A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

From "Flows" to "Excess": On Stability, Stubbornness, and Blockage in Rhetorical Ecologies

Chris Mays, University of Nevada, Reno

(Published June 12, 2015)

In a memorable quote from Jenny Rice’s foundational article “From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies,” Rice argues that:

The rhetorical situation is part of what we might call, borrowing from [Louise Wetherbee] Phelps, an ongoing social flux. Situation bleeds into the concatenation of public interaction. Public interactions bleed into wider social processes. The elements of rhetorical situation simply bleed. (Edbauer 8–9)

Rice’s point here highlights an important aspect of what she calls rhetorical “ecologies”: that they move. Constantly in flux, our rhetorical actions and reactions are always caught up in an evolution that Rice shows to be vibrant, unceasing, and above all, worthy of our theoretical and pedagogical attention.1 Such attention to movement has become an imperative of sorts in both rhetoric and writing studies; as Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber succinctly put it: “Rhetorics move and evolve, and too often theories of rhetorical situation and the classrooms they inhabit act as if rhetoric sits still” (194). In endeavoring to theorize and chart this movement of rhetorical ecologies, scholars like Rice, Rivers, and Weber, along with many others have been on the forefront of a push to explore those dynamic rhetorical situations we all inhabit, that continuously evolve as their elements “bleed” into their simultaneously evolving surroundings.2

The movement of elements in a rhetorical ecology is taken up by many scholars in terms of the concept of flow. Rebecca Dingo’s work, for example, describes the way “malleable” texts, rhetorics, and arguments “flow [across] international borders,” encounter new material conditions, and in this “circulation” become “layered and connected to other information” in ways that alter their uptake by participants in diverse rhetorical landscapes (146, 13–14). As Rice herself points out, drawing on the work of Steven Shaviro, a rhetorical situation exists in a social “site” that is itself “a networked space of flows and connections.” Thinking in these terms, Rice  draws attention to a “social field” that is “comprised . . . from events that are shifting and moving, grafted onto and connected with other events” (Edbauer 9–10).

Rice’s description of this fluid network of the social in which a rhetorical ecology exists also evokes the work of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whom Rice also draws upon in her work. For Deleuze and Guattari, the world is composed of networks that are both ordered and open; crucially, though, these networks are constituted by flows that “produce phenomena of relative slowness and viscosity, or, on the contrary, of acceleration and rupture” (3–4). Manuel De Landa, working from Deleuze and Guattari, explains that “what truly defines the real world . . . are neither uniform strata [ordered, hierarchical networks] nor variable meshworks [open networks] but the unformed and unstructured flows from which these two derive” (260). As these and many other scholars show, thinking in terms of the movement—in the sense of the circulation, flow, interaction, and evolution—of elements in a rhetorical ecology can lead to a more fully developed theorization of the diachronic, dynamic, and—significantly—the effect-laden nature of our rhetorical (and non-rhetorical) ecosystems.

As with so many conceptual emphases, however, a particular selection of terms (to paraphrase Kenneth Burke) entails a corresponding deflection of others. In this case, while I agree that ecological approaches’ recognition of movement, circulation, flow, and evolution—and of the corresponding presence of significant rhetorical effects in these ecologies—is a benefit to rhetoric and writing studies, I also argue that there is something to be gained from a closer look at rhetorical ecologies that seem not to move—or to “bleed”—at all.

In this essay, using key concepts taken from theories of complex systems—many of the very same theories in which rhetorical ecological approaches are themselves rooted—I examine these apparently static rhetorical ecologies, as well as aspects of all rhetorical ecologies that would seem inhibitive to the flows (and rhetorical effects of these flows) that constitute a vibrant ecosystem. In so doing, I productively complicate the relationship of movement and stability. Crucially, I argue that thinking of a rhetorical ecology in terms of “excess” can help us better understand the way flows and evolution work in relation to the seemingly opposed ideas of blockage and stubbornness. While these latter terms would seem to point to a lack of movement—and a correspondent lack of rhetorical effects present—in an ecology, paradoxically, I argue the very presence of such stability is evidence of movement and rhetorical effects. In short, what I call a “rhetoric-systems” approach gives us an account of stability that highlights both its necessity and its productive role in a rhetorical ecology.

Following an explication of this point, I will apply the rhetoric-systems approach in an examination of a rhetorical ecology within American political discourse that would seem to lack any significant movement or evolution whatsoever. In this static ecology, texts do still circulate—and thus still move (and flow)—but they are ostensibly caught in a kind of rhetorical feedback loop wherein they have no apparent impact on the basic contours of the ecosystem. In this ecology, then, the movement of texts would seem to be an afterthought, lacking the ability to generate significant or noticeable rhetorical effects.

Zooming in even further on this rhetorical ecology, I examine a particular belief that seems particularly resistant to evolution and to the pull of effect-generating rhetorical “flow”: the belief that the “founders” of the United States were devout Christians. For those who hold it, this belief is remarkably resistant to counterarguments, and thus it appears to be a permanent and non-evolving feature of a rhetorical ecology that many would describe as “stubborn.” The persistence of this belief is also exemplary of the persistence of many political beliefs in general, and is a good example of what political scientists Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler argue is a renewed polarization in American political discourse, a phenomenon they argue is a significant threat to functioning deliberative democracy (3–5).

