Seeing Ourselve(s) Through Technology

Jill Walker Rettberg’s book was a really interesting read and has a particular resonance for me as I move toward the summer working on my bibliography for affect and sentiment analysis, the cultural side of algorithms, and think/feel my way through the new punctum that data can provide. I really enjoyed Rettberg’s use of Roland Barthes’ studium and punctum, concepts (and a text) that I hold dear; in Camera Lucida, Barthes’ described the concept of studium as an average effect, a cultural connotation in figures, faces, gestures, settings, and actions and punctum as a sting, speck, cut, little hole, prick, a cast of the dice, the accident that pricks, bruises, and is poignant (CL 26-27). I paged back through CL for other descriptions of studium and punctum that I thought interesting in reading Rettberg’s text:

  • “the studium is always coded, the punctum is not” (51)
  • the punctum as revealed after the fact
  • the punctum as a subtle beyond
  • the punctum as a “detail”; a “partial object” (43)
  • “last thing about the punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I added to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55)

Rettberg’s idea that self/simple data (elements like location and time) as a new sort of punctum is intriguing, particularly in her discussion of it alongside N. Katherine Hayles’s concept of an active cognizer as a distributed cognition between human and machine. I’ve been thinking about quantifying myself and the way data can both speak of and for my experience this semester. Disclosure (though through media it has been exposed in slivers): at the beginning of the semester my mother was diagnosed with advanced stage v ovarian cancer. From a distance, my reaction was an impulse for documenting, collecting, gathering, expressing. Some of this has taken post in my blog with posts about my mother, or on Instagram with photos; but also unexpectedly through my iPhone’s locative capacities, and in apps I use for self tracking. I am dwelling in the active cognizer effects of my phone: looking at sleep apps that note my restlessness and insomnia and odd cycles; the most played tracks in my Spotify that show the repetition of two songs (Purity Ring’s “shuck” and The Microphones “my roots are strong and deep”); the geolocational data that follows the paths my parents take from home to around the hospital (or in odd moments, when the pictures taken there register as taken here) in photos my father sends me—this data is a beyond, not just a representation; to me it has affective, punctum qualities that reveal the partial object of my mother’s cancer. I’m interested in thinking further about Rettberg’s concept of filter: what is taken out of this experience and what colour is added in (I wrote this post in January about what it means to visualize disease; I’m interested in returning to it by thinking of what it means to visualize seeing ourselves).

What does this quote from Johanna Drucker

“Rendering observation (the act of creating a statistical, empirical, or subjective account or image) as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge production is based.”

make available to us for thinking about human(istic) data? About the punctum of data gathered and visualized?

Sense and Sensibilia: Object Oriented Perception


“Without an image thinking is impossible.”

I want to linger in the Aristotle pieces—Sense and Sensibilia and On Memory (translated? by J.I. Beare)—to try to work through the language and ideas because something is there for me that I don’t quite have the senses to perceive (an object of my thinking).

Aristotle seems to commit himself to a claim to the effect that a sense organ in one way or another becomes like its object when it perceives—“what can perceive is potentially such as the object of sense is actually”. Aristotle questions if several objects can be perceived simultaneously (at once and individual to one another). After posing the question, he opens by positioning perception in the soul; if different things were being perceived, he questions if different parts of the soul would be perceiving by describing perception as “genus” or subdivided classes of perceiving. Using the eyes as anaology, two organs that function as one and perceive as one, he posits that the perceiving subject is one. He describes the senses as simultaneously one and many (I’m unsure if he’s explaining that we can use more than one sense at a time to perceive or if each sense is singular but heterogeneous in all that it is capable of perceiving with that one faculty). He states that there must be one resultant of perception “But there must be such one, inasmuch as the general sense-perception is one” but then questions on the next line what one object is perceived by one faculty. He states that “no one object arises by composition of these”, concluding that there is one faculty in the soul that perceives all precepts but that it perceives each “genus of sensibles through a different organ”. Although the faculty of perception is one and the same it is different in that “in genus as regards some of its objects, in species as regards others”; this leads Aristotle to the claim that although different objects can be perceived simultaneously with a faculty that is numerically one and the same, it is not the same in its account. He ends on a statement of impossibility that reminds me Graham Harman’s concept of withdrawal—that all objects are withdrawn such that they never touch; Levi Bryant explains withdrawal as

a protest against all ambitions of domination, mastery, and exploitation.  What withdrawal says is that all entities harbor– as Graham likes to put it –scarcely imagined volcanic cores bubbling beneath the surface that we are never completely able to master or control.  It is this from whence his profound respect for things– human and nonhuman –indeed his indignation against those that would try to reduce things to signifiers, concepts, sensations, lived experiences, intuitions, etc., arises

