critical making: play and procedural rhetoric

Reading Ian Bogost’s “Procedural Rhetoric” from Persuasive Games and Mary Flanagan’s “Designing for Critical Play” from Critical Play reignited conversations we had in class last week about McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which we contemplated what it meant to do gamer theory—is theorizing hacking? Making games to understand mechanics? Critically playing games? Making critical games (games that critique serious subject matter)?

Games communicate differently than other media; they not only deliver messages, but also simulate experiences. While often thought to be just a leisure activity, games can also become rhetorical tools.

From Persuasive Games dot com “About Us”

My question shifts a bit this week from what does it meant to do gamer theory to considering what makes a game a rhetorical tool. In Flanagan’s “Designing for Critical Play”, what I am aligning with games as rhetorical tools based on the desired outcome of critical thinking and change in opinion or action, she explains that

Critical play is not about making experts, but about designing spaces where diverse minds feel comfortable enough to take part in the discovery of solutions. Derived from artists’ creative processes, investigations, and practical work, critical play is to popular computer games what performance art once was to the traditional, well-made stage play.

She proposes a revised design schema for making games that “demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive”. For games to be rhetorical tools, they must be designed as such; she seems to be mostly directing the creation of situation for critical play (emphasizing human values and concerns as fundamental to the design process) and the representation of a more diverse spectrum of voices and experience to designers of games, not players. While this is undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor, I wonder what might involve the player in critical play—to more explicitly work in the space between player and game (the disconnect between reality and game—even if the game represents events, people, and places of reality). Does simulation work in this space? Could the process of simulation be opened up more for the player to understand their actions and the consequences of action? Critical play evokes critical thinking, a sort of simulation of taking on perspectives to engage with a concept/situation/action to work through understanding cause and effect, affect, action and reaction. But that simulation, that critical engagement, seems limited to language as the symbolic system for engaging/communicating meaning (even though the player is performing actions).

Bogost’s procedural rhetoric seems to carry the concept of critical play further because it makes process matter—it is not that actions in the game are carried out, but how. procedural representation takes a different form than written or spoken representation; it explains processes with other processes—not language. Bogost explains that “Procedural representation itself requires inscription in a medium that actually enacts processes rather than merely describe them” (9). Procedural rhetoric entails persuasion to change opinion or action, as well as expression, making its arguments through the authorship of rules and behaviors and the construction of dynamic models, not through words and images. Bogost’s engagement with games as rhetorical tools is not that players have to be able to make games to understand, but that players should learn to read processes as a critic—playing the game as a “procedural system with an eye toward identifying and interpreting the rules that drive the system” (64). He states that “procedural rhetorics afford a new and promising way to make claims about how things work” (29). But how does one learn the rules that drive the system? 

I found myself wondering in reading this week: how does procedural rhetoric or critical play engage the engagement with the media itself? “Media are not simply vessels for human meaning” (Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown Jr., “Composing the Carpenters Workshop”); I find myself still mulling over Bogost’s notion of carpentry from another of his texts (Alien Phenomenology) as I continue to take interest in the rhetorical affordances of making.

In Composing the Carpenters Workshop, Brown and Rivers take Bogost’s concept of carpentry into the rhetoric and composition classroom. Bogost defines carpentry as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” (92) that “entail making things that explain how things make their world” (93). Brown and Rivers summarize Bogost’s carpentry as both a description of how objects make one another and a practice of doing philosophy, they extend carpentry one step further “suggesting that such making can be undertaken in an effort to do rhetoric”. In doing rhetorical carpentry, we would be engaged with “how we might ‘construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us’’. To demonstrate the alien (or unknown—silenced or without agency) and what might be encountered in the construction of objects, they explore work in rhetoric and composition that expands a rhetorical situation to a network or an ecology (a rhetorical situation being a response to an issue directed toward an audience). They look at the work of Collin Gifford Brooke (among others); Brooke’s book Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media develops a rhetoric of new media, but does not see rhetorical theory as another way of looking at texts after their production. To Brooke rhetoric is not a mode alongside literary criticism or cultural theory, but is a way to think through “what might still be done with new media” (Rivers and Brown 31). Brooke explains

