Comparative Possibilisms In the Form of Historiography

Comparative Possibilisms In the Form of Historiography


Matter is a tendency toward spatialization.

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter

Setting up Space for Historiography

In questioning how to do historiographic work, the emphasis of do encapsulates and conflates method/ology, subject matter, and evidence all into a single word. Debates on how to do historiographic work raise as matter of concern who or what is being researched, how the text is being written (through what lens is the history being seen), and what the history contributes to knowledge in the discipline of rhetoric. The histories of rhetoric could fill volumes of text categorized by time, subject/object, method, methodology. Histories invoke other histories as acts of carrying forward, of pausing, or even revising, but this relationality of texts is based on events in time. While methods of historiography continue to work towards attention to the agency of objects and space on an event (a shift in perspective from human to nonhuman) and to look at events as more ecological in composition (made up of many elements), the form these histories take, the space they occupy, is bound by lines in time.


Rhetorical texts occupy rectangular fields in books and journals, with the occasional rupture of this rectangular frame in digital publication environments. I am curious what historiographical texts might be able to take as matter of concern if they are able to matter, to occupy spatiality. Writer William Burroughs developed a concept of media being, that he described as an individual who mixes and is mixed, who composes with media by commutating, appropriating, visualizing, and chorally structuring knowledge. The concept of chora, credited to Plato, designates  a receptacle, a space, or an interval; the space creates time and place conditions. In “Toward a Post-Techne Or, Inventing Pedagogies for Professional Writing”, Byron Hawk, through posthumanist theory, discusses the concept of ambience—of a relationality from emergence that attunes to environment. He explains “This view sees cognition, thinking, and invention as being beyond the autonomous, conscious, willing subject. A writer is not merely in a situation but is a part of it and is constituted by it. A human body, a text, or an act is the product not simply of foregrounded thought but of complex developments in the ambient environment” (378). In a rectangular frame of text, even reference and contradiction as integral to argument or as footnote or bibliography entry are limited through construction as lines in the “temporal” present that allude to something beyond that they cannot call upon. I question the affordances of constructing texts as spatially minded (acknowledging that all texts are spatial in consideration of layout); what can the form of texts make available to historiographic work?

In this text/as this text, I will experiment with spatiality as form and as method/ology for doing historiography. My purpose is to provoke considerations in historiographic work in opening up texts as demonstrative of spatiality through cut up and juxtaposed elements of comparative rhetoric, Victor Vitanza’s Third Sophistic and Post-Philosophical Rhetorics, works of literature, sound bytes, glitched images, Twitter bots, and texts altered by various enhancing or disruptive processes of web 2.0 tools.


Mattering of Spatiality in Historiographic Research

I want to first acknowledge historiographic research that takes as matter of concern mattering—elements of ambience, environment, and spatiality that lend me space to form of work as significant. These scholars destabilize more traditional notions of historiographic work to draw attention to what is eclipsed in predispositioned views of time and space in not only the event being researched, but how the historical text of that event is constructed. In “Thinking beyond Aristotle: The Turn to How in Comparative Rhetoric” LuMing Mao describes comparative rhetoric as an inherently interdisciplinary research method, and as “committed to different ways of knowing and speaking and to different forms of inquiry, investigates across time and space communicative practices that frequently originate in noncanonical contexts and are often marginalized, forgotten, or erased altogether” (448). Citing emphasis placed and propagated by Aristotle’s work to define proper and essential subject for the art of rhetoric and on the body of proof for its demonstration, Mao illuminates the emphasis on a perpetual want to claim a set of concepts for rhetoric, despite the competing meanings that have accumulated over time. Mao attributes this emphasis to the need to claim intellectual progress, and as a result, disciplinary legitimacy as study. Instead of fixating on facts of essence, Mao suggests a shift to focus on facts of usage to develop a more informed understanding of the conditions of historicity, specificity, and incongruity.


Mao invokes Jenny Edbauer Rice’s rhetorical ecologies as a way of envisioning history that permits and frustrates the available means and models of discourse in the “shifting and moving, grafted onto and connected with other events” and lined “to the in-between en/action of events and encounters”. Rice’s rhetorical ecology reimagines rhetorical situation—kairotic moments of rhetoric— as “a framework of affective ecologies that recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes”. This new ways of seeing matters of fact can lead to the discovery of new paradigms of knowing. In comparative rhetoric, this look in between two texts is not to see the similarities and differences across them, but to see the effects of text—what has influenced and been influenced. The move is “metadiscplinary” (Haun Saussy); the purpose is not to guarantee uniqueness or coherence, but to represent “the condition of openness to new objects and new forms of inquiry” (453).


In that unbounded moment, I saw millions of delightful and terrible acts, none amazed me so much as the fact that all occupied the same point, without superposition and without transparency. What my eyes saw was simultaneous what I shall write is successive because language is successive. Something of it, though, I will capture.

