to place on the same level — that is, in adventure — all of our judgments, or our 'as is well knowns,' and thus to separate them actively from what gives them the power to exclude and disqualify" (27). Instead of dismissing some habits (or positions), assemblage allows them to be placed in proximity where they can modify each other. Thus when physicists acquire the good habit of dreams that do not turn them into the thinking head of humanity they are not necessarily required to relinquish the habits that make them physicists (Stengers 516).
Garsten's concern for a kind of persuasion that makes democratic politics possible similarly relies on politeness, resuscitating its etymological link to politics. True persuasion, he says — "persuasion that lies between manipulation and pandering" — preserves the "active independence" of the listener: the orator "merely puts words into the air," and listeners engage in "an active process of evaluation and assimilation" (7). Like an infection that runs its course differently in each individual and that cannot foresee "what causes, resources, and what consequences it will invent for itself" (Stengers 515), true persuasion induces individuals "to change their own beliefs and desires in light of what has been said" (Garsten 7; emphasis added). Being persuaded is not something that happens to someone; it is something listeners do in response to what has been encountered, just as the physicists in Stengers's instance would do. Thus Garsten, like Stengers, observes that there is no certain outcome of persuasion: "even the most attentive and skillful efforts at persuasion often fail for reasons unconnected with the merits of the cause" (211). It is because persuasion is a response of individual listeners with their own experiences and feelings and beliefs that its success cannot be attributed solely to the intent or skill of the rhetor. Persuasion succeeds not through mastery but through polite modification of dreams and the acquisition of new habits.
Garsten explains how not dismissing others' dreams that contradict our "as is well knowns" facilitates polite persuasion. He proposes that evincing respect for others' beliefs allows listeners to consider different positions by engaging their capacity for judgment:
We judge best when we are situated within these structures of value, able to draw upon their complexity and able to feel, emotionally, the moral and practical relevance of different considerations in as subtle a way as experience has equipped us to do. And because the patterns of thought and emotion are not set in stone, because much of the art of rhetoric consists in drawing new pathways between hitherto weakly related parts of these structures, we need not view ourselves as trapped in our situation but simply grounded there. (192)
The polite introduction of a new possibility "invokes particular and personal forms of knowledge," and, juxtaposed with the structures of a listener's beliefs, the new proposition can lead to a transformation of habits (192). Whitehead attributes such a transformation to imagination, which "deliberately suspends 'what we know well'" and allows us to become aware not of its falseness, but of its partiality (Stengers 351).
My encounter with the dragonfly drew me out of myself not because it was familiar, though startling, but because it infected me with a new tale that might be told, a proposition that shook my certainties about the importance of my role and that of humans in general in saving individual animals and species. The advantage of listening to strange strangers like dragonflies is that they are strange. They have divergent interests and abilities, and their actions refuse our simple assumption that we can put ourselves in their place. Compared to other humans they can thus seem more difficult — even impossible — to listen to. But the new habits of listening we acquire by harking to them help us understand persuasion as a response arising through mutual infection, and as one that opens new possibilities for us.
Listening to strange strangers will entail transforming our habits in a way that enables us to entertain new propositions. I propose three overlapping habits as a good place to start on this adventure: believing there is someone or something to listen to; letting beings and things be in themselves in our relations to them; and finding new ways to listen. All three are ways of paying due attention to the human and nonhuman strangers we encounter and of being persuaded, just as Garsten suggests we must pay attention to our fellow citizens and to their opinions.
First, I have to believe I can listen to the stranger, that the stranger can communicate something to me. Whitehead argues that we can theoretically understand everything about anything we connect with: "Whatever exists, is capable of knowledge in respect to the finitude of its connections with the rest of things" (Modes 42). Gemma Corradi Fiumara, who like Garsten argues that listening is of equal importance to speaking in promoting thought, says that it is a mistake to think of listening as passive; instead, listening requires "laborious involvement ... and some degree of commitment" (189–91). Rosina Lippi-Green observes that mainstream language speakers who claim they cannot understand those who speak with an accent are rejecting their "fair share of the communicative burden" (70). In the same way, humans like Wittgenstein, who avers that even if a lion could talk we could not understand him, are simply refusing to make the effort to listen (223).
Second, I have to attend to the stranger as a specific instance of a specific individual in a specific time and place. Heidegger says that when we do not let something be in itself, "the nature of a thing never comes to light, that is, it never gets a hearing" ("Thing" 168). For Heidegger, things come to presence through gathering aspects of the world "into something that stays for a while: into this thing, that thing" (172). The dragonfly, for example, gathers the currents of air produced by the car's passage, the open window, my thigh, into what Whitehead calls an actual entity, something "that 'decides for itself': thus, and not otherwise" (Stengers 263). Whitehead says: "The point to be emphasized is the insistent particularity of things experienced and of the act of experiencing. ... That wolf [ate] that lamb at that spot at that time" (Process 43). Garsten similarly argues that "respect for the actual opinions of one's audience serves to acknowledge the particular features of individuals ... a respect for what Seyla Benhabib has called 'the concrete other'" (198). I can turn to my guide to dragonflies of the north woods, as I have, and discover that the one I encountered was a blue darner, probably a Canada darner or a Lake darner, but in doing so I am not listening to that dragonfly that flew into my car on that day.