A rhetoric of new media, rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make choices our own choices. Such a rhetoric cannot be achieved through the reactive lens of critical/theoretical reading

By understanding the rhetorical situation as networked and complex, Brooke illustrates that the human is not the center of situation; “The takeaway for us is that for Brooke the work of rhetoric is not to impose or discover meaning within some (new media) text (as object), but to invent new ways of producing meaning through an attunement to the constraints and affordances of new media” (Rivers and Brown 31). Making is at the heart of rhetoric. Rivers and Brown explain “rhetoric needs to remain actionary rather than reactionary”— “As actionary, a rhetoric of new media should prepare us for sorting through the strategies, practices, and tactics available to us and even for inventing new ones” (Brooke). Like Bogost’s philosophical carpenter who works with things rather than observing them, an “actionary rhetorician cobbles together strategies, practices, and tactics in order to address engagements to come” (Rivers and Brown 31).

Rivers and Brown end with a description of a composition classroom

It is November 2015, and you are visiting what you thought was a college composition classroom. However, something seems to be amiss. In one corner, a group of students pass around a long wooden cylinder that they constructed using a lathe (they were able to get help from a professor in the Art department to gain access to the equipment). In another corner, a group huddles around a 3D printer as a strange looking blue plastic object emerges (it looks like a helmet). You find out from the professor (an excitable, bespectacled man with curly hair and a wry smile) that a third group is not present; they are across campus working with a group of architecture students and blowing glass. This happens a lot in this particular class. The English department has not yet approved the professor’s grant proposal for a workshop that would offer students the ability to work in various media. The proposal has been met with curious stares thus far, but the professor is undeterred. He tells you and anyone who will listen that these students are merely taking advantage of “the available means of persuasion” and attempting to gain insight into the “vacuum-sealed.”

The go on to explain that the blue object is not a helmet, but a puzzle:

The grooves on the inside of the sphere allow users to place and re-place dividers to create a series of self-contained compartments on the inside of the sphere. Users are first asked to pour a certain amount of water into the sphere (proportionally representing the amount of fresh water in the world). The challenge is to evenly apportion the water in all of the compartments by sliding open and close the dividers inside the sphere. The object of the object is to foreground water itself as a political actor.

Through making and playing with the puzzle “environmental rhetoric becomes something other than the task of
shaping human hearts and minds to “save the world,” and instead becomes something more akin to the recognition that the “world itself” is likewise populated by a plethora of nonhuman political actors”.

In “Procedural Rhetoric” Bogost explains “If persuasive games are videogames that mount meaningful procedural rhetorics, and if procedural rhetorics facilitate dialectical interrogation of process-based claims about how real-world processes· do, could, or should work, then persuasive games can also make claims that speak past or against the fixed worldviews of institutions like governments or corporations” (57).

“Media are not simply vessels for human meaning”.  How are games rhetorical tools that do rhetoric—not containers or objects for rhetoric?

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Articulating Making

[The following is a project I’m working on for my Rhetorics of Craft seminar. It is far from settled, or even really articulate, but it is articulating. It is an exploration of taking up Ian Bogost’s carpentry, from Alien Phenomenology, through Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown’s forward of the concept as rhetorical carpentry. While working with rhetorical carpentry in my own scholarship and pedagogy is thought provoking enough to me, I am working to understand it more on terms of the materiality of objects – that is articulating their agency (affordances and limitations). My questions concern whether or not understanding what happens when objects interact, in terms of techne in making an object, better situate rhetorical carpentry as a method of enacting rhetoric.]

What does it mean to make with objects?

