Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition

rhetoric's missing masses

Picking up on some conversations after being away on vacation (and from the internet) for a week. Levi Bryant continues his discussion of rhetoric and object-oriented philosophy. The concept of missing masses comes in from Latour via Scot Burnett's discussion of object-oriented rhetoric.

Levi writes:

In the sciences, a missing mass is a variable that plays a crucial role in a particular phenomenon but which has been overlooked or missed in the course of investigation. For example, scientists were led to posit the existence of dark matter to explain the strange accelerated motion of stars at the edges of galaxies. If visible matter accounted for all matter in the universe, it would be impossible for stars to move at this rate. Consequently, there must be some other sort of matter that accounts for this accelerated motion. Remarkably, simulations of the evolution of the universe that include dark matter in their algorithms produce spiral shape galaxies such as their own, lending credence to the hypothetical existence of dark matter. The claim that the field of rhetoric contains missing masses would be the claim that rhetoric has overlooked crucial actors in rhetorical situations and that if it is really serious about explaining how persuasion works, it must, in addition to a focus on the domain of signification, take into account the role played by these masses. These missing masses are precisely the things that Barnett mentions: technologies, the body, space and place and temporalities, and natural entities. While these agencies are entangled (thank you Karen Barad) in significations, meanings, and purposes, they contribute forms of difference that are a-signifying and that can only be understood in a-signifying terms. Here the issue is to understand what contribution a-signifying agencies make to signifying agencies. Again, the aim is to think in terms of entanglements rather than ultimate grounds.

And I want to borrow this extended passage to take up a number of points.

1. "Missing masses" comes from earlier Latour. It is, essentially, the argument that sociologists need to consider nonhuman actors, which is exactly as it is taken up here, but in terms of rhetoric rather than sociology. But I was thinking about this in relation to more recent Latour in Reassembling the Social, particularly in the section titled "Plasma: the missing masses." Here Latour writes,

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. Yes, Garfinkel is right, ‘it’s astronomically massive in size and range’.

So I would replace "missing masses" with "plasma." Harman explores Latour's use of plasma in Prince of Networks. To quote briefly: "To summarize: mediating objects are always needed between any two objects, but a mediator would be needed to touch the mediator as well, andon to infinity. Hence, the world must also be filled with a non-objective gas or plasma in which direct contact is possible. That plasma is found on the interior of objects themselves." It should be obvious that an object-oriented philosophy would require not-objects as well.  I would look at plasma as the place where Latour comes closest to a Deleuzian virtual, as a medium of exposure through which objects mutate/become.

2. If we are to think about rhetoric's missing masses then, we need to do more than consider the metrological networks of actor-objects (though clearly these are crucial as well). We must consider the non-objective (and what I would term affective) exposures among objects. As such, it is not just the network of bodies, technologies, space-time, etc., but the virtual-plasmatic in which all objects are suspended. I actually think that rhetoric has done a decent job of looking at technologies (in computers and composition), workplaces (in technical writing), classrooms, schools, bureaucracies, and so on. (At least in research, though such knowledge may not impact the teaching of composition.) This isn't to say that we might not benefit from an ANT/object-oriented informed approach (and we can see some of that work already being done, as Scot notes).

But if we are to consider the plasmatic, missing masses of rhetoric, then we must engage in a different, though related undertaking where we must investigate what I am still willing to call the virtual.

3. In a slightly different vein, Scot comments on Levi's post:

Language (with its handmaidens motive, purpose, agency, intentionality, etc.) have long been at the fore of rhetorical thinking and teaching (a point you acknowledge here as well). And if my recent experience is any indication, drawing folks’ attentions to some of the emerging work in OOO and how it might enliven what we do in rhetorical studies works remarkably well to dredge up these (literally) ancient prejudices. For rhetoricians committed to such emphases, and who are often skeptical of transdisciplinary work, I worry that synthesis alone just won’t cut it–that a case will need to be made that what we’re calling OOR can also emerge out of the historical workings of rhetoric itself. This, in my view, is the much harder project. But it’s one that may, if effectively presented and argued, give OOR more currency and staying power within the field.

That is, to put this in context, that in order for rhetoricians to take up an object-oriented rhetoric, they would need to see it within rhetoric itself, rather than coming from some other field. Sigh, if only rhetoricians were so resistant to Marx or Foucault or Friere, etc., etc. Still I get Scot's point. It makes me think of a different kind of "missing masses:" the masses of composition instructors. It also makes me think about Deleuze's thoughts about missing people.

An object-oriented rhetoric of plasma will need to address a missing people, a plasmatic-virtual people yet to be, "not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified." If the field is the network then the rhetorical plasma, the missing masses, are everywhere else.

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