A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Trophic Future for Rhetorical Ecologies

Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, University of Wisconsin-Madison

(Published February 20, 2019)

Actually a single name for two species of fish—the alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and the blueback (Alosa aestevalis)—the “river herring” is an anadromous fish: an animal that possesses the stunning capacity to transform its own physiology to thrive in freshwater ponds and rivers, as well as in the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean. For seven years, I have lived an ethnography of migration with these fish, a work held tenuously together by a rhythmic flow, gathering energy from the millions of river herring who, each spring, return from their three-to five-year walkabout in the open ocean to their natal rivers to spawn. A tiny egg hatches under small rocks in a small headwater pond in New England, grows bigger, swims out into the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of the continental shelf, doing its fishy business, and then—on cue and en masse—water temperature, moon, spring rains, chemistry, and scent signal the river herring to begin a journey upstream. But not just any upstream. The precise upstream where that single fish hatched among brothers and sisters and cousins years before. The same river. The same headwater pond.

For New England river herring, this primordial force is interrupted by the infrastructure of capitalism: the 14,000 small mill dams that punctuate rivers throughout the region interrupt flows of river herring and other migratory and resident fish, as well as sediment, plants, nutrients, and so on. And on New England’s Missituk River,[1] this piscine force and its interruption have attracted the attention of local human residents, who, sometimes in opposition to state managers, have likewise gathered en masse with the spring rains, self-organizing into netted human chains—like old-timey bucket brigades—that scoop river herring up from below the dams and lift them above to continue their migration.

I first became interested in these fish because the human community activism they inspired had all the marks of a rich, controversial study, with passionate emails sent, policies contested, and arguments offered. The traditional materials of rhetoric—even of an ecological perspective—were close to hand. Biology textbooks included scientific names and life history. Image searches offered watercolor river herring absent of habitat or dead alewives on cutting board slabs. State regulations outlined their protection from harvest. A press release described the public celebration for a newly constructed fish ladder on the Missituk River, intended as a technical solution for helping those fish bypass those dams, and included remarks from a state official: “It is such a joy to see the herring running and seamlessly reaching their historic spawning grounds.” A news article about the event rendered the de facto organizer of those herring-lifting-humans “a simple bystander.” My multi-year ethnographic fieldwork seemed to fill the spaces between these texts, as I amassed hours and hours of audio from energetic, angry, and emotional interviews with activists and state managers and filled scores of notebooks with images and impressions. The case seemed to beg for a rhetorical ecological approach to analysis: attentive to the network of emails, policies, textbooks, images, regulations, press releases, news articles, and personal anecdotes, and to the circulation of affect, emotion, and feeling among it all. One can imagine the rhetorical ecologist (i.e. me) attuning to these voices and reading these constellations.

But this article begins from the point at which this rhetorical ecological inquiry fell short, and does the work of considering why. Here I pair ecological science with Amerindian anthropology to make a trophic intervention in rhetorical ecologies and nascent rhetorical new materialisms.[2] Building from my recent work with Candice Rai, and in parallel with Diane Keeling and Jennifer Prairie, I borrow the term “trophic” from ecological science—a word that captures nested sets of direct and indirect predator-prey species interactions, and that I offer as an interruptive signal—to point rhetorical ecological inquiry towards matter, and to question, in Karen Barad’s terms, “How matter comes to matter” in rhetorical studies.[3] Building outwards from my frustrations with my fieldwork with fish, I sidestep the Heideggerian framework so prevalent in rhetorical new materialisms to engage with intertwined theoretical perspectives and methodologies from Amerindian anthropology, including Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work on controlled equivocation and Marisol de la Cadena’s ethnographic embrace of co-labor.

If co-labor is a method, we might consider controlled equivocation its methodology. Controlled equivocation names the “control” of a common misrecognition: a correction to the frequent failure to recognize that, rather than offering competing representations of the same world, translation (or communication) puts multiple, real worlds in relation, though always with remainder. Co-labor, then, offers a practice of controlled equivocation: the active co-creation of knowledge between researcher and researched (human animal, other-than-human animal, spirit, mineral, and otherwise) that emerges from always-only-partial connections across ontological difference. Through controlled equivocation and co-labor, I trouble the notion—expressed across a wide swath of rhetorical new materialisms—that the productive intersection of rhetoric and ecology is the adoption of ecological thinking, an ecological orientation to deciphering the voices of material ecosystems: an orientation that suggests attuning to and interpreting the epiphenomenal symbols that emerge from an a priori world—what Scott Graham refers to as “the long-standing binary between language and reality” re-enacted in rhetorical new materialisms (118). By reorienting rhetorical new materialisms towards a trophic approach to rhetorical ecologies—one that takes ecology seriously as metaphor, but not only—I argue here for an expansion or redefinition of the rhetorical ecologist. The task of the rhetorical ecologist—what I recast as a trophic rhetorician—becomes that of co-laboring or equivocating across species, worlds, and registers to take seriously the physicality of relationality, but not only.

