A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Tracing the Missing Masses: Vibrancy, Symmetry, and Public Rhetoric Pedagogy

Nathaniel Rivers, Saint Louis University

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/missingmasses (Published: March 17, 2014)


[Author note: Audio files provided as accessible versions of the print content and are not additional or supplemental material]

[T]ell the humanists that the more nonhumans share existence with humans, the more humane a collective is. -Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope

Public rhetoric scholarship increasingly keeps its analytical eyes on the mundane and the ecological. Following the work of Marilyn Cooper, Margaret Syverson, Jennifer Edbauer Rice, and others, Ryan Weber and I have argued, “public rhetoric scholarship and pedagogy could benefit from an expanded scope that views rhetorical action as emergent and enacted through a complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history” (188, emphasis added). Ecological approaches to the mundane radically increase the scope of rhetorical analyses. In addition to tracing the monumental—famous speeches, widely read texts, and highly visible actions—public rhetoric scholars now increasingly account for the mundane: permits, post-it notes, procedures, and petitions.

Following Bruno Latour’s sociology of a few missing masses—which puts the nonhuman back on sociology’s radar—and Jane Bennett’s political ecology of things—which acknowledges the vibrancy of all matter—I want to bring even more (nonhuman) objects into our analyses of public rhetoric: pantiles, proteins, power stations, plasterwork, and pilasters. 1 I want to travel even further down the road Margaret Syverson put us on in The Wealth of Reality: “[writers] are actually situated in an ecology, a larger system that includes environmental structures, such as pens, paper, computers, books, telephones, fax machines, photocopiers, printing presses, and other natural or human constructed features” (5). To travel further down this road, our analyses of public rhetoric should embrace equally the nonhuman, not simply as artifacts of rhetorical production, or as vessels of cultural meaning, or even as containers for rhetorical action, but rather as active participants in what Latour calls an object-oriented democracy (Making Things Public).

Of course, work in rhetoric and composition and allied fields of study such as technical communication and the rhetoric of science has already warmly welcomed the nonhuman. In rhetoric and composition, for instance, Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey have spoken of evocative objects, and Alex Reid has written about “composing objects.” In technical communication, Clay Spinuzzi has advanced a methodology for “corralling the runaway object,” and Jason Swarts has theorized “the discursive agency of [information and communication technologies]” (301). In the rhetoric of science, on the other hand, Jordynn Jack has explored how microscopic vision enables a pedagogy of sight while Scott Graham and Carl Herndl have proposed multiple ontologies as a way around the thorny problem of incommensurability. Rhetorical theory, more generally, has also seen more traffic in regard to the nonhuman. 2 While Jennifer Bay and Thomas Rickert have spoken of objects’ “ontological weight and rhetorical agency” (213), Richard Marback has called us to give objects their due. Especially influential to this article, Scot Barnett has introduced an “object-oriented rhetoric.” while Ryan Weber has written eloquently not only of deepening "our relationship with language, with things, with the nonhuman" (443) but also of dealing with irony as a mode of dwelling. His investigation into how an exorcism performed on an ice-tunneling machine may seem like a "silly performance," he acknowledges, but it "opens a conscious awareness of the nonhuman forces dwelling with a community in inhospitable Antarctica" (460). This bumper-to-bumper work with the nonhuman has important implications for public rhetoric. It demonstrates just to what extent our communities—our publics—are actively shaped by not only humans but also by a plethora of nonhumans—animal, vegetable, mineral—each with their own vibrancy and efficacy. For scholars committed to an ecological understanding of public rhetoric, it also reminds us that any analysis of those publics must address the nonhuman. To ignore nonhumans or to render them invisible in the analysis of public rhetoric is to miss the important work they do.

Methodologically speaking, Bennett and Latour are useful allies in this regard. Bennett sees her own work as akin to that of John Dewey, who, she, argues, “presents a public as a confederation of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a ‘problem’” (100, qtd. in Bennett). Reading nonhumans (back) into Dewey’s treatment of publics ratchets-up its analytical power. Bennett brackets Dewey’s claim that a public is a group of persons and looks instead at Dewey’s definition of “members of a public in terms of their ‘affective’ capacity” (101). This move, predicated upon a somewhat speculative reading of Dewey, does not depart from Dewey as a rejection but rather as a point of departure: a generative ground for the continual examination of publics.3

Bennett argues that our political and philosophical work needs to attend to the agency—the vibrancy—of objects, which she describes as their thing-power. Bennett explores the force of things such as minerals, fatty acids, and electricity. A response to the 2005 North American blackout, for instance, cannot only apportion responsibility to human actors or motivations (e.g., the incompetence or greed of electric companies), but to “the cascade of effects” that includes humans and nonhumans: “electricity too contributed swerves and quirks” (“Agency” 451). Bennett prods us to ask, “What difference would it make to the course of energy policy were electricity to be figured not simply as a resource, commodity, or instrumentality but also and more radically as an ‘actant’?” (Vibrant viii). Any attempt to prevent or, more likely, adapt to future blackouts that ignores the thing-power of electricity is shortsighted. Electricity too is a body capable of producing effects.

Latour is equally prodding in advocating for accounts of collectives that give nonhumans their due. To achieve what he calls a balanced account of society, we need “a new social theory for the nonhuman masses that beg us for understanding” (“Missing Masses” 153). Actor Network Theory (ANT) is the methodology that Latour proposes to create such balanced or symmetrical accounts. Latour explains his use of actor in Actor Network Theoryin this way: “To use the word ‘actor’ means that it’s never clear who and what is acting when we act since an actor on stage is never alone in acting” (46). To practice ANT is to trace the actors and to see the social as an emergent effect of the labors of many untold actors. Furthermore, ANT is predicated upon a refusal to decide, in advance, what constitutes the social. Latour eschews explanations of activity that treat the social as a causal mechanism rather than as an effect of so many actors and so much activity: the social is not explanatory but is rather what is at stake in the “entanglements of humans and nonhumans” (Reassembling 84). These entanglements have to be traced and not separated out ahead of time. Latour admonishes against purifying the social, which is creating and maintaining, “two entirely distinct ontological zones”: humans and nonhumans (We Have Never Been Modern 10-11). Instead, we must account for humans and nonhumans in symmetrical ways: as actors acting but never alone.