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”


Similar to LuMing Mao’s disruption of temporal and spatial coherence to keep inquiry open, in “Writing the Event: The Impossible Possibility for Historiography”, Michelle Baliff discusses making history variable, questions  what it means to not only acknowledge that history is contested, but to create histories to be contested. She explains that “‘normative historical thinking’ elides the radical singularity of the event by subjecting the event meaning by way of categories of knowledge that cannot—by definition—include the radical singularity of ‘what happened’” (243). According to traditional historical thinking, events are only significant if they satisfy a chronological narrative of beginning, middle, and end; they are constrained by temporality. Baliff is interested in unbinding events from temporality to explore the possibility of impossibility; instead of submitting an event to a particular state of being by making ontological claims about the event (which flatten it along a horizontal timeline), the event is instead merely foregrounded by its various appearances (244). Baliff is suggesting a view of events as singular, as exceptional, as not reducible to pre-existing dispositions of rules or norms. The event is instead arrivant, a future that cannot be foreseen (246). This shifts the future from horizontal expectations of temporality to a vertical orientation (246). The event is then always repeatable, it reappears in its possibility to arrive all the time instead of at a time. The event disrupts categorical systems of creating knowledge by forcing consideration in how to write historiography that reorients time as an event— as possibility (247). Writing becomes of chance because the destination of the event cannot be determined. Like Mao’s description of comparative texts being structured as representative of a condition of openness, Baliff describes the text of the event as hospitality; the text sets the table, but leaves an empty place setting for what will have arrived, what has not yet arrived, and for what could not be recognized as having arrived (254).

Victor Vitanza’s “Imagine A Re-Thinking of Historiographies (of Rhetorics)” also takes as matter of concern how and where texts are constructed by calling for re-thinking how histories are told. Vitanza works to dismantle the bounds of temporality through the use of theories of cinema as atemporal and anachronistic. He explains that historiography “plots out a transcendental, vertical line of negation, via a rationalization, that executes the conditions of possibility for realizing the desire for the lost object” (268). The lost object is a desire for linear narrative as model for historical events, but he proposes that film has replaced narrative because it can speed up events, stretch them in slow motion, work them into flashbacks, and most importantly cut and splice stating “Life is not about stories, about actions oriented towards an end, but about situations open in every direction. Life [is] made up of an infinity of micro-movements” (qting Jacques Ranciere) (282). Reimagining historiographies with film disrupts chrono-time into non-linear and multi-linear histories—histories tremble— by way of images over words because writing erases the present (273).

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Mattering of Spatiality: Other of the Eye and Ear


If spatiality is ambience, developed from complexity, how can it be attuned to?


Roland Barthes’ Third Meaning looks at stills from film, working in this “inarticulable beyond” to articulate meaning beyond that of the obvious and the symbolic. This is difficult to do because as Barthes explains a third meaning is “a signifier without a signified” (61). Obvious meanings are evident; they seek the reader/viewer out (54). The obstuse meaning is one too many, it

“extend[s] outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure.  Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of carnival” (55). Third meaning outplays meaning because it is discontinuous, depletion, accent (61-62). The third meaning—theoretically locatable but not describable—”can be seen as the passage from language to significance and in the founding act of the filmic itself” (65).


allow that oscillation succinct demonstration—an elliptic emphasis… Roland Barthes


In “Other of the Ear”, Victor Vitanza recounts the space/time whe(re)n he experienced tinnitus—the hearing of noises when there is no outside source of sound—and labyrinthitis—a disorder of irritation and inflammation of the inner ear. He exclaims that it is “The thEAtRe (not a Club) of the Third!… Which would be the pedagogical site of the Revenge of the Object.”

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Sub/Versions of History and Form

While the work of LuMing Mao and Michelle Baliff provide theoretical considerations of historiography that consider space, their construction does not. (Juxtaposed) To their concepts, I wish to model form theory/theory form with the sub/versions of histroiography of Victor Vitanza. In “‘Some More’ Notes, Toward a ‘Third Sophistic’” Victor Vitanza provides an account of  Sophistic traditions in categories he describes as: Classical, Modern, and Postmodern or ParaRhetoric. According to Vitanza, Traditional or Classical Rhetoric is the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case (Aristotle); “its ideal is unity, simplicity, and communicability”.  Modern Rhetoric is the art of accounting for the available means of identification in the given case; the ideal is not persuasion but consubstantiality or sympathetic understanding (Burke). Modern Rhetoric attempts to foster heterogeneity of points of view, but semiotically attempts to “account for” a finite set of ways through which human beings are persuaded.  Postmodern or ParaRhetoric, his concept of a Third Sophistic, is an art of “resisting and disrupting” the available means (that is, the cultural codes) that allow for persuasion and identification” (133). Through a  pathos of distance, ParaRhetoric plays and engages  ideas not just “contra to” but “along side” (133). He explains that a  “Third Sophistic Rhetoric is interested in perpetual decodification and deterritorialization”; it has no faith in the game (or gain) of knowledge or the grand narrative of emancipation in history (133).  Vitanza deploys these figures to consider and disrupt the role of negation and subjectivity in “the” history of rhetoric. Vitanza seeks a movement from (negative) possibilities and probabilities to (denegated) incompossibilities (counter-factual, co-extensive possibilities). The “Third Sophistic Rhetoric” as well as the “excluded middle” serve as the structure for doing hysteriography—his stance on historical work deviating from a singular construction of history. He explains “The notion of a “Third Sophistic,” as I espouse it here, can be more accurately understood according to the topoi of “antecedent and consequent” rather than “cause and effect,” and according to radical “parataxis” rather than “hypotaxis””. Vitanza limits the First and Second Sophistic to the counting of one and two in that they could only account for positions of first cause, and then cause and effect. The Third Sophistic counts to many because it is interested in the chora of hysteriography—the (competeing) voices of many.