My argument here is that the limiting factor in exploring the capacious power of rhetoric—in considering rhetoric, as Bruno Latour recently noted, as “a term that doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness,” a term that can “proceed on smoothly into the nitrogen cycle and that sort of thing” (Walsh et al. 417)—is the current notion of rhetoric as emergent from the materials of the world and the way this notion constrains current understandings of ecological approaches to rhetoric. Instead, I propose a consideration of rhetoric, like ecology, as equivocal force.

My hope is that the trophic intervention I offer here—calling attention to and questioning the relationship between rhetoric and matter and building from methodologies and perspectives in ecological science and Amerindian anthropology—is an early step towards answering Latour’s recent challenge to the discipline “to renew the very definition of what rhetoric would mean” (Walsh et al. 416).


Rhetoric as Ecological, Emergent, and Epiphenomenal

In concert with a new materialist turn across the humanities, theorists loosely gathered under the heading of rhetorical new materialisms have come to understand rhetoric as emplaced, embedded, and entangled: as an affectability, persuadability, or capacity for attunement to the world and its everyday activities, as Diane Davis and Thomas Rickert describe it.[4] This is a notion of ontology, as Scot Barnett and Casey Boyle explain, as “fundamentally rhetorical,” as “the pervasive relationality of all things” (8-9). This ontological, ecological view of rhetoric coalesces with burgeoning attention to rhetorical posthumanisms and rhetorical animal studies.[5] Meanwhile, rhetorical studies concerns itself more and more with practical application and intervention, increasingly so in environmental realms where rhetorical perspectives on the public sphere could have special relevance for public engagement in environmental decision-making.[6] In short, this is a moment when rhetorical studies is expanding its horizons towards non-discursive, material, affective, ecological, and energetic aspects, as it simultaneously considers what the discipline might offer to questions with worldly environmental stakes.

This sustained rhetorical interest in the ecological has grown over the last three decades at least, dovetailing with materialist and new materialist frameworks. In the mid 1980s, Marilyn Cooper conceives of an “ecological model of writing,” meant to call attention to the social nature of textual production (367). A notion of “rhetorical ecologies” ushered in a widespread shift from focusing on “rhetorical situations”—what Lloyd Bitzer characterizes as static exigencies existing out in the world that rhetors work to address, solve, or puzzle through—because, as Jenny Edbauer puts it, “The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed” (9). “Rather than primarily speaking of rhetoric through the terministic lens of conglomerated elements,” Edbauer explains, “I look towards a framework of affective ecologies that recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes” (9). This notion of rhetoric as emerging not just from a static location, but from entanglement in temporal, historical, and lived fluxes, has become an increasingly dominant paradigm in growing areas of rhetorical studies.

But despite Kenneth Burke’s early interest in ecological science, detailed by Marika Seigel, a scientifically ecological aspect of rhetorical studies has garnered scant attention. George Kennedy’s foray into what we might consider the ecological—his surprising rendering that “Rhetoric in the most general sense may perhaps be identified with the energy inherent in communication: the emotional energy that impels the speaker to speak, the physical energy expended in the utterance, the energy level coded in the message, and the energy experienced by the recipient in decoding the message” (3)—was largely forgotten until Debra Hawhee revived the field’s interest in the piece. And yet, rhetorical studies’ recent attention to Kennedy’s energetic refiguring has largely focused on its use for engaging the animal in rhetorical studies (as Diane Davis notes in a 2017 afterword), and less so in exploring energetic, forceful, ecological—as more than just metaphorical—conceptions of rhetoric. Beyond Kennedy’s intervention, with few exceptions, this ecological comportment continues to distinguish itself from ecological science proper.[7]

Take, for instance, Nathan Stormer and Bridie McGreavy’s recent ecological treatment of rhetoric, which, building from Timothy Morton, delineates quite clearly its interest in “ecological thought” not “ecological science” (2-3), suggesting of their approach, “The proposed commonplaces treat ecology as an orientation to patterns and relationships in the world rather than as a science” (3). This ecological orientation allows Stormer and McGreavy to offer, by way of definition: “‘rhetoric’ is a collective noun whose diverse members arise from material environments” (3). While this perspective suits Stormer and McGreavy’s particular analysis of rhetoric’s ontological multiplicity, their treatment of rhetoric also reveals a certain logic that I push against here. In their framing, while multiple or collective, rhetoric’s members still arise from material environments.