This withdrawal, this inability to pinpoint sense, is described by Aristotle through distance and contact, visibility/invisibility, and perceptibility/imperceptibility. He explains that every sensible object is a magnitude and that the distance at which an object is visible is determinate, while the distance at which an object cannot be seen is indeterminate (the same applies to all sensibles not discerned by actual contact). He sets up the object in an interval of distance “the last from which it is invisible, and the first from which it is visible” that is indivisible—this place, he describes, is where imperceptibility ends and perceptibility begins. This place, this perception, is impossible.

This is a fruitful place of im/perception for me, but for now, a few questions:

What does it take for a sense organ to become like its object in perception? What parallels can we draw to our constructed sense organs (tool and technological sense extenders and registers)?

This is perhaps a little too playful, but I can’t help but read Aristotle alongside speculative realism (the inability to perceive/access a thing, especially as a human alone). I am thinking of Ian Bogost’s provocation in Alien Phenomenology that language is only one way of knowing and the challenge to make things other than texts. Instead of thinking of perception and memory as captured (or not) in oral language or in imprinted language (both focusing on the human symbol systems), what might we be afforded if we looked at the objects of perceiving and remembering—not the ideas expressed as what we know/don’t know, but the objects expressing?

Thinking is made im/possible by the objects through which we perceive.

the blackbox of technological determinism

In “Three Faces of Technological Determinism”, part of the Does Technology Drive History collection of essays, Bruce Bimber distinguishes between three interpretations of technological determinism: normative, nomological, and unintended consequences.

He opens: The idea that technological development determines social change has a remarkably tenacious grip on the popular and the academic imagination. In spite of the best efforts of historians and others to show the relationships between technology and society are reciprocal rather than unidirectional, claims for the autonomous influence of technology on societies persist (80).

He explains the reason for this is that the concept is so flexible, meaning it is used to describe more than one phenomenon. Without nuance, or clarification as to what is meant by this concept, Bimber explains that we are unlikely to determine whether or not technological determinism is a useful lens through which to interpret history (81).

Bimber establishes a base technological determinism against which to test his accounts with emphasis on semantic clarity of technological determinism. Citing the work of Cohen, Bimber lays out that to compare these accounts, the concept of technological determinism must be both technological and deterministic. The phenomena must be determined by preceding events or laws, not human will/agency and technology must play a necessary part in the way that preceding events determine the future (86-87).

Bimber then lays out the framework for his three accounts of technological determinism:

normative account (cultural/attitudinal claim): technology is autonomous and deterministic when the norms by which it is advanced are removed from political/ethical discourse and when goals of efficiency/productivity become surrogates for value based debates over method, alternatives, means, and ends.

nomological account (ontological claim): technology rests on laws of nature rather than on social norms; technology exercises causal influence on social practice. there are two implicit claims: technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined, and that these developments force social adaptation and change.

unintended consequences account (no underlying logic): willful, ethical social actors are unable to anticipate the effects of technological development. technology is at least partially autonomous beyond human control.

Against the definition of technological determinism he posits, only the nomological account stands up. Because normative accounts attribute causal agency in the history of technology to human social practice rather than to technology, it fails. The unintended consequences account fails because it amounts to indeterminism; unintended consequences do not justify social outcomes to technology. The nomological account  makes the strongest claim about social change as directly influenced by technology (87-89).

Before apply the nomological model to Karl Marx, Bimber recommends replacing technological determinism with the concept technological momentum (from Thomas P. Hughes) or “the increasing capacity of technological systems to influence societies as those systems grow in size”—there is a reciprocal relation (89).

