digital rhetoric new materialism Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

What would a new materialist composition program be?

Sure, there are many possible answers, which is why this is “a,” as in one of many, rather than “the.” That said, we’re familiar with plenty of other kinds of programs, classes, and pedagogies as they take the shape of particular theories, the strands that Fulkerson identifies: critical cultural studies, expressivism, various “rhetorical approaches” (argument-based, genre based, academic discourse, etc). To these we might add the CHAT-inspired Writing About Writing approach and a number of new, empirical approaches such as Yancey’s “teaching for transfer” and the “threshold concepts” of Naming What We Know.

While there’s a growing body of new materialist rhetoric, I haven’t seen a great deal dedicated to pedagogy or curriculum (maybe I’m looking in the wrong places). There’s the scene that ends Nathaniel Rivers and James Brown Jr’s “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop,” which starts like this:

It is November 2015, and you are visiting what you thought was a college composition classroom. However, something seems to be amiss. In one corner, a group of students pass around a long wooden cylinder that they constructed using a lathe (they were able to get help from a professor in the Art department to gain access to the equipment). In another corner, a group huddles around a 3D printer as a strange looking blue plastic object emerges (it looks like a helmet). You find out from the professor (an excitable, bespectacled man with curly hair and a wry smile) that a third group is not present; they are across campus working with a group of architecture students and blowing glass. This happens a lot in this particular class. The English department has not yet approved the professor’s grant proposal for a workshop that would offer students the ability to work in various media. The proposal has been met with curious stares thus far, but the professor is undeterred. He tells you and anyone who will listen that these students are merely taking advantage of “the available means of persuasion” and attempting to gain insight into the “vacuum-sealed.” Whatever that means.


And there’s Marilyn Cooper’s  “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” in Thinking With Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, which narrates a hypothetical student’s efforts to follow associations through a network of actors in her research project. Though Latour’s been at work in rhet/comp for a long time, so I’m sure there are many more examples of discussions of Latour and pedagogy. That said, I’m not sure they’d all capture the new materialist edge of Latour’s work, especially the “second empiricism” of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.” Instead, I’d imagine there’s a fair amount of recruiting Latour for critical-cultural studies pedagogies.

So what might new materialist composition pedagogy look like? A couple premises.

  1. Writing/media objects are not human. However they have their own agency. They are made to do as Latour says. This means they are neither the neutral transmitters of our intent nor overdetermined by some spectral ideological force.
  2. Composing processes are networked and ecological. This means they are not determined by humans, though humans can participate in them, are made to act through these relations, and thus acquire agency as writers/composers. This includes cognitive processes we have typically viewed as strictly subjective/internal.
  3. Rhetoric, as a “second empirical” investigation, describes the operation of expressive forces (including but not limited to symbolic actions) as they emerge in the relations among actors and develop capacities for thought and action. Is it difficult to differentiate expressive from other kinds of forces? Yes. Indeed they almost necessarily coincide. (E.g., you can’t hear words without the force of air striking your ear.) For a force to become expressive, an actor would need to be able to develop the capacities to sense the forces in question, and in the case of coded messages, the capacity to decode them. A slap in the face can send a message. I can understand English but not Italian. I can see certain light waves but not others, but that doesn’t mean that my body is unaffected by x-rays.
  4. Rhetoric as a composing practice is an experimental procedure, a matter of developing procedural knowledge (know-how) rather than declarative knowledge (know-that).  Most humans are capable users of language with little declarative knowledge about rhetoric. Indeed, one can become a best-selling author with little declarative knowledge. That’s not to say that some declarative knowledge can’t help you in practical terms, but rather that know-how is a different kind of knowing.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be learned or taught, just not in the same way.

What does this mean for composition pedagogy? Well a couple things you wouldn’t do.

  • You wouldn’t teach an introduction to the discipline or a history of rhetoric. I think both of those things would make for good classes, as intellectually valuable and practically useful as any other course you might take, but slightly off the target: like learning to play soccer by reading the history of the game.
  • You wouldn’t teach a cultural-critical course on representation or discourse. Again, a perfectly acceptable course on its own merits, even if I don’t happen to agree with this theoretical precepts. But off the target as well: like learning to play soccer by watching movies about soccer and critiquing them as racist, sexist, etc.

That said, I think a new materialist composition pedagogy would be very familiar on a fundamental level. It would focus on composing, spending time writing, conducting a “second empirical” investigation of the experience (i.e., tracing the actors involved in our acts of composing and describing the media-cognitive ecology through which we are made to write), and then experimenting to see what leads to well-made instaurations (to use another Latourian term). In such an environment, some of the declarative knowledge of rhetoric or cultural theory might come into play. After all, those things are actors in our environments as well. So I’m not saying that one would abandon such things or assert they are untrue. And it would likely be valuable for an instructor to have a good grasp of such disciplinary knowledge in approaching this course. It’s just that the course wouldn’t be about teaching that content. As the Rivers and Brown article suggests, composing might expand beyond text to other areas. While the example strikes me as a little fanciful, it emphasizes how rhetoric and composing might be investigated in our relations with many objects. Ultimately, I think the CHAT-esque observation that students will need to learn how to communicate by immersion in their specific discourse-genre communities still generally holds. Instead, composition becomes a course about developing a procedural-experimental method for understanding how rhetorical-compositional practices operate: a method that can be brought to bear by students as they enter new media-cognitive ecologies.

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