Indeed, this perspective towards rhetoric’s (rhetorics’) emergence seems like a founding presumption throughout current work in rhetorical new materialisms. In a recent article, Nathaniel Rivers insists, “Rhetoric has to be a comportment and not simply a call to action; there must be a clearing beforehand in which any such call can be voiced and heard” (438). There he adopts Lawrence Rosenfield’s framing of epideictic rhetoric, which “suggests an exhibiting or making apparent (in the sense of showing or highlighting) what might otherwise remain unnoticed or invisible” (135) and links it to James Jasinski’s sense: “The true function of epideictic, therefore, is to reveal or disclose something—to bring new truths out into the open” (211). Again, “rhetoric” is revealed, disclosed, brought into the open, exhibited, made present and apparent. Heard and voiced.

This notion of the link between rhetoric and voice emerges in Lynda Walsh’s recent interview with Latour about the present and future of rhetorical new materialisms, wherein Latour offers the provocative claim, “I don’t think [rhetoric] is very well equipped to address nonhumans” (415). He then notes his surprise at how often he is asked the question, “How can an ecosystem have a voice?” (Walsh et al., 416). While Latour is working with a hugely limited view of rhetorical studies—as he himself notes, as do many of the forum’s respondents—his preoccupation with the “voice” of an ecosystem and rhetorical studies’ relationship to it is significant. Latour explains that the field of rhetoric oversteps its bounds in claiming the sole resources to retrieve the “voices” of ecosystems. Instead, Latour points to “a vast, immense domain where people have made the voice of voiceless entities heard” (416). To claim the primacy of rhetoric in that vast, immense domain, according to Latour, would necessitate redescription: “We have to renew the very definition of what rhetoric would mean” (416). Latour is dissatisfied with rhetoric—as he understands the field—for its inability to “proceed on smoothly into the nitrogen cycle and that sort of thing” (417). He claims, “We need a term that doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness” (417).

In her response to the interview, Jenny Rice points to this moment—Latour’s rendering of an ecosystem’s voice—to insist that rhetoric actually does quite well the thing that Latour thinks it does not. Suggesting that rhetoric—as a practice—does, in fact, have a strong claim on “retrieving those ‘voices’ from the speaking ecosystems” (Walsh et al. 431), Rice wonders “about the different ways we can hear these voices” (431). For Rice, rhetoric as a practice offers the tools for deciphering complex constellations of human and nonhuman agents, constellations in which, as she posits, borrowing from Denis Wood, “everything sings” (432). As Rice argues, “Reading these constellations as forms of rhetoric is thus the task of a rhetorical ecologist” (431). The rhetorical ecologist, in this rendering, does translational work: listening to the singing, reading—via rhetoric as practice—the complex constellations (i.e. relations of things) out in the world or, ontologically, worlds. This view of constellation and relationality resonates with Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric. There, Rickert argues for an ambient conception of rhetoric: “its embodied and embedded or situated character, its dispersal across things that themselves have gradations of agency, and its dynamic emergence within an environment that occasions certain effects” (36). Rhetoric emerges dynamically from the conditions and constellations of the world, and the rhetorician attunes, comports, listens, and voices. The rhetorician, in this view, translates or represents the voice of an ecosystem.


Field Breakdowns: From Ecological to Trophic Perspectives

I took this ecological, emergent, ambient approach to my work with those fish-helping-humans on the Missituk River, attending to the interactions of those constellations. I used field methods from anthropology to explore and enrich the policy documents, regulations, and news stories that were close to hand. My field work captured affective circulation among, for instance, the group of forty or so town residents who spent several weeks a half mile upstream from the “fixed” dam the state official celebrated in the news article mentioned at the outset, again lifting stranded fish over another town mill dam, ten at a time, net by net—pissed, tired, and angry, but giddy, even victorious. My field work captured increasingly vitriolic arguments between the group’s leader and town officials, and insights into the personal struggles that seemed to trigger a series of vicious emails to regional fisheries regulators. It captured the whooping and hugging knee-deep in muck as we arranged rocks and boards to help river herring navigate a particularly tricky stretch of eroded stream one wet spring. It captured the agonies and ecstasies that play out between the individual members of this group that unites for no other reason than these fish on this river at this time, and so, in fact, unites with these fish. It seemed to capture the things that bring humans and other-than-humans together and tear them—us—apart: relational, energetic constellations rendered and voiced through rhetoric.

