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

Digital Cornell Box

Hamlet on the Holodeck Cornell Box

For my material rhetorics independent study, Collin gave me an assignment to create a Cornell box out of any text or game. I selected Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck to create a digital Cornell box that illustrates the “protean environment” of the computer as a representational media for multiform stories told by the agency of the interactor: “The interactor is not the author of the digital narrative, although the interactor can experience one of the most exciting aspects of artistic creation—the thrill of exerting power over enticing and plastic materials. This is not authorship but agency” (153).

<behind the screen> This was the first composition I have created using Pixlr, and I’m embarrassed to say only the second project I have made using photo editing and layering. </behind the screen>

alien games: gamer theory as phenomenology

Aristotle’s conception of knowledge includes theory (theoria—specifically looking at), practice (praxis), and art (techne). Praxis is complimentary to theoria, with praxis functioning as a tool or medium for theoria.  In reading McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, I thought about what it meant to practice gamer theory instead of game theory or even a theory of gaming. How does play align with praxis?

Wark differentiates gamer theory from game theory by stating:

If game theory is objective, rational, abstract, gamer theory is subjective, intuitive, particular. If game theory starts with the self-contained agent, like a prisoner in a cell, calculating the odds against a disciplinary world, gamer theory wonders how the agency of the gamer comes into being as something distinct in the first place (124, emphasis mine).

I read Wark’s concept of gamer theory as something akin to Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology—as the blurring of the line that separates subject and object, gamer and game and considers them instead as something more ontological in terms of agency. Bogost explains phenomenology through object oriented ontology by working in the space between nature and culture; “In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales…and pondering their nature and relations with one another and with ourselves” (6). Gamer theory seems to be working in the gap erected in between games and everyday life/reality to “make the now rather familiar world of the digital game strange again” (225). This resonates with Bogost’s reminder that “The alien isn’t in the Roswell military morgue, or in the galactic far reaches, or in the undiscovered ecosystems of the deepest sea and most remote tundra. It’s everywhere” (Alien Phenomenology, 113).

What might it mean to look at games as playing with object oriented ontology? Imagine games as something posthuman—in which games don’t just exist for us or as something we create, master, abandon to gather dust, dispose of (to become…). Gamer theory seems to open up praxis/theoria as something akin to Bogost’s concept of carpentry, or the practice of constructing artifacts as philosophical practice (92)—practicing|theorizing how things fashion one another and the world at large (93). What artifacts could be constructed to theorize games (encompassing gamers and gaming which encompass even greater still)? Instead of making games (design and development practice|theory) and playing games (mechanics and culture practice|theory), we might be entangled with games in gamer theory. Wark poses—”The final question for a gamer theory might be to move beyond the phenomena of gaming as experienced by the gamer to conceive of gaming from the point of the view of the game” (223). What is gamer theory or play from the point of view of the game? What does this perspective make available to the gamer—as an entangling of game, gamer, gaming and all the objects in the ontologies that populate the space in between)? What if we treated our games as alien objects—as estranged, as practicing theory instead of an object of study—instead of as mirrors or departures from the real world? What if we moved beyond making our games and our games making us to consider the space/objects in between?






The Counterintuition of Countergaming: Active Play

Reading Alexander R. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), I felt a moment of serendipity in his chapter “Countergaming” as a space to continue thinking about materiality in digital games/play, in troubling (or blurring or extending or making permeable) the magic circle (the place/time created by a game for the game to take place), and how play affects and is affected by the materiality of digital games. I found myself thinking back to notes I jotted during our class discussion last week on Juul and Wardrip-Fruin and our recounts of playing Agricola; much of our conversation was on the visibility of player agency in the game or the materials of the game—agency is registered by us, the player, when we can see effects on the environment/materials resultant of our choices or nonchoices. I found myself thinking of play, as a result of this conversation, as differing in its intent—play as doing (exploring possibility) play as progress (perfecting skill with mastery/winning in mind). I don’t necessarily think of these as mutually exclusive, in fact, I imagine they are happening as a sort of hybridity. This made me think of a similar distinction of the concept invention in rhetoric in which invention can be hermeneutic (for some thing, an end in mind; ends) versus algorithmic (ongoing; that which seeks possibility in the adjacent). This brought pause as I thought about how I was defining materiality and material to myself, wondering if my interest in the material wasn’t counter-productive to other material interests in game studies (lately I have felt as if my interest in making is actually one in breaking). I don’t know how to define materiality for myself yet, but I root it in the possibility to act/affect. Galloway opens his book with the following quote by Gilles Deleuze from “Intellectuals and Power”

Representation no longer exists; there’s only action.

Action: the capacity to act; the possibility in action, and with action comes the possibility for counteraction. Galloway begins his chapter on “Countergaming” by describing the different ways a game can be modified (or mode(i)fied: an action to come back to) to disrupt the intuitive flow of gameplay: at the level of its visual design (characters, maps, artwork); at the level of the rules of the game (what the repercussions of gamic acts are); at the level of its software technology (game physics, character behavior) (108). Borrowing from Peter Wollen’s seven theses on counter-cinema, Galloway lays out five formal differences between gaming and countergaming:

  1. transparency versus foregrounding: removing the apparatus from the image versus interplay of graphics apparatus displayed without representational imagery
  2. gameplay versus aestheticism: narrative gameplay based on a coherent rule set versus formal experiments
  3. representational modeling versus visual artifacts: mimetic modeling of objects versus glitches and unexpected products
  4. natural physics versus invented physics: Newtonian laws of motion versus incoherent physical laws
  5. interactivity versus noncorrespondence: predictable linkage between controller input and gameplay versus barriers between controller input and gameplay

What is of interest in exploring these further is that these need not fall stray from game/play into art, but can change the way in which materials can act and are interacted with/through.