The Third Sophistic  is a view that is “post-structuralist” and “postmodern” in that it acknowledges an incredulity toward “covering-law models” or “grand (causal) narratives” of history (writing/ speaking), such as an Hegelian or Marxist dialectical view of history as leading to ethical and political “emancipation,” or to a resolution of the “unhappy consciousness.” It is a view of history (writing/speaking), instead, that dis/engages in “just-drifting.” Whereas the First and Second Sophistics are told metonymically as cause and effect, Vitanza states that the Third will be told metonymically as contingency; he states It is “effective” in that it “differs from traditional history in being without constants”; it is “‘effective’ to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being”; it is ” ‘effective’ history [in that] it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millenial ending”  (119 qting Michel Foucault).

The “voiceless obstinacy” is what Vitanza takes issue with when argument is the basis of production—what matters— in rhetoric. He explains that too often an argument is perpetuated based on its repetition, not on its semantic content (133). He describes that an emphasis on reason as method is detrimental to what is possible. He explains that what is wanted is dissensus or hetreologia/paralogia saying ”It is Humanism that I am against. The basic, insidious assumption of Humanism is that human beings are free to deliberate on public issues, that they “express” this freedom in and when achieving “consensus” (homologia, argumentation)” (130). Argumentation is the struggle against the realization that language is the result of purely rhetorical tricks and devices, or that language is rhetoric. Argumentation, after long use,  seems “solid, canonical, and binding to a nation” (131).  Argument can become a hindrance to progress because commonplaces ways of fostering, protecting, and maintaining only the status quo.

Instead of negation in production, Vitanza is provoking the idea of the contingent in production: “That’s just it: feeling that the impossible is possible. That the necessary is contingent. That linkage must be made, but that there won’t be anything upon which to link. The ‘and’ with nothing to grab onto. Hence, not just the contingency of the how of linking, but the vertigo of the last phrase” (qting Jean-Francois Lyotard 134).

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…the results are often startling and effective… Marshall McLuhan

In “Critical Sub/Versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric”, Victor Vitanza plays with the idea of contingency and vertigo as a spatial condition of reading ParaRhetoric. He  calls for a change in style in discourse—not argumentation but poetics of rhetoric. He opens with a quote from Michel Foucault, “I have a dream of an intellectual who destroys evidences and universalities, who locates and points out in the inertias and constraints of the present the weak points, the openings, the lines of stress; who constantly displaces himself, not knowing exactly where he’ll be or what he’ll think tomorrow…” Michel Foucault “The History of Sexuality: Interview”.

To Vitanza, this quote demonstrates an Anti-Platonic history that pushes views of history that are considered received to the limits of the carnivalesque which oppose the idea of history as recognition or reminiscence by stylistically sub/version; that systematically dissociates identity or  a single stable self which opposes history as continuity or representative of tradition by  practicing an expressive, literary rhetoric like the sophists who practiced dissoi logoi (new histories of rhetoric will practice dissoi paralogoi); and that all knowledge rests upon injustice, which opposes history as knowledge by moving from representative anecdotes to “mis/representative antidotes” to be “curative fiction” (not as opposed to nonfiction, but as constructing interpretive-fictions) (54). This is a Post-Philosophical Rhetoric, a Sub/Versive Rhetoric that need not borrow the methods or contents of history. Sub/Versive Rhetoric is not attempting to convince readers but provoke an alternative predisposition (44). Like Vitanza’s careful/playful conceptual work in developing the Third Sophistic, he explains that this Post-Philosophical Rhetoric distances itself from persuasion and identification (the domain of old and new rhetoric). Sub/Versive Rhetoric is paralogism; its vision is not consensus  but the searching out of instabilities as a practice of paralogisms to undermine from within the very framework in which the “normal science” has been conducted (52). Sub/Versive histories of Rhetoric are pro/claim themselves through intertextuality (53) that ispluralistic and anarachsitic and through dismemberment or creative undoing (from Mikhail Bakhtin) that uses “use of montage and quotation so one text is laced through with other texts scissor-like rhetorical figures as catchphrases, ironies, ellipses, metalepsis, aporias, parapraxis, parentheses, stylistic infelicities to destroy the Aristotelian order of propriety” (57).


Form A directs sound channels—Continuous operation in such convenient Life Form B—Final Switching off of tape cuts “oxygen” Life Forms B by cutting off machine will produce cut-up of human form determined by the switching chosen—Totally alien “music” need not survive in any “emotion” due to the “oxygen” rendered down to a form of music—Intervention directing all movement what will be the end product?—Reciprocation detestable to us for how could we become part of the array?—Could this metal impression follow to present language learning?—Talking and listening machine led and replaced—

William S. Burroughs, “Two Tape Recorder Mutations”, Nova Express


Byzantine Art: Perceptions of Dimension

The most notable aesthetic  feature of byzantine art was its “abstract” or anti-natural character, in contrast to classical art’s attempt to create representations that mimicked reality as closely as possible.

