A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Creating with the “Universe of the Undiscussed”: Hashtags, Doxa, and Choric Invention

Caddie Alford, Indiana University

(Published November 22, 2016)

Our electronic age is changing the way we conceptualize and enact creative activity. Digital platforms, with their specific exigencies and conditions, afford unique opportunities for rhetorical invention, both raising new questions and revitalizing old ones about the act of composing. These questions beg a model of invention that views the creator not as an impermeable agent, working with tools, beings, and spaces that are ‘other,’ but as only part of an unceasing, porous fusion of flesh, discourse, place, mind, and technologies. The closest inventional framework rhetoricians have for digital texts is choric invention: to think of something as a product of choric invention is to think more robustly about the product’s transformation, as sparked into motion by a multitude of actants. From a choric perspective, digital objects come into being as a result of processes tied to the digital’s networked nature. Something made in a virtual environment is never complete.

Understanding some new and emerging digital discourses, however, requires a clarified theory of choric invention, a theory that can show that digital texts are not only vibrant and emplaced works, but are also rhetorical inventions in the more traditional sense, assembled from the same material as all rhetorical inventions are: what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “universe of the undiscussed” (168), or doxa. While choric invention grants us a full-bodied method to approach digital media, we cannot responsibly treat digital inventions as isolated phenomena. The “universe of the undiscussed” will always be involved in the art of argumentation. Therefore, I want to bring together the chora with the concept of doxa to build a critical theory of invention befitting specifically social media discourses.

While there are rhetoric scholars who have bracketed doxic material for “fostering, protecting, and maintaining only the status quo” (Vitanza 44), others have illuminated doxa’s richness. These theorists have challenged the standardized definition of doxa as opinions that offer rhetoricians persuasive groundwork. Both Freya Thimsen and Andrea Ritivoi, for instance, have magnified doxa’s role in democratic politics and coalition-building. Examining rhetoric against corporate personhood, Thimsen argues that the “oscillation between demonstrating and critiquing doxa is central to producing dissensus through the democratic event of the appearance of the demos” (original emphasis 487). Indeed, Thimsen implies, democratic events traffic in sensing that doxa is undergoing change. Such alteration could even be imaginary, as Ritivoi claims in exploring Paul Ricoeur’s work. Imaginative oratory creates a theoretical space wherein people try on new values and beliefs (Ritivoi 61) – in other words, try on new doxa. Ritivoi thus argues it is through the imaginary that political rhetoric might enable a repurposing of cemented doxa, perhaps forging in its wake a more integrated collective.1

Beyond democratic processes, some theorists have begun to re-examine the conventional relationship between doxa and invention. Recently, John Muckelbauer and Sharon Crowley have suggested doxa are not simply inventional building blocks; they also are an ontological condition of invention. Muckelbauer frames invention as a kinship between preexisting and new knowledge (14). To invent, then, is to engage doxa, which is an action that Muckelbauer describes as an “immersion.” This immersion is distributed, pointing to what Muckelbauer terms a singular “rhythm of the common” (162), a ghostly dimension that nevertheless orients us during inventive acts. Similarly interested in the distribution of doxa, Crowley claims rhetorical arguments are always at hand because they “circulate within doxa” (47), suggesting we invent through interfacing, temporally and physically, with doxa.

Building on these significant contributions, I want to align myself with Dana Anderson’s definition of doxa as that which we “think with rather than about” (8). This essay encourages us to highlight doxa as essential to invention, especially invention gone digital. Appreciating the doxic makeup of all inventions has driven me to reconceive choric invention as invention that happens when commonplaces get mobilized. To think of inventing as choric highlights the activity by which doxic equipment teeters continuously on the edge of becoming dynamic. To show this phenomenon in action, I examine two activist hashtags, one of which creates a productive work through doxa, while the other fails to complicate the integrated doxa.

