when rhetoric gets real

In Pandora’s Hope, Latour tells the story of being asked if he “believes in reality.” His response was something to the effect of not realizing that reality was something one needed to believe in. Elsewhere Graham Harman has written of an email exchange with Manual DeLanda, who wrote “For decades admitting that one was a realist was equivalent to acknowledging [that] one was a child molester.” Harman’s response?  “The past tense may be too optimistic, since it is not clear that those decades lie entirely behind us.” That was 2007. Since then we’ve been up, down, and around the hype adoption cycles of speculative realism, new materialism, the “nonhuman turn,” etc., etc.  To be honest, I’m not sure if the result has changed the situation Latour,  DeLanda, and Harman describe.

Rhetoric is in an odd situation is relation to these matters. On the one hand, rhetoric is classically interested in human symbolic action. It’s stereotypical detractors would declare rhetoric to be idealist to a fault, uninterested in “reality” or “truth” and squarely focused  only on what people think and what they can be persuaded to think. On the other hand, rhetoric is equally invested in the ideas of the public and the marketplace, of justice, deliberation, and so on.  In other words, rhetoric recognizes the very real, material effects of symbolic action. One assumes those effects are occurring in reality. Of course, to be an idealist does not require denying reality. It simply means that one’s access to reality is subjective. As the correlationist would put it, one only sees the world as it relates to oneself.

What does it mean to call rhetoric “real”? To start, there are two interrelated takes on this. To be a realist is to assert the existence of a mind-independent reality that exists beyond empirical observation. As DeLanda notes, this means that the realist’s “first task is to delimit the kinds of entities that it considers legitimate inhabitants of the world.” Some parts of the real world exist only in relation to humans (e.g. my university) while others (e.g. mountains) do not, and still other things may exist only in human minds (e.g. arguably heaven and hell, though clearly some may argue that ideas have mind-independent realities as well or think these things exist in the same way mountains do). Certainly one could say that there are rhetorical practices that are as dependent upon humans as a university would be. So a realist would be faced with three options for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric exists only in human minds; it is not a legitimate inhabitant of the world.
  2. Rhetoric is real but dependent upon humans to exist.
  3. Rhetoric exists independent of humans. If there suddenly were not humans, there would still be rhetoric.

So let’s say I adopt position #3, with the recognition that there are certain rhetorical practices that would fit #2. Such a statement would be speculation. One would have to establish means for investigating the claim, as DeLanda does with his concept of quasi-causal mechanisms. There are other theories out there, of course.

What are some of the implications of this position?

  1. Rhetoric precedes humans and thus symbolic action. Rather than rhetoric being invented as a way of using language, language emerges as a capacity of rhetorical interaction.
  2. Rhetoric is not an exclusively human trait. It is not evidence of the ontological exceptionality of humans. It is not evidence of a human-social-cultural world that is ontologically separate from the natural world.
  3. Human practices of rhetoric emerges, of necessity, in relation to nonhuman rhetoric. There is no purely human or social rhetoric.
  4. Because human practices of rhetoric rely upon nonhumans (of all kinds), those practices shift along with our nonhuman relations (the obvious example being media technologies).
  5. Though human practices shift over time and space, there is no inherently human rhetorical practice that can be threatened by these changes.
  6. That said, human-nonhuman relations (networks, assemblages) shape rhetorical practices, which in turn have other real effects.

In my view, as rhetoricians, and teachers of rhetoric in particular, we proceed everyday as if we believe #6. When we ask students to sit in a circle; when we do some freewriting to give students a chance to think through a question or “get the juices flowing;” when we ask students to put away their cell phones; when we require students to write in one genre rather than another; when we write on the chalk board, use a handout, or show a video; do we not do those things because we believe the nonhumans involved shape our capacities for rhetorical action?