At the same time, thanks to my long-term work with physical and natural scientists, especially with fish ecologists and hydrologists, the scientifically ecological approach that had begun to inflect my work oriented me towards the materiality of those encounters: the smell of that river, the taste and texture of the scales that inevitably fly into your mouth when you’re lifting those fish. The feel of a suffocating river herring that takes a wild leap out of your net onto the asphalt below. Stooping to pick it up: slippery, almost gelatinous, with a spiny ridge that feels like it might slice through your palm. A solid muscle. Feeling the power that propels a river herring upstream in palm, fingers, forearm, bones, heart. Seeing its gills beat as it gasps for water. Staring a river herring in the eye and the river herring returning your gaze. Feeling in tired back and arms, cut up fingers, wet clothes, the urgency of migration—the compulsion for life, for relation.

And yet, I became aware over time that these were my projections of these human-fish interactions. I became troubled by my seemingly inescapable desire to give voice to these fish and this river. My work with these humans and these fish changed my perspectives on both fish and human worlds, but my attempts to bring river herring within the limits of my rhetorical ecological understanding fissured over time. I wanted to consider what might fill that void and why it fissured in the first place. I became more and more interested in understanding the piscine point of view, and perspectives from the ecological sciences began to shape that work. As “the scientific discipline that is concerned with the relationships between organisms and their past, present, and future environments,” as the Ecological Society of America describes, ecological science is interested in relationships across scales: “physiological responses of individuals, structure and dynamics of populations, interactions among species, organization of biological communities, and processing of energy and matter in ecosystems.” Indeed, McGreavy and I point to the many overlaps between the two fields:

Like ecology, rhetoric focuses on multiple scales and seeks to understand the quality and outcomes of many different types of interactions. Like ecology, rhetoric seeks to understand the transfer of energy and information. Like ecology, it focuses on relationships, and how these dynamically change over time due to the internal and external conditions in which they occur. (51)

Keeling and Prairie, too, point to longstanding connections, offering a careful historical analysis of their disciplinary relationship. But the bulk of perspectives from work in rhetorical ecologies seemed to stop short at explaining the kinds of relationality I was after between human, and fish, and river, and nutrient, and climate, and so on. A material relationality with power and force. A relationality that is not only about voice or translation. I want to suggest here that it is the rendering of rhetoric itself, as offered in emerging work in rhetorical ecologies and rhetorical new materialisms, that sits at the heart of the problem.

While rhetorical new materialist analyses are, indeed, tethered to the materials of the world, the eco-logic they invoke often functions as strictly metaphor for the circulation of discourses, images, emotions, and increasingly things. Ecology, in this view, serves largely as an analogical reminder that rhetoric is relational and points rhetorical notions of relationality toward their emergence from the materials of the world. But this ecological view does not seem to fundamentally alter the field’s view of relationality, emergence, or representation. As the logic goes, ecology reminds us to think rhetoric relationally and to include the physical and material in those relations. But those relations tend to link a view of rhetorical symbolicity as an emergent product of worldly materials. My point here is that this lack of rhetorical engagement in ecological science—considering a relational or ecological view of rhetoric as metaphor, yes, but not only—and its dependence on and support of a view of rhetoric as emergent and epiphenomenal, has implications for the development of robust and flexible new materialist theory.

I offer the notion of a trophic approach to rhetoric to signal the not only of rhetorical ecologies: that rhetorical studies can make use of ecological understandings not only metaphorically and not only to point towards relationality with the things of the world. What I find useful about the concept of the trophic for accomplishing that work is its centrality in ecological science: labeling the dynamics of matter and energy flowing through ecosystems. In ecology, as William Ripple and colleagues describe, the term signals nested sets of direct and indirect predator-prey species interactions. As James Garvey and Matt Whiles offer, “Trophic ecology is the study of how energy and nutrients are exchanged at all ecological scales” (3). As they describe, “interacting cells, organisms, communities, and ecosystems are like conduits transmitting power, materials, and even information” (2-3). Rai and I focus on the potential of a trophic conception of rhetoric, while Keeling and Prairie adopt a trophic approach to make the point that, “For classical Greeks, changes in language were physical transformations; language did not come before or after the physical, it was manifest in it” (45). Crucial to my work here, they suggest the contemporary dichotomy between the two is just that: contemporary. Keeling and Prairie’s work across rhetorical studies and the ecological sciences, like my own, points them toward a trophic move that, as they describe, “disrupts the bifurcation of expression and materiality and attends to relational complexity” (47). I make a similar move, relying on the ecological sciences to rethink relationality in ecological, and more broadly new materialist, approaches to rhetoric, but I extend that exploration by integrating field work and Amerindian approaches into this trophic realignment.