A Latour detour (making progress without marching forward)

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In “an attempt at a ‘compositionist’ manifesto” Latour argues that we should replace the practice of critique with that of composition. Composition here does not mean to write, but rather to compose or build out of heterogeneous actors. In this connection, the question becomes not whether or not something is constructed, but whether it’s well or poorly constructed. The abstract reads (emphasis mine):

In this paper, written in the outmoded style of a “manifesto”, an attempt is made to use the word “composition” as an alternative to critique and “compositionism” as an alternative to modernism. The idea is that once the two organizing principles of nature and society are gone, one of the remaining solutions is to “compose” the common world. Such a position allows an alternative view of the strange connection of modernity with the arrow of time: the Moderns might have been future-centered but there is a huge difference between the future of people fleeing their past in horror and the “shape of things to come”, that, strangely enough, now appears suddenly in the back of humans surprised by their ecological crisis.

Without going too far into Latour’s essay (though I definitely suggest taking a look at it, particularly his discussion of progress and time), I wonder how his articulation of nature and nature could assist in further in opening up the blackbox of technological determinism, to really account for the actors that compose the two terms.

“What the Moderns called “their future” has never been contemplated face to face, since it has always been the future of someone fleeing their past looking backward, not forward. This is why, as I emphasized earlier, their future was always so unrealistic, so utopian, so full of hype.” (Bruno Latour)

How flat of an ontology is Bimber’s nomological claim? In saying that “technological developments occur according to some naturally given logic which is not socially or culturally determined”, how is Bimber accounting for the technological, the natural, the social, the cultural?

Latouracy: Using Latour to Construct a Literacy of Social Practice

I want to parse through Deborah Brandt and Katie Clinton’s “Limits of the Local: Expanding Perspectives on Literacy as a Social Practice”. In a future reading, I would like to compare it to Jenny Rice’s” Unframing Models of Public Distribution: from Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” to look more closely at tracing local/global in an ecological frame, As someone interested in structures, systems, and models, Brandt and Clinton’s work to shift attention in how literacy is studied, that is, how it is accounted for and by who (and in this case, what). In literacy studies, Brandt and Clinton review scholarship that has brought research into the paradigm of literacy as contextualized.

“Rather than a brute consequence of a formidable technology, the achievement of literacy appeared as a delicate interplay of social, cultural, economic, political, and even geographic forces. In other words, social context organizes literacy, rather than the other way around.” (340)

“Generally, a literacy event is considered a social action going on around a piece of writing in which the writing matters to the way people interact. To this is added the more abstract concept of the literacy practice, usually treated as the socially regulated, recurrent, and patterned things that people do with literacy as well as the cultural significance they ascribe to those doings. Typically, literacy events are treated as discrete, observable happenings while practices are abstract, enduring, and not wholly observable.” (342)

But their goal in this text is to look at context with more nuance; instead of looking at local as a different sphere than global (though interconnected), they argue that the global is local.

“Context became associated with ethnographically-visible settings (the here and now), and the technology of literacy was demoted in relationship to the human agent who held power in assigning meaning to acts of literacy. But can we not recognize and theorize the transcontextual aspects of literacy without calling it decontexutualized? Can we not approach literacy as a technology – and even as an agent – without falling back into the autonomous model? Can we not see the ways that literacy arises out of local, particular, situated human interactions while also seeing how it also regularly arrives from other places – infiltrating, disjointing, and displacing local life?” (343)

Everything is local.

“With Latour’s insight we are no longer confined to thinking about “the local” as that which is present in a particular context and “global” as that which is somewhere else or as something that bears down on local contexts from the outside.” (347)

This divide between local and global is flattened into a more ontological rendering by the mattering of objects as mediators with (other) places and times.