Note: not make texts with objects, but make with objects as a rigorous academic process. My interest in making as rhetoric began in the summer of 2012 in discussing Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing with a reading group in my MA program. Much attention was devoted to his chapter on “Carpentry”; Bogost posits the philosophical practice of making to destabilize the mostly unquestioned practice of producing written texts as products of scholarship. He explains that

“‘carpentry’ borrows from two sources. First, it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever—to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s hands, like a cabinetmaker. Second, it folds into this act of construction Graham Harman’s philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things”…to refer to how things fashion one another and the world at large. Blending these two notions, carpentry entails making things that explain how things make the world” (93).

Bogost begins his carpentry chapter by calling attention to the dominance of writing as the work of philosophers, which I would extend to academics, by explaining that its unquestioned dominance comes from convention (89); “writing is only one form of being. The long-standing assumption that we relate to the world only through language is a particularly fetid, if still baffingly popular, opinion. But so long as we pay attention to only language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else” (90). This is reminiscent of conversations we’ve had about craft  and it’s difficulty communicating knowledge – the knowledge that is embodied in making something doesn’t necessarily render well to written accounts, thus the struggle in legitimizing craftsmanship (making objects) as valuable. Bogost defines carpentry as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” (92) that “entail making things that explain how things make their world” (93). He borrows carpentry from woodcraft (perhaps a bit too easily) and extends it to any material – “to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands” (93), and combines it with the philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things” (from Graham Harman and Alphonso Lingis) that refers to “how things fashion one another and the world at large” (93). To Bogost, making things (with things) remakes us in the making by opening a “non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity” (106) (maybe this is where his use of carpentry becomes odd). This is his work toward representing practice as theory – moving beyond putting theory into practice (111).

In preparation for one of the discussion meetings of Bogost’s text, Derek Mueller posed the following questions on his blog post  – “The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors

“ Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding).”

What we discussed, summarized here succinctly by Mueller, was an enthusiasm, but also a  hesitation to embrace the making of objects totally – as scholars (students and faculty) situated within a writing program. While carpentry seemed rich in potential, enacting would take theoretical and methodological work. After reading, Bogost’s notion of carpentry as legitimate practice in scholarship is something that has lingered. What if objects could be made with other objects in earnest that were accepted as rhetorical texts? What would those look like? And moreover, how would they be made? In enacting carpentry at greater depth than metaphor (like concepts of craft are sometimes appropriated to describe the process of making something, while not accounting for interacting with the materials in making), what does it mean to make?

Making as Techne

Before I can work toward an understanding of making, the concept must be made specific by giving it a definitional frame. I borrow from the work of Kelly Pender in Techne: From Neoclassicim to Postcolonialism to situate making in terms of techne, specifically Pender’s definition of techne as a form of poeisis, or the act of bringing something into being. Althought Pender works through techne as poeisis in a number of definitions that she provides meticulous historical accounts of, I take interest in her use of techne as a non-instrumental mode of bringing forth – the bringing forth of something, an object, from concealment to unconcealment (35). Making framed in this way builds from Martin Heidegger’s work (particularly An Introduction to Metaphysics, The Origin of the Work of Art, and The Question concerning Technology) that argues that techne is a kind of knowledge that has nothing to do with technique or skill. Techne cannot be reduced to any kind of action or practical performance that results in a product; it is knowledge that provides an opening through which the being of a work can come into appearance in the world (35). Heidegger’s framing of techne reconciles its opposition to nature in terms of physis – or emergence from an object. Physis, often translated as nature, referring to the natural world, opposes techne as instrumentality – conceived not of nature, but upon it (the example Pender refers to is seeing a forest not for the trees but for a housing development). But Heidegger frames techne as complicit with physis, producing something in the sense of techne is to allow for its own way of presencing (36). In rhetoric and composition, this is what has been taken up as post-techne, particularly in the work of Byron Hawk. Techne as a non-instrumental mode of bringing forth locates writers in complex, ambient situations that reveal constellations that thus allow them to invent or see something as something else. We are not acting on nature, but with it in embeddedness (37). What is of importance are the relationships among elements in a situation – what exists between objects. But how can these relationships become noticeable? They must be articulated.