While I do not dispute such “stubbornness” can be harmful to productive deliberative political discourse, I argue here that stubbornness itself is a much more multifaceted phenomenon than is commonly acknowledged, and that a robust theorization of the concept, as well as the related concept of blockage, and more generally of stability, can enhance our understanding of deliberative discourse, of flow, circulation, and evolution, and of rhetorical ecologies in general. In performing such a theorization in my analysis, I describe how such seemingly stubborn beliefs often thrive as part of what I call a rhetoric system (a term meant to evoke the systems described in complex systems theory, much of which does not rely on the term “ecology”).3 In such a rhetoric system, a wide variety of beliefs can persist in the face of what might appear to be irrefutable contrary evidence.4 As I will show, while persistence of belief may seem to indicate an ecology closed to evolution and lacking in rhetorical effect, in fact this tenacity indicates just the opposite, and it is a key feature of all rhetoric systems. This means that what are often considered stubborn beliefs, rather than an exclusive feature of one particular ideology or political party, are an integral and complex part of the way knowledge is created, sustained, and circulated in a rhetorical ecology.

Flow, Blockage, and (Counter-)Rhetoric(s)

To be sure, scholars working with rhetorical ecologies do often discuss impediments to fluidity and movement. Rice, for example, discusses the importance of “counter-rhetorics” that can “directly respond to and resist the original exigence” (Edbauer 19). Building from this, Rivers and Weber explain that “publics . . . come into being . . . in the interplay of texts that cite, build off, refute, and infect one another” (194). As these scholars show, in this interplay of rhetorics and counter-rhetorics a situation may flow, but it does not do so in a unidirectional way nor without resistance, as any rhetorical movement is continually subject to contestation and alteration by a variety of competing elements.

The idea of competition central to this robust picture of a rhetorical ecology is built from a rhetorical tradition that casts resistance and contestation as integral to deliberative rhetoric itself. Debra Hawhee’s explication of the ag?n, which she characterizes as a productive “struggle” rooted in a “combative” athletic tradition, serves as a salient example of the way this tradition—and, by extension, the rhetorical ecological model built from it—incorporates in a significant way both flow and resistance to that flow (16–17). In Hawhee’s version of rhetorical agonism, deliberation and debate exists as “productive strife” that entails the push and pull of discursive ebbs and flows as rhetors both collaborate and resist each other’s moves and countermoves (25). As Rivers and Jeremy Tirrell write, the kind of classical agonism Hawhee discusses depicts a rhetorical debate that is a “competitive/cooperative process” (40). 

While I agree that the view of rhetoric as a productive struggle is a useful (and accurate) one, in this essay I would like to zero in on those times when the struggle itself seems to cease. For Rice, counter-rhetorics “expand the lived experience of the original rhetorics by adding to them—even while changing and expanding their shape” (Edbauer 19; emphasis in original). Here, then, I explicate those ecologies in which there does not seem to be any adding, changing, or expanding of their shape. I do this not to argue that the “struggle” or “productive strife” inherent in classical and contemporary ecologies does in fact ever cease, but rather to tease out the ways this struggle continues even when certain rhetorics and counter-rhetorics seem to become locked-in as deliberative obstacles that cannot be moved.

Sara Ahmed gets at this kind of seemingly insuperable lack of motion in her discussion of what she calls “blockages.” As Ahmed writes, in some cases thinking exclusively in terms of flow and fluidity can be counterproductive. As she puts it, “Things might appear fluid if you are going the way things are flowing," but “[w]hen you are not going that way, you experience a flow as solidity,” as a “blockage” (186–87). When we focus on blockages, Ahmed argues, we can see that for many, rhetorical ecologies are made up of categories that do not flow at all—a staticity that for those who “do not quite inhabit” these categories is all too clear (178).

Ahmed’s discussion of “blockage,” and her recognition that categories are distinctly not fluid in some circumstances also evoke the rhetorical concept of “recalcitrance,” which Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca describe in terms of rhetors who themselves become the blockages in deliberative discourse. In everyday parlance, we might simply refer to these rhetors as “stubborn.” In Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s formulation, the way to deal with these stubborn blockages is to simply write them out of the picture. As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca put it, when faced with this resistance a rhetor can simply “resort to disqualifying the recalcitrant by classifying him as stupid or abnormal” (33).

This kind of dismissal, however, casts stubbornness (or blockage, or recalcitrance) narrowly, within the individual person. Considered this way, movement in a rhetorical ecology can simply flow around the person and can therefore bypass the blockage. As Ahmed reminds us, however, there are some blockages one cannot simply “get over” (187). Building on this, I argue that stubbornness is not even something that can be localized in any one individual or entity that one might hypothetically be able to “get over.” Rather, stubbornness is significantly more complex and more comprehensive than a person who can simply be “disqualified.” Within the rhetoric-systems approach I outline here, stubbornness itself is cast as a property emergent from the mutually sustaining interrelation of the entire system of rhetoric—which includes the individual, but which does not end there. This approach thus conceives rhetoric ecologies as comprising discrete-yet-connected bodily, social, physical, and rhetorical systems, all of which interact with each other in an interconnected dynamic network that is both constituted and sustained by flows and stability—stubbornness, that is, is an emergent property crucial to the sustainment of a rhetoric system itself.5

Defining a “Rhetoric System”

An important consequence of viewing stubbornness as an emergent property of rhetoric systems is that it gets us away from thinking of flow as opposed to—or even in competition with—blockage and stubbornness. This subsequently allows us to more fully reveal the intricate interrelations of movement and stability in a rhetoric system. For me to be able to perform this explication of a rhetoric system here, though, I first need to elaborate the nature of complex systems in general.

For many systems theorists, what is encompassed by the term “system” is incredibly diverse, spanning from cells to societies to economies to the universe. On this view, as articulated in Alvin Toffler’s introduction to Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ foundational systems theory text Order Out of Chaos, the approach of systems theory forms a crucial link from “the so-called hard sciences to the softer sciences of life—and perhaps even to social processes as well” (xvii). This point, that systems theory can account for key characteristics of social processes, has been embraced wholeheartedly by many working with these processes. As biological systems theorist Stuart Kauffman writes, systems theory is so useful in theorizing social processes because it overcomes the drive to reduce all phenomena to physical properties, or what he calls “the ideal of reductionism in science” (17).