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When we read, our first instinct is to ask what the text is about, to determine our understanding of it. What would it mean to claim the form of texts as Byzantine art?



In Edmund Abbott’s novel Flatland describes a two-dimensional world occupied by geometric figures. One of the figures, Square, dreams about visiting the one-dimensional world, Lineland, attempting to convince the world’s monarch of a second dimension. Square is then visited by a three-dimensional sphere, which he cannot be convinced of until he sees Spaceland. Each millenium, Sphere visits Flatland to introduce a new being to the idea of a third dimension in hopes of educating the population of Flatland to its existence. Once Square sees Spaceland and his mind is opened to new dimensions, he tries to convince Sphere of the possibility of the existence of a fourth, fifth, and sixth spatial dimension, but Sphere returns Square to Flatland perturbed. Square has another dream in which Sphere visits him once again, this time to introduce him to Pointland wherein the Point (sole inhabitant, monarch and universe) perceives any communication as originating in its own mind. Sphere and Square leave Point and Pointland because of its ignorance in omniscience and omnipresence, labelling Point as incapable of being rescued from self satisfaction.


Imagine someone from our world of three-dimensions orienting themselves  in a two- dimensional world—being accustomed to perception in three-dimensions but only having two available.

Katie Rose Pipkin’s presentation of her webtext “selfhood, the icon, and byzantine presence” at this year’s Bot Summit—a meeting of Tiny Subversions—of various bot makers. Rose Pipkin began her webtext/presentation with a discussion of the tenants of Byzantine Philosophy: that person is ontological rather than substance or essence; that the creation of the world is by god and the limited timescale of the universe; that the process of creation is continuous; and that the perceptible world is realization in time perceptible to mind. She transitioned from discussing iconography of saints in Byzantine murals to computer icons—both symbolic representations.

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She discusses digitization using the works of Walter Benjamin thus contrasting mechanization with digitization explaining “ digitization is not mechanization, and duplication within this space is not autonomy”. Mechanically produced objects begin as identical in their construction and are placed in the world as unique entities of individual existence. Digital objects appear in multiplicity at once and forever and are not individually manipulatable. In this space, a copy is not a manipulation, as in a mechanical reproduction, it is a recreation; “like mitosis, a copy has the capacity for individual mutation but does not intrinsically affect its parent. a retweet of information is not a duplication nor a shift in scale; a retweet impacts the structural bridge of a networked idea, not the intrinsic idea itself.” Recreations in digital space exist both inside and outside of accumulated time.

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Making In Spatiality: Invention by Bot and in the Margin

Twitter bots are Twitter accounts that compose tweets based on computer algorithms that generate content from mining other text sources. The results can vary from comedic to poetic as bots create new text from anything from Craigslist advertisements to museum catalogues. The tweets work in the space of juxtaposition and the form of the tweet (140 characters and an image). The form of the spliced tweet makes space for invention.

Jim Brown has a project called Making Machines that he describes as “an attempt to create new machines for the digital rhetorician” as a new form of machine for generating and interpreting arguments that the rhetorical tradition offers. Brown has created a Twitter bot that chooses at random two works from Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg’s anthology The Rhetorical Tradition which he then has to create a mashup text of. The mashup texts take the two texts to create a concept in a 3,000 word essay that is accompanied by a digital object that makes use of that concept.

The Twitter bot creates a new space for reading, a new perception that works in the abstraction of materials in spatial relations to one another.

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In R. Eno’s edition of the Analects of Confucius, Eno remarks that “scholars generally see the text as having been brought together over the course of two to three centuries, and believe little if any of it can be viewed as a reliable record of Confucius’s own words, or even of his individual views”. Instead he draws analogy to the biblical Gospels as offering “an evolving record of the image of Confucius and his ideas through from the changing standpoints of various branches of the school of thought he founded”. Further, due to the materiality of the original texts—ink drawn characters on strips of bamboo that were tied together with string— “all of the books bear the traces of rearrangements and later insertions, to a degree that makes it difficult to see any common thematic threads at all”.

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Eno’s edition also includes a number of appendices that call attention to the speculation of reconstructive and translation work. Eno explains the numbering of the books in the as “speculative because we don’t know the original order of the bamboo slips; moreover some slips are clearly missing, many sections are fragmentary and difficult to reconstruct. In some cases, a passage number stands by a single orphan character, signifying that we can infer that a passage including the character existed, but it is otherwise lost (there may be other lost passages for which no remnant characters survive)”. Eno’s edition of Analects, in its design/layout, draws attention to how difficult reading is and just how much need be done to/with the text so that it can be read. This edition seems to demonstrate some of the critical considerations we have discussed in doing historiographic research—making the processing of the text more visible to the reader to consider and engage with.


Imagine marginal space that isn’t marginal, but can provide space for choral construction.


