informally proposing a “materials rhetoric”

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).


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  1. Let me see if I understand: To engage in materialist rhetoric would be to identify and activate the rhetorical tendencies and capacities of materials so that we discover and apply new rhetorical practices. And in keeping with the metallurgy analogy, we would seek ways of combining the rhetorical elements/properties/capacities of different materials to form a new, more complex rhetorical construction (some new alloy) with productive applications. Is that right? Could you help me out with an example or two? Would this count as an example: In prepping to film a video that will go out to my subscribers, I take a set of Funko Pops and arrange them in the background in such a way that draws out their rhetorical capacity, that is, their capacity to communicate a story about my interests and personality and their capacity to make a particular connection with members of the audience. Something about these pop culture figures makes me more like-able, more human, enhances my ethos, appeals to a certain pathos. Perhaps the shirt I’m wearing reinforces or complements the rhetorical activity of these figures. These (and everything else in the shot) combine with my speech to create a rhetorical performance, a performance that itself is made to perform in combination with other materials (or technologies) in different settings. For example, the video performs in unique ways depending on whether I deliver it via blog post, surrounded by written text, or whether I situate as video 3 in a 5 part series, delivered through the slow-drip technology of email automation. Am I close here, or am I way off?

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  2. That’s an interesting example. I’ve been thinking similarly about the role of b-roll in YouTuber videos (e.g., Casey Neistat), which have similar rhetorical-affective capacities. One might investigate the video camera and lens properties, the capacities of video editing software, etc. These technologies and materials have qualities that shape the aesthetic/rhetorical features of video genres (e.g. Bokeh effect, time lapse, etc.). Of course there’s an existing body of scholarship examining those questions. As you point out, the delivery aspect is another angle: the smartphone/mobile media technologies, the mechanisms of YouTube to push videos to users (notifications, recommendations, sharing, embedding, etc.). The challenge in thinking about video from a materials rhetoric perspective (which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done) is that one is thrust into a very complicated set of materials. Similarly it would be hard to describe this situation from a materials science perspective: where does one start?!? So one might need to focus or take a different angle. To give a different kind of example, I was recently working on an article that looked at the machine learning algorithms that smartphones use when choosing sounds for purposes of speech synthesis. There are rhetorical ends here having to do with identification, with human user experience of Siri’s voice. It’s one part of an elaborate, networked process.


  3. Thanks for the example. Here’s one question that comes to mind: if algorithms are doing rhetorical work, whose work are they doing? Do they have their own agency? I certainly see a few a cases where the rhetorical work mostly does (or seems to do) the work of entrenched ideologies. For example, in the case of Siri, we see the algorithm piecing together a spoken language that essentially is a reproduction of Standard English dialect and that of a subservient female voice. Al’s like those used in Grammarly perpetuate the philosophy of practical style, not to mention the perennial misconception that correct writing = good writing (at least if it’s being used uncritically). The algorithms used in “The Bestseller Code” seem to be making an argument about what elements are most desirable if one wishes to write a bestselling novel—they seem to be teaching us something new about how story structure works, but aren’t the algorithms just reinforcing what we already know subconsciously about ourselves (about the subconscious desires that lead us to buy commercial fiction)? I don’t know a whole lot about algorithms, machine learning, and their rhetorical capacities, but it’s something I’m interesting in learning more about.


    1. I see where you’re coming from. I’d suggest reading some of the research in this area. You could start with Apple’s machine learning journal, which is online (e.g., Are there ideological forces at work? I wouldn’t deny it, but in Latourian fashion, I’d say one needs to trace them and put them in context of other possible actors. Maybe the ideological urge is to create a subservient female voice, but the result is imperfect, so other things must be going on. For example, Siri is available in a variety of male and female voices with different dialects, as well as in other languages. Part of the challenge is devising a program that can do all that. Speech synthesis is built into the phone and since one doesn’t know where the phone will end up, it has to be able to work in various situations. If you have an iphone, you can set it up so that you can highlight this paragraph and have Siri read it to you. Then Siri needs to decide on the fly how to pronounce all these words. The device in your hand is making those decisions in real time, and like an nervous kid in an old-timey classroom being asked to read out loud, sometimes it makes a bad guess. There’s some agency there I would say. Similarly, when you’re speaking, part of your body is deciding how to expel the air in your lungs so that you can get to the end of your sentence, even though you may not consciously know where that sentence is ending. In short, one of the most interesting things for me about the potential of a materials rhetoric is how it rebuilds the concept of agency.


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