Such scholarship highlights certain responsibilities in doing public rhetoric scholarship and pedagogy, especially for those interested in tracing rhetorical ecologies. It is vital to the study of public rhetoric that we attend to the vibrancy of nonhumans as they shape collective life (even as they cannot be reduced to this work alone). Yet, investigating public rhetoric entails more than bringing objects to bear in navigating and negotiating public life. Publics are emergent; they cannot be traced with a narrow, a priori definition of who or what constitutes a public. We must therefore account for how publics are themselves ever products of nonhumans and humans in (oftentimes agonistic) relations. This is the symmetrical treatment Latour demands for the nonhuman.

In this article, I describe a pedagogy that asks students to trace how nonhumans compose publics with Bennett's thing-power and Latour's symmetry in mind. 4 I take-up this pedagogical challenge for two reasons. First, attending to the nonhuman makes for compelling student work. Second, teaching is enculturation: where better to make the case for symmetrical understandings of rhetoric and public life? In the next section I describe two alternate performances of public rhetoric analyses that work with nonhumans in more or less successful ways. These examples, both documentary films, served as touchstones with which the class understood the work of Bennett and Latour, who acted as guides throughout the remainder of the semester. Subsequent sections articulate the production of rhetorical analyses using new media methods in light of these two models and demonstrate how student attunements to the nonhuman evolved as those students spent more and more time with society's missing masses.


Modeling Vibrant, Symmetrical Public Rhetoric

To balance our accounts of society, we simply have to turn our exclusive attention away from humans and look also at nonhumans.
-Bruno Latour, “Where are the Missing Masses?”

Bennett and Latour help to balance accounts of publics. In this section (which I’ve titled “modeling” to emphasize its pedagogical impact), I show what both unbalanced and balanced accounts look like by comparing and contrasting two documentaries about the shape of public places in relation to Bennett’s and Latour’s work. The first documentary is Gary Huswit's Urbanized, the second Bill Streeter's Brick By Chance and Fortune. Both documentaries offer compelling visions of discernible approaches to analyzing public rhetoric in ecological-attuned ways. As such, these films offer two models for tracing the human and nonhuman in collectives. In regard to Bennett's vibrancy and Latour's symmetry, the important distinction between the films as pedagogical models is their comportment toward the nonhuman in those ecologies: their visual and discursive accounts of cities.

Urbanized is the final installment of Hustwit’s Design Trilogy, which includes Helvetica and Objectified. While Huswit's first two documentaries examined graphic design and industrial design respectively, Urbanized tackles urban design (and city planning). By focusing on design at the level of public places and tracing the composition of the places in which we live, love, and learn, Urbanized bears explicitly on the concerns of public rhetoric. Hustwit’s emphasis on design specifically pushes viewers to see public rhetoric as first and foremost a design problem, a push that provokes questions important for public rhetoric scholarship and pedagogy concerned with the mundane and the ecological. How are cities composed? How is that composition negotiated, enacted, revised, and recomposed over time? While certainly attuned to the monumental (there are many breathtaking visuals in the film), the film attends primarily to the mundane: city planning, sewage, hygiene, demographics, logistics, and infrastructure. Mundanity, in fact, is the engine of urbanization in Hustwit’s vision. Yet, while the film celebrates the ecologically mundane, the film ironically turns a blind analytical eye toward nonhumans as it gives most attention to human design and designers.

Urbanized - Trailer from gary hustwit on Vimeo.

In terms of the ecologically mundane, Urbanized‘s analyses of cities does public rhetoric pedagogy a great service in many ways. We see stories of how high quality bike lanes can raise the social status of cycling. We learn how the number of toilets available in an informal settlement is a highly contested matter of public policy. We hear how the rhetorics of traffic and hygiene here reflect the values and motives of city residents. Urbanized also portrays urban design as a collaborative and agonistic affair. The urban landscape is a function of productive strife as competing interests collide to produce and reproduce the shape of cities. As architectural historian Noah Chasin suggests in the film, architects, developers, city, state, and federal agencies, the public, and preservationists all work “against and with each other.” This collision of people and institutions, interests and voices is the concatenation of Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics. And in Urbanized cities do become the verbs that Jennifer Edbauer Rice writes of in her treatment of rhetorical ecologies (13). Depicted as a dynamic, unfolding activity, Urbanized zeroes in on how we city, and how this doing of the city is equal parts mundane and monumental, encompassing the width of sidewalks, the placement of trees along those sidewalks, the monuments to which those sidewalks lead, and the parks in which those monuments reside.

The film’s ecological tracing of design through the mundane and monumental, however, has a troubling blind spot: cities are reduced to human design. Recall the list of agonistic parties described by Chasin above: humans all. As Amanda Burden, Director of the NYC Department of City Planning, eloquently describes it, “Urban design is really the language of the city. When you walk down a street, everything you see has been designed […] Each one of these things has been thought about.” Where the documentary thus falls short analytically is with respect to the nonhuman. Given the film’s emphasis on design, it is perhaps no surprise that it centers around the human: those designing, building, and dwelling in cities are its focus. Unfortunately, focusing on human political will, as public rhetoric analyses often do, is not enough. This asymmetry reduces the vibrancy and efficacy of objects to human agency and intentions, which, as both Bennett and Latour argue, are already shot through with materiality and the nonhuman. In producing such assymetry, the documentary offers an unbalanced model for tracing public rhetorics.