Articulation as Making

In Pandora’s Hope,  Bruno Latour defines articulation outside of human privilege (human as dominate over mute objects) as a common property of propositions, in which many kinds of entities can participate. As a ontological property of the universe of objects, not a property of human speech, articulation occupies the position between the object and the subject (303). He states that propositions are not positions, things, substances, or essences pertaining to a nature made up of mute objects facing a talkative human mind, but occasions given to different entities to enter into contact (141). Many differences exist between propositions, and there isn’t a knowing in advance of what these are; “Whereas statements aim at a correspondence they can never achieve, propositions rely on the articulation of differences that make new phenomena visible in the cracks that distinguish them” (143). Articulation isn’t a description of one object in terms of another, but the consideration of objects in their relation to one another. He explains,

“The point to be made now is that, in practice, it is never the case that we utter these statements by using only the resources of language and then check to see if there is a corresponding thing that will verify or falsify our utterances…our involvement with things we speak about is at once much more intimate and much less direct than that of the traditional picture; we are allowed to say new, original things when we enter well-articulated settings like good laboratories. Articulation between propositions goes much deeper than speech. We speak because the propositions of the world are themselves articulated, not the other way around. More exactly, we are allowed to speak interestingly by what we allow to speak interestingly” (144).

In allowing for the articulation of objects, we are in the workshop of carpentry. In Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop, Jim Brown and Nathaniel Rivers construct their concept of rhetorical carpentry, building from the work of Ian Bogost. They summarize Bogost’s carpentry as both a description of how objects make one another and a practice of doing philosophy (2), they extend carpentry one step further “suggesting that such making can be undertaken in an effort to do rhetoric” (2). In doing rhetorical carpentry, we would be engaged with “how we might ‘construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us’” (quoting Brown) (2). Rivers and Brown carefully work to show rhetoric and composition as not only a hospitable space for carpentry, but a vital space –

“The field’s interest in ecologies of writing and its pedagogical commitment to making strongly indicates that it can be yet another place to explore how objects carpenter one another and the world. An ecological approach to rhetoric and writing can fold together the work of making and relating, while keeping in place the withdrawn actuality of all objects” (3).

They work to establish connections between rhetorical carpentry and innovative work being done in the field that is considering the rhetoric of objects in composing – working with and against the agency of objects. They are careful to account for the usefulness in this speculation of objects in explaining that

“Rhetoric is always speculative: about its objects, practices, effects, and, importantly, audiences. Rhetoric’s audience is always withdrawn, and this means that issues of race, class, and gender might also call for a speculative approach. Rhetorical instruction again and again drives home the key claim that a rhetor can never fully know or understand an audience” (2).

The end of their article sets the scene of a classroom enacting rhetorical carpentry as methodology from the perspective of an outside onlooker entering the alien environment of working with objects. They narrate, “Part of what throws visitors and colleagues alike is that the class is not about the objects; the objects under composition are part of the class (they are what the students work on, of course), but, more importantly, the objects are also what the students work with” (5). Rhetorical carpentry is made possible through the articulation of objects in working with them to craft rhetorical texts that account for the complex relations of political actors both human and nonhuman. But in crafting texts through rhetorical carpentry, how are the objects articulated? What is the action that brings forth objects?

Articulation of Objects

Exploring what articulates objects in making is speculation on my part – informed both by theory as techne and rhetorical carpentry, and as methodology borrowed from Bruno Latour’s  “A List of Situations Where an Object’s Activity is Made Easily Visible” (80-81 Reassembling the Social) and from Laurie Gries’ processes for conducting object analyses from her “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetorics and Circulation Studies” (by way of Nathaniel Rivers’ course syllabus for Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral). Davies explains that “Too often, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the force of things because we assume they are inert tools used by human agents to whom we typically credit with full-blown agency” (Rivers “Methodology”). I hope to establish these methodoligcal approaches as ways of doing rhetorical carpentry that is more focuse don making at the level of object and their articulations. Latour’s means of bringing forth objects are as follows:

  • study innovations in the artisan’s workshop, the engineer’s design department, the scientist’s laboratory, the marketer’s trial panels, the user’s home, the many socio-technical controversies – object’s multiple, complex life
  • approach through/with distance – in time as in archeology, distance in space as in ethnology, distance in skills as in learning – make the normal course of action novel/strange
  • accidents, breakdowns, and strikes – objects that were automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents are now frantically moving humans with heavy equipment
  • bring objects back through archives, memoirs, museum collections, documents to artificially produce through historian accounts the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born
  • use of fiction can bring the solid objects of today into fluid states where their connections with humans may make sense – use of counterfactual history, thought experiments, and ‘scientification’

Each of these works to account for objects through different articulations – relations between objects and what they have contributed or thwarted. To study innovations is to follow an object through its making, use, and circulation to take note of its situatedness as it (re)articulates itself. Approaching an object through distance changes the scale at which an object is interacted with, therefore rendering it strange enough to notice its action. In breakdowns, accidents, or strikes, an object once muted in its action is noted in tis failure to continue on in concealment. In creating account of an object’s articulation, elements can be better documented through tracing to speculate factors of objects. Lastly, fiction can destabilize objects that are no longer noticed because they are accepted as unwavering facts.

Rhetoric scholar Laurie Gries describes “seven different yet overlapping rhetorical processes: composition, production, distribution, assemblage, circulation, transformation, and consequentiality.” These seven processes provide the framework for constructing object analyses that “empirically discover how this thing becomes eventful and rhetorical as it circulates with time, enters into new associations, transforms, and affects a multiplicity of consequences.” The seven processes are exemplified by the following definitions (Rivers):

  • Composition can best be understood as the design of an object
  • Production indicates the techno-human labor devoted to create or bring an object to life, to reality.
  • Distribution is the way in which objects get to where they are intended, by the designer, to get
  • Assemblage, perhaps a process more readily recognizable to traditional understandings of rhetoric, captures how objects bring other objects (humans and nonhumans) together
  • Circulation describes the movement between and within assemblages irrespective of the designer’s or producer’s intent
  • Transformation is a particularly interesting process, and it’s constantly overlapping the other processes. How are objects changed by and through their distribution, circulation, and assemblages?
  • Consequentiality is where we can find meaning from and in an object. Meaning, in other words, is a consequence of (re)composition, (re)production, (re)assemblage, (re)circulation, and (re)transformation

Like Latour’s situations, these processes work to articulate objects. While I see this as useful conceptual work in terms of definition, I would like to apply them to an example from recent coursework. I employ these methodologies to make noticeable the articulation of objects in a screenprinting project for a seminar course. My focus is not on the process of screenprinting, but in the failure to clean the screen after producing a print. The relationship between objects, and the articulation of them, while not an action of making, seek only to notice – to bring objects forth – at a small scale.

Articuable Objects of Screenprinting

For the Rhetorics of Craft: Techne to DIY seminar with Dr. Krista Kennedy, part of our understanding of craft came from selecting a craft skill to develop, its focus described in the course syllabus as

“Your work on this project will involve learning and taking auto-ethnographic notes on your progress, as well as re-search into pragmatic and theoretical aspects of the craft that you are working on. Field notes should be posted to your blog weekly. The end result will be an essay that incorporates situated experiential knowledge within a well-researched theoretical framework that is drawn from course readings as well as your own reading.”