Complex systems, then, can be physical systems, but also can be social, biological, and as I argue, rhetorical systems. Such systems could be constituted by the social ties, relations, and organizations that constitute a society (a social system); by the elements and relations that compose a single cell (a biological system); by the matter, energy, and relations that make up the entire universe (a physical system); or by one person’s network of beliefs, meanings, commonplaces, and texts that shapes their knowledge and understanding of the world (a rhetorical system). And while these systems are always linked to each other, we can also think of them each as a discrete system: thinking of a rhetoric system, then, involves conceiving our arguments about the world (as well as the meanings and texts that reflect these arguments) as an interconnected set of relations wherein no individual rhetorical element in the system exists independently, and wherein the stability of each element is determined by, and helps determine, the stability of every other element. In such a system every movement of one of these elements affects and is affected by all of the others, and each of these linkages contributes to the stability of the whole; thus, in a rhetoric system each of our arguments and beliefs is connected to and reinforces all of the others, and the strength of each helps sponsor the cohesion of the whole.

“Making the Cut”: Why Systems Theory is Rhetoric(al)

In any type of system, such as the aforementioned cell, economy, universe, or belief network, there must be a boundary around what constitutes that system; for a system to exist in the first place there must be an “inside” and an “outside” to it. The extent to which this boundary is permeable, or even static, however, is somewhat of a thorny issue, and is also a pivotal point in understanding the function of a rhetoric system. To start, what are often called “second wave” systems theorists—Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela are two well-known members of this group—largely insist that systems are, as N. Katherine Hayles puts it, “informationally closed.” This means that nothing actually “crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment,” and so anything that happens on the outside does not directly affect the inside of the system. Such external events can only “trigge[r] changes” on the inside (Hayles, How 10–11). In terms of a rhetoric system, this allows us to think of a person’s network of beliefs as self-enclosed; any new events that happen out in the world are thus interpreted solely within an already-existing network of beliefs—upon hearing some new piece of information I “make sense of it” completely within the context of what I already know.

Social systems theorist Niklas Luhmann complicates this point to some extent in his articulation of systems that are both closed and open. As he describes them, systems are cut off from full interaction with the outside by discrete and defined boundaries, yet these boundaries are able to form distinct relationships with what is outside: if I wasn’t to some extent a discrete person, that is, I wouldn’t be able to form relationships with others, as I would instead be infinitely open to them. As one way of thinking about it, there could not be a “me” in a relationship with a “you” without boundaries surrounding each of us.6 Luhmann’s point, however, has the consequence of making the boundaries more unstable because he allows for more direct relationships with the between the system and what is outside the system. Luhmann, though, not only acknowledges this point, he embraces it, arguing that because of their relationship with the outside, systems are characterized by a fundamental “unrest” which makes them continually subject to being redrawn in response to changes in their environment (64). For Luhmann, then, as opposed to Maturana and Varela, the point is less about a system’s need to maintain boundaries at all costs (Maturana and Varela were dealing with biological organisms; dissolution of boundaries typically meant death). Rather, for Luhmann the point is that boundaries must be redrawn—they are, in essence, more rhetorical.

This re-drawing of boundaries, or as Hayles calls it “making a cut,” is the signature move of systems theory following Luhmann, and I argue that this concept is not only a key intersection of systems theory and rhetoric, it is crucial to complicating and enriching our conceptions of blockage, stubbornness, and flow. To think of this point in terms of rhetorical analysis, a system itself exists in an ever-changing and infinitely open environment, but when we observe it we make a contingent and unstable selection—a “cut.” Similarly, a rhetorician must freeze a rhetorical situation in order to successfully analyze it—there must be a moment at which the analyst, the observer, stops everything long enough to describe it. The analyst, that is, must constantly maintain a state of closure on an essentially contingent situation by drawing boundaries: he or she must define things univocally, as frozen, even as they are not. In order to describe flow one must suspend that very flow.

This is as true for a rhetorician as it is for a participant in a situation. On the one hand, in our observations texts have definable effects (or a definable lack of effects), and the causal relationships between objects and events is articulable. And for a participant in a rhetorical situation, things can be said to “mean what they mean,” as for interlocutors there is a shared set of principles that scaffolds a system of agreed-upon fixed meaning.7 In short, just as the rhetorical analyst describes a situation that is effectively a frozen snapshot of a dynamic situation, any participation in a situation also entails a seemingly frozen state of meaning. While the situation is dynamic, and so will inevitably be different when viewed or experienced from a different point in time or from a different perspective, a set of stable, defined (and definable) relationships must be assumed. That is, while I may know a situation is theoretically in flux, and the meanings I share with interlocutors are ultimately subjective and contestable (that they are flowing), that does not mean I can unilaterally declare a particular meaning to be invalid. I can’t will my way out of a situation that is, for all intents and purposes, “blocked.” That there is always another possibility a situation is evolving toward, and that there is always a wider context to consider are of no use to someone who is living and experiencing on a local level what seem to be unambiguously stubborn circumstances.

In short, our descriptions of a situation must posit stability—always, we must make a cut in order to generate knowledge of that situation. However, it is nevertheless important to recognize the way that such systems that we describe do evolve outside of our awareness, and that stability is, while not quite an illusion, certainly a potentially misleading ad hoc construction. By explicitly theorizing the way we must make “cuts,” a rhetoric-systems approach reveals that stability and movement are not opposed, but rather inseparable concepts operating simultaneously in any situation.