“Bringing objects into play, according to Latour, allows us to understand that society exists nowhere else except in local situations but also to understand that, with the help of objects, lots of different kinds of activities can be going on in and across local situations – including aggregating, globalizing, objectifying, disrupting or dislocating.” (346)

“Objects are animated with human histories, vision, ingenuity, and will, yet they also have durable status and are resilient to our will. Our objects are us but more than us, bigger than we are; as they accumulate human investments in them over time, they can and do push back at us as “social facts” independent and to be reckoned with.” (345)

Brandt and Clinton replace the means of accounting for literacy, the literacy event, with a Latourian literacy in action.

from sponsors of literacy: We can think of sponsors as underwriters of acts of reading or writing – those agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable or induce literacy and gain advantage by it in some way

to agents of literacy: how things act as surrogates for the absence of others and in the multiple interest of agents; agency is multisourced

Brandt and Clinton describe how terms from Latour can bring new perspective to literacy as a social practice.

trancontextualizing moves of humans and nonhumans:

localizing moves: actions of humans and things in framing particular interactions

globalizing connects: the shifting out of individuals as well as the knitting together of interactions

folding in: expressing ontological relationships between people and things

“With these concepts, the literacy networks of individuals and social groups can be mapped. Maps of these networks (their density, reach, variety, stability, rates, and directions of change) can illuminate the processes by which diversity and inequity in literacy are actually sustained: the literal demarcations that separate the sponsoring or subsidizing networks of one locale from another.” (353)

I wonder how accounting for nonhumans informs the case study as textual model for literacy study—how tracing/mapping can become an ethnographic account(able) (and the literacy of reading/making Latourian diagrams – local/global joke).

Rhetorical Homeorhesis: Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together

You want to cut through this rich diversity of delegates and artificially create two heaps of refuse: “society” on one side and “technology” on the other? That’s your privilege, but I have a less messy task in mind (308).

“Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” | Bruno Latour (as Jim Johnson)

All of these projects and objects are in media res: articulated and made real through and across the entanglements of humans and nonhumans alike. Accounting for some of the work, we emphasize symbolic and interpretive work, the work of humans, but don’t count the non-symbolic and non-discursive work of nonhumans. This short video from Nathaniel Rivers, part of a series he made on Bruno Latour and Rhetorical Theory, seemed to account for the chreod—a necessary path or the alignment of set ups that turn away from words —of Latour’s door-closer. In rhetorical theory, we look to texts or words to create a subject of inquiry/study, but what of actions and performances and speechless persuasion? How can we account for that which is not said, but can be accounted for in utterance?

Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability are not properties of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations without the nonhumans is impossible (310).

An attempt at accounting for articulation work—extending the semiotic of story beyond human/inhuman and figurative/non-figurative:

scripts are scenes played by human and nonhuman actors

description is retrieval of the script from the scene

transcription or inscription is the translation of any script from one repertoire to a more durable one

prescription is whatever a scene presupposes from its transcribed actors and authors—the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms

des-inscription is all the ways actors extirpate themselves from prescribed behavior

subscription is the way actors accept their lot

sociologism is the claim that, given the competence and pre-inscription of human users and authors, you can read out the scripts nonhuman actors have to play

technologism is the symmetric claim that, given the competence and pre-inscription of the nonhuman actors, you can easily read out and deduce the behavior prescribed to authors and users

The story of the door-closer is Latour’s attempt/account to make a nonhuman delegate sound familiar. In story-telling, one calls shifting out any displacement of a character either to another space or to another time or to another character—

As a more general descriptive rule, every time you want to know what a nonhuman does, simply imagine what other humans or other nonhumans would have to do were this character not present. This imaginary substitution exactly sizes up the role, or function, of this little figure (299).

Latour is working to make the door-closer, un/seen as a purely technical artifact into a highly moral and highly social actor through describing not how the door-closer works or how its made, but how it works on entering/exiting a door, or how it prescribes what people should pass through the door and their techniques for doing so—it keeps out drafts until it goes “on strike”, it is impolite in slamming shut, with a hydraulic system its discriminatory weight works against young, old, and workers hands full. To label techniques or technical as inhuman overlooks translation mechanisms and the many choices that exist for figuring or de-figuring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors (303).

No matter how clever and crafty are our novelists, they are no match for engineers. Engineers constantly shift out characters in other spaces and other times, devise positions for human and nonhuman users, break down competences that they then redistribute to many different actants, build complicate narrative programs and sub-programs that are evaluated and judged (309).

Returning to trajectories instead of stases, or how semiotics might account for flows instead of states of symbol/meaning or human is to intention: Homeorhesis is steady flow. Steady state implies equilibrium which is never reached, nor are organisms and ecosystems in a closed environment.

How is rhetoric working to account for the non-discursive and the non-symbolic in media res?

What does chreod afford as method?