The Arena Of Chora

The chora is a Platonic principle concerned with questions of beginnings, space, the elements of meaning-making endeavors, and how those moments get activated and dispersed. In Plato’s Timaeus, the chora is characterized as “characterless” (50e): Timaeus says it can be grasped only by a “bastard reasoning” (52b). Trying to explain it, Timaeus toys with several analogies: the chora is a stretchy receptacle, taking in life even as it spawns it and cuts it off from harm, cycling through generations of being. The chora is feminized, referred to as “mother” (50d), the “nurse of creation” (52e). And with such language as “soft” (50e), “copy” (50c), and “impression” (51b), the chora assumes a blob-like status, formless until it envelops something. While setting up the notion of space as an integral player in inventing, the dialogue’s own structure underscores recursivity, for, as Thomas Rickert points out, “to begin – in order to go forward – the conversation must first go back,” which suggests that “a beginning is not an autonomous decontextualized setting forth” (51). This recursive, layered sense of a beginning, hinging as it does on space and discursive play, gives us a way to rethink invention. Timaeus’ treatment of the chora presents an argument for how to inspire dynamic invention. Such invention occurs in the kind of inhabited moment the Timaeus seizes upon: a group think tank, communally remembering, actively questioning, withdrawing, revising, and receiving. This choric flash “acts as the arena for everything that is subject to creation” (52b, emphasis mine). That translation of “arena” conjures images of physical encounter and transformation, rather like a “contact zone” for all manner of beings to become something more than what they already are. Movement is key; the chora gives our standard notion of rhetorical invention a shot of provocative energies. It is this emphasis on the destabilizing, generative, and linked effects of the chora that show it is a mode of invention. Digital rhetoricians need to be amenable to this degree of movement, which means we must be open to changing our perception of invention. That is, as I argue, we need to perceive digital inventing as choric.

Recently, Gregory Ulmer, Jeff Rice, and Thomas Rickert have shown that the chora is useful for rhetoricians; chora provides these theorists a type of invention that is attuned to the network, to the embodied and unstable rhetorical activity that transgresses and regresses throughout. And yet, in order to attend to this kind of invention, Ulmer and Rickert propose a departure from topic invention, from invention reliant upon storehouses of doxa.2

Ulmer distinguishes choric inventing from topic inventing by claiming that the topoi are “abstract containers” (73) that must be replaced by chora if we are to work with new media in a lively way (66). Rickert is more generous: his theory of choric invention “replaces (or, better, reworks) the fixed places of topic invention with the deeply plastic and evolving spatiality of choric invention” (71). Thus, for Rickert, choric invention requires that “topic writing is not abandoned,” but “inhabited differently” (68). However, I understand the topoi’s doxic innards as crucial agents in choric invention. The chora offers us a way to reflect on how discourse that seems one-dimensional can also be seen as electric. It is this oscillation that digital spaces have made clearer about rhetoric in general: while rhetoric has always been interested in such interplay, it is new media that exaggerates the possibilities of interplay to craft effects – effects such as what happens when seemingly stable doxa help comprise a digital work like a hashtagged tweet.

Hashtags are metadata mechanisms that help make user-generated content searchable. Hashtags have few boundaries: they are written into book titles, materialized in hand gestures; they scroll across television shows and are stitched into clothes. We are a society saturated in hashtags, offering us among other things the thrill of dual citizenship. Hashtags toggle between the virtual and the physical, funneling and contouring digital texts, inspiring networked/networking, unsettled discursive encounters between machines, cultures, humans, bots, media, etc. Ultimately, the hashtag’s purpose is to become viral, a “‘culture” (in the bacteriological sense)” that will “grow and multiply” (Burke 26), so they must be contagious. In their campaign to infect, the basis of the hashtag’s rhetorical sensibility is duality: it is discourse that looks both ways, that enlivens as much as it is living itself. To understand how hashtags work, we must approach them with an acute awareness of these multiple gradations.