The first two voices of the documentary are indicative of the film's assymetrical account of public rhetoric, which the course sought to balance. Ricky Burdett, director of the London School of Economics’ Cities/Urban Age program, says, “Cities today have been doing the same thing that they’ve done for 3-, 4-, 5,000 years. They’ve been the place where the flows of people, the flows of goods have coalesce.” Cities are important but they are seen here as containers for activity. Then, Bruce Katz, Founding Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, follows up with, “Cities are always the physical manifestations of the big forces at play. Economic forces. Social forces. Environmental forces.” Sites for and manifestations of, but never more than this.5

There is a way, of course, as there always is, to read this documentary against the voices that circulate within it. I must admit, then, that the blind eye of the documentary does not, in point of fact, belong to the camera itself. In attending to the design of cities, the film necessarily engages the nonhuman. Visually, the film is symmetrical: for every human there is a nonhuman. In the scene where we learn of the democracy of bike lines, the human interviewed is riding a bike: moving through the urban landscape with a nonhuman. Nonhumans, in fact, populate the documentary and push the story it is telling forward. However, what the camera gives with its eye, the commentators take away with their voices.

A telling moment is the title sequence, where individuals craft models that foreshadow key moments in the documentary. We see models being made, tweaked, and precisely placed. This is the process of urban design in 1:500 scale. Here, the film visually calls our attention to the nonhuman. But as the documentary visually traces the materiality of the city, a human hand always lurks behind that material—directing it, designing it. Buildings here are like words arranged in sentences, and the urban landscape is a composition shaped by human hands. The title Urbanized is even embedded as a series of buildings. (Image 1) This is a tempting model for public rhetoric pedagogy: the urban landscape becomes a manipulate-able symbol system that we can craft accordingly. As Jenny Rice argues, "This is the textualizing of place, which is convenient for people who make a living by studying texts" (Distant 10). Matter matters but only as an extension of a uniquely human will. Yet while this is certainly the material language of the city that Burden describes, Bennett and Latour push us precisely on this point.

Screen capture from opening title sequence of the documentary film Urbanized. Image is a overhead shot of model buildings tightly arranged as in a city block. In the center, also as models, letters spelling 'Urbanized' have been placed. In the top right corner a human hand is placing a model building to complete the arrangement.

Image 1 Title sequence from Urbanized. Like the letters that spell “urbanized,” buildings become symbols that humans arrange.

“For scientific, political, and even moral reasons,” Latour admonishes, “it is crucial that enquirers do not in advance, and in place of the actors, define what sorts of building blocks the social world is made of” (Reassembling 41). If students decide ahead of time that publics are the mundane and monumental work of humans, they risk rendering invisible the work of nonhumans. This is ethically and practically suspect. “Latour’s later work,” Bennett writes, “continues to call for people to imagine other roles for things besides that of carriers of necessity, or ‘plastic’ vehicles for ‘human ingenuity,’ or ‘a simple white screen to support the differentiation of society’” (Vibrant 30-31). In the case of the city, such work would entail describing cities as more than their human planners—as irreducible to them, in fact, and, as such, capable of doing unexpected things. “For instance,” Latour writes, “fisherman, oceanographers, satellites, and the scallops might have some relations with one another, relations of such a sort that they make others do unexpected things” (Reassembling 106). By virtue of Latour’s symmetrical tracing, objections like “’things don’t talk,’ ‘fish nets have no passion,’ and ‘only humans have intentions’” are unhelpful and unethical (Reassembling 107). “There might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer existence,” Latour writes. “In addition to ‘determining’ and serving as a ‘backdrop for human action,’ things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (Reassembling 72). Rhetorical agency needn’t be narrowly confined to the particular abilities of humans. Positioning Urbanized as a model analysis, then, I ask Latour’s question, “Where Are the Missing Masses?”

This question is particularly apt considering the ending of Urbanized in which nonhumans that are part and parcel of our publics especially go missing. The final, human voice, Edgar Pieterse, Director of the African Centre for Cities, argues, “Fundamentally, as a species, we need things that can power our imaginations, that get our passions going, […] that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That’s what drives cities forward.” (Emphasis added) I am not in total disagreement. However, reducing cities to the ideas we can build into them, irrespective of the city’s thing-power, circumscribes cities, public life and public rhetoric as largely human affairs. Pipes and bricks are on the ledger, but in Urbanized’s accounting scheme they are artifacts, manifestations, and sites for human labor rather than things with the capacity to “not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Vibrant viii). From beginning to end, then, Urbanized‘s focus on design fails to talk about urbanization outside the model of agency as autonomous and intentional human activity.

Pieterse’s closing statement is typical of the film’s analytical framework that Bennett, Latour, and others push us to avoid (and that my students and I composed against). At its root is a process Bennett labels “demystification,” which “presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things. This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the appearances of nonhuman agency (Vibrant xiv). In tracing public rhetoric, we want to symmetrically foreground the vulnerability and the vibrancy of all matter, human and nonhuman. This tracing requires, as both Bennett and Marback note, “mutual vulnerability and forgo[ing] the claim to agency we make when we project our sovereignty over objects” (Marback 59). Marback addresses the implications of this mutual vulnerability for rhetorical theory. “For theories of rhetoric to enable movement beyond all divisiveness, they must conceptualize actions and justifications and objects and interpretations as something more than the trail of a human agent” (64). Too often, we ask students to look through or beyond an object to the decisions made by a human agent. We needn’t look behind the brick or the pipe to recognize that they can make us do unexpected things. The challenge, then, is cultivating vulnerable ways of seeing nonhumans as actants.

