In the briefest terms, my idea here is conceiving of a materials rhetoric that is roughly analogous to materials science. I’ll return to that in a moment but first a few detours.
- Since the 80s at least, rhetoric as concerned itself with “materialism” and far more recently with “new materialism.” Materialism has generally been another way of naming various Marxian critical traditions, including Foucaultian and cultural studies theories. New materialism? Well, I talk about that here enough as it is, but basically its various forms of posthumanism, speculative realism, etc. Materialism, ironically enough, has never been that interested in actual things. New materialism has, but what I’m thinking about here is something that would include but not be limited to what we’ve seen of new materialism so far.
- This proposal also stems from my discontent with the term “digital rhetoric” (along with its various predecessors–new media rhetoric, computers and writing, computers and composition). It’s a term that was initially meant to differentiate scholars who studied “stuff about computers/internet” from those who focused on print or speech. Of course for some time now, unless you study the history of rhetoric or limit your research to some fairly unique contemporary cultural circumstances, digital media, networks, computers, and other information technologies are just a part of what you do. As such, contemporary digital rhetoricians tend to identify themselves as those who focus on the role of digital stuff in rhetorical practices as opposed to other rhetoricians who study rhetorical practices that involve the use of digital stuff but I guess just don’t emphasize that aspect. For the most part, that digital rhetoric as been materialist/cultural studies-esque in its operation.
But to get back to this analogy with materials science… So in some respects materials science has been around for a while. Apparently the first materials science department was formed in 1955 at Northwestern. Conversely here at UB, we only recently created a department of Materials Design and Innovation. That said, materials science is an interdisciplinary field involving both traditional sciences and engineering. It tends to trace its history back through metallurgy and ceramics (which takes us back at least as far as the Bronze Age I suppose). At its core, materials science investigates the physical structures and properties of matter for the purpose of designing new materials for human purposes (hence the intersection of science and engineering).
Similarly a materials rhetoric studies the rhetorical properties, tendencies and capacities of materials for the purpose of designing new technologies and rhetorical practices for human purposes. As such, a materials rhetoric would include empirical methods (quantitative, qualitative, and “second empirical” a la Latour), philosophical speculation, and experimentation, along with more familiar rhetorical-critical interpretive analysis. As an interdisciplinary project, materials rhetoric wouldn’t go about drawing boundaries regarding theory/method. What does distinguish materials rhetoric from current-postmodern (or should that be postmodern-traditional) rhetoric?
- A non-anthropocentric conception of rhetoric. I.e., if you think that rhetoric essentially begins and ends within humans, or if you think that rhetoric is essentially symbolic and overdetermined by ideology, then you probably have little interest in the role of materials in rhetoric, which is not to say that you don’t recognize that rhetoric is conveyed through materials but rather that the specifics of those materials are a distinction without a difference. [And it’s worth noting that these anthropocentric, idealist notions of rhetoric reflect the paradigmatic view of the discipline.]
- An emphasis on invention/experimentation over interpretation/hermeneutics. All rhetorical scholarship requires both invention and interpretation. However, current-postmodern rhetoric is primarily interested in interpreting, truth-seeking (if not Truth-seeking), and typically in making moral-ethical-political judgments. The emphasis in materials rhetoric is in creating new rhetorical capacities for humans through invention and experimentation.
My particular interest in this idea follows from the roots of materials science in metallurgy. Those of you familiar with Deleuze and Guattari will likely recall the role of geology, of metallurgy, and of the smith in A Thousand Plateaus. As they argue, metallurgy is a nomad science (btw this is something Jussi Parrika also takes up in Geology of Media). Metallurgy’s nomadic quality arises from its pursuit of intensifications: melting points, mixtures to form alloys, tempering, annealing, etc. In new materialist terms, metallurgy is a practice that alters the properties of particular piece of metal by interacting with its tendencies (e.g. it’s melting point, maximum hardness, etc.) and activating certain capacities through its interaction with other things (e.g., other metals to form an alloy, water or oil for quenching, etc.). Materials rhetoric is similarly interested in the identification of and tactical engagement with the rhetorical tendencies and capacities of materials.
This brings me back to digital rhetoric where I’ll end this. For my purposes, digital rhetoric has principally been about the material-rhetorical operation of technologies. Information is a physical thing; media are things. The cables, wires, cell/wireless signals that are the media of information are things. Obviously our devices are material, as are we. This is where I begin to verge upon research already going on in various posthuman, new materialist, and/or ecocompositional flavors of digital rhetoric, as well as in media study. However, in thinking about a materials rhetoric I’m imagining something that expands its purview beyond the digital (and perhaps is more historical in some respects) but is principally more applied, that is, more focused on expanding capacities as a priority than interpreting/truth telling (though obviously those are integral elements).