To take a rhetoric-systems approach is to recognize the “cuts” we make, and to recognize the ways such cuts create a paradox: stable systems that are also inherently unstable. Such systems tenaciously persist while also on the move, and are blocked while also on the verge of destabilization. Any situation, that is, can neither fully be characterized as frozen nor as flowing. Instead, within a rhetoric-systems approach a situation exists as a multiplicity of stabilities in the midst of constant change. Such an impossible statement, among other things, brings us to the crucial concept of excess.

Rationalization as Reorganization: Excess and Rhetorical Effects in a Rhetoric System

To say that there is always excess in a system is to say that there is always another possibility, always another formulation in which a system can exist. The “unrest” with which Luhmann argues every system is imbued means that the structure and organization of systems—no matter how permanent such structure may seem—always exist against a backdrop of alternative configurations into which the system threatens at any moment to evolve, and thus any stability in such a system is both temporary and contingent. We hold contexts stable in our descriptions, but there is always an excess left out of any particular system configuration, and it is this excess that is continually destabilizing our conceptualizations—and thus the boundaries—of a system. As Luhmann puts it, “points of consensus . . . exist only against the horizon of [endless] possibilities,” and the unrest caused by these excess possibilities periodically “forces” static meaning to change (90, 64).

Thinking in terms of excess drastically alters the way we think about rhetorical effects: as not always visible, but as continuously reverberating. This is a claim that would seem to be undermined by the central paradox in my argument—when a rhetorical ecology is “blocked,” rhetorical effects are (largely) absent. But the notion of excess, I argue, accounts for this paradox by allowing a fundamental reformulation of how we should be thinking about the effects of our rhetoric: as simultaneously static and singular, yet possessed of an unrest (due to excess) that is constantly inciting them to re-form, combine, and to travel to new contexts. While rhetorical effects often are blocked, they also are always exceeding our conceptual grasp and thus are impacting the rhetorical ecology in ways we cannot account for.

These invisible rhetorical effects sustained by the ever-present destabilizing excess are, perhaps counterintuitively, integral to a system’s tendency to persist. This is because systems tend to maintain stability via what is known as “self-organization.” As mentioned earlier, a system resists slipping into its infinite other possible states by avoiding direct interaction with the outside as much as possible—it reacts to perturbations by reorganizing itself entirely within itself in ways that maintain its continued integrity and stability (this point draws more on Maturana and Varela than Luhmann; however, conceived as a general tendency of systems, it is compatible with the ideas of each of these theorists). This quality of self-organization Kauffman calls “order for free,” and it is a key property of all systems, including rhetoric systems (71). Maturana and Varela describe this process extensively: a system “continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations” (79). The term “compensation” is crucial here, as it highlights the idea that a system is constantly reorganizing itself to compensate for changes in its environment in order to maintain its defined boundaries. In short, in addition to the aforementioned instability generated by the excess inherent in systems, these systems also display a tendency toward stability that is enabled by excess. In order to ward off wholesale destabilization, systems will continuously reorganize as a way of maintaining order. Excess, then, drives the movement that ensures stability—and this stability in turn hides these constant (and significant) reorganizations.

Maturana and Varela’s description thus illuminates two basic characteristics of systems: their capacity to self-organize and their quality of self-sustainment.These complementary processes speak precisely to the point discussed earlier: by staying as operationally closed as possible, systems display a high degree of stability, even while they exist in an environment of unlimited and constant change. If we think of the rhetoric system that is constituted by our beliefs about the world, we can think of the way we often react to destabilizing information not by immediately changing our worldview, but by reorganizing it, compensating for this information in such a way that keeps our overall view of the world relatively intact. In this sense, presenting a person with clear evidence that he or she is wrong often results in what could be thought of as a rationalization; as I argue, though, such a rationalization is also a reorganization of the entire system in such a way that assimilates the new piece of evidence without destabilizing the entire belief network. Present a pro-George W. Bush conservative with evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, for example, and (in some cases) that person’s other beliefs about the liberal bias of the media compensate in such a way that the original information does not make even a ripple in his overall belief network.

Such a phenomenon has been extensively documented and theorized. A relatively recent study that, in fact, examined Americans’ attitudes about WMDs in Iraq, as well as about George W. Bush’s position on stem cell research (each issue provocative to individuals on different sides of the political spectrum), noted that many of the participants “failed to update” their erroneous beliefs, even when they were “presented with corrective information that [ran] counter to their predispositions.” Moreover, “in several cases,” the researchers (Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler) found that “corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects” (304). Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call this reorganization-to-maintain-cohesion of a belief system “self-justification”; for them this phenomenon is the primary means by which we reduce the “pangs” or “anguish” caused by an encounter with an idea or piece of evidence that contrasts with, or threatens to overturn, one of our beliefs (222–23).

Such rhetorical rationalization is the way the system of our belief network—our rhetoric system—reorganizes itself in order to maintain, as much as possible, its boundaries. Here, stability is achieved, but at the price of constant change via the process of reorganization.Thus, excess is the driver of stability in a system in the form of reorganization as a resistance to destabilization. In this sense excess is a key term in our accounting for how belief networks resist destabilization even while they constantly change via reorganization.

Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the “Body without Organs” (BwO)—a concept that is to a significant degree theoretically coextensive with what I describe as rhetoric systems—further articulates the systems theory account of sustainment-though-reorganization. Specifically, Deleuze and Guattari’s description depicts flows and stabilities as mutually sustaining—as two instantiations of the same phenomenon. As De Landa explains, Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the BwO makes clear that “the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms, money (and other ‘stuff’) are the source of just about every stable structure that we cherish and value (or, on the contrary, that oppresses or enslaves us) (260–61). In other words, out of flows emerge “stable structures,” and these stable structures are themselves sustained by flows.