In a pedagogically useful contrast to the analytical focus of Urbanized, we watch Streeter's Brick By Chance and Fortune. This documentary takes not the designer as its starting point, but the “lowly” brick and the clay from which homes, factories, museums, courthouses, and cities are born.6 Streeter’s film traces the urban landscape of St. Louis (which briefly appears, represented by the Arch, in Urbanized) to its component parts, only some of which are human. As I interrogated the title sequence of Urbanized, I here examine the title of Brick By Chance and Fortune, which is a line of text excerpted from Plutarch’s Morals: “Yet, no man ever wetted clay and then left it, as if there would be bricks by chance and fortune” (480, emphasis added). The title of the documentary abridges the human agent and thus reverses the original sentiment of the sentence. Bricks are no longer reduced to human hands upon wetted clay but are granted their vitality, a vitality of chance and fortune. Bennett might argue that it as an assemblage that produces brick from clay, but Streeter’s (mis)appropriation of Plutarch nevertheless does important analytical work. Bricks have a trajectory all their own, and there is a very real sense in which the arrival of clay and subsequently of brick is not fully in human hands.

Brick by Chance and Fortune - Trailer from Hydraulic Pictures on Vimeo.

Asserting that St. Louis owes some of its distinct character to brick (and the clay beds on which the city sits), the documentary avoids the limitations of Urbanized, which begins and ends with designers and sees cities largely as reflections, extensions, or manifestations of human (symbolic) labor. In Brick, bricks are forces playing a role in the ecological production of civic pride, crime, creativity, and laws concerning preservation. Sheila Harris, an artist in St. Louis, and the first human voice of the film, tells us about brick's material force."Brick absorbs sunlight. Brick in the afternoon is one thing. Brick in the Fall is different than brick, the same brick, in June […] It absorbs color to the point that it just inspires you, and you can do almost anything on brick in a painting and it’s true […] What more could you want?" As Bennett notes, we “want to highlight what is typically cast in the shadow: the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite-human things” (ix). By shifting our focus from design to matter, the film models how we can embrace a much more complex and intense public rhetoric. In this case, we learn how brick has done unexpected things to (and for) us.

Brick likewise attends to other nonhumans by placing bricks in a complex ecology. Tracing the lowly brick opens (in true ANT fashion) a Pandora’s box of nonhuman agents: wood molds, kilns, clay, coal, hydraulic presses, the great fire of 1849, and the Cheltenham Syncline, the geologic formation beneath St. Louis from where the clay comes. As historian NiNi Harris says, St. Louis has the “good fortune of having clay.” Indeed, the documentary and several commentators refer to St. Louis as the “Clay Colossus.” The preservationist Michael Allen argues, “brick speaks of the ecology of the area” and our “placedness in the Mississippi Valley.”

The documentary also traces the extensive and creative use of brick to bricks themselves. The architects, builders, and bricklayers aren’t invisible by any means, but their labor is not privileged over bricks’. The unique architecture of St. Louis is not reduced, as it is in the conclusion of Urbanized, to human imagination, but distributed across assemblages of humans and nonhumans. The features of brick and the sheer number of bricks encouraged risk taking in St. Louis. “It’s what’s special about St. Louis,” says Harris (emphasis added).

It is a building material like no other in its subtle variations and how it has evolved in the last 150 years. And it gives St. Louis a permanence, an architecture like other cities do not have. It gives our buildings the stability to have survived, in many cases, generations of neglect. (Harris)

Brick survives without us, and welcomes us home when we return. In Streeter’s model analysis, bricks play a vital role in the ongoing composition of publics, and unlike in Hustwit's model analysis, urbanization and Saint Louis are not reduced to ideas and the human imagination. In this way, Brick offers what Latour and Albena Yaneva call “earthly accounts of buildings and design processes” (88): “Such accounts of design would reveal to what extent architects are attached to non-humans such as physical models, foam and cutters, renderings and computers” (86). As if speaking to Urbanized on behalf of Brick, Latour and Yaneva, who call building projects complex ecologies (88), write, “instead of analyzing the impact of Surrealism on the thinking and design philosophy of Rem Koolhaus [who is interviewed in Urbanized], we should rather attempt to grasp the erratic behavior of the foam matter in the model-making venture in his office” (88). In Brick, nothing is reduced to anything else: publics are traced as complex ecologies—as ongoing efforts distributed across human and nonhuman actors: city planners, coal, preservations, clay beds, bricklayers, kilns, bricks, paving stones, brick thieves, and catastrophic fires. “Here as elsewhere,” Graham Harman reminds us, “Latour’s guiding maxim is to grant dignity even to the least grain of reality. Nothing is mere rubble to be used up or trampled by mightier actors” (15, emphasis added). In Streeter’s documentary, the city is not only monumental and human, but also mundane and symmetrical. As an exemplary analytical model, it shows us that we cannot fully trace a public if we do not first develop ways of composing analyses alive to the vibrancy of all matter.

Composing Vibrant, Symmetrical Rhetorical Analyses

Too often, we miss the opportunity to acknowledge the force of things because we assume they are inert tools used by human agents to whom we typically credit with full-blown agency.
-Laurie Gries, “Iconographic Tracking.”

By offering ways of disclosing the nonhuman, Hustwit's and Streeter's models primed the pump for the rhetorical analyses students are challenged to compose in my course. To cultivate the possibility of a wide of range of objects and analyses, the course was divided into three phases loosely based on Carl Linnaeus’s animal, vegetable, mineral taxonomy. The first phase examined how bodies, human and nonhuman, produce rhetoric. To explore how embodied relations shape both humans and nonhumans alike, we asked, for instance, how pets play a role in the emergence of family dynamics. The second phase confronted human and nonhuman environments, which the course treated symmetrically. Students could analyze environments such as forests, farms, factories and familiar dwellings such as homes, dorms, cafeterias, and classrooms as all rhetorical agents and/or rhetorical agencies that shape relations. In the third and final phase, the course examined the technologies that we live with and alongside. Seeing technologies as rhetorical agents means questioning traditional assumptions about such technologies as neutral tools that humans use to achieve their own ends.7

The Object Analysis While course readings and film screenings addressed the rhetorical work done by nonhumans, course projects, called object analyses, entailed documenting various nonhuman rhetorical agents. For instance, during phase one a student created a podcast about taste buds, making the case for them as “rhetorical powerhouses” made so by their effect-ability. In phase two, a student observed a particularly busy and dangerous crosswalk on campus, documenting how the various components of that environment shape drivers and pedestrians. For the final phase, another student filmed a documentary about pottery that put the agency and memory of clay front and center. Such explorations of rhetorical impacts and boundaries invigorates composing in an academic context.