Videos: Jodi SOD mod of Wolfenstein 3D (top) and Wolfenstein 3D (bottom)

How might mods modify what we think of as a game space? How might they influence the magic circle of play? Or mode(i)fy the space between player/environment and game/system/environment? Does Galloway’s countergaming allow for a more object oriented look at play—one that doesn’t create a new ontological status of materials that overshadow the player, but instead modify how we conceptualize players and space/objects? Does looking at materiality through a lens of counter- afford a different look at the action of play as algorithmic instead of hermeneutic?

I don’t have answers for these many questions, only possibility space. Galloway ends this chapter and his book with the possibility that countergaming can create:

Countergaming is an unrealized project…there will be a whole language of play, radical and new, that will transform the countergaming movement, just as Godard did to the cinema, or Deleuze did to philosophy, or Duchamp did to the art object. And more importantly, artist-made game mods will be able to resolve the essential contradiction of their existence thus far: that they have sought largely to remove their own gameplay and lapse back to other media entirely (animation, video, painting). This will be a realization of countergaming as gaming

Screen Printing: Drawing Fluid + Screen Filler

Influenced by the autumnal weather of the weekend, I set out to create a print of moon phases. For this second print, I wanted to try using drawing fluid. Drawing fluid works to make a design directly on the screen – what the ink is to come through. Screen filler is then applied directly on top of the drawing fluid (once dry) to block any areas of the screen ink is not desired to come through.  Once the screen filler is dry, the drawing fluid is washed out of the screen with cold water, the screen is dried, and ink is applied to make the print.

My work space is the same as with the first print; no additions to the setup. I first sketched my moon phases on the screen with a pencil; I had to think through, in using one ink color, how to differentiate the new moon from the full moon. I decided to fill the new moon circles with drawing fluid, which would allow ink to come through filling the circle, while the full moon would only have a perimeter of ink. After painting my design with the drawing fluid, I turned the fan on to dry the screen more quickly. After sitting around ten minutes, I used my hair blow dryer to expedite the drying process. Once the drawing fluid appeared (and was) dry to the touch, I poured a strip of screen filler across the top of the screen. When working with ink and screen filler in my first print, I poured them directly from the jar onto the screen; this time, I used a spoon from my old silverware set I replaced. This was interesting to me in considering the use of a tool – one not designed for the craft process at hand, but fits a use need. After the screen filler was distributed over the screen with the squeegee, it had to dry. Given the time of night at this stage of the process, I let it dry overnight. When I returned to the dry screen, I rinsed out the drawing fluid with cold water, which came off the screen easily. The screen prepared, I then applied ink (with the aid of a spoon) in a strip across the top, mindful of how much my first print seemed to bleed from using too much ink. I pulled the ink through the screen with the squeegee onto a small piece of poster board. While I think the lines were cleaner (more defined) in this print as to my first, I was not happy with how the design looked once printed as a single layer print. It remains in an unfinished state until my next printing; perhaps to be layered with another design, or to add a second color to this print to give the moon phases more depth and definition.

In cleaning my screen after this print, given my experience with using a full bottle of Speedball cleaner (at a price of $8) that was rather harsh on my eyes, nose, and skin, I wanted to try using detergent – something I read as an alternative cleaner. I began with hot water and dish detergent – no effect. I then tried laundry detergent – no effect. I then tried stain remover for laundry and carpet, and Lysol liquid concentrated cleaner. I scrubbed around fifteen minutes, with no result.

I turned to discussions on the web and read that some people use a power washer, like an outdoor house or the house at a self service car was to clean their screens. We don’t have a hose, so I decided to take my screen to the car wash because it wasn’t coming clean. While the hose seemed to remove some of the screen filler, the screen wasn’t coming clean. After spending ten dollars and seeing only limited results, I decided to turn again to the web. I read that others use Mr. Clean or a product called Greased Lightning. Before heading home I stopped by the grocery store to purchases the cleaners. Once home I tried both independently, but without much effect. At this point, I questioned whether soaking might help the cleaning process. I don’t have a tub stopper, so I blocked the drain and filled the tub with hot water, and a combination of Mr. Clean and Greased Lightning. I weighed down the screen so that it was submerged and let it sit. Returning to it, the screen filler remained.

The next day, I stopped at the Art Store to purchase more Speedball cleaner and to talk to employees there to inquire about any techniques that they might know of. While helpful, they recommended the same series of cleaning products I already purchased, and vouched for the Speedball cleaner. No one had any suggestions as to why the screen filler was more difficult to clean with this print, aside from the cleaners I was using not possessing the same chemicals as the Speedball cleaner. For future prints, I would like to understand what chemical is necessary for cleaning and if there are any other conditions that might influence the cleanup process. The screen is currently sitting in the Speedball cleaner soaking.

compositionism composite

From Alex Reid’s post the object industry:

That is why, in my view, the long-term goal of an object-oriented approach is to develop a better theory of agency: better in the sense that it more accurately describes the roles of objects-in-relation that compose agentic capacities as real and better in the sense that it results in tactics and strategies that expand our capacities. Again, I’m not in the world-saving division of the humanities. However, I do have an objective of expanding our students’ capacities as writers. For me, this begins with describing the roles objects play in compositional networks.

and earlier:

Instead, what I see in an object-oriented approach is an effort to retheorize agency that doesn’t begin with the premise that agency is a special quality of humans, something that emerges at the top of an asymmetrical ontology but rather articulates agency as an emergent capacity along a flat ontology. Are the agentic capacities of humans unique? Yes, but that might be said of all objects.

A (small) composite consideration to use. The rhetorical relation among objects. That is some thing.