Like doxa, hashtags operate through an “and…also” logic. Similarly, Eric Havelock notes that the habitat of doxa lies “in between” (247). Its very verb form, dokein, confuses the “subjective and objective relationship,” meaning both to form personal impressions and to induce impressions made on others (250). As doxa actualize amid this individual and collective nexus, in between acts of “concealment” and “unconcealment” (Hariman 50), heterodox appearances and orthodox prejudices (Muckelbauer 154), so, too, do hashtags. Hashtags are thus the epitome of the striking dimensionality that Richard Lanham calls “permanently bi-stable textuality” (5). We understand the hashtag as a grammar, and we think with it, but we also must think beyond it, imagining how it will assist us in devising an effect.

Putting all of this together, I offer two examples of hashtag activism that may help flesh out a new theory of choric invention that relies specifically on noticing doxa on their route toward bi-stability. These examples – #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #BringBackOurGirls – show how doxa can lead to choric invention.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown: Kinetic Stereotypes

On August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was shot to death by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. While Brown’s death was slowly recounted to the rest of the nation, many news corporations picked a photo of Brown to display while discussing updates. In what has now become an infamous photo, the camera is angled upwards toward Brown, who is looking down at it with a stolid countenance, eyes barely available to the viewer, and chest exaggerated. Brown’s hand is raised in what could be interpreted as a peace sign, but many channels and websites interpreted this phatic gesture as evidence for gang affiliation.3 This particular representation angered the many people who were noticing similarities across the ways media portray African American men. Consider the hooded photo of Trayvon Martin, or Time’s elaborately darkened photo of OJ Simpson. Or consider the differences in news stories’ captions of “troubled” and “haunted” white suspects versus African American victims labeled as “gang members” or “threatening.” News media has a history of representing African American men as dangerously ‘thuggish.’

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown was created as a defiant response. The idea was that people of color would circulate the hashtag with two photos, one of which would pander to expectations about racial identities while the other would offer an alternative. Here is an example from @DubJ:

@DubJ’s tweet reveals doxa as resources whose generative potential gets activated by the fluid conditions of the digital, resulting in choric invention. Here, the interaction between the two doxic images is fueling a kinetic relationship. I use the word “kinetic” here to evoke constructive friction – a significant characteristic of choric invention.4 @DubJ is thinking with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which inspires him to juxtapose two photos that bespeak identity variations. He is telling his audience that he knows his position as an African American man conjures two stereotypical images: the African American man as ‘thug’ and the African American man as fulfilling the Caucasian success story. With his hashtag, however, he is wrenching possibility out of this dualism. The “Me” in #IfTheyGunnedMeDown already points to an identity that cannot be fully accounted for by either of these photos.  Furthermore, the photos’ visual compositions complicate the normative stereotypes at play.

@DubJ is orchestrating an active/passive binary, putting into conversation two photos wherein his posture and the mise-en-scène feed into doxic categories. The distance used in each photo is telling: the close, confrontational nature of the left photo renders the stereotypical look threatening to the very people who believe it is a universal representation, whereas in the photo on the right the subject offers himself passively, smiling at the camera. Just like with the photo of Michael Brown, the ‘thug’ stereotype is ‘confirmed’ by @DubJ’s hand gesture, as he holds up two middle fingers. This image suggests that the stereotype of the ‘thug’ is uncontrollable, running angry in the wild streets, and yet the subject’s expressive defiance of the frame dares the viewer to accuse him of anything, let alone of embodying a mere stereotype. Similarly, though the right-hand image idealizes the stereotype of the African-American-man-turned-white, controlled through institutionalization, the layout implies that this stereotype is much too flat to represent the complexities of an actual person. Both these images resist the stereotypes they are working within in order to suggest that identity is fluid – fluid for everyone.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown shows how digital invention begins by thinking with doxa, responding to the continually molten space of social media. This hashtag is bridging the individual and the collective, as users of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown must write individuality into the collective network in order to rebel against having to navigate dualism. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown allows users to propose a new stereotype about identity actually taking place in the wrought interstices between doxa about race. This situation exemplifies choric invention in practice precisely because it is the birth of a beginning occurring because of a momentary and emplaced concoction – a beginning that necessarily withdraws as the electrified material gets circulated and repurposed toward different effects.