For their analyses, student had to work with certain constraints. Students could choose to investigate any object. The only real criterion was that the object must have some edge on which students can get a grip.8 Because objects necessarily bleed into one another, student choices necessarily drew artificial boundaries for an object. Studies were also constrained by access: can students get time and space with the object? Each student's chosen methods (described below) also had to cohere with both the methodology (also described below) and the object itself. First, the chosen methods must resist the temptation to discuss and therefor reduce an object to what it means or represents. Second, the object itself should shape how it is traced. When analyzing a dog, for instance, video recording might make sense given that dogs are dynamic and moving objects. A table might not lend itself to video in the same way. In line with ANT, analysis is not something we do to but with an object.

Reflecting the instincts of ANT, the basic parameters of the object analysis were purposefully difficult to layout in advance. In response to this difficulty, students had to complete two supplemental assignments: a design plan and a postmortem. The Design Plan asked students to articulate and justify their choice of method as well as flesh out details for each of the following research matters:

  • Object to be analyzed
  • Importance of the object (e.g., place it in an ecology)
  • Technologies to be used in the analysis (e.g., written observation, video camera, microphone, still camera)
  • Features of the analysis (e.g., the kinds of pictures, text, or video to be featured)
  • Purpose of the analysis (i.e., desired impact of analysis on an audience).

Following the execution of the design plan, the postmortem asked students to answer the following questions adopted from Jody Shipka’s statement of goals and choices (SOGC) (113-125):

  • What, specifically, is this piece trying to accomplish—above and beyond satisfying the basic requirements outlined in the task description? In other words, what work does, or might, this piece do? For whom? In what contexts?
  • What specific rhetorical, material, methodological, and technological choices did you make in service of accomplishing the goal(s) articulated above? Catalog, as well, choices that you might not have consciously made, those that were made for you when you opted to work with certain genres, materials, and technologies.
  • Why did you end up pursuing this plan as opposed to the others you came up with? How did the various choices listed above allow you to accomplish things that other sets or combinations of choices would not have?
  • Who and what played a role in accomplishing these goals?
  • More specifically, how did the object under analysis shape that analysis?

In addition to articulating their own choices, students accounted for the choices others made and how those choices impacted their project or “helped them accomplish a given task” (114). These "others" include both humans and nonhumans. As Shipka writes, “[The SOGC] reminds students that they are, indeed, individuals-working-with-(and sometimes against)-mediational means” (114). The object analysis, alongside these two documents, thus foregrounds the objects with, for, and against which students work.

Course Methodology For a methodology that works with objects, I turned to rhetoric scholar Laurie Gries, whose new materialist approach to visual rhetoric, which draws on Latour and Bennett, provided part of the conceptual foothold for analyses. Gries describes her methodology this way:

In wondering how things become rhetorical, scholars are encouraged to seek out the dynamic, consequential, unfolding mediated activities that enable rhetoric to emerge and affect reality. Rather than be certain that this thing is rhetorical in this way and in this time and space, then, researchers try to empirically discover how an image becomes rhetorical in diverse ways as it circulates, enters into new associations, and affects a multiplicity of consequences. (399)

In her discussion of iconographic tracking—a research method for tracking the rhetorical becoming of images—Gries highlights a key aspect of the course methodology: while we can investigate an object according to its composition, production, transformation, distribution, circulation, assemblage, and consequentiality, we must always be mindful of how these processes are not, in fact, distinct. She writes, “in order to generate complex, ontological accounts of how images circulate and become rhetorical with time and space, all these interlaminated processes must be attended to in a single case study” (343). Here, Gries means to highlight what objects will do or become. Processes merge, overlap, and shape one another throughout the life of an object. Tracing and documenting this overlap is crucial for successful object analyses.

By “ontological account,” Gries means a description of an object’s existence or being—what an object is in-and-of-itself. Ontology is the single biggest conceptual hurdle in this pedagogy of public rhetorics. To overcome this hurdle, the course approached the object’s ontology in terms of the question of meaning. The question of meaning is common in English Studies, both in traditional rhetorical analysis and in the study of literature: What does this poem mean? Related to the question of meaning, is the concern with representation: What values are expressed by this advertisement or film? These questions, to return to Marback, reduce the object to the “trail of a human agent” (64).9 We want, as Gries argues, to enact methods that stay focused on the objects themselves and acknowledge their "ontological complexity” (334).

In order to fix our attention on particular objects, we focused on their effects: we asked not what an object means but what the object does. (Of course,meaning can be treated as an effect: we could argue that part of what an object does is produce meaning.) The primary reason for this admittedly tenuous yet productive binary is that meaning is often seen as a function of interpretation, as something we put into or onto the object. The quest for meaning often implies that what an object means it means for (or because of) us. In a similar vein, representation tends to reduce objects to merely passive receptacles of the culture around them. In this course, we traced and wrote about an object as precisely that which is not for us or reducible to us.