I selected screenprinting to develop my skillset in, particularly in the drawing fluid and/or screen filler method. To produce a screenprint using this method, one must have (at minimum) the following:

  • a nylon screen
  • a squeegee
  • screen filler
  • acrylic ink
  • paintbrush
  • something to print onto

The print is created by first planning a design. The design (and this is one that is only of a single layer) must consider what the ink should pass through on the screen and what will serve as negative in the print – that is blocked with the painted on screen filler. “White space” is painted around with screen filler to create the parameters of the print; think of the opposite of painting to create an image; space is what creates the image for the print. The ink is applied to the screen on one edge and is dragged across with the squeegee. I arrived at enacting this process through a combination of watching and reading expressive instruction sets posted on the web by both amateur and professional printers, as well as in reading the instructional labels on the jars of the printing materials. The written instructions nor the accounts on the labels account for amount of materials (ink, screen filler, and drawing fluid, if used – something that can help control the creation of the “white space” in the print for sharper lines using the screen filler that has the consistency of watered down acrylic paint), nor the drying times of the materials (the screen filler must be dried before ink can be pulled through the design) or what the material looks like when it is ready for printing, nor the technique for pulling the squeegee across the screen to distribute the ink to produce the print. This is to say that language falls short in this process; much of the action that producing a print requires necessitates an attention to the materials, or objects, that are being used to print – what the screen filler looks and feels like when dry, how much is enough ink to create a design that is evenly coated without bleeding from over saturation, what type of brush will produce the cleanest lines of screen filler for the image. The objects in this process of printing articulated themselves – moving from mute characteristics to determining agents in the action. And as a fellow object, I worked with and against them to produce a screenprint. No part of the printing process, from design to production, could be enacted without the articulated relationship between objects and the characteristics, affordances, and limitations of each.

While accounts for process of printing were available, they mostly account for the process in terms of steps and lacked the same robust explanations in accounting for the objects themselves. Nowhere was this more articulated to me than by the process of cleaning a screen after the print has been made.

From reading expressive accounts of screenprinting on the web before beginning my midterm project, I noticed a cleaning agent was mentioned that removed screen filler. When I purchased the materials to print at a local art store, the cleaning agent was carried. Most of my concern was on working with the materials during the printing; little thought was given to cleaning. Assuming the cleaner, designed for the purpose of dissolving screen filler, would act in this way, I read and followed the instructions. However, the cleaner did not clean the screen. In reading the instructions again, an account of the process that does not focus on making the objects involved accountable, I could only look at the objects that were involved in cleaning (all of these could be broke down further into constituent items, but for my purposes I will highlight the following):

  • myself – the source of scrubbing pressure
  • the screen
  • the screen filler
  • ink
  • the bathtub
  • the faucet
  • water – water pressure and temperature (this could get reduced further)
  • a paintbrush
  • a nylon brush

These were not accountable beyond my speculation on water temperature, water depth, water pressure, amount of cleaner, type of brush based on experiences interacting with like objects before in cleaning situations. While these helped me to approximate, they did not make the objects in this situation accountable. I sought articulation through language and action on the web by means of tutorials in videos and forums. The following are three accounts of cleaning: one from the bottle of the cleaner, one from a DIY web community, and one from a screen supplies website. The process and objects of cleaning are highlighted.

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Slide One: Instructions on cleaning screens from Speedball using their Speed Clean

Objects: cleaner, paint brush, nylon brush, (pressurized) hot water

Slide Two: Instructions on cleaning screens from a user in the Instructables dot com community

Objects: garden hose, pressurized water, hand, scratchy side of a kitchen sponge

Slide Three: Instructions on cleaning screens from Silk Screening Supplies dot com

Objects: small pressure washer of 1000-1500 PSI

These cleaning accounts highlight different objects, and even describe articulations of the objects in terms of water – it is pressurized. But knowing what the objects are, even some conditions of them, does not fully encompass the action (they why and the how) taking place with the objects.

Screen: Object Articulation

To better make visible the articulation of objects involved in cleaning, I created a short video that explores articulation through the methodical definition work of Bruno Latour, in relation to working toward an understanding of objects through the theory/methodology of rhetorical carpentry. The focus of the video is not on me cleaning the screen as a human controlling nonhumans, but as a situation of complexly articulated objects interacting with one another. The screen doesn’t come clean. In addition to the cleaner, other household cleaners were used (bleach based degreasers for tile, soapscum, glass), as well as paint thinner, before the pressure washing tool at the drive thru car wash was brought into interaction. What is left is not the screen imagined through the written account of the cleaning process, but blood knuckles, a bathroom full of swirling cleanser vapors, and a screen weathered by water.