In my case, this shift from an ecological to a trophic perspective led me to read more about fish biology, anadromy, and fish migration. I learned about habitat requirements and monitored stream temperatures. I participated in counts of migrating fish, talking with state biologists about what those oscillating annual numbers might represent. And this co-labor with the normal science of fish biology pointed me towards considering river herring’s annual migration from the open ocean back upstream to their natal ponds to spawn—prompted by a complex mix of chemistry, water temperature, tide, moon phase, scent, and more—as offering useful insights for rhetoric: for the apprehension of ecological migration as persuasive force. Migration as rhetoric. Literally. Amplifying and complicating Kenneth Burke’s rhetoric-as-identification or George Kennedy’s rhetoric-as-energy, this trophic perspective—rhetoric-as-trophic-relation—attends to the role that something we might call rhetoric plays in the relationships that hold populations and communities together in certain places and certain times: what Chilean ecologist and ethicist Ricardo Rozzi and his colleagues refer to as the comingling of habits, habitats, and co-inhabitants. This view directs our attention to the non-discursive and non-logocentric, to human animality via animals that don’t behave like humans, to the most basic relations: the flows of energy transferred in forms of relationality between beings through hunting and eating and fucking and decomposing. This trophic orientation opens the door to renewing our definition of rhetoric from an emergent collective noun that gives voice to material ecosystems to a connective verb composed of physical, palpable, symbolic, affective, and chemical relations. To, as Rai and I put it, a notion of “rhetorical force . . . as all that might move the collective us” (202). To the myriad forms of relation that hold us—a human and other-than-human and other-than-biotic “us”—tenuously together. Rhetoric, in this trophic configuration, names the things or forces or practices that robustly and tenuously hold together those fish lifters, those fish, the river, the rocks, the rainwater, the temperature, the moon, the tide, and me, and more. A notion of rhetoric as nutrient mass balance or ecological niche. Fish growing fat grazing on zooplankton that feast on phytoplankton that get energy in part from absorbing nutrients from drowned and decomposing bodies: someday mine.  


Why Do We Assume an Ecosystem has a “Voice” to be Translated?

Scott Graham recently critiqued an emphasis on rhetoric’s emergence in rhetorical new materialisms; to leverage that critique, Graham reminds readers of the “two-world problem” of both modernity and postmodernity, where the postmodernist subject’s response to the modernist object does not so much deconstruct as reify the dichotomy between object and subject. By this logic, modernism privileges the scientific characteristics of my so-called fish—of genus and species, length, weight, scale, fin, otolith, egg, habitat—while postmodernism privileges its so-called fishness—the subject of enunciation as the category that eclipses its material baggage. These two fish to fry are, of course, actually the same fish: two sides of the same (problematic) two-world coin.

Graham argues that rhetorical new materialisms have rendered this two-world problem a four-world problem: one that creates a new divide between Heidegger’s version of the thing (Ding) preceding representation and the object (Gegenstand) participating in the order of representation, through “notions of withdrawal, depth, and/or transcendence [that] are used to make both an ontological and a qualitative distinction between the thing and the object” (114). The four-world fish, in other words, is divided between the mysterious, murky, never quite accessible Ding fish—the fish in itself—and the Gegenstand fish—the accessible, representable fish that offers the fullest available, but always tentative, disclosure of the Ding fish. In Graham’s analysis, in the hall of mirrors of the four-world, language and representation (which seem to signal “rhetoric” in these configurations) allow us only the veneer of contact. This persistent separation between thing and object fails, ultimately, to offer a full conduit to the withdrawn authentic fish-ness of fish.

As Graham details, this insistence on authenticity and representation—on withdrawn-fish and mirror-fish—ensures that, “symbolic action will forever be construed as emergent and epiphenomenal and the long-standing binary between language and reality is maintained” (118). In short, in the framing of new materialist rhetorical projects, rhetoric (construed as symbolic language) emerges epiphenomenally, divided off from originary reality. The way out of this conundrum, for Graham, emerges in the excision of epistemology and metaphysics from rhetorical new materialisms and the shift towards methodological intervention. As Graham insists, “When rhetorical theorists develop analytic approaches that begin with the symbolic, the affective, and the physical as ontological coequals (as opposed to stripping out rhetoric and adding it back in epiphenomenally), they begin with rhetorically friendly new materialisms” (121).

As I see it, Graham and Rickert represent a central tension in rhetorical new materialisms, as they offer competing visions of Heideggerian inspiration. But while Graham offers a powerful and persuasive critique of current rhetorical new materialisms built through Heidegger, and I agree with his interest in developing new analytic approaches, we differ about where to go from here. Instead of reading Heidegger differently, I point us outwards beyond Heidegger to see what a more heterogeneous view of rhetorical new materialisms—inspired by methodological insights from ecological sciences and field anthropology and from theoretical insights beyond Europe—might look like. Rather than reinforcing Hellenic subject and object—science-fish v. word-fish, Ding fish v. Gegenstand fish—this trophic vision for rhetorical new materialisms might help us to open inquiry and point towards the equivocal work of rhetoric—that of relating unlike bodies, things, and worlds through diverse forms of relation, like talk, for instance, or text, or trophic interaction—in ways that could make space for exploring, valuing, and learning from various forms of thinking outside of the western canon and, thus, about the expansive possibilities of rhetoric itself.