For Deleuze and Guattari (and for De Landa), the interaction of these flows constitutes the self-organization that sustains a system out of which can emerge a series of “stable structures.” In terms of a rhetoric system, this means that the fluid interactions of the system—interactions we characterize as rationalizations—create stable structures, which we perceive as worldviews crystallized and manifested in so-called “stubborn” viewpoints that so tenaciously resist even the most powerful of counterarguments.

Where Are the (Nonlinear) Effects?: How Stubborn Rhetoric (Eco)Systems Evolve

If we take a rhetoric-systems approach to examine a particular rhetorical ecology that seems pervaded by stubbornness, we can more clearly see the way flow and blockage function simultaneously to sustain the system, and we can see that all systems constantly evolve even while they remain stubborn, and even if sometimes these characteristics are hidden from immediate view. This kind of rhetorical inquiry gives us new places to look for rhetorical effects and thus opens up new ways to track rhetorical intervention in places where rhetoric may previously have been considered useless.

The rhetorical ecology I focus on here encompasses the widespread public debate over the so-called “founders” of the United States.8 One portion of the debate, in particular, centers on the belief that the authors of key foundational texts of US government—typically, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—were fundamentalist Christians who, in creating these documents, intended for the United States to be a distinctly Christian nation. This is a belief commonly criticized in popular culture, and, for many, the groups targeted by this critique are considered prime examples of the way a rhetorical ecology can become “blocked” by “stubborn” beliefs.9 To those who disagree with them, members of these groups seem to ignore strong counter-evidence that the founders were neither specifically evangelical, nor even clearly religious. Similarly, the derisive tone of the critics of these groups illustrates what seems to be a fundamental refusal to even entertain the possibility of the legitimacy of these religiously-inflected viewpoints. To be sure, disparate definitions of the very concept of “religious intent” drive several of the points of contention for each side of the debate. My goal in examining this debate, however, is not to prove that one side—and one side’s definition—is more “correct” than the other, but rather to use a rhetoric-systems approach to highlight that despite what appears to be entrenched stubbornness on both sides, the positions of all parties in the debate are evolving in subtle but important ways.

In this ecology, we can look at the way members of political movements belong to different rhetoric systems, each with elements networked to all of the other elements in the system, as well as to elements in other, non-rhetoric systems. I argue that it is precisely a belief’s entanglement in such a networked system that makes it difficult to overturn. As my approach also illustrates, this is not a partisan nor even a unique phenomenon; rather, any rhetoric system will work to sustain beliefs in the face of potentially destabilizing perturbations. In much the same way Nyhan and Reifler describe certain Americans as resistant to “corrections” about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq or about George W. Bush’s sanctioning of stem cell research, individuals of all political stripes often are reluctant to alter their beliefs about political history. Significantly, however, my argument holds that this apparent stubbornness is sponsored by an increased productive flow in the ecology: for a system to remain stable, and for it to keep its essential boundaries intact, it must compensatorily reorganize in often significant ways. Once again, stubbornness entails the flow of compensatory rhetorical effects.

From the perspective of a more traditional rhetorical inquiry, looking closely at the ecology in question reveals a high degree of stubbornness. It is clear, for instance, that there are many who believe steadfastly that the founders were evangelicals who wrote the Constitution as an endorsement of religion. The degrees of nuance in this position are many, but for the purposes of my point here it is suffice to say that there are many who endorse some version of a pro-evangelical stance vis-à-vis the founders. A quick Google search can reveal the commonality of this position: websites abound with titles like “The Myth of the Separation of Church and State: American's Founding Fathers: Deists or Christians” (whose authors answer that subtitle by noting that independent experts have verified that “27 of the 56 founding fathers had Christian seminary degrees!”). While this view has significant popular support, a great diversity of claims about the founders’ strict Christianity can be found coming from a variety of academics as well, even if these claims are somewhat less extreme. Political science scholar Mark David Hall, for instance, is the author of an article that appears on the website for the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, in which he makes a detailed and seemingly historically supported argument that while the founders were not unequivocally fundamentalist Christians, “virtually all of them understood ‘Nature’s God,’ ‘Creator,’ and ‘Providence’ to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: a God who is active in the affairs of men and nations.” This, of course, does not go as far as many of those who claim that the Declaration of Independence is an explicit endorsement of evangelical Christianity. However, my main point here is that all of these arguments—both extreme and nuanced—are interacting parts of a rhetoric system out of which emerges a tenacious belief in the basic premise of the claim.

On the other side of things, many of those who would dismiss this position wholesale and outright argue that the founders were not devout Protestants nor even particularly devout Christians, and were either a-religious, deists, or in general lacked the fervor of devout religious adherents. This, again, is reducing a large number of nuanced positions to a single sentence, but as I argue here, the point is not that the views are nuanced, the point is that there is a significant contingent of individuals who claim the first viewpoint discussed here as simply “wrong.” For example, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone bluntly writes that the “[f]ounding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity” (8). New York Times reporter Russell Shorto makes a similar authoritatively dismissive statement when he writes that while “the founders were rooted in Christianity,” they “at the same time . . . were steeped in an Enlightenment rationalism that was, if not opposed to religion, determined to establish separate spheres for faith and reason.”

In terms of a rhetoric-systems approach, these two basic views reveal the contours of two disparate rhetoric systems, each of which circulates divergent commonplaces, and each of which is networked in different ways to other beliefs, texts, and even to other non-rhetorical elements in the ecosystem. Moreover, the claim that the founders were largely a-religious, and on the whole did not intend for religion to be a primary component of government, circulates in a particular rhetoric system from which emerges what historian William Hogeland calls “‘public history’—the history we encounter in museums and tourist attractions, in newspaper columns and election campaigns, in public broadcasting and popular biographies.” Such history, Hogeland writes, is often dominated by an over-simplified “mainstream” historical narrative (xii–xiii). In this case, the mainstream narrative (and the claims that emerge from this narrative) circulate widely in the rhetoric system currently dominant in American political discourse, and, the narrative is significantly opposed to any counterclaims about the founders’ evangelical—or even religious—nature. Put another way, within the rhetorical ecology that comprises these two separate rhetoric systems, there seems to be a distinct lack of what we might call a productive struggle.

