Assemblage Theory realist rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

rhetorical organization and Latourian modes of existence

Organization is a common topic of discussion in writing instruction. Often, students are asked to produce “well-organized” essays and organization is a familiar criteria for assessment. Organization generally refers to the rhetorical cannon of arrangement, but somehow it makes more sense to say to students that their essays should be well-organized instead of well-arranged. Organization also implies a denser connection, stratification, and perhaps even hierarchy than arrangement.

But that’s what I want to get after here.

Latour brings up organization as one of his “modes of existence.” Combined with attachment and morality, organization represents his effort to displace social explanations founded on a spectral notion of The Economy.  (I haven’t given it much thought but it might be interesting to match these three with the rhetorical modes of persuasion: pathos/attachment, ethos/morality, logos/organization.) In my reading, the key point about Latour’s organization is that it both easy to trace and paradoxical: “Easy, because we are constantly in the process of organizing and being organized; paradoxical, because we always keep on imagining that elsewhere, higher up, lower down, above or below, the experience would be totally different; that there would have to be a break in the planes, in levels, thanks to which other beings, transcendent with respect to the first, would finally come along to organize everything” (389).

This certainly applies to the way we approach organizing writing. We are constantly in the process of doing it. And yet organization is always somewhere else. It’s not here in this word or sentence or paragraph. Where is it? I was just here, organizing. To make that happen I have a script, which I am above and below. Take the example of the book I am working on (or avoiding working on by blogging instead). As Latour would point out, I am the writer of the script I will follow. (That’s not to say I have free will. It is instead to say that I am made to act or in this case, made to script.) I am also the person who must carry out the script: above and below. And yet “Organization never works because of the scripts; and yet, because of the scripts, it works after all, hobbling along through an often exhausting reinjection of acts  of (re)organization, or, to use a delicious euphemism from economics, through massive expenditures of ‘transaction costs.'”

This is where I want to think about the glitchy character of real rhetorical relations. There’s always this patchy, hit or miss quality to communication (as there is to all relations). There are these extensive, ecological assemblages with which we are contending as both writers and readers. We have scripts to follow, but we have many competing scripts to follow, so many different ways to be organized.  I do not mean to suggest that a text cannot be well or poorly composed, organized or disorganized. Instead, the point is that organization is not some meta-entity, some transcendent being, that comes along to impose itself.

Thinking back to yesterday’s post on digital literacy… If one of the many complaints lodged against digital communication is its unsuitability for the tasks of “rigorous” academic work. Yes, I know, you’d think we could get past it. But I think we still struggle with imagining how fully digital scholarship would operate, would be organized (as opposed to the skeuomorphs of the PDF essay for example). Though we should know better, I think we still imagine something transcendent in the organization of the essay that allows it to be academic. What happens when we discover that the essay turns out to be like the façades in those fake Western, Hollywood movie sets? There’s no transcendent organization there, just more texts and readers, editors, publishers, computers, offices, meetings, reviewers letters, libraries, databases, etc. etc. Digital scholarship gets organized in the same way.

In fact, if we want students to produce well-organized essays, we might think in similar terms about the networks, assemblages, and ecologies in which they compose. That’s not to say that student-writers are not actors in this matter, that they are not made to act. They are actors following scripts, scripts they have a hand in authoring.


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