The first Octalog (1988) was a panel of eight historians of rhetoric—James Berlin, Robert Connors, Sharon Crowley, Richard Enos, Victor Vitanza, Susan Jarratt, Nan Johnson, Jan Swearingen and James Murphy— who held differing positions on the nature, purpose, and methods of doing research in the history of rhetoric, the nature of interpretation, and issues concerning the belief in objective knowing (Richard Enos, Octalog II). The scholars had no agreed upon field or base for debating historical work, with matters of concern ranging from the questioning of the agnostic patterns in rhetorical argument and dialectical exchange as an inscription of gender and the implication on literacy and rhetoric  (Jan Swearingen), the necessity of  openness and attention toward new sources of evidence and methodologies for analysis for a more sensitive understanding of the history of rhetoric instead of one rooted in conformity and tradition (Richard Enos), to proposing an alternative position of redefinition contrary to the primary historiographical trope of rediscovery and possession of forgotten treasures in doing historical work (Susan Jarratt). The goal was not consensus, but the space of allowing ideas to interact, contradict, and leave pregnant pause for further discussion. In reading the linear transcript of that exchange, imagine someone from a world of three-dimensions orienting themselves in a two- dimensional world—being accustomed to perception in three-dimensions but only having two available.



Forming Historiographic Texts as Weak Theory

How did you read this text? Was it something taken in holistically? Or taken in as parts—some emphasized and others overlooked or overshadowed. The spatial construction of this text is demonstrative of historiographic work in that it is not bound or concrete. What I hope to have demonstrated in this spatial text of associations is that it can be taken apart. Some elements of this may be taken and reworked, while others may be left to become detrius. Kathleen Stewart’s “Weak Theory” builds from the weak theory concept of Eve Sedgwick, which she describes as “theory that comes unstuck from its own line of thought to follow the objects it encounters, or becomes undone by its attention to things that just don’t add up but take on a life of their own as problems for thought” (72). Stewart draws attention to the cultural poesis of forms of living whose “objects are textures and rhythms, trajectories, and modes of attunement, attachment, and composition” (71). The point is not to cast value to these objects or somehow get their representation right, but to wonder what potential modes of “knowing, relating, and attending to things” are present in them and their relations to other objects (71). Poesis is a mode of production through which  something throws itself together; Stewart explains poesis as an opening onto something that “maps a thicket of connections between vague yet forceful and affecting elements” (72). There is something waiting to become something in disparate objects, people, circulations, publics because “a moment of poesis is a mode of production in an unfinished world” (77). Historiographic work is meant to be weak, to break, to be combined with other world elements as it is (un)formed.




Abbott, Edmund. Flatland. Seeley & Company, 1917.

Baliff, Michelle. “Writing the Event: The Impossible Possibility for Historiography”. Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 44 (3) 243-255.

Barthes, Roland. “The Third Meaning: Research notes on some Eisenstein Stills”. Camera Lucida. Hill & Wang, 1980.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press, 2010.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph”. Collected Fictions. Penguin Groups, 1998.

Burroughs, William S. Nova Express. Grove Press, 1964.

Eno, R. Analects of Confucius. An Online Teaching Translation. Version 2.1.

Hawk, Byron. “Toward a Post-Techne Or, Inventing Pedagogies for Professional Writing”. Technical Communication Quarterly. 13 (4) 371-392.

@makingmachine Brown, Jim.

Mao, LuMing. “Thinking Beyond Aristotle: The Turn to How in Comparative Rhetoric”. PMLA.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage.

Octalog. “The Politics of Historiography”. Rhetoric Review. 7 (1) 5-49.

Pipkin, Katie Rose. “selfhood, the icon, and byzantine presence”.

@Rhetbot Brooke, Collin.

Stewart, Kathleen. “Weak Theory in an Unfinished World”. Journal of Folklore Research. 45 (1) 71-82.

Vitanza, Victor. “Critical Sub/Versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric”. Rhetoric Review. 6 (1), 41-66.

Vitanza, Victor “Imagine A Re-Thinking of Historiographies (of Rhetorics)”. Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 44 (3), 271-286.

Vitanza, Victor. “Other of the Ear”.

Vitanza, Victor. “‘Some More’ Notes, Toward a Third Sophistic’”. Argumentation (5) 117-139.

#crcon talk // (un)familiar faces: digital agential design

A panel (“The Situated Seen & Heard: (De)Constructing Digital Material Contexts”) with Albert Rintrona and Tessa Brown at MSU’s Cultural Rhetorics Conference


My name is Jana Rosinski and I’m a second year doctoral student at Syracuse. This is an attempt at articulating my interests in post humanism, new media, material rhetorics, historiography, and digital humanities to create more materially minded practices of research and research methods as mattered through interface design.

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This is a mattering of concern. What matters?

I recently had the opportunity, through a graduate seminar in game studies, to immerse myself in Oculus Rift, for those unfamiliar, it’s a virtual reality headset for 3D gaming.