A rhetoric-systems approach, however, shows us that even in corners of an ecology that seem to only exhibit blockage and stubbornness, there are in fact significant and effect-laden rhetorical flows. In this case, the work of historian and evangelist David Barton serves as an interesting case in point. Barton’s particular views on American history—which are often perceived as markedly resistant to what Hogeland would call the “mainstream” historical narrative—are thus widely considered blocked off from the flow (and the effects) of that dominant “public history,” and correspondingly seem unable to affect the flow of arguments circulating within the mainstream rhetoric system itself. As such, Barton’s views seem to circulate without creating significant rhetorical effects, and so are caught up in what I earlier referred to as a kind of “rhetorical feedback loop.”

Within that feedback loop of his followers, Barton’s ideas certainly do feature prominently. Barton’s bio proclaims that “Time Magazine [has] called him ‘a hero to millions[’]—including some powerful politicians,[']" and as well that the magazine “named him as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.” An NPR profile about Barton written before the 2012 presidential election reported that “[s]eeking his endorsement are politicians including Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who’s mentioned as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich is a fan. So is Mike Huckabee” (Hagerty). Barton reportedly gives over 400 speeches a year (Hagerty), and according to his bio, “was involved in the development of the History/Social Studies standards for states such as Texas and California, and has helped produce history textbooks now used in schools across the nation.”

A more traditional rhetorical inquiry might conclude, despite these claims to popularity, that Barton’s ideas only have an effect on the already-converted—that is, on those who are already entangled in the same rhetoric system as Barton. Many of his arguments revolve around premises that would be quite radical to a person adhering to the mainstream view of American history. Not only does he believe that “the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who built America on Christian ideas—[which is] something you never learn in school” (Hagerty), he argues that, for instance, “Jesus did not like the minimum wage” (Coaster). In general, Barton’s beliefs are clearly very influential in some circles, but they reveal a rhetoric system that to outsiders is often difficult to comprehend, let alone analyze, since it is based on ideas deemed by many as simply not true; Barton has been repeatedly criticized for “factual errors” in his work, and his recent New York Times bestseller on Thomas Jefferson was pulled from the shelves by the publisher precisely because of such errors (Hagerty).

What all this means is that it is easy to dismiss Barton’s views as a product of fringe discourse, influential only within insular groups determined not to listen to contradictory mainstream evidence. But, I am arguing that although Barton’s texts may seem ignored by a large segment of the public, these texts are in fact widely influential in all rhetoric systems, even the mainstream system, and thus his ideas often end up influencing public discussions and public policy in significant ways.

To illustrate: During a 2012 event for the US Republican primary election in the state of Iowa called the “Thanksgiving Family Forum,” two Presidential candidates (Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry) explicitly endorsed the premise that, as Bachmann put it, “American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments” (Saletan). As Bachmann stated bluntly in an interview: “The Judeo-Christian heritage isn’t a belief. It’s a fact of our nation’s history. It’s a fact.” These are premises pulled directly from Barton’s work—and Bachmann freely admits that this is the case. The Congresswoman is an outspoken admirer of Barton’s, even going so far as to invite him to be a guest speaker at her proposed weekly “class[es] on the Constitution,” which she planned to make available to all Congresspersons in 2010 (Brody). Despite the fact that Bachmann’s own views may have emerged from what seems to be a Barton “feedback loop,” I argue that in her very public statements and actions we can see the beginning of an evolution of the broader public discussion—and of the mainstream rhetoric system. While Bachmann’s views themselves may not noticeably change, her publicizing her claims on a national scale means that the broader public, rather than simply ignoring or dismissing these claims, is increasingly being asked to recognize, and to contend with, the existence and popularity of Barton’s ideas.

To go a bit further in my explanation: Writing on the Encyclopedia Britannica blog (the slogan of which reads, not incidentally, “facts matter”), Joseph Ellis explains that “in recent decades Christian advocacy groups, prompted by motives that have been questioned by some, have felt a powerful urge to enlist the Founding Fathers.” He concedes that while “recovering the spiritual convictions of the Founders, in all their messy integrity, is not an easy task,” what he calls the “dominant pattern” is their “diversity” of belief. This seems to be a simple acknowledgement of the debate on the issue. But considering the connection of Barton’s ideas and Bachmann’s endorsement of them on a national stage, we can consider that the ideas portrayed in the Britannica text have changed to accommodate the views of people who support Barton. Ellis’s acknowledgment that the founders’ views might have been more complex than is commonly acknowledged in the dominant view of history can be traced as an effect of the now mainstream salience of views like Barton’s.

In a further tacit endorsement of this diversity, Britannica sanctions a separate blog that serves as a counterpoint to Ellis: on this blog the authors argue that “in their brief asides on the subject,” “virtually all” of the founders agreed with “most Christians even today,” who “regard immortal life as a communion with God, with their friends, and all those historical greats whom they admire—an everlasting conversation” (Novak and Novak). Phrases such as “immortal life,” “communion with God,” and “Christians today” are specific elements of Barton’s arguments, and while the writing on this second Britannica blog does not explicitly reference nor completely parallel Barton’s larger arguments, it certainly reproduces a significant part of Barton’s rhetoric system structure. Importantly, I am not claiming that this reproduction is a direct reference to Barton’s work. It doesn’t have to be. Rather, I argue that in the spread of these elements to various discursive sites such as the Presidential debates, classes offered to Congresspersons, and blogs and counter-blogs officially sanctioned by Encyclopedia Britannica, we can see Barton’s views, which may at first glance seem confined—as in a closed loop of circulation—to only the most esoteric of rhetoric systems, actually generating considerable widespread (albeit subtle) rhetorical effects, and indirectly influencing a variety of rhetoric systems in significant ways.