Finally, I have to find new ways of listening, ways that, as Bruno Latour and Vinciane Despret have said, allow the stranger to become interesting (Latour, "Well-Articulated"; Despret, "Sheep"). Stengers suggests that successful scientists learn "to discern what matters to what is being interrogated" (440), and Latour and Despret suggest that experimental apparatuses function as speech prostheses enabling nonhumans to participate in discussions with humans (Latour, Politics 67; Despret, "Becomings"). Inadvertently, my leaving the car windows open set up an experiment in which this particular blue darner could communicate something interesting about its concerns and my relation to them. Here is where turning to the scientific literature on dragonflies also becomes a speech prosthesis, for as I remembered what I had read about dragonflies — that they are fast and agile fliers due to their nearly 360-degree field of vision and ability to move their four wings independently — I realized that it did not need me to help it out of the car.
I want to develop more fully what is involved in these three habits by considering some other encounters between humans and nonhuman beings and things. But first, I need to emphasize two things I am not saying when I say that the blue darner communicated something to me. First, I am not saying that it consciously intended to do so. In arguing for a "worldly persuadability transcending human intent," Thomas Rickert proposes that intent and consciousness are not sufficient to account for rhetoric. He says, "Intent and self-consciousness no doubt matter enormously, but they no longer suffice to determine what is rhetoric and what is not" (36). I am not sure I agree that conscious intention matters "enormously" in rhetoric or communication even among humans, but I am quite sure that insisting on conscious intention in the communications of nonhumans is just another way of refusing to listen.
As Rickert acknowledges, "at any given time, we are only partially conscious of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what will result from it" (36). I have also argued elsewhere that intent and action are largely nonconscious processes that we become aware of only after the fact ("Rhetorical Agency"). As Wittgenstein says, "the intention with which one acts does not 'accompany' the action any more than the thought 'accompanies' speech" (217). Intentions are enacted in speech and deed; they do not exist prior to them as causes. Listeners often do wish to understand speakers better, but, following Whitehead, I argue that when they ask "what do you mean," they are asking not "what did you intend" but "why do you say that?" Better understanding means a more complete understanding that includes an understanding of the past and present context: the connections of what the speaker said to experiences, motivations, influences, and the current topic. Listen for a moment to a very insightful teacher's comment on listening to students:
When I'm teaching a grad seminar and a student seems to be missing the point or misrepresenting something or going in a wrong direction, I usually say: Can you say more about that? And it often turns out that they just needed more time to get to what they were trying to say or that they were actually getting at something important, but in an oblique way or in a way that listeners may not have been able to instantly recognize. My point is: rather than cutting off or jumping in (done by the professor or, more often, other grad students), listen more. Allow time. Assume intelligence. (Springsteen)
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
Introduction: Rhetorical Ontology, or, How to Do Things with Things Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle 1
I The New Ontology of Persuasion
1 Listening to Strange Strangers, Modifying Dreams Marilyn M. Cooper 17
2 Implicit Paradigms of Rhetoric: Aristotelian, Cultural, and Heliotropic John Muckelbauer 30
3 Rendering and Reifying Brain Sex Science Christa Teston 42
4 Alinea Phenomenology: Cookery as Flat Ontography Katie Zabrawski 55
II Writing Things
5 Writing Devices Donnie Johnson Sackey William Hart-Davidson 69
6 The Material Culture of Writing: Objects, Habitats, and Identities in Practice Cydney Alexis 83
7 The Things-They Left Behind: Toward an Object-Oriented History of Composition Kevin Rutherford Jason Palmeri 96
8 Object-Oriented Ontology's Binary Duplication and the Promise of Thing-Oriented Ontologies S. Scott Graham 108
III Seeing Things
9 Materiality's Rhetorical Work: The Nineteenth-Century Parlor Stereoscope and the Second-Naturing of Vision Kristie S. Flekenstein 125
10 Circulatory Intensities: Take a Book, Return a Book Brian J. McNely 139
11 On Rhetorical Becoming Laurie Gries 155
12 So Close, Yet So Far Away: Temporal Pastiche and Dear Photograph Kim Lacey 171
IV Assembling Things
13 Assemblage Rhetorics: Creating New Frameworks for Rhetorical Action Jodie Nicotra 185
14 Objects, Material Commonplaces, and the Invention of the "New Woman" Sarah Hallenbeck 197
15 Encomium of QWERTY James J. Brown Jr. Nathaniel A. Rivers 212
Afterword: A Crack in the Cosmic Egg, Tuning into Things Thomas Rickert 226
Works Cited 233
List of Contributors 255