Course Methods A methodology that challenges students to trace how nonhuman things compose publics necessarily takes the form of seemingly impractical research methods and compositions. In this course, students are challenged to use new media for both research and writing. Both methods and compositions foreground the rhetorical agency of objects: new media do not simply allow us to do old things differently but enable (or even compel) us to do different things altogether. Composing through new or unfamiliar media foregrounds the affordances and constraints of any medium, which we can understand as the medium’s agency or thing-power. Also, the unique way the course approaches objects analytically must be matched by equally unique ways of composing that unplug us from traditional, human-centered logics.

Many of the scholars engaged with nohumans are drawn toward terms like wonder, enchantment, and naiveté when discussing how to attune ourselves to the nonhuman in nonreductive ways. Ian Bogost writes, “The act of wonder invites a detachment from ordinary logics, of which human logics are but one example.” (124). Bogost here means wonder in two senses: 1) “awe or marvel” and 2) “puzzlement or logical perplexity” (121). To wonder is to be drawn to objects precisely by their ability to resist us or exceed our grasp. Bennett echoes Bogost’s focus on wonder with her discussions of naiveté and anthropomorphism. “We need to cultivate,” Bennett argues, “a bit of anthropomorphism—the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature—to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (Vibrant xvi). Confronting the possible impossibility of theorizing vibrancy, Bennett defends “the ‘naïve’ ambitions of vital materialism” (Vibrant xvii). Commenting on Bennett, Bogost writes, “anthropomorphizing helps us underscore the differences between ourselves and the objects around us” (65). Bennett has also written of enchantment, which “is something that we encounter, that hits us, but is also a comportment that can be fostered through deliberate strategies” (Enchantment 4). It is this enchantment we see in the strange exorcism of the ice tunneling machine described by Weber in his treatment of dwelling with the nonhuman.

In light of this call for wonder, enchantment, and creativity as comportment, students explored inventive research and composing methods made possible through new (and old) media. For guidance here, our course turned to the Florida School, particularly Jeff Rice’s and Marcel O’Gorman’s work with the ABC Method and Barry Mauers’ work with clipography. As Rice and O’Gorman explain, the ABC method is useful for “ reapplying the logic of categorization through fragmented observations, most of which are not meant to follow or complement one another in hierarchical fashion” (8). The ABC Method, which pieces things together in unusual or unexpected ways, resonates well with object-oriented approaches that try to interrupt normal human logics. For instance, Bogost writes about ontography [Bogost’s term for what I have been calling object analyses] in ways that disrupt typical ways of dealing with objects:

From the perspective of metaphysics, ontography involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind [...] The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. (38).

The list resists the siren call of meaning making. Clipography, a method described by Barry Mauer, follows this gentle knot of the comma. “[T]he result of clipography is not,” Rice and O’Gorman write, “a sequential set of arguments leading not to an inevitable logical conclusion, but ‘a performance of discourses’ that sheds light on a problem by means of complexification rather than simplification” (10). Mauer, whose chapter in the collection coins the neologism, argues, “[clipography] borrows from rock’n’roll to offer polyvocality, discourse crossing, fragmentation, and pattern formation in a collage form of writing” (243). Methods in this course, then, look less like cookie-cutters and more like comportments.

These admittedly complicated methods proved productive for student analyses. Employing the method of clipography, one student, Matt, traced a steak. He performed what can perhaps best be described as a simulation that worked to recreate the process of being made into a steak. (Image 2) Here is how Matt describes it:

I hoped to provide a stranger and more troubling way of thinking about the “conative bodies” of our food (apparently I can’t stop quoting [Jane] Bennett, 39). I hoped to expose the multifaceted weirdness of the piece of muscle we call steak, and allow that weirdness to reshape our politics as it will.

In his postmortem he adds, “I employed clipography to give only snippets of context. I think the result was suitably disorienting and strange (or at least it felt so to me as the ringmaster).” Matt attempted to analyze meat on its own terms so that it might (or that we might catch a glimpse of how it) shapes our politics as it wills. Additionally, Matt’s parenthetical description of himself as a “ringmaster” nicely captures the extent to which others had staring roles in the circus of his composition. The strangeness of clipography was employed to produce an analysis that put the steak front and center, much as Brick put forward bricks.

Student Matt's Metaphorical Menu. Beneath some introductory text, the menu is arranged in two columns: the left describes what 'you eat' and the right describes what 'the steaks eat.' The typeface is serif. Introductory Text: METAPHORIC MENU for a metaphorically meaty meal 'What grocery-store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak? Image 2 Menu from Matt's object analyses of steak.

Writing of other methods akin to clipography, O’Gorman argues that we “must specialize in the interconnectedness of information. In short, they must prove that it is possible—and valuable—to be both a cobbler and a poet” (104). One student in particular walked this line quite effectively. The student, Priya, performed an object analysis of a local coffee shop. The analysis consisted of a time-lapse video (made from a compilation of hundreds of pictures taken of tables, chairs, couches, computers, coffee cups, food plates, and people over a five hour time span) overlaid with a stream of consciousness narrative inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein. Priya describes what she hoped to accomplish with such new media production in her postmortem:

I was hoping to create an effect where moving objects and spaces can be observed as they change (and not just as they happen, which would be the case if I had merely shot a normal video of the café). The combined words and photos work to unite the specific object with the changing yet tangible atmosphere of the café for the audience.

Indeed, the time-lapse effect allowed individual objects to stand out rather than to remain as backdrops to human activity. As with Matt’s performance, Priya’s video traced the work of nonhumans in composing publics.
The ABC Method and Clipography apply equally well to sounds as they do words and images. Katie analyzed the taste bud (http://katethegrater.podbean.com/2012/10/03/taste-buds-in-your-earbuds). “I first undertook this project,” she writes in her postmortem, “to shed light on the taste bud as an object often not given its due credit as an essential, singular component of the experience of taste.” This project was in large part a corrective to discussions of taste that privilege the work of chefs. In her podcast, for instance, Katie describes her work on the taste bud as an attempt to “right an injustice.” Katie’s podcast allowed her to trace the taste bud at work in a variety of contexts, and each unique context allowed her to call attention to the taste bud’s particular rhetorical capacities to “enact taste.” “My choice of examples,” Katie writes, “—the Sound of the Sea dish, the miracle fruit, and the (in)activity of taste buds at high elevation—intended to further illuminate this connection to ambience.” The version of the podcast shared with the class even included an experiment inspired by the Latitudes podcast (http://www.latitudesradio.org). On the day when Katie shared her analysis with the class, she brought coffee for everyone. At a key moment in the podcast, we were asked to take a sip and hold the coffee on our tongues. Two tones then emanated: one associated with bitterness and the other with sweetness. Most of the class experienced a shift in the taste of the coffee on our tongues.