This tweet shows us that in the digital sphere, doxa are still our primary well for rhetorical invention. They are still the ideas we think with. Here, we are privy to a visualization that paints the complexity of the creative process in an electronic space. The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag provides one textual layer, while inspiring the addition of doxa (the stereotypical images). This layering marshals an ironic effect that creates new meaning. Such alchemy could not work without an accumulation of doxa, which must work with other materials in order to kickstart the choric engine.

Although #IfTheyGunnedMeDown is a productive instance of choric invention, simply mixing hashtags with doxa will not guarantee a choric rupture capable of destabilizing conceptions. The digital text that will cradle and then build out of doxa is the kind of text that will work with, rather than against, an assembly of associations, composing, as Ulmer articulates, “by using all the meanings” (48). Without such openness, invention resembles a closed system.

#BringBackOurGirls: Repeating The Given 

In April 2014, 276 Nigerian female students were abducted by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In response, a global campaign attempted to utilize viral forces, demanding that Nigerian authorities #BringBackOurGirls. Unfortunately, the hashtag campaign became a performative action, an example of therapeutic slacktivism that mostly serves to boost the user’s ethos of goodwill. To illustrate, here is an example of a tweet from two public figures, Thea Andrews and Kevin Frazier of The Insider, an American news entertainment show similar to Entertainment Tonight:

While #IfTheyGunnedMeDown complicates doxa that have arguably overstayed their welcome, this tweet shows that sometimes, no matter what the hashtag was originally created to do, it can be made to do wildly different things. For instance, this tweet uses the kind of structure corporations co-opt to generate more kairotic “buzz:” they offer the opportunity to self-promote through one easy share. This tweet demands that you insert yourself into the campaign and tweet @TheInsider a photo of yourself, plus the rhetorical appendage that happens to be the guise of reason for the photo in the first place. Capitalizing on social media users' self-indulgent tendencies, this tweet relies on mere ambiguity to encourage circulation.

The doxic element in this hashtag is the “our girls” portion, which stems from rhetoric that scaffolds harm done to women. News publications often identify female victims in relation to men. The “our” bit evokes a patriarchal form of thinking that enacts possession over the “girls,” which is the form of thinking that ended up attracting attention to the Nigerian women. This reliance on patriarchal values sets up an equation between a woman’s worth and her connection to men. Such an equation is a “given.”5 When only a single “given” is involved in co-constructing a hashtag and its context, the “given” remains a textual gap woven from the very clichéd connections it is meant to awaken, such as linking the abducted Nigerian women to nondescript daughters. In other words, the “given” works to prod users to project what is familiar to them onto the “given’s” indefinite moment. It is that uncritical projection that does not set choric invention into motion. There is no intertextuality in this example that is working to produce the kind of choric invention that will turn “our girls” into something complex. Rather, users read themselves into the hashtag just in time to repeat it as a one-dimensional creation. Mere social commerce gets built from these uses of hashtags.

While the example of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown can actually cause change, this tweet merely seeks circulation through repetition.6 This use of #BringBackOurGirls prompts social media users to duplicate the thread rather than to challenge the thread, prescribing a telos for the hashtag. While the first example mobilized because it worked with and through the rhetorical duality that future choric inventions gain from handling multiple doxa, there is a definite lack of bi-stability in this example. There is only “our girls,” and by following the tweet’s instructions to “spread the word,” “our girls” remains untouched. While there is potential here for the doxa, that potential is not being tapped in this prescriptive and repetitive network. Thus, if hashtags are to engender choric invention, that is invention that is generative and disruptive and oscillating, their doxa must clash with other elements, thereby dancing with the fluctuating conditions of digital spaces while carving out more possibilities for invention.

Making Space With/For Doxa

While this essay attends to the chora as an inventive concept, it might strike my audience as strange that I have neglected the chora’s spatial implications. In true choric fashion, I was drawn to the chora by intuitive fascination. Later, I realized I had constructed a relationship between chora, doxa, and hashtags that I had organized by an attention to space. That is, theorizing choric invention requires a curiosity about how we make space for ideas, both old and new. Such inventive space, as the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown tweet implies, exceeds itself, dispersing ideas from, through, and without itself. The bi-stability of a productive hashtag disrupts the common assumption that space serves merely as a scenic backdrop. And productive hashtags also show that performing choric invention necessitates using the commonplace discourses that have similarly retreated into a state of taken-for-grantedness.