This move would lead us away from a notion of the rhetorical ecologist as someone who reads constellations as forms of rhetoric or attends to the various material environments from which rhetoric arises. The rhetorical ecologist would cease to play the Lorax, positioned outside the ecosystem to speak for the trees, but become a co-laborer in that ecosystem, participating in the various modes of relationality (talking, symbol wielding, fucking, eating, decomposing) that hold unlike things and worlds in relation. This move might answer Graham’s call to render the symbolic, affective, and physical as ontological coequals. I argue here that the language/reality divide is exactly the limit beyond which we have not been able to push to consider a more expansive rendering of rhetoric as ecological. Not as ecological thought or orientation or comportment. But rhetoric as ecology. And ecology as rhetoric.


“To Make Rhetoric Ecology, what Thinking Moves Need to be Made”[8]

The fields of rhetorical studies, ecological sciences, and Amerindian anthropology—their methodologies and orientations—complement each other, offering the tools for a robust attention to humanistic and biological field methods, ontological and representational approaches, and relationality, and, in so doing, suggest a path towards co-labor that might correct or at least supplement epiphenomenal views of rhetoric. The trophic view that might emerge from that cross-disciplinary work—a view focused on interactions created through discourse and affect, but also through hunger and lust and pain, between and among humans and texts, but also fish, and nutrients, and rivers, and more—might position us to imagine an equivocal rather than emergent and epiphenomenal, which is to say representational, view of rhetoric.

de la Cadena positions her ethnographic work in Peru not as collaborative research but as co-labor: a methodological/analytical approach I suggest here is useful to the project of rhetorical new materialisms. Rather than serving as a research subject, Mariano Turpo—the human focus of de la Cadena’s text—co-labors with de la Cadena, and that co-labor points de la Cadena toward the importance of excess: that which falls outside the historical ontology of modern knowledge. Turpo’s phrase, “not only,” repeated throughout the text—what he describes as his existence as an activist for agrarian reform within the limits of sanctioned history, but “not only,” as he practices also across rich, unsanctioned, ahistorical worlds of spirits and spirited mountains—points towards this excess. This awareness of excess reminds de la Cadena that co-labor requires, “inhabiting the partial connection between both worlds” (14): de la Cadena’s world of sanctioned history or “knowledge” and Turpo’s world of what has commonly been rendered as Andean “belief.”

As de la Cadena describes, “Co-laboring—my selfish request that Mariano help me think—offered excess as an important ethnographic condition and analytical challenge. I conceptualize it as that which is performed past ‘the limit.’” (14). As she continues, “Mariano’s phrase, ‘not only,’ challenged these limits and revealed that, relative to his world, the world that sees itself as ‘everything’ was insufficient . . .  Because practices with Mariano were never simple, ‘everything’ (or what considered itself as such) had to be taken seriously as well” (15).[9]

Key to inhabiting the partial connections between beings and worlds, as co-labor demands, is the practice of controlled equivocation. Equivocations, as de la Cadena describes, following Viveiros de Castro, “are a type of communicative disjuncture in which, while using the same words, interlocutors are not talking about the same thing and do not know this” (27). As Viveiros de Castro suggests, an equivocation is “not just a ‘failure to understand,’ but a failure to understand that understandings are necessarily not the same, and that they are not related to imaginary ways of ‘seeing the world’ but to the real worlds that are being seen” (11). Equivocations refer to relational work across ontologies, and yet, as Viveiros de Castro emphasizes, equivocations are misunderstood misunderstandings of these multiple ontologies.

As Viveiros de Castro explains, “An equivocation is not an error, a mistake, or a deception. Instead, it is the very foundation of the relation that it implicates, and that is always a relation with an exteriority” (11). As he continues:

If the equivocation is not an error, an illusion or a lie, but the very form of the relational positivity of difference, its opposite is not the truth, but the univocal, as the claim to the existence of a unique and transcendent meaning. The error or illusion par excellence consists, precisely, in imagining that the univocal exists beneath the equivocal, and that the anthropologist is its ventriloquist.  (12)

 I read “anthropologist” here as “rhetorical ecologist”: attuning to, translating, and making present the symbolic voices of vast ecologies, attending to the material environments from which rhetoric—the collective noun—emerges. Instead, a notion of rhetoric as a practice of controlled equivocation offers a way to understand rhetoric as a term that names unlike forms of relationality—talking, fucking, predating, decomposing—that hold unlike things together: nutrients, images, human animals, plants, sounds, feelings, rocks, and more.