Representation of Interpretive Research Methods

I took particular interest in the readings “A Crisis of Representation in the Human Sciences” and “Ethnography and Interpretive Anthropology” due to their discussion of the construction of knowledge made im/possible by how research (the process, the paradigms, the forms of evidence and text) was constructed. The conversations reminded me of readings from Debates in the Digital Humanities that are taking as matter of concern defining, theorizing, critiquing, practicing, and teaching digital humanities—a similar moment of crisis in representation. Its blurring/blending/breaking of disciplinarity and thus genre conventions for how research is constructed (form, methodology/epistemology and process) and its emphasis on interpretation (due to the plethora of tools that can be used to read and represent data sets) resonated with the concerns and even justifications articulated in developing interpretive anthropology as research method and moving away from working from/applying top down models of paradigmatic structure in researching.

In one of the framing works in DitDH, Johanna Drucker, in “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”, questions of humanities scholars what impact the humanities have had on the digital environment, and the possibility of digital platforms and interfaces that are created from humanistic methods instead of the borrowing of methods from outside of the discipline, which she describes as at odds with the cares and concerns of humanities work. She explains that humanities work has encountered digital tools, but what of humanities tools in digital contexts? I see this as deep concern with methodology—how and what researchers are doing for what reasons, for whom or what. A humanistic approach, she explains,

“means that the premises are rooted in the recognition of the interpretative nature of knowledge, that the display itself is conceived to embody qualitative expressions, and that the information is understood as graphically constituted”.

Although Drucker is concerned with humanistic approaches to developing digital tools and interfaces (forms and models to study and re-present information), her concerns for accounting for the complex and the dynamic (that is re-situatable, re-interpreted) is akin to the call for a “jeweler’s eye of the world is thus urgely needed” in cultural anthropology (15). The model of cultural anthropology’s research (ethnography) has long been focused on problems of the recording, interpretation, and description of closely observed social and cultural processes—not models, but self-conscious frames of reflexive mediation (Marcus & Fischer 42).

systems of seeing

systems of seeing

How can writing come from instability and durations of temporality in reflexivity and interpretation? In this same collection, Jamie Skye Bianco asks “does DH need an ethical turn?” to which she responds yes because it operates through webs of people, institutions and politics in uneven networks of relation. People and institutions are a part of DH work: they have/n’t access to texts to research, are/n’t represented in texts, have/n’t access to tools for research, and have/n’t access or representation in what is created. Texts are contextual, they are heterogeneous and dynamic; but reading them for their semantic parts and rendering them as visualizations of selected parts that are oft negligent of situating in the whole being can run the risk of de-emphasizing the human element of the humanities. This risk may come from separating the methods of doing DH work (the tools) from the theories that give impetus to the work. This separation of theory and method risks flattening context by not revealing difference; “the constellation of context, affect, and embodiment must remain viably dynamic and collaborative in digital and computational work” (Bianco, “The Digital Humanities Which is Not One”). Because digital and computational work “documents, establishes, and affectively produces an iteration of real worlds” that are “multimodally layered” (Bianco), not losing context (and its embedded elements) becomes matter of concern. The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to effects of technology to a humanistically informed theory of making of technology – considerations of affect, the constructivist force of knowledge as observer dependent and emergent (Drucker, “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”).  Digital work needs to consider the realms of the digital, and the context that are digitized and situated around digital materials, need to be envisioned as “shared knowledge, culture, and semantic content” (Bianco). This is similar to concerns taken up through experimental ethnographic writing’s response to inadequacy of existing means to represent authentic differences of other cultural subjects and the charge that interpretive anthropology, if concerned with cultural subjectivity, achieves its effects by ignoring or finessing in predictable ways issues of power, economics, and historic context (44).


reading traces:

  • human sciences: extends beyond conventional social sciences to include philosophy, art, law, architecture, literature, and the natural sciences (7)
  • paradigmatic style in which ideas – not the ideas themselves – that has come under attack (7)
  • “Blurred Genres” Clifford Geertz: fluid borrowing of ideas and methods from one discipline to another (7)
  • present conditions of knowledge are defined not so much by what they are as by what they come after (8) as the postparadigm
  • key feature of this moment is loosening hold over fragmented scholarly communities of specific totalizing visions or a general paradigmatic style of organizing research (8)
  • crisis of representation: arises from uncertainty about adequate means of describing social reality (8)
  • happens in alternate swing of a pendulum between periods in which paradigms are relatively secure and periods in which periods lose their legitimacy and authority when theoretical concerns shift to problems of interpreting the details that elude the capability of the paradigm to describe it or explain it
  • emplotment, argument, ideological implication (historical work exhibits this framework from Hayden White’s Metahistory) (12)
  • during 19th century efforts to find a realist mode of description ended in irony because there were a number of equally comprehensive and plausible yet mutually exclusive conceptions of the same events; need to overcome the unsettling, self-conscious ability to have faith in itself (referring to ironic consciousness) (14)
  • task is not to escape suspicious and critical nature of ironic mode of writing but to embrace it and use it in combination with other strategies (as well as paradox, contradiction, and uncertainty)
  • interpretive anthropology – grew out of cultural anthropology work in the 1960s, which gradually shifted its emphasis from the attempt to construct a general theory of culture to a reflection on ethnographic fieldwork and writing (16)
  • ethnography: a research process in which the anthropologist closely observes, records, and engages in the daily life of another culture and then writes accounts of this culture, emphasizing descriptive detail(18)
  • modern anthropology: ethnographic research process justified by capturing cultural diversity and a cultural critique of ourselves (20)
  • “the essence of holistic representation in modern ethnography has not been to produce a catalog or an encyclopedia, but to contextualize elements of culture and the make systematic connections among them (23)
  • experimental ethnographic writing and the antigenre – tool in the development of theory/theoretical insight (42)

reading threads:

  • is experimental ethnographic writing still developing? in what forms/media?
  • what do these experimental texts look like?
  • are there examples of more open/ongoing/dynamic/interactive ethnographic projects?

How Ought We Understand Rhetorical Agency is an Anagram for Who

Cheryl Geisler “How Ought We to Understand the Concept of Rhetorical Agency?”

A Report from ARS (Alliance of Rhetoric Societies now part of Rhetoric Society of America), 2004

Author Info

Cheryl Geisler is Professor of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University where she serves as the inaugural Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. Geisler has written extensively on the nature of texts, especially those mediated by new technologies A recognized expert on verbal data coding, she is the author of Analyzing Streams of Language and leads an annual international workshop on verbal data analysis. Her research interests include advancement of women in the academy, technologies of text and verbal data analysis.

Rhetorical E/Affect

As a technology ultimately inspired by the second Great Awakening, the Ouija Board illustrates the anxiety surrounding our many fantasies about human agency, particularly in respect to communication as a transcendent, or even transparent event. (Ouija Board)

Geisler’s article sparked a response from Christian Lundberg and Joshua Gunn called “Ouija Board, are there any communications? Agency, ontotheology, and the death of the humanist subject, or, continuing the ARS conversation”. The abstract reads:

This essay responds to Cheryl Geisler’s “report” on the discussions about the concept of agency at the 2003 Alliance of Rhetorical Societies conference. We argue that Geisler’s report inaccurately and unfairly describes the wide-ranging positions discussed at the conference, particularly by collapsing subjectivity and agency and by advancing a strawperson argument about “postmodernism.” In contrast to the humanist understanding, we recommend and describe a negative theology of the subject that adopts a more hospitable posture of uncertainty toward the agent and agency.

They explain that “casting the problem of rhetorical agency as a rhetorical affect, instead of as a point of origin for rhetorical effect, requires us to think about the agent and its relation to agency as one trope among others that productively and destructively constrains the exercise of our critical imagination.” Agency, as production of effects, possesses and constitutes the agent—not the other way round.

To which Cheryl Geisler responded with “Teaching the post-modern rhetor: Continuing the conversation on rhetorical agency”. The abstract reads:

In responding to Gunn and Lundberg’s critique of her report on rhetorical agency, Geisler uses their Ouija Board metaphor to undertake an analysis of what it might mean to teach the post-modern rhetor. In particular, once the autonomous agent has been denaturalized, members of the profession of rhetoric have plenty to do in helping students first to engage with and then to participate in a more appropriately theorized rhetoric. Like the Ouija Board player, we may not be able to know how the results of our classroom teaching are related to our intentions. But–like every other rhetor–we need to recognize the costs of walking away from the game.


