A tiny rhetoric in a big univers(ity): three parts

This morning I’m writing about the place of rhetoric in a new materialist, plural ontology (starting with some comments from Latour) and moving into rhetoric’s place in the humanities (starting with a recent article in American Affairs, “There is no case for the humanities” by Justin Stover). I’ve divided this into three posts, so here are parts two and three.

A recent issue of RSQ includes an interview of Latour by Lynda Walsh and responses from several, mostly new materialist, rhetoricians (paywall). [A brief caveat: the interview reveals, unsurprisingly, that Latour is not very aware of the work in the contemporary discipline of rhetoric and that his experience with even the longer history of rhetoric is limited and fairly convention (which is to say he retains a fairly negative view of rhetoric, as one can see below. That’s maybe unfortunate, but it is what it is.]

That said, the interview is excellent in that it raises a number of opportunities for further investigation, but here’s where I want to start.

Walsh: So, if rhetoricians—especially rhetoricians of science—want to address non-humans, do we have to make the move to ontology?

Latour: I’ve never seen anything really interesting [on Classical rhetorical approaches to nonhumans], but maybe that’s my ignorance. Every time people are limited by communication, or by speech. But if you wanted to shift to articulation instead of communication, where are the resources for that? (my emphasis, 415)

And then a little further on, I’m going to cut some of the chatter in the interview to focus on this.

Walsh: An inability to attune is a rhetorical failing. And Thomas Rickert believes this is our dominant mode with respect to material life and nonhumans, lack of attunement, and he thinks this is a big problem. Our failure to appreciate the contributions of these chairs, and the sunlight, and the coffee, and this plant, and our institutional manners, and the conventions of the interview genre—that failure limits our ability to adequately describe the rhetoric of this interview.

Latour: Interesting. And you would maintain “rhetoric” to describe this whole field?

Walsh: Yes, well, they would. Personally, I think once things come to salience and make themselves available for recruitment as allies or devices in some political action, then we’re in the realm of rhetoric. The process of coming to salience—I think that’s in the realm of psychology or ontology or something that isn’t rhetoric. There’s a close interface or meshing for me, but I don’t think rhetoric covers all of it…

Latour: So the reason I was dissatisfied with rhetoric still holds for me, which is… we need a term that doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness. Because the whole question is really one of what Whitehead would call penetrability or impenetrability of entities. So, of course we need practical wisdom to limit our scope, but the umbrella term should not be one which triggers the reply, “Ah, wait a minute. It is only about consciousness and it’s only about humans, and only in the forum, the agora.” So this is why all of this militates for a reduced, not reduced, focused sense of rhetoric for the most maligned mode of politics.  (417)

Latour’s question strikes me as an honest one from a scholar with a limited understanding of the field. If rhetoric, as a discipline, seeks to address the role of nonhumans, what resources does it have so that it “doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness”? Indeed how does it move beyond the even more constrained space of the agora and the “most maligned mode of politics”? Latour is skeptical, to say the least, that this is possible, instead suggesting that “you cannot make the whole proliferation of voices fit inside anything that would have been the equipment of rhetoric at, say the time of Cicero or of a twentieth-century Perelman, to take two extreme examples. It immediately would become limited” (416). For the most part Walsh agrees that rhetoric cannot “describe this whole field.” while noting that new materialist rhetoricians would likely disagree with her.

So yes, in many ways this is a rehearsal of the “big rhetoric” argument. But I would press in a different direction. Returning to the scene of the interview with the chairs, sunlight, coffee, etc.: what discipline would “describe this whole field”? Physics? Biology? Chemistry? Sociology? Economics? Psychology? Philosophy? Certainly not actor-network theory, which we know only follows trails, creating a map that would be to this interview what the map of the London underground is to the city itself.

I don’t believe any new materialist rhetorician would argue that rhetoric “covers all of it.” That doesn’t make sense. Let me try to explain.

The main disconnect in this conversation may simply be semantic. What are we talking about when we say rhetoric? There is clear, long history of rhetoric as a practical matter. That’s not to say that rhetoric-as-practice is without a “theoretical” or “philosophical” element in some sense of these terms. We talk about football coaches having a philosophy. Business schools can teach theories of management. Rhetoric-as-practice has theories and philosophies like that. The “writing process” is one. They are concepts that inform practices. They are discovered through research and experimentation, and they have value both intellectually and practically.

However, rhetoric-as-practice is something humans do to and/or with one another. These are conscious acts, inasmuch as they pass through our conscious minds and we have the subjective experience of making conscious decisions about them. While some rhetorical strategies may target human audiences at an unconscious level, the strategies are consciously learned, practice, and deployed by the author/speaker. While we can talk about the varying affordances created by technologies and other material conditions (as well as less visible, ideological conditions)—how to identify them and work in relation to them—rhetoric-as-practice ultimately comes back to conscious human decisions about interacting on a conscious level with other humans.

My sense is that it is a definition somewhat like that which lies at the foundation of Latour’s thinking in this interview. This is “why all of this militates for a reduced, not reduced, focused sense of rhetoric for the most maligned mode of politics.” This is something like the traditional, little (?) rhetoric: “focused.”

Ironically though, from at least this new materialist rhetorician’s perspective, this rhetoric isn’t too little or focused as we see in this somewhat comical exchange from the interview.

Walsh: what theory or expertise from outside the rhetorical canon do you think rhetoricians should cultivate to better achieve their aim of helping humans (and non-humans) to live more justly together in polity?

Latour: You mean if rhetoric were taken seriously as learning how to assemble people speaking well of each other in a world which we would know to speak well of?

Walsh: Yes.

Latour: Then it’s useful, if it does that, if it has the skill to do that. Then it’s the equivalent of civilization! (423)

Talk about trying to “cover it all”! This is not, in my view, the aim of a new materialist rhetoric but rather the aim of a traditional, modernist, humanist rhetoric: a belief that through rhetoric-as-practice humans will live more justly. But as Latour notes, “the technical difficulty is that we still have no account of ontological pluralism with that” (423). In short, Latour sees little in rhetoric that would give it resources to account for ontological pluralism (since it stops at the borders of conscious human practice in the agora) and even if it did, it would still be little more than “clever elements for you deal with ontological pluralism.”

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