Contemplating Articulation

In looking at the objects involved in the cleaning process, I wonder what is articulated. Employing the methodologies of Latour and Gries, I can see application of the following to this situation:

From Latour: a breakdown between the cleaner, the brushes, the screen, and the water in the process of cleaning, as articulated in written instructions, did not act as expressed. Although written to describe the characteristics of the objects in the process, they could not articulate the objects in this situation.

From Gries: the assemblage created between the cleaner, the brushes, the screen, the water (bathtub and car wash), and myself. This was articulated through different object failures – the cleaner and brush and me, other household cleaners and brush and me, the power washer and screen and me, and so on.

What does this articulate? Although this is a small scale, a very close examination of objects, and is more focused on unmaking than making with objects, the emphasis is on the exploration of articulating objects. In contemplating what it means to make with objects, to do rhetorical carpentry, the ability of objects is something to be considered. Understanding these abilities through methodologies that work to make objects and the relations between them knowable, speculatable, articuable, might help further build these concepts.

Makers: What to Make

In finishing the second half of Chris Anderson’s Makers I’m left wondering what to make of it. Anderson ends the book with an appendix, “The 21st Century Workshop”, with a tagline that reads “How to Become a Digital Maker.” The emphasis is on digital tools – 2 D and 3 D drawing programs, 3 D printing and scanning, laser cutting, CNC machines, and electronics gear (soldering iron, multimeter, and a starter Arduino kit). What I value from it is potential – potential in people viewing themselves as designers/inventors/tinkerers, in curiosity, in attention to materials, in agency (human and nonhuman), in how we conceptualize tools, and in envisioning spaces of opportunity. While my interest as a scholar and teacher is not so much on the emphasis of manufacturing and entrepreneurship, I find value in imagining possibility, and at a different scale, adopting this (maybe my students aren’t making robots that can execute oratory hand gestures of classical rhetors but Twitter bots that re-mediate rhetorical tropes and composition commonplaces we discuss in class).

But this doesn’t feel like it accounts for making well enough – it doesn’t get at rhetorical carpentry (Brown and Rivers) or craft. I sit here now, mind a buzz with the energy that’s typically associated with being onto something – that is to say, the frenzy that comes with working through an idea. Except I don’t know what idea to make, but I find myself gathering materials.

  • OO Frequency: An Object Oriented Media Channel (from Ozone Journal)
  • Two blog posts from Nathaniel Rivers on rhetorical carpentry:

composition, production, distribution, assemblage, circulation, transformation, and consequentiality

  • A blog post from Derek Mueller on reading Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology:

What does this make? These aren’t blueprint or schematic, more inspiration – the bend of that arch, this pattern of embroidery, that emphasis of the natural wood grain. What does it mean to make with materials/objects (digital or not)? Not as hobby, but earnest practice, invention, awareness (mindfulness, or maybe materialness), curiosity, potential.

Carpentry

This week we read “Carpentry” from Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost (I almost typed Alien Bogost…) and “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop” by James J. Brown Jr. and Nathaniel Rivers, which have left my brain in a state of

in a good way! (gif shoutout to the Rhetoric of Craft Collaborative) Having read Bogost before with the Optatio Reading Group at EMU, it was a lot to think about. I took interest in his “Carpentry” chapter before, even making attempts to work with it, but I feel like this revisiting in the context of a seminar on rhetorics of craft, and in relation to the Rivers and Brown piece, brought new possibility to the work (that I would like to turn into a project…) While I don’t see carpentry as synonymous with craft, there’s a relation there that I am deeply curious about (in relation to rhetoric and composition).