Course Outcomes Students had insightful responses to the goals of the course as well as its readings and projects. In this section, I focus on student reflections drawn from a final, summary essay. These reflections speak to the attitudes that pervaded student work. In addition to reflecting on how students composed analyses, they evaluated their analytical methods and speculated on how those methods and their emergent attitudes might inform and shape possible future tracings of rhetoric's missing masses. Their reflections transverse the public, the private, the political, the personal, the practical, and the poetic, tracing the full range of composition. In this way, the students’ reflections echo Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey’s treatment of “evocative objects”: their essays blurred “traditional boundaries between personal and academic writing” demonstrating “the evocative nature of all reading and writing” (325-326).

Furthermore, these reflections, which are akin to reflections included in student portfolios, built on the work the students completed for their postmortems. As Kathleen Blake Yancey argues, portfolios invite students to “explore what the relationships among the pieces may be,” these explorations can include “summaries of the writers’ feelings about successful and unsuccessful writings and about teacher-identified and author-identified composing goals” (104). As she further explains, “having students gloss and narrate their own texts and their own histories as writers will enable teachers to see the role that self-awareness plays in the fostering of literacy” (113). Without any explicit prompting, every student in one way or another reflected upon how the course made them feel, and many students tied these to the particular subject matter and work of the course. Katie writes in her reflection essay, “Were we to trace this notion of disorientation [her label for her experience] throughout the course and its readings […] I believe we would find that the act of disorienting is the loudest rhythm playing between and throughout all of them.” The disorientation played itself out not only in response to the readings and goals of the course, but the assignments as well. Katie describes her “anxieties regarding [her] ability to do proper justice to the object,” stating that “’comfort’ is the least applicable term for describing [her] experience.” Another student positively described being “absolutely lost.” “Truthfully,” writes Pam, “it took me most of the semester to really get a grasp on what exactly this course was intending to teach.” She continues, “Attempting to see a thing as being its own agency [sic] and outside of the human-made descriptive words for it seemed very hard to conceptualize for me.” Each student described these attitudes as part of their working through of the subject matter: not as impenetrable obstacles but as negotiable mazes. Pam again: “The first text we covered in this class [Bogost], I must admit, was hard for me to read not because I couldn’t tell what the author was talking about, but because the concepts seemed so strange and unfamiliar to me that they practically made my brain hurt.” The disorientation was also traced to the symmetry and vibrancy of the course. “This class was,” writes Jeremy, “to borrow from Jane Bennett, a cascade of things.” Wrapping their hands (and pens) around objects thus proved as challenging as wrapping their heads around them. Students also reflected on the work of composing object analyses and traced the role that the objects themselves played. Katie, working to produce podcasts, reflects, “The task of condensing the complex analysis of an object into a new media form, or any form for that matter was initially troubling for me. It seemed an overwhelming one that might always fall short of its ambitions.” Katie worried that such methods would not allow her to trace objects in an intellectually sound way. Yet, Katie, whose podcasts were some of the best work produced in the course, later “smirk[ed] at [her] thought that a textual analysis could have somehow achieved a more sophisticated analysis.” Through her work to engage objects by means of new methods, Katie produced work as nuanced and sophisticated as any text-based analysis, if not more so.

Students also reflected on their emergent relations with their objects of study. “In each of my projects, matter resisted me,” Matt surveys, “whether it be the useless volume knob in our classroom, the way InDesign handles pictures, or the clay I tried to make into a mug.” This attention to the resistance of matter likewise revealed its vibrancy. Matt was particularly articulate about how the objects he analyzed changed the way he approached the rhetorical work of composition. For instance, Matt writes, “Latour’s recognition that scientific persuasion includes manual abilities could thus be ported into my humanistic practice: my rhetorical work extended beyond writing and managing texts to making tea, cropping pictures, and setting up a tripod.” "A key aspect of this shift," Matt further explains,"was my discovery of the concept of clay memory, a term so compellingly anthropomorphic that it became the defining idea for my project.”

As he developed ways of composing about and with objects such as steaks and clay, Matt confronted their agency and came to a new ethical comportment toward the nonhuman. He specifically writes about the increasing power these objects acquired as he "employed various methodologies to get closer to them:"

I have learned one lesson from this class, perhaps it is the great extent to which I myself am made up of the objects I have encountered; in a very real way, I am an assemblage of these items. My project throughout this class has been to remind myself of this fact, to get close to the items which are already close with me.

This cultivation of ethical comportments resonated with several of Matt’s classmates. Priya writes, “I ponder different sorts of ethical questions (which now include objects) than I used to.” Jeremy, discussing a motivational poster directed at students, and which he cleverly reads against the grain to include nonhumans as well, “No one, or no thing, has to do everything. In fact, no ‘thing’ can do everything. But everything does something.” Jeremy concludes his reflection, writing, “This is the mindset that I’ve gained from this class. I now try much harder to avoid ignoring all of the things that make any process, event, concept, idea, object, or thing possible.” Katie argues that her work and the class as a whole attests to the fact that “a successful recognition of the powerful rhetorical efficacy of objects should […] look to that space between them and us for its capacity to generate knowledge and understanding.”

