digital rhetoric new materialism

hold me closer tiny rhetorician

After all, who can resist an Elton John reference?

Well, I’m in the midst of book revisions (and there was much rejoicing). I’m thinking back–and perhaps modifying–a notion I had a few years ago: minimal rhetoric. I’m thinking “tiny” rather than “minimal.” Maybe both.

My attraction to “tiny” is from the line in A Thousand Plateaus that has stuck with me, punctum-like, through the years:

There is a micropolitics of perception, affection, conversation, and so forth. If we consider the great binary aggregates, such as the sexes or classes, it is evident that they also cross over into molecular assemblages of a different nature, and that there is a double reciprocal dependency between them. For the two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman and the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 213

Really just “a thousand tiny sexes.”

And then I was watching this EGS lecture from Manuel DeLanda on YouTube. I’d link to it here, but it’s been up there for 7 years and has averaged about one view per year, so you can go watch it if you like but I figure you’ve had your chance! Anyway, he said something fairly obvious but that struck me last night when I couldn’t sleep around 3:30 am. He observed that the direction of modern science was toward a proliferation of ideas and methods rather than toward a unifying theory. I mean, that is obvious, right? Instead of a single 21st-century science department we have more and more sciences, interdisciplinary centers, majors, journals, conferences, grants, etc., etc.

A thousand tiny sciences… minor sciences, even. So what about rhetoric?

As we know, one of the contemporary historiographic trends regards “big rhetoric.” For those who don’t know, it’s the expansion away from the traditional objects of study for rhetoric scholars (e.g. political speeches) and into the vast space of cultural representations. And the nonhuman turn opens that even farther. To make that happen we’ve had ever more capacious theories of rhetoric. I’m probably as big a rhetorician as you’re likely to find (seek me out at CCCC and see what you think). So I am generally in favor of these theories of big rhetoric. In my view, the restriction to the historical areas of rhetorical study are just that: a product of historical circumstance. I have argued in defense of and made my own versions of arguments for a general new materialist and posthuman theory of rhetoric. I see that as a necessary disciplinary step.

And yet it leaves me wondering: what about the thousand tiny rhetorics?

To be sure, we do a good job of analyzing specific rhetorical situations: our classrooms, this or that workplace, a particular text, and so on. Basically this is an interpretive/hermeneutic move: the application of a general theory of rhetoric to a specific instance. An act of deduction. So there are thousands of instances but they’re all of one thing…. Well not really because as a discipline we have disagreements about that general theory of rhetoric. So we often perform our disagreements about generalities through our interpretations of specifics.

I’m talking about something different here. A thousand, non-unifying irreducible rhetorics… and us being ok with that. In fact, not just ok, but recognizing that the ontological situation is that there really isn’t a general theory of rhetoric, or at least, there isn’t a theory with enough explanatory power to offer much insight into the problems we need to address.

What this really requires though is something intermediary, something in-between the general theory of rhetoric and the interpretation of a specific text/object/event. So I’ve started to think about my work as a digital rhetorician in those terms. If I am interested (as I happen to be) in the rhetorics of emerging digital technologies, which presupposes some posthuman/nonhuman/new materialist approach since I’m looking at the rhetoric of something that isn’t human, then why can’t that be its own thing? Why should the methods I use to study that be applicable to any other situation? So I’ve been thinking about a method that describes the rhetoric of digital media in a way that fosters the invention of further capacities. E.g., can we describe the operation of social media or smartphones in a way that allows us to invent and experiment with expanding the rhetorical capacities of these devices and their users? So it’s not just about one device or one situation. But it also isn’t a general theory of rhetoric. It’s somewhere in-between in a pragmatic space, trying to understand how material conditions here lead to certain rhetorical capacities and then using that understanding as a basis for experimentation.

But that’s just one tiny rhetoric. My point is there must be a thousand more.

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