Bogost begins his carpentry chapter by calling attention to the dominance of writing as the work of philosophers, which I would extend to academics, by explaining that its unquestioned dominance comes from convention (89); “writing is only one form of being. The long-standing assumption that we relate to the world only through language is a particularly fetid, if still baffingly popular, opinion. But so long as we pay attention to only language, we underwrite our ignorance of everything else” (90). This is reminiscent of conversations we’ve had about craft  and it’s difficulty communicating knowledge – the knowledge that is embodied in making something doesn’t necessarily render well to written accounts, thus the struggle in legitimizing craftsmanship (making objects) as valuable. Bogost defines carpentry as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” (92) that “entail making things that explain how things make their world” (93). He borrows carpentry from woodcraft (perhaps a bit too easily) and extends it to any material – “to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one’s own hands” (93), and combines it with the philosophical sense of “the carpentry of things” (from Graham Harman and Alphonso Lingis) that refers to “how things fashion one another and the world at large” (93). To Bogost, making things (with things) remakes us in the making by opening a “non-human, alien perspective onto everyday activity” (106) (maybe this is where his use of carpentry becomes odd). This is his work toward representing practice as theory – moving beyond putting theory into practice (111).

While I think there are some issues with how Bogost utilizes carpentry (even though it is smartly done), I see this chapter as material potential for situating rhetoric and composition in objects, which Rivers and Brown take up.

Rivers and Brown look at how rhetoric and composition (“R/C”) have taken up ecologies in scholarship that have focused on human to human relationships or human to world relationships, as compared to object oriented ontology’s consideration of ecology. But by highlighting the work of Collin Gifford Brooke, Marilyn Cooper, Jenny Edbauer, and Jody Shipka, they demonstrate “that R/C can be hospitable to various projects that take up the agency and existence of objects” (1). They state “the composition classroom presents a promising space for what we call, by way of Ian Bogost, rhetorical carpentry. The field’s recent focus on ecology is one that is mostly concerned with making and with production. This is in keeping with R/C’s long tradition of focusing on rhetorical invention (1)”. Building from Bogost’s carpentry, which they summarize as both a description of how objects make one another and a practice of doing philosophy (2), they extend carpentry one step further “suggesting that such making can be undertaken in an effort to do rhetoric” (2). In doing rhetorical carpentry, we would be engaged with “how we might ‘construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us’” (quoting Brown) (2). Rivers and Brown carefully work to show R/C as not only a hospitable space for carpentry, but a vital space –

“The field’s interest in ecologies of writing and its pedagogical commitment to making strongly indicates that it can be yet another place to explore how objects carpenter one another and the world. An ecological approach to rhetoric and writing can fold together the work of making and relating, while keeping in place the withdrawn actuality of all objects” (3).

material scraps

audience as object (working from Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics) because “rhetoric is always speculative” (3) – shifting our scale to “in media res, in the middle of the thing and things” (3)

what this looks like/does in the composition classroom: While I can say that my pedagogy is an attempt at employing this theory as methodology, I have much room to improve. Rivers and Brown end their article with a description of a classroom as carpenter’s workshop from the view of an outside observer – “Part of what throws visitors and colleagues alike is that the class is not about the objects; the objects under composition are part of the class (they are what the students work on, of course), but, more importantly, the objects are also what the students work with” (5). I realize in the FYC classroom I inherit certain burdens (not all necessarily negative) about what I am expected to engage with in terms of textual materiality. But what I keep returning to is what makes the concept of working with/against objects in making material texts that account for and acknowledge their ecological situatedness so alien? What keeps us lingering in the theorizing about something that they are not doing in earnest?

“This range of compositions enacted ecologically introduces students to a multiplicity of composing skills, moves them to many scholarly activities across campus, weaves in an object-oriented approach, and positions rhetoric not simply as humans changing the minds of other humans, but as the work of relations, relations that remain strange and sometimes strained” (6) [bold emphasis my own] The idea of the alien or made strange-d classroom is something I’m thinking about…”rhetorical carpentry is focused on how we might “construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us” (2)