I am suggesting that rhetoric does not emerge from multiple ontologies, as it seems to be positioned in recent work; I am arguing for a conception of rhetoric whereby the thing we call “rhetoric”—and, not coincidentally, the thing ecologists call “ecology”—works by controlled equivocation across multiple ontologies and multiple ontological registers. Yes, recent ontological approaches to rhetoric attempt to resist the univocal by pointing to rhetoric’s multiple ontologies. But I suggest that work still largely relies on a version of rhetoric that emerges from multiple ontologies but works univocally, which is to say that there seems to be a one-to-one relationship between each of those multiple ontologies and the rhetoric that emerges from it. In other words, rhetoric may represent multiple ontologies, in that conception, but it emerges univocally from them. Matter—or nature, or the environment, or the scientifically ecological—in this rendering receives the privilege of plurality, but rhetoric itself, as symbol, is not afforded the same privilege. Rhetoric emerges multiply only because what it emerges from is multiple; this emergence is not rendered as a complex, polyvocal process.[10] Ontologies may be multiple, in this perspective, but rhetoric is singular as it pertains to each multiple. Emergent rhetoric still carries the claim of the existence of a unique and transcendent meaning or representation of each ontology.

Instead, I suggest that a methodology of co-labor that gathers up rhetorical, ecological, and anthropological approaches might offer an understanding of rhetoric not as emergent, transcendent representation of each of multiple ontologies but as a practice of controlled equivocation across multiple ontologies: a name for various and even divergent kinds of relationality (including what we have regularly termed “symbolic” or “physical”)  that hold together various and even divergent things and worlds.


Why Does It Matter that We Think Differently About Rhetorical Ecologies?

I have spent time holding fish, watching fish, observing their habitats, fly casting for them and rarely reeling them in, monitoring the temperature of their streams, electroshocking them, weighing and measuring them, inserting microchips into them to track their movements, tattooing them with dye to track their ages, and sometimes eating them. I have snorkeled with them, suspended above them in small pools as I slowly drifted downstream, held buoyant by a camouflaged neoprene wetsuit. I have tried to enlist these fish in my co-labor. Sometimes they oblige, and sometimes they don’t. But those fleeting and partial relations with fish—through touch and emotion and digestion and memory and the development of shared habits that made us mutual inhabitants in the same habitat—oriented me towards two mutually expansive shifts: 1) from an ecological to a trophic perspective that opens rhetorical relationality to admitting physical and not only symbolic forms of interaction, and 2) from an emergent notion of rhetoric to one of rhetoric as controlled equivocation. Rhetoric not as collective noun, but connective verb, with remainder.

Like de la Cadena, who describes the ways that co-labor with Turpo changes her perspectives on the work in front of them and the worlds to which that work connects, co-labor changed my perspectives on fish and human worlds. I went in listening for the voice of the ecosystem and came out with controlled equivocation. I argue that the work of rhetorical ecology is not explanatory or translational; it is equivocal: working, through multiple forms of relationality, to put competing worlds—multiple ontologies—into contact and recognizing the excess, the not only. If, as Barnett and Boyle argue, “Rhetoricians, much like anthropologists and social scientists before them, need to develop new ways to describe and write about ontology” (10), this expansion of a rhetorical ecological perspective—past its emergent limits to a trophic orientation towards relationality—might offer a step in that direction. While I do not pretend to have neat answers, I do suggest that rhetoricians would be well served to build from the work of the anthropologists before us, to whom Barnett and Boyle point, to consider how our particularly rhetorical perspectives might shed additional light on anthropological renderings of relationality, ontology, and equivocation. And I think we can extend those explorations even further by embracing the longstanding scientific bodies of knowledge devoted to relationality that exist in the ecological sciences. This move offers points of expansion into complementary approaches across a variety of disciplines and invites rhetorical studies—or at least those of us in rhetorical studies interested in things like materiality, posthumanisms, animal studies, and rhetorical new materialisms—to open up to the wealth of theorizing about relationality that emerges in texts in indigenous studies, for instance, and feminist science studies, and anthropology, as well as ecology.[11]

This move towards excess—metaphor, but not only—might allow us to consider how we can build our understandings of rhetoric not only through discursivity, logocentricity, and capacity but also through hydrology, climatology, geomorphology, and so on: in other words, through a more capacious, physical, and equivocal version of rhetoricity. This may seem like an overwhelming move—to be tasked with now learning about field method, and ecology, and fisheries science, or whatever fields are relevant to a rhetorician’s subject of interest—but it is an ethical one. For rhetoricians to engage with new materialist approaches is to engage the responsibility to expand the horizons of rhetorical studies to relate with those ambient ecologies, networks, and assemblages, not just speak about or give voice to them. This move will make for stronger impacts outside our discipline: I have been fortunate to be able to use my rhetorical training to intervene in management and decision-making about agricultural conservation outreach, wetland and stream restoration, dam removal, and fisheries management. But what this expansion also offers is the possibility for reimagining rhetorical studies—reimagining, through trophic conceptions of relationality—what rhetoric is and does and can do. It offers a speculative answer to Latour’s challenge, “to renew the very definition of what rhetoric would mean” (416).

