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?