Katie and Matt likewise reflected on how their comportment toward professional, academic aspirations, and prospects had changed. Katie writes, “For one, my love for food in its strangest forms, the kind that plays with our senses and expectations of taste, has been a heavy note in both my research inquiries and personal interests.” Matt echoes Katie, writing, “speculative realism gives me an avenue to integrate my love of the real back into my humanistic work.” Writing a sentence that alone makes teaching this course worthwhile, Matt opines, “I want to ground my intellectual work in love of the things closest to me, and I no longer have any interest in turning away.”

Conclusion: Adoxography

Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.
-Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

I would like to end on an historical note: to make the case that such a seemingly strange course has a long and storied pedigree in the history of rhetoric, in particular sophistic rhetoric. Arthur Stanley Pease writes of the tradition of encomia devoted to “humbler topics, such as the lower animals, plants, or inanimate objects” (27): encomia to animals, vegetables, and minerals. This kind of composing has since been designated adoxography, which means writing on a base or trivial topic. Pease argues, “To seek the causes of so long-continued and widespread an epidemic of apparent nonsense is perhaps not without its value” (30). He ties this epidemic to the traditional work of delighting and entertaining audiences. He also traces this practice to the development of natural science in thinkers like Aristotle, for whom “no least detail was too trivial for earnest consideration” (32). Most importantly, Pease argues that such encomia are intimately connected to the workings of sophistic training: “what better training, from the sophistic standpoint, than this exercise of defending the indefensible or salvaging the universally rejected” (31). This tradition, viewed in whichever light, serves public rhetoric pedagogy well in that it encourages us to trace and acknowledge the mundane in our midst as valuable and ethical and provides some rather useful training. Pease cites the sophist Philostratus, who writes, “it is characteristic of a sophist to devote serious study to themes even so slight as these” (qtd. in Pease 35-36). Training in rhetoric has always balanced out our attention to the monumental and the mundane as well as the human and the nonhuman. Encomia have been written to Helen, to mountains, and to mice.

In her treatment of rhetorical ecologies, Jennifer Edbauer Rice concludes with a note on production. “The kinds of pedagogics I would like to pursue attune to this mutuality of material practice, embodied experience, and discursive representation that operate in public spaces every day” (21). Such pedagogical focus connects the uses of encomia in the past to the kinds of rhetorical analyses I propose for the present. The encomium is a public performance that praises and so brings to light the public work of its object. It makes matter a matter of concern. It’s a production that embraces the mutuality of the material, the embodied, and the discursive. It is a practice that pulls all things together to praise the noteworthy. In this way, an encomium to brick, or to a steak, or to a taste bud, discloses the work each does in constituting publics.

The fully trained rhetor must be able to speak about and to everything, and this begins by tracing the actors at work in a vital rhetorical ecology. This work, however, would be tempered by humility and a sense of wonder pushing the rhetor to respect the fact that everything always exceeds our grasp: by virtue of their vibrancy, things can never be reduced to us or by us. This vibrancy is of course why we need rhetoric in the first place and why it exists at all. The irreducible strangeness of all objects demands that we engage them even though they will always exceed and even resist us. A vibrant and symmetrical public rhetoric sees this strangeness as both the source of rhetoric and the call for it, and so must trace humans and nonhumans alike if it ever hopes to be fully public and intensely rhetorical. We humans are not the only ones here, and we are far from being the only beings who matter. All matter matters, and so all matter is rhetorical.


I'd like to first thank the two anonymous reviewers at Enculturation for pushing me to improve this article and strengthen its claims. I'd also like to thank Laurie Gries for her sharp editorial eye and Casey Boyle for his steady editorial hand. Thanks also to Ryan Weber for his feedback on an earlier version of this article. Finally, I'd like to thank my students for their inspirational work and their generous participation.


1 Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett are part of a moment in contemporary theory that we might call “the material turn,” but which goes by many names, each describing unique, disparate, and often antagonistic schools of thought: new materialism (Coole and Frost), feminist materialism (Barad), speculative realism (Bogost), thing theory (Brown), and object-oriented ontologies (Bryant, Harman) all in some fashion approach the nonhuman.

2 We could similarly read the oft-cited Michael Warner, who argues that publics are constituted by the concatenation and circulation of texts.

3 See also Thomas Rickert's formulation of what he calls an “ambient rhetoric,” which echoes with the nonhuman, Nathan Stormer's work deploying the key term “articulation” to reconnect the orders of discourse and of things, and my own work (2012) discussing “cultivation” as a term with which to think through material rhetoric.

4 The course was an upper-level special topics course in rhetoric populated by undergraduates and graduates alike. It is a part of the Rhetoric, Writing, and Technology emphasis within the English Department. A syllabus and calendar for the course can be found online at http://problemsinrhetoric.blogspot.com.

5 We must be careful as the documentary is driven by not one narrative voice, but by a heterogeneous choir of voices. The preponderance of voices and the film’s focus on design, however, make my reading viable.

6 Within the tradition of sophistic rhetoric, we can read the film as an encomium to bricks. As I discuss in my conclusion, encomia to lowly objects have a rather ancient pedigree in the history of rhetoric.

7 Reading new media through Martin Heidegger, Jennifer Bay and Thomas Rickert write, “learning to dwell with new media and its technologies entails a harkening to their ontological weight and rhetorical agency” (213).

8 Objects analyzed included: steak, pizza, cat, dog, taste bud, gerbil, farm, Garageband, busy crosswalk, neighborhood (The Loop in St. Louis), fish tank, coffee shop, phone, clay, table, search engine, podcasting, blogs.

9 One of the students in the course, Priya, wrote in her end of the semester reflection essay, “As an English major, I spend a great deal of time reading material that explores the complexity of the human heart and mind—after reading Bogost, I realized that a great part of my education has been missing.”

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