            To close, I should note that my insistence on this thought experiment—to think beyond metaphorical or emergent configurations of rhetorical ecologies—is, at its heart, a political move. de la Cadena is interested in the excess of the not only because it invites relationality across worlds, where “controlling equivocations undermines analytical grammars that produce either (similar)-or (different) situations” (28). The excess offered by the friction of collaboration helps “collaborations create unintended alliances and connections between dissimilar peoples and worlds; they also produce transformations,” as de la Cadena explains (218). Viveiros de Castro, too, is intensely interested in transformation—an apt metaphor and material-conceptual framework for my interest in a fish that literally transforms its physiology to adapt from freshwater, to saltwater, back to freshwater, and back again in its life history. This transformation is a move with political stakes. As Peter Skafish describes, comparative analyses expose us, as researchers, to “deformations and transformations [ . . . ] Certain kinds of comparison are, strictly speaking, impossible if one intends to remain in place and stay the same, not only intellectually but also politically. When our basic ontological tenets end up ‘twisty,’ [ . . . ] there are political effects” (410). This, to me, is the spirit of rhetorical ecologies and rhetorical new materialisms imagined through a trophic and equivocal notion of rhetoric. A porous label for an affinity with and practice of work that engages with, as Skafish describes, “a metaphysics that transforms us” (410). This is a comparative, methodological, political move, and one that seems to enable treating “the symbolic, the affective, and the physical” as “ontological coequals,” in Graham’s great configuration.

Trophic rhetoric, and the sort of new materialist rhetorical trajectory it imagines, can offer a moment of interruption, an equivocal invitation to put different worlds in relation and to acknowledge the remainder. This essay is an invitation to mix rhetorical methodologies and theories with those from ecology and Amerindian anthropology (and more), if we see anthropology as something like Viveiros de Castro’s description as a field that, “wants to learn about the political philosophy and the metaphysical thinking of those who were left out of the scene of the democratic assembly” (Skafish 397). Insomuch as I take rhetoric to be fundamentally about the everydayness of being with one another, a means of negotiating life in common, this speculative shift, this equivocal interruption, this reorientation to trophic dimensions of rhetoric, opens up promising and even essential possibilities for the inclusion of other beings and things in those deliberations. It offers the potential to renew the very definition of what rhetoric would mean.

[1] Missituk is a pseudonym translating roughly in Algonquin languages to “great tidal river.”

[2] By “Amerindian anthropology,” I refer to anthropologists across a variety of global locations—including Peru, Brazil, and the United States—working to engage and think with Amerindian peoples.

[3] Chapters from Keeling and Prairie and Druschke and Rai offer trophic interventions into rhetorical studies, attempting to bring the disciplines of rhetoric and ecology closer together on issues of matter. See Druschke (esp. 18-22) for an early exploration of these overlaps, and Keeling and Prairie for a cross-disciplinary history.

[4] See especially Davis (2010) and Rickert (2013).

[5] See a variety of recent collections, including work by Jeremy Gordon et al.; Lynda Walsh et al.; Chris Mays et al.; and Bridie McGreavy et al.

[6] See Carl Herndl and Lauren Cutlip, Jean Goodwin, and Druschke and McGreavy, among others.

[7] See Seigel, Druschke, Druschke and McGreavy, and Keeling and Prairie for exceptions.

[8] I owe this question to Ralph Cintron, who posed it to me in very late 2017 as we discussed our mutual interests in scientific and Amerindian approaches to non-representational rhetoric.

[9] de la Cadena and Viveiros de Castro are focused specifically on equivocations across humans, a particular constraint of disciplinary anthropology. My focused critique and expansion of anthropological thinking on equivocation—across human and other-than-human worlds—is the work of a larger, ongoing project.

[10] Barnett and Boyle hint at an exception to this trend in their mention of Viveiros de Castro’s work on multiple ontologies (vs. singular epistemology) (10) and their “nontraditional” rendering of ontology as “fundamentally rhetorical” (8), as “an ongoing negotiation of being through relations among what we might, on some occasions, call human and/or nonhuman” (8-9). I am excited for their future expansions on this point.

[11] See, for instance, Kim TallBear, Paul Nadasdy, Robin Kimmerer, Eduardo Kohn, and Philippe Descola, among others.

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