As rhetoricians, we generally take as a starting point that rhetoric involves action (12).

Geisler provides her account of the conversations taking place at Alliance of Rhetoric Societies that capture deliberation on the question “how ought we to understand the concept of rhetorical agency”? She maintains that without a concept of agency, we (rhetoricians) lack the necessary rationale for work (producing scholarship, social change, educating).

Inventory of Central Concerns 

the idol/idle of the ideology of agency

impetus for meeting: deliberation of the future of rhetorical studies taking up the question “how ought we to understand the concept of rhetorical agency?”

  • this a question of definition combined with a question of deliberation: Geisler accounts for this by describing it as an interplay between rhetoric’s interpretive project and rhetoric’s educational mission (9) and an interplay “between what rhetorical agency, in fact, is and what it, in value, ought to be” (9)
  • “Most scholars at the ARS acknowledged, explicitly or implicitly, that recent concern with the question of rhetorical agency arises from the post-modern critique of the autonomous agent” (10)
  • traditional rhetoric as ideology of agency: speaker as origin, strategy as intentional, discourse as constitutive of character and community, ends that bind in common purpose
  • issues of access to agency, the varieties of agency, available means

extending the traditional rhetor

cites advances developing agency happening in:

  • how rhetorical agency functions in subaltern social groups (those who do not have access to mainstream public forums) – the exercise of agency by rhetors without taken for granted access (11)
  • interplay of audience and media (iconic photographs) in networks of constructing and being constructed (11)
  • digital technologies that alter human experience of space and thus the sense of human potential or agency (11)

constructing agency through connections of (human) condition

she explains that the critique of the ideology of agency is concerned with the link between rhetorical action and social change—the actions of a rhetor and consequences in the world (12)

critique of agency as illusionary isn’t productive because it dissolves the connection between action and effect/change

she explains that it is more productive to:

  • think of agency as a resource constructed in particular contexts in particular ways
  • consider how various political systems figure agency
  • consider agency not a problem to be re/solved or troubled but a central object of rhetorical inquiry
  • look at the way material conditions shape rhetorical action (by which a communicative act materializes out of a combination of individual will and social circumstances 14)

skill of the rhetorical agent

  • rhetorical agency manifests when a speaker/writer displays an ability to “identify and manage or…orchestrate resources” (13)
  • a conscious structuring of one’s message to maximize possibilities of evoking
  • “only if we can assent to the role of the rhetoric in producing efficacious action can we as a discipline have a mission to educate such rhetors to have agency” (13)

duty now for the future

  • “the term agency has moved from marking off the unnoticed foundation for efficacious rhetorical action to opening up its mechanisms” (14)
  • move from universal construct to the specific local and historical conditions that undergird it
  • need to acknowledge that agency is not universally available to all members of society

rhetorical agency a rhetoric makes

the traditional model of humanist agent as addressing “the elephant in the room”—the tie between the mission of rhetoric and the concept of rhetorical agent; “a rhetorical agent seen to make choices among the available means of persuasion is an agent rhetoricians can educate to the best choices” (15)

“How can we create a better society through the pursuit of rhetoric?” (15)

  • can tap into unacknowledged resources of body, space, and so on of subaltern groups
  • abandon rhetoric’s social mission—”but would we be doing rhetoric anymore?”—in admitting that agency is illusionary


  • “how can rhetoric be understood to suffuse the entire situation if its traditional definition largely confines it to the perspective (and symbolic)activity of human subjects” (Thomas Rickert, “Circumnavigation” 3)?
  • what/who is lost in focusing on what agency is (the subject of rhetoric) instead of how agency is—its <affect> <effect>?
  • Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 7.24.19 AM Casey Boyle and Nathaniel Rivers, in discussing the pervasive nature of podcasts and the unmoored state of being of rhetoric from any particular object; how can agency be sensed differently?

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.50.10 PM

Images (from left to right): Selection of transcript from “The Pod(cast) People Speak” featuring Casey Boyle and Nathaniel Rivers // “The Speech of Things” // “A Bot Bought Illegal Drugs and No One’s Sure What to Do About It