object-oriented rhetoric Teaching

composing the hominid ecology of the future classroom

I largely agree with Levi Bryant's recent post on hominid ecology. I'm not sure the term will catch on, but his Latourian observations about the intermixing of the natural and the social/cultural make sense to me and I think resonate well with what I've been working on here. In what I imagine would appear as a very different line of thinking, Cathy Davidson has a post exhorting further innovation in online and blended instruction. However, to put this in a straightforward manner, I see the pedagogy Davidson is proposing as acting upon the philosphical realization we see in speculative realism. Rather than siloed disciplinary knowledge, we have an investigation that rejects the modern split between natural and cultural realms. Furthermore, we have a pedagogy that recognizes that learning isn't "social" or "discursive" or "subjective" but a kind of hominid ecology. In some sense, we've had these things in pedagogy for a long time: interdisciplinary courses, learning communities, activity theory approaches to teaching, and so on. However, in those cases there still remained asymmetrical relations. One studied science alongside culture. There were objects in the classroom but they remained mute and subservient to human-social objectives. 

So I spend a lot time thinking about what it would mean to study and teach writing/composition/rhetoric as a hominid ecology (to continue with Byrant's term for a while). And I spend a lot of time thinking about how pedagogy changes as it intersects emerging technologies. These are related thoughts for me. Next year, we'll have around 3500 first-year students entering UB. This is the kind of number I think with. We can study writing in a way that would cut across disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences: rhetoric, history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, biology, etc. I am not suggesting that on some level, well beyond the general education of a composition classroom, specialization and professionalization are not necessary. More than ever it is the case today that one cannot know it all. This is a matter of linking knowledge networks together in new ways, and perhaps even recognizing the networked operation of information and cognition in the first place. 

Rhetoric at least has the potential to be a particular kind of meta-discipline in this context by studying these communicational networks, objects, and practices. On one level it seems reasonable for rhetoricians to focus on symbolic communication (that's a broad enough space) but only if we realize that communication relies upon objects and nonsymbolic exchanges. I've written a fair amount here about a "minimal rhetoric," by which I mean an investigation into the basic requirements for rhetoric to operate. In part one could conceive of this as a historical question, a question of ancestral knowledge to use Meillassoux's term: where does rhetoric begin? Though I am curious about that question, I don't think it is necessary for us to nail down an origin (which is good, given our skepticism regarding origins). It's more important, from my perspective, to conceptualize rhetoric as an ontological phenomenon, specifically as a capacity (to use Delanda's term): that is, as a quality of an object that emerges only in particular relations with other objects. Not all objects have rhetorical capacities and those capacities are not present in every relation. I have taken to thinking of the rhetorical capacity in terms of Deleuze and Guattari's articulation of expression and order-words. Here expression is autonomous and auto-objective. In the expressions that we make, we have the capacity to develop agency and cognition (think about something and say it), but expression is also autonomous from that agency: it becomes its own independent, withdrawing object–a sound, a text, a video, a gesture, and so on. The expression also exists in relation to those who perceive it, though it also withdraws from those perceptions. Expression does not require symbolic behavior; instead symbolic behavior is a kind of expression. The important distinction is that expression does not rely upon solely upon the exchange of physical forces in order to have an effect. Physical forces are required. I need to see or hear an expression for it to affect me. But I am not "blown away" by the sonic force of your words. I might be blown away by what they express though. This can be as true of the way bacterial colonies alter their genetic expressions in order to defeat cheaters in their midst, in chocies made by artificial life, or a potential mate's response to a birdsong as it can be in human conversation. What then becomes relevant is examining the networks/assemblages that operate in relation to that expression, so that the "I do" you say has different implications in different networks, and claims about the environment have different force with a laboratory and peer review to back them up. And this text operates differently here on this blog than if I just wrote it out in my notebook.

These are the kinds of things I think rhetoric can and should be about. It is no longer so productive to focus simply on the discursive, even if we connect discourse some representational notion of ideology and materiality. That's not enough. We cannot abandon those concerns but we must understand how matters of concern are composed in a more expansive way.

Turning back to pedagogy, it is not sufficient to teaching writing as a discursive and subjective process, even if we present those interiorized processes as impinged by ideology. Nor can we think of learning in these terms either. It is not simply enough to think of teaching as a matter of discourse (of discussion, lecturing, reading, and writing) or as subject/student-centered (which allows us ultimately to focus on the activities of individuals, particularly in terms of grades). We need to think more expansively about the role of objects and networks in compositional and pedagogical processes.  

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