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For this experience, I wore the OR headset and a pair of headphones to be surrounded by visual and aural sensoria that demanded my engagement. Through the Rift I interacted with SightLine, a game described as “a surreal experience designed as a demoing tool. Crafted to throw users into the world of VR, and show off its full potential both in creating a variety of worlds that feel real and creating realities that behave unlike anything you might know.”

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SightLine begins with a body, your body or at least a placeholder or placement, seated at a desk about which are books, papers, glasses, a picture frame, a plant—materials unremarkable. Within the picture frame a video of a man speaking begins to play. SightLine doesn’t need directional input from a controller or keypad because the direction in which you are looking with your head, your looking, is the mechanical input for action. The man explains that seeing is believing, but that you shouldn’t believe what you saw. He calls your attention back to the unremarkable materials of the desk to ask whether or not the plant that resides there is the same one from moments before. Everything out of your SightLine is subject to change.

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My purpose today isn’t to talk about SightLine or 3D gaming technology, but in what it calls my attention to. What interests me about SightLine and the Oculus Rift is its direct engagement and even betrayal of sight as a mode of understanding. My looking was what oriented not only my spatial presence and affect in and on the materials of SightLine—that which I illuminated with my attention—but what obscured my noticing or knowledge of other materials that surrounded me, what my looking did and did not encounter.  I say encounter because the effects of my attention are indeterminate: was I causing affect in my presence and absence of materials? Or was I bearing witness to the inherent potential of materials? Everything out of my line of sight was subject to change, but for what purpose? And what of the materials that I was trying to see?

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I liken these questions, this experience, to my interest in digital humanities methods and tools and the complex consideration of their effect on what can be seen, heard, felt.  In “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”, Johanna Drucker 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? A humanistic approach, she explains quote

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.

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The interface is not a lens through which we see—it is not transparent; what is there is as significant as what is not in showcasing and obscuring what we can and cannot encounter and how. What might be possible if we imagined interface as an access point to material—as methods that are audible, tactile, visible in accessing materials? In Lingua Fracta, Collin Brooke explains that the interface can show us that what we think of as products (books, articles, essays) are but specialized instances of an ongoing process at the level of the interface. Those products, or materials, are a temporal and situated binding of thoughts at a time. Quoting Paul Miller, a.k.a DJ Spooky, “At the end of the day, it’s all about reprocessing the world around you”. What would it mean to imagine interfaces as encounters, recontextualizations, and reprocessing of the worlds around us? To be able to articulate our sight line, our focus, and engage it with those of others looking at the same materials to process and reprocess materials differently? What follows is a practicing of reprocessing the  potential of materials at the level of the interface that make visible, alter, and construct reflexive interfaces to collections of digitized and digital materials that attend to the multitude of individuals, institutions, contexts, and ideologies that determine accessibility to materials. There are more projects that we might discuss that engage interface as method for exploring materials and more complex concerns than need be addressed about the rhetoric of the interface, but In this space I will focus on three  digital projects as interfaces for material potential—that is, in the potential to make matter material considerations in research through interface design.

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HyperCities is a space for collaborative digital mapping of cultural, historical, and social dynamics. The project describes itself as “Born out of Web 2.0 social technologies, That represents a new digital media environment that links together cultures, languages, generations, and knowledge communities, mobilizing an array of technologies (from GPS-enabled cell phones to GIS mapping tools and geo-temporal databases) to pioneer a participatory, open-ended learning ecology grounded in real places and real times.” The impetus of the project is to answer the question: where are you from? Using Google Maps and Google Earth, a city becomes a digital research site for creating layered and interactive histories of place from the material input of users, connecting digital archives, maps, and stories with digitized renderings of the physical place with the goal of creating a “geo-temporal human web”.

While the concept of ecology is not unfamiliar to rhetoric, creating ecological texts that materialize the dynamics of thriving and potentially dying is less so. What is afforded by an interface constructed as participatory and open ended? How does this process or reprocess our concepts of knowledge production and circulation? Who or what become material record?

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Florida State University houses a postcard archive, but what I’m looking at is the Kairos webtext on developing a digital archive for multimodal research from this archive by Michael Neal, Katherine Bridgman, and Stephen J. McElroy. They frame their project by asking “How researchers visiting this archive make meaning from within the infrastructure that they have constructed” and “How we continue to curate a digital space designed to enable growth over time at the same time that it hopes to reflect the voices and perspectives that are engaging the archive from both within and outside of the academy”. They explain that the digital and physical spaces of this archive emerge at the interstices of borders that reflect multiple and overlapping contexts in: university and community; modality and materiality; print and screen; time and geography; and positionality and hierarchy which they use as interface or access for their work. Their interest is in making visible the ways in which we always reconstruct the subjects of our research through the production of scholarship, which grows out of ongoing conversations on archival methodologies that focus on building collaborative relationships with archivists and strengthening research through constructing archives of artifacts that deserve scholarly attention. They posit that the intersections of modalities and materialities that weave through the meaning that researchers and browsers take from this postcard are acknowledged in the digital representation of the postcard in three primary ways: through digitization of the actual card, Dublin Core metadata standards, and Postcard Item Type metadata. The metadata makes matter the published words on the cards, the handwritten words on the cards, the visuals other than the front image, how the card is laid out, color, and technological and/or material features of the cards (such as nontraditional materials like wood or ways of reading like hold to the light cards).