As I have shown here, we can often observe the myriad small ways the system is evolving compensatorily, something which may not be obvious in a rhetorical inquiry interested in tracing a more direct line from intentions to effects. The effects traced by a rhetoric-systems approach, rather, are compensatory, and thus are often deferred, displaced, and nonlinear.

As another example of a more nonlinear kind of rhetorical effect that a rhetoric-systems approach can highlight: In a New York Times account of a 2010 debate over the founders’ Christianity that played out in the Texas Board of Education’s attempt to shape the state’s social studies curriculum, compensatory changes can be found already at (subtle) work in the reactions of the board members. As the Times article shows, the views of those members who advocate fundamentalism appear stable, despite the objections and rhetorical efforts of those opposed to them. However, the members’ responses to criticism from the so-called “secularists” demonstrate that these board members—ostensibly stubborn and set in their views—have actually changed positions slightly, if only to further rally around their cause. As one of them put it, “You can’t appreciate the founding of our country without realizing that the founders understood [these religious truths]. For our kids to not know our history, that could kill a society. That’s why to me this [debate] is a huge thing” (Shorto). This quotation may sound like increased intransigence—and in a sense, it is. But it is also, notably, a change, subtle as it may seem, in the dynamic of the debate: this quotation shows that those who hold a radical view of the religiosity of the founders have adopted a position that remains contentious, but that also recognizes that criticism of their views has become widespread; just as the founders-were-Christian commonplace has become more widely circulated in the mainstream rhetoric system, so has criticism of that view become more widely circulated in this other rhetoric system. Although the individuals in this Times article argue that failure to teach kids their version of history could “kill a society” (which sounds like increased intransigence), that these same individuals have increased the urgency of their tone in response to a perceived threat (in the form of criticism of their worldview) is itself an evolution of their views.

Conclusion: Complicating Stability in a Rhetorical Ecology

From a rhetoric-systems point of view, all knowledge claims, and so all beliefs, can be seen as manifestations of the need to carve out stability in a world of excess, and as such claims/“cuts” are never made in isolation, they cannot easily be overturned in isolation. In the case of David Barton, the idea of Judeo-Christian founding fathers is networked to and sponsored by other beliefs, such as that this particular version of religion is—and should be—a fundamental part of one’s life and community, and that such a religiously grounded community should be a model for the nation as a whole. The “opposing” belief that Barton’s views are completely indefensible and have zero historical evidence to back them up is similarly networked to and sponsored by other beliefs, such as the belief that individuals often categorized as part of the “Religious Right” are anti-democracy, and that the telos of American government is as a completely secular body. The point here is not to illustrate that either side is “correct,” of course. Rather, as my examples illustrate, a rhetoric-systems approach can show us where distant, nonlinear, and potentially unnoticed rhetorical effects are at work and thus where subtle change to a rhetoric system is happening.

Going a bit further, a rhetoric-systems approach shows us that even when these nonlinear effects appear to be strengthening or reinforcing the stability of a system, in just these situations we can find much more than simple maintenance, as these often-hidden compensatory changes can have unexpected and potentially major transformative rhetorical effects. This is because, as systems theory predicts, at any moment a system can attain the necessary conditions for a massive change. Deleuze and Guattari discuss this phenomenon in terms of what they call “the refrain.” The refrain is, first of all, an organizing principle, but it also can be an agent of massive destabilization—almost akin to the way a particular pitch can resonate with a wine glass and in so doing instantaneously shatter it. The refrain, Deleuze and Guattari write, “has a catalytic function: not only to increase the speed of the exchanges and reactions in that which surrounds it, but also to assure indirect interactions between elements devoid of so-called natural affinity, and thereby to form organized masses.” Just as a refrain in music can act as an arranging element in a chaotic aural symphony, and can draw together heretofore unrelated elements, for Deleuze and Guattari a refrain is a principle that can arrange chaotic elements of a system and in so doing “ope[n]” the system onto a “cosmic force” that is “already present” (348–50). In a rhetoric system, the refrain produced in language can create order in such a way as to facilitate changes that dramatically surpass what may be expected.

As many systems scholars describe, in any system those innumerable small compensatory and evolutionary changes are potentially creating the conditions for an eventual major phase shift that while unpredictable, is nevertheless inevitable. Movement, change, and significant rhetorical flow in a system, while subtle, can thus set the stage for massive change just as easily as it can effect slow but steady reorganizations—in fact, these two processes are inherently linked. If the system lines up just right, as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers explain, a “dangerous” idea, individual, or behavior (and, I would add, rhetorical act) can “exploit to [its] advantage the nonlinear relations guaranteeing the stability of [a] preceding regime” (190). In other words, slow reorganizations can create the conditions under which a single “dangerous” act can effect massive change. If we consider the way that nonlinear rhetorical effects may create in a system unexpected changes sometimes far from their point of origin, we can see how the these nonlinear effects can, if a system lines up just right, combine in a powerful destabilizing refrain.

In terms of my main example, there are a diversity of changes to the system that may be indicating the system is lining up for a more substantive change. There are, for instance, several signs that controversial views about the religiosity of the founders are becoming less accepted by more people, as more and more rhetorical effects previously excluded by the system accumulate, and as more and more texts written about the issue circulate, interact, and affect the system in myriad uncountable ways—one of these ways being a simple growing awareness that these beliefs may be controversial. In the Times piece, the author relates one instance of resistance (in the form of embarrassment) that could be seen as one person’s recognition of the increased visibility of the contested nature of the debate. As the author of the article writes: “The injection of partisan politics into education went so far that at one point another Republican board member burst out in seemingly embarrassed exasperation, ‘Guys, you’re rewriting history now!’” (Shorto).