Hashtags thus suggest an increasing symbiosis between space and doxa. Hashtags certainly offer us a plotting of how and why doxa advance, get distributed throughout communication ecologies, and lose steam. Beyond this plotting, however, hashtags also point to a new trajectory for doxa’s role in the rhetorical tradition. On a basic level, doxa have often been conceptualized as the discursive glue that both roots and insulates a community. As such, doxa might have resonated as dead-ends, both to outsiders and to rhetoric scholars. The age of hashtags, however, encourages us to see doxa as integral not only to invention, but also to space – always already open space. With devices like hashtags, then, we can actually visualize pathways by which to enter into bodies of doxa.

Consequently, I submit that doxa have long had the potential to be democratic forces, but being of and from “the people” traditionally has meant marginalizing some in favor of others. It is, however, the networked processing doxa undergo in digital situations that stretches doxic territory, making room for more everyday rhetoricians to harness doxa’s dynamism, putting themselves and their voices on the map.

  • 1. I am basing my interpretation of the topoi on contemporary engagements with Aristotle. In particular, Barbara Warnick’s characterization of the topoi as “catalogs of the habits of mind endemic to a given culture” implies the topoi are holding-places for doxa (111).
  • 2. Thomas Farrell makes a similar argument in Norms of Rhetorical Culture.
  • 3. These phatic gestures are themselves operating and circulating in ways similar to hashtags, as illustrated during 2014’s #PointerGate ‘scandal.’
  • 4. Though I used the word "kinetic" almost instinctually during the first draft, later reading Carolyn Miller's "What Can Automation Tell Us about Agency?" showed me that observing this particular kinetic friction has implications for rethinking the relationship between rhetorical agency and doxa in the context of new media.
  • 5. Aristotle refers to doxa as that which is “the ‘given’” in discourse (Rhetoric 1355b).
  • 6. I acknowledge that repetition can be productive in its own right, but in this case, repetition is preventing differentiation.
Works Cited

Anderson, Dana. Identity’s Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion. U of South Carolina P, 2007.

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Translated by George A. Kennedy. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1991.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, Eng.: U of Cambridge P, 1977. 

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. U of California P, 1984.

Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. U of Pittsburgh P, 2006. 

Hariman, Robert. “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory.” Quarterly Journal of Speech vol. 72 no. 1, Feb. 1986, pp. 38-54.

Havelock, Eric A. Preface To Plato. Harvard UP, 1963. 

Lanham, Richard A.  The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. U of Chicago P, 1993.

Loneenknoyo (DubJ). “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown which picture would they use?” 13 Aug 2014, 10:17 am. Tweet.

Muckelbauer, John. The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. State University of New York P, 2008.

Plato. Timaeus. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford, Eng.: Oxford UP, 2008.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being.  U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

Ritivoi, Andrea Deciu. “Doxa.” Paul Ricoeur: Tradition and Innovation In Rhetorical Theory. State University of New York P, 2006, pp. 49-69.

The Insider (TheInsider). “Are YOU with @KevinFrazier & @TheaAndrews? Tweet us YOUR #BringBackOurGirls photo & spread the word.” 7 May 2014, 8:13 pm. Tweet.

Thimsen, Freya A. “The People Against Corporate Personhood: Doxa and Dissensual Democracy.” Quarterly Journal of Speech vol. 101 no. 3 Aug. 2015, pp. 485-508.

Ulmer, Gregory L. Heuretics: The Logic of Invention.  Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.

Vitanza, Victor. “Critical Sub/Versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review vol. 6 no. 1, Sept. 1987, pp. 41-66.

Warnick, Barbara. “Two Systems of Invention: The Topics in the Rhetoric and The New Rhetoric.Rereading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, edited by Alan G. Gross and Arthur E. Walzer. Southern Illinois UP, 2000, pp. 107-30.