Instead of privileging any one material aspect of the postcards, they worked to conceive of a site that is more conducive to studying the relationships between and among the modalities represented through the cards. The different metadata tags with each postcard are a way of flattening a Dewey Decimal style hierarchy for browsing nested categories of postcards in order to afford researchers of the archive to determine arrangement as the most salient point for research based on geographical location, topic of the card, or even temporal chronology when the cards are entered into the archive. Visitors who are not registered can only view content. Once the visitor becomes a registered user, they can begin adding to and editing the materials in the archive. As a “researcher,” a user can begin tagging images. As a “contributor,” users can create an exhibit as well as add and edit only the items that they have contributed to the archive. As an “Admin,” users can edit items already entered into the collection as well as the preset vocabularies that appear for archivists in pulldown menus. Finally, the “Super” user has permissions to do all of this as well as edit the general “settings” for the archive.

This project extends beyond researchers in the academy to consider materials digitized and categorized by interested persons; what can this distributed model of creating an archive do differently than one that is more tightly bound? While archives don’t come with predetermined ways of making meaning, what is the potential in constructing an archive of materials that emphasizes the spaces between materials as a material itself?

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Darwin’s On the Origin of Species evolved over the course of several editions he wrote, edited, and updated during his lifetime. The first edition was approximately 150,000 words and the sixth is a much larger 190,000 words. In the changes are refinements and shifts — increasing emphasis, adding details, or even a change in the idea itself. Ben Fry, using the evolution of the six editions as guide, developed an interactive visualization of the text over time, His fascination guided by the ability to make visible the change over time in a person’s thinking. Hovering over the text, the viewer can see the removal, addition, and change in text.

What would become available in the digitization and juxtaposition of oft-cited texts? What if the evolution of ideas, of history, could materialize; how might we read texts and ourselves differently?

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Composing digital texts and making use of digital humanities tools as methods for research don’t make research more mindful of material, but we can make research that does—that makes materials matter not just in our attention to them, but our attention through them, with them. In ”Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship”, Johanna Drucker explains that we can cast an interpretive gaze on instruments of digital technology from a humanistic perspective and we can build humanities content on their base; but rarely have we imagined computational protocols grounded in humanistic methods. She states

if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital that we demonstrate that the methods and theory of the humanities have a critical purchase on the design of platforms that embody humanistic value.

I am interested in developing interface design as matter of concern in research, not just a rhetorical attention to interfaces, but interface as material method, as intermediary, as reprocessing. I return to the Oculus Rift experience through SightLine, the simultaneous engaging and obscuring of my looking and its effect on engaging materials. What could become available to digital and digitized materials if interfaces were responsive to action, that is interacting with them? What if our interfaces mattered to us and us to them?

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Engaging Vibrant Matter

A first pass through Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things as I search for resonance with techne and understanding the history of materialism. Reading her account of vibrant materiality from a history of vitalism, I am curious for depper accounts of instrumentality, mechanism and mechanist, and mode(i)fication to get at the interaction of materials.

A (more or less direct) quote from her keynote “Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter” her uncanny task:

see what happens to our writing, our bodies, our research designs, our consumption practices, our sympathies. If this call from things is taken seriously, taken that is, as more than a figure of speech, a projections of voice onto some inanimate stuff, more than an instance of the pathetic fallacy. What if some things in an undetermined way can hail us and offer a glimpse through a window that opens of lively bodies that are unparsed into subjects or objects? Now at best this window has a rickety sash that may slam close at any moment…I tried to narrate what I saw, enunciate this thing power and try to translate the nonlinguistic transmissions…Word workers can try to do that. They do that best when they can stay true to things in the best way if one approaches language as rhetoric sort of as word sounds that tune the body and render it more susceptible to the frequencies of the material agencies inside and around us. So the goal: to use words to make whatever communication already at work between vibrant bodies more audible, more detectable, more sensible.

Jane Bennett calls for “maybe a less verbose practice to acknowledge and translate the call of things, addressing the arts. I am curious how craft, or something like [rhetorical] carpentry (Ian Bogost; developed by Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown) might lend a hand in the translation of things—focusing on the space between human and nonhuman.

A selection of quotes and concepts from each chapter:

The Force of Things

  • distinguishing between objects and things: objects are the way things appear to a subject with a name, identity, gestalt and stereotypical template while things signal the moment the object becomes an other, as something uncanny (quoting W.J.T. Mitchell)
  • “I will try impossibly, to name the moment of independence (from subjectivity) possessed by things, a moment that must be there, since things do in fact affect other bodies, enhancing or weakening their power” (3)
  • from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception “an immanent or incipient significance in the living body which extends…to the whole sensible world; our gaze, prompted by the experiences of our own body, will discover in all other objects the miracle of perception” (50
  • matter’s inherent creativity (7)
  • from Bruno Latour an actant is neither a subject nor an object by an intervener (9)
  • direct sensuous apprehension (13)
  • nonidentity from Adorno as a presence that acts upon us: we knowers are haunted by a painful nagging feeling that something’s being left put
  • negative dialectics: pedagogy inside materialism to become more cognizant that conceptualization automatically obscures
    • technique: imaginatively re-create what has been obscured
    • technique: to admit a playful element into one’s thinking and be willing to play the fool
    • technique: aesthetic attention to object’s qualitative moments

