digital rhetoric

vitalism and virtuality

Melvyn Bragg’s latest BBC podcast addresses the issue of vitalism. As you might now, vitalism is the central issue of Byron Hawk’s excellent Counter-History of Composition. There are some important connections between the concept of vitalism and theories of composition. As Byron fundamentally argues, "the problem urround vitalism in rhetoric and composition is that the discipline has selected one definition, equating it with romantic genius and individual expression, excluded vitalism from the discourse of the field based on this definition, and thus covered over the possibility of seeing what vitalism has become" (122).

So in Bragg’s roundtable conversation, vitalism is situated in conflict with mechanistic/materialistic theories, which emerge as natural philosophy develops into science (with Descartes, Newton, and so on). The conflict really comes to life (excuse the pun) around the question of electricity (Bragg begins his talk with a reference to Frankenstein). Vitalism goes back to Aristotle and then becomes embricated in Roman Catholic doctrine until the appearance of scientific method. Vitalism does not simply disappear however (Byron goes into some great detail about this).

In thinking about this binary, one can perhaps see the reaction of hard-line Marxists to Deleuze and Guattari. D/G build upon this vitalist tradition through Nietzsche, Bergson, and many others. Marxism, on the other hand, is a mechanistic-materialist critical method, at least in the hands of many red theory folks. So the "ludic" quality of D/G is an extension of these vitalist principles. It is a similar theoretical perspective that informs the cultural studies-inflected post-process movement in composition, which, as Byron argues above, establishes vitalism as expressivism.

Importantly though, one can potentially view the process movement in a related way. If we see process as a mechanistic/materialist theory, as a means to make (the study of) written composition scientific and to demystify writing practices, then certainly that would fit into the discourse of the Bragg podcast. Vitalism still remains "expressivist" and attached to the molar conception of the individual. In this regard it remains attached a more religious or at least traditionally humanist notion of vitalism as spirt/soul.

My thinking about virtuality has run along resonant lines with Byron’s study of vitalism and perhaps indicates the rich, iterative quality of Deleuze’s work. Virtuality articulates a minor philosophical approach to materiality, an alternate conception of composition fueled by non-deterministic mechanisms (assemblages if you prefer). Either way, in this philosophical work, there is a particular development of vitalism that moves away from religious notions of spirit or divinity (as one of Bragg’s contributors notes, one could see "intelligent design" as one contemporary instantiation of vitalism, though obviously quite different from Deleuze!). Instead it is a vitalism that, ironically, comes up through technological development: computers and information theory play important parts in the articulation of the theories of complexity that in some ways redraw this distinction between the mechanistic and the vital. Certainly such distinctions are not possible in D/G.

Anyway, the Bragg podcast is certainly worth a listen. Needless to say (but said anyway), Byron’s book is worth reading. Here is an opportunity to think expansively about the possibilities of composition, to recognize that thought necessarily exists beyond the social just as writing exists beyond philosophy but that such a recognition does not require a return to the humanist individual but rather a step toward greater complexity.

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