Will such a shift lead to a larger destabilization? While following these systems theory tenets would predict yes, these same tenets also stipulate that there is no way to know on what time scale this will occur; it may very well take decades—or even longer—before a large-scale reorganization happens. And while this may seem like a cop-out, since the views in question here might not significantly change in the short-term, the important point is that despite the apparent inefficacy of argument in this situation, the rhetorical actions on both sides are creating effects—perhaps not to the complete satisfaction of those who initiate them, but effects nonetheless.

Patricia Roberts-Miller notes that “one of the recurrent criticisms of argument (made by colleagues as well as students) is that it is ultimately ineffectual [when there is] a committed opposition” (110). It is precisely these criticisms that I argue can be answered by a rhetoric-systems-based explication of rhetorical ecologies, and specifically of the concepts of stubbornness, blockage, and stability, along with their inseparable counterparts flow, circulation, and movement. In making these connections between these terms I aim to highlight the ways rhetorical ecologies do “bleed,” to use Rice’s term, even when such flow seems absent. In the specific ecology I describe in this essay, the manifestations of this bleeding are the result of rhetorical effects that I argue a more traditional rhetorical inquiry might miss.

In taking a rhetoric-systems approach to this ecology, I also account for Deleuze and Guattari’s warning that we should “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” (500). Exploring these smooth spaces in a rhetorical ecology, where flow reigns and boundaries easily blur (and bleed), is, as many theorists make clear, a vital task. As I argue, it is also vital to explore the ways flows do work in stubborn spaces, and often do so without us noticing. In performing this exploration I intend to build on Jung’s point, itself built upon Ahmed’s theorization of blockages, that “Obstruction, then—both the feeling of it and the feeling of being it—has revisionary potential.” In so doing, I argue that rhetoric is a constant and complex force acting in the world, a force that we can at times control but also that exceeds both our intentions and our grasp.


  • 1. I would like to thank the anonymous enculturation reviewers and editor Casey Boyle for providing a great deal of helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank Julie Jung for her insight, critique, and encouragement, all of which were indispensable in writing this article.
  • 2. Building on the disciplinary focus on movement, in her introduction to Rhetorica in Motion Eileen E. Schell describes both “feminist rhetorical studies” and “[r]hetorical studies” in general as “constant[ly] . . . in motion” (6–7). Byron Hawk, as well, argues that rhetoric itself is fundamentally “a system that moves and evolves” (A Counter-History 192–94). In a recent enculturation article, Nathan Shepley expands the temporal aspects of rhetorical movement, writing that “texts” in a rhetorical ecology must be conceived “not as a single moment of action from a writer-rhetor but as sites of a series of diachronic interactions between people and ideologies.” And, in an earlier expression of a similar sentiment—which many of the above theorists draw upon—Richard M. Coe argues for an “eco-logic” approach that advocates a fluid and context-dependent approach to the teaching of writing.
  • 3. My use of the terms “complex systems theory” and “systems theory” builds on work within our own field that draws from and expands beyond the diverse multi-disciplinary scholarship on complex systems (see in particular Condit; Hawk A Counter-History; Hawk “Reassembling”; Hayles How; Hayles “Making”;Syverson; Wolfe).
  • 4. My point here evokes Julie Jung’s articulation of what she calls “systems rhetoric,” in which she “conceptualiz[es] explanations as systems constituted by the descriptions that sustain them.” As does Jung’s work, my argument builds from the premise that a complex system can be composed of what we often think of as purely rhetorical elements.
  • 5. Kenneth Burke’s version of recalcitrance more directly evokes the holistic conception imagined within a rhetoric-systems approach. The world, Burke reminds us, can also exert a stubborn force upon us, as those recalcitrant “factors” that don’t line up with one’s particular perspective can actually reshape the terms of our perspective, making it, as Prelli, Anderson, and Althouse put it, “revisable to enable better ‘readings’ of the situation’s supportive as well as resistant materials” (Burke 257; Prelli, Anderson, and Althouse 101). In this sense, Burke does not simply reduce recalcitrance to the either/or logic of environment versus individual, but rather sees it as a productive force that can provoke continual revisions in rhetorical ecologies. A rhetoric-systems approach would affirm this point, but also would build from it by highlighting the ways recalcitrance also serves to obfuscate the very changes it provokes and enables.
  • 6. This is an idea Cary Wolfe calls “openness from closure.” Wolfe’s work in this area expounds on the ideas of Jacque Derrida as well as those of Luhmann.
  • 7. Compare to this the argument made by Steven Yarbrough, who, following Donald Davidson, explains that in order for rhetors to successfully communicate—as he puts it, to “get” each other—they must “come to share” a “similar method of adjusting [their] use of signs” that is “invent[ed] as they interact” (3). Yarbrough’s point that there must be this sort of common ground for communication to occur (5) parallels my own point here that for both systems theory and rhetoric there must be a way of forestalling the potential for slippage of meaning—in choosing one out of myriad possibilities of interpretation we are both creating a context for understanding and “making a cut.”
  • 8. It is worth noting that the term “founders” is beset by a host of problematic assumptions, beginning with the fact that there were people already living here with an established society when these “founders” came to the continent. Thus any use of the term summarily elides the history and legitimacy of those people here long before the United States was founded. As well, the common characterization of these historical figures as “Founding Fathers” peremptorily excludes the contributions of women to the founding of the nation.
  • 9. Sharon Crowley describes a similar situation among certain religious fundamentalist groups; as she writes, members of these communities tend to have “densely articulated belief system[s]” that leave “few spaces for invention” (146).
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