The Agency of Assemblages

  • clinamen: an actant never acts alone; its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies or forces (21)
  • mode: form alliances and enter assemblages it is to mode(i)fy and be modified by others (22)
  • Bruno Latour “That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, to bifurcate” (27)
  • “There was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity; today this mingling has become harder to ignore” (31)
  • agency: efficacy, trajectory, causality
  • efficacy points to the creativity of agency, to a capacity to make something new appear or occur
  • agency is also bound with the idea of trajectory, a directionality or movement away from somewhere even if the toward which it moves is obscure or even absent
  • causality chain of simply bodies acting as the sole impetus
  • from Deleuze “adsorption” gathering of elements in a way that both form as a coalition and yet preserves something of the agential impetus of each element (35)
  • human intentionality can emerge as agentic only by way of distribution; the productive power that has engendered an effect will turn out to be a confederacy and the human actant within it will themselves turn out to be confederations of tools, microbes, minerals, sounds, and other foreign materialities (36)

Edible Matter

  • mechanical operations

A Life of Metal

  • uncanny nontime exiting between the various moments of biographical or morphological time (53)
  • matter movement, matter energy, matter in variation that enters assemblages and leaves them (54)
  • hylomorphic model: passive unorganized or raw matter can be given organic form only by the agency of something that is not itself material; any formative power must be external to a brute, mechanical matter”
  • this is ignorant of what woodworkers and metallurgists know that there “exist variable intensive effects and incipient qualities of matter that external forms can only bring out and facilitate”; “instead if a formative power detachable from matter, artisans (and mechanics, cooks, builders, cleaners, and anyone else intimate with things) encounter a creative materiality with incipient tendencies and propensities” ((56)
  • the aim is to articulate the elusive idea of a materiality that is itself heterogeneous, itself a differential of intensities, itself a life (57)
  • from a history of metallography is that it was the human metalworkers’ intense intimacy with their material that enabled them, rather than (the less hands on) scientists, to be the ones to first discover the polycrystalline structure of nonorganic matter. The desire of the craftsperson to see what a metal can do, rather than the desire of a scientist to know what a metal is, enabled the former to discern a life in metal, and thus, eventually, collaborate more productively with it. (60)

Neither Vitalism nor Mechanism

  • matter is a tendency toward spatialization (77)
  • this distortion is necessary and useful because humans must regard the world instrumentally if they are to survive in it: there is an inevitable propensity of our mind to view the world as if it consisted not of an ever-changing flow of time but a calculable set of things (we necessarily turn a spatializing tendency into a world of fixed entities) (77)
  • a simple model of harmony (from Driesch) “internal alteration within parts as they develop, as well as changes in the relationship between parts” (80)

Stem Cells and the Culture of Life

  • culture of life (a natural order of rank)
  • life is radically different from matter; human life is qualitatively different from all other life; human uniqueness expresses divine intention; the world id a divinely created order and that order has the shape of a fixed hierarchy

Political Ecologies

  • intelligent improvisations (96)
  • “In a vital materialism, an anthropomorphic element in perception can uncover a whole world of resonances and resemblances—sound and sights that echo and bounce far more that would be possible were the universe to have a hierarchical structure (99)
  • In Art as Experience (Dewey) comes close to saying that even human initiatives are not exclusively human; he flirts with a posthuman conception of action when he notes the porosity of the border between the human body and its out-side (102)
  • the concept of the actant (Latour) pries space between the idea of an action and the idea of human intentionality; rejects nature and culture categories in favor of collective of human and nonhuman elements; action not an enactment of choices but as the v=call and response between propositions (a lending weight, an incentive toward, a pressure along one trajectory) (103)
  • effect (Ranciere )act disrupts as a way to radically change what people can see by repartitioning the sensible, overthrowing the regime o the perceptible (107)
  • a vital materialist theory of democracy seeks to transform the divide between speaking subjects and mute objects into a set of differential tendencies and variable capacities (108)

Vitality and Self-Interest

  • Materiality is a rubric that tends to horizontalize the relations between humans, biota, and abiota. It draws human attention sideways, away from an ontologically ranked Great Chain of Being and toward greater appreciation of the complex entanglement of humans and nonhumans (112)
  • inflection of matters as: “vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent
  • vital materiality better captures an “alien” quality of our own flesh, and in so doing, reminds humans of they very radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the nonhuman”(112)
  • “In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ’embodied’. We are, rather, an array  of bodies, many different kinds f them nested set of microbiomes” (113)
  • sense of nature as creativity like ancient Greek phusis and Latin natura: to puff, blow or swell up, conveying a sense of germination or sprouting up, bringing forth, opening out, or hatching. Speak as of a process of morphing, of formation and deformation…of becoming otherwise of things in motion as hey enter into strange conjunctions with on another (118)
  • closing creed: I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests (122)