If I add into this something like Andy Clark’s extended mind, then what is asserted here about rhetorical practice might be broadened to all those things that we might conventionally view as the product of human thought. I tend to think of it this way. Thoughts are real. They can be measured empirically, if partially, by fMRI and other technologies. They have real effects, like this blog post. Thoughts may be ephemeral, short-lived, but so is a gust of wind. Is the gust real?  Are subatomic interactions occurring in “planck time” not real? Thoughts are just things in the world. Some emerge in relation to humans; others do not. At the very least we would say some other animals think. In my view, even if we limited rhetoric to a subset of things that humans think (which I would not), this would not make rhetoric any less real.

Instead one might ask the reverse question. Is rhetoric a kind of thought? Or is thought a kind of rhetorical relation? That is, do rhetorical relations create the conditions for the capacities of thought and agency?  If I asserted that the minimal requirements for a rhetorical encounter were an expressive force and an object capable of sensing the expression, would that presuppose thought? I don’t know. I am not particularly interested in studying the rhetorical relations among rocks or quasars or even among a flock of geese or a stand of trees, but I’m also not interested in declaring a priori that such investigations are out of bounds.

I am interested in investigating nonhumans participating in human rhetorical practices, media technologies in particular, though not exclusively. Take for example, the image attached to this post which depicts guest workers in Djibouti seeking cell signals from across the sea so that they can phone home.  How can we study the ways such nonhumans participate in our rhetorical and cognitive activity? The idealist can only look into the human mind (which I would not term as a legitimate inhabitant of the world); perhaps one can say something about capitalism. The empiricist (e.g. the cognitive rhetorician or the activity theorist) is limited to the observable world, to her qualitative methods. So one might observe and interview these guest workers, and I will not deny the usefulness of that work. However the signature difference with the realist (and DeLanda puts this well) is that one does not view the knowledge one creates as a representation of either a mind-dependent (idealist) or mind-independent (empirical) reality but as a construction, a composition (as Latour says in his manifesto), that has effects. As such one can go beyond the empirical representation or cultural-critical interpretation of these guest workers to speculate on the networks of relations that produce this event.  As Latour observes, when we create scientific knowledge we change the world. Of course we do, why else would we go to all that work?

And this brings me back to the native heart of rhetoric: effecting change, persuading.  Though in many ways the study of rhetoric appears distinctly suited to idealism, when we think of rhetoric as practice, as know-how, in a way that philosophy can never be, it has realist roots. If rhetoric isn’t the know-how to interact/compose with objects to have real effects, then what is it?



3 thoughts on “when rhetoric gets real

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  1. However the signature difference with the realist (and DeLanda puts this well) is that one does not view the knowledge one creates as a representation of either a mind-dependent (idealist) or mind-independent (empirical) reality but as a construction, a composition (as Latour says in his manifesto), that has effects.

    Right, but can’t we sometimes examine or test those “effects” in such a way that allows us to determine how well our constructs/compositions correspond to something that is independent of human mind? Does calling knowledge a composition, a construct, a mediation, a concatenation, and so on negate the fact that we can , in some cases, determine whether or not a certain piece of knowledge is concatenating toward something mind-independent? If not, then it seems to me like we are empiricists by default, and indeed, hyper-empiricists always on the lookout for a new mediation to better model whatever lies outside those always imperfect mediations.


  2. Certainly Latour would say yes to your first question. In fact, that’s central to his premise, that there are tests of strength that reveal whether or not something is well-constructed. My sense is that much of that is about forming alliances. It would also depend on the particular mode of existence as each has its own “felicity conditions.” Religious knowledge cannot be tested as scientific and visa versa.

    But maybe your question is about the ontological status of something like a scientific fact. I would suggest that any scientific fact exists as a mind-independent object. Yes, it was created through thought but has achieved a status independent of thought. For example, it is published on a website. That fact-object is ontologically distinct from you or I encountering/thinking about it. We can say that it is true, which means that it has established chains of reference that allow us to interact with the world in particular ways.


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